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Spiritfarer: Much more than the “feels”

Steven Spielberg famously said in 2004 that videogames would prove they are an art form when they could make you cry in level 17, as if generating emotion was the only goal of art–a narrow view of the many things that the arts can do for humankind. I’m not going to make reductive arguments about how games are art, or complain about how games can indeed stir a range of emotions that do not only involve crying–joy, anger, frustration, fear, hilarity are all also emotions that players feel in games on a regular basis. I’m talking about how games can involve players emotionally through their narrative design–the way the world works, the goals of the game, and the way its story is told are all ways in which we can make players care about what they do. Games do not have to dictate emotions or meaning to their player, but rather provide spaces where players can find their own meaning. That’s what Spiritfarer (2020) does in droves.

2021 didn’t start well at all for me, which made me feel quite overwhelmed. I picked up Spiritfarer–I bought it on the week of release, played a couple of hours, thought it was wonderful, but didn’t get the chance to advance further. Other articles and reviews of Spiritfarer focus on how wonderfully the game deals with death and loss by turning the player into the new Charon, the boatman that brings the dead to Hades. Rather than an intimidating, worn out spirit, we’re Stella, a sprightly and jolly girl who takes her cat Daffodil everywhere. We go from island to island, picking up souls of the recently departed who still have some unresolved issues, and bringing them to live on our boat, where we prepare them food, give them hugs, and take them places where they can deal with the pain that prevents them from moving to the other side. We can pick up resources that allow us grow our own food, prepare wood and metal, even have a farm on the boat with sheep, cows and chickens.

A game where there’s a button that allows you to hug people in distress obviously has a particularly strong emotional impact these days, when many of us are deprived from hugging family and friends for months on end. Collecting items, such as recipes to blueprints to grow our boat, a variety of seeds, wood and ore, taps into the same instincts that Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) exploited so well at the beginning of the pandemic. This, plus the stunning visuals, animation, and soundtrack, alongside tackling death in a thoughtful way, make Spiritfarer the kind of game that Spielberg was hoping to see back in the day.

Building and expanding the boat to have the resources we need to take care of our souls.

But that’s not what makes Spiritfarer noteworthy–though these are all factors that contributed to how the game stole my heart, the reason why this game kept me going back in short bouts between work, childcare, cooking and cleaning, is because it gave me a space to make it my own and provided me with a space of reflection, of connection, when I needed it.

Collecting items and growing our boat allows us to travel farther and faster in the world, so we can reach new islands, meet new people, and find more things to collect. These improvements allow us to break through ice barriers, sail through fog, and visit even more places. As we explore, we meet new people, learn their stories, and find new ways to help them. One could understand the narrative of the game as a reward for doing all the collecting and completing missions–formally, that’s what it does. But it’s the narrative design that makes all these actions meaningful. Spoilers ensue.

As we talk to the souls that come into our boat, we steadily realize that Stella knew them in life–which also makes us wonder whether Stella is alive. The writing is very smart–it is obvious that each character has a thought-out back story , which is also proved by the game’s artbook where we can read the complete stories of each character. But rather than making those stories explicit to the player, the characters speak how they would talk to someone who already knows them. The player can figure out a lot by paying attention to the text, even if the specific details of the events are not explained in detail. Stella herself remains silent–she’s there to help, listen and care for people, which is also the role of the player.

We do, however, get glimpses of Stella’s life. After she brings someone to the Everdoor, the gate to what lies beyond, we see pictures of her past, usually depicting how she relates to the person who just crossed. The story is all there, but it’s up to the player to interpret it and understand it. The writing leaves gaps that the player can fill, trusting that the they are smart enough to figure the story out. They may not get it absolutely right, or come up with their own version–that’s part of players bringing their own interpretation and making the story their own. And if players do not care about the dialogue, and just want to collect everything and run their boat, that is okay too–the game does not punish them or nag them (although I think it’s their loss).

One has to be a bit heartless to not care about the characters, though. One of my favourites was Stanley, whose soul takes the form of a walking mushroom. As you interact with him, you realize he’s a kid, and one who did not find a lot of kindness in life. There are memories of being bullied by other kids and his mum being angry at him; his dad seems to have been kinder but also absent. In one of the quests of the game, he asks to eat a “fakinhage”. When you finally realize he wants an egg, he mentions that that’s the word his mother used to refer to it, as “eat your fackinhage”–if you read between the lines, you realize she was angrily telling him to eat his food. Stanley also jumps on your arms when he you give him a hug, he’s funny, and only wants sweet things but not fruit and veggies. As I realized who he was and what had happened to him, I just spoiled him rotten and gave him breakfast and desserts because they were his favorite.

The game does take a subtle jab at obsessive collecting, however–one of the islands we discover is Susan’s Museum, where she gives us blueprints to upgrade our boat, new outfits, gems and other goodies, depending on how many other things we’ve collected–from a set of porcelain dolls, to number of recipes unlocked, or types of fish found. Susan gives you an annoyed greeting, and remarks on the futility of collecting so many things. It’s a poke that’s obvious if you pay attention to the writing.

Susan’s right–the things that we collect do not make the game much easier. Collecting can allay the itch of the completionists, but it does not change the game substantially unless the player cannot stand the sight of icons that point to locked content. So what do we collect all of these things for?

We collect to provide for the the souls that we’re taking care of. They all have favorite foods, which make them feel better, and have special requests, which often involve furnishing their dwellings in the boat. When they feel good, they also find items for us, help us make things like planks or ingots, and generally help around the boat. We see them busy and involved, they reciprocate the way in which we’re caring for them, and they seem to enjoy being in the boat.

