“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them… such is my idea of happiness.” — Leo Tolstoy
Several years ago, I bought a used copy of Rune Factory 3 on the way to an international flight.
The Rune Factory games are a fantasy-themed spin-off of Harvest Moon, the classic farming and village-life simulation series. Rune Factory takes the Harvest Moon model—rotate your fields, get to know your neighbors, grow crops, watch the seasons pass—and adds monsters, fighting, and an intensely anime aesthetic.
Rune Factory 3 isn’t a good game, but I wouldn’t call it bad, either. Rather, it is so deeply entrenched in genre cliche that the rules of “good writing” or “nuanced character development” don’t really apply. I picked it more or less at random, to keep me company over the turbulence.
One begins Rune Factory 3 by falling from the sky into a small village, where you wake up with amnesia in the arms of the mayor's daughter, Shara. Allowed to stay—in a giant treehouse, of course—your character is given basic tools like an axe and a water pot, and instructed to try farming some derelict land.
Farming is repetitive and tiring, both as a character and as a player. Each square of land must first be tilled, then planted and watered. Storms bring down debris from overhead, weeds populate empty squares, and large rocks must be moved or broken. It is difficult work and I barely manage to keep a quarter of my fields in production before my energy is depleted and I crawl back into bed each day.
Some days, I ignore my farming duties and walk to town. I slowly meet the villagers, a small community of shop-keeps, each with a one-dimensional character trait that defines them. Raven, the quiet one; Collette, the one who loves eating; Sophia, the rich one who talks in opposites; Daria, the artist. They joke with me and tell me about their lives here, and explain why they decided to be a cook or a blacksmith or a tailor.
As we get to know each other, they ask me to run them errands. I do my best, on the days that I have energy left over from farming. These tasks are often difficult—some of the villagers want things like silver rings, which I could never afford, or rare foods that I have never seen. More commonly, they ask me to fetch something from the wilds around town, fierce regions populated by dangerous monsters. If I run full-tilt through these spaces I can sometimes make it away with a particular herb, fruit, or stone before the monsters spot me.
Unsurprisingly, I fail to meet the desires of my new friends more often than not. But they always forgive me. They seem to know that what they want is near impossible.
Struggle and Repetition
As time goes on, our conversations become more personal. They tell me stories about their pasts and confide their fears and dreams. Hazel, the general store manager, is worried about her daughter Karina, who seems to show no interest in inheriting the store. A young and overeager witch named Marian is determined to make better medicine and be just like her grandmother Marjorie, the town matriarch. Pia, a mermaid who was adopted into the family that runs the hot springs, wonders what her biological family was like. A single dad named Blaise hopes he is doing alright at raising his two children alone. I feel like I have found real stories, hidden under the absurd premise of this place.
Years pass in the timeline of my village. I’ve finished my twelve-hour flight and well into my vacation, and I'm still playing. I've become friends with everyone.
I’ve never played a game that feels quite like this. Rune Factory 3 is actually engaged with the realities of daily subsistence in a small place. It doesn’t pull punches about the struggle and repetition of a hard life with the land. My tools are all rusty and my weapons don’t properly protect me. But this hardship is rewarded by moments of natural beauty as the seasons pass, and real intimacy with my friends.
We are all stuck here for different reasons—our children, our shops, our crops—but we have one another. Even though we might want valuables that our town cannot provide, we ask for them anyway and laugh, pretending—just for a bit—that they might be on their way. Although we struggle with legitimate difficulties in our private lives that may never change, there are the comforts of conversation and community. And despite the fact that the work is hard—and we all work so hard—we take time for festivals and birthdays. When I get sick or hurt, someone comes over with homemade medicine. They jokingly threaten to charge me next time, but they never do.
It is so rare to find a role-playing game like this. There is no plot, no mystery, no dragons, no romance, no treasure. I still don’t know who I am or where I came from: my amnesia is never resolved. But I know why I am here, and that is enough.
Finally, around hour thirty of playtime, the dialogue starts to repeat: my villager-friends have run out of things to say. I feel that I have spent as much of my vacation harvesting bell-peppers as I’d like.
