Friday, July 19, 2024

Stardew Valley is not the LGBT utopia I first thought it was

When I first started to write this article, it was a piece about how Stardew Valley was the perfect, LGBT utopia. There was no real thinking behind it, and the narrative was glossed over with nostalgia of a game that had made me very happy the first time I played it. Stardew Valley still does make me happy, and I’ve recently been unable to tear my attention away from it.

But when I booted up my playthrough this time around, almost a year since I had left it to play other games, I found my thinking of Stardew Valley as an LGBT utopia was far from the truth. To me, the utopia I was shaping this game around was a place where everyone accepted one another, and people felt safe and represented in their community. It was a feeling, and location, that I never really had in any space other than online in tight-knit communities of friends and fandom, and even then that could get ugly. Regardless, that was what I imagined Stardew Valley to be.

On paper, Stardew Valley does seem incredible. You move away from your 9-5 job that makes you feel like shit to work on a farm that belonged to your Grandpa, you get your own dog or cat, your neighbours all end up loving you, and you can date whoever you want without the small community of Pelican Town calling you a slur. Hell, they even all come out to celebrate your marriage, you get treated the same as ever and you get to kiss your wife/husband whenever you want. Ugh, a dream come true!

And I suppose it is. But to call Stardew Valley an LGBT+ utopia is inherently false because, while I may be represented as a queer, white woman, other people aren’t.

One of the biggest flaws in Stardew Valley is the lack of racial diversity. While you could argue ‘hey, it’s a small town that’s full of white folks, it makes sense,’ I find that argument silly considering that, uh, it’s a video game. Realism is barely part of Stardew Valley’s vocabulary because, let’s be real with one another, nobody would pay me over 5k for 100 strawberries.

Stardew Valley only having two black people – Demitrius and his daughter, Maru – sucks for a lot of reasons. The first being is that it hardly make sense that they are the only non-white family in Pelican Town when the town is known to be popular, especially after the player character’s help with repairing the community center. Even so, it feels weird and to be honest, downright wrong, to see a town full of people that may look like me, but not like other people. That alone already breaks the utopia that a younger, more socially unaware me had dreamt up about. How can everyone be treated respectfully, when there are barely any people to see yourself as in the first place?

Some modders out there have done their very best to add their own diversity within the game, with NotSnuffie and the DSV team developing a Diverse Stardew Valley mod. I have not yet used the mod, but it has been met with positivity. I’m unsure if the game just changes the looks, or adds cultural features to the new looks of the villagers, but it at least adds diversity to Pelican Town that, unfortunately, the original doesn’t even come close to having.

The diversity mod doesn’t just make race changes, however, but includes different body types. You’ve got your chubby Abigail, and even Shane gets some more chub, if that’s what you so choose. I can’t really remember when there was a game – outside of Dream Daddy – that actually included body types for you to pick and choose from. Unfortunately, the ‘Pride’ that is advertised to us is mostly just skinny, gay white men. That has never been the whole of the LGBT+ community, and I for one, was pleased to see that at least some people are trying to make Stardew Valley into a place they really can feel at peace with.

Ultimately, it isn’t Stardew Valley’s fault that it doesn’t meet my expectations of what I want. But my changed mind has brought into question on what we should really be accepting when it comes to diversity in our games. It isn’t enough to just have a single black person in a cast of all-white, or a single gay character. Yes, we’re able to relate to other characters, and even mould them into our own image, but is that really all we should be accepting from publishers and developers? I don’t think so, and neither should you. Yes, that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we do. I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing Stardew Valley, but being aware of the people around us, and what video games say when they choose not to include them, or worse, only include them as caricatures, is basic empathy.

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