Ok, my friends. It’s finally time after weeks of build-up. This year has been sparse as far as games that I sunk my teeth into. I’ve outlined a few that were the equivalent of summer popcorn movie in this post here. There was one game I liked enough to give an actual award to which I wrote about here. Today, I’m finally ready to talk about my co-GOTY. I’ve written about both of them in length, but I have so much more to say. Since there are two, I have to talk about one of them first. There are two reasons for it. One, alphabetical order. Two, well, I’ll get to that later.
Before I get into all that, though, let me just give one obligatory honorary award first.
The game I’m desperately looking forward to but fear will never come out
Elden Ring (FromSoft)
With that out of the way, let’s get to my co-GOTY awards.
First up is a game that I was tempted to call The best game that I wasn’t good enough to beat until I was to continue a running joke and you know what? Let’s do it. Ready? Here we go!
Ok. Yesterday I covered games that were ok but not great. I talked about not-platting Dark Souls and Dark Souls III. Now, it’s time to hand out my meaningless and silly awards, but be forewarned–there aren’t many of them this year. This has been a strange year (duh!) for games (oh) because on the surface, there have been a lot of games that have had people talking. Animal Crossing New Horizons (especially important at the beginning of the pandemic); AssCreed Valhalla (fuck Ubisoft. No, seriously. They should have gotten WAY more shit for covering up all the sexual abuse at their company), and; Cyberpunk 2077 (fuck CD Projekt Red as well for being liars about their game and about being ‘for the people’. Also, for all their blatant isms in the game). These are just three of the major games released this year and I have not played any of them. Then there were the social games like Fall Guys, Among Us, and Phasmaphobia, none of which I played, either. I did buy A Mungus, though. I’ve realized that I’m not going to get on the hype train for most games that other people like. There is one glaring exception to that which I’ll get to in a second.
Side Note: I don’t get why people find Phasmaphobia scary to watch. I get why it might be scary to play, but watching it does nothing to me. Then again, watching most scary games being played does nothing to me. Anyway. Whatever. Just a side note.
In the interest of full disclosure. There are three games I’ve flagged for my end-of-the-year awards. Two will be my co-GOTY while the third is an honorable runner up.
We’re coming up to the end of the year–a really weird year, by the way. Doom Eternal was released this year? The Last of Us 2? Animal Crossing New Horizons? ACNH came out near the beginning of the lockdown which is probably the biggest reason it was such a hit, and to me, that feels like ten years ago. But also like yesterday. Time is meaningless at the moment. Anyway, normally, I do a few posts about my games of the year and give cute categories to each winning game. I’m still going to do that, but first, I thought I’d take you behind the scenes as to how I make these decisions.
First of all, I don’t play that many games a year. I wrote a few years ago that I would rather have three games a year I really liked than play a couple dozen ok games. Ideally, it would be more like four or five, but three is basic. I hit that floor this year, but just. In the meantime, I played a bunch of games that were meh or worse for a variety of reasons.
I would like to point out that I did both the Dark Souls not-plats this year. That took up a lot of my time and effectively killed my love for Dark Souls III for some time. I’m back in it again at a casual rate and it’s good to be home. It’s funny how it takes less and less time to snap back to my Dark Souls controls, which is the first game I ever played on a controller. The first time I went from Hades to Dark Souls III, I nearly decked NPCs more than once because RB is light attack in DS and interact with someone/something in Hades. The next time, it took less than a minute. The next time, it didn’t take any time at all.
Anyway, doing the Dark Souls not-plats took quite a bit of time. I also ended up 100%ing Spiritfarer and Hades because I was so close by the end of the game that it seemed a shame not to finish them off. I will say for Spiritfarer there was an achievement that you could only get by doing both the options for one certain quest. I was able to go back to an earlier save to choose the other dialogue option to proc the achievement (and it made no difference), but had I not been able to do that, I might not have bothered playing the game again just for that achievement. Oh, hell. You know I would have. I also cheesed a few of the Hades achievements by doing them on Heat Zero because I was not about making it any harder than it needed to be.
