The 2020 indie darling Spiritfarer isn’t the first game to tackle a theme like grief, but few games–heck, few stories in general–can say they’re about grief in almost the same way. Games as a medium appear especially ill-suited for the task, at least at face value. After all, most games promise a feeling of progress to the player, a promise that, as more time is invested in the game, more abilities and opportunities to use them will be unlocked. Spiritfarer inverts that promise. As soon as you’re introduced to the game’s premise, you’re forced to reckon with what you’re being asked to do: help your friends die.
It’s no good stretch of the vision to see how a story like that would be an emotional experience for the audience, but we’re talking about a game here, one with numerous of the trappings of your Stardew Valleys and your Animals Crossings. The player character, Stella, arrives in the afterlife to take over Spiritfarer Charon’s job of ferrying the souls of the dead. But they’re not on their way to a colorful Hades to cheer on Zagreus as he kicks Theseus’s teeth in. In this iteration, the River Styx (here a vast ocean) is a purgatory for shades who need their last wishes fulfilled before the Spiritfarer can send them through the Everdoor and into the void, presumably to hang out with a version of Hades who’s a lot less Problematic Zaddy and a lot more Spooky Smoke Owl than his Supergiant variant. (Look, the comparisons are there; don’t blame me that two of 2020’s best games were inspired by Greek mythology.) It’s a straightforward premise, but from a design perspective, it presents an intriguing challenge: how do you obtain the player to actively enter in straight-up evaporating the individuals they’ve come to care about?
That question was on my mind during my entire time with Spiritfarer, and it’s remained there long after I watched the credits roll. Why was I doing this abjectly bad thing when all I seemed to obtain out of it was more grief? Moreover, why did I want to keep doing it? (Because—god—I wanted to keep doing it. I beat this game in, like, four sittings, guys.)
Games are perhaps the only storytelling medium where a narrative can come to a functional halt while the audience continues to experience them contiguously. Sure, you can pause Paddington 2 to have a good cry, but you’re not really experiencing the movie while it’s stuck on that frame. In a game, you have the possibility to enter in all sorts of diversionary activities without advancing the leading plot; game designers have taken good pains to transform these off-the-beaten-path sections into enriching experiences themselves, often creating some favorite gaming moments in the process. So in a game where progress exacts such an intense emotional toll on its player, how do you incentivize them to keep playing?
One quick fix to keep the momentum going is to put the game on rails, either by limiting exploration or by making it too boring to be worth doing. Of course, this in turn limits the sum of fun a player can have with the game, and only really services the minority of players who will single-mindedly and exhaustively complete the leading story without ever stopping to catch their breath and poke around the game world. Eventually, everyone tries to go off the map, and while preventing them (or even punishing them!) for doing so isn’t inherently bad design, your player will notice when it happens and be pulled out of the experience, however briefly.
You can also attach major gameplay rewards to progress in the story. The original Assassin’s Creed has an big game world, especially for its time, and its wealth of entertaining traversal options gives players an incentive to roam around causing mayhem across medieval Jerusalem. It even fills that world with collectibles to reward players willing to scour the map for them. Ingeniously, the game starts you off with all the lethal gizmos an murderer could hope for, just so you know what you’re capable of. Then, for reasons related to The Plot, it takes them all away from you, with the coy promise that you’ll re-accumulate them all as you progress in the story. Climbing that historical monument is a lot less likely to result in a “Game Over” screen if you’re carrying a whole armory to deal with the Templar who might be waiting for you over that next ledge, so in addition to progress in the narrative, players are rewarded with new weapons and abilities, until the endgame where their gear is congruent with what they had at the beginning. This is in stark contrast to later installments in the franchise, where high-level gear is not only attainable through side-quests but downright crucial to progress in the story. This more modern approach forces everyone to play like a completionist, since the alternative is to slam your head against the wall every time a rooster instagibs you (presumably because all the chicken feed in your current region is laced with crushed-up Pieces of Eden).
So, given the unique nature of Spiritfarer’s story, how do they pull it off?
The short answer is that the game does a few matters completely bass-ackwards. There’s marginalia aplenty for completionists to obtain through, but they’re mostly cute diversions with no major consequences. The passengers you acquire through its story are functionally their own reward, in much the same way your Animal Crossing villagers are. Their stories are captivating, funny, and often tragic; their presence aboard your ship brings life and energy to the setting. They’ll teach you recipes and blueprints for new tech to craft. Occasionally, they’ll even collect resources for you.
The problem, then, is clear: your ultimate goal is to see these characters on their way to the afterlife. You are constantly being asked to give up the very reward you’ve been pursuing. Their company, their camaraderie, and (most importantly) their aluminum ingots are all gone for good the moment you send them through the Everdoor. In a very real and salient sense, you move forward by losing.
