My wife calls them “chore games.” Day-to-day life simulations such as Stardew Valley, Graveyard Keeper, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons celebrate the mundanity of routine, assigning you daily lists of menial tasks to perform and rewarding you for completing them with another day and another to-do list. Littlewood is most certainly another one of these chore games. Rather than weighing it down, Littlewood’s daily grind is leavened by a lean, focused approach to its various labors, the swift turnover of its day-night cycle, and a dash of mystery that elevates its charming setting.
Peace has spread across the land of Solemn in the aftermath of the defeat of a dark wizard. Leading the victorious band of adventurers was a great hero who, in classic video game protagonist tradition, is now suffering from amnesia. He or she cannot remember a single thing about the battle, the triumph, or life beforehand. Nonetheless, at the urging of the friends you apparently fought alongside, you are granted the tiny village of Littlewood and tasked with managing its recovery in a post-war world.
If this makes Littlewood seem a tad grim–a kind of gruelling bid for survival amid the ruins of civilization–don’t worry, it’s not. The tone is almost relentlessly cheerful. Your companions are quick to commend you for literally anything you do. Build them a house and they’ll thank you. Level up your fishing skill with a few trips to the nearby lake and they’ll offer hearty congratulations. Return from the mines with some stone and they’ll welcome you with a thumbs up; turn said stone into bricks at the furnace (which they could not be more grateful for you constructing for the village) and they’ll marvel at your talent for masonry.
In times like these, such enthusiastic displays of positivity are welcome. Honestly, it feels good to be doing something good–to be contributing to a community in a way that seems worthwhile and is clearly appreciated. Growing accustomed to the constant shower of praise took a little while, though. I admit I found it disconcerting at first, maybe even a bit weird. People typically aren’t this, I dunno, “up” all the time. But as Willow, Dalton, Lilith, and the rest of Littlewood continued to laud my achievements–Laura was particularly thrilled when I hit Level 30 in Bug Catching–my cynicism wilted in the face of their barrage of gushing sincerity.
Of course, I don’t think it’s arrogant to suggest the acclaim was thoroughly warranted. As the leader of Littlewood, you basically have to do everything to keep the place running. Quickly, you understand why everyone is so keen to hail your prowess. Littlewood has a tavern, for example–at least, it does once you have collected the materials required to build and then designated the exact spot on which it should be constructed. The tavern sells food to the villagers, but you’re responsible for cooking all the meals. You can pop in each day to prep some dishes (assuming you have collected the necessary ingredients) and pocket the dewdrops earned from the sale of yesterday’s dishes. Serving as village chef is surprisingly free of pressure, however. You can decide not to make any new food for a few days and no one seems to mind. In fact, they’ll leave polite requests on the town notice board for a particular dish and reward you handsomely whenever you deign to make it for them. In what may come as a shock to anyone who has worked in hospitality, your customers here possess endless patience and eternal gratitude. In this sense, Littlewood affords a heartening glimpse of a better world we perhaps don’t deserve.
A variety of other structures–marketplace, museum, general store, and so on–function in much the same way as the tavern, and your transactions at each maintain Littlewood’s centralized economy. Your exploits out in the nearby forest and quarry generate the raw materials needed to upgrade each building so that they can, in turn, provide you with a more efficient service. Your days are thus filled with decisions over whether to expend your daily energy limit on travelling to the randomly-generated cavern to hit some rocks, going to the randomly generated woods to chop down some trees, or staying home and pottering around catching bugs, plucking weeds or catching fish. Again, there’s no rush, really. Time is energy, and energy is only depleted when you perform certain resource-extracting or resource-creating actions. You can happily walk around the village and chat to everyone, even build a few items of furniture they might desire for their homes, and it’ll still be a bright new morning. The leisurely, unhurried pace alleviates the stress of never having enough hours in the day to do everything that these chore games so often elicit. Didn’t get all those planks of wood you needed to upgrade the cafe today? Don’t worry, you’ll knock ’em out tomorrow.