There has been a trend in indie games in the past decade or so to make heartwarming games that have heartfelt narratives. In general, I approve of this trend because why not have more emotions instead of just stab, stab, stabbing everyone? It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that it’s indie devs who are cutting this pathway and not the triple A devs. Anyway, one of the first games I played that fit into this category was Gone Home by Fullbright. It was a mystery puzzle game that had the protagonist going home and finding everyone gone. You find out by picking items up and reading descriptions, then piecing together the story. It turns out that your younger sister is gay, and the story is quite heartbreaking.
Or at least it should be. I was eager to play the game because it had received universally high praise across the board. People were giddy about the representation and the story so I was eager to dive in. I was…underwhelmed to say the least. First, I have to say that my computer at the time couldn’t handle the game and would shut down after an hour or two of me playing it. The game wouldn’t save, so I’d have to start over again. And again. No matter what I did before my computer shut down, it wouldn’t save. I fully admit that probably biased me towards not enjoying the game.
However, I must also note that while I was playing it, I had the feeling of ‘is this it?’ in the back of my mind the whole time. Not that the story wasn’t compelling. Not that I wasn’t happy to have representation in games. It’s just that I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d read similar stories in YA literature. I realize it’s a different medium and it hadn’t been done before in video games, but it still fell flat to me. I was glad it existed, but it really didn’t do much for me.
A parallel of that is a game I recently called If Found by Dreamfeel. It’s about a trans teen (late teens) in rural Ireland and the travails of her daily life. It’s a short game and can be finished in an hour, and I like the mechanic of erasing things. The story is sad and familiar, but at the same time, it just….I don’t know. It felt slightly hollow for me. But I’m not a trans teen who’s feeling isolated by her gender so I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on that aspect. It’s also a game I’m glad exists, and I hope there are trans teens who play it and feel seen.
In a year that has blown all the chunks all over the place AND has thus far had nary a word from FromSoft on Elden Ring, Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Game has blown into my life like a breath of fresh air. I tried the demo which was fifteen minutes long, and I immediately fell in love with the game. It’s bittersweet, lovely, charming, and very emotional. Last week, I wrote about my issues with the game, but emphasized that they did not take away from the game overall.
I will note that there’s one additional issue I have with the game and this was a rather big one. There were two passengers whom I could not stand. I realize that it’s part of the bigger picture–not everyone in our lives is someone we like. Also, there’s a reason Stella has run into this wide array of people (something I found out in a newsletter but was not made clear in the game). While I understand it on an intellectual level, I still reacted to these two characters with a visceral dislike.
The first was one of two brothers. Bruce and Mickey. Mickey was a water buffalo who didn’t talk. It became clear that he was comatose and his brother, a hummingbird, was caretaking for him. Bruce was a huge asshole, and I actively avoided him as much as I could. In addition, the rest of the passengers’ moods were negatively affected by the brothers as they all ‘felt bullied (ha)’ by Mickey. His story was really sad, but it didn’t balance out how incredibly unpleasant Bruce was. When I took them to the EverDoor, I was so relieved to get rid of them. I felt some sorrow for them because of their story, but I was happy to see the back of them.
The other was Elena, a dog. I think a greyhound or something similar. Something lithe and sleek. She’s an ascetic who is very monk-like in her Spartan attitude. She’s also a complete asshole. She was a teacher in life, and she took pleasure in breaking her students who she viewed as beneath her. She’s the one who assigns you timed events, and if you don’t do them to her specifications, she berates you. I felt bullied by her, and I stayed away from her as much as possible. Yes, there was a poignant reason why she was the way she was, but at that point in the game, I didn’t care. She’s the passenger who didn’t like to be hugged, by the way, not to anyone’s surprise.
This week, I finished two things. I’ve talked about both on this blog, and I’m going to do it again. The first is Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games. It’s a game I had my eye on for quite some time, but I forgot about it because there was no chatter. Understandable as it’s an indie game that doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre, but, man, I really think it’s an underrated game. Those who played it and reviewed it LOVED it, but it’s not enough people. I’ve gone back and wandered about in a desultory fashion to find the secret chests I missed and because Med the community manager sent a newsletter with a BIG reveal that I didn’t get from the game itself. In retrospect, there were subtle hints, but they were easy to explain away or overlook at the time.
The other thing I finished this week was the Sabre Form in taiji. Or, as my teacher calls it, graduated from the form. The first time she said it was when she taught me the final posture of the Solo Form, and I nearly laughed in her face. I might have ‘known’ the whole form, but I wouldn’t be allowed to do it myself without heavy guidance. Now, many years later, I’ve done the form so many times, I could do it in my sleep. Well, I could have before it got radically changed by my teacher’s teacher. That’s another story for another day, though.
