Marketing is a tricky thing, especially in video games and with me being skeptical about everything a company/publisher tries to sell, with all the overhyping and ‘buzzwords’ they throw at you to get your attention. However, I was never sold as quickly and as efficiently with a simple description as I was with Spiritfarer, which claimed to be a “cozy management game about dying”. Having spent dozens of hours with the game, I can safely say that, not only does Thunder Lotus deliver on this premise, but they have in their portfolio, one of the most unique and poignant experiences of the year. They have made one of those rare games that try to deliver a narrative that excels at being interactive, where the mechanics, the writing, the art, the music, and the design are not adapted to the format, but are only possible in the format.
Despite how there’s so much more to Spiritfarer beyond that simple description, that’s all you really need (and should) know; this game is a cozy management-sim about dying. You are Stella who, alongside Daffodil your pet cat, become the new Spiritfarer, taking over from Charon, and must ferry spirits to the afterlife. This means hosting them on your boat, doing favors for them and tending to their needs until they are ready to “move on”. However, this a layered experience and that summary is only the surface level; underneath, there are tons of features and decisions that expand the experience, but (most importantly) enhance that core idea. You are a Spiritfarer and you will spend time learning and caring for spirits, who will, in turn, learn to trust and love you, until they accept the inevitable and ask to “move on”.
Keeping that in mind, the game has a ton of influences and numerous genres within; obviously in its core it is a narrative-driven, resource management game, but you will also find rhythm mini-games, metroidvania inspired exploration and progression, platforming, and QTEs just to name a few. The true achievement of this game is that despite all of its influences, it manages to coherently merge all of its ambitious ideas and philosophies into a delightfully bittersweet experience; every meter you fill, every milestone you hit, directly enhances the core idea and elevates the experience. It does not split gameplay from narrative, progression from narrative cohesion, primary loops from themes; everything works because of each other, not in spite of each other.
The art style is a beautifully animated and colorful, a purposeful juxtaposition to the heavy themes of the game to allow reflection on what the death of a person leaves behind and how we can be both serious and joyous when dealing with such subjects, because life is always more than just doom and gloom even when it is nearing its end; it is also a great way to color-code important resources and make the action more visible and exciting. The orchestral soundtrack elevates the melancholy of saying goodbye, the heart-warming breakthrough of someone’s defenses, the picturesque silence of the night sky; it also serves as the perfect backdrop for exploring, creates excitement during a thrilling mini-game, and rewards after mastering a new skill. This are just some of the myriads of examples of how this game takes advantage of the format to deliver an impactful and thought-provoking experience, using gameplay and narrative in combination.
Moreover, Spiritfarer is an open-ended game, meaning that besides the very first spirit, every other spirit can be discovered and invited on board at (mostly) any order; there are still some restrictions like needing movement abilities to access certain areas and boat upgrades to be able to travel in certain parts of the map, but this ties into the metroidvania inspirations. This was, by far, the most pleasant surprise of the game. Setting a destination on your map, tending to your crops, guests, and working in your buildings to craft resources, cook food, catch fish (amongst many other activities), only to discover a new island that brings new resources to gather/craft, use your new movement abilities or get find areas inaccessible with your current ones, meet new spirits or complete quests from your list, until night falls and sun rises to do it all over again. Without a doubt, some will find this repetitive, but the way this is contextualized made me care deeply and not feel that repetitiveness. Moreover, I felt that the game nails the balance of allowing the player to have a rigid and efficient routine, but always throwing or hinting at something new that will disrupt that and force the player to adapt if they want to remain efficient; regardless, the game nails the “cozy” part of its tagline and that’s the one that truly matters in this case.
However, the open-ended nature of the game can also morph into a negative, which is what happened with me for a significant part of mid-game; the islands are so plentiful, the avenues of progression are so many, that I hit a point where I had a couple of spirits on board and was pretty smooth sailing for a while, without really knowing what I needed to do to progress. So, I grinded all the resources I needed and made all the improvement I could before hitting another dead end; then, I started wandering to each island trying to figure out what my next move would be, and before long, I had found a spirit that I could persuade to get onboard. Which meant that I had now unlocked a resource needed to complete many upgrades, which meant going further and faster, which got me more spirits and quests, and not too long after, I had 5 spirits all with their own unique needs and wants. At this point, it stopped being cozy or slow-burning (which is where it truly shines) and it started being frantic; the spirits were no longer characters, they were quest givers; their favors were no longer a glimpse in their past and psyche, they were points in a crowded timeline I needed to make time for. I have conflicting feelings about this structure; on the one hand, an ODST type of structure (where levels are linear, but a group of them can be played at any order, before moving on to the next level) would erase this risk, but one of the most memorable moments of the game happened because of that structure, so it’s a lose-lose situation.
