Video games often offer players an escapist fantasy, opening windows into fantastical worlds and allowing people to play as idealized versions of themselves or their polar opposites. But that expansiveness isn’t always a guarantee: Character customization options are largely still tied to the male/female gender binary rather than allowing players to choose a nonbinary option and, in some cases, represent trans identities in problematic ways. That so many major games—December’s headline-making Cyberpunk 2077, for example—have failed on this front makes it all the more surprising that the new Story of Seasons release, Pioneers of Olive Town on Nintendo Switch, a farming simulation game whose aesthetics might best be described as resembling the Cocomelon oeuvre, actually represents a small step forward.
To get one big question out of the way up front: No, Pioneers of Olive Town does not offer a nonbinary character option, but its character customization menu is markedly open. In fact, the decision to play as a male or female character comes after the player’s avatar has already been made.
When Cyberpunk 2077 launched, a big deal was made of the fact that players can customize their characters’ genitals. The game’s customization menu features the option to choose between a circumcised or uncircumcised penis (with different sizes options as well) and a vagina, and there are several different styles of pubic hair to pick from. However, even though players can attach either type of genitalia to their character, regardless of body type, the “Voice Tone” option presents a problem. Choose the “feminine” voice option, and your character will be locked into she/her pronouns, and vice versa for the “masculine” option. In other words, even if you may look feminine, if your voice (a trait tied to the gender assigned at birth) doesn’t match the stereotypical cisgender expectation of a female voice, you aren’t considered female. With that in mind, the genitals hardly matter. A few of Cyberpunk 2077’s further customization options revealed similar biases: Different hairstyle options were made available for the masculine and female body types, with facial hair only available for the former.
The character customization menu in Pioneers of Olive Town is admittedly much, much less complex, but it’s somehow more flexible than that of the ballyhooed, high-budget Cyberpunk. No one trait is tied to character gender—again, choosing pronouns comes after the character is set—and no styling options are closed off. Rather, the 18 face types and 20 hairstyles are all available, and the four voice types (“Wild,” “Fresh,” “Powerful,” and “Cute”) aren’t tied to a particular gender, either. Granted, some of the labels are a bit essentialist—the more “female”-coded options have more cutesy descriptors (there is even an outright “Feminine” face option), and the two “Bearings” available are “Powerful” and “Charming”—but they can be combined in any way, and most importantly, the game leaves gender up to the player, rather than making it a question of outward perception. Sure, maybe the characters still ultimately look like Funko Pops, but they’re Funko Pops that don’t make as many assumptions about gender and presentation as most other mainstream games.
Despite the lack of a nonbinary character option, Pioneers of Olive Town still marks a tiny bit of progress when it comes to making more inclusive character customization options. (It also doesn’t lock romance options dependent on the player’s chosen gender, eschewing the Story of Seasons series’ historically heteronormative leanings.) The ability to choose a character’s gender separate from any physical traits isn’t a negligible change when it comes to the usual boy-or-girl choice players are usually forced to make when starting a game and will hopefully be a feature more widely implemented in games going forward. The past few years have seen a gradual erosion of these outdated standards, as games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons also allow all hairstyles and outfits options to be worn by both male and female avatars. Given that the worlds that game developers are creating are meant to stretch the limits of our imagination, it’s time for such binary options to become history.