A desperate woman, I wandered through the empty fields, hopelessly at the edge of civilization, rooting through trash cans but finding nothing. My vision was starting to black out — I could barely lift my arms anymore. I could feel the sun disappear far beyond the sky but I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew I needed to find my home and climb into bed so I could finally end this horrible day. But I couldn’t — I had no idea where I was. It was the early hours of the morning when I finally succumbed to exhaustion and collapsed.
When I first played Stardew Valley, the hit farming RPG that came out in 2016, I had a rough time. I didn’t know where the map button was, for one, so I immediately got lost. My character didn’t have any food, I had spent too much time chopping down trees and my stamina meter was dangerously low. It’s no surprise I passed out somewhere in the woods above town, confused and alone. I didn’t understand why the game was so difficult for me, having heard so many positive reviews lauding it as a great relaxation tool. I didn’t feel relaxed. I was barely 13 minutes into the game and I had already died. I didn’t even know you could die in the game! Had I messed everything up?
That’s the thing, though — I hadn’t messed anything up. I didn’t have to start from the beginning, or have my failure on the first day follow me around forever like a freshman year math grade on a college transcript. When you pass out in Stardew Valley, you lose 50 coins and your energy meters only refill halfway. You wake up in your own bed (having been lovingly transported by an NPC, Dr. Harvey, who is the real MVP) and start the next day like any other. You can easily earn those 50 coins back, and refill your meters by eating. You haven’t died, you’ve just stayed up too late and woken up with a headache. There’s nothing you can’t come back from, after some dedication and Googling “WHERE MAP BUTTON STARDEW VALLEY PC” in a different window.
A lot of games are serious about punishing their players for their failures. A lot of people, including myself, know the struggle of rebooting your device and re-loading your save file just so that a dumb mistake won’t make the game harder. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, if you present the wrong evidence too many times, the game punishes you by giving your defendant a guilty verdict, forcing you to move backwards in the game unless you’ve saved before guessing wildly. I’ve reloaded save files so many times in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildafter accidentally shattering a weapon I really liked or drinking a potion I’d meant to save for a later mission. These games are some of my favorites, and on the whole I love “choices matter” games like Oxenfree or Undertale. But sometimes I like playing something with no consequences, where if I mess up I can just keep going without sneakily messing with save files.
That’s why, although I’ve just written three paragraphs about a game I last played three years ago, this column is really about a more recent game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I didn’t know what to expect going into it, and I was pretty worried I’d mess up since the only Fire Emblem game I’d played in the past was the mobile game. As it turns out, Three Houses is pretty good at welcoming new players; in addition to offering me an “easy” difficulty, where enemies are weaker, it also offers a “Casual” mode. In “Classic” Fire Emblem, I guess, characters that die while the player is commanding them stay dead for the rest of the game, but in “Casual,” they resurrect after each round. This makes things so much less stressful for me. I’m sure a ”real gamer,” whatever that means, would go right for “Classic,” no-holds-barred, Final-Destination-No-Items, but I’m grateful for the game’s forgiveness. I have enough to worry about without accidentally killing my player character’s friends.
I’m sure some characters will still suffer or die — given the look someone gave me last week when I mentioned I’d chosen the Black Eagle route, it’s probably a certainty — but at least it won’t be due to my own failures.
Olivia Bono is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. On the Level runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.