Heading Towards Memories

Death in video games is nothing new. The majority of games are designed for the player to enact death onto enemies, bosses, and other players in order to progress and/or while trying to avoid death themselves. Thunder Lotus Games’ Spiritfarer approaches death through a different lens. It asks the player, “What if we were a little less afraid of death?” Instead of both pursuing and avoiding death at the same time as the player progresses what if the player helped the characters in the game come to terms with it?

Spiritfarer was released for the Nintendo Swith on August 18th 2020 and is the third game by Thunder Lotus. Their first two projects Jotun and Sundred also heavily weave death into it’s theme. In Jotun you play as Thora, a norse warrior who died an unspectacular death and has to fight her way through purgatory to prove her worthiness to the gods in order to enter Valhalla. In Sundred, Thunder Lotus looked at Jotun and said, “What if we did that but make it as dark as possible?” In Sundred, the player takes control of Eshe who is trapped in the underworld and in order to escape these horrors she must trade her humanity for the powers needed to win. Spiritfarer is about as far removed in terms of genre than it’s predecessors as you can get. Thunder Lotus Games taglines Spiritfarer as, “A cozy management game about death.” In terms management video game it is not the type where you are a god level being like The Sims or Roller Coaster Tycoon but more like a participant in a set world like in Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon but with an expiration date. Because spoilers, Spiritfarer is not a game where you build a ship with all your spirit homies and sail the seas in perpetuity. Like it tells you in the Persona 3 OP you will die: memento mori. Spiritfarer is set in a world that simulates life. That is to say the world Spiritfarer inhabits has economic forces and cultural ideals that the player and the NPC’s accept and cannot change. Whether that is currency, the different types of resources found in each part of the world, and the types of things different NPC’s value as you explore. To upgrade your boat and build facilities and fulfill requests of the spirts aboard your ship you must fish, mine, and cut down trees. However, this grind hardly ever stalls the game because it’s story and the way it moves through it’s themes and characters make it so much more than your typical management game that you check in daily to do your daily quests.

Spiritfarer focus’ it’s story on an orange haired, brown skinned girl named Stella who awakens aboard a rowboat with her cat Daffodil in the middle of a red stained sea outside of the Everdoor, the place where spirits go when they are ready to depart. There she is greeted by the Charon who bestows upon them the Everlight, which is a magical status symbol of the Spiritfarer. Charon describes it as, “The light in the darkness, the last remaining hope of the departed.” The Everlight can transform into any tool Stella needs throughout the game whether it’s a hammer, a pickaxe, or parachute. The Everlight also powers her boat and it can only be sailed by the Spiritfarer. Charon instructs Stella to find her own ship to ferry the restless spirits she’ll encounter. He explains that he would offer his ship but it will be of no use to her and he crosses through the Everdoor. Thus, the story truly begins.

On March 17th, 2021, 6 Asian women were murdered in a racist mass shooting in 3 spas in the Atlanta area, leaving a total of 8 dead. The pace at which the news cycle moves, you would think this had happened years ago not eight months. In that time nothing has really changed besides the dominant collective consciousness moving on after giving anti-Asian racism the two week news cycle. This particular type of grief on top of pandemic grief on top all the other griefs and anxieties in a world refusing to acknowledge itself being on fire has thoroughly beaten me and everyone I know down bad. It’s a certain type of helplessness that makes a person reject the platitudes of surface level hope. I’m not saying playing Spiritfarer cured this grief and anxiety or is as good as therapy but the best forms of art can help you see something you are carrying in a new light and for a moment give you the language to not lighten the load per se but to help you understand why you’re carrying it in the first place. And in some cases, as Hanif Abdurraqib writes so beautifully in his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest about Tribe’s last album coming out a week after the 2016 election:

“But sometimes, it is a perfect album that arrives just in time to build a small community around you. To briefly hold a hand over your eyes and make a new and welcoming darkness of the world outside, even when it is on fire.”

In the weeks after March 17th, I felt like me and my orbit were all on fire and nothing about how are institutions and systems in place are designed to put them out. Why would they be? They never were made to do so. It was during this time that I came across the quote on Twitter, “It is not so much that misery loves company but rather grief needs community.”

