Stardew Valley may look like a game about farming, but it's actually about people. And OK yeah, also a lot of farming. In Stardew Valley, you can befriend and, in some cases, romance characters in the game's tiny rural community. You give them gifts, learn more about them over time, and experience special events with them. You can even get married, and all romanceable characters will give you a shot whether you're a guy or a gal. It's an intimate sort of game where you sink into a comfortable quicksand of a schedule, where a bunch of fictional people become part of your day-to-day existence, and you theirs.
It's been interesting, then, to watch some players alter these characters to be more in line with the experience they want from the game or their own perceptions of characters in their heads. Already, there are countless mods to make bachelors and bachelorettes sexier, handsomer, more anime-like or into different characters altogether.
But there's also been debate brewing around a certain form of character alteration: ethnicity/background. It began shortly after Stardew Valley launched, with one player releasing a mod that made Maru, a young woman with a black father and white mother, look whiter. They ultimately took down the mod after a storm of backlash, and then backlash to said backlash. (Other players have since posted their own takes on that mod, however.) The gist was that many people didn't get why somebody would want to turn the game's only non-white marriage option white. At the same time, though, other players were confused as to why making Maru lighter was a problem, but modding Alex, the lone jock in a town of gentle green thumbs, to be more Hispanic-looking wasn't.
For his part, Stardew Valley creator Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone said some of these mods make him feel weird and occasionally uncomfortable, but he's not gonna stop people from making them. "It's hard to really even say how I feel about that," he told me during a recent interview. "I want people to love Maru for who she is. That's how I feel, but if people feel differently I don't really know what I can do about it."
There have also been mods pushing in the direction of adding more character diversity to Stardew Valley. Notsnufffie's ongoing Diverse Stardew Valley project is one of the biggest, overhauling a handful of romanceable and non-romanceable characters. They have made mods that turn Haley and Emily black, Robin and Sebastian Southeast Asian, Harvey Sikh, and Leah Native American, among others. Once again, though, some players wanted to know why this mod is acceptable, but ones that change the game's scant few non-white characters aren't. Notsnufffie weighed in with a pretty even-handed response:
Demetrius and Maru are the only people of colour in the game. Whitewashing them removes the very little representation the game has. White people don't need more representation. They can pick up any game, see any movie, watch any tv show and see characters like themselves. POC are so often only in movies, tv show, etc as minor characters or to meet a 'we have POC and therefor not racist' quota.
I'm making over some of the characters in Stardew Valley as POC because frankly I almost didn't buy the game because I was so disappointed with the lack of representation. You don't have to use the mod, like I won't use the whitewashed Demetrius and Maru. But I know I wanted to play a game with a more diverse cast of characters, and know there are people out there that might want to as well, so I thought I'd share.
I can definitely understand where they're coming from, and I'm glad they said it.
It's a tough situation with games like Stardew Valley, though, where a small cast of characters is front-and-center. Unlike in some other games, every NPC counts. They're all unique individuals with in-game lives and backstories. Changing their appearance — or even their stories — is bound to ruffle some feathers.
I feel like the game's romance aspect also makes things tricky. I've seen some players say that they're simply more attracted to characters who look a certain way, whether that means they're black, white, Native American or any number of other backgrounds. Standards of attractiveness come from all over the place, and while a lot of that is dictated by systems and communities that might favour whiteness, I don't think it's necessarily wrong to prefer some appearances over others — at least, on a personal level.
I feel like it wouldn't hurt for Stardew Valley's cast to be a bit more diverse, but I also get why some people might not be in favour of that. I'm not sure if mods are a blanket solution to problems of representation — only a fraction of people use mods at all, after all — but I suppose this presents a sort of tenuous balance. Like modder Notsnufffie said, if you don't want to use certain mods, you don't have to.
At the same time, though, I don't love the idea that, if some people want to see themselves represented in games, they have got to crack open a modding API and do the work themselves. That's... not a great precedent to set. This sort of modding is still a relatively underexposed thing, though. Here's hoping game creators are watching their communities and learning, untangling what all of this means and learning how they can improve their games for everybody.