Ok, now it’s my turn to be “that guy” – although before I dive into why I disagree with your assessment, I’d like to point out that I don’t totally disagree with it. There is a definite trend in modern storytelling to separate stories into a category system, where each category has a distinct tone as well as a fairly consistent expectation for “content level” – it goes beyond genre, into what I’d call “modes” of storytelling. Common/familiar ones would be the kids’ movie, the gothic mode, or the epic mode.
However, these modern modes are only the tip of the iceberg when you’re exploring the realms of storytelling! And that’s what I spend a lot of time doing – I’ve been a student of literature and I’m building to a career in literature/storytelling, hoping to work as an editor or publisher one day (the dream is to run a boutique publishing house so I can seek out unexpected stories to share). I’ve dived head-first into storytelling, and though nobody can really go beyond scratching the surface, I can tell you this much with confidence: there are no set rules. You’re trying to argue that Stonehearth’s current storylines are, by their very light-hearted and cutesy nature, less effective than deeper/darker/more “mature” storylines; and this is my first point of disagreement.
The tone of a story’s content does not limit its emotional impact. There are a ton of classic kids’ movies which prove that – Disney has the monopoly (although most of their childrens’ films do have a deeper/edgier sub-theme, they have a wide range of G-rated films which still resonate just as strongly as their PG films); but think also of the Land Before Time series or the Care Bears. Those films are dripping with warmth and mirth, and have darker themes to speak of; but they resonate really strongly on both emotional and plot levels. The reason they do this is that they frame their narratives clearly; and make strong, overt emotional connections so that the audience can relate to the characters. Though the conflicts might be “low stakes”, they’re instantly recognisable to children and adults alike, and they still feel important.
That’s what the dev team are going for – the stories in Stonehearth won’t all be world-shattering, but each and every one is supposed to be important to its cast and to the player. It doesn’t require massive stakes for the player to share in Peyton Brightwell’s jubilation when she completes her first fine craft as a level 4 carpenter, or to empathise with Tibber Burlyhands’ frustration with eating berries for ten meals in a row because the first crop of turnips has been delayed.
On the other hand, there will be stories with higher stakes coming. But those higher stakes on their own don’t necessarily make things interesting. After all, the team have literally put the world of Hearth on the line when they experimented with titans; those things easily have the power to wipe out your favourite town… surely there’s a conflict which will hold the players attention, right? Well, as it turned out, even the most epic of battles can quickly become boring if it’s too one-dimensional; and the titans fell flat for that reason. With no serious depth to the fight, no particular reason to care which of the many hearthlings in the town might fall when fighting one off, no sense of a deep and involved story but rather a simple “big bad guy is coming, throw everything at it and hope for the best”… all of those add up to a fight which struggles to generate an engaging story experience. Sure, the first couple of times it’s a massive deal, and your first victory against a titan is obviously going to be amazing; but the thrill will quickly wear off.
So, that’s why high stakes =/= deep investment from the audience. Instead, it comes down to the connection with the characters, and the sense that there’s something/someone worth getting behind.
And to make one last counter-argument: I don’t need my whole village burned to the ground in order to fuel a deep-seated thirst for revenge; if a goblin steals something I’ve worked really hard to craft and then taunts me about that theft I’m damned well going to send my entire army to get my prize back! Actually, if my whole village burns to the ground I’m probably not going to bother rebuilding it; I’d rather start a new game and a new story just to see how it unfolds differently. What’s memorable to me is when the game unexpectedly throws me a curveball, or when random events link up to create a cohesive storyline (for example, if a goblin steals my strongest weapon and then the goblin chieftan equips it and uses it to attack me, so I send my archer to snipe the chieftan and get the weapon back, but the archer is intercepted by wolves so I have to support them and rally my defenders… THAT would be an awesome story, even though I can probably just make another of the weapon much more easily.) Or if the entlings attack my trapper and kill their pet squirrel, that’s another deep-seated motivator for revenge right there – it’s the story of a feud which started with a single revenge attack, but now I’m watching my trapper suffer and I’m determined not to let the same thing happen ever again, so the ents will rue the day they set foot outside their forest…
Those stories are driven by the way that the hearthlings convey their emotions, making me value them as individuals. If a random nameless trapper loses their nameless pet squirrel… meh. But when the trapper and the squirrel are both characters I care about, it becomes a tragedy worth getting involved in.