An Unwinnable Video Game Taught Me How to Write Endings
You can keep playing Stardew Valley forever—and that helped me confront my fear of wrapping things up
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
My Stardew Valley avatar looks just like me — brown hair, bangs, blue eyes, dark t-shirt and jeans. I decided to try this video game to help me relax and cure my recent writing burnout after a semester in my nonfiction MFA program, where I struggled to write a single satisfying ending to anything I produced. I pick up the game one lazy weekend morning, playing my boyfriend’s copy on his Switch while he made us breakfast. Unlike writing, this farming simulator game has a discrete, understandable set of goals. So it makes sense that the character I’m piloting through this world, harvesting crops and catching fish, is meant to look just like me.
My writer’s block manifests this way: I start essays with no sense of how they should end. I am convinced I have so much to say, when in truth my work constantly comes to a screeching halt with no conclusion. Perhaps this could be blamed on a lack of confidence in my own essays. Or it could be that so much of writing, especially personal essays, depends on themes, ideas, or stories that have really happened to me converging into something profound and meaningful. Of course, not everything in life ends with the sort of poignant and emotionally satisfying ending that befits a personal essay. Or maybe I didn’t have the sort of perspective needed to finish these essays.
The opening sequence of Stardew Valley shows my avatar’s grandfather on his deathbed: he hands me an envelope, which I don’t open immediately. It cuts to my avatar working in a large, drab corporate office. My avatar takes Grandpa’s envelope out from a desk drawer and opens it to discover that he has left me the deed to a farm property, for when I need to escape the doldrums of everyday life. My avatar hops on a bus to a rural town to start a new life. I’d also lost two grandparents in the past year. They hadn’t left me property, but I was intrigued that the game began with a loss and the feeling of being stagnant at an office job. One life ending, another life beginning. I too, had left the doldrums of a corporate job to return to school to become a better writer, though that sense of renewal was in some ways true and in some ways false.
In the game, two characters from town “escort” me to the farm where I am left to fend for myself. I run around to check out the virtual property, overgrown with weeds and rocks and trees, which I cut down or bust open with tiny pixelated tools in order to clear enough dirt to plant the six parsnip seeds the game starts you off with.
“Is there something wrong with the food?” my boyfriend asks.
I didn’t notice he had left a full plate of scrambled eggs and toast for me. He had apparently left me a mug of coffee at some point, but I didn’t notice that either. I say nothing and keep going. Lifting my head from the screen was like coming up for air after diving deep underwater. I ate quietly, then bent my head back down to the screen again. He laughed. “I’m just glad you like the game.”
Ending an essay, or finishing any piece of art, is a challenge because it is an exercise not only in control and mastery of a story, but control of the reader as well. To end a work is to know what I as the writer want the reader to take away from the story. In nonfiction, it can be hard to know (a) when something truly ended or could be considered over, and (b) how best to express that to the reader in a way that is believable. My life hasn’t ended, and much of what I write about — my body, my anxiety, my perfectionism, my insecurity — are ongoing struggles. How can I end what may never end for me? How can I possibly conclude my essays effectively when life itself is nothing but an ongoing narrative?
Writing an ending entails not only drawing conclusions, but trying to weave and connect themes and ideas in ways that don’t feel forced. As a writer, I have to maintain a lot of creative control. There’s a need to know a sense of the structure necessary to support an ending, and even a sense of forward momentum that must be built into every sentence towards said ending. But without knowing where the essay will lead, it’s impossible to know how to execute structure, syntax, or narrative arc. While this level of creative control feels natural when I begin an essay, maintaining that control can feel taxing by the end of the work, or worst of all, irrelevant. I worry that what I have to say in the end isn’t all that compelling.
In an attempt to figure out what kinds of endings I like in nonfiction, I immediately thought of Aristotle’s line from Poetics, that the best endings are “surprising, yet inevitable.” The writer must build the narrative to a near-fated conclusion that still, somehow, startles the reader in a satisfactory way.
Stardew Valley dodges all of these questions. The gameplay is continuous. Many gamer YouTubers plug programmer “mod” alterations into the game’s code to see how far in time their avatars can live. What they have discovered is that there’s no end to time in Stardew Valley. This means I can keep playing, keep planting, keep talking up villagers, attend the same holiday gatherings complete with the same dialogue and activities year in and year out. Aside from a cut scene in a player’s third “year” of farming where the grandfather’s ghost “evaluates” your progress, there is no ultimate achievement or goal to work towards. Some players consider this the “end,” but from what I can tell from forums online, many continue playing far past this point.
Stardew Valley is a farm game, but farming is not the only way in which I can interact with this virtual world. There’s a larger narrative happening within the town that I, as a player, can take part in. In addition to the farming component, the farm is located within a town full of 28 characters I can interact with. Each character has their own storyline and interests. Players can raise livestock, virtual immortal animals, forever producing eggs and milk and wool. The animals never die and so my attachment to them is infinite. The game feels like writing a fictional story that never has to end, whose characters I never have to say goodbye to. If I’m unhappy with how something is progressing, or the way something was done, I can merely restart.
Eric Barone, the game’s creator, adds new character storylines, new items, new quests, and it doesn’t seem likely that he will stop any time soon. My avatar won’t age in the game and neither will any other character. All mistakes can be fixed or smoothed over. This is a life you can tune into at will and stay for as long as you want. Perfectly controlled and controllable. Unlike any other kind of content I create or consume, I can stay in this forever. For a time, this idea provides a balm to my writing woes. Rather than stay stuck in my frustration all I have to do is restart the game and, presto, I can start over again without compromising the rest of my progress, without sacrificing the game as a whole. Here, I am in control of my non-endings.