That isn’t to say that there’s no gameplay advantage to saying goodbye to all your new friends. Each spirit who goes through the door leaves behind a Spirit Flower; acquire enough of these and you’ll be able to purchase upgrades for your ship that allow you to build new structures and enter formerly unreachable areas. This allows for an interesting change of scenery and the gradual embiggening of your ship, but the primary thrust for advancing these new technologies is sowever to contribute to Stella’s primary objective. New areas means new spirits to meet and befriend before sending them into oblivion. A speedier ship just means saying goodbye to them sooner. New structures are almost always glorified quest requirements—and we already know how every quest line finally ends. Advance enough in those quest lines and you’ll unlock some nifty new traversal tools, but everything is in service to the same end.
All of this seems atypical of an incentive structure, to the point where it can be hard to visualize a scenario in which the player would approach progress with anything but dread. And yet, it’s here where all of these counterintuitive mechanics are unified with that Swiss army knife of artistic elements: theme.
When a spirit is ready to go through the Everdoor in Spiritfarer, they’ll let you know it. Most passengers say they’re at peace now and want to finally rest after spending so long in this purgatory. Others believe they’ve accomplished their greatest achievements and want to leave existence on a high note. In the most tragic cases, like those of Alice and Beverly, the spirits appear to have succumbed to a sort of dementia-like haze, and embrace the warmth of the void like it’s the only thing familiar to them anymore. After an invariably heart-wrenching sequence where you row them out to say your last goodbyes, they disappear and become a constellation, visible in the night sky. But that’s not the only thing they leave behind. Every character’s personal house remains, too, although it’s changed a bit. They’ll be overgrown with vines, sprouting from their beds and climbing through their windows. It’s from these vines that you’ll harvest their Spirit Flowers, each one personalized to match the spirit whose absence produced it. Once you pluck the Spirit Flower, the construction no longer serves a function. You can even remove it from your ship to create room for new resource-yielding structures like fields and orchards. If you keep them, all they’ll do is remind you of a friend you’ve lost.
And that’s exactly why I never touched any of these houses. Abandoned and tangled with ivy, they became my favorite parts of the ship. I only occasionally looked inside them, but I couldn’t visualize playing through the rest of the game without them. Over time, we learn that each spirit Stella ferries to the afterlife is someone she knew while she was alive—someone who died while she was alive, in fact. This is the second time she’s losing them, only this time she’s able to create good on their last wishes. To discard any trace of them just felt to me like something Stella would never do. If I had a monument to every person I’d ever lost, one uniquely built to represent their very essence, I’d want it to stay standing forever.
Spiritfarer doesn’t reward you with grief. The grief is the aftertaste, the odd nostalgia for something you never really had yourself. What pushes the player forward isn’t the desire for the biggest ship or the most poached fruits (although, if that’s the metric we’re looking at, I definitely hit the high score). What Spiritfarer does—and I mean this in completely uncynical terms—is gamify emotional labor. You want to help your passengers self-actualize and find peace in the afterlife. You want them to come to terms with their mortality, and to rediscover their appreciation for the human connections they made in life. You will go to good lengths, literally sailing across stormy seas, to create all of this happen for them. The game is the emotional labor; the reward is the feeling that you’ve made a friend. And the reality is that every relationship, real or imagined, requires an big investment of time, energy, and love, with no real payout once you’re both in the ground.
But, the game says, that doesn’t mean the work isn’t worth it. That’s the brilliance of its design: it knows that, with its backdrop of mysticism and adventure, it’s not going to captivate you with a farming sim. Those are all serviceable elements in a feedback loop that reinforces the theme. We will all find ourselves bereaved of loved ones at some juncture. We’ll know crushing grief and mortal crisis. Knowing this, we can distance ourselves from others to keep our hearts safe… or we can be Spiritfarers in this life, too. We can enrich each other’s time on this planet, and understand compassion is its own reward. Yes, by depending on one another, we may very well find ourselves missing the turnips and silk fibers that our missing loved ones used to harvest, but isn’t it nice to know someone was willing to harvest them at all?
That’s how Spiritfarer unites its theme with its gameplay. It’s training us to handle grief in our own way, and illustrates through its mechanics that letting someone go doesn’t have to mean letting go of what they mean to us.
There’s not much more to do once you’ve brought all the required spirits (with a few quirky exceptions) to the Everdoor. You know that Stella’s comatose body is nearing death. At the end of it all, when you’re preparing to row up to the Everdoor and be whisked out of existence yourself, you aren’t equipped with a formidable arsenal of mystical weapons or dazzling spells. All you have is a really, really big boat—empty, but full of memories.