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I Don't Know If I've Fallen in Love with a Game as Quickly as Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer broke me. It's also a source of care and comfort I've desperately needed.

I don’t know if any game has captured me more thoroughly in an hour of fragmented sequences than Spiritfarer. Playing a demo of it a few weeks ago felt like the phenomenon of barely knowing someone — in this case, something — yet inexplicably sensing they’re special to you. By the end, it left me simultaneously broken and healed in the ways you feel after a loved one embraces you through a crying fit. Devastating, sure, but also warm, comforting, and secure. It’s been an act of care I’ve desperately needed.

Care feels seeped in every aspect of Spiritfarer because it’s an explicit priority. While this “cozy management game about dying” is about mortality at its core, creative director Nicolas Guérin tells me that, “all the mechanics here are revolving around care and the idea of caring for others.” You play as Stella, who becomes the Spiritfarer: a ferry master to the deceased who must help their spirits pass onto the afterlife. You do this by getting to know them, fulfilling personal quests so they can wrap up the loose ends in their lives, and caring for them.

The developers have stated that, while the game was inspired by titles like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley, the focus is on Spiritfarer‘s characters and their needs, rather than expansion and progression. However, there’s already plenty here to satisfy whichever kind of focus you favor. During the day, you’ll tend to crops, speak with spirits, do daily activities, and navigate your boat to different locations. At night, you can continue your work as the boat stops and all the spirits are fast asleep. This work consists of building homes for citizens once they board the ship, furnishing their lodgings, crafting items, and more.

While this description might sound simple, there is so much variety at work. For example, one spirit requested french fries: an endeavor that required farming sunflower seeds, gathering materials to construct a room in which to crush items, building the crusher, crushing the seeds into oil, and using the oil to fry the fries. One of the materials I needed is a special ore attainable only through special events that are linked to spirits. The event I had to do for this ore resembled a gunfight because it’s given by a pair of gangsters. In between all this were several mini-games with elements of success, like the musical mini-game that makes plants grow faster. You can play either in solo-mode or in co-op mode, in which the other player will control your lovely companion cat named Daffodil, and this will change how you execute several mini-games.

However, as is the intention of the developers, it’s the characters where Spiritfarer already shines brightest. It’s a gorgeous game with a soft, cozy aesthetic. Yet it doesn’t sacrifice depth, nuance, or an eagerness to explore difficult subjects like death, infidelity, and agency, to name a few. The amount of care that’s gone into these characters could not be more palpable.

Sometimes it’s in the little lighthearted details; it’s in Stan, a mushroom child, adorably wrapping his whole body around you when you hug him, and clapping when he’s happy. It’s in Bruce, a hummingbird, somehow strong enough to lift his friend — an enormous bull named Mickey — up to the sky. There’s a denizen, a being that has not developed into a full spirit, telling Stella they’re so anxious over a date that they’ve shown up hours early. There’s Giovanni, an arrogant lion, rejecting my gift of rice by saying, “I can’t do carbs, honey. I can’t eat stuff like this. It would go straight to my butt.”

Other times, it’s in the things that hurt. It’s in the toxic relationship between Giovanni, who Guérin says is inspired by his grandfather, and Astrid, inspired by his grandmother, that both hold onto for security after death. It’s in the flowers that adorn the houses of spirits who passed away, left behind as their parting gifts to Stella — metaphors for the legacies and lessons Stella will carry with her. It’s in Gwen, Stella’s best friend; in how everything I learn about her ultimately makes me break into tears when Stella has to send her off.

Spiritfarer is written between three writers, with the script for each spirit getting tasked to whichever writer could most authentically voice them. “Very early in the process, we had a goal for everyone on the team to actually say, ‘Hey, do you have someone that you feel could be a good inspiration for the characters in the game?’ No character is an actual carbon copy of one real reference, but there are some inspirations,” says Guérin.

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Someone’s uncle, someone else’s great grandmother, a friend who died when they were 18 years old: they’re all immortalized in-game in one way or another.

“We wanted to do something that rang true and that we thought was genuine and honest and heartfelt,” Guérin adds. “When we created a character first, I knew since the beginning that some of us had to be in there. You cannot really craft and write a compelling story and think about a character without injecting some truth in them.”

I asked him about, in the process of making a game centered on care which draws from such personal tragedies, what steps members of the team have taken to care for each other. He laughed, noting he hadn’t gotten that question before.

“The experience that you’re playing right now…that’s how it actually feels like we’ve been pouring ourselves so much into this that it must have been such a massive undertaking. But you have to see that the game has been made over about three years now. And when you’re in the daily work of video games making, it doesn’t feel this way that much. You don’t feel like you’re basically opening your veins and spreading blood on your computer.”

He says that’s why the game’s most emotional moments, like Gwen’s sending, still make him cry even though he’s seen it a ridiculous amount of times. “It’s just, right now, maybe as of just a couple of weeks, that everything is coming together as a real thing. That’s the thing with games, you just do parts of it and tons of other people do parts of it. And then you assemble them all … You don’t feel like it’s such an intense introspection on yourself.”

However, he did make sure to bring lots of tissue boxes to the difficult meetings. After being approached by a developer who wanted to talk about his uncle, he gave them the privacy and care they needed during the conversation. And the developers gave each other lots of hugs back when it was still possible before the pandemic.

I would describe Spiritfarer as something akin to a gentle, long-lasting hug that reaches your soul. It’s a bit ironic. Guérin explained that this first act I would eagerly perform with every character I saw — hugging — wasn’t always possible.

“At first, it [the hug mechanic] wasn’t planned at all,” says Guérin. “We designed Spiritfarer as a platformer with farming simulation elements. But I knew that care would have to be central. And as soon as we had those characters in the game, you felt right away, like you need something to have physical contact with. You cannot really spend all that time with someone who is physically dying and not, at the very least, hug that person.”

On several occasions, Guérin directed me one way or the other, but I would ask if it was okay for me to go hug someone first before we proceeded. My time spent with the spirits of Spiritfarer has been short, but I already can’t imagine not hugging them. I also can’t imagine this not becoming one of my favorite games upon its release. I’m open to the idea, especially since Guérin says it’s approximately 30 hours long, but I’ll be thoroughly surprised. I keep reflecting on my hour with it; on how deeply every single thing about this beautiful and melancholic yet uplifting game has resonated with me. And, until it’s released, I doubt I’ll stop thinking about it.

About the Author

Natalie Flores

Natalie is Fanbyte's Featured Contributor, with bylines at places like VICE, Polygon, PC Gamer, Paste Magazine, and more.