Spiritfarer is a special game; it’s truly a marvel. It falls into the category of game I call “perfect.” Not that I think it’s objectively without any flaws, but rather that it’s such an exceptional experience that despite any flaws it still feels perfect. The game’s whole package of aesthetics and mood showed off an incredible amount of care, attention, and intention, and any compromises it made felt fully necessary in service of the game’s broader themes.

At its core, Spiritfarer is a game about a very difficult topic – the inevitability of death – and it feels like virtually every design decision was made with the purpose of making that difficult topic easier to confront and process. This purpose manifests in a sense of gentleness and comfort that permeates the art, story, writing, sound design, mechanics, pacing, and so on. There are no “hard edges” in this game – so to speak – there’s such little opportunity for frustration for feeling overwhelmed; progress is easy, constant, and un-rushed; the audio is slow and calming; the animations smooth and satisfying. It helps the player to reach the natural conclusion of each character’s story of being guided to the afterlife – and engage with many different realities of that process – without dread, guilt or resentment.

In a game full of strong assets, the ones I felt the strongest had to be the art and sound direction. The careful integration of these three aspects resulted in moods and tones were not only remarkably consistent, but also very powerful. The delicate sounds of an oar gliding through the water as I paddled in silence – bringing a spirit towards the Everdoor through calm red water – created a sense of tranquility that I felt in my bones and will likely never forget.

If I had to describe the writing in a few words, I’d pick “grounded” and “thoughtful.” The characters felt incredibly believable, and while they didn’t necessarily resemble any of my personal relationships I could imagine myself having them, or imagine my loved ones having these relationships with their loved ones. They all had their own strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, motivations, and goals. I also adored how the character stories were allowed to progress on the characters’ terms, sometimes in ways that defied the players’ expectations; they were able to decide when they were ready “to go” and were allowed to do so in the manner of their choosing.

Similar to what I had mentioned in Thoughts after playing Manifold Garden, Spiritfarer was careful not to get into its own way when executing its strengths. For a game that takes 20+ hours to play through, the gameplay itself does require a fair bit of meat to avoid getting repetitive. However, adding any significant challenge could risk evoking unwelcome emotions in such a carefully crafted emotional landscape. Instead the “challenge” of the game is largely a low-stakes logistical puzzle of exploration and obtaining various materials in order to unlock new areas, materials, characters, etc. The majority of tasks either had no true failure state – producing a minimal level of progress even if done “poorly” – or were quick and simple to retry. The player is also encouraged to take their time with no critical time-based outcomes: crops do not wilt if left unattended, food doesn’t burn if left in the oven, and so on. Characters will become hungry over time, but that exists more as a motivation to interact with them regularly and experiment with cooking, as I don’t think there is any mechanical consequence to letting a character go hungry (though there is an emotional one!) At some point this does leave some of the gameplay feeling a bit hollow and rote, but never to the determent of the game’s primary purpose. And, to its credit, the mechanical progression was very well designed and satisfying; the gameplay kept me engaged right up until ran out of new things to unlock and the remainder of the work was gathering up various quantities of already-available materials.

I didn’t have a specific topic to tie these thoughts to, but I felt that it’d be a disservice if I didn’t mention: 1) yes, you can pet the cat, and 2) you can hug every spirit that comes aboard your boat, and it’s always adorable.

I would recommend this game to folks who like powerfully emotional story-driven games, low-stakes management sims, and high-quality game design. The subject matter can be rather difficult so that’s an obvious caveat, but as someone who has a lot of hang-ups about death and mortality (and can easily fall into angst and rumination about it) I found myself leaving the game with a healing and hopeful (if bittersweet) mood.

I recommend reading my previous entries for more context: Thoughts after playing Myst and Thoughts after playing Riven: The Sequel to Myst. I talk about those two games a lot throughout this post.

I’m also just gonna make a note right at the top here that while it’s true that I felt this game was a bit of a step back for the series, I did enjoy it overall, so don’t read too much into the mostly critical tone. It just turns out that, given how much I’ve already talked about the positive qualities of the previous games in the series, I found it more interesting to talk about how it differs from them.

Have you ever been a fan of a band that burst onto the scene with an excellent (if rough around the edges) first album, released a more complex and challenging second album that had less commercial appeal (though would later be regarded as the fan-favourite), then in an attempt to recapture some of their initial success produced a highly-anticipated third album (possibly after losing/changing a member or two) which shows a technical improvement and maturation but ultimately misses the mark? (No? Just me? How about if I compare it to Community season 4?) Well, this arc very closely describes my experience playing through the first three Myst games, and Myst III is that third album: an achievement in technical ability and attempt at “return to form” that, while still enjoyable and possessing its own unique strengths, lacked the underlying drive and spirit of innovation that set the previous titles apart.

