I can't be alone in this, of course, but I've been thinking about death a lot this year—like, thinking about death with enough intensity and regularity that I'm waking up in the morning and lying in bed at night terrified of how short and fragile life really is. Games like Spiritfarer and Necrobarista, which we decided to cover together this month as two notable explorations of the afterlife, don't get made in the span of a few months so it's a coincidence that they're coming now, during a year when I'd suspect a lot of people are having a hard time resisting thinking about death too often.
It's probably because of this preoccupation that my impression of Spiritfarer, so far at least, is overwhelmed by an almost instinctual, kind of emotional nausea caused by the game's cutesiness. The act of just playing the game is enjoyable enough. I like piling up way too many structures on the boat. I like doing the maintenance chores and chopping down trees and finding new fish to cook up (in that small unventilated kitchen that must absolutely fucking reek with seafood stink at this point). Still, on its surface at least, the game seems maybe too twee for its own good. The colours are bright, the characters are cartoons, there's an insistent wholesomeness to its design. It has a hug button, for Christ's sake. My experience with death is that anything that makes it less horrifying—considering the terrible beauty of departing consciousness, of being unborn—is grandiose and complex on a staggeringly profound level. It's the opposite of "cute." Death, from my understanding at least, is awful and awesome in the original senses of the words, and captured better by art that's equally awful and awesome.
Another part of me, though, wants to reject thinking this way and enjoy Spiritfarer as an extremely gentle depiction of death. Rather than dwell on decaying bones and mind-rending sadness when thinking about dying, maybe it's just as valuable to ease that kind of fear by thinking of the afterlife, regardless of your beliefs, as something that can be other than horrifying to consider. What are your thoughts on this?
I actually had a moment playing earlier, after the main character Stella had “said goodbye,” or whatever, to a bunch of spirits in a row, which felt awful, despite the saccharine and, as you mention, tonally cute way in which the act of forever departing this mortal coil is depicted. So I had this moment where I was staring at Stella, this spritely little girl who somehow is also very old and has known all these spirits in deeply intimate ways. And I was just wondering: “why are you smiling?!” It just felt so wrong at the time, we had lost so many friends! The boat was empty, haunted, and here she was grinning from ear to fucking ear.
But then immediately after, I wound up shifting course from feeling annoyed to feeling awed. A person who has the wherewithal to fully embrace death, to not see it as this scary and final thing, who can come back and put on a happy face for those who remain and still rely on her, that’s actually pretty impressive. I guess that’s what makes her the hero, heh. But in all seriousness, it’s kind of an interesting angle through which a normally masculinized role can be restructured. Instead of grimacing through a hail of bullets, Stella’s smiling through death and tragedy. And making it feel not at all like a tragedy. And the art style and music and Disney-fied approach certainly help with that. But it’s more complex than that I think.
It’s interesting that when there’s a game about the precariousness of life and the looming threat of death we kind of expect it to be grim and dark. Something like This War of Mine, or Limbo. Few colors, stark lighting, dirty surfaces. Some kind of Dante’s Inferno filter, since I do think Christianity-adjecant religions are set up to make us recoil from death and picture it in these ways. But the hug button! I think that’s where there’s a genius to Spiritfarer actually. And I think it becomes clear the more you play. Because as much as the hug is a tool to lift the mood of the spirits, it’s also very much something to make you feel better. When there’s a spirit who’s getting sicker, who’s weaker, who’s close to death, I wind up trying to hug them more. But of course, it’s cloying, they don’t need all that attention. It’s a really interesting way to see how death affects the living just as much as it does the dead.
Anyway, I’m not done with the game yet, so we’ll see how this theme of closeness and the tenuous bond between the living and the dead develops. Has any of this resonated for you? Do you think the aesthetic can potentially do justice to the enormity of the subject? Remember, it was Disney after all, that taught most of us about death and loss to begin with, with such ultra-grim fare as Dumbo and Bambi!
Between the first bit I wrote and now, I've played a lot more Spiritfarer and, as much as I wish I'd landed on feeling a specific way about it, I really haven't. The stuff you're talking about has come through a lot more strongly, though, and it's an aspect of the game I really like. There's a nice subtlety to how you go from having these often pretty goofy or superfluous conversations with the passengers and then remember, "Oh, right, all of this is them preparing to die." But then I waver on how much I can praise those instances because I think the dialogue is sometimes just sort of bad. I don't envy them having to figure out how to balance lighter and heavier tones as the characters shift from joking around to saying their goodbyes, but what they've landed on doesn't really consistently work for me. It's similar to how I'm feeling about the aesthetic.
