Spiritfarer is a relaxed video game experience that allows the opportunity to leisurely sail through the oceans of the afterlife, farming, cooking and crafting as they acquire more materials, all wrapped around a very personal set of stories. This is a game that obviously carries some weight with the developers at it deals with the concept of death and coming to terms with no only your loved ones passing on, but your own eventual mortality.
Developed by Canadian development studio Thunder Lotus Games. Spiritfarer is the third game from the team, following on from Jotun and Sundered. Spiritfarer is a game of two distinct sides for me, the first is the gamey part, where you travel from island to island, gathering resources and slowly filling out your ship’s many work stations, which themselves can be used to convert those resources into a different form for further use.
And then there is the narrative aspect of the game. You play as Stella, a young woman who has recently died and finds she has been tasked as the new riverman in this suspiciously ocean shaped River Styx. Gathering lost spirits from islands around the world and helping them come to terms with both their former lives and current deaths, then allowing them to pass on.
And for me, there is a bit of disconnect between these two aspects of the game. It’s obvious right from the get go that the characters in this story come from a real place, that the various anthropomorphic animal character you encounter are inspired by real family and friends of the people making the game, and as a consequence I constantly felt like I was intruding on someone else’s personal story.
The lazy, cozy pace of the game means that it’s pretty easy to breeze past a lot of the dialogue you can have with these spirit animals without realising it, and much of their personal stories can be left up in the air by the time they’re content to move on. Even when you manage to wring every bit of information out of them though, much of their lives, their death’s and their regrets feel kinda ambiguous.
Thus I see people off at the Everdoor feeling like I still never really knew their story. I’m left wanting from a narrative point of view. I understand that this game is one big metaphor for death and that the whole point is that sometimes you don’t get those final moments with a person to get that closure. What bothers me though is that all of these people are characters that Stella knew personally, so a lot of what is left unspoken is something Stella already knows all about.
Unfortunately, as the player, I’m not privy to that information. Thus almost all of these character’s personal stories are left half told from my perspective. Hence why I feel like I’m invading the personal story of someone else’s experience. Plus, the deeply personal nature of these character’s whose lives are based on real people makes me feel that doubly so.
Which is why, by the back half of the game I’d stopped reading a lot of the dialogue, and focused purely on the gameplay experience. I didn’t feel happy about trying to figure out these character’s lives and what they were all about when I knew it was going to end half told in my eyes.
No doubt, these stories will connect to others on a much deeper level than they did with me. As someone who hasn’t experienced that much loss in their life, nor have I had to suffer losing a loved one much before their time, snatched away by illness or accident. Maybe I simply lacked that small foot hold of common ground for me to understand this on the deeper personal level outside of it being a video game narrative.
Which is why I focused my attentions on the video game aspects of Spiritfarer, which was the thing that pushed me to continue the game all the way up to the end.
The game is that perfect drip feed of new content throughout the experience. Giving you access to the resources and tools you need to further expand your ship and further explore the world as you encounter and complete quests for the spirits you meet along your journey.
There’s something meditative about the whole experience, playing the mini games to cut logs and smelt ore, while also experimenting and discovering the game’s unnecessarily expansive (but not unwelcome) cooking recipe book. While also slowly unlocking new traversal powers that give reason to revisit older locations more than once.
It’s a basic loop, one that feels perfected to hit those same dopamine highs that games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley manage to do, turning a choice to play for an hour into an entire day. My major complaint about it from a gameplay perspective is that the narrative aspect of unlocking certain tools can sometimes leave you in a kind of limbo, where you’re left with nothing to do except wait for multiple in-game days to pass for the next story beat to happen in the game.
When a character says they need a few days to think about a choice, they mean it. And while this is a nice move for narrative pacing, when it comes to the point that I’m far past that point when it comes to the mechanical video game portion of the game, it turns into a situation of me simply standing in place waiting for the in-game clock to tick by so I can further the story.
Spiritfarer is a sweet, personal, meditative experience. A perfect game to play and wind down while maybe doing or listening to something else. I feel bad complaining about the lack of clarity when it comes to the story, I would have liked to know these characters a little better and for their stories to be a little less obscured by metaphor.
Which is why, in the end, I felt like I was invading the privacy of someone else’s private moments rather than learning and connecting to these characters in a video game. In the end though, I suppose that’s the nature of one of these deeply personally inspired video games. It certainly might connect to you on a much deeper level than it did for me, but even failing that, the video game aspects of Spiritfarer are more than enough to give that tranquil, relaxing experience if you’re feeling burned out on skateboarding or dropping out of cargo planes.
Spiritfarer is available on basically all platforms. And is available on Game Pass, which is where I happened to played it.