Fed up with his soulless job in the business, a young man moves to the farm he inherited from his grandfather, where he joins a quaint community and meets her future husband. This isn’t the plot of a new gay Hallmark movie – it’s the story of my pixelated alter ego in the Stardew Valley video game.
In February 2016, Eric Barone, known online by his alias ConcernedApe, released Stardew Valley for PC. The simulation role-playing game quickly became a success. In the pandemic, Stardew Valley fever is back with a vengeance. Thanks to the popularity of the Nintendo Switch and a massive game update released in December, it recently sold its 10 millionth copy.
Since its inception, Stardew Valley has been praised for its relaxing and immersive gameplay, a Harvest Moon-inspired simulator that will delight Animal Crossing enthusiasts. Players create their own avatars of farmers, who then leave town for Stardew Valley. There, they manage their farms while honing their skills, completing quests, and, if the player wishes, making love with an eligible villager. The wholesomeness of the game is universally appealing, but its peculiar mix of gay romance options, anti-corporate sentiment, and pastoral zen makes it even more suited to breakouts like me – millennial gay townspeople stuck in an endless pandemic slog. . I grew up believing that any adult could easily have access to the simple life. Now I’m pretty sure I can only get it from a video game.
In real life, I’m a single lesbian in Brooklyn going through my second year of working from home. My most productive days involve a move from office A (my bedroom office) to office B (my coffee table). On Thursdays, I wake up excited to water my houseplants. I face the madness watching TikToks of mushroom pickers, expert hikers, and cottagecore lesbians. These people all seem to live in a universe without Gmail, Zoom or masks, their rents paid by birdsong and dried lavender.
Life in Stardew Valley can also be that simple. My farmer’s days usually go like this: he wakes up and has coffee for her husband, then kisses said husband and their two toddlers before starting his farm duties – collecting eggs, making goat cheese, planting sunflowers. Her biggest issue right now is a voluntary quest to ship 500 fruits by the end of the month. There are no consequences for failure. I can redo any bad day with the click of a button.
While inclusive romance has increasingly become an option in open-ended role-playing games like Stardew Valley, it’s rarely the default in video games. Players take on straight male characters by heart in booming franchises like Halo, Zelda, Grand Theft Auto, and Mario. And homosexual romance – let alone homosexual domestic life – is already rare in media of all kinds. When depicted, this romance is often necessarily full of real-world issues: going out, finding community, fighting prejudice. In Stardew Valley, the cheerfulness of my farmer is not a problem. I made her woo her husband, the city doctor, by bringing her some fruits and vegetables.
Yet cheerfulness is not embraced enough to become invisible. If you ask your farmer to go after a young villager of the same sex, sometimes cutscenes show the youngster shyly acknowledging his first gay crush. In same-sex marriages, the celebrant charmingly stumbles over statements of “husband and husband” or “wife and wife”.
This balance between inclusiveness and recognition can be especially heartwarming given the setting of play in a small town. A 2019 report from the Movement Advancement Project think tank found that while between 3 and 5% of rural Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, their environment presents significant challenges. “On average, public opinion in rural areas is relatively less favorable to LGBT people and issues,” the report says, citing discriminatory legislation and political representation as additional barriers.
There’s a notable blind spot in the game’s sunny outlook: you can customize your avatar to look darker, but your farmer would join a minority in Stardew Valley. There are only three characters in the game’s predefined 41-person dark-skinned world, which makes this pixelated paradise more alienating for people of color.
Even though I wanted to change careers, overcome those obstacles, and live out my gay farm fantasy, home ownership seems even less realistic to me at 26. the average down payment in the United States. Even if I could get a mortgage, it’s hard to imagine I could pay it off with fresh dairy and organic parsnips.
In Stardew Valley, corporate greed is a far more oppressive force than homophobia. JojaMart, the Amazon-meets-Walmart conglomerate your farmer is escaping from, hopes to take over the city by replacing the community center with a warehouse. Competition drives up prices at the local seed store, and two villagers struggle with poverty and alcoholism. In order to rebuild the community, players must develop, craft, and harvest a series of goods. From there, it’s next to impossible to mischievously spend your hard-earned cash in Stardew Valley. After you’ve exhausted your options for farm buildings and house expansions, there are only ways left to elevate the city, such as turning another villager’s trailer into a house.
Scrolling through social media, I see my peers indulging their own fantasies with mood boards and TikTok videos of beautiful weddings, humble cabins in the woods, and lawns rich in biodiversity. These things are achievable in theory, but for many young gay people today, they can feel more like daydreams. I don’t think my farmer avatar will be able to harvest his 500 crops before time runs out, but at least he easily comes to these simple pleasures.