Words Stardew Valley like the letters are made out of woo

One of the current top-selling games on Steam, the PC gaming equivalent of iTunes or Google Play, is a surprising little indie charmer. Right up there alongside super-realistic military and police state propaganda gunfests like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tom Clancy’s The Division is a pixel-art game called Stardew Valley that lets you spend your days building a farm, raising crops and petting cows.

It’s a game of the sort that’s been familiar to console gamers – especially fans of Nintendo’s handhelds – for years, but which has never before caught on with the PC crowd. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the Japanese role-playing series released in America until recently as Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) which dates all the way back to the Super Nintendo.

But for all that it owes to that kid-friendly series, it’s also a more adult take on the open-ended farming simulator concept, as befits a game designed by an American indie developer – in this case a single man named Eric Barone, working under the handle ConcernedApe. The people you meet in Stardew Valley are complicated, realistic and diverse in a way that Japanese RPGs, especially kid-oriented ones, almost never are. You can befriend a homeless man who lives in a tent on the edge of town, or a girl whose single mother is an alcoholic. There’s a biracial couple with a biracial daughter, teens dealing with step-families and a cranky, wheelchair-bound old man. And all of them are written with kindness and understanding, even when they’re not always kind to you as a player.

Your choices for your character are also diverse. There are 24 skin tones available for your little pixel avatar, and hair color is chosen on an RBG slider. The game asks you to choose from binary genders, but they only affect your body type – the male sprite is slightly taller and broader-shouldered than the female one – and pronouns. Your gender doesn’t restrict your hair style or clothing choices. It also doesn’t restrict your romantic options. As a queer woman, I feel right at home with my Stardew Valley character in a way I haven’t in a lot of other games. She’s even got my blue undercut.

It’s also a game that a lot of people can enjoy by virtue of its price and hardware requirements. On my 3-year-old laptop without a dedicated graphics processor it runs perfectly, and that’s more than I can say of even Starbound, the publisher’s other sprite-based game. Its $14.99 price on Steam is on par with many other indie games, but still more affordable than the majority of big-publisher titles. And it has built-in Xbox controller support, which can help with accessibility, especially those with wrist or other dexterity issues or who use custom controllers due to a disability.

In a gaming environment where machismo and violence reign, Stardew Valley is a welcome vacation, a place to raise chickens, grow vegetables and make friends without having to obsess over the newest graphics cards or feel limited in who you can be. Judging by how popular it’s become, that’s a much-needed vacation indeed.

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