What Spiritfarer Says to Us About Grief

Spiritfarer (2020), by Thunder Lotus Games, is a management sim about death. And grief, and saying goodbye. And harvesting carrots and forging ingots and weaving fabric and catching comets and fishing and other things too, but it’s mostly about death. It’s about the process of moving on and what people need to be able to move on.

Charon giving you the role of Spiritfarer.
Big day at work.

You play as Stella, who, along with your cat Daffodil, are chosen by Charon to guide spirits to the Everdoor, the final goodbye. To do so, you will have to steer them around on an increasingly large barge, farm and gather supplies, build them homes, satisfy fetch quests, and take care of them in their final hours. It’s relentlessly charming, filled with beautiful music, sparkly comets and lightning, effervescent minigames, and eccentric side characters.

It’s also absolutely heartbreaking.

When I first played Spiritfarer, it was the summer of 2021. My life had changed in unimaginable ways, and the last place where I thought I’d find myself was playing a game specifically about grief. Also featuring heavily at that time in my Xbox round-up: Resident Evil Revelations 1-2, Resident Evil 6. Silliness. Brainless zombie killing. Spiritfarer nevertheless became part of my daily structure, something critical to me in 2020 and 2021. It came to occupy the same spot in my day as Animal Crossing and Cozy Grove, though both of those are time-gated and a little less heavy hitting.

I replayed this game for this piece these past few weeks, and I suspected/hoped that somehow my own relationship with grief had shifted, become less sharp. I’d hoped that the edges of the way these ephemeral characters impact you would be eroded by time. I hoped that when a character asked me to take them to the Everdoor because they were sick, or tired, or spent, or simply ready, that I would have a different reaction to it.

I hoped that I wouldn’t feel as heartbroken when they tell me it’s time to go.

As you play as Stella, you encounter spirits on a variety of islands, which you can sail your increasingly large barge to. Some of these spirits need your help, and in seeking that help, they agree to board your ship. Onboard, they will have a variety of requirements, mostly starting with building them a home, upgrading that home, and then pursuing some quests that feed into their backstories and lead them on the path to moving on. All of the characters are in cute animal forms; there’s the old woman hedgehog named Alice, the art collector owl named Gustav, the elegant lynx named Astrid. You will need to feed them and talk to them and occasionally give them hugs when they let you. They will be your companions, many of them offering up minigames that let you farm resources like lightning in a bottle or bright jellies, all of which you need to complete quests.

At some point, the barge feels very full. You continue upgrading, continue placing more and more buildings on top of one another in an elaborate game of management sim Tetris. There are a lot of mouths to feed. This is progress. This is purpose.

Gwen telling Stella, "I'm ready to leave."
But I’m not ready, Gwen.

Eventually, however, they’ll start asking you for something different. It will be, eventually, their time to move on. That’s what they’re here for, after all. It’s why they got on your ship in the first place. They know you’re the Spiritfarer. There are no illusions about this.

At that point, they’re done. It’s time to move on.

I get to a place where everyone on my ship is ready to go to the Everdoor. It’s me, I’m the one who isn’t ready. They’re in pain, but my pain feels greater, more immediate. I have this huge ship now— what do I do if no one’s on it?

My only choice is to simply never bring them to the Everdoor. Then they can hang out forever, can’t they? They never get to cross over, but I’m never left alone on my ship with no one to weave silk for, no one to make corndogs for, no one to forge ingots for. There are no more requests coming, because they’re all done, ready to move on.

I’m not ready.

I GET TO A place where everyone on my ship is ready to go to the Everdoor. It’s me, I’m the one who isn’t ready. They’re in pain, but my pain feels greater, more immediate. I have this huge ship now— what do I do if no one’s on it?

The quest screen. Everyone wants to go to the Everdoor!

If I talk to them again, they just reiterate their desire to get to the Everdoor. They explain to me how tired they are, how worn out. So I never talk to them again. We walk around together on the ship like strangers or people angry with each other. Sometimes I feed them. My list of objectives is just, BRING GUSTAV TO THE EVERDOOR, BRING BEVERLY TO THE EVERDOOR, BRING ELENA TO THE EVERDOOR.

This hit me sideways, hard, the first time I played the game. A character named Alice is losing some of her memory and a lot of her mobility. Some of her final requests involve just escorting her to the bow of the ship so that she can enjoy the fresh air. All she wants from me, in the end, is to bring her to the Everdoor.

Alice telling Stella, "I'm so tired."
I’m sorry, Alice. I was selfish.

The first time I played the game, I kept Alice around too long. Some of the characters I could take or leave. Some of them were obnoxious by design. Some are demanding and over the top, and some have theme music that worms into your ears, and not in a good ways. Alice is gentle and sweet, and she encourages me to change up my look from time to time. I didn’t want her to leave.

The game has a forcing function, which is that characters who’ve passed on leave behind Spirit Flowers, another necessary component for upgrading your ship and opening additional access to the map. At some point, you will need Alice’s Spirit Flower. It’s mercenary, I convinced myself. For progression!

Screencapture of Giovanni at the Everdoor saying "The ones who really love you never really leave you, you know."

But it weighs on me, the heaviness of Alice. She’s not heavy, of course. No, she’s frail and old and simply ready. It dawned on me at some point how selfish it was to keep this fictional character onboard this fictional boat– prolonging her suffering, for what? So that I wouldn’t be left alone here? It’s my job to be left alone. I’m the Spiritfarer.

I do, eventually. I bring everyone to the Everdoor. That’s what the game tells you to do. And, over time, it’s what I want to do.

It’s just me here. Until it’s my time to move on, too.

All of this isn’t really the story of Spiritfarer. Stella has her own story, which you uncover as the game progresses. I’ll let you experience that for yourself. Spiritfarer isn’t about my grief, or yours, or anyone else’s. Fundamentally it’s about Stella and the people around her and how she came to this place. The story the game lets you experience outside of that core narrative runs parallel but separate.

I absolutely adore Spiritfarer. It’s gorgeous, filled with glitter and magic and strange characters. The music is stunning (highly recommend using it for writing sessions or sleep). The management sim side of it never gets overwhelming or tedious. You can play it for hours or minutes at a go. It hits that same dopamine place in your brain every other good game in its genre does. It might even have been my game of the year in which I played it, 2021.

But what has always gotten me most about Spiritfarer is the way in which your personal experience with death and grief may shape your game play. I think many good games are impacted by what the player brings to it (see: Journey), and this is up there with my favorite of those. For me, it was about learning to let other people move on, to listen to them when they communicate about it, to hear their wishes and respect them.

You and me, Daffodil. We got this.

In the end, it’s me, Daffodil, and a spirit named Buck. Buck is a basilisk who loves DnD-style games and will stay with you to the end. He won’t ask that you stay on the boat just for him. He’ll let you go, whenever it’s your time.

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