Game Review: Stardew Valley
by Brittany B. | 03/04/2020
Are you looking for a game that will give you hours and hours of entertainment while also letting you have queer relationships? Look no further than Stardew Valley where you can make all your queer farming dreams a reality:
You’ve inherited your grandfather’s old farm plot in Stardew Valley. Armed with hand-me-down tools and a few coins, you set out to begin your new life. Can you learn to live off the land and turn these overgrown fields into a thriving home?
I have played over 400 hours of Stardew Valley and I love the game. Stardew Valley is fun because there’s no wrong way to play! You can be a socialite and try and max out your relationships with all of the residents of Pelican Town; you can aim to have the absolute maximum yield of each crop every season; you can be an adventurer who takes on the local mine and its monsters and eventually the Skull Cavern in the Calico Desert; or you can be a fisherman and make all your money by catching rare and elusive legendary fish. Or whatever combination strikes your fancy. There are so many ways to go about playing this game and none of them are wrong. It’s whatever you’re more interested in or whatever challenge you want to set for yourself or your group of friends (multiplayer supports up to four players)! Each time that I’ve played this game I’ve set different challenges for myself and always try to romance different characters (of which there are six bachelors and six bachelorettes to pick from). There are all sorts of ways to spend your days that each of my play-throughs are unique and different.
When you start a new game of SDV, you immediately go to the title screen where you create your farmer. Honestly, for a sprite game, the character creation is fantastic. The player is allowed to pick what they like and the gender button only dictates the pronouns that NPC’s address you by (and a slight visual difference to the structure of the sprites’ legs). So you could have a character who has facial hair but still have she/her pronouns. Most games will limit character customization based on the gender you’ve selected, but SDV doesn’t do that and I found that I really appreciated it. Sadly, there are no gender-neutral pronoun options.
From the title screen, you go through a bit of story before you’re taken to your inherited farm that has been left untended to for several years, if not longer. There are bits of wood, stone, and weeds everywhere that need to be cleared away before you can start on your farming work (or however you plan on making money in the game). Here is the difference between the first day of play and my most recent save:
I was in the middle of my “Queerblr Farm” play-through when ConcernedApe launched a free update (1.4) which added quite a bit of quality of life improvements to the game as well as new content like fish ponds so you can breed fish, being able to create unique clothing and change your outfits with ease, and so much more. On February 26, 2020, ConcernedApe announced that another free update (1.5) is already in the works as well as two other games they’ve got in the pipeline (one of which will be in the SDV universe). That is one of the things that I really appreciate about the developer – they’re continuously updating the game to make a more fun experience with user feedback despite the game being released back in 2016. Each update brings new events and ways of making a living on the farm or ways to be apart of the community.
So – why am I reviewing a farming game? Well, remember those six bachelors and bachelorettes I mentioned earlier? Each one of them is romanceable regardless of the player’s gender! (And if you’re a polyamorous human and want the game to reflect that too, there are mods that can make that happen for you!) The friendship/romance stories don’t change much based on your gender, just some minor dialogue changes here and there mostly surrounding pronouns. But Leah, the artist who lives in the woods south of your farm, is the only NPC that has any sort of LGBTQ+ representation in canon. If you’re playing a female farmer and make friends with Leah, you’ll get to a cut scene where her ex will show up from the big city, asking her to move back. And her ex changes gender based on what gender you’re playing. So if you’re a female farmer, Leah’s ex is also female. If you’re a male farmer, her ex is male.
You can romance whomever you fancy and even if the game doesn’t have specific queer content aside from being able to date whomever you like, the game never delves into problematic territory regarding sexual orientation. As far as I’ve played, there are no homophobic comments or off-color jeers. The only even slight hesitation that I’ve noticed in the entire game is when you get married and Mayor Lewis says:
That isn’t to say that the game isn’t free from problematic phrasing – oh no. There are characters that have some pretty cringe-worthy lines. The way that the Wizard talks about his ex-wife, for example. Or Clint, the town blacksmith; he gives me cringy entitled “nice guy™” vibes with how he incessantly pines after Emily. Some of the other problematic phrasings come from the game trying to tackle some pretty big character arcs without having the best writing in the game as a whole.