At this point, I want to issue a warning: Everything you need to know for Spiritfarer as a game is above, and if you have even the slightest of interest for it, then you should play this game. Below, I’m going to start discussing the writing, the characters, the story, and how all of that mixes with the above; I will not spoil anything, but characters, names, and examples will be mentioned and that can inadvertently spoil something or set expectations some may not want. So, I encourage you to stop here and come back when you are done with the game!!
The aforementioned experience is actually quite spoillery, so forgive the vagueness, but I think it is a perfect reference to explore the game. During your first trip to bring a spirit to the everdoor (where spirits arrive to “move on” to the afterlife) you will encounter a character, who promises to meet you again later on; after a number of visits, the encounter is repeated and this time they tell you what will happen, which will impact the rest of your playthrough. I was not ready for this and did not want it; for a few agonizing seconds, I thought this would be a mandatory activity, but instead it gets added to your quest list. In retrospect, I kind of wished the game forced you to do it because it would have made an impactful point upon the player, but, ultimately, I’m glad it did not. In a movie, this would have been pointless and poor pacing; in a book, it would have made for effective foreshadowing, but it would lack the impact; in most other games, it would have been treated as a decision that would affect endings and gameplay metrics that would give weight to the interactivity, but also made it clearly artificial in nature. In Spiritfarer, it is masterfully subdued in its non-interactivity and how it allows the experience to adapt with the knowledge of that encounter.
In many ways that is how I can explain how impactful and meaningful this game is. The writing is fantastic, but not in relation to other mediums or other games; I just can’t imagine a version of this experience delivered any better, in terms of the writing at least. The text is descriptive and expressive, to the point where pictures/scenes start forming in your head, but the meaning and themes behind that text is vague, so personal interpretation forms the details and the tone in your head. The characters are obvious stereotypes, but not of ethnicities or social groups; instead, they are vague enough characters with generalized enough concerns and experiences that allow for personal identification with them. Thus, they represent various ways of people dealing with death or specific reason of dying; some were clearly sick, others were old; for some characters, it isn’t about how they died, but how it affected them when they knew they were going to die, or how they look back in their lives now that their mortality comes into sharp focus. The story anchors everything with its beats and specific events that ever so slightly adjust the experience, without being overly ambitious or fast moving.
It all comes together wonderfully; building houses for your guests means finding out what they like and to do that they have to trust you; for them to trust you, you have to put in the effort like making their favorite food or helping them with a quest/facing their fears; while doing that you make them happier and they, in turn, have more quests for you, teach you useful things to progress/simplify the game, and even help out by doing tasks or gathering resources for you. The game allows for that by allowing its concept to breathe and be its better self; this is a game that nothing happens in. You have a boat and you upgrade it to house spirits, and when those spirits think it’s time, they ask you to take them to the everdoor, they move on, and so do you; repeat until the end. But, only through that structure and the meandering inherent to it, can you form bonds with the characters; many games allow you to build connections, but very few turn into personal bonds. It needs to allow waking up every day and hugging each spirit; it means that I knew each experiment of mine in the kitchen would have a happy recipient in Atul; it means that I get enough time to be with Summer, so that each time I use the technique she taught me, I think of her and our moments together; it means spending enough time wandering, so Stanley’s introduction is as impactful as it is.
That’s where Spiritfarer comes together; Alice, Astrid, Buck, and all the other characters were not quest givers to me. The game allowed me time and provided me with reason and means to explore them as characters and as abstract ideas to which I can relate my own experiences with my own people; as I spent more time with the game, I started seeing their quests, their predetermined animations and ending, not as code or text triggered by my actions, but as characters. That is why I remember all their names and stories, that is why when they all asked me to take them to the everdoor, I got teary-eyed, and that is why, without fail, each goodbye was a heartbreaking and emotional experience. In that sense, Spiritfarer is an ancient Greek tragedy; it allows us to explore an event and its consequences (which we hope not to happen) through safe means. I cried for Gwen, because I felt like I knew her, and by the end, this bittersweet and sweetly melancholic feeling rushed me. I don’t know what happens after we die, but if anything, Spiritfarer is a reminder that embracing the fact that we only know for sure that we have one life and we are conscious of the fact that that life will eventually end, doesn’t mean accepting defeat; it simply means that we should treat our life, the people in it, and our role in theirs, with more respect and purpose.