Sumire

Sumire is a short nonviolent story game in which you play as the eponymous Sumire, a young girl who lives in a small town in rural Japan. Sumire’s grandmother recently died, and her father has left home. To make matters worse, Sumire’s childhood friend has progressed from ignoring her to outright bullying her. One morning, a magical talking flower (who is not evil, thank goodness) shows up at Sumire’s house and tells her that he has the power to help her experience one perfect day, at the end of which she might be able to see her grandmother again.

Sumire makes a checklist of what would constitute “a perfect day” and then sets out with her flower companion to achieve all of her goals, which include making peace with her former friend and confessing her feelings to a boy she likes. Along the way, you’re free to explore Sumire’s hometown, which is divided into about half a dozen small and manageable sections. The flower’s magic allows Sumire to speak with animals, plants, and a few inanimate objects, and each section of the town is filled with interesting characters and conversations.

At several points in the story, your character is asked to make a binary choice. One of these choices is always “be a decent human being,” while the other is “I wonder if this game has a genocide route.” Reviews of this game tend to make this seem far more complicated than it actually is, like…

Reviews: The game asks you to make difficult choices.

The game: A cute baby frog asks you to carry him to the river, which requires no effort on your part. Do you happily agree, or do you tell him that he’s disgusting and that you wouldn’t touch him even if he paid you? If you agree, you get a tangible reward and some extra dialog; and if you don’t, he doesn’t talk to you again.

Reviews: The game forces you to think about the consequences of your actions.

The game: Are you friendly to the slightly nerdy kid who’s friends with the boy you like, or do you tell him that he’s a fat fuck who deserves to be bullied? If you’re friendly, this unlocks a fun but entirely optional minigame; and if you’re not, he doesn’t talk to you again.

To me, it was always crystal clear what choices Sumire should make in order to achieve her goals, which are written in the form of a checklist on a piece of paper that you can access from the menu screen. For example, one of your goals is basically “tell Mom I love her.” So, when you trigger a scene in which you have an option to tell your mom you love her… You should probably do that!

The joy of this game is being able to roleplay what it feels like to be friendly and kind and have your kindness acknowledged and rewarded. There are no trick questions, and there are no decisions that don’t turn out the way you expect. For example, if you tell your mother that you love her, she doesn’t respond by accusing you of being emotionally manipulative for demanding attention when she clearly wants to be alone; this just isn’t that sort of game.

When I say “that sort of game,” I’m specifically thinking of Spiritfarer, which is written about adults for an intended audience of other adults. Spiritfarer is about as wholesome as a game can be, but it acknowledges that not everyone is going respond to kindness with gratitude. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that Sumire is intended for a younger audience, or at least an older audience that wants to feel nostalgia for a childhood that isn’t complicated by a more mature understanding of human behavior.

That being said, I’m curious about what would happen if you were to consistently choose the antisocial dialog options. Does the game get dark and creepy? Because that would be interesting. I couldn’t find anything about this online, so perhaps it might be worth experimenting with in the future.

Aside from the (probably?) limited satisfaction of trying out different dialog choices, I’m not sure if Sumire has any replay value in the traditional sense, as you can experience everything the game has to offer during a single two-hour playthrough. Regardless, the world of the game is so beautiful and charming that I’m already looking forward to returning to it in the future. Sumire is the video game equivalent of comfort food, and it’s perfect for a rainy afternoon when you need some flowers and sunshine in your life.

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.