“Essay Nine: Conversation with Stephanie Bell – Stardew, Dragonriders, Animal Crossing, Cats…”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz



bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Wesley: I’m joined tonight by Stephanie Bell.

Stephanie: Hello!

And we’re talking into one phone, and we’re going to see how that goes.

We’re pretty fancy.

We wanted to talk tonight about something that was touched on in our conversation with Ben Kozlowski, which had to do with a couple of different kinds of games. There’s games which are plot driven and quest-like in some sense–they have an end goal to them, you complete objectives, and you eventually beat the game–and then there’s other kinds of games (we’re talking just within video games here) which have a sort of open-ended nature. They may have some objectives, but they aren’t a straight quest in the same sense. EarthBound, of course, as I’ve been trying to make the case, follows a quest-type structure even though it plays with it in some interesting ways. But other games are much more of an open-ended sort, especially nowadays that there’s enough technology to make that possible. I wanted to talk to you about it because I know that you really like those kind of games.

I just realized that they’re more life-like. Life is not just like a quest where you’re trying to reach an end goal. I’m really trying to justify my taste in some of these games. Lately a lot of the time it feels like it’s just a farm simulation, and I think that’s what I want from life: a nice “I’ve done my chores, I’m pretty happy. I didn’t fight the boss today, but that’s okay. I’ve made my house more beautiful. I planted a whole row of sweet gems and those are going to make me lots of money later…”

That’s where I was interested in taking this discussion–

Uh oh!

–that just reminded me: Given that the games that are open ended–could you just give us a few examples?

Lately I’ve been really into Stardew Valley and Starbound, and I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild more like one of these kinds of games. I’ve been doing all the little quests on the sides and I’ve been avoiding Ganon still, so I haven’t been doing the main story-line.

I feel like you might even be avoiding the game entirely because there isn’t that much left to do except just fighting Ganon.

I should do that, but then I won’t find all the Koroks, and I really like them!

Well, when you mentioned the idea of selling stuff and making some money–with respect to that, if those games are like life in some way, like real life, insofar as you don’t have an end purpose in the same way or a distinct quest so much as you are enjoying the day and doing certain things which are kind of your own choice, you have all these possibilities and you can choose the ones you want to work on within some limits–

Are you about to tell me that it’s bad that I’m focused on getting money in these games?

I’m not saying it’s bad! That would be really hard to defend in lots of ways. No, I’m not saying it’s bad at all. I just mean, what if money is sort of what we use to take the place of an overarching quest, if that makes sense? You know, it seems like that’s a way to compare across different smaller endeavors how you’re doing in the scheme of things: Are you successful? Are you winning at something?

Okay. Well, in Starbound you don’t need much money, if at all. You actually lose it pretty quickly. You lose a big chunk of all your pixels–that’s the money in Starbound–every time you die. You die a lot. But you need it for cool things like cars, which somehow always get stuck in buildings, and you lose anyway, or other technology. In that game you don’t really need money. They do technically have a plot line and an end goal, but I hardly ever actually try to get that. I mostly play around and build my colonies and mine and dig for things and find weird dungeons. So even if money were the main overarching plot line, or they have a quest as the clear plot line already, I like the games where you don’t have to care what they want you to do. You get to choose what you feel like doing.

Image result for starbound car stuck in building

And is that because it feels more like life to you?

I think so. Maybe this is related to how in high school I would not read any book I was told to read. I liked reading; I didn’t do it a whole lot because I was told all the time I had to read, until I was like, “No, I’m not going to. I’m just going to read the summaries. Look at me being clever.” So maybe my rebel instincts are what draw me to Animal Crossing. Sure, we’ll go with that!