On my first roughly 30 hour playthrough of Spiritfarer when it first launched I didn’t finish it. Not because I was tired of it or that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. I simply wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet so I just left it until I was. It’s kind of funny thinking back on it now I ignored the game’s main goal: to find closure and embrace it. It wasn’t until a year later when I saw a friend playing it for the first time that inspired me to pick it up again. I started the story from scratch and spent the next 30 hours, not only falling in love with Spiritfarer all over again but this time was able to see it through until the end.

Plenty of video games force the player to face death head on, however, Spiritfarer is a rare game that personalizes that inevitability for every person that will die over the course of it’s story. I helped Stella and Daffodil build their ship, fulfilled the requests of the spirits who learned how to call the ship home, and most importantly I listened to their stories, all of their fears, regrets, and joys. I learned about their favourite foods, their relationships, and quirks. At the end of each journey they would be alone with Stella and Daffodil on a rowboat on a blood stained sea where they shared their final messages, lessons, and testaments before passing through the Everdoor. After crossing the spirits become a new constellation in the star kissed sky, showing us that death isn’t just darkness, even after death our light will still shine bright. While back on the ship their fully furnished homes become vacant and are overgrown with their own particular Spirit Flower signifying that even if they have moved on they were still able to grow something as proof of their time spent on the ship and in life.

Eight months after March 17th, I wonder did the killer ever think to personalize their victims? Was that even a priority for the newsrooms and editorial boards when covering this tragedy? What comes to mind when you think of 6 Asian women? Do they look different to you? Can you describe what they look like? Did he even notice or were they just a masses of black hair? Does he even remember their last moments? What was going through their minds? How are their families and the people in their orbit now eight months later?

Spiritfarer’s characters live in this game. It’s creators, writers, artists, designers, all gave extreme care and detail to bring them into our lives. Over the course of it’s story 13 spirits join Stella and Daffodil on their ship. Most of them will go through the Everdoor. I have learned their favourite foods, how they want to decorate their houses, and what type of hobbies they have. I am sitting here wondering for those 6 Asian women what would they answer if given the same gentle, open, and honest chance.

I won’t spoil any of Stella’s back story here but Spiritfarer can only end one way with Stella and Daffodil after shepherding all the spirits they met it is time for them to pass through the Everdoor. What follows is a 3 minute scene with no dialogue with the game’s main theme softly in the background as Stella paddles her and Daffodil across the blood ocean. The last thing Stella does upon reaching the door, it prompts the player to initiate it, is hug Daffodil before they both pass through. So in theory the player could not press the prompt and Stella and Daffodil never have to go. Once you press it, there is no going back but it’s not a real journey until you can’t turn back so take all the time you need and press the button. They ascend through the door like all the other spirits, the a new constellation born is born, first of Daffodil followed by five distinct points of Stella’s hat shaped in a way so it is hugging her. All you hear before the credits roll is the waves of the ocean.

Only when I completed the game did I fully understand what Charon meant when he tells Stella that his ship is of no use to her. It’s the same reason why Stella and Daffodil’s ship would be useless to the next Spiritfarer: it is not their burden to carry. I think of all the buildings, houses, and facilities, of the memories within them that Stella and Daffodil leave behind, just like the constellations and Spirit Flowers, the ship is material proof that they were here. Upon, passing through the Everdoor, their story is complete and what use is that to someone just beginning their journey? They have their own things to carry and their own memories to discover.

In Spiritfarer your ship only moves when the sun is up and comes to a full stop at night time. When the ship stops all the spirits go back in their houses and go to bed. Stella and Daffodil can also immediately go to bed and start the next day so the ship continue on whatever previous destination you set before it stopped. I’m just speculating here but the mechanic that the boat can only sail during the day is the game’s way of telling the player to slow down, take a breath, and reflect. It’s the games way of showing the player that breaks and pauses are not only a part of the journey but necessary too. Like pauses in between words when reciting a poem that silence is a language all of it’s own. The ship not sailing at night isn’t an impediment but a way for the game to show you it’s okay to take your time. That being said I usually just went to bed immediately because I wanted to continue the current task I was in the middle of. However, on a few occasions instead of rushing to bed immediately I would take a moment to just stand on the edge of the ship and look at the sky. I can’t remember anything happening besides the sound of the waves but I stared at the night sky for a long time.

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In progress

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