I’m at the endgame of my second playthrough of Stardew Valley, this time on PC, after having played through it for the first time on Switch last year. With one week left in Year 2, I’ve stockpiled hundreds of Ancient Fruit seeds and I’m ready to launch my Ancient Wine empire and make enough cash to buy Pelican Town and make it my vassal state in Year 3.

All this has got me thinking, what motivates me to keep playing a game like this after the primary objective is done? In Stardew’s case, I would consider the primary objective to restore the Community Center by completing all the bundles, though this is by no means the defined “end of the game” in any sense. What keeps me going past that? I think there are a few factors at play:

  • Friends: The reason I started this second playthrough is that my wife picked up the game for the first time on Switch. After watching her play through her first year, I got the craving real bad. Most importantly, it gives us something to talk about!
  • Replay value: I picked the forest farm map the first time I played. Knowing that the inevitable conclusion to this game is an Ancient Wine Megafactory, I knew I wanted more crop space to bring said factory to its full potential. So I picked the standard farm this time, meaning I now have the best foundation available to conquer the endgame. Plus I wanted to try a new set of skill perks.
  • The Checklist: I’m aware of how incredibly lame this is, but there is something psychologically stimulating about seeing a list of todo items just waiting to be checked off. That’s what achievements bring to the table, either the Steam ones or the in-game ones - listed objectives that I can tackle one (or several) at a time.

Granted, none of these factors would matter if the game wasn’t fun. It is definitely fun to play! But let’s get hypothetical. Say, for example, that you removed all of the achievements, had only one farm map and no skill branching, and didn’t know anyone else who was playing it. Would the remaining game be enough to convince me to give it a second playthrough, well past the “end”? No, probably not. For some people, sure, that could work. But not for me.

I was talking to a friend of mine about this new playthrough recently, and we got on the topic of objectives in games. I claimed that games were generally improved by having some sort of purpose to each action that you can do in the game. That could be something as complex as a well-paced interdependent skill tree (say, like RuneScape) or just as simple as some interesting achievements (I specify interesting because “kill 10,000 glorps” is not fun in any way). He disagreed, saying that if the game itself was fun, it didn’t need explicit objectives to make it interesting. In fact, he said that tends to make games worse.

It got me thinking - what he said sounds right, like that’s how it should be. But in my experience, that hasn’t been the case. Am I playing games wrong? Am I ruining the industry with my preferences, being a justification for replacing innovative gameplay with numbers that tick up every so often? Maybe it would help if I look back at how I came to my preference in the first place.

One example that sticks out to me is Breath of the Wild. I would rate that game a “pretty great” out of 10, but not perfect. I could probably do a whole post on slight tweaks to that game that I think would give a ton more replay value, as if Nintendo were listening. But one of my favorite objectives was the photography sidequest in the game. When I unlocked the Sheikah Slate camera on my first playthrough and found out there were over 300 things to photograph and index in the world, I was PUMPED! Every new monster I encountered, and old ones that I had to go find again, I was more excited to take their picture than to actually defeat them. Because I really like my lists of objectives, as you know by now, and this was a huge one.

50+ hours later, when I’m tracking down the last bits and baubles to photograph, I realized that I missed a Blue Lynel and their signature weapons, and the internet had already concluded that once you progress past the point where Blue Lynels appear, you will never get the chance to photograph them again. A bit upsetting, but I knew that I could buy pictures of anything I missed, I had just avoided doing so up until now. So it stung pretty hard when I realized upon making my first photograph purchase that there was absolutely no penalty for doing so. The price didn’t go up. There was no “stock photo” indicator on the bought picture. It acted as if it were your very own. Which means I could have bought every photo in the game for a fraction of the Rupees I had at that point.

Then why did I bother at all? On my hard mode playthrough a few months later, I didn’t. I bought every single photograph, and there was absolutely no indication that I did so. Unless someone was super-obsessive and compared every photo on my camera to the stock ones on the wiki, they might as well have been my own. If there had been so much as a tiny label on the thumbnail that indicated “you didn’t take this yourself”, I would have had a reason to photograph them all myself.

And isn’t that insane of me? The fact that I would completely bypass one of my favorite parts of the game because there was no explicitly defined reason to do it. Suddenly “taking the picture” was an optional, time-consuming alternative to the more efficient “buying the picture” option. It was crazy at the time and is even more absurd in retrospect. What kind of validation am I seeking, anyway? Am I going to boot up my save file when all 3 of my friends my friends are over and show them my untainted Zelda screenshot collection? This was legitimately how I would think when I was in middle school, which probably explains a lot of things about me today.

My point is… a minor UI tweak would have helped me avoid this existential crisis, though maybe it’s better I faced that one head-on anyway.

I have plenty more examples I would love to touch on, but this is already getting pretty long. I’ll revisit this topic another day, since I clearly have a lot to get off my chest.

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