A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Harvest Moon: Island of Happiness for the DS. For those of you who aren't initiates, Harvest Moon is... well... it's a series of farming simulation games. You can't see me, but I'm squirming on my sofa in embarassment that I'm admitting this in public.
In Harvest Moon, you can grow diverse crops (potatoes, corn, apples, wheat, eggplants to name just a few); you can sell your crops for money or cook recipes; you can fish; chop wood; mine for minerals; raise chickens, cattle and sheep; you can set up cottage industries making goods ranging from yarn to yogurt; and you can build relationships with the citizens of the island, up to and including wooing the spouse of your choice and getting married. I'd call it a straightforward resource management game, where the primary resources to be managed are time and money.
I can sit down with Harvest Moon and intend to play for just one day of game time. But then the next day is a festival, and well, I want to see if my prize home-made ice-cream is a winner... and then the turnip harvest is in and I want to ship them out before I forget... and before I know it, I've blown through a week of game time, and I've lost who-even-knows how much time in the real world.
I sat down to try to write a post about Harvest Moon, trying to define its appeal for me, and it was a real head-scratcher. It doesn't have any of the things I thought I liked in a game. There's not really a compelling story, for one. No puzzles to be solved, really. It doesn't have amazing visuals -- it's a DS game, for cryin' out loud -- and the barks and music can both get extremely repetitive. It doesn't bring out my raging competitive streak. So why do I like it?
I admit, when I first started mulling it over I thought: Well... maybe it's because it's a wussy girly game, and I'm a wussy girl. ...Not that there's anything wrong with that, right? Right? But then, in a spectacular flash of insight, I realized that wasn't it at all. It's that Harvest Moon is just like World of Warcraft.
And in fact, Harvest Moon is more WoW than WoW is. Harvest Moon is WoW with nothing but the grind. And the grind is why we play!
I refer, of course, of Clive Thimpson's article, "Back to the Grind in WoW." Here's the money quote, for me:
Why? Because there's something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you'll level up. It doesn't require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you'll do better; play 50, you'll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.
The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this.
But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can't believe what a totally awesome deal we're getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.
If you've talked to me much about games since that article went up in July, I've probably referenced that piece. (I'm more than a little shocked it's taken me until now to talk about it here.) It's become a real touchpoint for me regarding what people want out of games; the more I think about it, the truer it rings in my ears.
So I play Harvest Moon: I plant my seeds and water my crops, I visit all of my townsfolk every day, I milk my cows and collect my eggs from the chickens and make it all into food to sell; I collect and sell, collect and sell, over and over again, and I do it because it's so restful. I think a little about Zen monks raking sand around rocks, over and over again, and I wonder if this feeds a similar human need.
When I play Harvest Moon, I know there are no nasty surprises in store for me. I know it will all turn out to be fair. And if a game can give you something like peace of mind, even for a few minutes, who the heck cares abut graphics or plot, anyway?