How managing a farm ignited my creativity …

Happy New Year everyone! I hope this message meets people in good spirits and in optimistic hope for 2020. There are a few games from the last decade I want to write about that made a significant impact into my life. I thought I would start off with ‘Stardew Valley‘, and it’s simple but reassuring effects it had over me as I played. This isn’t a game review but more of an exploration of positive attributes the game has and how I brought them back into reality.

Harvest Time!

To set up the scene, its 2016 and I’m having some mental health problems. A core factor at the time was not respecting the importance of bereavement. I had several young friends pass away in my late teens to early twenties. These people were way too young to die and my happy go lucky naivety couldn’t compute what was happening so I concentrated on comforting the folk around me. Then my family started popping off, no more than 12 – 16 months apart my two grandmothers, my mother, my grandad and my auntie Eileen all passed away in my late twenties, early thirties. Instead of exploring my pent up emotions, I buried my head in work whilst trying to escape reality until one day my brain snapped under the strain and decided to shut down on me.

I was lost. I had no motivation. I had no creative solutions. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t draw, and I felt worthless. I couldn’t think about issues without a thumping headache shortly followed by floods of tears that I couldn’t rationally explain. When I did have to tackle social or business affairs I was crippled with anxiety and had to retreat back to safety zones (my bed/den). I was brought to my GP and diagnosed with acute anxiety issues and depression. I was prescribed anti-depressants and started attending counselling. This was the first time I started to educate myself on mental health issues. I’m not going to go into the finer details of the time as I think I could write a book on that period of my life … so lets get to Stardew Valley now that the scene is set.

On the lead up to purchasing the game, I think I had watched the trailer hundreds of times and listened to the soundtrack daily but was buried in work that there was no possible way I could enjoy such a game. That should have been a precursor for me that a breakdown was eminent. I just loved how calming the game seemed, the graphics looked gorgeous and I had just finished replaying Final Fantasy III on Nintendo DS that summer and had RPGs on my mind. I even deferred getting the game after being diagnosed as I didn’t feel worthy enough to play it. I watched other people play it on Twitch as I lay void in bed. I think it was when I heard Laquetuph talk about how Stardew Valley calmed down some of his anxiety issues I decided to get it on steam. This started my journey of getting out of bed to baby step myself back into productive life.

Stardew Valley is a farming Role Playing Game about a character who inherits a farm from their grandpa, so they quit their job in the city and move to the countryside to rebuild the farm and integrate into the community. The game is a farming simulator as well as a dungeon crawler. You build positive and negative relationships with the community as you explore the world and achieve goals to not only build your farm but reconstruct the community centre. The game goes at your own pace, you can chill and dumpster dive your way to success or grind a farmers life and push your character every hour of the day. This was perfect for me as I was finding it hard to get up and do anything throughout the day let alone turn on the computer to play this game.

Chilling … fishing …

‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield taught me that to be a professional creative in whatever field you had to get up and do. You had to combat an obstacle Steven calls ‘resistance’. Resistance is filling your life with instant gratification instead of working towards long term goals. Allowing yourself to procrastinate instead of tackling your practice head on, this in turn restricts the input of inspiration, creation and motivation in your work. For example on a basic level, if you want to creatively write, force yourself past ‘resistance’ to creatively write on a daily basis. It doesn’t mater if its good or bad writing as long as you are writing. Inspiration will come to you after you start, and because you have not been waiting around for it you will be in full motion to embrace inspiration and create with it. Resistance is distracting yourself with easier tasks at hand rather than tackling the most important task head on and running out of energy. For this example, instead of creatively writing between the hours of 9am – 11am, I procrastinate with easier mundane tasks that have to be done like unload the dishwasher or sow up some ripped jeans. These jobs need to be done but I’ve neglected my core task and end up not having the energy or inspiration to creatively write for the rest of the day. Whilst if I wrote first and daily, the other tasks would get done, but after my designated time for writing. In the past this has worked well for me and independent projects that I had worked on like Pegbar, Giant and Burn After Inking. But this time it was different, my core values seemed to have vanished and I didn’t even know how to start re-piecing myself.

Unbeknownst to me, and probably in subliminal survival mode, I began forcing myself to play this game at least 3 hours a day. 1.5 hours first thing in the morning and 1.5 hours last thing at night. I was lucky at the time because I was on sick leave for my mental health problems, however I did continue the practice up when I went back to work as well. It would give me a sense of achievement after doing a bit for the virtual community I was interacting with and got me back into the practice of making to do lists and schedules at a microcosm level. These small nuggets of self gratitude were just about enough for me to start working on the basics of getting my own life back together again. At the time I hadn’t been to any CBT counselling (cognitive behavioural therapy) just yet, but I was essentially using Stardew Valley to alter my thoughts and behaviour in order to change my core feelings and day to day physicality to get out of downward vicious cycle in my real life. Once I had completed my morning session of Stardew, I could then start ticking off my ‘to do list’ for around the house and start feeling achievements in personal routine as well as virtual. During my evening session of Stardew, I would write a list of things to do with the farm or community the next day. I would slowly incorporate this into real life and start planning out the day ahead of me. Twyla Tharp talks about routine in great depth in her book ‘The Creative Habit‘, and how it helps the brain not worry about the greater picture but as long as routine habits are ticked, progress is being made. This routine helped me reclaim positive and acceptable hours to work with and reinforce basics of eating at the right times, walking the dog at set times for exercise, scheduled time to clean up the house, and motivation to actively read and research again.

The game itself has great dialogue and stories for all the community members as you get to know them. There are characters like a local shopkeeper drowning whilst trying to compete with vast supermarket chain, characters suffering from anxiety and depression, old age pensioners talking about their lives, a dumpster diving homeless man, an alcoholic trying to escape depression but making themselves worse, a character suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, a couple having a secret relationship, a dreamer lost on their ambitions so you can find yourself making deep meaningful relationships with these characters as you help them out or they help you.

Community Centre

Stardew Valley is a must play for all, with gorgeous aesthetics, amazing character interaction, and a purpose filled game with lots of drive. As explained in my story above, a big ignition to start me off and get me back on my feet developing from baby steps to independence within my life.

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