A few years ago, my grandfather died. It was very sudden, I had just seen him a handful of hours beforehand, happily playing with my son in his own home. That night, I got the call that he had a heart attack and died. It wasn’t my first experience with death, but it was the first one to really hit me hard, to leave me in shock. Writing this, I can feel the shadow of the weight in my chest I felt that night. I don’t know that death is something you can really prepare yourself for, it’s such a wholly unique set of painful feelings that can only possibly begin to be dappled with the warmth you felt for the departed after coming to terms with the fact they’re gone forever. Spiritfarer, for me, is a game about those feelings.
That may be one of the saddest paragraphs I’ve ever written in relation to a video game, but don’t let that scare you. Spiritfarer isn’t some perverse exercise in sadness or emotional torture. On the contrary, the charming, hand-drawn 2D side-scrolling visuals coupled with an exceptionally elegant soundtrack make for one of the most serene gaming experiences I have ever had. Perhaps most impressively, the serenity of Spiritfarer’s world and the deeply emotional nature of its narrative never clash, but are perfect complements to one another.
Players assume the role of a young woman named Stella who, along with her cat Daffodil, wakes up in a small boat being pulled by Charon (you know, the ferryman of the dead). Charon has apparently had enough of his job as Spiritfarer, and passes the job down to Stella. Charon hands over his tools and sails through the Everdoor, a gateway that marks the end of existence. As the new Spiritfarer, Stella’s job is to ferry the spirits of the departed and keep them comfortable as they ready themselves for their final departure through the Everdoor. Soon after, Stella finds a ship and a spirit and sets out to begin her profession.
Stella’s ship serves as the player’s home base and only means of transportation, so naturally a huge part of Spiritfarer is improving your ship and building various cabins and facilities on board. Players will build farms, orchards, and animal pens to gather raw materials to be used in their looms, foundries, and kitchens (which must also be built). Oh, and of course every spirit in Stella’s care will want a private cabin at some point. Crafting all of these buildings isn’t enough in and of itself, the buildings must also be placed on board the ship. Buildings can only be placed in a certain area of the ship, leading to something similar to an inventory management system where players are encouraged to try and pack things together tightly to maximize their space. The space management isn’t too intense, there are easily-obtained size upgrades available, as long as you keep up with ship upgrades you’ll never feel pressed for space.
Spiritfarer’s central mechanic is taking care of the spirits Stella finds in the world. The spirits themselves all have the same basic requests; to be fed, to have certain buildings on your ship, and to be taken to specific places. Fulfilling spirit requests results in narrative advancement and changes to the spirit’s mood, both good and bad. Keeping spirits happy is important, as happy spirits will help a little with resource collection, give Stella gifts, and more. Each spirit also unlocks access to a new, unique resource that can only be collected in specific areas of the map.
All of the gameplay in Spiritfarer works in service to narrative, which I hesitate to discuss in too much detail. More significant story moments are rewards for completing quests for spirits, but sometimes they’ll just drop small but meaningful details or anecdotes about their lives out of the blue. Each spirit has its own backstory, and some are going to impact you more deeply than others. Atul and Alice hit me the hardest, but I’m sure at least one of the spirits will resonate with you.
The narrative is the strongest aspect of Spiritfarer, but I’m sad to say it could have been better realized. Every spirit has a story, but there’s also an overarching story. I’m not going to discuss specific details to avoid spoilers, but that larger story is the biggest failing of Spiritfarer. The overarching story, Stella’s story, is only ever implied. Every spirit’s individual tale is at least one step away from bringing that story to bear. The only reason I know a larger story exists is because I did some online reading after finishing the game. Vital details about Stella and the spirits aren’t in the game at all, but in an artbook. It feels like there is a real, definite narrative intended for Spiritfarer, but the most important details are either merely implied or just missing from the game itself. These omissions really keep Spiritfarer from realizing its potential as a narrative experience for me.
Spiritfarer has a few mechanical issues as well, but most of the mistakes are forgivable. Every spirit has a special resource they allow players to collect, but the game isn’t always clear about what that resource is or where you can find it. The assumption seems to be that you’ll come across the special resources organically, but I did end up having to guess a few times. Spiritfarer is also a bit longer than I feel it needed to be. My playthrough took about 27 hours, and toward the end I was just waiting on spirits to give me quests with nothing else to do. I also feel like the spirits I picked up early in the game were much better characters, on average, than those I picked up closer to the end.
Spiritfarer is a beautiful game about powerful subject matter. Even with it’s blemishes, Spiritfarer succeeds in delivering an emotional set of individual stories with grace and serenity. But the moments that spoke to me the most weren’t the story set pieces. One specific night really resonated with me. The ship sat idle, unable to navigate in the darkness. The passengers were all sleeping soundly in their little homes, and I worked. I did the things needed to keep them happy. I cut logs into lumber, caught fish, cooked meals, and wove fabrics. Only a peaceful piano theme and Daffodil the cat kept me company. It was a beautiful moment of peace and solitude following a particularly emotional spirit departure. A soothing allegory for a tumultuous experience.