Thursday, July 21, 2016

Down On The Farm: Portrayals of Mental Illness In Stardew Valley

 I started playing Stardew Valley because it was right up my alley: a Harvest Moon-inspired farming sim with a charming in-game world and a slew of enjoyable characters.

I kept playing Stardew Valley not just because it offered a wonderful world, charming characters, and engrossing gameplay (although it does) but because of the nuance just beneath the surface.  So many of the characters felt familiar to me, were people with problems I recognized from growing up in a rural small town.  They're complex and interesting; even the most stereotypical characters venture beyond the rote roles expected of them.

Oh, and some of them struggle with mental illness.

In fairness, it's hardly as though portrayals of mental illness are new to video games.  But I'll be damned if I've ever seen a nuanced portrayal in a farming sim, of all places, nor one that feels so spot-on.  Mental illness isn't at the center of Stardew Valley, but I think that's precisely why it works: these characters deal with their mental illnesses as a matter-of-fact reality, and as a participant in their lives the player begins to gain some understanding of the shape that these issues take over time and why they aren't always neatly resolved.

There are several characters throughout the game who appear to struggle with mental illness, among them the elderly George (who may well be depressed) and Pam, who is an implied alcoholic.  But for the purposes of this essay, I'm going to focus on two in particular: Kent and Sebastian.

Fair warning: spoilers follow.

The essay is broken into two sections:

I. Kent, PTSD, and The Family
II. Sebastian, Depression, and Marriage

I. Kent, PTSD, and The Family

Kent is Jodi's husband and the father of two sons, Sam and Vincent.  He's also a soldier who has been away at war with the Gotoro empire.  Kent first appears in Year 2, and the player knows of him in Year 1 only inasmuch as his absence affects his family; Jodi has her hands full as the only caregiver, and a cut scene shows Sam comforting his younger brother, who fears their father won't come home.

Well, Kent does come home, but the homecoming is a restless one.  His lines to the player are bleak: he remarks that he doesn't know what to do with himself now that he lacks the structure of the military, and feels that the (genuine) peacefulness of the town is "a mask."  Unlike the other townspeople, he doesn't have an occupation or any real hobby that seems to occupy his time, and so he often wanders from the river to his house and then back again.  Kent is aimless in the most literal sense of the word.

All of that would be problematic enough if it didn't become clear from later events that he has what we might understand as post-traumatic stress disorder, though the disorder is never named.  If the player presents Kent with a "bad" gift, he replies that he received something similar in a Gotoro prison camp during the war and shudders as though he is having a flashback.  Later in a cut scene when his wife makes popcorn, Kent freaks out because the popping reminds him of gunfire and grows angry at her - even though popcorn was once his favorite food.

 So what we have is a military vet who is struggling to readjust to life at home, who has no real purpose now in the life he's returned to, who went through traumatic experiences during his service, and who experiences flashbacks and mental anguish that interfere with his relationships and day-to-day functioning.

What I like about Stardew is that, rather than present a pat answer to this obvious struggle - rather than trying to make him better or break him completely or give him a neat, happy ending - it simply depicts the way that this struggle impacts both Kent and his family.  At the same time, the game is also careful to show that while Kent's issues will be indefinite and will continue to trouble him, they also don't compose the sum total of who he is or how his family loves and lives together.

Because Kent's issues aren't going to be easily remedied. Even though we see him making steps toward recovery - he reconciles with his wife after the popcorn incident, and they all agree to move forward together supporting each other - we also see that a lot of the damage in his life is, if not irreparable, a long way from healing.  Kent remarks poignantly that the player must know Sam, his oldest son, better than he does.  Vincent struggles because his father doesn't play with him like before.  And Jodi's (occasionally embittered) focus on maintaining a sparkling and functional home life at all costs speaks to the outer perfectionism that comes from a deep inner wound.

And yet for all that, the family also seems to be a happy one. Jodi and Kent spend time together and at home with their children.  One cut scene shows them warmly inviting the player into their home for a big family meal of largemouth bass. Kent himself makes friendly overtures to the player, commenting on what he's learned about the town and its newest member since he's been away.

