In a year that defied description, there were two games that stole my heart. I have written about both of them in length and I extolled the virtues of one of them in my previous post. The other co-GOTY is second because I’m doing it alphabetically and because, well, I’ll get to the second reason once I announce it.
The best game that still brings me to tears whenever I think about it
This game is one of those comes along once in several years and I have to give massive props to Thunder Lotus Games for creating it. Their tagline for the game is, “Spiritfarer is a cozy management game about dying.” While, yes, it is that in a nutshell, at its heart, it’s so much more.
I knew about this game before it was released. I was following it on Steam and when Ian let me know it was being released, I checked it out on Steam. Why did I have an eye on it? Quite bluntly, because of the graphics. The game is hand-drawn and saturated in rich, lush colors. The colorful cartoon characters as well. The palate is breathtaking and I loved the attention to details. There was a demo on Steam, which I downloaded. After the short demo, I fell in love and quickly bought the game.
There is so much about this game that I absolutely adored. Oh, before I go any further, I will be talking about the game as a whole so there will be spoilers. With that out of the way, let’s talk about what this game is and isn’t. There is no combat and there is very little in the way of action. There is no voice acting and all the conversations (and there are many) are done as text. So if reading in games isn’t your thing, then this isn’t the game for you.
You play as Stella, the eponymous spiritfarer. I like that she’s a young(ish) black woman with a upbeat attitude. Not Pollyanna, but more like determined cheerfulness. She has a cat by her side, Daffodil, who is cream-colored, but later in the game, I was able to change him to a tuxedo and he looked mostly black. I was so down with that! And I could wear clothing that was mostly black, too. Once I was able to make that change, I felt truly at home with Stella. I mean, I adored her from the start even though there really is no there there. She’s a pleasant young woman who is determined to help out those around her. There’s a reason for it, but I didn’t figure it out while playing–I had to read about it from the devs afterwards. It doesn’t really make a difference to the play of the game, but it was an interesting footnote. In the dialogues, she doesn’t actually talk. Others talk with her and act as if she responds, but her responses are not shown on screen. It’s interesting to think if it means she’s not talking and the others are just projecting on her what they think she would say or if she’s actually responding.
Stella has to seek out souls who need help being guided to the Everdoor. They are cloaked like the other citizens of the world around her and you have to do special things to find them. Not difficult things, mind you, as there is nothing hard about this game. There are a few things that are tedious, however, which I’ll get to in a bit. The first passenger is Gwen, the deer, who is a very dear friend of Stella’s. I immediately identified with her HARD. She was from an upper middleclass family with an abusive father and has not much use for her mother. She was hard-bitten as she smoked her cigarettes and her favorite food was black coffee. She was running from death at the same time as she was revisiting her past.
I have never felt so connected to a character in a game before–well, except for Mae, the black bisexual cat in Night in the Woods. Gwen had a tough exterior, but she was a hot mess on the inside. She was the first person I was supposed to take to the Everdoor and I found myself increasingly reluctant to take her there. I’ll get to that in a moment.
So when you get the spirits on board, they become their real selves. My theory is that we spend our whole lives cloaked in one way or the other, but when we’re close to death, we become our true selves. While on the boat, you have to do errands for the different spirits. In addition, you have to do chores for them as well. Or rather, they teach you the chores and each is associated with one job. Such as, Gwen teaches me how to use the loom, which is running the loom thing across the loom and then cutting at the right moment. It’s a way to get materials you need. there are several different jobs like this, all of them on the boat. At the same time, Gwen wants you to find a family heirloom (which involves other NPCs) which means tootling around and exploring.
Oh. There are also events that can be triggered and they are connected with a character. Gwen’s is the Jellyfish in which she teaches Stella how to collect Jellyfish. They all happen during the night which adds to the atmosphere. Again, it nets you material you need, which is pretty cool. I will say that my biggest complaint about the game is the repetitive nature of the events/chores/resource gathering. The first time or ten I did each was exciting and thrilling. By the fiftieth time? Not so much. The good part was that there were no time constraints (except one) so I could do them at my leisure and many of the jobs give you plenty of resources per go so it’s not *too* tedious. Oh, and the platforming is not great. There was one point where I seriously contemplated quitting the game because the platforming was frustrating me so much. I think it was when I was trying to 100% the game near the very end.
