For some, the most compelling parts of the Mass Effect series are the galactic space shoot-offs. Many folks play The Sims purely to build their dream home, or start The Witcher to watch its complex world and stories unravel. For others, however, the greatest joy in these games simply comes from watching a couple of cute characters smooch, and I am not ashamed to admit I am among them. This isn’t to say the duality of the above isn’t appreciated—even the greatest romances can be soured when accompanied by terrible gameplay or a bland story—but in the aforementioned cases, the inclusion of romance options adds a little something extra to an already enjoyable experience.
In recent years, one of the games to do this best is Stardew Valley, which celebrated its fifth birthday last month. Despite being made by only one person, Stardew Valley offers an immersive and expansive gameplay experience, complete with mining, fighting, foraging, farming and 12 different potential partners, each with their own storyline. While everyone has their favorites, we’ve ranked the most compelling, from the downright worst to absolute best.
Leah is a genuinely beautiful woman—independent and capable, artistic and kind. She also can do a mean French braid, a skill I am terribly envious of. But folks, it’s time we admit something to ourselves about Leah: this woman is messy. When not honed in on her art, Leah’s storyline revolves entirely around her relationship with her longtime ex-boyfriend, Kel. As you come to find out after showing up at her place as she’s finishing up a call with him, she used to live with Kel in the city before deciding she wanted to focus on herself rather than settle down. Shortly after she came to this decision, she left Kel and the big city to come live in the valley and work on her wood sculptures.
Pursuing Leah culminates in Kel showing up during your final heart, even asking her to come back, and she leaves you to have the final confrontation with him. It never truly feels like your relationship with Leah is just between the two of you, and on top of that, Kel doesn’t seem like a terrible guy? While he wasn’t what she needed at the time and they had vastly different priorities, Leah’s non-confrontational nature seemed to actively contribute to their issues. Is this why she’s so hard to find around town? I don’t know. Leah’s a mess, y’all.
The first time I played Stardew Valley, I was instantly drawn to Harvey. Everything about him seemed so charming: his adorable awkwardness, how easily flustered he was, his concern for the wellbeing of those around him as Stardew Valley’s sole physician… However, the more time I spent with him, the more all of those traits became the things about him that drove me up the wall. His concern can come across as sterile, and his awkwardness went from adorable to just a bit too awkward when I walked into his model airplane filled room and he radioed a pilot flying overhead. How easily flustered he was—combined with that aforementioned sterility—made for a romantic partner that simply failed to offer me any warmth.
I genuinely wish I liked Maru’s storyline more than I do because, by-and-large, she’s a brilliant and kind woman. Her biggest downfall, however, is she tends to teeter into dull territory and can come across as extremely one-dimensional—which is something that I see often with female characters who are science-minded. Every romantic interaction with Maru comes down to astronomy or robotics, and the game seems to really play up how smart she is at the expense of her feeling like a compelling friend or partner. In real life, there’s a unique joy that stems from someone revealing their passions to you and watching them light up—from knowing that they trust you enough to be a part of their world and passions. That feeling is…sort of there with Maru, but she feels restrained—even in expressing her joy for her passions. I can’t imagine her expressing pure joy in being with me.
Similarly to Maru, Elliott is a good and gentle soul who ultimately comes across as a bit flat. His growth as a writer and subsequent journey to finding a home in both the valley and your character is what pushes him just slightly above the previous candidate, but he leans so heavily into the struggling bohemian trope that he feels shallow. Additionally, it sometimes feels more like you’re there to be his muse and encourage him to build his skills rather than be his partner. Ultimately, his empathy and progression throughout his story are his saving grace, or this long-haired lost soul might have been even lower on the list.
Emily is one of the two characters that was altered to be romanceable after fans expressed interest in the eligible bachelorette, and I think her addition is a fantastic one, even if she isn’t all that high up on this list. One of the most interesting things about Emily is that, compared to all the other romanceable women in Stardew Valley, she appears to be a bit older and is therefore a bit more confident in herself. This confidence allows her to embrace her eccentric and quirky personality in all its glory, as she organizes fashion therapy events, shows you her trance-like dances, and nurses injured birds. What keeps her lower on this list is she is perhaps too quirky, in my opinion, and at times comes across a little too “homeopathic.”
If you’re looking for an Archie Andrews type—someone who understands the highs and lows of high school football—Alex is the guy for you. Alex is your typical misunderstood jock, complete with tragic backstory, a hidden depth, and a dash of light misogyny. All that said, Alex is somewhat endearing and I think it’s the potential for growth that makes him so appealing. He seems to be grappling with the impact his father’s toxic masculinity had on his life all while becoming more comfortable mourning his mother and embracing sensitivity. He admits his limitations and works on compensating them with his strengths. He also has a nice confidence to him that is attractive and is the type of boyfriend who will take you out on nice dinner dates and buy you flowers. However, he might also roll his eyes and say “women” with a knowing smile to his buddies later on.