It wasn’t just the chill and positive vibes that enticed me to spend so much time in Littlewood, though they certainly helped. What cemented my love for the place is its heart. As the village flourishes, more people arrive seeking a new home and, for a variety of reasons, a fresh start. Some arrive intrigued by tales of the valor of the “great hero,” while others are no doubt lured by (surely not exaggerated) accounts of this legendary town planner and culinary whiz. Regardless, the people came, and for once it was I who was grateful.
Affection for my fellow comrades of Littlewood grew through talking to them every day. Do so, and you’ll realise they’re each written with a distinct personality, and the couple of lines of dialogue you get each day gradually reveal their individual stories. Sure, there’s repetition, but in much the same way you smile at an Animal Crossing villager yet again repeating a line, the recitation serves to reinforce their personality.
Conversations also allow you to compliment a villager, though you’re less effusive in your praise than they are and can only do so once per day. You can flirt with villagers and even go on dates with them once your relationship blossoms sufficiently. Even those toward whom you’re not romantically inclined can be asked to simply hang out, meaning they’ll tag along with you wherever you go and be a source of bonuses to whatever task you happen to be undertaking. I didn’t expect to form much of an attachment to these characters. They are, after all, merely tiny collections of un-voiced pixels. But attached I did become. I warmed to Lilith’s outsider status and the struggles she has fitting in. I adored Bubsy the bird’s oddball pomposity and Terric the knight’s quixotic gestures. And I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness over Willow and how she and I were clearly a thing before the great battle and now she remembers but I no longer do. Like all good video game writing, Littlewood extracts a lot from very little and leaves ample room for you to fill in the blanks.
While my heroic deeds set an example for the people of Littlewood, they returned the favour by encouraging me to take pride in the town. Once someone moves in, you can consult the desk (which, it should go without saying, you built yourself) in their one-room dwelling to reveal their design preferences. Many of these are simple requests for certain furnishings, the fulfilment of which entails obtaining the appropriate crafting recipe and materials, then building it for them. You might have to wait for the recipe to appear at the store or come up for auction on a daytrip to the big city, and it might be tricky to track down some of the less common ingredients, but the task itself is pretty straightforward. You can apply a touch of finesse at the end when it comes to placing the furniture in the house, but it’s not exactly an exercise in deep interior design.
The more interesting petitions involve whereabouts in town they ideally would like to live. Everyone wants to be near something they like or far away from something they don’t, and it’s up to you to make sure everyone is satisfied. Dudley wants to be near the cafe but well clear of the quarry. Maximilian has got to be near the air balloon platform and on the highest possible terrain elevation. You truly have to play town planner, and everything, from houses and shops to trees, flowers and rocks, can be picked up and moved wherever you like. Provided you have the raw materials, even the terrain itself can be manipulated, piling earth to raise hills, flattening out plains, and channelling new waterways.
I loved completing these tasks. On three separate occasions, as the competing requests piled up, I realised I could no longer address each one in turn; my makeshift efforts to improvise stopgap solutions were no longer cutting it. I had to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. I didn’t exactly demolish the village, but like working on a jigsaw puzzle, I moved everything to the sides and tackled the layout afresh. Not only did the vying villager preferences pose a series of problems that proved genuinely satisfying to solve on each occasion, the real revelation was how I then found myself wanting to continue the landscaping work–planting flowers here, sculpting the hills and valleys there, mapping out the footpaths and stream just so–to ensure Littlewood simply looked really nice.
You don’t have to do any of this. You can ignore the villager requests if you want–they won’t bring it up or give you sour looks as you sheepishly avoid them in the street. And you especially don’t have to bother with flowers or paths or any of that. But I wanted to. The people of Littlewood drove me to do it. I wanted to make Littlewood a lovely place for us all to live. And, at the risk of showering myself with compliments, I think I did a fantastic job of it, too.
My wife first used the phrase “chore game” when I bought her Stardew Valley several years ago. “Why did you get me this chore game?” she lamented. Weeks later she was busy filling out the community center with all kinds of weird and wonderful items. I feel much the same way about Littlewood. At heart it’s a checklist of chores. But it’s such a wonderfully warm, endlessly charming checklist of chores that when they’re all done, I’m not going to want to leave.