Please note, this piece discusses on depression, alcohol abuse and suicide as depicted within Stardew Valley. Also contains spoilers for the new update romance arc of Shane.
Stardew Valley is an incredibly popular indie farming simulator which recently released its first major update 1.1. The patch notes include additions like new farm layouts, new quests and allowing players to marry two characters that were previously un-romanceable. The one I was most excited about was local grump, Shane.
For those who have not invested hours into this charming game, Shane appeared originally as just a guy who worked in the local supermarket all day, and drank beer in the local saloon all night. He lived with his aunt and didn’t seem to have any friends. If you tried to talk to him he’d tell you to go away and not to talk to him. And I, along with many other players, loved him regardless.
In the first build of Stardew Valley the player gets one scene with Shane, which strongly hints at him suffering from depression. I’ve always felt a camaraderie with Shane – I too have worked shitty jobs where it felt like my souls was being slowly drained out my body by managerial overlords. And I too have been severely depressed, which combined with soul sucking jobs, made me bitter. I’m a pessimist and an anxious introvert, so I applauded Shane for being one of my people.
With the new update more ‘heart event’ scenes were added for Shane [N.B. Heart Events occur when you have reached a certain number of hearts with another character – these are initially friendship scenes, and later romance ones if you choose to date them], and these moments fleshed out Shane’s character. And this is where one of the best depictions of mental health that I’ve seen in games occurs. In a farming simulator.
Shane’s arc focuses on his depression and anxiety, and actually gets pretty heavy for such a cute game. The player sees Shane’s reliance on alcohol affecting his life, and even talks to him about suicide. What ConcernedApe does well in these scenes is that he hits the right tone for this kind of content. I felt the scenes were realistic and honest – people who are depressed do hurt themselves and say very negative things, and often at least think about killing themselves. These kinds of thoughts and moments become the reality of people living with mental health, they become their normal. I think a lot of games either shy away from these jarring truths, or they sensationalise them. Stardew Valley just shows them.
Just showing these moments is what’s key in Shane’s arc being so good. The player is not actively involved in some of the scenes, they are merely a witness to them. And even better the player does not make Shane better. He does get better, seeking counselling, cutting back on alcohol and investing in a hobby he loves, but it all comes from him. Even in the scenes where you can interact with Shane (both before and after the events on the cliff side), Shane’s decision on whether to kill himself does not lie in the player’s hands.
I’ve been recently playing Life is Strange and I couldn’t help comparing the two games and their depictions of depression and suicide. In Life is Strange whether someone lives or dies completely depends on the player – whether they have gathered enough information to save someone’s life. While it is useful to think about how our actions affect others (people can and do become bullied so severely they take their own lives), the decision to commit suicide is the person’s own. Whether you stuck up for someone, or know they have a little sister isn’t enough to prevent suicide if someone’s mind is made up.
In Stardew Valley Shane’s recovery comes from himself, the player is just there to support him. Too often we see the trope of one person saving another through their love. When I was younger I believed this, and it ultimately caused me more hurt. Another person can help you, can support you, can inspire you to be a better person, but they cannot save you. I was very pleased to see that Shane makes no declarations that he was be saved and cured because of the player.
Finally, what I think is great about Shane’s arc, is that he isn’t 100% cured/better/happy. Even when you marry him and he quits his shitty job to raise chickens with the player. Sometimes he will still make comments about his anxiety or low self esteem. Again, this is more true to life. Many people do not become depressed once, get better, then move on with their life as if nothing happened, never to be sad again. Many people feel permanently wounded by their mental illness, even when they are ‘better’. While Stardew Valley has always been a quirky game, offering more than what you ay expect from a farming sim, I think it’s really cemented its place in my heart through its storytelling and characters. If only other games could depict mental health in such a way…