Spoilers for Spiritfarer (game) and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Game).
Spiritfarer is a fairy-story-like game in which the protagonist, a sort of otherworldly pixie, has to journey across a mystical world in order to find sufficient shiny objects and quirky friends to defeat a malevolent owl, but it is not just a simple rip-off of Ori and the Blind Forest. It rips off Animal Crossing as well.
When I started Spiritfarer, I had hoped to talk about the world-building at the end. It bills itself as a ‘cozy management game about dying’, a ‘meditation on death’ and ‘a unique, endlessly varied adventure’, all of which suggest a game of substance and depth. Alas, I fear the developer may have over-estimated the product in the process.
Firstly, is it a management game? Sort of. Management of the spirits’ demands is required to advance their individual stories, but attending to their hunger can, as far as I could tell, largely be ignored. Between the various mini-games and waiting for crops to grow, it struck me as more of a Facebook or mobile game than a management game in the vein of, say, Surviving Mars or Pharaoh.
Is it cozy? Is it a meditation? Again, sort of. The æsthetic of the game is very finely crafted: it looks and sounds very pretty; the graphical and musical styles are simple but effective, adding to the fairy-tale-feel, but their simplicity belies some very careful attention to detail. The implementation and exploration of the musical leitmotifs in particular show that the simplicity of style was a conscious decision, and not (I believe) due to the constraints of ability.
That said, all this coziness and musical meditation strikes a certain tone, one which is rather at odds with my erstwhile quirky animal squad’s tendency to start effing and blinding at the drop of a hat.
Is it ‘endlessly varied’? No: few of the individual game mechanics really feel fully developed, and even if the player chooses to investigate islands in a different order on a second run through the game, the same spirits with the same demands will still be encountered, and the demands are almost always ‘Go to place’ or ‘Use mini-game A to obtain B and use mini-game C to process it into D’. The player could arrange the buildings on Stella’s boat in a different way, which might technically be endlessly varied, but fiddling with the order of books on my bookshelf would also pass that extremely low bar of a definition, so I think I might discount it.
That said, it might simply be that these kinds of games do not appeal to me, and so I would not say that they were bad, as such. The platforming elements I found more frustrating, irritating rather than challenging: the particular combinations of buttons required to make Stella clamber onto higher levels, drop through them, or activate zip-wires were too much for my keyboard, and so Stella would regularly plummet back to the beginning of a platforming section because
all things tend naturally towards entropy and oblivion I was holding down too many keys simultaneously.
The meditations on death, however, I feel in a better position to criticize, starting with my perennial bugbear that, especially towards the beginning of the game, the script is rife with elementary spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors, which I hope will soon be addressed in a patch.
The whole game is (probably) an extended metaphor for Stella coming to terms with her own death in her last few moments. As a palliative care nurse, and one who was present at the deaths of many of her own loved ones, she has seen her fair share of death. The game draws upon the idea that a palliative care nurse is something of a medical psychopomp and runs with the theme by making Stella a more conventional one for the purposes of the story/her own self-perception of the story.
Although the characters Stella guides to the Everdoor are varied, it is telling that most come to terms with death in very similar ways. On the one hand, this should be expected: the game is about taking those spirits who are ready to pass on to their destination, not about dragging unwilling prisoners into the Great Beyond. On the other hand, the impression I get of the spirits’ final words is that the writer was quite influenced by those famous words of Carl Sagan: ‘We’re made of star stuff’. Sagan was vaguely pantheist/deist in his inclinations, and in his work attributed a certain mystical quality to the physical universe whilst criticizing the conception of a transcendent god in the monotheistic pattern. That is to say, in the words that follow the quotation given above, ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself’. Stella’s star motif (in name and in the constellations left by her departed wards) reflects the first part of the quote, and the game’s own trajectory as a means of Stella to come to terms with her own baggage completes the second part.
The game’s presentation of different ways of reconciling oneself to death is rather shallow (even Gustav’s parting speech, which is one of the better ones), but as an extended meditation on a Sagan-esque philosophy, it does just about manage to meet its objective. Even if the meditation(s) might not be particularly intellectual, it (they) can be touching at times. Having lost two relatives to Alzheimer’s disease, I found Alice’s plot quite moving. Likewise, Gustav struck me as a very believable character (for a cartoon bird), perhaps because I saw such striking similarities between what he had to say and the bold assertions of certain artists I know.
To be fair to Spiritfarer, it is trying to do something quite hard: to tell a story, through a game, about the personal experience of death, and to do so in a way which is comforting rather than harrowing. Compared with, say, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (H:SS), which likewise dwells upon personal experience (bereavement and insanity), Spiritfarer is much more accessible, even friendly towards the player, whereas H:SS is clearly trying to share a certain amount of trauma with the player, up to and including flat-out lying about its mechanics. Spiritfarer might be a bit obtuse at times, but from the very first scene, it makes itself abundantly clear about where its journey is going to end.
Thus, gripes aside, Spiritfarer does a good job of establishing a powerful tone for its story, which in a game like Spiritfarer is of such pre-eminent concern that I am more than happy to ignore any potential world-building blips which might arise. The point of the game is not about exploring any kind of expansive and unique world, other than the expansive and unique world which is the reality of any human soul. We could do with more games like Spiritfarer, and I hope that it does well, not only because of its own artistic merits, but so that its successors can sail further into that reality than the shallows.