Lawn and order: the evergreen appeal of grass-cutting in video games

Jessica used to come for tea on Tuesdays, and all she wanted to do was cut grass. Every week, we’d click The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s miniature disc into my GameCube and she’d ready her sword. Because she was a couple of years younger than me, she couldn’t encounter a ChuChu or a Bokoblin without dying, so instead she’d spend hours slicing at virtual greenery.

At the time, I found it a little annoying. In hindsight, I understand that Jessica was simply following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Grass-cutting has been a mainstay of video games for decades. From 1983’s lawnmower sim Hover Bovver to Minecraft in 2009, numerous games have invited us to take a blade to the blades, and we can’t seem to stop ourselves from doing it. Why is the mechanic so prevalent?

“I think that there’s something satisfying about cleaning up a messy thing and making it neat,” says Eric Barone, creator of the hit independent game Stardew Valley. Barone’s game was inspired by the 1996 farming simulator Harvest Moon, in which you can cut grass to make hay as well as pluck weeds. As a kid, Barone also enjoyed cutting the grass patches in 1993’s Secret of Mana – it glistened invitingly, swaying in the virtual wind, and made a satisfying swooshing sound when sliced.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Pastures green … The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Photograph: Nintendo

A year earlier, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past began rewarding grass-cutters for their efforts – players could find the in-game currency, rupees, when they hacked at the ground. Grass-for-gold remained a mainstay of Zelda games until 2017’s Breath of the Wild, when Hylians seemingly patched up the holes in their pockets and stopped dropping money everywhere. The two latest Zelda games still encourage grass-cutting, however – insects, bundles of rice, frogs and fairies can often be found hiding in the greenery.

Grass continued to grow in games thick and fast around the millennium – in 1994’s Crusader of Centy (considered by some to be a Zelda rip-off), coins were also hidden in pastures green. The first-ever Animal Crossing game, released in 2001, made plucking weeds a key part of daily gameplay. Things perhaps reached a peak with 2016’s The Legend of Kusakari, a possibly satirical homage to Zelda that promises “50 levels of grass-filled action”. I’ll try and let Jessica know.

Andrew Shouldice, designer of the 2022 game Tunic, notes that cuttable grass is such a gaming “classic” that it’s now an expectation. “You’re a would-be hero, in the perennial action-adventure default biome of ‘grasslands’, having just found Sword #1,” he says, “As a developer, you’re kinda obligated to make that grass cut-down-able!”

The debate that divides players is whether grass-cutting is a chore or something to adore. “I like when you can use a tool or a weapon to cut multiple pieces of grass at a time, rather than one at a time,” Barone says – he was deliberately “generous” with a player’s grass-cutting ability in Stardew Valley, allowing them to slice through multiple blades at once without using any stamina. Barone didn’t enjoy grass-cutting in the 2013 survival game 7 Days to Die because, “you can only hit one at a time, and you often accidentally hit them with your big tool swings, which prevents your tool from hitting the block you were actually targeting, while still depleting your stamina as if you did.” For shame.

Jason Ort, meanwhile, is extremely pro-grass-cutting – or at least he was in college. Now a 32-year-old IT administrator in New Jersey, Ort spent eight straight hours with his roommates slicing grass in Wind Waker as a student. “Because we were all a bunch of gigantic nerds, we had done the math and found the patch of grass that spit out the most rupees on average,” he says. He and his roommates would slice it, pick up their pennies, go into a cave, and emerge again to a freshly grown patch of grass. On repeat.

“By four hours into it, it’s funny. By six hours into it, we feel like lunatics. By eight hours into it, we had enough in-game currency to buy pretty much everything else we needed,” Ort says.

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But beyond being rewarded with resources, Ort thinks virtual grass-cutting is “therapeutic”, as does his fiancee. “When I was a kid, I just thought it was fun to swing my sword at literally anything I could,” he says, but now he finds it soothing. The mechanic also conditioned him to “look for secrets in places that seem pretty straightforward and mundane” when playing other games.

Chop chop … Stardew Valley
Chop chop … Stardew Valley. Photograph: Chucklefish

Others clearly agree – entire lawn-mowing simulation games have sprung up, while gamers have manufactured their own lawnmowers in games that don’t provide them. I myself first began enjoying grass-cutting because it gave me a sense of autonomy – outside of Zelda, other GameCube games had limited environments, and you couldn’t interact with lots of the pixels that surrounded you. Slashing at grass in Wind Waker was immersive and freeing.

Barone perhaps puts it best. “I think we have a natural inclination toward things that are orderly,” he says. “Cutting grass, and preparing an area for productive use, taps into our natural desire to make order out of chaos.”


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