I was late to the Stardew Valley party. It’s been out on PC for a year now, and while the game sounded like something I was mildly interested in, I didn’t get chance to try it until it came to Xbox One in December.

My first few hours with the game were average at best; I had no idea what I was doing – or what I was supposed to be doing – so I spent a lot of time aimlessly wandering around, haphazardly planting seeds, mining rocks and chopping wood and hoping for the best. It was a bit boring, to be honest. Villagers were standoffish and rude – how am I meant to forge friendships with this bunch of wazacks, and aren’t I supposed to be able to get married at some point? – and anywhere vaguely interesting-looking on the map was blocked off to me and my ‘noob’ farmer status.

Still, I stuck it out – and I’m glad I did. A couple of hours into the game and something clicked; I became completely addicted to Stardew Valley. I’ve put about 40 hours into the game in the last couple of weeks, and I’ve just completed my first in-game year of living on Buttmunch Farm (I am such a grown up). It’s been a rollercoaster of a year – in a pixelated, fictional game-world kind of way – but it’s been completely unforgettable.

“A couple of hours into the game and something clicked; I became completely addicted to Stardew Valley.”

Overcoming the hurdles of a game that gives me very little direction is often quite overwhelming to me. I’ve always favoured games with a strong narrative, and even moreso now, as a games reviewer where time to devote to just one title is limited, I like to know what I’m doing so I can make the most of the time I have to enjoy a game. I experienced a similar roadblock with Terraria when I first picked it up a couple of years ago. A blank canvas? A world that’s my oyster? It sounds great on paper, but when I’m thrown into it, I panic a little bit. Like a new mother who’s just brought her baby home for the first time; what the hell am I supposed to do now? It’s a case of taking small, tenuous steps; learning by trial and error; seeing what works and what doesn’t.

The first week or so was rather mundane as I got to grips with my newfound farmer status, and learned the lay of the land in my new town. Those first few days were largely spent exploring, talking to townsfolk – and discovering which ones were too rude for me to waste my time with. I laid early foundations of a couple of friendships and cleared enough space on my farm to have a few patches of crops, but already, I felt a little lost for what to do.

Then the mine opened.

Oh, the mines; how you changed my opinion of Stardew Valley so very quickly. I suddenly had a purpose. My first mission was to reach level 20 of the mines. Fine; that felt easy enough. Within a couple of solid mining days I’d reached level 20 – and collected more loot than I’d had before. After level 20, I then had to reach the bottom. I initially had no idea how deep this thing went. Surely it couldn’t be more than 50? Actually yes; turned out I was going to have to battle through 120 floors of this mine, filled with the sweet nectar of challenge, exploration and risk versus reward. This was all I needed.

I didn’t abandon my other farming duties completely; I planted some crops, although probably not as many as the game would have liked me to. I didn’t really need to though; I was collecting enough valuable resources from the mine to save up enough money to see me through.

I was still making sure I was spending time getting to know some townsfolk, too; I’d taken a shine to a young jock named Alex. He was my “project”. I was going to marry him whether he liked it or not. Our conversations were very mundane. He’d talk to me about sports; sometimes about the weather. Maybe we didn’t have a great deal in common, but eh, he seemed like a nice chap, deep down. Besides, it was too late to change my mind now; I’d already got three ‘hearts’ worth of friendship with him and that was more than anyone else.

“I was going to have to battle through 120 floors of this mine, filled with the sweet nectar of challenge, exploration and risk versus reward. This was all I needed.”

Well, that wasn’t entirely true; I’d also taken a shine to Linus, the outsider who lived in a tent north of the town. He was sweet, and misunderstood – and, unlike the rest of the ungrateful bastards who lived in town, he always appreciated the gifts I bestowed upon him. He didn’t trust me at first, but once he did, it felt like a great reward. He’d often put little gifts in my postbox that he’d found while exploring the mountain. What a sweet, strange man. Unfortunately I couldn’t marry him – was he deemed too old, or just not an appropriate suitor for a girl of my calibre? Who are you, Stardew Valley, to tell me who I can and can’t marry?

Early into summer, I realised the true potential of the old Community Centre. Along with mining, it now became a focus to collect the bundles of goods that I needed to donate in order to receive a reward and ultimately repair the centre. It was slow going; I’d already missed out on finding the items that only appeared in spring. I’d just have to do what I could to make sure I had the rest by the end of the year (fat chance there!).

Mining was still my number one priority though; it took me until late summer to reach the bottom. Getting there was somewhat bittersweet – I wasn’t quite sure how long the game would be able to keep me in its grips now, with no mine to rely on. It was quite a challenge on the last 40 floors or so; enemies were much tougher and I even died a few times. Well, not died-died; this is Stardew Valley after all. I merely passed out, and woke up a while later when a concerned townsperson had apparently found me. (What were they doing, wandering around 100-levels deep in a mine that apparently nobody had explored apart from me?) Dying – sorry, passing out – was something of an inconvenience however, as I’d end up losing several items from my inventory as well as forget the last 10 levels of progress I’d made in the mine. It made that last stretch to the finish that much harder – but it wasn’t too much of a bad thing. Although I did end up losing an awesome sword I had – which ended up costing me around 15,000 to replace it with a slightly inferior one. Ugh.