That’s funny. When you’re talking about reading books, that also reminded me that I wanted to bring up The Lord of the Rings in this discussion, too. Maybe that’s a little different. We don’t play any Lord of the Rings games too much–we have some Lego Lord of the Rings games, but we don’t play them–

I played a Two Towers game for GameCube. It was pretty, “fight this level, move on; fight this level, move on…”

I guess I wanted to ask because that’s some of the coolest, most widely regarded quest sort of narrative out there, and they are exciting to read and to watch the movies and to think about. We even sometimes go to the local Tolkien Society meetings with other Tolkien enthusiasts, just to talk about them. But it’s really interesting how different that is from the kind of games that you like to play, because if anything the economics of Tolkien’s world and the free time, so to speak, is really not that developed. Everything is headed towards a certain end, with the exception of little moments like Tom Bombadil’s house. He seems to exist in a sort of idyllic realm.

Image result for tom bombadil book

I bet he would play Stardew Valley.

Yeah, that’s sort of what he does all day, so to speak. He’s going around gathering flowers and saving people from willows.

I’m naming my next character Tom Bombadil.

Tom Bombadillo!

I like it! He’s going to have an armadillo. I don’t get to choose that. He gets a cat or a dog in Stardew Valley, but I’m going to name my puppy Armadillo.

So there’s something interesting going on there. What is it about those books and about those worlds? Maybe that’s it: that the world is so developed?

Maybe. I’m also realizing that when I start playing these games I’ll play for hours and hours because I always have another thing I want to do the next day. Like if it’s Animal Crossing it’s, “Oh, so I have to find so-and-so’s lost mitten and deliver it to them.” Or, “Oh, in one more day my cherries are going to be ready to harvest and then I have to go turn them in for all of my bells.” So there’s a next day. The days are super short, they’re really small. Well, in Animal Crossing they’re not super short, they’re only super short because I always cheated and changed the GameCube clock forward when I got done with my activity for that day. So the days are fairly short, and there’s lots of super tiny short goals that I can stop at any point. But if I put a game down for a while, I won’t remember what my next short-term goal was, so I’ll take a while to pick it back up. Or if I do pick it back up, it’s a new string of short-term goals. I don’t have to worry about, “Wait, where am I in the story right now? Who is this character? What was this random person doing? What was I supposed to do for them?” So I think that’s part of the appeal to me, with my short attention span.

And to tie it back to Lord of the Rings, though, is it because you know that story pretty well you don’t feel that same kind of pressure to keep everything in mind at all times?

I think so.

It sort of hangs together.

Yeah, and I don’t feel like I have to sit there and finish it all at once without needing to start over and say, “Who’s this?”

That’s part of the difficulty, I guess, with picking up a new quest or something like that: seeing what is the same as the general mythic structure, and what’s different about this particular one. What makes this one worth investing that time and energy of thought or attention or whatever to actually sit down and play? I think with EarthBound for me the most interesting thing about it is that, at the time I was first playing it, I didn’t have consciously a sense of the overarching structure of a quest. I maybe had that intuitively from stories, but I wasn’t thinking about it in that way at all. It was like, “Okay, what’s the next thing that I want to do in this game? I’ve got to figure out how to get from Twoson to Threed.” It turns out I can’t do that yet, and I just kind of stumble upon this other thing, like seeing the Runaway Five show, or whatever. So there’s a kind of surprise that comes out of seeing how the artist or the narrator plays on your expectations within the larger story and gives you these little moments which are sort of the kind of thing you’re talking about, collecting this or that.

I do like collecting.

Or seeing how that other thing grows, and getting some kind of benefit from that. It’s interesting, then, that in Breath of the Wild, you kind of have both of those aspects going on. And even if you are stressed out by the prospect of completing the quest, you can go around and find lots of Koroks or whatever. But do you think that there is a balance there that’s good to strike? Or is it–I tried to propose that maybe within the games that are more open-ended it’s about making money or something like that–there’s some overarching goal of that kind? But it seems like that’s not really where the balance would lie. So where would it be?

