[Editor’s Note: British spellings have been preserved upon request.]
Stardew Valley wears a lot of hats; the game’s farming, combat, fishing, scavenging, collecting, and exploring elements fit together to create an expansive, yet cohesive experience. Although I love almost every aspect of Stardew Valley, I avoided its dating simulation and relationship management aspects for my first two in-game years because they unsettle me.
The mechanics of Stardew Valley’s relationship simulator are not new, but the knowledge that they were inspired by similar games—most notably Harvest Moon—does not mean Stardew Valley’s approach cannot be questioned. The over-simplification of the relationship system makes dating and forming friendships feel like just another type of collection, like farming or fishing. By giving people two gifts a week—every week—eventually, anybody will learn to love you.
At first glance, that’s part of the progressive charm of Stardew Valley; regardless of the gender of your character, you are able to date any of the single folk in the valley, which can lead to a number of relationship structures. In my main save, I play as an androgynous man (although this does not align with my own gender identity) and I married Elliott, a luscious-haired writer who lived by the beach (before moving in with me), who also happens to be a man. The townsfolk have had interesting responses to my same-gender marriage, but for the most part, they have been kind and accepting.
The ability to have same-gender marriages in Stardew Valley is undoubtedly positive, but this move towards diverse representation is superficial. Being able to woo any of the single NPCs who live in the valley results in those NPCs lacking substantial characterisation. Many attempts have been made to give NPCs significant personalities of their own—with each embarking on their own routines and maintaining their own relationships—but consistently attending aerobics on a Tuesday is not enough to claim that a character is fully realised.
NPCs do not have their own attractions and preferences, and the appearance, personality, or gender of the player-character has no impact on whether or not a character falls in love with them. This is referred to as ‘playsexuality,’ and it simply does not reflect reality. There are many people in my life who I could not convince to date me—no matter how many rabbit feet I give them—simply because I am not their type.
By making NPCs playersexual, Stardew Valley misses opportunities to really explore diversity and sexuality beyond the superficial attempts that have been made. I would much prefer to inhabit a town where relationships are not ‘leveled up’ through gift-giving, but rather through shared experiences, and where you are not able to marry every single person that you meet. You do not need to marry somebody for your experiences with them to be worthwhile, and the idea of marriage being the ultimate ‘goal’ harmfully dismisses the idea that work still needs to be put into a relationship after marriage vows are exchanged.
While you can continue to give gifts to your spouse after marrying them in Stardew Valley, you are also able to achieve similar effects through conversations and kisses, indicating that less effort (and outlay) is required now that you have secured your partner with a ring and a celebration. The only gifts my player-character gives Elliott these days are the cups of coffee he keeps making me in the morning, and I simply pass them right back. He always seems to appreciate it.
Positioning marriage as the ultimate goal of a relationship doesn’t just encourage the stereotype that, after a wedding, characters live ‘happily ever after.’ This representation also reinforces the societal notion that romantic relationships are somehow worth more than platonic ones, which is a construct that has an ongoing negative impact on real-life relationship structures.
There is some interesting variety in the relationship structures between NPCs in Stardew Valley, where married couples, siblings, co-workers, and friends are all seen socialising with one another depending on the time of day you venture into town. Some of the single residents are close friends with each other—which, thankfully, doesn’t seem to be questioned or mocked by their neighbours—but not everyone is so accepting of the potential for forming platonic partnerships. Try to give a gift to someone single in an attempt to increase your friendship status with them, and chances are your husband or wife will make passive aggressive comments about it.
Unfortunately, the variety of NPC relationships are also quite superficial. While the player is able to embark on same-gender dating and marriage if they choose, this is clearly not the norm. This is seen not only in the cutscenes and comments with other NPCs, but also through the fact that there are seemingly no other romantic relationships in town that deviate from heteronormativity. By choosing a same-gender relationship in Stardew Valley, you are actively choosing to go against the norm and the rest of the town in the hope that they will accept you.
Perhaps this is designed to simulate the fears of coming out that exist in reality, but the valley doesn’t seem to be a place where those same fears exist. No one is ever surprised when you flirt with them, even if you are the same gender as them, and there is no issue with adopting a baby into a same-gender union. I find it difficult to understand why a game that is evidently trying to improve diverse representation doesn’t continue this through the romantic relationships of NPCs.
Another instance of Stardew Valley doing exceptionally well, but unfortunately falling at the final hurdle, can be seen in its character creator. The creator offers a vast range of appearance options through a selection of hairstyles and outfits, and colour sliders for hair, eyes, and pants. (No matter the gender of your character, you are restricted to pants because you are a farmer and pants are practical.) The androgynous man I opted to play in my main save is typical of who I try to create when offered character customisation mechanics, but my attempts often fall flat; Stardew Valley, however, did not disappoint.
Beyond the satisfying androgyny of my original character design, after befriending the Wizard in-game, I was granted the ability to regularly change my player-character’s aesthetic whenever I wish for a small fee. If you would like to make your character more feminine or masculine, or change your hairstyle or outfit to suit an occasion, you need only visit your friend, the Wizard. It’s great that this sort of fluidity is supported in Stardew Valley.
Sadly, this is where the support of fluidity ceases. Although you can play Stardew Valley as a feminine man or a masculine woman, or you can change the appearance of your player-character at your whim, you still need to choose. Are you playing as a man or a woman? This seems incredibly unnecessary. From what I have seen, only three things change when you choose the gender of your player-character: the pronouns used when you are spoken about, the outfit you get to wear at your wedding or some special events, and the shape of your boots.
Eric Barone—sole developer at ConcernedApe—has suggested that the gender you select can alter each of your playthroughs, which is a design choice made to increase replayability, but the differences I have noticed just don’t feel like enough for the inclusion of binary genders to be worthwhile.
Would it not be just as easy for Stardew Valley to ask for your character’s preferred pronouns on the character creation screen, or just use gender neutral pronouns throughout? Is it not possible to ask players which outfit they would like their player-character to wear before their wedding or special events? Why do girls have pointier boots than boys? I have so many questions.
I love Stardew Valley. I have spent more than one hundred hours tending to my farms, fighting through the mines, and forming relationships, but I think it is important to hold a spotlight to the media we love and understand that it isn’t perfect. Although Stardew Valley handles many aspects of representation beautifully, the game has flaws and there is room for improvement in the way it deals with sexuality and gender. By thinking critically about representation, we are able to see what ‘better’ looks like and continue to strive for it.