Choices vs Stress

Christine Hegedues

What do you do when a previously fun and relaxing experience feels like a chore? I recently experienced this in Stardew Valley, a 2D Pixel Art game about being a farmer in the countryside. I had already played the game a few years ago and remembered it as a relaxing and fun time. However, when I booted it up again recently, the experience was quite different.

There are many things you can do in Stardew Valley. First of all, you have a large farm that needs to be tidied up and is used to grow crops and raise animals. There is also a large number of crafting recipes that you unlock, which give you even more options on the farm. There is fishing and mining. There are characters to meet and befriend who also give you quests to fulfill. Yet, while playing a few weeks ago, this plethora of choices did not feel like options, but like chores that all needed to be carried out.

Thankfully, I study games, which means that I have a lot of theory to draw from on why games are fun and why not. I consciously asked myself: what was my motivation to play the game? The answer was to play out the fantasy (motivation of make-believe) of being a farmer. And once I thought about that actively, my view of the game changed. Suddenly, I did not see the game as a task list, but as a tool that may be used to live out that fantasy, and it was easy to only focus on the parts I was actually interested in.

Is there something that can be learned from this experience as a game designer? The initial answer would be no, since it was an internal realization that made me enjoy Stardew Valley again. The game did not change one bit. However, other players struggle with this as well. When you look up sentences like “gaming feels like a chore”, “game choices overwhelming” you get a lot of results. Even looking up specifically “Stardew Valley stressful” shows that I was not alone in my experience.

So how can a designer go about changing players’ attitudes towards the game, and at the same time provide all the options they want the players to have? One way of going about it is forcing the player to choose, without them actually having to go through with their choice: Outer Wilds does this in the beginning of the game – early on, a character simply asks the main character what they want to do once they are in space. The player can choose one of six options. Whatever answer the player chooses does not change anything within the game, but it gives the player a sense of direction. There are tricks like this that can be used to minimize the overload of choices.

I wanted to share this to know if anyone else has ever struggled with this in a game. It is an interesting concept to have in mind when designing experiences that involve a lot of freedom. There are surely many more examples for how to resolve the issue other than the one from Outer Wilds, and it would be a topic worth discussing.