Trigger Warning: Suicide
This week, I started playing Stardew Valley, a farming simulator game available on the Nintendo Switch and PC. I knew from past experiences playing games like this that it would be all too easy to sink into the repetitive tasks, watering crops and taking care of animals and giving gifts to villagers until I could fulfill whatever oddly specific goals I would come up with. It’s how these games usually go, and I tend to keep an interest in games like these long after my friends have moved on to games with more varied gameplay.
In this instance, I was very surprised by the presence of a mental health journey, which was explicitly called out as such and made a part of the gameplay. It’s something I’ve never seen before, even after being a gamer my whole life.
This story centers around Shane, who is living with his aunt and goddaughter on a neighboring farm to the player’s. At first, he is completely unwilling to talk and open up, dismissing communication with rude remarks and pushing everyone away, including those who he cares about. He lives with alcoholism and doesn’t hesitate to drown his problems in beer at the local saloon, and he seems to have little more going on in his life than a dismal job at the local supermarket.
It would be easy to ignore Shane considering he doesn’t seem to want much interaction, but I became determined to befriend him to earn the exclusive ability to purchase and raise blue hens.
The relationship started slowly, his rudeness decreasing in extremely gradual increments as he began to open up. One night, he shared a beer with my character and began to discuss things that mattered to him. On another rainy night, my character found him at an absolute crisis point. (Spoilers for Shane’s 6-heart event below.)
My character, a farmer named Annie, finds Shane nearly passed out drunk, mumbling to himself on the edge of a cliff. He sees falling off the cliff as the only way to take control of his life, and to “dull the feeling of self-hatred.” He asks why he shouldn’t roll off the cliff right now, and the player then gets to choose from several different responses.
I chose the one I heard from my family when I asked a similar question years ago after a crisis of my own: that there’s so much to live for. He puzzles through it, voicing his thoughts and fears aloud. And then, Shane asks Annie to take him to the hospital, beginning to see the first inkling of hope.
The doctor tends to the physical effects of his overindulgence before recommending him to see a counselor, specifically using the words “I’m most worried about his mental health.” Never before have I seen the words “mental health” in a video game, and I was shocked to see that the doctor didn’t just sweep the mention of his suicidal thoughts under the rug for the sake of the player.
As the days go by, Shane goes to see the counselor and begins therapy. He slowly gets better over time; in a later scene, he chooses sparkling water over beer, and uses the money he would have spent on beer to buy his goddaughter a special gift. He also rediscovers his passion for taking care of a flock of blue hens, which he offers to share.
Only by experiencing this journey can any player unlock blue hens, which means even people who wouldn’t be inclined to look into Shane’s depression will still share this journey with him, even if only for the reward.
Watching these scenes reminded me of tough times in my own life not too dissimilar. I was never on the edge of a physical cliff, but mental ones have presented hurdles that are just as foreboding. Five years ago, when I was mired in the deepest mental health crisis of my life so far, I think it would have been comforting to see that other people were dealing with thoughts like these, and they could get help too.
Mental illness can be extremely isolating. Even with people who try their best to understand, it still sometimes feels like you’re the only person in the world who has to deal with what’s in your mind. Shane’s story was particularly meaningful to me because when I had thoughts of suicide, I felt like every time I shared them, I lost another friend, another acquaintance would look past me, another person would get scared off even before I had time to explain that thoughts are different from actions, and I never had any plans to do anything. Showing a scene like this could have helped me express my thoughts better at a time when I felt like my brain wasn’t working right.
As for Shane, he is now a proud husband and father who still has some depressed thoughts, voicing them to his wife Annie from time to time. But they’re peppered in with happier things, giving him the variety he needs to thrive.
The game is full of stories like Shane’s, just like in real life. But unlike in real life, they’re brought out into the open, leaving room for learning, hope, and positive change. With more exposure like this, people dealing with all sorts of mental illnesses can have a springboard to discuss this topic with friends and loved ones, and for once not feel quite so alone.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.