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Welcome to the latest installment of our new column, Memory Pak, where we’ll dive into some of the most memorable moments in gaming – good and bad. We hope you have some tissues handy because this one is going to be a little weepy.
People play Harvest Moon games for their peaceful, repetitive gameplay, where the seasons change, the crops grow, and the townspeople always stay the same. Nobody plays Harvest Moon to face death – but sometimes a spoonful of medicine helps lower the sugar.
I’ve been in love with Harvest Moon since playing A Wonderful Life on the GameCube. To put it in a way that non-Harvest Moon fans would understand that I’m calling Majora’s mask my favorite Zelda (which it is): it’s the only game in the series that really does things differently.
Most of these sedated pastoral farm life simulators focus on harvest and marriage, and everything else just goes into those two goals. Make money to buy things to make more crops for your girlfriend so she can marry you. If only real life was that easy, wouldn’t it?
I married Celia in my playthrough (which I shared with my little brother). No offense to Celia fans, but Celia is the most boring option of the three bachelors: Celia, Muffy and Nami. Nami is the city’s unpredictable tomboy with a heart of gold. Muffy is a bubbly, flirty blonde who runs the bar. Celia is the equivalent of too little toast. You should never trust a woman who falls in love with you just because you give her an egg a day.
But that’s not the point of this Memory Pak column, so enough about my marriage to regret. Once you’ve married someone in A Wonderful Life, the game jumps to Chapter 2 where you already have a child and who is already a toddler. But the game also kills Nina, Galen’s older wife, in an unexpected twist that makes poor Galen even more withdrawn and sullen than before.
(Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, however, isn’t the first game in the series to deal with death. That honor goes to Ellen in Harvest Moon 64, the 72-year-old who will die before you if you talk to her at the wrong time. 72 isn’t that old, Natsume.)
I must have been around twelve when I played A Wonderful Life – old enough to know what death is, but young enough that I never saw it, or even been close to it. My grandparents were all still alive, and the idea that one day would be the day I would never see them again was impossible to contemplate. Even now, after losing my grandmother and grandfather in recent years, it is hard to remember that a person who was so full of life just doesn’t exist anymore.
Of course, I hardly knew Nina. She dies after the first year of the game, and it’s an unexpected occurrence – most people would likely spend the first year farming, buying cows, and trying to coat one of the eligible girls. You may have visited Nina and Galen at their little house from time to time to give Nina a flower or Galen a fish, but when Nina dies it is far too late to befriend either. Galen withdraws from society and moves into a tiny hut on the hill, near which is Nina’s grave.
In life, however, Nina was the easiest person to befriend in Forget-Me-Not Valley. Harvest Moon relationships are tied to gift giving, and most of the villagers prefer very specific gifts. Nina loved almost everything: flowers, grains, milk, eggs, and fish were all things that would make her like you more. Sure, she didn’t like getting weeds, but who does that? Her serene manner and her friendly generosity made her an extremely lovable character.
Of course, that’s exactly what the writers wanted. If Galen, the unkind, sullen old man, had died, who would mourn him? He is prickly and sour unlike his cute, soft wife. If you visit her grave after making friends with her widower, you can polish it up – and her ghost will come out to thank you. Even in death, Nina is a treasure.
If you play A Wonderful Life long enough, your gamer and family will eventually age too. The game ends with the death of the pawn you have played in the game for 30 years and who passes the reins on to his son. Most Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons games let you play forever, and nobody ever ages and nothing ever changes (except for marriage and children, who most of the time don’t grow up either). For the first time, A Wonderful Life kicked you out – something most games never do. In a way, that made it perfectly bittersweet. Isn’t it best to always leave the party early?
I can’t say that Nina’s death or even my own (in A Wonderful Life) set me right to death. For some reason, my first existential crisis was on New Years Eve 1998 – which I remember mostly because of the weird timing and also being in bed at 11 p.m. while my parents, aunts, uncles and older cousins partied loudly downstairs – As Nina stepped into the bucket, it was already clear to me that everyone I had ever known, including me, wouldn’t last forever.
But games have always been a safe haven. Death is always only a slight inconvenience that is quickly remedied and revived through safe conditions. It’s never real. It is never forever. Well, except for Fable II, where I have to choose between the life of my dog and my friend. People always come back and stay with you. It is hard to deal with mortality in life. I have a hard time really understanding the concept that I will never see my grandparents again – they will always be out of sight in my mind. But life changes and the world moves on and some people are left behind. That doesn’t mean they were never there, and it doesn’t mean we’ll forget them.
Nina was always just a bunch of polygons on a screen, but her mark in the world of Harvest Moon: A wonderful life is the mark we will all one day leave on this world – and I think I want to be remembered as that Kind of person who fills the place with sunlight and smiles just like them even on a rainy day.