I left behind the village of Stardew Valley about 6 months ago. When I first downloaded the game, I was immediately taken with its Harvest Moon-like structure (I grew up playing the n64 version). It was refreshing to see that this style of game, one that tasks the player with not only running a farm but improving the town and creating social relationships with the neighboring villagers, still made for an exciting experience. After I played through about 2 and half years in game, I stepped away from farming and instead moved to interstellar demon slaying (someone had to get them off Mars!).
I did not return to Stardew Valley until only recently, excited to revisit my farm. Something felt off though; in the 6 months I spent away from the game I had unintentionally removed myself from the NPC community. It felt strange to step back into the town that at one point I was emotionally invested in. I didn’t feel the same pull to help Clint the blacksmith break out of his shell and pursue his crush on Emily. There wasn’t the same gratification in gifting Linus, the misunderstood hermit, some cheese (which I had to look up on wiki to remember if he liked it). Worst of all, I was no longer as emotionally invested in pursuing my romantic relationship with Leah. The cooling off period I had from the game created a separation between me and the various characters similar to the feeling of distance between old friends whom I no longer keep up with. Interactions aren’t as exciting as they used to be and the environment that once felt like home feels alien. It was exactly like visiting my home town after years of absence; new social relationships and communities have taken priority so old relationships are no longer as important as they used to be. Games like Stardew Valley require players to become emotionally invested in the towns that they are placed in, in order to add meaning to the gameplay. If players don’t enjoy their interactions with the villagers, then why even attempt to help them?
There aren’t many games that engender this type of social attachment, but I have had similar experiences when returning to Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing, like Stardew Valley, is all about interactions within its community, only that the villagers’ movements and continue even when you are not in game. Animal Crossing’s NPCs will move away or even forget the in-game character. It makes returning to the game even more jarring than Stardew Valley. Favorite friends could be gone, replaced by new characters that can serve as poor replacements for the previous tenant. The neighborhood makeup can be completely overhauled, making this virtual town feel completely foreign.
These types of social-driven games face this unique issue. Other game types, like RPGs, may be hard to return to because people forget mechanics integral to moving forward in the game. Games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing however face a much harder challenge; trying to remind players that they are vital and important part of this community, even when it doesn’t feel like home anymore.