Those last 20 levels or so though were certainly worth the slog – the amount of gold ore, diamonds and other valuable minerals I managed to collect meant that planting crops was merely a sideline hobby. I felt like a professional miner by this point. Even when I had reached the end, I’d regularly go back just to mine through a few levels for its resources. After building some furnaces on my farm, I was smelting gold ore into bars and selling it to the blacksmith for a very tidy profit. I had enough money to expand the reach of my farm, so by the end of summer, I’d built a coop, which housed a few chickens, and a barn with a couple of cows. My morning routine now involved milking my cows and collecting eggs from my chickens before going off exploring, mining, or talking to Alex to make him marry me.

“My morning routine now involved milking my cows and collecting eggs from my chickens before going off exploring, mining, or talking to Alex to make him marry me.”

By autumn, our ‘hearts’ rating was high enough that I could go to the shop and buy a bouquet to present to him in order to express my fondness. The day I’d plucked up the courage, I’d arrived at his house to find him pumping iron in his room (standard). As always, he told me he was too busy to talk, but I thrust the flowers upon him anyway. He was flattered; thankfully told me he felt the same way (I’m not sure I could have coped with pixelated rejection). Suddenly, we were boyfriend and girlfriend – but he went right back to lifting his weights and not being able to talk to me. Huh.

I expected things to change between us now; perhaps he’d show me a little more affection, or maybe we’d have longer, deeper conversations about things that really mattered. Nope. He’d still only talk to me about the weather, or about his Sunday plans to play football. Well, I’d committed to this now, so I’d just have to put up with it.

With the mine completed, my main focus shifted on completing as many bundles as I could for the Community Centre. I’d already reaped several small rewards by this point, and at some point in Autumn I’d returned enough goods to repair the mine cart system that ran through town. It wasn’t a big improvement to my routine, but made it that bit easier to get around; now when I was mining late into the night, I could jump in the minecart to take me right back to my farm, making it much less likely I’d collapse from exhaustion somewhere on the way home. (It still happened occasionally, often right on my own doorstep.) My main goal though, was to repair the bus. I’d heard the bus travels into the desert, and in that desert was a new mine. A new mine meant new exploration and new loot – and that’s exactly what I wanted!

It was winter before I was able to rebuild the bus. That first journey into a new area was exciting; leaving the snow-laden lands of Pelican Town to explore a new, sandy location filled me with glee. It was short-lived glee, however. The desert was a fairly small area, and although it presented a couple of new secrets, there wasn’t a great deal to see or do. But I was here for the mine, and to the mine I went.

I think I lasted about five minutes the first time I went in. I hadn’t anticipated how much more difficult it was compared to the now familiar comfort of Pelican Town’s own mine. New kinds of enemies were much more resilient to my outdated weapons, and I didn’t come prepared with enough sustenance to keep healing myself. Worse, there was no fast-travel system here. In the town’s mines there was a lift that would let you travel to every fifth floor, once you’d already reached it, of course. Here, there was nothing. Every time I visited, I’d have to restart again from floor one. Great. I wasn’t sure if I had the patience for that.

I was given a mission to reach floor 25 of the new desert mine, and I was in no position to down a mission (and the promise of a “lofty reward” afterwards), so back to that blasted mine I went. This time I made sure I was stocked up with the best of my wares; the food and drink that was going to replenish my health the best. I went in with a new tactic: avoid the shit out of all enemies and find the way down as fast as possible. Somehow, it worked. Thanks to a few shafts that would send me down several levels at a time, I quickly exceeded floor 25. I think I reached about 32 before I had to retreat and make my way home. Victory was mine (no pun intended…).

“After a year and around 30 in-game hours with Stardew Valley, I had mixed feelings; I felt like I’d done most of what I could feasibly do in the game, but also like there were still so many secrets eluding me.”

Besides a very scarce amount of iridium ore (which, right now, I had no use for anyway), the harshness of the desert mine didn’t really yield anything that I couldn’t get from the later levels of my own mine, so I felt little need to return. I spent most of winter concentrating on my farm, expanding it the best I could, installing sprinklers ready to plant my spring crops, and expanding my barn and coop in order to keep new animals. Before long, I had four chickens, two ducks, five cows and two goats. I was making cheese and mayonnaise every day, and was making a tidy sum on my weekly trip to sell my goods. This farming malarkey wasn’t all that bad.

I’d nearly reached the elusive 10-heart relationship status with Alex, too. That only meant one thing: marriage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option in winter. Traditions are a bit, uh, bizarre in Stardew Valley. Rather than just popping the question, you have to wait until a mysterious man appears on the beach who can sell you a mermaid’s pendant. But he only appears on a stormy day – and winter has no stormy days. My impending marriage to Alex was going to have to wait until next year.

After a year and 30-odd in-game hours with Stardew Valley, I had mixed feelings; I felt like I’d done most of what I could feasibly do in the game, but also like there were still so many secrets eluding me. While I may have seen most of what the pretty little town had to offer, there were still things waiting for me to discover: I hadn’t been into the sewers yet; just who was the strange dwarf sat in the mines? What would happen once I got married? What will happen when I finally complete the Community Centre? What’s behind the Wizard’s strange little door?

I won’t give up until I’ve found all the answers.