Fed up with his soulless corporate job, a young man moves to the farm he inherited from his grandfather. There he joins a picturesque community and meets his future husband. This isn’t the plot of a new gay Hallmark movie – it’s the story of my pixelated alter ego in the video game Stardew Valley.
In February 2016, Eric Barone, known online under his pseudonym ConcernedApe, released Stardew Valley for PC. The simulation RPG quickly became a hit. In the pandemic, Stardew Valley fever is back with a vengeance. Thanks to the popularity of the Nintendo Switch and a massive game update that was released in December was recently released sold its 10 millionth copy.
Since its debut, Stardew Valley has been lauded for its relaxing, immersive gameplay, a Harvest Moon-inspired simulator that will delight Animal Crossing lovers. Players create their own farmer avatars, which then leave town for the Stardew Valley. There they manage their farms while improving their skills, completing quests and, if the player so wishes, romanticizing an eligible villager. The game’s health is generally appealing, but its particular mix of same-sex romance options, anti-corporate sentiment, and pastoral zen make it even more tailored to escapists like me – gay millennial townspeople stuck in an endless pandemic. I grew up thinking that any adult would have easy access to the simple life. Now I’m pretty sure I can only get it from a computer game.
In real life, I’m a single Brooklyn lesbian trudging through my sophomore year of work from home. My most productive days include moving from Office A (the desk in my bedroom) to Office B (my coffee table). I wake up excitedly on Thursdays to water my houseplants. I can cope with agitation madness by reading TikToks from mushroom pickers, experienced hikers and Cottage core Lesbians. These people all seem to live in a universe with no gmail, zoom, or masks, whose rents are paid for by twittering birds and dried lavender.
Life can be that simple in Stardew Valley too. My farmer’s days usually go like this: he wakes up and gets coffee for his husband, then kisses the husband and his two toddlers before going on to his farming duties – collecting eggs, making goat cheese, planting sunflowers. His biggest problem at the moment is the voluntary search for 500 fruits by the end of the month. There are no consequences for failure. I can repeat any bad day with one click.
Although inclusive romance has increasingly become an option in open-ended role-playing games like Stardew Valley, it’s rarely the default setting in video games. In blowout franchises like Halo, Zelda, Grand Theft Auto, and Mario, players compete against male personalities by heart. And same-sex romance – let alone same-sex domesticity – is already rare in media of all kinds. When portrayed, this romance is often necessarily fraught with real world problems: coming out, fellowshiping, fighting prejudice. In the Stardew Valley, my farmer’s gayness is not an issue. I let him woo his husband, the city doctor, by bringing him fruits and vegetables.
However, gayness is not so much accepted that it becomes invisible. Sometimes when your farmer chases a younger villager of the same sex, cutscenes show the young person shyly acknowledging their first gay crush. At same-sex weddings, the officer charmingly stumbles upon utterances of “husband and husband” or “wife and wife”.
This balance of inclusivity and recognition can feel especially heartwarming given the small town setting of the game. A 2019 report The think tank’s Movement Advancement Project found that while 3 to 5 percent of rural Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, their environment poses significant challenges. “On average, public opinion in rural areas is less supportive of LGBT people and problems,” the report said, which cited discriminatory laws and political representation as additional barriers.
There’s one notable blind spot in the game’s sunny perspective: you can customize your avatar to have a darker skin tone, but your farmer would join a minority in Stardew Valley. There are only three dark-skinned characters in the game’s default 41-person world, which makes this pixelated paradise more alienating for people of color.
Even if I wanted to change my career, overcome these obstacles and live out my gay farm fantasy, home ownership feels even less realistic to me at 26. According to a recent study, Most millennials said they didn’t save enough to pay the average U.S. down payment. Even if I could get a mortgage, it’s hard to imagine that I could pay it off with fresh dairy and organic parsnips.
In Stardew Valley, corporate greed is a far more depressing force than homophobia. JojaMart, the Amazon-meets-Walmart conglomerate your farmer escapes from, is hoping to take over town by replacing the community center with a warehouse. Competition drives prices up at the local seed shop, and two villagers grapple with poverty and alcoholism. To rebuild the community, players will need to grow, manufacture, and feed a range of goods. From there, it’s virtually impossible to maliciously spend your hard-earned Stardew Valley money. After you’ve exhausted your options for farm buildings and house extensions, the only options left are to elevate the city, e.g. B. turn a villager’s caravan into a house.
As I scroll social media, I see my co-workers indulge their own fantasies with mood boards and TikTok videos of gorgeous weddings, humble forest cottages, and others Biodiverse lawns. These things are theoretically achievable, but for many young gays today they can feel more like daydreams. I don’t think my farmer avatar can harvest his 500 crops before the clock runs out, but at least he can easily get past these simple joys.