So many portrayals of PTSD that I've seen often offer up characters whose mental illness eventually drives them to a horrible breaking point - or, at some point, vanishes completely when they are "healed."  What I love about Stardew's portrayal of Kent is that it shows us what PTSD looks like as a lived experience that is simply present: not something always crushing, but something that is at times enormously difficult for a man and his family to bear.  Something that can suddenly choke away moments of happiness, but that also cannot prohibit them.

II. Sebastian, Depression, and Marriage 

This same sensitivity in Stardew extends to the character of Sebastian, who as a marriageable character receives a great deal of development.  Sebastian is actually the initial character who woke me up to Stardew's skill in drawing out the nuances of mental illness, because he is both charming and frustrating, vulnerable and annoying, all at once - and interrogating my responses to his character made me see him a little more clearly.  It's worth talking about how the game manages his condition and offers a tempered, even thoughtful, view of what it's like to live with with depression.

Sebastian lives with his mother, Robin, his step-father Demetrius, and his half-sister Maru in a house in the mountains.  The game does not make the origins of his biological father clear, but what becomes evident immediately is that Sebastian does not feel he's treated as part of the family.  Segregated to the basement where he works as a freelance developer, he feels both unloved and unwanted and complains of being treated unfairly by his stepfather.  He is convinced that his family favors Maru.

Beyond this, Sebastian is often portrayed in fandom as Stardew's resident emo character/edgelord, probably because his in-game sprite would fit right in with the South Park goths.  He likes coffee and he smokes (both cigarettes and weed, if the infamous bong in his room is any indication), plays the Stardew equivalent of D&D, and loves comics, winter, cold, bats, skeletons, and darkness while simultaneously abhorring summer, sunlight, large crowds and happy festivals. He philosophizes. He likes to sneak out to the mines.  His best friends are the guitarist/skateboarder Sam and the gamer geek Abigail, and he spends his spare time shooting pool or playing in a band with them.

But Stardew is careful, I think, to draw the line of Sebastian's struggles far beyond "emo" and affectation by revealing in measured glimpses that what he actually seems to be dealing with is depression (although, as with Kent's PTSD, the illness is not named, and you could also infer anxiety as being part of his condition). 

The first clue is how difficult it actually is to meet Sebastian in-game; he stays in his basement room near-constantly, stirring only infrequently to stand outside and smoke or come into town to see friends.  He doesn't interact with many of the townspeople and seems to abhor the local festivals and events, confessing to the player in one of their "heart" events that it's because he gets anxious and overwhelmed around too many people. 

Once you do get to know Sebastian, he's willing to confess his tendencies and his struggles - and a lot of his struggles fall in line with classical symptoms of depression.  He has insomnia and troubled sleep patterns, sometimes staying awake until 5 a.m. and then sleeping until two in the afternoon; he deals with nightmares and often goes out wandering at night.  He struggles with setting goals or going through with routines, often falling into apathy or indifference in spite of his own desire to accomplish things - and then beats himself up for it, wondering if drinking more coffee or simply trying harder will fix it.

Moreover, Sebastian struggles with deep sadness and a profound lack of self-worth.  He makes it clear to the player that some days he struggles to even get out of bed and often wonders if everything he's doing is worthwhile.  Alone in a windowless basement and overwhelmed by the thought of interacting with so many "happy" people outside, he keeps working and hopes he'll make enough to move to the city one day.  This sense of alienation seems to be exacerbated by his family; Sebastian frequently complains that his step-sister Maru is the favorite and that he suffers as a result.  One of the neat tricks that Stardew pulls in this regard is to show that while Sebastian might be taking some of these family interactions too much to heart, he's also not wrong: while Robin expresses some concern about her son to the player (but never to Sebastian himself), Demetrius talks about Maru and Robin in glowing and radiant terms and never mentions Sebastian as all, as though he's not even a member of the family.

