It’s winter in Stardew Valley, and I have a ton of stuff to do before spring. Thankfully, I don’t have to look after any crops, so I’m attempting to get to the lowest levels of the mine before the end of the season. (I know… good luck!) I’m also trying to complete as many community center tasks as I can, but so far my foraging attempts for a snow yam have gone in vain. I have chickens to care for, and a newly upgraded house to furnish. I’m dying to try out my brand new kitchen, but that’ll have to wait until warmer weather provides the fresh ingredients to support it. I just finished planting a portion of my burgeoning orchard, and I’m eager to see what results it’ll yield.

One thing I’m not at all worried about? The townsfolk.

Even knowing it’s a big part of the metagame, I’ve really struggled to connect with any of the NPCs in Stardew Valley. I’m not all that interested in the minutiae of their lives, or in befriending them. This is not, I hope, because I’m intrinsically unfriendly but because, despite everything about the game that tells me I’m wrong, it seems to me that, on a fundamental level Stardew Valley is actually about being by yourself… and enjoying it.

An image of the Relationship tab in Stardew.

Who do you think you are? Collecting your jar of hearts?

Gameifying Friendship

In Stardew Valley — as in many games — interactions with NPCs are commodified. Relationships with the inhabitants of Pelican Town are based on a point system. You earn more points by talking to residents, giving them gifts, and running errands for them. Each of these relationships is, in its own way, an in-game commodity; the more points you earn, the more “benefits” you receive. Townsfolk with whom you have a higher score will treat you more warmly in in-game dialog. They may share special recipes, objects, etc. with you, or reward you with special cutscenes once you reach a certain “rank” of friendship with them.

Building these relationships is presented as a fairly important part of core gameplay. You’re encouraged to meet and mingle with the townsfolk at the very beginning of the game, and during many in-game events thereafter. There seems to be an expectation — from a design standpoint — that this is what players will want to do.

And yet, by commodifying these relationships, the game makes them feel inauthentic. Unlocking new dialog or content can be fun. But rather than presenting players with the option to do so by engaging with NPCs in a more natural way — perhaps by having conversations with them, or by inviting them to spend time or do activities with you — Stardew Valley presents its NPCs almost like action figures, whose catchphrases can be unlocked only if a player feeds enough gifts and errands into them. Furthermore, by presenting relationship building as a separate skill tree (like farming, foraging, mining, etc.), Stardew inevitably invites certain players — who want to focus their attention elsewhere — to ignore it altogether.

Misery may love company but I sure don't.

Misery may love company but I sure don’t.

Narrative Tells a Different Story

It isn’t just the mechanics that invite players to ignore the painstakingly rendered townsfolk. It’s in the story, too — the way the narrative of Stardew is presented. Unlike Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing (from which the game clearly takes abundant inspiration), Stardew Valley has a clearly determined narrative.

The gameworld has a history. The residents of Pelican Town each have quiet, but beautifully complex lives to share with you — fathers away at war, business competitors, secret liaisons — and however you choose to play the game, the gameworld itself is beset by consistent, all-consuming events that transform the world around you, year to year. All this has the effect of making the world seem big and interesting, full of events and people that you can affect and interact with. But part of that narrative has to do with you — how you, the main character, are presented by the game to you, the player.

The protagonist of Stardew Valley is portrayed from the very beginning as a young person fed up and run down by the everyday drudgery that defines city living. You work in a tiny cubicle in a joyless office, and one day, you decide you’ve had enough. With your grandfather’s posthumous blessing, you pack up everything you own, and strike out for the old, rundown family farm in Pelican Town. What you, as a character, want is clear: you want to escape. You want a clean, authentic existence where you make your own way in the outdoors. You, the character, have a history that’s just as complex and multifaceted as the personal histories of the townsfolk, and the history of the world you live in. That makes for a spectacular, unique play experience. But it also makes for a narrative that — at a glance — would seem to be about solitude, rather than busily forming relationships in the nearby town.

By commodifying and gameifying your relationships with NPCs, interacting with people feels like it goes against the point of the narrative. You came out here to escape the stifling constraints of living in the city and of working for Joja Co. Narratively, it feels like you ought to embracing your new, solitary lifestyle.

