What it’s Like to Play Spiritfarer as Someone Who Has Grieved
After spending nearly 15 hours in this world, with these characters, the final credits rolled, the song “What Will You Leave Behind” played and I… cried. And this wasn’t a normal “this piece of media is sad” crying, this was something else.
But I will come back to that.
Spritfarer has been labelled as a “cosy game about dying”. This is a game about death in a way that hasn’t quite been done before.
Yes, games, especially the cinematic ones, have killed characters before but this is typically done for a dramatic story beat or to wring out more raw emotions. This is not a knock against these other games, by the way. Games as they are now have amazing abilities to tell stories and explore emotions. The indie game “about depression” is almost a trope at this point. And the shock of losing Aerith has stuck with Final Fantasy fans to this day. It’s just that, Spritifarer does things in a fairly special way.
To explain how Spritifarer differs you need to understand the premise of the game and its mechanics.
You play as Stella who (along with her cat) is given the role of Spiritfarer, a boatman to the dead. Characters will join you on your boat and make demands. You feed them, house them, help them achieve their final goals.
One character wants to put together an art gallery, another wants to make amends with their husband. And to achieve this there is a bit of busy work to do. Farming, visiting different islands for resources, cooking, looking after sheep etc. It’s Stardew Valley on a boat and you’ve got a lot of sea to sail across.
In between this boat management you talk to your passengers, feed them and even hug them. (Please games, give me more hug buttons.) You get sucked in to the day-to-day busy work, which makes it all the more jarring when one of your passengers tells you it’s time to go.
This first time a character decided to go happened to me after a couple of hours of playing at least. Enough time to get to know her, care for her and because of the many tasks, briefly forget why she was there in the first place. She can’t go, I was just about to pick carrots to make her a stew!
On the boat you care for these passengers, but the ultimate goal is to take them to the Everdoor, say your last good byes and let them finally pass on. And almost every time, it’s heart breaking.
This is one of the few games “with emotions” where the gameplay is the point. Because of the many tasks, you forget the big cloud hanging over your head. You forget that ultimately, you will be saying good bye to everyone.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of media so accurately depict what it is like to lose someone. Sometimes we see it coming, sometimes it’s unexpected. And after saying goodbye, you return to a boat where life carries on and you are left with the things that remind you of the person you lost.
I always worry about how things like this may affect me. I was prepared to turn the game off if it got too much. Thankfully the tone is balanced enough that it never feels overwhelming.
So what happened when I finished the game? I don’t think my reaction was to the specific events of the ending, (so don’t worry, no spoilers). My reaction was perhaps the result of a build up over the course of the game. Saying good bye over and over again. Or maybe it was the list of names in the credits of people the game creators had lost.
When I cried I found I couldn’t stop and that my thoughts had turned to my own loss, my own memories of someone I loved. It had been some time since I’d allowed myself the space and time to do that. It was painful, but positive at the same time. In the way that thinking about someone we’ve lost often can be.
I really think Spiritfarer is an important game that has achieved something that no other game has done before. Where other media can become too much, forcing me to look away. Spiritfarer gave me the space and time to face things in a way I hadn’t done in a couple of years.
One thing my counsellor once told me was that painful things will live in a box inside you. To make it through each day you put it away. But every so often it’s important to open it up and look inside, to face the losses. And each time you do it, it will be a little less painful.
And I think Spiritfarer was telling me it was time to open the box.