I can’t stop thinking about how much I hated the Sabre Form the first time my teacher taught it to me. I resented every minute, and I did not understand it at all. I wanted it to be the Sword Form, and it wasn’t. By the way, I’m beyond ecstatic that I’m learning a new Sword Form. It’s such a finesse weapon, which is not like me at all. Or at least….That’s the point of this post, and we’ll get to that later. For now, I’m musing about the Sabre Form and how it went from not to hot. While the sword is still my beloved, the saber has become my bestest friend. The karambit is the the honey of the moment, and the cane is that entertaining friend that always makes you feel better when you see them (as long as it’s not TOO often).
The saber is an infantry weapon. It’s not a thinking person’s weapon, and taiji is the scholar’s martial art. It’s about power, and I do feel powerful when I brandish it. Sometimes, I feel like a swashbuckler and sometimes I feel like a Hun. I feel as if I can do anything–and it feels good. I feel like I’m saying, “Don’t fuck with me!”, and I’m backing it all the way the fuck up.
The Sword Form is still my favorite, but it’s not about the power. It’s about elegance and grace, and it’s a finesse form. It’s about cutting someone before they know that you’ve even moved, and it’s about severing tendons. That doesn’t sound elegant or graceful, does it? The saber is about smashing and cleaving. That’s more in keeping with the nature of the weapon.
Side note: Just because the sword is a finesse weapon, it doesn’t mean it’s not deadly. It is; it’s just not the main point of the weapon.
I finished Spritfarer last night. I’m not ready to talk about that because I need to digest it, so I want to talk about the issues I had with the game instead. Before I do that, however, I want to note that this is in contention for my GOTY. I mean, it is my GOTY so far, and I have a hard time believing that something is going to replace it because no way Elden Ring is releasing this year. Sigh.
::pours one out for Elden Ring::
What I’m saying is that it’s a fantastic game. I adore it. It made me laugh, and it made me cry, cry, and cry again. I poured over forty hours into it in a little more than a week. I would hop on to play for half an hour or an hour and five hours later….It’s fucked with my sleep even more, but at least it’s something I wanted to be doing. I 100%ed the game, and I found most of the secrets. There are a few chests and such I didn’t uncover, but otherwise, I know every inch of this game.
I say all that because I want to emphasize that my wishlist for Spiritfarer (by Thunder Lotus Games) is not about hating the game but about wanting to make it even better. No game is perfect, and it’s my nature to discuss everything about something I love–including the flaws. It’s the way I roll so here we go.
One of my biggest issues with the game is the platforming. I’ve said before (and I’ve said it so many times), if a game isn’t a platformer, the platforming usually sucks. The Dark Souls series is a perfect example of this in that each game has a platforming section that is utter balls. Platforming demands precise controls, and in games where that isn’t the focus, well, let’s just say that it can be frustrating for those of us with shitty reflexes.
In order to explore this fully, I have to talk about the full slate of abilities you can get in this game. Fair warning about spoilers and such. The game is backloaded with the more advanced abilities, which is another issue I have with the game. In fact, let’s talk about that first. The abilities are Jump which you get almost right away, Double Jump, also an early ability. Glide–somewhere around the middle.
Very rarely does a game worm its way into my heart that I can’t stop playing it and I can’t stop thinking about it. The Souls series, natch, and Night in the Woods (but only after I started my second playthrough), and…that’s about it. There are other games I’ve loved (Torchlight; Borderlands; Binding of Isaac: Rebirth; and Cook, Serve, Delicious! to name a few), but there aren’t many that I think about when I’m not playing them.
Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games is one of those games. Last night, I was going to play for a half hour before going to bed (after having played two hours earlier) and ended up playing for three hours. I had to perform my second spiritfaring, and it broke my heart all over again. I’m going to have to do the third one fairly soon, and it doesn’t get easier. More on that in a bit.