On one hand, I read what you say above and completely agree: death and the afterlife doesn't have to be presented in a really grim or horrifying way. But then I also think that maybe it's just Spiritfarer's tone in general—not that it's so cute but the specific way it's cute—that isn't striking the right chord. This is where, I think, it gets a lot harder to talk specifically about what does or doesn't work for me because it's really granular. I also suspect my ultimate feelings about the aesthetic will depend a lot on how the game wraps up because I could still see its own approach to narrative finality making or breaking its depiction of death. I guess that's a non-answer but it's where I'm at. I'll say that I did think the snake and hedgehog passengers (whose names I'm blanking on) have worked the best for me so far in terms of leveraging the game's tone to really grasp at the melancholy of death. I didn't care much that they were cute walking animals—actually, sorry, even though her design is great, I still find a big snake too creepy to be "cute"—and bought into their final requests and goodbyes fully within Spiritfarer's framework.
Aside from these specific moments, I was also struck by the ecological consciousness the game has. For a while, it seemed like there was maybe too much of a gap between the main tasks you're doing (planting crops, cooking food, building furniture and homes) and the conceit of the game as ferrying the dead into eternity. It seemed like there was just too much space, time and design-wise, separating these more impactful, dramatic conversations and the hours spent sailing or running around doing busywork. But, I started to think that there's a really effortless theme being built up over time regarding the nature of life that's established by all of Spiritfarer's systems. It sees humanity, without stating it outright, as one more organism existing alongside plants, animals, and society itself as part of a broader ecosystem that operates best when nurtured carefully and interfaced with in order to meet specific needs rather than as a resource to exploit. Each character requires certain foods and environments to live in; every island or village you go to forms one link in a chain that interconnects with all of the crafting systems. You get the sense that everything in the game lives and dies in harmony, which is brought home by Stella being this emotionally superhuman creature who stewards that process, from collecting seeds and fishing to guiding passengers through that moon bridge.
To me, in that sense, the message is there, but it's not always being conveyed in a way I find consistent enough to really grab me. I think you're a bit further into it than me, but I'm curious if it's landed better for you. I'm also curious if it's felt valuable to you in some way to play this—if it's given you something that other depictions of the afterlife haven't or just worked in a way that's resounded to any extent.
I am definitely later in the game now, and very close to its conclusion. And I have thoughts about the management sim portions of the game! I do agree that it presents a picture of natural symbiosis and nourishment. It’s really important that life, specifically productive life, in the form of food being grown, and materials being refined, exists alongside death. Your ship, despite fulfilling the same morbid function as Charon’s ferry over the river Styx, is really this bustling little farming community, like some random hippie homestead house boat.
At the same time, some aspects of how it works as a community have grated. The spirits you bring aboard have different specialties and interests, and many of them help you run your various smelting, mining, and growing operations. But it’s ultimately Stella who does all the work, right? And there’s so much busywork, so much that it’s often hard to find a moment to sit still and actually experience the more impactful themes of the game. Instead, you’re running from garden plot to orchard to windmill, to kitchen and so on. And all the spirits are constantly getting hungry and growing cranky and acting annoyed that you haven’t managed to remember their highly specific and personal tastes. And that’s maybe where the tonal dissonance you bring up starts to rear its head. The game just wildly swings from the feeling of being a solemn and elevated wake, to a raucous daycare. With spirits whining for attention and sheep eating all of your damn crops!
And I actually don’t even hate that? It’s rarely a smooth and perfect-feeling experience. Instead I’m often running along in these states of frenzy only to be snatched dramatically beneath the surface into this desperately sad moment of goodbye only to return to the ship to find all my crops unwatered and my grilled fish burning and no more time to think about the beloved spirit I just bid farewell to. But that’s also a lot like life, right? You’ll have precious few moments to sit and reflect, and will spend a lot more time rushing from chore to chore. So the game actually manages to capture this bizarre balancing act to an impressively accurate extent.
I will mention, though, one issue that only grows more aggravated the more that I play: the game’s length. I’m nearly thirty hours into Spiritfarer and there are still items and islands which I haven’t even discovered yet. I think in terms of communicating what it sought to communicate, in successfully carrying across the tone and narrative it was interested in, we didn’t need thirty hours of this game. Ten would have been pushing it. With thirty, I feel like I’m reflecting more on the boring and repetitive aspects of the game more than I am reflecting on its bright and special moments. There’s plenty of poignancy in the stories of the spirits you bring to the Everdoor, but poignancy necessarily suffers from repetition, which Spiritfarer has a lot of. The last quarter or so of the spirits whom I’ve ferried have been honestly difficult to care much about. And that sucks because I recognize there are well told stories there and well executed moments. But I’ve become so exhausted by the formula that I’m more interested in seeing how the game ends than I am about continuing the journey itself.
