Stardew Valley is a farming and life simulation game created by Eric Barone (ConcernedApe). The player plays as someone who leaves their soul-crushing job at a big corporation, Joja, to take over the farm their grandfather left them in his will. What sets Stardew Valley apart is how deep the story is. There are many secrets to unlock about the town while befriending, and potentially romancing, the NPCs. Yes, farming is fun. And there are other activities like mining and repairing the town’s Community Center with the help of some forest spirits called Junimos. But you don’t have to do any of that. If you want to just run around and befriend everyone you can do that too.
Stardew Valley is a dream for my neurodivergent self. All of the NPCs have set routines; you know where they’ll be depending on the season, day of the week, and the weather. And they all have very clear likes and dislikes, which you can find out via trial and error, or by looking it up on the Stardew Valley Wiki. It takes all of the guesswork out of building relationships. There are no complicated and ever-shifting social cues to learn and read. When socializing is so easy, it makes building relationships much easier.
I know some have criticized Stardew for making it too easy to romance NPCs. That’s a valid criticism. Unless they catch you digging in their trash, you shoot them with your slingshot, or you give them terrible gifts like trash, they won’t hate you. But while I understand the criticism, I’m not bothered by it. As a neurodivergent person, making and maintaining relationships is consistently one of my biggest issues. Real people don’t come with a list of their likes and dislikes. And when you add flirting into interactions things get even more complicated for me; figuring out whether or not someone is being nice, or actually flirting often feels impossible. So I always assume they’re merely being nice unless they outright say they’re interested in me.
Stardew Valley is ultimately escapism for me. I don’t want it to be difficult to befriend or romance the NPCs. I love having such an easy time making friends. I also love being able to romance both men and women.
In real life, I’m not able to be fully out. I’m out, or at least partially out, to a select few friends. Being fully out would put me in danger. I would not have familial support, a huge problem because I rely on living with my parents due to my disability. I often have to tread carefully to avoid suspicion or unwanted questions; being careful about what I wear, watch, and what kind of books I keep on my shelf. But in Stardew Valley, that’s not a problem.
In Pelican Town, I’m free to marry any of the marriage candidates, male or female, regardless of if my farmer is male or female. No one will complain, and no one will harass me. It’s just as acceptable to be straight as it is to be queer. If I wanted to, there are even mods that would let me marry multiple of the candidates; and I have to admit the concept of marrying Leah and Elliot, or Sam, Sebastian, and Abigail has its appeal. Marry whomever you want out of the available candidates; no one in Pelican Town will raise a fuss.
Within the narrative itself, none of the romanceable NPCs have their sexuality explicitly labeled. They’ll flirt with, and fall in love with you regardless of if you’re playing as a male or female farmer. It’s up to you as the player to headcanon what you believe their sexualities to be. And that gives the player a lot of freedom in crafting a more personal narrative. I love taking the given information about the NPCs and building larger stories for them via headcanons. It makes me feel more immersed in the game
Across all of my farms, I’ve married Leah and Sebastian the most. The only other NPC I’ve married is Elliot, on my very first farm. (Sorry, Elliot haters. His long hair reminded me of an elf from Lord of the Rings, okay? I couldn’t resist.) If you’ve never romanced Leah, spoilers ahead. During Leah’s four heart event, you overhear her on the phone with her ex, Kel. And Kel shows up again during her ten heart event. But depending on the gender of your farmer, Kel’s gender changes. If you play as a woman, Kel is a woman, if you play as a man, Kel is a man. Because of this, I personally believe Leah is bisexual. An artsy, bisexual icon—and yes, I am projecting a little.
Unlike Leah, we never learn about Sebastian’s romantic past. But I’ve romanced Sebastian as both a male farmer and a female farmer. In the narrative I’ve created for him, Sebastian is also bisexual—something he learned when he realized that he was attracted to both the male and female characters in the comics he read. You can only play as a male or female character, and NPCs like Marnie will refer to you as Mr. or Miss, depending on what you chose. Personally, this doesn’t bother me, but maybe in a future update, new character options will be added. And you can change your gender in the Wizard’s basement for the low, low, price of 500g. Rasmodius, (the wizard), is a true ally.
In my newest farm save file, my farmer is male. His name is Demyx—yes, after the character from Kingdom Hearts—and he’s married to Sebastian. I can’t help it; if I don’t marry Leah, I have to marry Sebastian. I have a weakness for comic book-loving emo guys. Playing as a male character has felt right in a way I’m unable to explain yet.
Stardew Valley lets me explore my gender identity and sexuality in a way I’m not able to in real life. In real life, not only are there the safety risks of being out, but there is the issue of trying to explain my gender identity and sexuality to others. My relationship with gender is complicated right now—something that’s not uncommon in neurodivergent people. All I can definitively say is that I am not cis. Beyond that things are in flux. I don’t feel like I have the proper words to explain myself because it feels like things are constantly changing right now. Stardew Valley gives me options. I like being able to play as a male character and marry a male character or a female character. Or a female character and marrying a female character or a male character. It doesn’t matter if I change my mind with each new farm. I never have to explain myself to anyone. Stardew Valley provides me with the escapism and space I need to experiment and figure myself out.