It's worth noting, too, that in the summer - the month in which he's most miserable and in which he is most vocally depressed - Sebastian makes visits to Harvey's clinic for undisclosed treatment - something that, to me, hints a little bit at SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Again, Stardew seems invested not in "healing" these characters who struggle, but in portraying the struggle as a natural part of their lives. This actually played a large part in my initial frustration with Sebastian when I married him in-game.  He was my second marriage; my first had been with Elliott, the resident writer-poet, who spent most of his time showering me with effusive adoration and poetic sentiment, promising to tend to the home and all its sundry needs in my absence. Accustomed to that, I married Sebastian...and found him to be quite different.

Because in Stardew, love and even the promise of a better life don't "cure" Sebastian's depression. And I find it so honest and fascinating to see that portrayed in a game.

Certain things, of course, do change for the better when you marry.  Sebastian makes it clear that he feels loved and wanted for perhaps the first time in a long time, and expresses his appreciation for that.  He is affectionate and loving and romantic, in the earnest and vulnerable way unique to his character.  He thanks the player for the player's hard work, and he also starts to grow accustomed to farm life, admiring the view from the house, expressing enthusiasm about the solitude and his new routine, and doing some of the farm chores.  He frets over the player character going to the mines, expresses a desire to warm them up when they are cold, and thinks it's cute that the player character talks in their sleep.  He also offers up this joking gem of a line after he thanks you earnestly for supporting him:

"Hey. Look at me...never forget that I love you.
Now go make us some money."

But he also struggles.  He doesn't magically become a happy-go-lucky poet who desires to participate fully in the community.  Some mornings, he'll offer the player character coffee, explaining that he couldn't sleep because of nightmares, or an obsidian because he decided to walk to the mines when he was struggling with insomnia.  He occasionally expresses his desire to be alone - although, touchingly, explains explicitly that his desire to be away from people has nothing to do with you and that he loves you.  At the end of the day, he will occasionally admit that he did nothing but read comic books, or that he lost track of time and therefore can offer nothing more than frozen pizza for dinner.  He grows fonder of some of the festivals over time, but still doesn't like the thought of being surrounded by so many people. 

Sebastian can be an incredibly frustrating character.  As a player, I sometimes just wanted him to be happier damn it or to stop dwelling so much on his own problems or to pay attention to something else besides his own issues. But that's the struggle with depression, isn't it? And that's why this portrayal struck such a chord with me. It isn't something that just magically stops or goes away because you wish it would.  It's a sickness with symptoms that seriously interfere with your life and even your relationships, and it can be frustrating not just for the people suffering from it but for those who love them. 

Depression tends to be romanticized in media, I find - it becomes this disease of exquisite suffering.  In real life, depression can be ugly. And sometimes just annoying.  Moreover, loving someone with depression is hard because no one has infinite patience, and when those suffering from depression can't function, their loved ones without depression sometimes have to shoulder the burden of general life responsibilities.  Plus the symptoms of depression themselves can be quite trying - not just for the sufferer, but for those who serve as their supports.

But it isn't hopeless.  Much as with Kent, Stardew shows us that while Sebastian still has issues, it's possible for him to grow and flourish even as he deals with them.  Post-marriage, he's in noticeably brighter spirits, even if he needs to be alone or find some time to himself.  He takes to fatherhood like a duck to water. He tries to help out around the home, to affirm the player character, and decides to quit smoking because "I don't wanna die on you.  It's a bad habit."  In short, he's working on getting better, and while improvements don't come quickly, he's making progress and living a full and fulfilling life even while he's in the process.

And that I think is the grand success in general of Stardew Valley as far as characterization goes.  So many of the characters in-game have these intriguing, odd little stories and problems, and they somehow just make it work.  Not every marriage is happy (I have my suspicions about Leah and Pierre), not every person is fulfilled (poor Clint and his unrequited love), and not every story ends happily (I'm not sure if Pam can ever make up for Penny's whole miserable life and upbringing), but somehow everyone just keeps on keeping on.

That's why the portrayals of mental illness in Stardew, such as they are, work so well.  The characters aren't written as the illnesses - they simply live with them.  Showing the nature of that struggle, of what it means to deal with something difficult while you live your life anyway, is what takes this game a notch above some other portrayals.

I love it.  I hope you love it, too.

I am currently on a hiatus while I devote my attention to other work.  But "hiatus" doesn't necessarily mean "gone" - you can look for random pieces like this from time to time.

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