If nothing else, 2016 was a great year for video games. One game that I did not expect to catch my interest as much as it did was the indie computer game Stardew Valley. Inspired by Harvest Moon, this farming simulator with old-school graphics seems deceptively simple, but has a surprisingly large scope in what you can do with it. You’re primarily a farmer, but you can also fight slime monsters in the abandoned mines, or perhaps you would like to cultivate a fine wine and cheese collection using the milk from animals you raise. Or do this all and much more.
Of course, Stardew Valley would not be a true simulation game without a dating component. There are twelve romanceable characters whom you can date and even marry regardless of gender—and all at the same time if you so desire. All of the eligible bachelors/ettes have their own quirks and storylines that play out as you get to know them. You can date a manic pixie dream girl who dances to her own psychedelic hallucinations, a goth who almost never leaves his basement, or a jock who probably eats five dozen eggs every morning to help him get large. All of these characters are delightful in their own weird ways, but there’s one particular storyline that really hit me.
On my first day in Pelican Town as the new farmer, I was genuinely met with a warm welcome from the mayor, the carpenter, the general store owner, and various other townsfolk.
And then there was Shane, who gruffly muttered, “Why are you talking to me?”
I tried to get to know Shane over the next few days, as our paths crossed while he was on his way to work at the soul-sucking JojaMart, but every time the scruffy asshole saw me, he told me that I had better things to be doing.
How rude! I thought, going into full Elizabeth Bennet-mode. He thinks he’s so cool! Well, I’LL SHOW HIM. And then I aggressively planted eight parsnips.
Spoiler Alert: Yes, I would end up marrying this rude man.
Because I thought his annoyance was hilarious, I proceeded to pester Shane at the local saloon every night until he acknowledged how awesome I was. Little by little, he started to warm up to me by stuffing pizzas in my mailbox (signing his notes with a “tehe”), having deep conversations about the meaning of life, and even apologizing for his previous behavior. I found out that he was raising his friends’ daughter because they died, and he’s also learning how to raise his aunt’s chickens. By this point, I was crushin’ pretty hard, so I stalked him relentlessly, seducing him with his favorite food, hot peppers.
And then shit got real.
As Shane’s storyline unfolds, the player discovers that he suffers from severe depression and anxiety, hence why he is suspicious when other people are nice to him. In one cut scene, you find him wasted after a failed suicide attempt. After this event, he tells you he is going to stop drinking and start going to therapy. He starts focusing on the positive things in his life, like his goddaughter and the blue chickens he’s been secretly keeping (he is pretty fucking rad, guys).
And it was all thanks to the healing power of love!
Or at least, that’s the 13-year-old fangirl-in-me way of looking at things.
What I love about Shane’s storyline is that you’re not the one who “saves” him. He doesn’t start fighting against his depression because he wants you to love him, or because you’re trying to change him, but because he wants to get better for himself. Sure, your support definitely helps him, and he is appreciative of it, but he grows because he wants to. When romancing the other characters, most of their cut scenes involve them trying to befriend you or awkwardly flirting with you. But through Shane’s cut scenes, we see him confront his inner demons and cultivate the positives in his life. The game is very aware in the sense that it doesn’t make the basis of your relationship with Shane a hurt/comfort fanfiction where he is dependent on you to “heal” him, because that would be toxic and unhealthy for you both. It isn’t until after Shane makes positive changes in his life that he pursues you romantically, and I appreciate the game for doing that, as well as including storylines on PTSD, disability, and homelessness for other characters.
I also love Shane because he’s relatable. In a world where dateable video game characters are mostly hot, superpowered, and have angsty backstories that the player can’t truly sympathize with, Shane is a breath of fresh air. He’s a scruffy, out-of-shape, 20–30 something with a sucky job, and he’s still trying to figure himself out. His guilty pleasure is pizza rolls. He has an existential crisis every other day. He cuddles with his chickens when no one is looking. And, as someone who has been coping with anxiety and on-off depression for most of my adult life, I get him. Animals can be a brilliant remedy to mental health problems so take a look at these wooden chicken coops if you’re thinking of raising pets that give something back. There are days when he relapses and thinks terrible thoughts, or when he just doesn’t have the motivation to leave bed. But then there are other days where he’ll fix all your fences and feed all the animals before six to show his appreciation, even though you know this isn’t easy for him. For many, anxiety and depression aren’t just problems that “go away” once you are in a relationship, and I appreciate that the game treats this realistically.
When I really sat back and thought about it, I realized how important it was to have a storyline like this. Many geeky people such as myself who play these types of games often have varying degrees of anxiety and depression. Like Shane, we can come off as aloof to strangers because we build walls. So when people actively try to befriend us, we’re kind of baffled and don’t really know how to “friend” back. After dating Shane for about a year in the game, when I finally proposed to him, he still thought it was some kind of elaborate prank. (And let’s be real, it kind of did start off that way. It makes for a great “holy crap I pretended to fall for this person and actually did” rom-com trope.) Shane’s storyline is a great reminder to people struggling with mental health issues that they are not unlovable, and while they should be open-minded to new relationships, to know that healing doesn’t come from romance, but from finding meaning in this crazy blink-of-an-eye thing we call life (hence why this game could not come at a better time in my opinion). In Shane’s case, that’s through chickens, pizza rolls, and squishy things, and honestly, that’s A+ partner material right there.
Screenshots via Katy Mastrocola