As in most areas of popular media, queer and transgender identities are sorely mis- or under-represented in video games. Many consumers turn to the development of personal narratives that build off of the “canon,” or, what “actually happens,” in a piece of fiction. These are referred to as “headcanons,” and while they’ve appeared under various names over many years, they are not new. They are a way in which creative consumers deal with a lack of representation. The personal narratives of headcanons find life in forum discussion, fanfiction, fanart, and sometimes they are never revealed at all. Sometimes they live as unspoken feelings of identification, private and powerful and personal. Tiny tokens of feeling a little less alone and strange.
Some pieces of media make it hard to develop queer interpretations of characters. A video game might actively reinforce a character’s heterosexuality or cissexism in a way that makes it difficult to picture them otherwise. Other media make it incredibly easy, but with bad intentions. “Queerbaiting” is a term that describes the hinting or teasing of characters having homosexual feelings specifically to entice an audience hoping for that representation, only to dash those hopes by revealing it to be a homophobic joke or to have the “word of God (explanation by the content’s creators)” negate the interpretation.
Others, like Story of Seasons, make it very, very easy to weave a queer narrative. Without the garbage.
Story of Seasons is the 2015 successor to the Harvest Moon series of video games, released under a new name because of a trademark shuffle. It remains true to the core mechanics of its predecessors: Part farming simulation game, part relationship building (dating sim) game. These have always been the same, as is the fact that there is no real “ending” to the gameplay. But your objectives, as always, are to run a successful farm and find a partner to marry.
The series* has undergone changes over the years in terms of who the main character is and can be. In its first incarnation almost twenty years ago, you played a boy character that was not customizable and you could choose a wife from a small pool of female characters. It was a standard. In later incarnations of the game, you could buy “girl” versions with the playable and datable genders flipped, could choose between a boy or a girl character within one game, and even later could customize elements of your character. Though there are many complex facets of queerness to examine in a video game, I’ll focus on the most socially visible aspects as far as this one goes: gender identity and sexual/romantic preference.
Many games with character creation or selection have limitations that generally prevent the player from deviating from the gender binary. At the most basic, you can pick from a boy or a girl character; at the more complex, you can change your skin and hair color, but can only wear the “girl clothes” or the “boy clothes” that correspond with your selection. My most recent character in the latest Pokémon game I’ve played is a gay transgender woman, but that’s only because there is no content in the game that contradicts that. There is neither a romance element nor any reason for her binary-aligned transgender experience to be commented on, so I can invent my own narrative for my character’s identity and desires. The headcanon I construct remains unchallenged, but it’s not actively facilitated.
Dating simulation games traditionally eliminate the ability to have a homosexual/romantic character by the presence of a binary romance mechanic. You pick a gender at the beginning of the game, and that determines your appearance and pool of eligible romantic partners, all of the “opposite” gender. Story of Seasons does maintain that mechanic, but what’s different this time is that not only can you customize your character, there are no gendered designations to your appearance and wardrobe. This seems like a small victory, but it’s a huge help with facilitating a queer character’s narrative.
In Story of Seasons, you are essentially starting a new life where no one knows you. It facilitates a very specific kind of trans narrative if you want to read it that way, and I certainly do. I put all of these mechanics to the test to play a story about a gay, transgender man named Roger. I was pleased with the results.
How to be Queer in Story of Seasons
Before you begin your adventure, you must decide who you are. Character creation at the start of the game is limited. You pick your name, as well as hair and eye color, and gender. Since picking gender doesn’t limit who your character can be, only who they can date, we start by deciding whether your character wants a pick of the boys or the girls in Story of Seasons. It’s terribly backwards, considering gender has no bearing on sexuality, but this specific mechanic is the price of admission we pay to access the rest of the game.
The other element gender selection determines is your initial appearance. Long hair and a dress for a girl, short hair and overalls for a boy. This can be changed later, and I decided to consider it part of my character’s narrative. I wanted to marry a male character, so Roger had to select “female,” and wear that dress for a while. Roger was assigned female at birth, and I was the arbitrary-seeming hand of God.
When the game begins, your character has received notice that they’ve gotten a job as a farmer in a town called Oak Tree. The dialogue implies that you are trying something new, restarting your life fresh. Somewhere no one knows you. A convenient opportunity.