More than anything, I just want to help and protect Penny—she deserves so much more than she is given. Penny is Stardew Valley’s elementary school teacher and the daughter of Pam, the town drunk. As much as she strives to make a good life for her mother and herself, Penny struggles to do so and is oftentimes embarrassed by the state of her home, finances, and family life. However, despite her own difficulties, she is one of the first people to extend help to others and always has the best of intentions, even if she is a bit misguided at times. All this said, I sincerely wish I felt more of a connection to Penny and could rid her of her worries because she absolutely deserves that, but her romantic storyline is unfortunately just a bit weak. Aside from her final heart event, she tends to keep her teacher mask on and it makes it hard to feel as if a genuine connection is there. I want to be her partner, not a teacher’s aide.
If you love Prince Zuko, Kylo Ren, Todoroki or any other iconic, angsty, young man, I can guarantee you’ll love Sebastian. This moody, motorcycle-riding loner most assuredly listens to Joy Division and loves Donnie Darko (or at least did before that became cringey to admit), and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I’d have had a huge crush on him in high school back when those sort of guys really did it for me. Sebastian’s overall romantic storyline is very solid too, and offers glimpses into his aspirations, hobbies, mental state, friendships and world views—which is impressive when you consider how many of the romances feel a bit one-dimensional. Sebastian can be a tad tropey, which is why he rests at number five, but rest assured it’s a very good number five.
When I ask people who they chose to romance in Stardew Valley, without a doubt Abigail is the answer I hear most often—and I totally get it. Abigail is a dork, a tabletop RPG loving, sword-owning, videogame playing, ouija board using dork, and it’s very attractive. She is the first person I would ask to go with me if I had an extra ticket to a My Chemical Romance show, and the last I would want to piss off, because even if she isn’t tough as nails, she thinks she is and that’s enough. The biggest bummer with Abigail’s romance to me is that literally the first event you have with her feels like the best. The overarching story of her entering the mine to fight and prove she is strong doesn’t resonate the way I wish it did, and the overall experience suffers for me because of that.
I believe Sam is Stardew Valley’s embodiment of your first high school love and I adore him and all the warm, fuzzy feelings he inspires. I am absolutely certain Sam is the kind of boy who offers to make you the Bagel Bites his mom picked up the second you enter his home and stands by his feelings when his friends tease him for being in love. Plain and simple, he’s a good guy—the kind your parents like, even if they make fun of him a bit. However, this charm is also one of his fallbacks: Sam straight up feels like a teenager. Between the prog band, skateboarding incidents, and having to sneak into his house to see him intimately, it just doesn’t feel like you’re dating a grown ass man. Sam might have a whole lot of charm, but unfortunately he’s lacking a bit in maturity.
Shane is the other character that was reworked to be romanceable after the game had already launched, and his story adds a depth and maturity to the game that was sorely lacking and is incredibly powerful. When you first meet Shane, he is angry, cold and struggling, barely working up the motivation to stay alive. You come to find out he’s an alcoholic who is upset with how his life is going and can’t break the cycle of self-sabotage that only makes it worse. After a life threatening incident—and with time and your help—Shane becomes sober and starts going to therapy. He quits his dead-end job, begins working in film, steps up to be a better nephew and godfather, and breaks free of the depression that kept him away from the things he loved, such as soccer. No other character in the valley goes through quite as much as Shane, and no one has the same emotional connection he has to offer because of it.
With Shane and Haley coming in as the top two romances in the Stardew Valley, it might be safe to say I simply like people with cold exteriors. However, I’d disagree and say I love folks with layers, and Haley has far more than people give her credit for, and the most in the game. When you first arrive in the valley, Haley comes across as polite, but uninterested. However, as you get to know her more, you’ll find she’s amusing, kind-hearted, and is wonderfully open about how she feels about things not to be cruel, but in an attempt to make things better. Above all else, one of the things I love most about Haley’s romance is that despite her love of makeup and fashion, her heart scenes have little to do with those and are more reflective of her as a person and the part of herself she doesn’t wear on her sleeve, such as her photography. And, last but not least, I’ve married about six different Stardew Valley folks in various playthroughs—and none of them beat the kindness Haley exudes as a wife, or retain their personality as well.
Jessica Howard is the managing editor at gaming site
and a freelance writer with works published at Paste, UPROXX, Collider, and more. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.