If we look at the circumstances of the development of each game, it can shed a lot of light on how each of them ended up the way that they are. Myst was developed primarily by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller; they were breaking ground with a number of new technologies (CD-ROMs were brand-spanking-new, and Quicktime – which they used to put video into the game – wasn’t even available when they first started development). They had assistance from a small team of 4 others at Cyan Inc., but by all accounts the Millers did the vast majority of the work. Riven was a bit less bleeding-edge, but with a budget somewhere between 20-40 times that of Myst, they had the resources to hire a much larger team and really showcase what they were capable of when given room to run with the idea. Additionally, they brought on Richard Vander Wende as a third member of the conceptual team, who Robyn would later attribute for some of the more significant differences seen between Myst and Riven. By the time Myst III went into production Robyn had left Cyan and the company had its sights set on developing an MMO-style spinoff rather than continue the main series, and the task of creating Myst III was given to Presto Studios (developers of The Journeyman Project series).

I don’t want to say anything too negative about the overall effort that Presto Studios put into creating Myst III; they delivered a high-quality game that aesthetically feels right at home in the Myst franchise, and it’s quite apparent from the end result that they had a deep appreciation for the series. But, to me, this entry marks a shift in the motivations and goals behind its continuation. Whereas the first two games feel like the product of the Millers’ passion for creating games and innovating in digital storytelling, the third feels more like the result of a franchise owner (Mattel at the time) wanting to continue making money from the series – with or without the original team. And while I think that Presto made a commendable effort in not only replicating but also improving upon the original formula established in Myst (the 360-degree views were amazing, and the presentation of the story was top-notch), some important elements were lost in translation.

For me, the biggest missing piece was that the puzzles in Myst III didn’t make me feel smart. The moment of understanding how to get past an obstacle typically was happening as I was executing it: trying all the levers/buttons on a contraption to figure out some correct order; locating a partially hidden critical path; finally finding that “one specific spot” that I needed to click on. I was given very few opportunities to gather, synthesize, or transform clues, and the few times that this did happen were greatly undercut by the puzzles being equally solvable through trial and error. The difference between “Ah, that’s how I’m going to solve that” and “Oh, that’s how I solved that” is subtle but very important, because it can be the difference between feeling smart and feeling like I’m following a complex series of “next” buttons. To give an example: the game teaches you about how a few plants behave in an organic-themed age, and then reference that knowledge later as part of puzzle solutions. However, the knowledge is not strictly necessary to solve those puzzles; they are simple enough that a person who didn’t know about the plants could still reasonably expect to solve the puzzles just by trying stuff out – which in some cases was still how I solved them even knowing the clues. The primary payoff is that some interactions that happened one time happened a second time, which is entirely different than the payoff of being able to solve a puzzle based on understanding its component parts.

I also loved the concept for the final puzzle as it required using information that you get at the very beginning of the game and I enjoy that sort of “closing the loop” feeling. But its execution honestly felt very sloppy, since the required information is never really indicated as a clue at any point, and by the time you get to the puzzle you’re given so much seemingly-relevant information that it’s not at all clear that you’re missing anything. This means that it’s highly likely the player won’t be motivated to search for the missing info because the game guided them to do so, but rather because they’re frustrated with not being able to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. On top of this, the puzzle doesn’t really provide a clearly defined success state, nor does it provide any feedback until you’ve solved enough to already be sure of the solution. I ended up asking for a minor hint after about 20 minutes of feeling completely lost, but I could have easily spent hours if I had tried to tough it out. There are ways to make an hours-long puzzle fun; this was not one of them.

I would still recommend Myst III to fans of the series, and to diehard fans of the genre. It’s visually captivating, and the continuation of the story from the previous games is very well-done, keeping in the tradition of morally ambiguous characters and endings. Beyond that, as a stand-alone puzzle game it’s fine – I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of your to-play list.

Bonus content: Note pages! (Warning: Fairly significant and unambiguous solution spoilers)

For additional context, first check out my Thoughts after playing Myst – I’ll be referencing Myst a lot.

