Back on the Digital Farm: Part 1 Littlewood

Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.
Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.

2019 was a particularly rubbish year in our little house. We went through losing family members and job redundancies which pushed us into challenging times mentally and financially, which alongside all the other life stuff changed the way I was able to approach and play games – up until recently a major part of my life.

Having a high load of real-life stresses affects people in different ways. Personally, I get a terrible loss of focus – not great for gaming – and huge guilt that I should be doing something more useful, even if there is nothing more productive for me to do – even worse for gaming. So, at the bequest of my partner, I needed to get a few things back into my life that perked me up and would try and lift me out of my funk. Distractions from the wonders of navigating the welfare system and looking for work are important and being assured by my partner I was still entitled to some down-time I had a look to see what I might pick up to ease myself back into playing games more.

I have a thing for farming games, going right back to Harvest Moon’s eventual EU release in 1998. I had a second-hand Super Nintendo and no games other than Mario All Stars, Mario Kart and F-Zero when our little indie game shop guy suggested I get his only copy of Harvest Moon. I’d like to think it was because he knew it would be just the sort of thing I’d never try but would like if I did, more likely it was because in 1998 I was about the only person browsing his SNES section of games in his shop and he needed to shift new stock. Anyway, I got it and lost most of that year to it. When I got a GBA SP I bought HM: Friends of Mineral Town and lost weeks and months of time to that. Since then I’ve been snagged by the odd Rune Factory, 360 era Faming Simulator and later Stardew Valley. It’s something about a series of repetitive tasks, the drip feed of new crops, tools and things to do and, weirdly, an in game grind that I don’t mind all running together to make that “I’ll just get this thing done” feeling strong enough keep me hooked. I’ve fallen foul to a few farming games that don’t get the balance right and become as tedious as farming games sound to almost everyone who doesn’t play them.

So, when I was looking to find something to hook me back into a bit of mental down-time, and few of the more intense (or maybe just active) genres just didn’t help, I thought I’d try and go back to a bit of digital farming. I had played a lot of hours of Stardew on Steam before migrating to another boatload on the Switch (so as not to hog a screen for countless hours of sowing, watering and harvesting) and as often happens after one of my farming binges I got burned out on the genre for a bit. I found that I had a number of farming games accumulated in my unplayed pile on Steam so thought I’d pick a few and see how they were to get up and running over the next few weeks. To stop myself falling down the trap of just playing for playings sake guilt I’ve been suffering I thought I would look at the games against what I’ve enjoyed in this genre before and put the ramblings up here. Writing something that isn’t a personal statement on a job application is a mental godsend! And with that here are my thoughts on the first farming game I ploughed into.

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Littlewood is unfinished. I didn’t realise that as I idly clicked to start it up, after investing a good few hours I thought to read up about it a bit more and saw all the early access notices and updates. Usually I would have held off starting it until a full release but now that I was knee deep in the grind I thought it might be worth seeing how an early access farming game worked without all the systems balanced and the game loops that these games live or die by not quite refined to full release standard. And, after getting to the end of the first year, it’s much less early access than I anticipated but still a little way off being a full game.

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The first thing I really get from Littlewood is that it’s a game that seems to have been born from a Venn diagram of a number of other games. This particular one has Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing/Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past at the heart of it. It proposes that the adventures of a Link-like character have come to a close and it is now the time to rebuild the village and world after a destructive evil force has been vanquished. This setup also helps with usually inexplicable amnesia that all these games’ protagonists seem to suffer from and why everything has gone to pot, leaving you with the task of putting everything straight. The tone, backstory and graphical style draw from the SNES Zelda frequently and lovingly; making it easy for anyone familiar with that game to just hop right onboard the narrative ride it takes you on. The rest of the game seems to sit comfortably between the broad strokes of the Animal Crossing series with the slightly more focused aspects of micromanagement present in the Harvest Moon games.

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While Harvest Moon and Stardew offer many things to busy yourself with, whenever I play them the largest portion of my time is filled with the crops, animal care and the mining/foraging. Littlewood makes these tasks important but much less time heavy in the day to day routine of the game. This is achieved in part by simplifying the process required for these jobs – for example, once a crop is planted there is no watering or care, just a wait for it to be ready to harvest. The game also changes the mechanic many of these games use to push things along – the ticking clock of the day and the stamina bar are merged into one single countdown. So, any activity that uses stamina moves the day along, any that doesn’t, such as walking about, talking to folks can be done with no expense to the day. This takes such a lot of pressure off the game and made each day less about a feeling “of will I miss anything?” to a much more gentle stroll through the chores.

One thing that has already that got me hooked is a simple Hearthstone-esque card collecting game that on the surface has a nice level of complexity to it. Any farming RPG trying to get a bite of the market needs to have its hook that the others don’t have to set it apart from its peers. Littlewood might have just that in this card game. I’ve not ever really engaged in standalone card collecting games but I got hooked into this as much, not more than some of the more common aspects of the game. If this becomes a multiplayer function this game could really have more of a catch for me beyond getting the village and farm all spick and span.

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The grind of the game is pretty generous thus far – new crops, décor and items drop frequently enough to keep the player’s interests up and the other parts of the wider world that are available to visit offer a nice amount of variety given the early access status. Mining, forestry, trading and friendships are all present and correct along with bug gathering, museum donating and fishing – the cornerstone of any good farming RPG. The game never slips from being anything other than charming and the world is a place I found myself invested in making a better, and far more organised place.

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There is a definite point at which the game reaches the visible walls and barriers of being incomplete though. After a busy summer season, autumn is noticeably barren of events and change. Winter seems much less polished graphically than the other seasons and has less of an impact on changing the gameplay often seen in similar games. Then there is the frequent “insert text here” placeholders for certain achievements and signs that bar your entry from “soon to be added” locations. The developer seems very open with the game’s state (if unlike me you actually look at the discussion page before jumping in) and from looking over the blog it seems the updates and expansions come frequently. However, for games like this where they hang so much on that drip-feed of content, it makes it hard to recommend starting something that you know will be much more full experience should it be given time to get to full release.

Littlewood was like dipping my toes into the shallow end of the pool before committing to an actual swim. In hindsight, had I jumped straight into a game asking for a much longer commitment to see through to a feeling of achievement I might have found myself giving up. But, as a way to limber up to something asking a bit more dedication from me it has been a great starting point. Should the progress on this game continue on the trajectory it’s currently on I could see this being a really great title for PC owners that want that little bit of Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing in their life. Maybe even to Stardew levels of appreciation – especially if it is as mod friendly as Stardew is. Hopefully the wait for Littlewood to get to a finished state isn’t too far off but even like this there’s a few good hours there of lovely game to maybe be enough for some.

I hope 2020 brings more good times to everyone, although it seems to be determined to carry on with the vein of 2019 so far. Personally, I aim to get back a level of normality and, hopefully, employment that makes playing a game a treat again rather than a distraction from the actual daily grind. Until then I am off to pick a finished farming game from the backlog to move onto and test out the chore-factor of.

EDIT: A week after this blog an update added load more events to the game - although still a little light on content comapred to some RPG farming games the events are better spread through the year now.

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