Image result for korok breath of the wild

Okay, so back to Starbound and Stardew Valley. They all have a general plot line, but there’s no pressure to get there quickly. You can take as much time as you want. And in Harvest Moon, all that is is that you’re supposed to be growing up. It’s supposed to be your life. So I like that I don’t feel like I’m just wasting my time–well, I do feel like I’m wasting time, but I don’t feel like I’m wasting in-game time doing these quests, because I’m slowly making progress to these other major goals that I’m supposed to get to. So I’m getting stronger to fight Ganon, is my theory, even though I could just destroy him in like three seconds and it’s not going to be super fun. But I’m getting stronger, I’m working towards that. In Starbound you’re supposed to go uncover all of these historical things about all these different space races. So you can see that’s a perfect excuse to go find a planet and explore there. I’ll explore a lot longer, but once I’m done with that planet I find another one and I work a little bit more towards my goal. So I like that there’s an overall structure but no pressure to get there quickly.

I also like games that don’t force you to remember the plot or how things are supposed to work together. Because honestly I paid attention to the story-line less than ten times in any game that I played. Breath of the Wild is one of the few that I’m like, “Oh, this is a beautiful story.” Because Ocarina of Time, when my family played that we just sped through the text and wandered around, and often we were like, “How are we supposed to know we were supposed to go to this place that this person just told us about? We didn’t read it.”

But that’s partly, too, because you guys would play it like taking turns, passing the baton. So one person might have actually even listened to what to do next, but then your sister gets on and then she’s just playing to play. She doesn’t know what’s going on.

Well, we would all sit around and play together, but I would have to do the puzzle parts and none of the scary parts. My dad would always have to fight the bosses, and then someone else–I don’t know, I think Liz and Corey both played, too. They must have been doing the actual dungeons and like walking across the scary field with the scary skeletons. And once I became adult Link I could not do anything. I could not pick up the controller, because those mummies… It’s too stressful, it’s too scary. I don’t like stressful games. The story-line shouldn’t stress me out! I don’t like getting frustrated for too long, either, so if I don’t know where to go next I’m not a fan of that.

So you’re stuck between these two things: you don’t want to pay particular attention to the story, but you also don’t want to worry about wasting your time wandering around and not knowing what to do?

And not finding where the Runaway Five show is. I could see myself get really stuck with EarthBound.

That’s kind of interesting, then. EarthBound seems to go out of its way to try to help you out, though, because it has the Hint man, and it’s usually not just one person that you need to talk to, there will be multiple people that’ll tell you more or less what to do next.

But you have to talk to people.

You do have to take a certain amount time doing that. But the funny thing about what you’re describing with your family playing is that’s how I used to play games, too. So it wasn’t just that I had to figure it out. It was like a collaborative thing for me and my friends. We would sit there and figure out what to do next. And a lot of times my friends in the neighborhood were a little older than me, so they would be a lot quicker to get what was going on. Or they had even played the game before, and so I was just playing it as they played it, and they told me what to do, and that was really fun because I was doing it but I was also getting help from them. So I think there’s something interesting about the way that the story is kind of collaborative, I suppose, and in that sense it takes some of the pressure off, too.

And there are all sorts of manuals for the old games. They probably still have them now, too, but now everything’s online. But with those, it was like I was giving up when I had to look up how to do a puzzle in the strategy guide. I don’t think we ever bought a strategy guide, but I definitely looked at several at the store. But now, like Starbound, they encourage you to go to their wiki, and all the recipes are there and you learn so much more by doing that research than just stumbling on it yourself, so it’s really encouraged: “Oh, I want to make that, and to make that I have to make this decision, I have to do this first…”

It’s a little bit like the social media then, too, right? That’s how you interact with other people who play the game. If you go there and you get on the forum and you get to chat about how to do this or that. We see what other people have done.

That’s my socializing.

It’s a way of bringing you out of your individual experience with the game and making it part of something a little bit more communal.

To have those friends teach you tricks.

The other interesting thing about Starbound and Stardew Valley is that they’re sort of in progress, just being updated. Even with Breath of the Wild, they release updates for it. So that’s kind of different. The game is never really finished in that sense, either. It’s still open. Not just that the story is not driving towards a particular conclusion, but the game literally keeps growing as you’re playing it, potentially, or you can go back and they’ll have added something new. So that’s another side of this discussion of these different kinds of games.