The difference between Riven and Myst is remarkable. Not only in how much more Riven is in just about every way, but also in how the Cyan team were able to deliver a sequel so far advanced from the original and and still absolutely nail it. If I were to play the games without context, I would have assumed there was at least one or two entries worth of refinement between them. More than just “holding up” like I have said for Myst, Riven is one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played.

So, what exactly does “more” mean? On a technical level, an easy way to express it is that where Myst came on a single CD-ROM; Riven was 5. It was once-again on the forefront of graphics in computer games. There were more images (with a higher fidelity), more video (now often full-screen rather than relegated to a small box), more dialogue, more locations, more lore, and so on. But beyond that, there was just so much more to the game itself – to learn, experience, and understand.

As a child I played Myst far more than I played Riven simply because – as I’ve mentioned – my puzzle solving ability was largely non-existent at that age. In Riven, particularly near the beginning, there were relatively few mechanical devices to click on and interact with, and the objects that could be interacted with didn’t make it obvious what they did or were useful for. Simply put, I couldn’t really figure out how to do anything. This made it very boring to play as my younger self, but it set the stage for an absolute treat of an experience as I returned to it later in life.

To borrow a phrase from another review I read, Riven is less a puzzle game and more of an archaeological expedition. Most of the gameplay revolves around just exploring and being observant in order to learn about the world and how it works. I would expect most people to say that Riven is much harder than Myst – not necessarily because the puzzles are more complex or more difficult to solve based on the clues, but rather because Riven is a much more self-guided journey. If the player doesn’t pay attention, they might be able to explore all of the islands of Riven, but won’t end up with the tools necessary to complete the game.

Something that Riven does exceedingly well is making the puzzles and clues feel “diegetic” – that is – as if they are genuine and meaningful parts of the world, rather than abstract obstacles. It feels like every single piece of information you’re given has an in-world justification. One illustrative example (minor spoilers ahead) – and one of my favourite design elements of the game – is where the player is able to learn the in-game numeral system by playing a simple mechanical game that can be found in what appears to be a classroom. Rather than present the info directly through a diagram, or maybe something to decode, the game allows the player to interpret a believable in-game artifact based solely on their interactions with it and the context it’s found in. To add on even more clever design work in this very simple event:

  • Once the player figures out the operation of the game, it essentially reveals one random numeral from 1-10 each time the player interacts with it. The symbols that make up the numerals make it possible to determine the full set of 10 numbers after only learning 6 or 7 of them, and the random nature makes it more likely that the player will attempt to work this out, rather than continuing to rely on chance. (For the record, I learned 9 of them before cluing in)
  • Not only is learning these numerals required to complete the game, it’s also necessary to know how to “count” up to 25. These additional numbers are not provided directly by the game, but the ways that the symbols and their combinations exist from 1-10 also provides the player with the clues to reach 25. (This method of providing incomplete information that needs to be synthesized through related clues is re-used several times throughout the game, always to great effect)

Another very smart choice made in this game is to not make it immediately obvious what clues are necessary to solve which puzzles, or even what pieces of information are truly necessary clues. Most things that look like a clue do end up being a clue – or at least meaningful information – so the player isn’t punished for being observant by wasting their time (unless you’re like me and spend an hour trying to decode the D’ni alphabet to find it’s only got 25 letters and is definitely not a straight cipher for English). But I found that when the game was less clear about its immediate intentions with clearly important details, it led to a more inquisitive and curious mindset. I didn’t just care about the discreet details of a clue, I also cared about the context that I found it in, and how it might relate to other pieces of information I’ve gathered and contribute to what I know about the world. I didn’t just feel smart when I pieced things together, it also felt like I was understanding something cohesive and logical.

I will say that the game is not without its flaws; it does fall victim once or twice to the typical “hunt for the single detail on the single screen you haven’t noticed” roadblock that seems to happen in most point-and-click games (in fact, I found an actually hidden button well before I found one particular intended path). Also the steps to obtain one of the endings were somewhat difficult to intuit, and somewhat contradicted by a different ending. But, in a game that otherwise has some of the smartest and most engaging puzzle design I’ve ever come across, I consider those relatively minor points.

I’d recommend Riven to folks who are fans of the series and/or genre (particularly those who enjoy studious note-taking); folks who like to study game design; and honestly anyone who read all of the above and didn’t immediately think “ugh.”

I’m continuing to play the series! Here are my Thoughts after playing Myst III: Exile

Bonus content: As I’ve said previously, I love games that encourage/require taking notes. Here are the notes taken during my playthrough: