This article is part of Pride Month Picks, a collection of pieces that aim to highlight queer representation across games, television, film, books, and more throughout June.
Stardew Valley is the little game that could. I remember when it first exploded onto PC, pulling in a huge audience of players with its charming mixture of farming, relationships, dungeon crawling, and being whoever you wanted to be.
Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone set out to create a homage to the likes of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, but the end result was something far greater. It surpassed the games that inspired it, attracting millions of players across every platform under the sun as they all came to Pelican Town with the goal of making it their own and creating a virtual life to be proud of. We also wanted to make our deceased Grandad proud of us, but sod that guy I have girls to smooch.
This independent project has now sold over 20 million copies, having influenced the industry at large with so many studios and creators embracing a similarly wholesome aesthetic and gameplay systems that combine worthwhile farming and resource management with the fostering of relationships both platonic and romantic. It’s also become a haven for queer players, offering a character creator that doesn’t abide by traditional gender markers and allows us to create someone who represents who we are, or aim to become.
I did the same when I played for the first time in 2017, having yet to come out as a trans woman to my friends and family. I still went by my deadname, I hadn’t started hormone therapy, and had yet to work up the courage needed to be comfortable in my own skin. Part of me still isn’t quite there, but having the ability to depend on games like Stardew Valley to explore that space without any risk was so welcome. I made a cute little farmer with long flowing hair, dusty overalls, and sapphire eyes with a spring in her step. She was ready to farm, and flirt with everyone in town like the chaotic pansexual I always strived to be.
Stardew Valley approaches its queer representation with refreshing normalcy. Pursuing a same-sex relationship in this game is never once brought up in dialogue or seen as something unusual amidst the rural landscape. I could flirt with girls like Penny or Leah to my heart’s content, learning of their favourite gifts and personality quirks before deciding if I wanted to take it further. Marriage, kids, and even divorce aren’t out of the question, and it’s all accepted with the same warmth that permeates the rest of the game.
Part of me wishes that all of its queer relationships weren’t entirely playersexual. It’s a relief to know that regardless of sex or gender nobody is off the cards, but characters who are definitively queer and perhaps even tied that identity into the narrative would have been wonderful. Rune Factory 5 has similar problems, having copied many of Stardew Valley’s triumphs into its own charming formula. Eric Barone created an LGBTQ+ experience to be proud of, but knowing it could have been taken further makes me all the more excited for what he does with Haunted Chocolatier. Queer rep in games has evolved, and I imagine he and his team are keenly aware of where to take things and do right by this group of people.
Like many games of this ilk, fans have taken Stardew Valley beyond the retail release with mods that add story content and introduce new features because the base experience was so compelling they felt passionate enough to keep that lifeblood pumping. It has almost become a different game in the wake of community intervention, combined with a series of updates from Barone himself that added so much more alongside them.
I’ve been right there along with other players, installing mods and curating it to better reflect who I am whether it be through clothing options, pets, or small additions to relationships that provide them an extra layer of authenticity. But even without them, Stardew Valley remains a delightfully queer game even if it never once seeks to tell a fruity story within itself. For me, it did so much, allowing me to live out a fantasy as my true self even though that avatar only consisted of a few humble pixels. I fleshed out their stories myself, giving their livelihood and relationships meaning that went far beyond whatever the game had to say. That’s enough, and the first step I needed to embrace deeper and more consequential queer media as I began to find myself.
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