I’m not going to get into every character in the game, because there are so many, and with such a focus on community there are definitely characters that are lacking or other characters who needed some sort of sensitivity reader. You have an ex-soldier with PTSD who starts showing signs of being an abusive husband/father without there being any resolution (that I’ve found yet); there is a character who has a deep spiraling depression and drinking problem and the story puts a lot of pressure on you, the farmer, to help him get his life together even though that is a huge emotional labor to ask; there are hidden relationships among NPC’s that you can’t romance that have literally no reason to be hidden, making for some toxic relationships; and more. And I’m happy to see this game try to tackle those things! I’m not complaining that they’re present in the game – I just wish that the writing better supported the awareness the game is trying to bring to it.
There are a lot of good characters, though – more so than not. But because there are so many characters and only one individual who made the core game (it took ConcernedApe four years to develop the game on his own before releasing it as an Indie game and has since hired a team as the game increased in popularity), the writing of the game suffers a lot. Character arcs, if they’re there, are often flat especially compared to characters who have big arcs and go through substantial maturing and change as you get to know them. Other characters have substantial character growth, but they are so incredibly off putting at first that you as a player have no incentive to see them through that development (because the character stories only progress as your friendship with them increases through “heart events”). And on top of that, out of the box it’s severely lacking in diversity. By that I mean the cast of characters is veeeeeeeery white and doesn’t showcase other nationalities or religions in appearance or text. Out of thirty-one human characters, two are characters of color (Maru and Demetrius) and one who is maybe Hispanic (Gus).
On top of being advertised as a farming game, Stardew Valley is also consistently marketed as a dating sim. At no point in the game, however, is there an indication of how old you, as the farmer, are and the available singles to choose from spread wildly in age. Alex and Sam feel like their barely 18 and out of high school, whereas Harvey is maybe in his thirties (because he’s a doctor), and the others seem early twenties because they all still live at home with their parents (except for Harvey). The game starts with you hating your corporate job life and deciding to leave it all behind to go work the farm that your grandfather left you. In my mind, I thought my farmer was least in their mid to late twenties based on that alone. But when all of the seasonal events happen, you’re often competing against or dancing with the younger folks in the valley. Like the egg hunt festival – not all of the romance options participate, but you do participate with a handful of others as well as the two canonical children in the game. So age doesn’t seem like a consistent factor.
Being marketed as a dating sim, it falls into the same pitfall that a lot of games do in that – once you’re married, character development for your romance option comes to a halt. A lot of the bachelors and bachelorettes, once married to you, stop having new or interesting dialogue and some don’t really leave the farm. The 1.4 update added more “heart events” by increasing the number of hearts you can gain with a person, but even those short little scenes aren’t enough to continue any sort of character growth or development. The same goes for the seasonal events – the game is virtually endless. You can play on a save file for as long as you like and time will continue to pass as normal (and no one seems to age). Every in-game season there are community events that occurs where nothing changes from year to year. Each event has the same NPC dialogue year one as it does year five. The only time it’ll change is if you talk to someone you’re married to or someone you’ve divorced. The community Christmas event changes slightly because a different NPC is your secret Santa each year, but that’s it. For the game to have more long term play-ability, I just wished that the seasonal events had more variety to them.
Okay – so there are several things not super great about this game “straight-out-of-the-box.” So why have I played over 400 hours into the game?
One of the things that really make this game super re-playable is the online fan-base and the modding community. You remember how earlier I said, “out of the box it’s severely lacking in diversity?” Well, that’s where modding comes in to save the day! There are mods that diversify the cast of community members, there are mods to make things look more aesthetically pleasing to your particular taste, and there are mods that add entirely new items or maps to the game. One of my favorite mods replaced Clint, the problematic blacksmith character, entirely! Mods are a fun way of reinvigorating your game so a new play-through feels fresh and exciting.
