I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
After Charon, the ferryman of the dead, decides to retire, a young girl named Stella is bestowed the title of the next Spiritfarer. Being the Spiritfairer not only entails ferrying souls into the afterlife, but it includes giving the clients comfort in their final days before they are ready to move on. Spiritfarer is a resource management game that is essentially about taking care of people—dead people. One may not anticipate a game that mostly handles death to be tranquil or relaxing at first, but Spiritfarer entirely subverts those expectations.
Playing as Stella, you are given a boat to travel the world and recruit more passengers who are awaiting their time to finally be released into the afterlife. This boat can be customized and upgraded, enabling you to build more rooms and facilities to fulfill you and your passengers’ needs. These facilities range from structures like an open garden to plant and grow food, or special bedrooms specifically designed to best fit your otherworldly passengers’ personalities respectively.
Exploring different islands, you must also collect and purchase resources, like ore or seeds, in order to manifest enough ingredients to improve your boat and help your passengers to begin with. Like for a lot of the starting structures on your boat, such as a basic kitchen, you need to have a certain amount of wood.
Your navigation of the seas is not limited to just hopping from island to island, but there are also zoneless parts of the waters that can be pilfered for more material through events. The map will spawn idle areas filled with debris, hidden treasure chests or crates floating in the water that randomly spawn across the map cyclically. In areas where thunderstorms are heavily brewing, Stella can trigger an event to catch lightning and get glims, the game’s main form of currency. Other events occasionally trigger throughout the game, each dedicated to collecting specific materials. The game also offers a co-op mode, in which the second player can control Daffodil, Stella’s cat that tags along, and assist with these tasks.
Spiritfarer uses a day-night cycle, and observing realistic seafaring rules, your boat cannot move and will stop when the dark of the night hits. This encourages you to invest your time on doing activities on the boat itself or you can sleep into the next day. You can invest many leisurely hours of your time solely in the game’s fishing system, in which you can catch food or discover other items of possible use as your boat sails.You can also queue up the oven in the kitchen to have enough meals prepared to give to your passengers when demanded.
Taking on the appearances of different anthropomorphic animals in their ghostly forms, your passengers have specific needs that must be met on routine to sustain their moods. Each of them have likes and dislikes, and despite being dead, they still need to nourish their hunger. They have profiles you can use to track their moods and observe their preferences of what you last did with them or gave them. More importantly, you also have the ability to hug them. As you progress, you will learn about more and more snippets of both these passengers’ past lives and even fragments to who Stella actually is and was.
Each and every single one of the souls you board have unique identities. One of these passengers,Gwen (who appears in the form of a tall, reddish-brown deer) helps tutorialize earlier, basic aspects to the game. Gwen immediately reveals herself as a blasé character: she is a picky eater, disliking fruits and vegetables, and reeks of snooty, upper class status. For that reason, her needs will be much different from the other passengers—as they all are to each other—and things that you give her must compliment this personality. Regardless of these, she is very respectful and affectionate to Stella, in fact even hinting at a history they once had together.
It is not enough to say that Spiritfarer’s visuals are beautiful, incorporating very thoughtfully drawn 2D animation to capture every subtle moment and sequence of movement you see in-game. The game’s art director notes that they wanted to reference the feel housed by big studios like Disney and Studio Ghibli and that they were inspired by character designs by artists like Don Bluth. The game’s attention to detail is immense and there is animation explicitly designed for almost everything. In idle times, you can often see your passengers doing various things around the ship. From Stella’s complex hand gestures as she throws her fishing line into the sea, to the very subtle lull of the waters as your boat traverses, the animation meshes seamlessly to the ambience of the game’s sound design, nearly having you truly feeling the tropical heat and smelling the salty sea breeze in the air.
Spiritfarer does not hold your hand and you are free to take all the time you want to perform tasks —assuming you are not neglecting your passengers. But this lack of direction is both a positive and negative. Although the actions you can take and how they are controlled are explained in bits and pieces as you move forward, you may have to make a few mistakes before you learn how things work. For instance, after upgrading your fishing rod, it is not immediately explained it will now experience strain based on the strength and rarity of whatever you are now catching from that point on. This is not clear until you break your rod for the first time.
The game’s narrative is also entirely based on your completion of quests, specifically around the quests asked of by your passengers, which are each pivotal to their specific stories. So sometimes this might mean performing fetch quest after fetch quest without any clear insight to when the next big thing will happen and move the narrative forward. Though needing your passengers’ relationship with you to be positive is one factor, what other triggers contribute to this is not clear initially.
There is a linearity to the game and an eventual end to your own journey as Stella, but the path to putting things in motion is not always direct. That said, this is a game that is meant to be played at your own pace, but it is not consistent how much of it is in your control,especially if you want to speed it up a little.
Spiritfarer’s aesthetics and sensibilities draw from different sources of myth and cultures’ takes on death, specifically on perspectives that revere death positively. For example, Charon is a figure pulled straight from Greek and Roman mythology. The idea of crossing waters into the afterlife is something that can be found in belief systems and stories from all over the word. And as is, death still remains so interwoven with active tradition. Consider a holiday like Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and ancestral veneration practices in many Asian cultures.
The game’s idealism on death also harkens to social death positive movements; death positivity hopes to challenge and transform the negative stigma that often hovers around death, believing that opening up those channels of discussion would improve and help the communities most affected by it. Death is not taboo, and Spiritfarer believes in acknowledging and confronting it firsthand is detrimental to grief and healing.
It is inaccurate to just say Spiritfarer is a game entirely about death, because without life, you simply cannot have the other. As the game has its characters confronting their pasts, it also encourages us to ask questions about our own lives and what we will leave behind when we are gone. Who have we hurt? Who have we helped? And what will my life mean to me when I must confront its end? Death remains a scary, unanswerable mystery and it surely is a harrowing event that deeply impacts everyone around it, but that does not mean the ripple effect it creates has to remain painful. Spiritfarer wants to bring an optimistic, soothing outlook to the forefront by suggesting that the means to overcome the grievances of death is to understand the value in life first and what it means to make the most out of it. If we were all just able to look death in the eye and give it a hug, it would make the process a whole lot easier for everyone.