I know I started this series feeling more positively about the game than you did, and I feel like, though we haven’t necessarily switched positions, I’ve at least come closer to your level of enthusiasm about Spiritfarer. Or, having finished it, and seen what happened to all the spirits, what happened to Stella, has your opinion shifted dramatically?
No, my opinion didn't shift a tonne, but, going back to the first bit I wrote to you about it, I've reversed course on thinking that Spiritfarer's problems stem from it being too cute. Basically, as you mentioned above, the game is just too long for it to have the impact it's clearly capable of making. The best moments in it are, I think, when you bring one of the spirits to the Everdoor and say goodbye to them. The dialogue there is really distilled into its best form. The characters sort of sum up what's been gnawing at them during their entire voyage, and there's a really palpable melancholy to their final scenes. The rowboat trips and the embraces just before they finally, completely die are actually really beautiful. In those moments, the aesthetic doesn't interfere at all with the sort of emotional effect the game's going for. The writing works best in that mode, too, maybe because it's not trying to balance out humour with more serious thought during those scenes.
The problem, ultimately, is what you just wrote about. The game's too long and, because it's too long, those farewell scenes don't hit as well as they should because each character's arc has been stretched too thin by the time they happen. I was wondering why I was struck most by the mushroom kid's death after that happens (in my case at least) toward the end of the game. Partially, it's because they're a kid and the stuff they do and say throughout the voyage is really childlike and vulnerable. It's obviously sad to watch this pseudo-death scene starring a child. On the other hand, I started thinking afterward about the structure of the game itself and the fact that, based on where I was with the characters' requests, I ended up going through the mushroom kid's "quest line" faster than any of the others. I spent more uninterrupted time with that arc and so the ending of it was way more impactful than it was for passengers whose requests I'd been dealing with, say, once every few hours. It's a really basic thing: remembering why you care about a character makes that character's death matter more!
Spiritfarer's structure doesn't do itself many favours in other ways, too. While I like the rhythm of the game in theory, it grates as new requests, building projects, and ship upgrades start to demand new materials, made by crafting older materials that are themselves created by finding specific resources in various regions of the big map. It becomes goofy, at a certain point, to have to remember that making some kind of glass plating requires a certain kind of ground-up dust that comes from a certain refined metal that has to be mined on a certain island. It's too much, and it's especially too much when you're doing this stuff two dozen hours into playing this thing and the actual shape of how you're engaging with the game's systems is basically identical to what was asked of the player in the first few hours. What worked earlier in the game ends up too laboured to do anything but annoy the player at that point.
Where I land on the game, then, is that it's too overindulgent to have worked for me as well as it could have. It's a frustrating place to end up because I think a leaner version of Spiritfarer that condensed all of the resource-gathering and upgrading would have helped enormously in keeping its design enjoyable throughout and, more importantly I think, capitalizing on its narrative strengths by presenting them in a way that isn't blunted by big gaps between character moments and the repetition of everything. Where did you end up by the time you finished the game?
I think I’m in a very similar place as you. I spent my last few hours with the game trying to “complete” it: finishing everyone’s questlines, upgrading my ship all the way, hunting down every last island in the game, and so on. All the while, the final task of bringing Stella and Daffodil to the Everdoor, sat in my quest log, waiting to be completed. Like the specter of death, it loomed, just beyond the horizon, waiting patiently but impossible to fully ignore. Halfway through trying to exhaustively check my list, I ran out of patience, sailed to the Everdoor, and ended my time with the game.
I realized I wasn’t getting much pleasure or meaning out of all the upgrading because the game isn’t truly about upgrading. It’s just an activity you can do in between the important bits: caring for and shepherding the spirits. And, by that point, most of my spirits were gone. It’s kind of interesting that Stella was apparently a hospice worker before she became the Spiritfarer, because there are obviously many elements of the game that are similar to hospice work. But you don’t trick out your hospice, you don’t add rooms and farms or metalworks to your hospice. I appreciate that the game dreamt beyond simply simulating the act of caring for the sick and elderly but the more time you spend on not explicitly caring for the sick and elderly in the game the less you think about it and the less impactful its central conceit ultimately is.
I still think the moments where it works remain pretty special. Those moments, for me, happen right after you drop off and bid farewell to a spirit at the Everdoor and return to your ship. You’ll probably open up your quest log and scan all the various busywork you have to do, visit your crops and see if they need water, talk to and feed your remaining spirits, but it all feels slightly off, all missing the shape and the presence of that spirit who you only just recently spent so much time talking to and taking care of. I would find myself trying not to look too long at their recently vacated houses, or think about their favorite foods as I put together meals for my remaining passengers. Spiritfarer, in these moments truly nails the dissonant melancholy of having to continue living life after a tragedy. It gets to the heart of the loss and guilt and compartmentalization that accompanies death. And I’m glad I got to experience that, in spite of the time it sometimes took me to get there.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.