You’d think a game about death would be depressing, but it isn’t. Somber and reflective, yes. Painful? Also, yes. But it’s not depressing, and I’ve been musing over why that is. I’ve come up with a few answers, so here they are. One, despite the potentially grim subject, there are moments of humor that make me laugh out loud. For example, there is a predatory entrepreneur raccoon named Theodore. That’s funny! Why? Because to me, it’s a gentle poke at Animal Crossing, a game that is similar in feel. There’s a character called Tom Nooks, who is a predatory lender. You can see why I made the connection. I thought it might just be me, but then later in the game, someone calls him out and says, “Raccoon. Tanuki. Whatever he is.” That confirmed that it was a joke about Tom Nooks because he’s a raccoon in the west and a tanuki in the east.
The game also has Metroidvania aspects as you acquire abilities that allow you to go back to previous areas and do things you couldn’t do before. I appreciate that, but I will say that some of the gameplay aspects are my least favorites–such as the double jump/glide. When it works, it works fine. When it doesn’t work, it’s really frustrating. The problem with games that aren’t focused on those kind of gameplay is that they’re not optimized to do it well, so it can be haphazard as to if it actually works or not. But this is a minor quibble and by no means restricted to this game.
One thing I really appreciate about this game is that it’s not all puppies and roses. What I mean is that we tend to sanitize death in the Western world, most likely because many people haven’t had to see it up close. In addition, we are loath to talk about death in general, so for many Americans, we view it through a hazy lens. It can be romanticized, even, in that the person dying is an angel and can do no wrong. In this game, the passengers have their flaws, and they don’t magically disappear as they are at death’s door.
Let’s take Alice the hedgehog. She’s the one I took to the Everdoor last night, and it hit me hard but in a different way than Gwen. You see, I didn’t like her that much. I didn’t dislike her, but she was too motherly for my taste. She did cook me food, however, which was nice. But, I spent as little time with her as possible. I felt guilty about it, but she just wasn’t my type of person.
Side note: One thing about each passenger is that they are associated with one of the buildings. Gwen (sob) was the loom and Alice is, was, the orchard. They teach you about the mechanics, but it’s funny because I normally get the building before I get the passenger so by the time they want to teach me the mechanics, I already know them.
Per my usual M.O., I put off helping Alice with her main quest for as long as possible. This was not personal as I like to do side quests and resource stuff as much as possible until I pretty much have to do the main quests for better resources and materials. I did a bunch of main quest stuff last night, and each time, it opens up the game even more. For example, now I have the glide (by holding up my hat) which is holding A while in the air and ziplining. I have to go back to old areas and zipline and glide all over the place.
When I finally tackled Alice’s main quest (and a little before, I think), I noticed that her memory was starting to fail her. She talked about her husband, Eugene, in the present, when it was fairly clear that he was dead. She also talked about her daughter, Annie, and while it’s not clear what happened to her, she sometimes thought I was her daughter. After I did her final quest for her, then she really went downhill. She told me I was smothering her and that she needed her space–which annoyed me because she was the smothering one. She also started calling me Annie on a regular basis and she gave me Annie’s beach clothes.
Another passenger came to me and said that Alice couldn’t climb the ladders any longer and could I move her house to the lowest level? Of course, I did. Then, she needed me to escort her to and from the prow where she spent all her time. She no longer recognized me as Stella, but seemed to think I was Annie more often than not. When she didn’t think I was her daughter, she fretted about where Annie was. One night, she was on the prow and refused to move. She mentioned that Annie was wearing her beach clothes and a red hat, and, well, I had Annie’s beach clothes and a red hat which I’d been wearing.
I put on an outfit and went to the prow. Alice was looking out at the sea, and when she saw me, of course, she thought I was Annie. Then, we were off to the Everdoor, and I started tearing up again. I reflected on how cruel Alzheimer’s was, and I think they did a good job depicting it. Not only with the memory lapses, but with the meanness of her telling me that I was smothering her when that wasn’t the case at all. There was no arguing with her, and I could only leave her to her own devices. Next time she saw me, she was the same as before, which was warm and motherly.
As I boated her to the Everdoor, she still went between recognizing me as Stella and thinking I was Annie. She said that Eugene would love this (the area) and that we should all go next year. Watching her from the outside was so painful, and I actually felt that death would be a release for her. Plus, if you believe in the afterlife (which, eh), then she will finally get to be with her husband. So, yes, I cried as she rose into the air and became part of the stars, but it was more at the sorrow of her pain than sadness.
