Friday, March 7, 2008

Life, Love and the Pursuit of Happiness

When I was in my early teens, I had a girlfriend who loved old swashbuckler films as much as I. A local 'art cinema' ran films that featured Errol Flynn and Ronnie Colman, among others, but our favourite film was 'Gone With the Wind'. We used to say that one could learn something new each time one saw 'Gone With the Wind', that it contained answers to almost every problem known to humanity.

One possibly could say the same of 'Harvest Moon', an incredible series of games made for many different platforms. The basic premise of most Harvest Moon games is the restoration of an old farm and the creation of a successful happy life in a fairly rural community. There is far more to it than that, however. The characters in Harvest Moon games are three-dimensional, and if one makes the effort, one can uncover their histories and secret aspirations.

An old Harvest Moon game entitled 'Back to Nature', originally made for the Playstation, was re-issued recently for the PSP platform under the title of 'Harvest Moon Boy & Girl'. As the title suggests, it allows one to assume the character either of a male or a female. I never played the original 'Back to Nature', but two games made for the GameBoy, 'Friends of Mineral Town' and 'More Friends of Mineral Town' featured the same characters and were similar in many ways. In the course of these games, one has the option of courting a number of eligible girls or bachelor (depending on the gender of the character you play), proposing marriage and ultimately having a child.

Why am I writing about Harvest Moon on this site when I have a site that is completely devoted to Harvest Moon? The reason is that it is not the game I wish to discuss but Life itself.

We tend to be egocentric, even in the games we play. I always assumed that the individual one plays in Harvest Moon is the central character in the game and, indeed in the village. This is often the case in games. The plots are such that one inevitably has the opportunity to become a hero and save either another person or the world. There are elements of that in Harvest Moon but it is far more subtle. Restoring the farm and becoming an integral part of the community will bring both material success and happiness but it is nothing dramatic.

Pondering the 'plot' of 'Back to Nature', now manifested as 'Harvest Moon Boy & Girl', I suddenly realised that my character really is NOT the protagonist of the story...

In fact, this is a tale about a disfunctional family and how broken hearts can be mended partially by the intervention of others, including oneself. Again, there is nothing truly dramatic about it, and many players focus so completely on their own lives that they fail to comprehend that the central tale is not about them at all!

The beginning of this realisation came when I gave Manna a gift for her birthday and she told me what she expected to receive from her husband. There are too many married couples whose birthdays are 'celebrated' in a similar fashion!

Duke and Manna own a vineyard and Winery in Mineral Town. They have one daughter named Aja, who is the axis upon which their world spun... In fact, their business is named the 'Aja Winery'. Aja, however, left Mineral Town a few years ago, bored with country life, dazzled by the 'bright lights' of the city. With her departure, the light went out of her parents' lives. Their marriage, formerly a good one, floundered. Duke became a drunkard. Manna, desperately lonely, became a chatterbox. Instead of supporting one another, they drew further and further apart.

It is at this point that your character moves to Mineral Town. There is another young stranger in Mineral Town, a young man named Cliff. He has his own secret tragedy to bear and spends most of his time in Church. He bears the weight of sorrow heavily on his shoulders. Despite the fact that he is nearly penniless, he does not wish to return home, as he cannot stand the prospect of facing the change that tragedy has wrought within his own family.

The game begins in Spring and by the beginning of Autumn, Cliff will confide that he is running out of money and will not be able to remain in Mineral Town much longer. If you have spoken to Duke and/or Manna frequently, you will have become aware of their family tragedy. In fact, there is an event at the Inn where you will find Duke drunk on the floor! You will have the option of taking him home to his wife.

The Innkeeper's daughter, Ann is interested romantically in Cliff. Players who wish to marry Ann themselves often perceive Cliff only as a threat to their plans. When Cliff confesses that he will be obliged to leave Mineral Town soon, these players mistakenly rejoice... In fact, in all Harvest Moon games, your 'rival' for any potential spouse will not succeed unless you are completely hopeless at making any effort at romance. Cliff therefore poses little threat to any player's designs on Ann.

There are many incidental characters in Harvest Moon and many sub-plots, but Duke and Manna are central to these games in my view.

Without going into too much detail here, the game offers a partial solution for the problems of all these unhappy individuals. The grape harvest occurs in the middle of Autumn. Duke will come to your house one morning to ask if you wish to help with the harvest. He offers to pay you for your labour and suggests that he could use even more help if you know any one else who might be willing to harvest grapes.

You now have the option of offering Cliff a part-time job at the vineyard. Again, a player who is obsessed with his/her own success may view Cliff as a potential rival in terms of wages made for harvesting grapes. Taking this attitude would be a mistake.

If you tell Cliff about the temporary grape-picking job, he will be able to stay in Mineral Town. Furthermore, Duke and Manna will offer him a regular job at the vineyard. In time, they will begin to view Cliff almost as a son and will dine together as a family at the Inn on Saturdays. Duke no longer will drink to excess and Manna no longer will be lonely.

The 'lost daughter', Aja does not return to Mineral Town, but there will be more contact by telephone and letter between parents and daughter. It is not 'happily ever after' but it is a decent life... and you will have made it possible through your actions.

One of the reasons I admire the creators of Harvest Moon so tremendously is the underlying philosophy of the games and the way players are encouraged to be a little less selfish. Most Harvest Moon games cannot be 'won'... creating a successful and happy life is the ultimate goal, and this is an ongoing project. There are games that have time limits but in most cases, you can continue your life indefinitely. In 'Harvest Moon Boy & Girl', marriage is optional. There is a three-year time limit in terms of restoring the farm to a specific percentage. In other words, you do not need to be the greatest farmer in the world, but you do have to make some effort! That is all that is required.

To me, though, the shift in perspective was enlightening. Realising that my character was not the most important in terms of plot somehow made me appreciate the depth of these games even more. The fact that these lessons are not beaten into you but must be discovered is very satisfying in intellectual and emotional terms.

The tale of Duke and Manna is a very common one. Marriages in the real world are not 'happily ever after' in many cases. A tragedy often can destroy the integrity of a partnership rather than bringing individuals close to one another. It is easier sometimes to withdraw into oneself, to seek salvation or a deadening of the nerves rather than continuing to participate fully in any community or family life.

The options that your own character is given demonstrate the need to scrutinise our own actions and not to respond defensively or selfishly to any situation that arises. Here there are two different elements: love and financial profit. In both cases, however, the best choice is the one that helps another human being. Your character does not lose anything by helping Cliff. The community becomes stronger, three people are given a chance for happiness and you still make a profit and have the choice of marrying Ann if you wish.

Too many players fail to recognise any of this, however. They choose NOT to offer the job to Cliff and then are upset later when they realise they have gained nothing by doing so and lost much. The game becomes much smaller if Cliff leaves Mineral Town at the start of the first Winter... Furthermore, if you do not marry Ann yourself, she is doomed to remain single in this scenario. You therefore could be responsible for the continuing unhappiness of four individuals if you do not have sufficient kindness in your heart to help some one in need when you are given the chance to do so!

In real life, of course, we do not have this sort of power most of the time. We can help others on occasion, but it does not guarantee any happy endings. Perhaps one of the great attractions of games like Harvest Moon is the sense of satisfaction as well as a knowledge that 'A' leads to 'B' and then to 'C'... There is no such certitude in real life. Mind you, even in Harvest Moon, a typhoon or severe snowstorm can wipe out most of the farm. One is not all-powerful and fate can be capricious as much in Harvest Moon as it is in Life.

1 comment:

Mountain Gnome said...

Dear Freyashawk

What a wonderful post! This is precisely why I love Harvest Moon SO much!