Games

'Spiritfarer,' A Game of Hugging and Letting Go, Is Perfect For Right Now

The craving for physical affection is poignant, after many of us have gone months without being able to hold our loved ones.
September 4, 2020, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the game Spiritfarer.
Screen shot courtesy of Thunder Lotus Games

Saying goodbye at the Everdoor is difficult: By the time you bid your spirit pals adieu you’ve learned their likes and dislikes, their thorny past, their hopes, their regrets. Even as you progress in the game, meet new characters, and help them move into the afterlife, that sense of loss never quite evaporates, though new friendships ease the grief. Eventually, you learn to live with it.

This is the heart of Spiritfarer, Thunder Lotus’s third title, a Greek mythology-inspired management game about death. In Spritifarer, you play as Stella, a ferrymaster who has taken the mantle of Charon, Hades’s emissary over the river Styx. Your job is to care for spirits who have boarded your ship—build lodging, cook favorite meals, and help them take care of unfinished business—before guiding them into the afterlife through the Everdoor. You do this by sailing to different islands, as well as building and managing haphazard facilities on your deck.

The gameplay mechanics of caring for spirits mirror pretty standard farming sim fare, with one key difference. Where management games frequently position the player as a capitalist, colonizer, or omniscient deity, Spiritfarer understands a very human condition—the notion that most of us have spent our lives doing things for the sake of others we love. In Spiritfarer, you’re ultimately seafaring, salvaging, building, gardening, or cooking for your guests, usually because they’ve asked you to. Your ship—which you must return to, and which you live on—reads as a memorial to the spirits you’ve cared for.

Though the game is thematically heavy, it bills itself as a “cozy management game about dying,” positioning it alongside other indie management games with a soft core, meant to be more relaxing than punishing.

“One thing that stuck out for us was the hotel-for-spirits idea from the movie Spirited Away,” Rodrigue Duperron, Thunder Lotus’s marketing director explained. “This also dovetailed nicely into a third track of inspiration: our fondness for farm/village simulators, like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and more recently, Stardew Valley.”

It does feel cozy—your boat glides over gentle waves, you can choose to watch the sun rise and set, and you can give the spirits on your boat a big hug. (The craving for physical affection is even more poignant now, after many of us have gone months without being able to hold our loved ones.)

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But sims with soothing atmospheres and twee characters can still be played in a way that’s decidedly unchill. Becoming rich from _Animal Crossing_’s “stalk market”—turnips can be bought on Sundays, and sold to the Nook brothers at a profit—has become a singular fixation for certain players, enabled by the Turnip Exchange Subreddit. Fans have built Nookazon, an online marketplace where items, recipes, and even popular villagers can be sold in exchange for Nook Miles Tickets. In this context, villagers are simply collectibles.

Stardew Valley can become a similar exercise in capitalist optimization, with players discussing the minutiae of profitability—like how to wedge more barrels into the basement—despite its storyline about eschewing the capitalist workday. You can also technically play the game without engaging with your neighbors at all.

Spiritfarer curbs this tendency by putting characters at the center. Quests involve tending to a spirit's specific needs, including building individualized living quarters and making favorite foods. You must sail to acquire seeds, wood, and ore for crafting upgrades, cooking meals, and increasing the size of your ship. Completing such quests—which is to say, meeting the needs of your spirit pals—is critical for advancing the narrative. By the same token, you also cannot move forward in the game without bringing your new friends through the Everdoor and into the afterlife. You must learn to let them go.

Light Metroidvania elements keep the fairly open world manageable, and gameplay is paced out by day, with your ship sailing itself once you set a destination, and pausing at nightfall. It’s a refreshing change of pace from games with infinite possibilities, though the breadth of tasks can sometimes feel overwhelming, and certain resource gathering related mini-games can become tiresome. An honestly satisfying couch co-op—your cat Daffodil can do everything Stella can, with the exception of dialogue—helps make things feel more manageable, rounding out a truly warm experience.

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The only real disappointment is the number of game-breaking bugs, one of which causes the player to totally freeze up, unable to move. Some players have had to start the game all over again. (Duperron said the team was addressing these bugs “as soon as humanly and logistically possible” with “severe issues already resolved for PC and Xbox One,” and PS4 and Nintendo Switch on the way.) [ Editor's Note: The developer also_ recently responded to criticisms about one storyline in the game being ableist, both apologizing and pledging to "reexamine their work" and "correct this as warranted."]_

This freezing bug happened to me during a co-op playthrough (despite multiple reloads), right when I was supposed to sail my friend Gwen through the Everdoor. Stuck on a cliffhanger, I ended up replaying the game from the start, just to see what it would be like when she finally departed. I was rewarded with the vision of Gwen as a constellation in the night sky, followed by a JRPG-like sequence where I platformed through an aurora borealis, triggering scenes of Gwen’s memories. I saw her childhood home, which I had recently sailed to to fetch her a favorite music box. I saw the vividly illustrated outline of her parents, who she struggled to maintain relationships with.

When I returned to my ship, it felt different, like returning to a hometown to find nothing externally had changed, even as I had. It was a familiar, personal grief—the mishmashed deck reminding me of the home of a deceased family member, a place that felt permanently altered, despite sporting no cosmetic differences. The future became an uncertain horizon without my first spirit companion’s advice to guide me.

So I took to the familiar routine. I used the loom, I made a cup of coffee—thinking of Gwen all the while. Weaving was Gwen’s favorite pastime and a skill she had taught me; coffee was her favorite drink—one I had built a field in order to grow and harvest beans for. When I finally plucked up the courage to go into Gwen's apartment, I found her bed shrouded in “spirit flowers.” I tucked away a single asphodel, and headed back on deck.