Here is a list of links to all of the mods that I use on my play-through (sadly, the console versions of Stardew Valley don’t have access to these mods):
- SMAPI (required to run quite a few other mods)
- Content Patcher (required to run quite a few other mods)
- Content Patcher Animations (required for a few other mods)
- Craftables Remake (reskins for item chests, furnaces, lightning rods, pots, kegs, and casks)
- Range Display (allows you to see the area of effect for items like scarecrows and sprinklers)
- Birthday Mail (get mail whenever a resident has a birthday so you can give them a gift)
- Bye Bye Clint Hello Clarice (removes the problematic blacksmith Clint from the game and replaces him with the wonderful Clarice – a female blacksmith with an affinity for reptiles, iron roses, and poetry. She has completely new dialogue and heart events to replace Clint’s.)
- Skull Cavern Elevator (installs an elevator in Skull Cavern, where the base game there is no way to access previously accessed floors)
- NPC Map Locations (helps you find exactly where an NPC is at)
- Diverse Stardew Valley with Seasonal Villager Outfits (increases the diversity of the game and gives unique seasonal outfit alternatives – some customization required but extremely user-friendly instructions included in the mod download. I CANNOT overstate how good this mod is for the game. It brings not only race diversity to the Valley, but body shape diversity and enhanced style choices that bring out the personalities and possible religious variations of each character)
- Seasonal Japanese Building (reskin for farmhouse and farm buildings, including some reskins for item chests, furnaces, lightning rods, pots, kegs, and casks, and lighting fixtures – I’m not currently using this mod because I went with another one below and you can’t have both at once. But this one is very cute and I highly recommend!)
- Cuter Fatter Cows (because who doesn’t love rolly polly farm animals?)
- Gift Taste Helper (to help you keep track of all the NPC’s loved items they like to receive as gifts)
- Medieval Buildings (reskins farmhouse and farm buildings and lighting fixtures)
There are so many more mods than what I use. I have friends who have upwards of 80 mods for this game (some that create expanded maps for the game, new farm layouts, and so much more). Like I said before – if you think it up, it’s probably been made!
SDV is the prime example of how much I can love a thing, but still look at it critically and see where it is lacking. Remember, I’ve logged over 400 hours into this game – I have an SDV coffee mug that I use at work and a t-shirt that my girlfriend bought me for Christmas because she knows how much I love the game. Knowing all of that and that I love this game to bits, I’m still only giving it a three rainbow rating. The things that make this game for me are the community that has been built around it, the ability to play it with my friends and be utterly silly, running around carrying items and yelling for NPC’s to come out of their houses so we can give them “the thing,” the mods made to make the game more inclusive and diverse, and that’s is an easy game that I can play after a super long day in the office. The out of the box game is lacking in diversity, writing quality, and consistency in character development. This game tries to do a lot and it does a lot of it just fine but nothing above and beyond other games. Because ConcernedApe made a game that encompassed so much, it isn’t surprising to see that certain areas (like writing) aren’t as good as other parts of the game.
Regardless of the average rating, I still highly recommend the game. It is a ton of fun and lets you be creative in all sorts of ways!
3 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Player: Anyone looking for a fun and relaxing game. It’s great to play while listening to podcasts, music, or consuming YouTube video essays. It’s also a ton of fun to play multiplayer on with friends (especially if you have a mic set up or are playing locally together). It’s also a really good game when you’re going through rough patches of depression – it helped me immensely through a bought of depression after my Aunt passed away last year and when my almost twelve-year-old corgi passed away.
You can buy Stardew Valley on Steam or for Xbox One, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch! (I personally play on my computer with a controller set up, because, well, Mods are life.)