When thinking about the people and things we’ve lost, we often think of the little things. When I think of my own pet bird — long gone now — I remember how he’d walk across my shoulder to kiss my cheek, or always try to get a taste of my café con leche at breakfast. Even though it’s centered on the grand and universal concept of death, it’s those same little things in Spiritfarer that make it my favorite indie game of 2020. That’s not to say it doesn’t nail the big picture. However, even when the latest game by Thunder Lotus stumbles, it’s the loving and heartwarming details that made my love for it hardly waver over its lengthy 35 hours.
I previewed Spiritfarer a few weeks before this review. I felt then it would become special to me. I was right! It didn’t take long after its opening moments for my love to solidify. In those moments, you, as Stella, assume the titular role of Spiritfarer: a ferry master to the deceased whose job is to help them pass on to the afterlife. By caring for them and helping them fulfill their wishes, you allow the spirits to wrap up the loose ends in their lives that otherwise keep them from achieving peace.
Some of these quests involve gathering specific items and resources to develop your boat. This is where you house the spirits you “collect” on your journey. Other quests are more personal. Such as when a spirit asked me to walk her to the end of the boat in the mornings and back to her cabin in the evenings. She couldn’t walk on her own anymore, you see.
But all the missions ultimately mean caring for someone else — something that, during a global pandemic in which we’re stuck at home, feels deeply rewarding. This is a game about care, rather not self-care. That is to say caring for others. Sometimes, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. For it’s the loving bonds we form with others that define each of us, as well as every character in Spiritfarer, after we pass on.
It’s painfully easy to form those bonds with many of the characters in this game. I have so many favorites. There’s Gwen, your stuffy best friend whose words can cut through a shady merchant as easily as one’s heart; Summer, your queer snake aunt whose kindness and wisdom produce some of the game’s most beautiful quotes; Astrid, the labor activist with a penchant for gossiping and forgiving her unfaithful husband; and Stanley, the timid mushroom child who throws himself at you whenever you hug him. As soon as I met them, I knew it’d be hard to say goodbye.
Even though the writing is wonderful for many spirits, it’s not equally affecting across the board. I feel part of Giovanni’s character arc is just missing. I wanted something to elevate him from an unlikable cheater to a more complicated person. I couldn’t get a good sense of characters like Buck and Elena, either, who felt more like tropes than people to care for. The end of a spirit’s character arc felt abrupt. The progression of your relationship with a pair of characters rang unnaturally. In a story in which connecting to these characters is the foundation for your ability to care for them, these figures paled in comparison to other, more nuanced and compelling spirits.
And yet… Saying goodbye to any character is heartbreaking in some sort of way. Spiritfarer is mercifully gentle. It lets you wait to part ways until you have no other option to move forward. It’s a meditation on life: what some of us would do if we were somehow given the chance to reflect on our own. Some of us would try to make peace with our issues and relationships. Others would use it as an opportunity to live normally for a little while longer. A few might be so set in their toxic ways of navigating the world that they wouldn’t seek change. At its core, the game understands death is an ordinary part of life, but a painful one nonetheless. Everyone has their time to process their time and say goodbye on their own terms — regardless of their flaws and virtues.
The writing isn’t always tragic, though. Just as often, it’s ridiculously funny to the point that I was often left aghast. Every interaction I had with Susan, a collector who rewards you for the resources you discover, was a reward in and of itself. She obliterates you with witty comebacks and insults. Her voice and writing are so genuinely humorous that I went out of my way to collect things so that she could say something new. And I almost never go out of my way to collect things.
The humor abounds in the writing for denizens: the spirits you meet throughout the world of Spiritfarer. I keep thinking about one of my earliest in-game experiences. I kept trying to open the locked door to a particular denizen’s house.
First knock. “We are not friends!” Second knock. “Stop rattling my knob.” Third knock. “Leave my door alone.” I had a similarly funny interaction with a denizen giving me a tour. When I’d get too close to her, she’d run faster and shout at me, saying things like “I’m giving a tour here!” to get me to back away. I have so many screenshots of them saying cursed things like, “What I love about spitting is the talent you need,” and “The word moist should be outlawed.” I remember the denizens who retaliated against their awful boss who didn’t want to give them living wages or healthcare, and how they organized a labor strike. They’re faceless and all have the same figure, separating them from the spirits we bring on board, but they surprised me right until the end with their endless charms.
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Spiritfarer addresses what I’ve gradually grown to need but haven’t gotten from other management simulators: a stronger focus on character and story. It still incorporates management mechanics, but the focus is not on expansion and progression. In terms of those mechanics, though, there are so many diverse things you can do.
You can tend to vegetables, fruits, and trees by watering them, but can also engage in a rhythm mini-game with gorgeous music to make them grow faster. There are different mini-games for different facilities, too. There’s the foundry where you melt ores, the loom where you weave threads, or the sawmill where you grind down logs. Each spirit has a unique in-world event that you can do to get resources like comet rocks, lightning in a bottle, or straight-up cash. You can feed and care for sheep, cows, and chickens.
It eventually becomes a routine, but I was surprised by how long it took for me to feel that way. Besides a lull that lasted a few in-game days (the result of eagerly upgrading everything faster than the game expected), it was always enjoyable.
I haven’t even mentioned Spiritfarer’s extensive exploration. You’ll travel to various locations. They’re relatively small and cozy in scope, but all unique from each other. As you progress, you gain new abilities, like gliding and zip-lining across terrain, that allow you to explore the world to greater depths and heights.
Even when it feels like the game overstays its welcome with the number of things it wants you to gather and discover, it’s hard to mind when Spiritfarer is so gorgeous to look at. Its art style is one of my absolute favorites, filled with soft yet vibrant colors and endearing, distinct character designs. The game’s animations are exquisite technical marvels that feel deeply and lovingly crafted. For example, every spirit on your boat has a different animation when you hug them — one that speaks to their individual personalities.
Your spirit friends will also do things on their own. Gustav the bird rapidly hammers his beak into a desk, which always makes me laugh. Stanley nervously plays with his fingers whenever you chat with him. If you talk to Bruce and Mickey from the opposite side than the one they’re facing, Bruce the hummingbird tugs on his bull brother’s ear to make him face you before responding. Your cat, Daffodil, will do the most adorable things in co-op mode (should you wish to play the game that way). The animations are so smooth, creative, and intimate that I couldn’t help but constantly want to clutch my heart at the sight of them.
That’s how Spiritfarer made me feel throughout most of those 35 hours. While the reasons why varied on a wide emotional spectrum, it pulled at my heartstrings at nearly all times. Like the people we love, it’s not perfect, but it is special. It’s captivating and uplifting, saddening and depressing in equal measure.
It’s a celebration of life wrapped in an acceptance of death; a comforting meditation contained in a story revolving around one of the most uncomfortable truths of the universe. We will all die. Just writing that out makes someone with a phobic fear of death like me get anxious.
I won’t say Spirifarer has revolutionized how I see death. I don’t think that’s anything even the most experienced psychologist can fully accomplish. But it’s the first experience I’ve had that normalized this normal thing to such an extent for me, and explored it in the unique and powerful ways Spiritfarer does.
“After the artist has been long gone, turned to dust, the art remains,” tells me one of my favorite spirits as they prepare to say goodbye. “And after the last one of all humans will have returned to the primordial chaos, provided that we have protected it, art will remain.” It’s art like Spiritfarer that will remain with me for the rest of my life, and long after it.