Speculation

Is the protagonist of Stardew Valley suffering from chronic illness?

By Geoffrey Bunting     

For the past two years I have suffered from chronic illness. It’s a hard road; it makes pretty much everything ten times more difficult than it should be – and that’s on a good day. It stops me working or having much fun, and it makes the simplest tasks impossible on the bad days. Representation of these kinds of illnesses is poor across most mediums, with the few films that include chronically ill characters falling woefully wide of the actual mark. Games don’t seem to have an representation of this constantly growing population. Which isn’t surprising. After all, a game about someone who is constantly tired doesn’t sound particularly dynamic.

Has this changed recently? This is uncertain, but when I started playing Stardew Valley I was struck by how relatable the energy management system in the game was. In particular that it looked remarkably like the energy progress of a person hit with an energy crisis. I use this phrase “energy crisis”, as opposed to singling out a particular illness, as sufferers of named illnesses like cancer and heart failure also experience this kind of crisis, as well as those caught underneath the umbrella terms of CFS, Fibromyalgia, IBS, or NDS, et al.

In a lot of ways, Stardew Valley’s energy management system is no different to any other. And yet there are a couple of ways in which it is distinct. The majority of these systems, time passes in blocks, with an activity available in each block, until the day is over. Others, such as Minecraft, rely on a system of retention and renewal, in which one must eat to regain energy and, so long as there is food available, one can keep going and going without rest. Furthermore, should you not have food, you can still move around, trying to find your way home in order to regain energy. In Stardew Valley, however, the day can end at any point. If you don’t have energy bolstering supplies and run low, you have no choice but to go to bed and thus end the day. Should you feed your energy late into the night, eventually you will simply collapse regardless of your energy level. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, should you find yourself collapsing or running out of energy, the next day you will start off with half your usual energy meter.

This combination of energy and management and punitive measures for those careless enough not to pay attention to their energy loss, specifically the leftover and somewhat delayed fatigue, lend itself to the concept that our main character may well be suffering from a chronic condition – specifically, a kind of chronic fatigue.

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Chronic fatigue (commonly referred to as CFS/ME) is a condition characterised by intense fatigue that far transcends simple tiredness or weariness. It is a fatigue that doesn’t adhere to our usual ideas of tired in that it is often delayed or spontaneous, and can cause a number of transient or permanent symptoms alongside.

Some people can live relatively normal despite their illnesses; others are completely disabled and remain bedridden for the rest of their lives. Despite the obvious suffering of patients, chronic illnesses are much maligned by the medical mainstream. As a result, these conditions often go untreated and unchecked, leaving its sufferers to either succumb or try to work through life in spite of their condition.

One of the patterns prevalent in sufferers is the overworking of the body on the good days. When you feel terrible every day these things become normalised, so that even the most meagre improvement can drive one to overdo it. This often lands the sufferer feeling even worse the next day, all for the sake of a little extra activity.

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It is this pattern that we can see in Stardew Valley.

Energy runs low at variable points in the day, depending on activities undertaken. Naturally, the more physical activities (farming, watering, fighting) take more energy than those that are less demanding (such as fishing, harvesting, feeding animals, foraging). Taking on more of the former activities energy can run low early in the day and with the latter the player can get through the day with ease.

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The actual energy management elements aren’t the most important considerations, but what I want to focus on is the ramifications for ignoring your energy in Stardew Valley. As I said, overdoing it one day while suffering with chronic fatigue can leave you drained the next. This is true in Stardew Valley also. If you let your energy level drop to zero you are driven to bed and you will start the next day with half your usual energy. Similarly, if you are out past two in the morning your fatigue overtakes you and you have to be taken home by a Joja employee, resulting again in depleted energy the next day.

It is this inability to bounce back from depleted energy that most resonates as a chronic fatigue effect. A delayed onset of fatigue is one of the most debilitating symptoms of CFS, not least because it has a way of lulling you into a false sense of security and creeping up on you. This is true for our character in Stardew Valley also, as it is easy to lose track of their energy levels when distracted by the tasks we’re making them complete.

The most compelling piece of evidence towards this concept is seen right at the beginning of the game. One purported cause for chronic illness is prolonged stress, which in turn puts pressure on the immune system and leads to the onset of chronic symptoms. And in the opening cut scene we see our character mournfully staring into his or her computer screen at the Joja Corporation, the exact moment they decide to pack it in and move to Stardew Valley. Well, what if this is end of the character’s efforts to carry on working? I know that I experienced this exact moment; the moment when I knew I just couldn’t carry on anymore.

All of this adds up to a very real possibility that our Stardew avatar has moved to the country not just to escape the rat-race, but also to try and find some respite from an illness that doesn’t let up in our modern world.

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