Spiritfarer: Death, Emotion, and the Weight of Video Games

I stare at the shimmering spirit on the island. It’s asked me to fetch a friend for a lonely sheep, acting adorable all the while. I know what it… she is going to say. She’s going to say she wants to join me too, because I… Stella has shown kindness. She’ll come onto my ship and transform into an adorable little hedgehog woman.

That hedgehog is going to peter around my ship, doting on the various characters like the loving grandmother she is. She’ll cook for the boat, help with the sheep, and eventually decide she wants an adventure of her own. As I love her and pretty well all the spirits on my… Stella’s journey, I’ll do that.

She recalls books that we… that she and Stella have read, grand adventures that take place in cold climes. So she asks to go to one. She’ll get wrapped up in a fantasy she shares with you, narrating it while she climbs and explores this relatively tame little icy village.

Eventually she gets a little too worked up. She needs Stella to take her back to the ship, to help her. She’ll rest. Then she realizes that she can’t quite climb around like she used to. Others suggest moving her house (she’d never do so herself). I also move the Orchard she loves to tend and the sheep nearby, so she can still visit them.

Then she starts forgetting. Forgetting where she is. Forgetting who I… who Stella is. Forgetting everything. She needs caring. And eventually… eventually she needs to go through the gate.

That is the story of Alice, filtered through my experiences of her. The first time I played this game, I managed to hold out against the raw, personal feelings of emotion through the first few spirits. Gwen, Stella’s best friend, got me and I did try to hold onto her as best I could. Summer, cancer survivor… then victim, made me sad, but she seemed to accept her fate. Alice… Alice broke me. I bawled like a small child.

I cried when I played her story the second time, and I knew what was coming. I tear up a little as I write this now.

This is the power of Spiritfarer, and in some ways, it fully demonstrates all that video games have the potential to be (though I’ve harped on those points before).

The main thrust of Spiritfarer is that you control Stella, a nurse who awakens in semi mysterious circumstances in a strange, animated world. She’s either mute or now chooses to be, as she wakes alongside Daffodil her cat. She’s greeted by Charon, the Spiritfarer, who helps spirits finish their last bits of unfinished business before taking them through the gate to the other side.

The basic goal is to steer your ship around a map, gathering spirits and helping them. There’s a management aspect here: the spirits need regular food, which first means gathering fruits and berries but soon means using a kitchen to cook ingredients. They need place to live, which means harvesting. This build the management aspect more and more, as you add buildings to your boat and essentially create a floating community, a hodgepodge of necessary buildings and quirky characters.

Throughout, Stella moves in a 2D plane, running and jumping and moving in a manner not unlike a metroidvania. The world does open up as you get new abilities, and it feels like they are borrowing some from those elements. The platforming is pretty forgiving, as is the game itself. There’s no clock beyond what you set, there’s no lose state, there’s only the journey and what stretches before you.

Each of Spiritfarer’s spirits is inspired, directly or indirectly, by an actual person. I know this from both the end credits, which directly lists several people who have passed, and from watching a documentary on the subject (told you I really love this game). This lends them a degree of realness that can’t be easily emulated. They all feel like someone you probably lost: an old relative who drifted, a struggling mental patient, a child taken too soon, that relative who just vanished, a friend who died too young. They resonate with the audience because they resonated with the creators.

The game is truly about becoming comfortable with death. We invite it onto our ship, we care for those that we know are going to pass through a gate. The release and leaving is inevitable: we can only progress through the game by letting go of those around us. There’s an almost zen state to it.

Added onto this are contemplations on meeting our ending fate. How do we choose to face it? Do we try to leave behind something, like Gustav the art collector? Do we anticipate the nothingness, like Jackie the troubled (hyena) man? Do we celebrate the next journey? Do we greet it as an old friend? We see different ways of staring down death, but we’re always journeying with it, feeling its weight and understanding that it is going to happen.

The gameplay adds to this experience. We’re taking care of these spirits and embodying Stella throughout the journey. Again, we set our pace: we choose where we go, which missions we do, who we help. This mostly works to the games advantage: there are a few times that gets frustrating (you have to do fishing to find on spirit, and as fishing is a time intensive task with little reward, it’s likely you drop this like I did… twice).

The goal of the game is immersion, like any game. We are to embody and essentially become Stella: to work out her job of caring for others. Each and every spirit is so well written that you’ll likely come to care for all of them. Even the characters that are “jerks,” like Bruce and Mikey (who imply they may have murdered someone) or Jackie ( who has a temper problem and some mental issues) come off as well rounded and lovable. The game deals with mental illness and the approach of death brilliantly. On top of Alice, Beverly, an adorable little chicken, also suffers some memory loss and needs reminding of where she is and who (she’s also a bit more paranoid/snippy).

There’s also Darla, a very strange bat customer who lives in the belfry of a hospital. It took me a bit to realize the joke there, and it felt less teasing or insulting than clever. It helps that Darla is just beautifully written. Her illness is portrayed as coming alongside brilliant bursts of art, and she discusses the struggles of creativity right alongside the fights to keep her mind above it all.

Her sections also include some gnarly platforming, the hardesti n the game.

The game encompasses all aspects of life, and almost feels like training to accept loss and to realize our own limitations. With the newest additions of the DLC, which includes Jackie, Darla, Beverly, and a few extra quests, the game feels like its’ tackling big things. Jackie/Darl’s bit in the hospital actually helps round out Stella as a character. She’s constantly buzzed on her beeper by Jackie, asked to come and help at the hospital simply because it’s what she does.

Which is what the game does: it allows you to step in. There’s no monsters to fight, no evil to fend off. It’s about caring for our fellows and learning to accept what’s to come. Also about farming enough fireglow to make the spicy food that our favorite chicken lady likes, but that’s all part of the fun (for the most part).

Spiritfarer doesn’t quite get everything right. The exploration sometimes feels a bit unrewarding; I occasionally didn’t want to go somewhere. There’s also some nuances to the crafting that get annoying: you often will find yourself missing one ingredient that only comes in a certain way (locking an entire area behind a spirit that requires fishing to get, for example). It can also almost feel like a chore instead of game, as you’re tending to the boat and helping people, but that’s part of management games in general.

To fight the dragon you must free the dragon

For me, this game is pretty much perfect. Yes, I obviously got frustrated. But that didn’t outweigh the emotional depth, or the sense of wonder, or the delight in meeting and interacting with these characters who feel like people. The game sets up a sensation of belonging and calm, of caring for each other, of learning to handle death. It’s an experience, and it’s one that everyone should try and seek out and find (particularly because, on sale, Spiritfarer is only $15; it’s full price is asking less than some garbage games do when they’re on sale).

10 this game is all but perfect, and its benefits push it to there for me. It’s one of my all time faves, and on some days, it may even just take that spot.

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