Harvest Moon is a series that has been popular for years, yet its popularity is somewhat puzzling. While I have played enough of the series, I have yet to really figure out what its appeal is or why I find myself drawn back to it every few years.
As I work on reviewing Rune Factory 2: A Fantasy Harvest Moon, I find myself getting frustrated by the monotony presented in the game. Every day, doing the same mundane tasks, it makes me feel like I'm playing Real Life: The RPG, and yet, somehow I keep playing in hopes that one day the game will somehow change and that I will be able to woo a beautiful young woman into becoming my wife. For me, I believe this is where appeal comes from. The game isn't all about farming, or making monsters do your busy work, its about finding "true love".
Even though Rune Factory has a "battle system", there's no actual depth to it, it's just a guy running around hoping to make the first attack so that he can either befriend a monster or kill it in hopes that there was a prize inside. While each game has their differences, they ultimately all draw back to the series roots – farming and wife finding.
Every year, Natsume continues to add a new game to its long running franchise, and every year people keep coming back to see what changes have been made. Even if the setting has changed, the games ultimately remain the same: you farm, harvest, befriend the town locals, and find yourself a bride. On the surface, these tasks sound mundane and uninteresting, but there's something within these goals that keeps people playing. You wonder when the crops will harvest, or which girl has the hots for you – these types of things provide a "plot" of sorts. Let's face it – these games all tend to start the same way, and I believe that gamers do not play Harvest Moon for any sort of "plot".
I suppose what keeps me playing Harvest Moon or Rune Factory is that I treat the games like they are a soap opera. Considering the games give you a skeletal "idea", there's no major depth to them, and as someone who needs plot, I find its often easier to make up my own and see what I can do to give personality to my amnesia ridden protagonist. In some cases I've imaged that one of my protagonists had terrible luck in love, and that he was too stubborn to buy any of the bachlorettes expensive gifts because he thought it was appropriate to give yarn and squid. My new protagonist in Rune Factory 2 is a "ladies man", because I've somehow managed to get many of the bachlorettes up to love level ten. Obviously I do not believe that too many people treat the games the way I do, but this is one way in which I try to understand the appeal of a series that simulates an "ideal life".
I do not believe there is an incorrect way to play Harvest Moon, but frankly, the appeal of doing monotonous tasks just does not seem to hold up as the real appeal in my mind. Finding a wife, however, seems to draw far much more appeal then farming ever could.