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.