The rise of the pastoral in videogames

The romance of pastoral life has long held a curious power over the human imagination. Most date the beginnings of the pastoral as a literary mode back to Greek and Roman poems that describe idealized versions of a shepherd’s life in the countryside. The mode has evolved greatly since then, but pastoral works remain relatively simple to spot: think golden fields, rural folk living in a simple communion with nature, and an implicit longing for a lost way of life.

William Blake’s “The Shepard” is a go-to example; Leo Tolstoy’s descriptions of rural life in Anna Karenina, often done through the lens of the author’s alter-ego Constantine Dmitrich Levin, offer a more nuanced but undeniably pastoral example as well. For Levin, hard labor mowing grass with cheerful peasants (a pastoral phrase if there ever was one) provides an almost transcendent experience:

The longer Levin mowed, the more often he felt those moments of oblivion during which it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and neatly done on its own. These were the most blissful moments.

It’s a mode that seems inherently at odds with videogames. They are, after all, of the digital age; created on heat-spewing electronic machines, often a vast distance from any sort of natural landscape. The aesthetics and values of modernity and futurism are also at center-stage for most games. They are often frenetic, fragmented, complex affairs: all descriptions that would never be used to describe a pastoral work.

Yet there are a few that seem to tap deeply into our desire to escape to a pastoral paradise. Not surprisingly, they’re often quite simple: Farmville, the popular iOS game Hay Day, and Harvest Moon series being perhaps the best examples. For these games, the feeling of escape to a simpler, easy life is the main draw. All three feature a heavily stylized, bright, and cheery aesthetic: every character brings a smile, the crops are always perfect icons rather than unique produce, and the animals are happy to be doing their duty. The games revolve around similar tenets: the player is rewarded at almost every opportunity, a gradual and linear way forward is always made available, and the land is bountiful.

In a way, the games play into what Terry Gifford describes in his work Pastoral (The New Critical Idiom) as a pejorative use of the eponymous term. He explains how many literary critics use “pastoral” as a way to point to works that would be “judged to be intolerable by the criteria of ecological concern.” In other words, “the pastoral vision is too simplified and thus an idealisation of the reality of life in the country.”

It’s easy to level this criticism at games like Harvest Moon; in fact, it’s obvious that the games were explicitly designed to be idealized versions of rural life. Farmville and Hay Day in particular were built on free-to-play financial models: taking advantage of the pastoral’s romanticized view of life in the country are critical to the games’ financial success—simple responsibility, linear progression and the sense of easy and ever-present reward all work perfectly within this system.

When things are going right, Banished is an almost zen-like experience.

Of course, not all games take such a pastoral (in the pejorative sense of the word) look at rural life. Last year’s Banished takes a much more nuanced approach that escapes immediate classification as pastoral, but nonetheless bears many of the mode’s trappings. The name itself has a much more sinister tone than the cutesy Farmville or Hay Day—your people are not living in this wild setting by choice. The visual style is much more dull and realistic as well: browns and greens are your friend in this one.

Still, there are some suggesions that Banished remains within the pastoral mode. There is no conflict; your people live simple lifestyles of work, church, and honoring the dead; any crop imaginable can be grown; and the pace at normal speed is frustratingly slow. The interface itself is starkly utilitarian, and as a whole the game is much simpler than its city-building brethren such as SimCity and Impression Game’s City-Building Series.

When things are going right, Banished is an almost zen-like experience. Your crops grow and are harvested with the seasons, your villagers bustle about their daily activities on their own accord: it is at times like this when Banished feels more poetically pastoral than the much more obtuse Farmville or Harvest Moon ever could be. One can almost imagine Levin among the workers, threshing the fields as he melts into his labor.

But then reality hits. Mass starvations are par for the course in Banished, particularly when the player is first learning the patient approach to population management required by the game. As your town grows, what once seemed like copious resources suddenly begin to dwindle. Forests and above-earth iron and stone quickly disappear as you’re forced to harvest what is available to keep your town alive.

What was once a pastoral landscape, full of opportunity, natural life, and abundant resources, eventually becomes stark and industrialized. It’s a brutal transformation, and only careful management and slow sustainable work can keep your town from certain death.

As a whole, Banished serves as a response to the more gimmicky pastoralism of Farmville, Hay Day, and Harvest Moon. Where resources are unending and the people and animals always healthy and happy, Banished is an important reminder that traditional rural life is not the idyllic escape less nuanced pastoral games present: it is, as Thomas Hobbes famously put it, “nasty, brutish and short.”

Banished’s reminder is strikingly similar to Sir Walter Raleigh’s response to Christopher Marlowe’s seminal pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” which features a shepherd singing the simple pleasures of the rural life to woo a nymph. In Raleigh’s clever poetic response “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepard,” he lampoons Marlowe for the idealism of his descriptions, making sure to emphasize the dangers and ever-present mortality of life in the fields:

“The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall”

Of course, death and suffering have no place in the pastoral visions of Hay Day, Farmville, and Harvest Moon. As with Marlowe and many of the Romantic poets of the 19th century he influenced, the pastoral of these games serve more as an escape from the complexities of technology and modernity than as a realistic depiction of rural life.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the pastoral mode often rises in popularity at times of great technological progress: it began in Rome and Greece at the peak of Western antiquity’s technology, returned with the Renaissance, and arguably saw its greatest moments in the post-Industrial Revolution Romantic movement.

It’s not very surprising, then, that in the midst of the digital revolution we have seen the rise of a kind of over-the-top pastoral in games like Farmville—we may long for an escape to the idyllic life of the shepherd and the farmer now more than ever. Yet, like Raleigh with Marlowe, we have Banished to show us that these idyllic pastoral works are often more fantasy than reality: traditional rural life has its virtues, but there is a dark underbelly of fragility behind the bright, smiling faces of our virtual farms.