Spiritfarer

I caught the flu last week. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days. It was intense.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, Spiritfarer is the perfect game. The art and music are soothing and gentle, and the gameplay is simultaneously relaxing and addictive. It took me somewhere between 35 and 40 hours to get close to 100% completion, and I didn’t notice the passage of time at all while I was playing.

Spiritfarer describes itself as a “cozy management game about dying,” which is as good of a description as any. As Stella, the newly appointed Spiritfarer, it’s your job to ferry spirits to the great beyond on a giant boat. The twelve spirits you encounter take the forms of anthropomorphic animals, and each has a distinct personality and set of preferences. These spirits will need to spend time on your boat before they’re ready to move on, and you’re tasked with building each of them a small house and then keeping them fed and happy while they travel with you. You pick up cooking ingredients and building resources by visiting various points on the map, which you’ll gradually explore as you complete requests and meet new spirits. While sailing between locations on your boat, you can grow crops, care for livestock, cook food, and craft various materials.

Each spirit gives you an Obol as payment for their passage, and a spirit flower will bloom in their house after they move on. You use these tokens to upgrade your boat and expand your range of abilities, which grow include gliding and double jumping. This system of resource-based expansion allows you to open more of the game at your own pace while simultaneously limiting the number of tasks you need to worry about at any given time.

Spiritfarer has an excellent balance of exploration and crafting, as well as optional bits of Metroidvania-lite platforming. There’s no combat. Most of the challenge comes from effective in-game time management, although there are no time limits or negative consequences for just futzing around. Player movement is limited by a few artificial barriers at the beginning, but the world of Spiritfarer is relatively open, and there’s always a lot going on. The spirits’ requests nudge you in the direction of exploring new areas of the map organically, so you’ll never be at a loss for what to do next. Thankfully, your menu screen contains a list of requests and sidequests for your convenience.

The introduction to Spiritfarer’s story is a bit silly – you are a small child! here’s a giant boat! go out and ferry the dead! – but it becomes much more compelling as you progress. It might seem odd that a cute game about sailing around with talking animals has a “Teen” rating, but some of the spirits are carrying a lot of baggage. Their stories aren’t melodramas with happy endings, but instead involve real and complicated misbehavior, delusions, and regrets. To give an example, one of the souls is suffering from dementia. She’s kind and curious when she’s lucid, but she’s incredibly mean during her foggy periods, and she gradually gets worse instead of better.

There’s no graphic depiction of sex or violence, but some of the stories are surprisingly dark and specific. The first spirit you meet, Gwen, eventually admits that she struggled with suicidal ideation throughout her youth, and the compulsion to end her life returned with a vengeance as she was dying from lung cancer in her early forties. Gwen didn’t commit suicide, but she wasn’t able to survive cancer, and her blithely ironic attitude can’t quite conceal how bitter she is about having her life cut short.

Stella’s own story isn’t revealed until later in the game, but the way the spirits are connected to her is touching and beautiful. Spiritfarer celebrates the joy of being alive, but it’s ultimately about the sweetness and gentleness of death. Thankfully, it has a solid sense of humor, and also you can raise sheep.

Spiritfarer is a perfectly designed to be fun and engaging without being frustrating. I also appreciate that it wraps up in a satisfying thirty to forty hours. It’s exactly the sort of game I might recommend to adults who aren’t into gaming but are interested in how the medium can tell a complex story in an interesting and unique way.

Spiritfarer is also the perfect game to play if you find yourself stuck in bed with a prolonged illness. Even though I would happily recommend the game to anyone, it’s worth saving for when you need it.

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