The developers of Spiritfarer describe it as a ‘cosy management game about dying’. With its whimsical soundtrack, its soft, dreamy landscapes, and its relaxing mechanics, this game is tender in multiple senses of the word: it is both compassionate and painful; gentle and raw.
This game invites players to take on the role of Stella, the newly appointed captain of a ship that ferries souls to the afterlife. Her predecessor is Charon – an imposing, hooded figure from Greek myth – who tasks Stella with collecting stranded souls from surrounding islands. These souls must be transported to the Everdoor, which is a golden arch wreathed with cherry blossom above a blood-red river. “Dying souls cannot pass on their own”, Charon informs her, so it is Stella’s job to provide them with the solace, comfort, and support they need “until their last breath”.
On first meeting Stella, some in-game characters comment that her warmth and approachability are a welcome change from Charon’s sombre, intimidating demeanour, mirroring the fact that Spiritfarer is a welcome departure from cold, comfortless dirges on dying. That isn’t to say that fear, regret, grief, and loneliness are excised from this game’s representation of death, but that these difficult experiences are cradled in acts of care and witnessed with love, understanding, and respect.
Players spend most of the game navigating the serene waters of the liminal seascape between life and death. The ebb and flow of pastel-coloured oceans is punctuated by a steady cycle of quiet, magnificent sunrises and sunsets, painted in electric pinks and coppers, followed by purple, star-lit nights, during which players are encouraged to rest. The islands that players can visit are rendered in a delicate, watercolour palette, and range from rural pastures to gritty cities, to tall mountains and deep mines.
As with many management games, players are encouraged to collect resources from these islands to craft items and amenities for their ship, including bespoke homes for the souls that they invite aboard. Buildings and facilities – including a vegetable plot, a loom, an iron forge, a windmill, a dairy, and an orchard, amongst other things – have to be carefully stacked on top of each other until Stella’s ship looks something like a game of Tetris played with freight containers.
The management mechanics feel meaningful because they are in service of preparing souls to journey to the Everdoor. In this way, Spiritfarer makes the most of the interactivity of videogames: when death often leaves the dying person and those around them feeling impotent and helpless, Spiritfarer gives players gestures to perform that provide emotional and physical relief for the dying. The endless collecting and crafting that form the core gameplay loop could be seen as mundane and repetitive, but because these gestures are expressions of affection designed to cater to the specific needs of each soul, Spiritfarer seems to imply that it is ‘the little things’ – the thoughtful management of everyday minutiae – that really matters at the end of life.
In addition to building houses for the souls, Stella can combine ingredients to cook them their favourite meals, hug them, and listen to their life stories. In fact, listening might be the most important service that Stella provides. Through conversations with the souls – who are represented as various anthropomorphic animals – players get glimpses into the passengers’ former lives. Although these portraits are brief and abstract, they feel believable, and the bonds that players form with the spirits feel real. Some spirits are irritable, exasperating, and belligerent, some are frightened and confused, but they are all very human – despite being depicted as deer, frogs, snakes, hedgehogs, parrots, and other lovingly animated animals. This impression of depth, complexity, and fidelity is perhaps rooted in the fact the developers drew inspiration from memories of their own lost loved ones to create these characters. What is more, the game’s creative director, Nicolas Guerin, spent time interviewing hospice patients and staff to better understand how different people experience their own mortality.
Over several hours of gameplay, players come realise that Stella, too, is on her deathbed. Through vignettes narrated by Stella’s sister – who is represented as a cloud of pink butterflies – players learn that Stella works as a palliative care nurse, which explains why she is so adept at soothing souls during their final moments.
The souls aboard the boat are Stella’s deceased friends, family members, and former patients. The game is careful not to universalise, preach, or philosophise (in fact, many of the spirits are frustrated in their attempts to find profound meaning in their own mortality), but within the mundanity and the mess of dying there are some shining epiphanies. For example, the youngest soul that Stella encounters – an energetic, creative eight-year-old represented as a mushroom that Stella grows from a spore in her floating allotment – confides in Stella that he worries he has disappointed his mother by not being able to ‘beat’ his terminal illness. His account of fighting to wake up on his deathbed recalls the ‘battle’ rhetoric often used to frame people’s experience with cancer. After a moment of reflection, the little boy decides, “It’s ok to lose sometimes”. In the context of a videogame – a medium in which death is a conventional metaphor for failure – this simple statement carries additional weight. It draws attention to the fact that in Spiritfarer dying is progression: it is a goal to achieve, and this makes the game’s emotional ending at once more satisfying and more poignant.
Stella’s sister reveals that Stella is currently in the hospital dying from an aggressive cancer, and so, at the close of the game, Stella herself must make her way to the Everdoor accompanied only by the player and her faithful feline companion, Daffodil.
Daffodil provides the opportunity for Spiritfarer to be played together by two people in local co-op mode, wherein one person takes on the role of Stella and the other of Stella’s cat. This means Spiritfarer is a perfect game to share with someone else – including someone who does not have extensive experience of gaming, or a pre-literate child. For this reason, Spiritfarer could be a valuable tool for scaffolding honest, accessible conversations about dying. The game is available to purchase here and can be played on the Nintendo Switch, PC, Playstation, and Xbox.
Posted: 15th December 2021