Perhaps my fascination with Stardew Valley and its lack of a conclusion can be traced to the amount of creative ambition and control needed to build a world that supports itself for that long. Not only does it invite the player in, but it also allows the player to enter into the game for however long they desire. There is no need for themes and ideas to converge, no need for a poignant end that will stay with the reader after they finish the work. Call it envy, or call it laziness, but my obsession with this game might be related to my resentment of the fact that writing has to end. That I can’t just write so well I can invite the reader into my life permanently, so they can see for themselves how it plays out. Let them draw their own conclusions.
Nonfiction endings require a sort of closure, even if the issue is not, or cannot be, resolved. How many of us can say they have closure in all areas of their life? By never writing endings, I never have to sum up the parts of me I may be afraid to examine or admit to. I never have to find a structure to hold my own uncertainty.
I stop writing when I play Stardew. If the game is on, I tell myself that I am making a new story, albeit within the confines of the Stardew Valley universe. The real-life physical and emotional tension I have been feeling when I write dissipates. My clenched stomach relaxes. I can even feel my breathing slow down. My dreams are more creative, and I am more likely to write them down.
Perhaps my issue writing endings is the fact that many of the typical ways to write one doesn’t seem to work for me. No matter how I look at my work, I can’t figure out what I want the reader to take away at first. The essays I’ve been most proud of were often exploratory: here’s an important moment in my life that I want to delve into, and here’s where it began. But how to know where it ends? And what if I feel differently about this time in my life a year from now, or 10 years from now? Stardew Valley never asks these questions of me. It merely allows me to keep trying things, keep exploring, for as long as I want. The game’s creator continues to add to the game after receiving feedback from players. Writers rarely get the chance to go back to a work and rewrite it with new perspective once a work is published.
I could make the endings of my essays loop all the way back to the beginning, but this feels too neat. Not all things in life loop as perfectly as the day-to-day world within Stardew Valley, and even when they do, it can feel unsettlingly neat as a reader. Surprise endings feel like cheating, withholding information from the reader for a cheap trick, betraying their trust in me as a writer. A cliffhanger merely seems pointless. If I know how something ends, I ought to just share that ending, or even the smallest closure, with my reader. This all leads me to fold in on myself and on my work, so tangled up that I stop my own writing process before it begins. The few times I do attempt to write instead of playing Stardew, I sit at my desk and tense up as I approach what I think will be the conclusion of an essay or a revision, doubting every choice I make as to how to leave this creative project and call it “done.”
After a few weeks of intensively playing Stardew after work, the game begins to make itself apparent in my body. I primarily play on my laptop, and the muscles in my left palm begin to fatigue quickly. There’s an ache in my wrist that radiates from leaning on my keyboard with too much intensity. I massage it softly with my right hand, my fingers exploring the soft tissue and tendons so unused to this level of work. Finger muscles also grow stiff, cramped. A pain builds at the back of my neck, grows roots down into my shoulders. These small, corporeal reminders of it stick with me even after I quit the game and eat a meal, take a shower, go to work, go to the gym, go to sleep.
How should I interpret this? As evidence I have internalized the game? I have never played a game so much that it has manifested itself bodily. My anxiety about writing has gone down, but my body has now latched on to new symptoms, new aches and pains, different from the ones before I began playing Stardew.
The game is now, in fact, becoming stressful. At some point I realize that even the most ongoing narratives must end. Even Stardew Valley.
Writing calls me. It always has. Like all indulgences I take part in, the game is calmative until it is overdone, and then it loses its luster, becomes yet another source of anxiety. After all, an escape is only an escape when there is a normalcy to return to. Everything must end because we, as human beings, crave closure.
The game needs to end for me. At least for now. After work one day, I go to the library and take out a book to read on the subway ride home. The print is nice on my eyes, the pages soft on my hands. Reading feels exciting again. The act makes me want to delve back into my own writing. Though I feel an urge to open my laptop and play the game as soon as I get home, I resist that urge.
I begin writing again slowly, revisiting old work and reading revisions from peers. Instead of seeing my essays as unresolved messes, I begin to see them anew: as beginnings, first stages in the lengthy writing process. Suddenly revising and rewriting feels like an opportunity to visit familiar stories I haven’t encountered in a while. Their endings feel more obvious, or at least more accessible, with the gift of distance. And unlike Stardew, sometimes the structure my personal essays take, and the conclusions they eventually reach, are surprising even to me.
I revise my work in small bursts to the best of my ability for the rest of the summer. The periods of time I spend writing gradually grow longer. I sink myself into a flow state, not unlike what I’d done while playing Stardew Valley. New ideas for work begin to pop into my head naturally, as if they’d never stopped. I had no need to revisit the game because my own creativity was flowing naturally again, slowly but surely.
Getting back into writing after a long break is always terrifying. But like any essential skills, the words return. My fingers still know the place of every letter on the keyboard. It is easier now to know when to end my essays, and less intimidating to rip them apart in order to find a structure to support the shapes my work must take to reach a satisfying end. I continually remind myself that, even when one essay ends, the flow of one’s writing can remain an infinite force, one I can tap into whenever I am ready.