This is emphasized by the placement of your humble plot of land — which is separated from almost every other resident (barring those who live in the forest) by at least one screen. There is a physical distance, in-game, that separates your life from the lives of the rest of the residents. It’s emphasized by the fact that you play as an outsider who’s recently re-settled near Pelican Town, which sets you apart from the townsfolk socially. It’s even emphasized by gameplay, which is all solitary by design. You can’t invite people to your house, or to go on outings with you — you act alone in almost every capacity. Social events happen tangentially to you; you’re invited to be a part of them, but you’re not permitted by the game to initiate them yourself. Although it is, of course, left to player choice, the story would seem to be about rejecting the cold, corporate life you leave behind at Joja Co. and embracing your new life of solitude in nature.

Nobody wants to see your amulet, old man!

Nobody wants to see your weird amulet, old man!

Marital Bliss Creeps Me Out

On a personal level, there are certain games I play to be alone: Minecraft, for example. There’s something very serene about being by yourself in a game that empowers you to be entirely self sufficient. Minecraft, like Stardew Valley, can be incredibly peaceful — eking out a simple existence in the dirt, with soft, pleasant music in the background, in simple-yet-beautiful surroundings. As an introvert, I can sometimes take great solace in being by myself. Without any obligation to engage, socially, I can restore my energy reserves, and Stardew enables me to do this with ease.

And yet, I realize that — introversion aside — I’m avoiding socializing in Stardew for one big, glaring reason: I don’t want to get married. Marriage is one of the big social goals in Stardew Valley. There’s even an achievement for it: “Full House,” which one can earn by getting married and having two children. Many of the NPCs are marketed to you as eligible bachelors and bachelorettes — they’re even labeled “single” in your Relationships tab. There’s a clear expectation that pursuing one of these single townsfolk with the intention of marrying them will be something you want to do, to the point where a large amount of the game is built around it.

But as an aromantic asexual player, there is no other in-game goal that I want to pursue less than I want to pursue marriage. There are narrative and mechanical reasons for this, but I think when you get right down to it, this is a personal bias. As an aromantic asexual, I feel a ton of social and societal pressure to obtain these relationship goals in real life. These are the “normal” goals I am expected to pursue, and that I am expected to want to pursue. If marriage and children — sex and romance — are a thing you, as a person, naturally want, you might not realize just how much pressure there is to want these things if you naturally don’t. And in Stardew Valley — as in life — I find these goals strange, undesirable, and alienating.

It isn’t that I don’t ever pursue romantic relationships in video games. On the contrary, I often do — I find romantic relationships to be hugely rewarding in immersive roleplaying games (like, say, Mass Effect or Fallout) where one can utilize romance to become more emotionally intimate with one’s favorite character. But for me, I find that the pressure to find a mate in Stardew mirrors real life a little too closely for my comfort. Furthermore, unlike Fallout, Stardew expects you to couple up permanently with your “intended” — the game itself expects me to want to get married rather than casually date, and has a very specific system in place to allow me to do so. Fallout allows for an amount of metatextual legroom; there’s space for me to exist as an aroace player (and even an implicitly aroace character) in the Fallout universe. But for me to exist as an aroace player or character in Stardew, my only choice seems to be to aggressively avoid Pelican Town’s hot young singles.

Combine this with my natural desire to be alone, a narrative focus on the benefits of solitude, and a mechanical imposition thereof, and you’re left with a game that not only suggests on every level that I ought to be alone, but one that on a certain level forces me to be. And I don’t particularly think there’s anything wrong with that, but I know from speaking to others — especially my friends who are neither aromantic nor asexual — that this is not the way most people approach the game. Most of the people I’ve talked to feel that I’m missing out on a large portion of it as a result.

Maybe they’re right. But in a narrative that would seem to be focused on the benefits of throwing off the shackles of society, I, as an aromantic asexual player, choose to throw off the shackles that arbitrarily bind me to an identity defined by sex and romance. Instead, I embrace solitude. I embrace the opportunity to be well and truly alone with nature, and to be happy that way. Because I think, on some level, that’s the entire point.