I find myself battling COVID-19 for the third time in less than two years. Whenever illness has confined me to my bed, my source of solace has been gaming. Back in 2009, I delved into the world of Assassin’s Creed II while battling the swine flu in a feverish haze. When I first contracted COVID, I immersed myself in Red Dead Redemption 2, stumbling upon a tale of sickness and human mortality. Now, in the midst of one of the most exciting years in recent gaming history, I’m snuggled under the covers, not with Starfield, Spider-Man 2, or any other blockbuster autumn releases. Instead, my gaming companion by the bedside is a charming Apple Arcade exclusive known as “Japanese Rural Life Adventure.”
I stumbled upon this hidden gem thanks to an X account that tweets about upcoming indie games. A single glance at “Japanese Rural Life Adventure” was all it took to convince me to give it a try. The game boasts a stunning pixel art style and a tranquil setting reminiscent of anime classics like “Only Yesterday” and “Wolf Children.” What I didn’t anticipate was the heartwarming narrative centered on the significance of community.
In its initial hours, “Japanese Rural Life Adventure” unfolds much like titles such as Stardew Valley and other farming simulations from the past two decades. The game’s protagonist arrives in the countryside to discover their new home in a state of disrepair, with nearly every corner of the surrounding fields overgrown with weeds. Yet, after a familiar beginning, the game reveals its true essence.
Unlike most other games in its genre, Japanese Rural Life Adventure takes a distinctive approach by not offering any romantic partners for the player’s character to pursue. Almost everyone you encounter in the game is elderly, and they often express their physical discomforts, mentioning aching bones, bad backs, and the bleak outlook of a future with no young people to carry on their community’s traditions.
Takeo Fujita, the founder of GAME START, the developer behind Japanese Rural Life Adventure, shared with me via email, “I was born and raised in a big city, and I have no memories of playing in rivers or climbing mountains. I have no older relatives living in the countryside. In other words, you could say that the ‘gentle and simple countryside’ portrayed in Japanese Rural Life Adventure comes from a sense of nostalgia I experienced while watching Japanese TV dramas and reading manga.”
This longing for a simpler life permeates Japanese Rural Life Adventure, not only in its setting but also in its gameplay mechanics and scale. Despite the hours I’ve invested in the game, I haven’t become a farming tycoon. At most, I can manage four fields for growing rice and produce, along with a handful of fruit trees. There’s only so much “work” your character can do in a single day, and the in-game days, when compared to Stardew Valley or recent Harvest Moon entries, are notably longer, contributing to the feeling of a more leisurely pace of life.
Japanese Rural Life Adventure consistently encourages me to slow down and savor all it has to offer beyond farming: fishing, bug catching, cooking, and wildlife photography, each accompanied by its own enjoyable mini-games. Sometimes, I would simply let my character relax on the front porch, observing a cherry blossom tree shedding its petals or basking in the glow of fireflies at night.
Initially, Japanese Rural Life Adventure confines players to the limited area surrounding their farm. Progressing in the game typically involves aiding others, which often unlocks new sections of the game. Before I could purchase seeds to cultivate my first batch of cucumbers and daikon radishes, my initial task was to construct a bench for an elderly peddler woman to have a place to rest. After completing several early game objectives, such as partially restoring a local Shinto shrine, the nearby town becomes accessible.
Upon your first visit, the town is in a state of disrepair. The streets are overgrown with weeds, and potholes mar the roads. Most buildings are deteriorating, and the younger generation has long departed, leaving the town on the brink of becoming a ghost town.
Remarkably, this town serves as the beating heart of Japanese Rural Life Adventure. While exploring it, I encounter the village head, who entrusts my character with the task of reviving the dilapidated roads and structures, which include a Buddhist temple and a schoolhouse, all with the hope of attracting tourists to rejuvenate the local economy.
This unexpected twist in Japanese Rural Life Adventure resonated deeply with me. In Japan, declining birth rates and one of the world’s oldest populations threaten the existence of rural life as it’s traditionally known. A 2019 Bloomberg article, citing data from the Japan Policy Council, succinctly underscores the gravity of the situation: “If current trends persist, by 2040, 869 municipalities—nearly half of Japan’s total—will be at risk of disappearing.”
Takeo Fujita of GAME START clarifies that their intention wasn’t to create a game focused on the challenges faced by Japan’s rural communities or the aging population. He explains, “When developing games, we do not delve into challenging themes such as vanishing rural communities or population aging. We believe that games should provide enjoyment and serve as an escape from everyday life.” He adds, “‘Growth’ and ‘development’ are elements that can make a game appealing to potential players. Therefore, we incorporated ‘village regeneration’ as one of the game’s themes.”
Games like Japanese Rural Life Adventure, to some extent, all have a shared interest in fostering a sense of community. It’s a fact that many people adore games like Stardew Valley because of Pelican Town and its quirky and delightful inhabitants. However, Japanese Rural Life Adventure distinguishes itself by placing the community at the forefront, channeling almost all of the player’s actions towards the betterment of its unnamed town, a unique approach within the genre. This focus on community is what injects a fresh and captivating quality into the game.
Consider the restoration project I mentioned earlier. While the village head compensates the player for completing the tasks assigned, the money earned often only covers the expenses for the next repair. What proved more fulfilling was witnessing the tangible outcomes of my efforts. The culmination of the project is a grand summer festival that necessitates a significant investment of both time and money from the player. Before I could even begin preparations for the event, I had to painstakingly restore and repaint the torii gates of the temple where the festival was to be held. Additionally, it was my responsibility to craft the 21 chochin lanterns needed for illumination. Although this task consumed several hours of my time, the reward was a stunning nighttime celebration that felt like the culmination of all my endeavors up to that point. Winning a young koi fish to release in the pond in front of my house was an added bonus.
Japanese Rural Life Adventure may not boast a great deal of mechanical complexity. Watering plants involves a simple tap, and most other tasks revolve around foraging or purchasing the right items. What it excels in is its heartfelt approach. And that was precisely what I needed.
Japanese Rural Life Adventure is currently accessible on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV.