I’d like to preface this post by saying that I love Stardew Valley. It’s a comfort game, and I have over 500 hours logged on Steam. That being said, as a disabled person, it sometimes makes me very, very upset. Why? Because of the casual ableism in how it treats George Mullner.
George Mullner is a character in Stardew Valley who uses a wheelchair. He’s an older man, and generally pretty grumpy. He spends most of his time inside his house, watching television. With how the other villagers treat him, I don’t blame him. George later reveals in his six heart cutscene that he uses a wheelchair due to an injury working in the old mines, not because of his age.
So what’s the big deal? There’s a disabled character in the game, isn’t that a good thing? Yes, but. The way that other characters treat George, the only disabled person in the game, is where the trouble comes in.
In Harvey’s two heart cutscene, you walk into George’s house, and accidentally interrupt a house call by the doctor. He is telling George to make some “lifestyle changes,” telling him to reduce sodium and do some moderate exercise with his arms. (George’s sprite indicates that he self propels his wheelchair, which requires a lot of upper body strength. He’s already getting exercise through that.) George responds to Harvey, saying that he knows his own body, and doesn’t appreciate being told what to do with it. Harvey replies that he is a doctor, and spent 8 years in school, and thus he knows what’s best for George. They then notice the player, and George requests your second opinion. Your options are:
A) Tell George to follow Harvey’s advice. This option gets you +40 friendship points with Harvey, and is marked green on the Wiki. It’s obviously the choice the game wants you to make. Harvey reiterates that he is only trying to help, and George capitulates.
B) Say that George does know his own body. This option gets you -40 friendship points with Harvey. Harvey sighs, and threatens to tell George’s wife on him. George begrudgingly capitulates, and Harvey lectures you for sending his patient mixed messages.
What’s so bad about this? For one, doctors don’t always know best, especially when it comes to their disabled patients. If I had just listened to the first doctor I talked to about my disability, instead of self advocating and getting another, my degenerative condition would have gone undiagnosed and untreated for much longer. Potentially years. As a disabled person myself, I believe George when he says he knows his own body, because I know how wrong doctors can be.
The other main issue with this cutscene is how infantilized George is. He’s a grown man in his own doctor’s appointment, even if he is making a mistake in not listening to Harvey, he’s a grown man, and entitled to his own choices. But Harvey threatens to tattle to George’s wife about it. He’s treating George like a child, unable to make his own decisions, who has to be “managed” by his more abled partner.
The second ableist cutscene is Penny’s two heart cutscene, and in my opinion, this one is much worse. In it, George is checking his mailbox. He tries to reach a letter wedged in the back, and has some difficulty. He asks himself how he is going to reach it. Penny sees him, and comes over. She grabs his wheelchair and pushes him out of the way, grabbing the letter for him. George gets upset at Penny for treating him like he’s helpless. At this point the player comes on screen, and Penny asks if you were watching. The player has three options:
A) Say that no, you were just walking by. This has no effect on friendship.
B) Tell her she did a kind thing. Penny thanks you. This option gives you +50 friendship points, and is marked in green on the Wiki. It is the choice the game wants you to make.
C) Tell Penny she should have asked George before trying to help. Penny then apologizes to George, but you lose 50 friendship points with her. This is obviously not what the game wants you to do.
Regardless of what option you take, George apologizes to Penny for snapping at her. Penny asks the player what they think about growing old.
What’s bad about this scene? Well, for starters, by moving George’s wheelchair without consent, Penny commits assault. But George is framed as being unreasonable, because he’s upset that he was physically assaulted. Penny is a great character, and I love her, but in this cutscene she is both legally and morally in the wrong. And while the game does technically give you the option to call her out for it, it’s barely there, and strongly discouraged by gameplay. The real kicker is that this is the new dialogue for this interaction, as changed by the 1.4 update, *in an attempt to make it less ableist.*
Lastly, in George’s six heart event, he expresses quite a bit of internalized ableism. He says he wishes he could get up from “this infernal chair.” He tells the story of how thirty years ago, he was injured in a coal mining accident. There is no option for player interaction.
This cutscene is one that is somewhat more nuanced for me. It is true that some people hate that they’re disabled or need a wheelchair, especially in older generations. Internalized ableism is a real and terrible thing. The issue with it is that George is a fictional character, as written by a real person, who as far as I know is abled. And this is the problem. When a disabled character is written as having internalized ableism by an abled creator, that’s not internalized ableism, that’s just plain ableism. Why is it that almost every disabled character hates themselves or their disability? Why are they always unhappy?
Why does Stardew Valley have these scenes, and this ableism? Is it somehow important to the plot, or the characters? I don’t think so. And for me, and other disabled people playing the game as a form of escapism, or because the Valley is supposed to be a better place, It’s simply a jarring reminder that the real world hates us.