‘Game On Reviews’ is where Will Harrison posts his most recent piece from his Associated Press Award-nominated gaming column ‘Game On,’ which appears bi-weekly in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Toledo Blade, due to The Blade’s recent decision to lock their site fully behind a paywall. For more pieces, news, and information, please visit http://www.toledoblade.com.
Death is constant, inevitable, and unfair. These three facts are no more apparent than in the year 2020 and a literal plague upon our houses.
Even if you don’t know anyone affected by coronavirus, we’ve all felt the effects and pressure that comes with being squeezed by the hands of fear and unease. In times of trouble and extreme duress, we mentally shutter ourselves inward almost as a reflex. Part of that sometimes is a voice to only care about the immediate things around you as a way to keep from becoming empathetically exhausted.
In a year that is so very different than all the plans I had only six months ago it’s more important than ever to be reminded of empathy, emotions, and allowing myself to feel. Which is to say that Spiritfarer by developer Thunder Lotus came along at the perfect time, reminding me that we can’t run away from the inevitable. Whether that be the inevitability of our own emotions getting the best of us, or death itself.
I needed that, especially right now and especially from a 2020 whose game lineup has, at times, asked me to turn off my empathy or used it as a manipulative bludgeon for the plot. It was only a few short months ago that I was stumbling my way through The Last of Us Part II — a game experience that I can only describe as an exercise in emotional self-defeat. The story asks so much of the player emotionally but rarely gives anything back in the form of release.
In many ways, Spiritfarer is the exact opposite. Where The Last of Us forces the plot and its harsh, cruel world to press forward at the push of the player’s controller, Spiritfarer asks me to take my time and accept moving on when I’m ready. It has no interest in beating me over the head with a plot that seemingly screams “Doesn’t this make you sad and angry?” over and over.
In a simple game about ferrying your loved ones to whatever happens past the afterlife, all that is asked of me is to care for and think about feelings of love, regret, remorse, sadness, and ultimately acceptance. The story of Stella, a recently deceased former nurse tasked with taking over Charon’s role as ferryman of the dead, is two-pronged. The player is tasked with ushering those closest to Stella to their final rest, finding peace with their demise. However, this same story also asks the player to confront their fears about death, moving on, and forgetting.
I don’t talk about it often, but death and the fear of dying is by far the thing that keeps me up at night. This is especially true during a pandemic, in which I feel like more and more of my emotional energy is spent trying to keep from giving myself an ulcer over whether or not going to get gas will end up with me catching coronavirus. I’ve needed some outlet, but more importantly: I’ve needed something to tell me that it’s okay to be sad, afraid, happy, and anything else in-between.
The small details of Spiritfarer are what truly sell these character moments. Beautiful animations, sprawling background, and environmental art, and a hauntingly optimistic soundtrack. Every character that comes across your boat can be hugged, and that’s not just a fun little addition. Part of your job in this game is managing the moods of your passengers, taking care of their needs while also playing out their story to the end. Part platformer and part management simulator, Spiritfarer is a unique blend of genres that tells a more personal story than games with double the budget or developers.
Never has a game made me cry more throughout my time with it than Spiritfarer, and I mean that as the highest of possible honors. The completion of each character’s arc was pure catharsis, and I don’t think I realized beforehand just how much emotion I had been keeping bottled up inside that Spiritfarer managed to release. Spiritfarer wants to teach you how to say goodbye, but it also inevitably is a game about knowing when it is time to let go, which is just as important.
This was an emotional experience of a game that I will always treasure, and cannot give high enough regards to Spiritfarer or what it accomplishes as one of, if not the best game of the year. When 2020 as a year continues to ask more and more of my emotional capacity, Spiritfarer was there to say that everything will be okay. And I think it will be, even if it’s just for one moment at a time.