PAX West 2019: Spiritfarer’s Calm in the Storm

Most demos at shows like PAX are out on the floor, in the midst of the audiovisual chaos that defines game conventions. But when I played Spiritfarer earlier today, it was in a cozy little space behind the game’s booth. I sat on a couch next to Jo-Annie Gauthier, the game’s Art Director, as she led me through the demo. The setting perfectly fit the experience — Spiritfarer is a calm, exploratory game that asks you to sit back and slow down.

The demo began on-board an already built-up version of the boat players will upgrade throughout the game. One of the game’s many spirits, this one a snake, asked me to build her a room on the boat and collect an heirloom from her old home on an island. This is the core of the game — helping spirits complete various goals to get them ready to move on to the next world.

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Stella, the player character, is based on Charon of Greek myth — hence the boat. But there is no grim imagery, no skulls. Spiritfarer wants to provide a different, more positive view of death. Every adorable, charming spirit you meet will eventually leave. It’s a game about learning to let go.In that sense, it’s very different from titles like Animal Crossing, which can become exercises in creating the perfect village comprised of the player’s favourite villagers. Gauthier told me the developers were keen to avoid any kind of collecting relationship to the game’s spirits. You’ll get attached, but they’ll eventually leave. When they do, though, they’ll leave something behind. Unlike Animal Crossing’s villagers, the spirits’ dwellings will remain on your boat, and some may teach you skills you retain after they’re gone.

My demo was fairly brief, but revealed one extremely important fact about the game: it can be played cooperatively, with the second player taking control of Stella’s cat Daffodil. Stella can pet Daffodil. Daffodil, like Stella, can try and hug any of the spirits (some won’t be interested). I’ve heard of games where you can pet the animal, but this is a game where the animal can pet you.

Seeing Spiritfarer in motion is an absolute joy. Each character has vivid animations, and the world is brilliantly rendered. Crucially, what would be “downtime” in other games is an important part of the experience here, giving the player time to drink in the scenery. Travelling to other islands, for example, is in real time, during which you can fish, play mini games, and converse with spirits.

Spiritfarer is shaping up to be something really special. Its theme, mechanics, and style add up to a title like no game I’ve seen before, and I can’t wait to play it in 2020.