I had a farm in real life, so why can’t I get my head round these grow-your-own video games? – The Guardian

Some men buy a Harley-Davidson when they reach their midlife crisis. I bought a farm in Nova Scotia. It devoured our savings and we ran out of money after a year. But that year was the happiest of my life. So gentle. So natural. So simple. Thirteen years later, with stress kicking my arse daily, I want to go back to that life, but I now have only a tiny city garden. When Farming Simulator 22 turned up on Xbox Game Pass, I felt favoured by the gaming-dad fates.

The title screen bursts with bucolic farm life, all full fields and a happy little tractor. It hits me right in the calms. But the intro video has an aggressive-looking dude talking over a thumping blues track about how you have to fight for the right to smell the morning dew, and pick yourself up when you fall, because “this is not a game, it’s a calling” – which suddenly makes it seem about as bucolic as Escape from Tarkov.

I opt for medium difficulty, because I have already been a farmer. The game starts, and I find I can run, crouch and jump. But, rather embarrassingly, I can’t work out how to do anything else. I access a help menu that is so confusing, I need another help menu to understand it.

Kid #1 comes by and says: “This looks complicated, Dad. You should try Stardew Valley instead.”

“Hey! I’ve actually had a farm.”

“I know Dad. We were there.”

I wait until she leaves the room and then restart in easy mode. I still can’t work out how to do anything. I have never felt such gaming paralysis in my life. Google reveals that new players really should use the in-game tutorial, but I can’t even find that. Another online search reveals that the tutorial is available only on two of the three locations, a fact that the game itself helpfully withholds.

I think these cows have a better idea of what’s going on here than I do … Farming Simulator 22
I think these cows have a better idea of what’s going on here than I do … Farming Simulator 22. Photograph: Giants Software

Another restart. Kid #2 enters. “Hey Dad, you OK? You should try Stardew Valley. It’s way more chilled than this.”

“I had a real farm!” I shout.

Having finally found the tutorial, I get stuck into it. This is better! I succeed in climbing into a tractor. Can’t do anything it tells me to do, though. Finally, I realise I am in the wrong tractor. Once in the correct one, I hitch bits to it and plough and harvest with giddy abandon. Then … the tutorial just stops. Dumps me without even asking if we can still be friends. With about 90% of the game still unexplained. I feel as if I’ve just had the stabilisers whipped off my bike on the crest of a steep hill.

Back I go to online guides and tutorials, but even then the array of menus and information in this game is so confusing. It’s like trying to play a combination of Monopoly and Microsoft Flight Simulator, with all graphics replaced by tax forms in Cyrillic. I think I see land that needs cultivating on the map. I take my cultivator there. But it doesn’t let me cultivate because I don’t own the land. Does it tell me how to buy it? Course not. After another 10 minutes searching the internet, I find out how to do this, and then find out I don’t have enough money.

My Nova Scotia farm had a flower meadow and vegetable plots I dug out by hand. I had tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, beans, cabbage, sunflowers and an actual corn maze. I learned how to do all that from two books and some chats with the locals. In this game I can’t do anything without spending an hour online: it’s like those nightmares where you are on stage in the middle of a play, and nobody has given you a script.

Kid #3 enters. “Hey Dad, you know, if you want to play an easier game …”

“All right! I’ll play Stardew Valley!” I scream.

And a gaming miracle happens. The opening screen asks me to enter a name for me, a name for my farm, and my favourite thing. I put “PANTS” down in each box. This game is so much more fun than Farming Simulator 22 already.

The game begins as my dying grandad bequeaths me a farm with the words, “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness.”

Wow. This is the first game that really knows me. It’s staring into my soul.

This farm is so much more welcoming. It is super-easy to plant things and have them grow, even on the hard level where monsters come out at night, which I chose as a tribute to my Nova Scotia farm, where my 30 chickens were slowly stolen by coyotes and, in one incredibly dramatic case, by an eagle right in front of my eyes.

It is easy because you can learn everything you need to know by looking at a journal and chatting to people. It is exactly like farming in Nova Scotia.

It may be ridiculous that a fifty-something dad is playing a game this juvenile, but it is gentle, simple and joyful. It is everything my life was back in 2009. I think this is the calmest a video game has ever made me feel. And breathe …


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