At the start, Stardew Valley is a game with distinct flavors of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing.
It begins when your character decides to move onto a family farm to escape the humdrum everyday corporate life, swapping pencils for shovels and desks for freshly-tilled earth. During your first few days within the Valley, you’ll discover various parts of the local town and make friends with your fellow residents. You can romance the ones you take an interest in. You can fish. You can explore the land.
But soon, you’ll find yourself tangled up in seemingly unrelated events, such as spotting supernatural entities in the local shut-down community center, helping the town fight against corporate takeover, and learning strange languages with the help of an old hermit wizard.
The magic of Stardew Valley is found in how this all works together to create a bizarrely seamless experience. It combines elements of so many genres-RPGs, management sims, dating sims, etc.-into one package, with so many secrets and so much untapped potential that it becomes something much more interesting than its counterparts.
This weaving of conventions and mechanics broadens the canvas on which Stardew Valley paints its experience. It’s open-ended, allowing the player to tailor everything to their preferred method of playing. The game’s non-judgmental attitude and lack of a solid fail state reduces the pressure for points and accumulation, instead allowing the player to be carried by their own curiosity uninhibited.
What’s more, it expands the quaint, innocent narrative of Stardew Valley to tackle heavier subjects like corporate takeover, the crushing demands of capitalism and labor, and the necessity to remind ourselves of our own humanity.
Stardew Valley is the latest example in a long lineup of genre-blending games that redefined our ideas and crafted wholly unique experiences out of existing conventions.
Portal is perhaps one of the finest examples of genre-blending in a modern video game. Combining elements of narrative-driven first-person shooters with puzzles and challenges, it is an experience in which the player is no longer removed from a puzzle, but an active element within it, using the finely-crafted mechanics to pass through the various logic tests of a dangerous AI gone rogue.
Additionally, Portal’s narrative justifies its patchwork of ideas and mechanics, creating a fluid experience as captivating as it is challenging to complete.
Undertale is a unique part of the genre-blending game in that it combines ideas to ultimately subvert tropes and thumb its nose at conventional design. Bullet hell gameplay combines with an Earthbound-like atmosphere, meaningful character interactions are interspersed with absurdist humor, and the entire thing is a pastiche mixing into a bizarre blend of ideas.
Not every game has to completely chop up and sew together genres to set themselves apart, either. Fallout 4’s base-building mechanics granted the game an interesting extra layer with which players could customize and tailor their experience accordingly. It did nothing to alter the core identity of the Fallout games aside from giving players more options and providing a justifiable reason to collect random items within the world.
Although they’re strictly RPGs in virtually every way, BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series slip elements of dating sims into their narratives by allowing players to romance certain characters with whom they interact. Relationship elements in these games connect players to characters on a deeper level and have become so popular they’ve led to the creation of entire fandoms within their respective communities.
Franchises with a long, storied history will inevitably be called out for being ‘stale’ or ‘boring’ if they don’t do enough to evolve over time. Adding dashes of other games into your core design loop easily remedies this and grants a new coat of paint onto the existing product.
In literature, it’s said there are no new stories to tell; just new ways of telling them. It’s not likely we’ll see completely new and original genres emerge out of nowhere without borrowing ideas from others first. This is why games that blend genres so well are important, arguably even more so than their more straightforward counterparts.
By mixing new ideas with old, they’re creating the truly innovative experiences that could eventually build into sub-genres all their own, only to later be taken, chopped up, and mixed in to create new experiences in a never-ending cycle of innovation.