Thoughts after playing Spiritfarer

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.

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