Passed away. Shuffled off this mortal coil. Ceased to be. No matter the euphemism, we always try to tap dance around talking about death. And why shouldn’t we? Death is scary. It’s final. It’s unknown. It’s inevitable.
Except in video games, where death is just another stat and your lives can last as long as your stamina or roll of quarters. Death and video games go together like waterfalls and hidden loot caves, as approximately 99.99 percent of them are about shooting, smashing, slashing, punching, or otherwise obliterating pixelated foes in the grand pursuit of narratives and high scores.
But what if death wasn’t just a mechanic? What if confronting death and all its baggage was the point of a game? And what if instead of being terrifying and ominous, it was gentle and sublime? What game is that?
The game is called Spiritfarer, available now on Xbox Game Pass, PS4, Nintendo Switch PC, and Mac from Thunder Lotus Games.
You play as Stella, a ferrymaster a la Charon (see: Greek Mythology), whose task is shepherding spirits living in limbo throughout an idyllic archipelago to their final destination in the afterlife. This is no FedEx questing game, though. You truly care for the spirits on your ship, many of whom have a personal connection to Stella from her life before she became a spiritfarer.
How does Stella care for her friends? The same way we all do, with good food, long talks, and hugs. Yes, this game has a hug mechanic. It may sound sappy at first but after a few hours with your spirit friends, all of whom take on the form of adorably anthropomorphized animals (the python in the hooded cowl was my personal favorite), you will love dishing out the hugs. Of course, this kind of emotionally resonant game isn’t for everyone, so the “press X to hug” is a pretty good litmus test of whether you’ll be in or out.
If you’re in, Spiritfarer is an easy, breezy good time. The aesthetics are reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker or, if you go deep on the indie cuts, Treasure Adventure World from Chucklefish. The watercolor-esque style comes in just shy of cartoony, but when you start having to say tearful good-byes to your companions you’ll feel more like you’re in a Studio Ghibli joint than a One Piece episode.
In terms of gameplay, Spiritfarer is simple but satisfying. It has a fun fishing mechanic, which is a perfect way to spend time on your boat as it travels between destinations. There’s quite a bit of crafting and trade, and plenty of interesting ports and islands with some side quests and colorful characters of their own. You will also upgrade your ship a lot, including a kitchen that allows you to churn out some delectable delicacies to please your passenger’s picky palates.
The true beauty of Spritifarer comes in how it bundles all of these elements - gentle aesthetics, soothing gameplay, lovable characters - into a pointed commentary on our relationship with death. Unlike most games, it doesn’t treat death like a throwaway side effect of generating points or XP. It makes you think about something we all wrestle with, in a way that feels comforting and poignant. Particularly in this dreadful pandemic year, learning the value of life, love and loss is a beautiful lesson worth remembering.