If you ask people about their go-to comfort games, you’ll hear two mentioned pretty often: Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Stardew Valley. I downloaded Stardew Valley onto my elderly MacBook Pro in 2020, and I jumped on the New Horizons bandwagon in 2021. Both are considered low-stress games and both fictional towns have a lot in common. This includes their own leaders: in New Horizons, capitalist overlord Tom Nook makes sure your island getaway has strings attached, and in Stardew Valley, Pelican Town’s Mayor Lewis runs the show. These parallels led me to a hypothetical gauntlet-throwing; my mind went to the criticisms of these two men/animals (vertebrates?). Both have drawn ire from fans, so I’ve decided to determine who is the most ruthless.
Of course, this question is subjective. What is ruthlessness, in a farming or lifestyle game, and what kind of ruthlessness is “worse” than the other? I associate it with a lack of empathy for others: Someone who uses their resources to get to their end goal, by any means necessary. Even if that means forsaking the responsibilities and people that should be important to them. I also like to think there’s tactics to true ruthlessness. Are they conniving, or simply neglectful? Let’s dive in.
First up, Tom Nook
This tanuki businessman’s company Nook Inc. is a one-stop shop for all your needs. But seeing as his company is the only place you can get most items — and it includes an online service in New Horizons to order goods — it’s a little too reminiscent of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Are Nook’s employees, Timmy and Tommy, paid living wages? Benefits? Can they unionize? Beyond potential labor violations, no other businesses besides the Able Sisters and occasional vendors seem to offer any competition to Nook’s empire. What lengths did Tom Nook go to to make sure he was the only one standing?
Beyond shopping, Tom Nook has a chokehold over construction and properties on the island, and you owe a constant debt to him. This starts from the beginning of the game, when you learn even your own island getaway needs to be paid back. While the game is laid-back and it’s meant to be played at your own pace, you can’t really “progress” until you start building infrastructure and homes, which requires taking out massive bell loans. Sure, he doesn’t seem to charge interest, and there isn’t a set due date before your cute Animal Crossing credit score gets wrecked, but Nook’s tactics often make the game feel like College Debt Simulator with the added bonus of wholesome animal campers.
On to Mayor Lewis
Stardew Valley’s Mayor Lewis is no ray of sunshine, himself. During my hundreds of hours of play — which included constantly Googling what gifts Harvey likes — I came across vast criticism of the Pelican Town mayor. Lewis doesn’t make you pay loans, but he’s a leader with unrivaled power. You could play for in-game decades and never once witness a mayoral election. I can’t fully comment on the intricacies of Pelican Town politics, but it seems fishy. And does he at least do good with his power? Well, when you arrive in Pelican Town, it seems to be in disarray. The bus has been broken down for who knows how long, leaving Pam without a job; the Community Center is an abandoned husk; and there isn’t even an established school. Penny uses her own time to teach the town’s kids.
I could also never forgive Mayor Lewis for how he treats Marnie. She’s a farmer’s go-to hay and animal supplier, and we build a good rapport with her over time. She took in Shane, her nephew who is struggling, and she takes care of Jas. The game obviously sets up Marnie and Lewis’ relationship as something romantic, but he strings her along, insisting on keeping things a secret.
Ultimately, Major Lewis leaves revitalizing the town and helping the citizens up to the new farmer. Sure, he organizes the town events. But we take control of listening to the residents, and even eventually work with Robin to build some of them better homes. This is strange, though, since Lewis has the resources to make a literal gold statue of himself that you find from a Secret Note. We also get the old Community Center up and running, which helps repair other parts of Pelican Town. What does he really have to offer? Getting mad if we throw his purple shorts in the Luau potluck?
Now the question remains: Who’s more ruthless?
Both Mayor Lewis and Tom Nook have uncontested leadership — Machiavellian, even — over their respective domains. For Tom Nook, it’s clearly money-driven. I mean, do we really know if a basic bridge and construction costs almost 100,000 bells? That said, he takes action. He uses these loans to turn the island into a thriving community and even gets famed K.K. Slider to perform there. Mayor Lewis mostly disregards Pelican Town infrastructure and strings Marnie along, making him seem more ineffective and messy than conniving. Of course, the lack of fair elections is alarming — then again, with a town of 30 residents, it’s unclear who would run against him. He seems to mostly use his power to garden and throw town events.
All said, I have to hand the prize to Tom Nook, our beloved loan shark who could easily be a formidable villain if he really wanted. He has the pull, lack of emotional connection, and tactical skills for me to declare him most ruthless. All this aside, I don’t dislike Tom Nook. I have a soft spot for the adorable character — and also I still owe him bells for my house upgrade, and I don’t want him to suddenly charge me an interest rate.