The game’s tutorial “training” period is exceedingly slow and tedious, but gives you time to learn the game mechanics (many of which are impeccably improved from previous games,) get familiar with the controls and maps, and meet the town’s residents. Many are a little surprised when they meet you. For my story, I imagined they were a simply little taken aback to be introduced to a Roger in a dress. That was until I met the town’s doctor, Marian. Marian is, completely canonically, a flamboyant, feminine gay man. He speaks occasionally of his out-of-town boyfriend and refers to himself as an “auntie” or “big sister*.” Most people* in town seem to regard Marian fondly. (“Maybe,” Roger thinks, “this town might be okay.”)
After a week of training, your farm life begins. You spend a good amount of time clearing fields, planting hearty turnips, fishing and collecting materials in the woods. The old lady on the farm next to you, Eda, trains you and gives you some hand-me-down farm supplies, but you’re still starting basically from scratch. (Roger was happy with the hard work, but really wanted to cut his hair and change out of that dress. Especially before getting to know that really attractive restaurant owner, Raeger.)
By the end of your first spring, your character should have gathered enough materials for their first home upgrade. Once complete, you’ll find that your new home includes a wardrobe. It doesn’t contain any new clothes yet, but at least you can step in and change your hairstyle and hair and eye color. (Finally, Roger can cut off his long locks and take off that stupid pink hat he hates. He’s stuck with the dress, though, since there’s nothing else to change into.)
By the end of Fall your character will probably have made enough money and shorn enough sheep to build a sewing studio. There they can finally sew some simple clothes that suit them, store them in the wardrobe, and finally change their clothes. (Now Roger feels more confident in what he’s wearing. He feels like his image represents him.)
The wardrobe, once built and stocked with clothes, is the real hub of your character’s gender presentation, finally independent of their assigned gender. You can cut your hair short even if you picked “girl.” You can wear a dress even if you picked “boy.” You can switch clothing when you want, as if to say “I’m coming out now,” or “I’m experimenting with my gender presentation.”
But Story of Seasons has you juggle a fair number of responsibilities that are not navigating your personal identity. Foremost, you till, seed, water and harvest your crops, minding the season they grow in and how long they take to grow. You raise animals for dairy and textile products, fish for sea products, and mine for ore and gems. You craft these materials into new products, like furniture, decorations, clothes, facilities, and new derivative foods like wines and cheeses. You compete in the town’s competitions for livestock, fashion, and cooking. You ship as diverse and as plentiful a stock as you can manage to the traveling vendors in order to promote trade and encourage new vendors to visit. On top of all of this, you can, should you choose to, fall in love.
Using our wardrobe, you can essentially bypass the mandatory heterosexuality by designing a character that has looks, clothes, and a name that is gendered the way you want. There is a gendered pronoun or title here or there in the dialogue that will contradict the gender you chose, but if you can tolerate that, you get the gay Harvest Moon experience we’ve always longed for. You can say, “I’m a male character, I look as male as I want to, and I am going to date the men of this town.”
(Roger did eventually fall for Raeger, the owner and apparently sole operator of the town’s only restaurant. An excellent chef, incredibly handsome, and sporting a weepy orphan back-story, he seemed like the obvious catch.)
First Comes Love
Romancing your character of choice is an easy enough task. You talk to them daily, give them gifts they like, and participate in town competitions to raise their affection for you. Some characters are more difficult to woo, appearing in town only at certain times, requiring affection from other characters (like a sister or father), or not arriving in town at all until later in the game. (Roger ate at the restaurant daily, and learned after some trial and error that Raeger appreciated food-product related gifts like seaweed and coffee beans.) Delight them enough, and certain actions will trigger “heart events,” where you view a cut-scene that asks you to pick reply dialogue. Your choices effect your partner’s attitude towards you, but if you’re astute the answers should come naturally. Pick right and you’re rewarded with a happy partner (and boost in affection points) and a cute scene between the characters.
After a few of these events, your character’s partner is at an affection level that will allow you to ask them to go steady with you. You’ll fashion a ring in your studio and present it to them at a certain time. (By the time this opportunity came up with Raeger, Roger realized he didn’t like the restaurateur as much as he initially thought. Raeger was very flirty, very romantic, but Roger started to feel like they didn’t have much in common. It didn’t help, or perhaps it did help, that someone new had arrived in town. His name was Kamil, and he was a florist.)