The game is really good at giving you information in a clear way, usually through interactions with your passengers/NPCs. The problem with this is that for someone with OCD tendencies like me, I feel compelled to do all of them all the time. For example, you have to water your crops, and there will be a raindrop signifier if they need water. I cannot walk by when I see that symbol, no matter what I’m doing. That’s on me, yes, but it adds a low-level stress. In addition, having to repeatedly do certain things like feed your passengers (different foods based on their personalities, and you can’t feed them the same food twice in a row. Well, most of them, anyway) which means cooking which means crop harvesting, well, that has worn a little thin at this point.
The thing is, though, none of the negatives are anywhere close to deal-breaker, but they do add up to a minor irritation. They don’t take away from the overall experience of the game, however, and I’m ready to take on even more spiritfaring. This is my life for the foreseeable future.
Ed Note: I will be discussing a specific incident in the game with a fair amount of detail. Needless to say, the whole post is basically one long spoiler.
I have nine hours into Spiritfarer, and I have finally done the titular job. Not after dragging my feet for a few more hours, mind you, but I really wanted to see what it was like more than I wanted to just meander around and I finally, reluctantly, did what I’d been putting off for hours.
Gwen is the first passenger I took on board, and I felt an instant affinity with her. She was a caustic, jaded deer who had seen some shit, let me tell you. She constantly smoked, and it was clear that she had a wall around her carefully crafted to keep everyone out. A few hours into the game, she requested that we go to the island where she used to live with her parents. She had told a few stories that indicated her father was an abusive jerk–emotionally, if not physically. She didn’t say anything about her mother until the very end, but it was enough for me to imprint her story over my own.
She mentioned she wanted to visit her home villa (on an island!) fairly early in the game. I, of course, ignored her and went about my merry business building up my boat and tending my crops. And cooking.
Side note: Because I tend to put off the main missions for as long as I can, I don’t get the necessary resources I need when the game wants me to get them. In this game, it doesn’t matter because the game doesn’t punish me for not progressing. Which I much appreciate. Around the five hour mark, however, I was itching to see the actual spritfaring mechanism so I reluctantly acquiesced to her request.
At her villa, she was contemplative and somber. It was clear that she was running from her demons, and I ached to help her however I could. I couldn’t, though, which made my heart hurt. We went back to the boat and soon after, she informed me that she needed some space. Um, ok. Don’t know how you’re going to get space on a boat, Gwen, but you do you. Later, she’s in her house, and I try to open the door. Usually, all the doors on the boat are open, but not this time. She’s locked the door, and I go away feeling worried about her.
I’ve been floundering for a new game ever since I completed the Dark Souls III platinum. The problem is that my taste in games is very eclectic, quixotic, and random. They span different genres from roguue-like-lite to story-rich indies to Dark Souls. Not ARPGs. Not Soulslikes, but Souls games themselves. Games I used to love (Torchlight and Borderlands) are doing nothing for me in their current iterations, even though I desperately want to like them, I just….don’t. I was looking forward to Mortal Shell, which released on August 18th. I was going to buy it, but then Ian told me that Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games had released on the same day, and my interest suddenly pivoted.
I had heard of it ages ago, and I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous hand-drawn art. The artstyle is simply lovely, and looking at it was a balm to my beleaguered soul. And, the premise of the game was intriguing. You play as Stella, a young, dark-skinned woman, the titular spiritfarer, who takes over for the fabled Charon in ferrying the dead to the next world. While wearing a big, floppy hat with a star-shaped hat (get it?). And your cat, Daffodil. Whom you can pet, cuddle, and swim with.
When I went to check it out on Steam, I saw there was a demo. I tried the demo which was relatively short, and I was hooked. I bought the game, installed it, and fired it up.
It calls itself a cozy management game, and it is. But, it is so much more than that. I tried Stardew Valley after watching someone play it on YouTube, but it just didn’t hit the mark for me. It felt tedious and repetitive, and I put it away after an hour. I wanted to try Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but I didn’t have a Switch and couldn’t get one. It seemed to me that Spiritfarer could be my ACNH, and after five hours playing it, I can say that it definitely has that kind of vibe.
In the demo, it was further into the game when you help one of your passengers finish their earthly business so they can leave this mortal coil. Starting a new game, I wondered how long it would be until I had to do this for someone. It was in the back of my mind, but not pressing because there were so many other things to do.