Alice totally wrecked me. She was a hedgehog. An elderly, frail hedgehog who loved pudding and gardening and her family and, close to the end, needed me to help her move from here to there. She was tired. Exhausted, even. A kind of existential ennui unravelling at the edges of purpose. Sometimes she got confused, and thought I was her niece, Annie. She loved Annie very much.
And so, when it was her time her to go, I had to be Annie. A comfort, I suppose, in Alice’s last moments on this dreary mortal coil. Dressed as Annie, in her red hat and minty-green shirt, I escorted Alice to the very precipice of reality, that blurry space between now and forever, and we told our goodbyes. Alice moved on, and I sobbed. Like a baby. A for-reals, (almost) embarrassing ugly-cry, I mean, that distressed my husband enough to pause his game and ask what was wrong and if I needed a talk or a hug. Maybe it’s because one of our cats recently died, very abruptly, and I had no time to ready myself for that. I don’t know if I even could have, though, but whatever the reason, it was traumatic as fuuuuuck. The cat and Alice, although I didn’t even get to tell my cat goodbye and I miss him so much and he was an extraordinary (if also very stupid, because omg, he was so stupid) boy, and Alice is a made-up hedgehog in a video game. It’s been a bad 2020, okay, and I can project my emotional drama if I want to.
Spiritfarer is, as the marketing blurb describes it, “a cozy management game about dying”. And I suppose most games are, to some extent, about dying, but Spiritfarer is different. It’s cozy, yes, and it’s definitely a management game, but more focused on the actual event, or the poignancy, I suppose, of the “dying” thing, than counting XP for unlocks or wins. In this game, dying isn’t a restart – it’s a narrative process, and a necessary one. Metaphorically and not so metaphorically. It’s hard to explain.
Based on Greek mythology, the game casts you as Charon‘s new replacement Stella, an usher-for-unexpected-hire from this to what’s next. Your job is to make that transition… uncomplicated, and to help resolve your patrons’ unfinished business. That’s also hard to explain, but it involves talking and hugging, and even if you don’t have a convenient human on standby, the game provides a substitute. An evocative, heartbreaking, watercolour substitute.
The game mechanics are simple but constantly engaging, a tranquil, if unconventional mix of maintenance chores and existential anxiety. The existential anxiety is probably not exactly what developer Thunder Lotus Games intended – more like empathy and consolation, I think – but I’m not in the space for some emotional epiphany about oblivion and that’s my prerogative and yours too.
Instead, you navigate a sort of purgatorial archipelago, cooking, collecting and processing different resources, building and upgrading structures on your boat, and playing therapist, according to your patrons’ requirements – Atul wants pork chops, for example, and Gwen wants to reminisce about her dysfunctional family (like, a lot). And when it’s time for them to let go, you’ll help each one to move on. It’s necessarily repetitive but also contemplative and serene, and as Alice proved, a profound exposition of the mundane reality of dying. Because, in the end, it is mundane, and the inevitable game over for you, me, and everybody else must confront. If pork chops and a visit to the lake house in Italy can mitigate the grief, who am I to decline the opportunity (or the “not recommended” Google reviews). If Alice wants Annie, Alice gets Annie.
I can count on two or three fingers the number of games that made me cry. This is one of them.