Each candidate’s romancing routes remain open until you start going steady with someone, at which point your partner’s dialogue will no longer be generic when you encounter them. You can change your mind after committing but before marriage, but breaking up is (literally) hard to do; you have to actively anger your partner and/or ignore them for an incredibly long period of time. Once you go through your break-up, you can go ahead and pursue other characters. Or, if you’re after an incredibly specific sort of narrative, the same person you just broke up with. To each their own.
Raeger didn’t seem to care or notice when Roger began paying attention to another guy, since they hadn’t exchanged boyfriend rings yet. Kamil’s gentle, subdued nature and love of cats and flowers instantly resonated for Roger. They hit it off, and when Kamil revealed that he was insecure and homesick, Roger understood. They understood one another on a lot of levels.
That’s how a dating sim should feel, by the way. The characters are diverse enough in characterization that you can find at least one person to click with. Harvest Moon games have always been pretty good at that.
When you go steady with a character, they will ask if you want them to call you by a nickname. If you select one, your partner will refer to you by that name for the rest of the game, or until you get the option again when you get married. You can type in any name, from something affectionate like “Honey” or “Hot Stuff” to something personal. (In Roger’s case, he asked Kamil to call him “Randy.”)
By the second year of the game, you will have collected, raised, and farmed enough to start creating more sophisticated outfits. Farm wear in different colors, formal wear of varying fanciness, and regional clothing from all over the world. While the game is about becoming the best farmer and citizen you can be, you can, in most respects, fashion your identity completely to your liking.
It’s true, some elements of your designated sex appear in the game’s narrative. You will have to wear gendered clothing on your wedding day (which is a shame I hand-waved for Roger, but could be compatible with a lesbian play-through if you don’t mind dressing butch for a day.) Should you upgrade your house to accommodate children, you will become pregnant (or your partner will be, which again meshes slightly better if you’re playing a lesbian narrative and the sperm-donor trope doesn’t turn you off completely.) Roger rolled with these things, but you can avoid those events entirely if you want by not meeting the prerequisite achievements of proposing and home upgrading. Some characters may let slip “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” when referring to you. (Roger had gotten unfortunately used to those slips-ups, and gently corrected people when they misgendered him.)
As Good as it Gets
Story of Seasons is not an ideal or even practical queer game. For ages we’ve wanted a game in the series that did not designate your marriage candidates by gender. There are even ROM hacks for some gendered versions of older Harvest Moon titles that swap out the girl and boy character sprites so you feel like you’re playing a game in which your character can be homosexual. Seeing the dream come true — Harvest Moon game in which your character can be unquestionably homosexual — may never happen (don’t even get started on the dreams of a game that allows for a non-binary gendered character, or [gasp!] a bisexual one. Smashing the binary is hard and thankless work.) The chain of property overseers is long and homosexuality in games is seen as inappropriate at worst and a risky business venture at best (despite evidence that it would be well received.) Nintendo did not allow for same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life, but made them a feature in the new Fire Emblem Fates. Change is possible, but maybe less for all-ages titles, and it’s always contingent of the specifics of who holds the rights to the product.
All that said, Story of Seasons is a convenient game for those who like to fashion their player characters queer. With some earned cosmetic adjustment, it possible to play through the title almost entirely without remembering that the character was “supposed to be” straight. The theme of beginning a new life can be resonant with a transgender narrative. The presence of Marian, our gay, cross-dressing doctor, adds awareness of the diversity of gender identity and sexuality to the constructed world of Oak Tree Town.
Queerability aside, Story of Seasons is by far the best incarnation of the Harvest Moon series to date. Mechanics are easy to understand, controls less frustrating, achievements plentiful and satisfying, and the game infinitely playable and incredibly replayable. Five months and hundreds and hundreds of hours of gameplay later, I’m still completely engaged and playing it more than any new game I’ve started since. I recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys self-propelled, endless role playing games.
It’s not perfect. It’s not the representation we deserve. But it sure facilitates a good queer headcanon. (And Roger and Kamil lived happily ever after.) ❤