An Orb in the Woods
It’s around this time that everything collapses.
I’m walking in the woods south of my village when I stumble across something atypical—a mysterious floating orb in a section of the woods I’d never seen. The screen goes white and I'm in a prerecorded cutscene where my amnesiac character regains a fraction of their memory.
“That’s right!” My character exclaims. “I’m half human and half monster!”
And then I transform into a yellow sheep.
Now, I don’t tend to use walkthroughs. I prefer to experience the story of a game without spoilers, and I generally won’t pull up internet guides unless I’m feeling bored or stuck. But immediately after the sheep-transformation, you can bet I would have been digging desperately for my phone, ready to use all of my international cell data to figure out what was happening. However, I had just boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad in rural Mongolia. I wouldn’t have cell service or Wi-Fi for another week. So I keep playing.
After the flashback, my character is human again. Back in town, I decide I’d best make the rounds, visiting my friends to chat just like every other time I’d had a problem. They’d know what to do. After all, we’d already been through so much together.
However, these interactions are decidedly strange. I run into Rusk, the only other boy my age in the village, who introduces himself like we’d never met. Next, his dad Blaise reminds me that he “runs the restaurant” and tells me to “come by for a hot meal every once in a while.”
I’m spooked. I know they know me—we’ve talked hundreds of times. I check my save file, thinking that perhaps, somehow, I’d started a new game. But everything else is in place. My fields, my house, my name—everything is as I left it.
Of course, I can’t help but wonder: Was the game written this way? Is Rune Factory 3 about finding a community, and then losing it? Is it about aging? About forgetting, and being forgotten?
It’s then that I speak with Collette, who blushes, asks if I’d like to join her on a walk, and then brings up the idea of marriage. I panic, politely excuse myself by again transforming into a sheep, and then repeat this interaction with every young woman in the village within twenty minutes.
No, I decide, it wasn’t written this way. Something is profoundly, wildly, off.
I remember that there is a menu that lists the villagers and our level of friendship on a zero to ten scale, which I’d long since maxed out for everyone. I pull it up to find that I am at a one with Rusk and Blaise (who just reintroduced themselves), a ten with every eligible bachelorette, and a zero with everyone else. Those zeros had forgotten me. But even those who remember me seem to remember me differently. Our relationships have changed overnight.
I go home to find an extra room in my house. Shara drops by and launches into tutorial mode, explaining that all of this extra space would be a perfect place for a workshop. I could make new tools and farming equipment! Expand my kitchen! Learn to sew!
Suddenly, it all makes sense. The impossible requests, the wildly difficult farming, the over-leveled monsters, the rusty tools, the non-upgradeable weapons, the dangerous wilderness, the villagers who claim they’ll charge me “next time,” the friendships that never became romantic, the lack of plot: I had been playing inside of an introduction sequence. I had built my whole life inside of the tutorial, and when I finally moved on, it triggered a waterfall of unstable behavior and glitches.
Deciding to see it through, I play the rest of the game. I explore the various regions, even meeting new monster-people that live in a town to the west. I upgrade all of my weapons and get my neighbors the rare and expensive treasures they had wanted. I tame some monsters to work my field for me. I rush through the rest of the storyline, uncovering my backstory and uniting the town of monsters with my village of humans. Eventually, I marry (Raven, the quiet one). We have a child. It is utterly unfulfilling.
In truth, I am homesick.
What made the tutorial space remarkable was everything it excluded: fighting, dating, taming monsters, crafting better weapons, the actual story. I loved the punishment of working the land with the minimum viable tools, the slow crawl of the seasons, and the attempt at surviving on so little. I loved slowly getting to know my neighbors without aim or goal, doing my best to help them while knowing that I mostly could not. I loved my tiny world.
The work was hard and tedious. But my friends, programmed for endless kindness as I oriented myself in this new place, were soft and generous and forgiving. They truly didn’t want anything from me but to see me succeed. We were all in it together.
I choose to remember them like this, from before we had an economy, romance, and answers. I remember them as they were: goofy, one-dimensional, and poorly written, but profoundly good.