And then they all reach the point where they realize they’re done. They’ve done what they needed to do, from visiting an old place that brings back happy memories, to having a big family meal, or stage a play telling about the dream they had. They tell you they’re ready, and you can bring them to the Everdoor whenever you are ready to let go, or when you want to expand your ship, because the flower they leave behind can be exchanged for improvements in your ship. This in particular was a dilemma for me–I was fond of most of the souls and didn’t want them to go. But I couldn’t hold on to them forever, because not taking them meant that I couldn’t help the others characters, who needed to go to islands that only an upgraded version of the ship could take us to. I could go on growing plants and harvesting them, cooking, and collecting things, keep grinding, but after a certain point it becomes clear that one cannot really pretend that you can do it forever. The characters are very diligent in telling the plaeyr that they really need you to help them with what they need. And when both they and I were ready, I was sure to prepare their favorite meal and give them a hug before embarking to the world beyond. Only one of the characters disappears of his own volition after you help them with their last wish. And I missed him so much–he loved everything I cooked, and his joy was contagious.

Hugging as a core mechanic.

Of all the characters, perhaps the one where it really clicked that I had to let her go was Alice. At first, the tasks we did for her help her think of happy times with her family; then it became obvious that she has been a devoted mother who has not done much for herself, so we took her to the island she longed to go to. And then she started talking to Stella as if she was her daughter Annie, and then found it harder and harder to move, so I had to move her room to the bottom floor. After that, she spent a whole night outside in the cold, and chided me because I forgot about her being there. I saw how poorly she was doing. She was suffering. She needed to go on. But she did not go with me to the Everdoor until I dressed up in the colors of her daughter dress. When she left it was heartbreaking, but I knew it was the right thing. For anyone who’s had family who have been degrading and suffering at the end of their life, helping Alice go truly resonates.

Once a character leaves, their rooms are left behind, with all the things that the player made for them, now covered in the flowers that represent them–and that can be used to upgrade the boat. Their old rooms are shrines to their memory, and I could not bring myself to teat them down. The player can scrape the places for materials to use them elsewhere. But if they do, they also lose the ability to access special events, which also provide materials to build new things. So the game design now points the player hold on to things, though they really don’t have to. Again, smart narrative design.

As the souls I was taking care of were leaving, the boat became more and more empty. The ship that I had put so much effort in growing and improving was missing its guests. During the day, the souls go around the boat, they call you, they make things, they walk around. After bringing the second to last soul to the door, the giant white owl, who has confronted us several times after fulfilling our mission, questioned our motivations for what Stella is / I am doing. Is all this work and sacrifice for others? Or am I doing it for myself / Stella, trying to avoid going through the Everdoor? The owl reveals that the last thing of the game is taking Stella and Daffodil to the door. And of course I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want the game to be over.

I was down to the last soul, who doesn’t ask Stella to go through the Everdoor. I kept our farm going, I could still improve and grow the ship and there were secrets left to uncover. But I didn’t see what the point was–the futility of grinding hit me. Who was I doing this for? I was done. I needed to wrap up. The words of the white owl rang true– I was playing to find solace from a lot of stress and overwhelm, to feel like I could take care of people who would express clear and direct appreciation.

Although I felt done with the game, I could not just go to the Everdoor and end the game just yet. I needed to make sure everyone was okay. There were a few errands on the islands that I wanted to get done, because there are people there who also need help running errands. I wanted to fish one last tuna fish, they’re hard to get. I made sure to feed my sheep and cow and chickens. I wanted to take care of everyone whom I could before leaving. And then both I and Stella were ready to go.

It’s tricky to get those tuna fish.

The end of the game is again where we see very smart narrative design (and production). Stella rows the boat with her cat, on her won, while the soothing music plays but there’s no dialogue. Every other time I brought someone through the door, they would tell me the last of their stories, why they felt they were ready, and they would often thank me for being there. The player can click through the dialogue, though the boat trip always takes the same amount of time, so the player has to wait through those last moments with the character. In Stella’s last trip, she remains silent, just as the rest of the game, and the trip is just as long. But feels longer, solemn. The player does not get to know more of her story than what the souls have told us about her. She is now approaching the door still smiling, and we’re facing what we did not want to quite happen. When she reaches the door, she gives Daffodil a last hug, and then joins the cosmos like everyone before her. Stella was done, and I was done.

This ending does not use any special animations or have a spectacular reward. It is understated, intimate, quiet. And, from a production standpoint, low resource-intensive, and a really smart way of using repetition to make these last moments meaningful and moving. The developers of the game have announced several expansions that will be released during 2021, with more characters, more on Stella’s story, more things to build and collect. I am curious indeed to learn more about the story, but I also know this was the right game for the right time, and I’m not sure if when those updates are released I’ll be in the right frame of mind. I feel done in a good way.

With this article, I don’t want to fall into trite arguments of how games can make you feel, or soppy stories of how games can deal with serious themes. My goal is to call attention to how Spiritfarer gave me the room to find my refuge and work things through through good narrative design. It is not only the writing, but how the goals of the game and the interactions guide you to do one thing or another. There’s nothing preventing players from playing the game to find all the islands and collect all the items. The game does not force you to care about the story. You can keep playing the game and keeping a farm and cooking and building stuff for as long as you want. You can find the way to be happy with the game. There are many ways to play it,. I found the game I needed at the right moment. I cared about the story of the characters, but it may be a different game for others, who may find it meaningful in their own way. And that’s the beauty of it.