I love the writing in this game. You would think because it’s about death, it would be lugubrious and depressing. It’s not, though. It’s painful at times and very heartfelt, but there is also levity and a lightness in part because Stella herself is so steadfast with her smile. And Daffodil is so dang cute. You can sit down and cuddle him, which I did frequently in order to calm my nerves. Then there’s the fishing game which is very relaxing as well. Let me not forget to mention the music which is so lovely and tranquil. One of the funniest things about the game is that there’s an enterprising raccoon named Theodore who sells Stella things at outrageous prices in the different towns. I was like, is that a sly dig at Tom Nook from Animal Crossing? It made me grin to think it was. At some point, a character made a sly dig at the ‘raccoon or tanuki or whatever’ and I knew that it had to be as Tom Nook is a raccoon in the west and a tanuki in Japan.
I loved going to the different towns and talking with the NPCs. Even though they were all cloaked and blocky in shape, they had distinct personalities. There were the workers who were rising up against their oppressive boss, agitating to create a union. There was a lady of the night who wanted to show me a good time. And, I found this after I platinumed the game, two brothers who lived in two different towns who played an elaborate prank on me.
I will make it very clear that the gameplay in this game is not what interested me at all. For the most part, it wasn’t intrusive and there were a few mechanics that I actually enjoyed. I liked trying to figure out new recipes by mixing different foods together, for example. Cooking in general was a fun chore for me. Cutting planks? No. The lines on the planks were really hard for me to follow smoothly and frustrated the hell out of me.
The other frustration was because of my OCD tendencies. Whenever crops needed to be watered, there would be a giant water drop indicating their lack of water. If I saw the water drop, I could not just walk by and ignore it. It would bother me until I watered it. Since I always had crops planted, that meant there was usually a water drop or two in my line of sight when I was on my boat. My way of getting around this was to let the crops sit there even after they were fully grown. I only harvested them when I needed them and that calmed down my urge to water.
In general, though, I loved my time with this game. I loved meandering about the towns and talking to the NPCs, unlocking the secrets that was to be had in each area. I loved interacting with each of my passengers, even the ones I didn’t like on a personal basis. It felt realistic in that people don’t necessarily change and become angels when they know they’re going to die. Some double down on their negative personalities and you just have to accept them as they are. Take Bruce and Mickey (hummingbird and water buffalo) who are brothers. Mickey doesn’t talk at all and Bruce talks too much. Loudly. Angrily. He makes everyone else on the boat feel bullied (you have notes like that which you can check) and he can’t stop talking about the good old days when he and Mickey were living the high life.
Over time, it’s revealed that there’s a tragic reason why the brothers are in their current state. It makes me have more compassion for Bruce, but it doesn’t make me like him any better. He’s still a jerk even though he’s in a lot of pain. Still. When I took them to the Everdoor, I shed a few tears as I did with each of the journeys.
When I was looking up videos about the game, I watched a clip of taking Gwen to the Everdoor and cried. In my own game, I put it off for as long as I could (and longer) because I so did not want to part with her. I came to realize that it was selfish on my part because she was so ready to go. I took her and bawled my head off when I released her into the winds. Then I watched a clip of Alice’s trip to the Everdoor and cried again. She has dementia and while I didn’t like her, it was heartbreaking to watch her flit in and out of reality. Having to dress up as her daughter in order to escort her to the Everdoor fully broke my heart, and, yes, I cried once again.
In fact, I cried each time I took someone on their final journey. When my uncle, Atul, disappeared without me taking him to the Everdoor (and I got his Spirit Flower, anyway), I was shocked and upset. I replayed the last few scenes to see if I could get a different result, but no. It still ended up with him disappearing. I cried about that as well and it was only later that I realized it was meant to show that we can’t always be there for someone’s death, no matter how much we love them.
In the opening paragraph, I mentioned there were two reasons I wanted to talk about this game second. The first was simply alphabetical. The second, however, is much more personal. It’s because if you said you’d give me a million dollars, but I could only have my memories from one of these two games (Hades being the other), I would choose this one by a hair. The emotions it’s stirred up in me are unlike any I’ve felt in any other game except maybe Night in the Woods. I can’t think about it without tearing up and remembering with tenderness the characters of the game. It’s a feat that I would not have thought possible by a video game and one that I will cherish forever.