Yeah, the open-ended ones are way easier to add onto. You can always have sequels–

That’s a little cheesy sometimes, though. “Oh, but then this even bigger bad guy shows up, and it wasn’t what we thought at all.” There’s this kind of endless regression of sequels that you get with Hollywood sometimes. It’s not that compelling. But it can also be a series that’s actually thought out to some extent and well done.

I have some bad news about Starbound.

What’s wrong?

They posted on their blog recently that an update they’ve been working on for several months, where you got to be a bounty hunter, they were testing it and playing and they said, “It feels like we just slapped it on, extra. We’re just not going to release it.” They scrapped the whole bounty hunter thing that they’ve been working on for months.


I mean, I applaud that they’re like, “This won’t be great, we’re not going to do it.” But I’m also really sad because it sounded like it would be great.

But the way these things are, it’s never really going to be gone forever. You know somewhere along the line, sooner or later someone’s going to get access to that and make it available.

At least a mod.

…I’m getting distracted because our cats are playing with one of their toys. They’re being really silly. So taking the discussion out from video games, I mentioned that quote of Montaigne about wondering whether he’s playing with his cat or whether his cat’s playing with him. There’s also, of course, Schrodinger’s cat. The story of Schrodinger’s cat, right: it’s like a thought experiment where until you actually look in the box the cat is both alive and dead. Which is a little morbid, but kind of interesting. Because your watching changes the thing. The idea there is of uncertainty, and I don’t know that I’m giving it a particularly careful explanation here, because like I said I’m distracted by watching these cats play.

Now I’m just thinking about Schrodinger’s cat, but instead of a box it’s our cat under the doormat and the other cat squishing her. What are they doing?

Yeah, he’s just trying to see if that cat is actually in the box or not.

Image result for schrodinger

I love it when I get pets in games, or little friends that trail along. I love it when they just do silly things. Not my character doing silly things–I love other characters doing silly things, but I might want my character being a little more serious. So if in any of these games you can give me a cat that does what my cat does, that’s great, too.

In a realistic cat-like way. But why do you need that if you have real cats?

Okay, I want a dog that does that in-game so I don’t have to get a dog.

Stephanie’s very allergic to dogs. It’s very sad. Sorry, I was just going to ask, given that these cats are so adorable and fun to play with, why do we play all these video games then?

And why don’t I just garden, instead of gardening in the game?

We’ve got a little yard we just put a little garden in. We worked on it for a while today. I don’t think we played any video games today.

Well, I did. I played some on my phone. My brick-breaking game.

Does it have a name?

I don’t know. Probably.

So those games are a totally different genre. They’re just a way to pass time, right?

That’s very true.

But they are sort of addictive, too, and that’s part of the reason people play.

I think it’s because I get to just shut my brain off, to have these small goals anyway.

Instant gratification…

Yeah, I don’t have to do very much work to say I did stuff.

Small investment…

So today I mowed part of the lawn and I was exhausted. But then I was thinking about Stardew Valley: if I’d played that, I would have gone through a whole growth season, had it harvested even…

That’s part of the appeal.

With way less muscle fatigue.

The trade-off, though, is that you have more actual pay-off for the effort that you put in.

I could eat the actual vegetables that might grow in our garden this year.

But there’s something about these games, they’re compelling. Like the cats, they just attract your attention.

It’s like a lot of the books I read, too. I really like the Pern series, The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey, because they’re very similar to the games I like. Not in the open-ended sense, but there are these colonists from Earth, and they go land on new worlds, and they talk about their farming, their day-to-day activities. For some reason that appeals to me: someone else’s day-to-day activities that maybe could be mine, but nothing ridiculous–never mind, there are dragons so I guess that is ridiculous.

Image result for dragonriders of pern

But they’re semi-scientifically-based dragons, right?

And no superhuman things. Though I do like Ender’s Game, and he’s just ridiculous.

There’s something about getting to see this reflection of real life, but with something different about it. Just like in The Golden Compass, it’s like our world, but different.

Better in a way.

In some ways, perhaps. I find that to be a really good reason to read books which are somewhat fantastic but somewhat realistic. Maybe in some ways the realistic books are even better at that, because you’re not as distracted by what’s different. You get to see certain consequences of what might seem like relatively small differences, but they hit home in a different way.

