Death is a quintessential concept that we don’t like talking about. Even if we do, we make sure it’s in a non-serious tone for the sake of everyone’s mood.
However, some storytellers like to challenge this notion. Few game artists and developers dare to deliver grave ideas in a charming, simplistic way that still tugs at your heartstrings- only repeatedly bringing you back to its grave concept to learn a little more.
Such is the tale of Spiritfarer. A game that brings to life the terrifying idea of death. While Spiritfarer isn’t a heart-wrenching journey of two characters feeling the love, loss, and longing for each other’s company, it is a management game that teaches you a thing or two about bidding farewells.
A journey to the afterlife
In Greek mythology, there’s a story of the river Styx, a body of water that is said to be a passageway between this world and the afterlife. This idea builds the foundation on which Spiritfarer carries much of its narrative. In the story, Charon, the ferryman, ferries spirits across the river into the underworld in exchange for a token.
Spiritfarer closely follows this idea with players bearing the role of Stella and her cat Daffodil. The spiritfarer is Stella, and she navigates a big boat to help the deceased transition to whatever comes next. In this sense of philosophy, what happens after death is more significant than the act of dying.
Interestingly, death isn’t a new concept in video games. It’s just overdone in a way that has desensitized us to the notion of what may come next.
As Stella explores the islands of the Spiritfarer world, she encounters spirits who are imprisoned and in need of assistance in order to peacefully continue their journey. Most people on the ship are Stella’s friends and family, who players meet throughout the game’s voyage. She must now build a boat that braves a world where the deceased aboard must be kept happy and satisfied until the end of their journey.
Managing the mundaneness of life (and death)
With each new passenger, the ship grows larger and more intricate. You can build a garden that allows you to grow vegetables or manage a kitchen that serves grand dishes for those who demand it. As you take on more responsibility, the game creates a sense of challenge that can only be resolved with well-thought-out and calmly-paced managerial skills.
On the surface, the gameplay loop may appear routine and repetitious, but the spiritfarer’s role in attending to these passengers fills your daily life with purpose and meaningful interactions. Different islands have different minigames – there are trees to cut down, vendors to meet, and materials to collect. These little interactions, accompanied by some deft dialogue, make for a time-to-time adventure when you’re not at sea.
An aesthetic that mimics the naivety of life
Spiritfarer’s charmingly innocent art style and soothing soundtrack do wonders for its narrative. The Ghibli-style animations and color palettes warm your heart into believing that the most significant tragedies of life can be handled with utmost kindness and love.
According to the creative director Nicolas Guérin, Ghibli films significantly impacted the game’s development. It served as a direct inspiration for the initial concept. In Spirited Away, there is a scene where Chihiro takes a train ride on the water with the faceless stranger. The entire scene depicts a pretty laid-back vibe that’s melancholic, lovely, and poetic.
The exceptional art direction isn’t left alone to revel in itself. Combined with some great dialogue, the stories weave in a way that lets players enjoy the game’s quality of life rather than rushing into objectives or side quests immediately. For instance, Stella can check in on other characters to understand how they’re feeling and the things they look forward to. Every character brings their own stories to the table and how it affects their perspective towards death.
A narrative larger than life
Your hard work and kindness often may not be resonated in ways you’d expect. Some characters don’t show gratitude for your efforts, which can sometimes put you off. A passenger may withdraw from you as you get closer to the conclusion of their story by going to their room or even momentarily leaving the ship. Some of them will blatantly urge you to leave them alone. After all, you cannot expect everyone to accept their fates and feel vulnerable enough to talk about their feelings.
However, your emotional connection with each character will eventually be Spiritfarer’s true motivation. Every bond you share with a character is authentic and something they carry towards the end of their days. Even though you are aware that you will ultimately have to say goodbye, the thought of it may cause anxiety in you or the character in the spotlight.
With each character arc that comes to an end, there’s a lesson. Players must accept the impermanence of everything and that everyone must eventually travel to the afterlife independently. However, the biggest takeaway is not each journey’s beginning or end. All the lessons you picked up along the way made the voyage so captivating.
And that’s precisely where Spiritfarer shines. It teaches you the beauty in mundaneness and asks you to appreciate it with each passing moment.