In a world where it sometimes seems that guns, girls and grit are the special of the day every day, a game which eschews all that for turnips, livestock and progress seems like an outlier. Who would buy a game where the tutorial is an entire in-game year?
PC gamers, that’s who. There’s plenty of room here for epic space battles with intricate economies and bucolic life simulators. Harvest Moon, a game created by Yasuhiro Wada as an antidote to the bustle of Japanese city life, has spent its entire life on Nintendo consoles (with the occasional foray onto Playstation), leaving a small but dedicated fandom in its wake. Now, the quiet, unassuming game is taking its first step - after nearly 20 years - onto PC.
The critical and commercial success of tranquil sim games such as Euro Truck and Farming Simulator, along with modern life management in the form of Cities: Skylines and The Sims series, is evidence of a continuing hunger for what might be considered the mechanics of the mundane. The PC is a natural home for a series of games about farming and domestic life, and we shouldn't be wondering why Harvest Moon is coming to PC after all this time, we should be asking why it has taken so long.
The series is part of a strange, yet compellingly charming mini-genre of role-playing games, alongside Animal Crossing and Rune Factory. There’s little tangible benefit to a two-hour gaming session, but in the same way that scientists monitor the pitch drop experiment in the hopes of seeing a once-in-a-decade occurrence, it’s all about the wait. Two hours of patient crop-tending feeds into the larger time flow, the fruitful summers giving way to harsher, stonier winters as your farm blossoms and dies and blossoms anew.
Generally, games that deal in the mundanity of farm life tend to stick to the realities of having to wake up at 4am, heave silage and hay and crops into various farm vehicles, and drive around at road rage-inducingly slow speeds before falling back into bed at 10pm in your wellies. Harvest Moon keeps a lot of the chore, but with infinitely more charm, adding in romance, foraging, collecting and a touch of fantasy.
You begin nearly every game in the series with a run-down farm belonging to some dead relative or another. Your dungaree pockets are stuffed with turnip seeds and dreams. The daily slog is slow, but progress is steady: plant crops, sell for a profit, repeat until you can afford animals, tend to the animals until you can afford more, repeat. Such is farm life in the Harvest Moon world: the slow turning of the seasons begrudgingly giving way to life as you coax it out of the soil.
In my eyes, Harvest Moon is the smaller, quieter cousin of games such as Monster Hunter and Destiny: games where the grind is the main mechanic, where progress is so incremental that even the smallest grain of success feels special purely because of the amount of effort spent on earning it. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle, and a satisfying one at that. In Monster Hunter, you slay hundreds of beasts to craft a weapon which you will use to slay more; in Harvest Moon, you toil for in-game months to unlock a new rank of farm tool that can help you grow even more crops.
Here’s where the fantasy comes in: your equipment is magical. Your helpers are sprites. Your boss is a goddess. You can marry witches, mermaids and ancient princesses that live at the bottom of a mine. The Harvest Moon games all center around the same basic concept: revitalising the farm through slow, but rewarding work, but each game has its own gimmick that brings it to life.
Sunshine Islands, one of the many DS games, begins with a horrible natural disaster which sinks a load of islands, and you have to bring them back through the power of farming. Harvest Moon DS asks you to save the Harvest Goddess, turned to stone by her rival, the Witch Princess, through the power of farming. Another, Tale of Two Towns, tasks you with uniting two warring villages - through the power of farming. Does it sound ridiculous? Yes, of course it does. Farming, in isolation, has never directly solved anything so exciting but Harvest Moon offers an entirely different take on agricultural revolutions.
These fantasy elements are what keeps the games rolling through the years - the weird stuff, the magic and the myth, is the gamey bit - your reward for toiling so patiently over crop rotations and livestock management. It never goes as far as Rune Factory’s monster-hunting element, because that would detract from Harvest Moon’s focus on small, quiet, personal stories, but being able to befriend a yeti or visit a casino run by pixies seems like a fitting distraction from rainy days on the farm.
The fantasy element allows for Harvest Moon’s greatest achievement: the telling of stories. They’re small stories, the kind you’d find in a chest or on a dead body in a huge RPG like The Witcher or Dragon Age, but in a game where everything is scaled down, they shine like diamonds.
One man rescues a mermaid and keeps her in the basement of his caravan laboratory to help her back to health. Another incredibly beautiful story has an old couple living on top of a hill, but once you marry the sweetheart of your choice, the years advance and the old man’s wife dies. Suddenly, the landscape of the game is changed irrevocably, and now instead of visiting the pair, you visit the lonely old man who sits at his wife’s grave through all weathers. Some have children, some get married, and alongside them you craft your own story of work, love and family, as much as you choose to do.
Alongside the farming and the fantasy is this romance aspect, where all of the eligible young men and women in your town are up for grabs, on the condition that you give them gifts every day until they love you. Was there ever such a cynical view of love? Each game has new bachelors and bachelorettes to court, with every stereotype you could ever wish for: from the taciturn cowboy to the sweet, shy rich young man that lives on a boat, and all the grumpy, flirty, creepy ones in-between.
The game knows its audience. Your first romantic options - the ones who live in the town at the start - are often the most boring ones, the ones who end up fancying you purely because you’re the first piece of meat to walk into town in 20 years. You don’t want these ones, the game implies. Too easy. As you progress in the game - more turnips, more cows, more money - you’ll unlock new villagers, each one more difficult and therefore intriguing than the last. Imagine, if you will, a version of Tinder that required 3,000 swipes before it started to show you all the architects, lawyers and rock stars. That’s Harvest Moon’s approach to dating. You have to earn it.
My favourite bachelor was a man named Sanjay. He was the butler to a prince, living in a huge exotic mansion filled with fountains and blue roses. He was polite and shy, with a long, white plait over one shoulder. The longer you spent with Sanjay, the more you learned: despite living the palatial lifestyle, his favourite food was herb pasta; he grew up in an orphanage; he loved ancient ruins. Each person you meet has these snippets of information, coaxed out gently over a course of months in the same way your tend to your crops and livestock.
The essence of Harvest Moon is this. It may be quiet, unassuming, and yes, possibly even boring at times, but it endeavours to teach its players a lesson about patience and rewards for those who wait. Farming and friendship are treated the same - giving a treat every day to make your cows and sheep like you more is no different to giving gifts to your friends in town. It’s the video game equivalent of sitting in the garden on a warm day: it may feel like nothing is being achieved, but quietly, invisibly, your body and mind are being recharged by the peace, by the permission to enjoy nothingness.
Harvest Moon cultivates and shapes this nothingness into playable relaxation, letting your brain concentrate on menial tasks in this pastoral world defined by the ebb and flow of the seasons. Yasuhiro Wada has since divested himself of the Harvest Moon series, chasing his concept further with the much poorer Hometown Story, a too-empty shop sim lacking in the inherent charm of the original series - but his legacy still lives on.
On PC, there’s space to nurture that legacy and to discover something new, if the right tools are in place. The structure of Harvest Moon makes it an ideal fit for modding - in a perfect rural world, everything from crops to livestock and villagers could be tweaked and multiplied. As Skylines and other games have demonstrated, the Steam Workshop can function as a constantly expanding warehouse of additional content, cosmetic and otherwise. A well-worked mouse and keyboard interface could also make laying out crops, and forming queues of commands to sit back and observe, easier than ever.
For Wada, and for the series’ greatest fans, Harvest Moon is escapism, but not in the fast-paced, fantasy-driven world which other video games create. Instead, this world is almost achingly slow, forcing you to slow down yourself, adjust to the pace, and take that deep breath you haven’t had in weeks. It’s gamified stress relief for the technology generation, and we need it more than ever.