I’m just thinking about if these games that I play are like real life. In Starbound you’re an alien. You can play as a plant, so obviously it’s not super realistic. And some of the things you fight are crazy-looking. In Stardew Valley there’s little apple guys, their name is Junimos or something like that, and other like aliens and weird bats that you get to fight in the caves. So some definitely not realistic things there. If any of that were really true to life, and the games made me wait for my plants to grow or my sheep to give me wool so I can sell them, I don’t think I would like them.


Well, there’s only so much you can do in a lifetime or in a day, and so in some small way these games let you have more. To see the little outcomes. And books, too. You dip into some other life for a short time and you get to sort of experience that. I think that’s an interesting corollary of the enjoyment or distraction or whatever else the game provides.

If I had played these games when I was younger I might think that I would want to be a farmer. So maybe this is a whole other discussion on the education system, but if we had these sort of life simulators for different jobs, that might have been a really useful tool. Instead of those paper tests about things you enjoy. Like, do you actually enjoy that? For several hours a day, multiple days in a row? Or you just think it sounds great?

That is probably a discussion for another day, but it would be interesting to look into that a little. I think it’s probably already out there. At least prototypes.

Like a more intense–or less intense?–job shadowing. You don’t run the risk of destroying anyone else’s work day, but you get to see what it looks like.

We got to talk a little bit about Dragonriders, and maybe there’s a little more there to talk about there. The last thing I’ll say, then, is on the point of books and games that you enjoy and that you’d like other people to play with you. Because I know this is a constant thing: trying to find people who’ll play Starbound with you, or trying to get me to read Dragonriders of Pern. I’m really bad about doing that. And of course I’m always giving you books to read, and getting you to talk to me on my podcast.

Stardew Valley is almost out with their multiplayer now.

So what’s that about? “I love this thing, I want to share this thing”? “This is the person I like, I want to do things with this person”? A little bit of both? Or is it like the way that the game gets a hold of us? We think it’s that we want to share it, but really we’ve been taken over by something in the game. What do you think?

I think it’s a combination of all of those, and also partly I feel a little guilty if I spend too long on a video game. I feel like I should socialize some more. So if I can get someone to socialize with me while playing it, then I feel a lot better. I won’t feel guilty. I feel like, “Yeah, I was socializing today.”

It gives us a shared thing to look at together.

Yes. That’s a deeper way of looking at it. I just wanted to pretend that I had a friend and play video games. A healthy imaginary friend–or not imaginary, they’re real people!

Pretend friends and real friends.

What about the games you choose and the books you choose? How do you choose what to share, and why do you share this?

Like I’ve said, the main reason is that I really like them, and I think other people will also really like them. They’ve had a big impact on me, and they’ve shaped me in ways that I think are good, and the more that I get to share that with people and point those things out, I feel like, the better everything is going to be.

I think your take on any book or video game is a lot richer than my take. Usually mine is to be some mind-numbing, “just enjoy it.”

But that’s a part of it, too. I worry sometimes that I’m seeing a lot of stuff that’s just me making stuff up and telling a certain kind of story about it. Maybe it’s just as valuable just as something to do to relax and hang out with other people.

If I can. If they play with me. Those are two great types of games, two great reasons to play, but I think that there can be a person–hopefully someone’s out there that is all about the books and games that you love and are obsessed about, but reads them and plays them for my reasons. And then vice versa. So I want someone who gets more out of Starbound and Animal Crossing than I do, at a deeper and more profound level. It’d be interesting. I want to meet those people. Let’s double-date those people!

Let’s find those people and play video games with them! I hope this dialogue finds its way to you guys. I hope you’ve enjoyed our little conversation here. I’m sure we’ll have more in the future.

Maybe even show our cats in the future. That would be entertaining.

Well, we’ll be back next week with our first episode on Threed, and the project will continue into the spring here.

He’ll be back next week, he means.

I sometimes slip into the royal we.

Oh that. I’m royal, not the we.

We’re royal! Take care.




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