Spiritfarer and the moments between things – a gaming study in life and relativism

By Neil Merrett

Spiritfarer, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, published by Thunder Lotus Games

For a colourful adventure touching on existential themes of love, existence and what makes a decent meal – Spiritfarer is a game that is perhaps at its most profound in the little moments between ‘doing things’

There is an existential thought experiment – one that often seems to be faced by children – that can occur when sat on a train. The experiment is based around the question of whether it is the passenger on the train or the world around them that is really in motion?

As the Open University notes, the concept is an everyday example of Galileo’s ‘motion relativism’. This is the concept of accepting that everything on our planet, including the earth itself, is in motion by the nature of how our galaxy functions. However, this feeling of constantly moving is masked by our individual perceptions of the world around us – the fact that certain ‘sets’ of objects, such as the ground we are planted on, end up moving at the same, seemingly impossible velocity with us. This can make it seem as if we are standing still for the majority of our lives while the sun and the galaxy moves on without us regardless.  However, we still spend our entire lives in motion – one way or another.

The Open University states, “A person sitting on a moving train, for example, is part of such a set that includes the train, the carriage, the seat, the table, the other passengers and so on. To this person their seat, the coffee cup on the table and the passenger opposite appear to stand (or sit) still, whilst the station platform outside rushes by at speed.” 

“For the person sat at the station platform, by contrast, their bench, the ticket office (and the other objects making up their set) stand still, whilst the train and its passengers rush by at speed.”

Enter the ‘Spiritfarer’

Spiritfarer by Thunder Lotus Games appears to take a similar approach to the concept of our relationships with those we travel, interact with and love through our lives. Are we ultimately the main character of our own story, or merely a passenger passing through the lives of other people that we might impact in the most meaningful or minor ways? It seems both cases are true in terms of Spiritfarer.

The player controls the character of Stella, with room for couch cooperative play afforded by a second player being able to take control of her trusty cat and sidekick, Daffodil.

From the get go, we are informed that Stella is assuming the role of the Spiritfarer, a more comforting and empathetic successor to Charon, the boatman who transports the souls of the newly deceased to their eternal rest in Greek Mythology.

Stella, despite her human form, is effectively performing the same role as Charon in the game, albeit by providing soft furnishings, gourmet or pub cuisine, and ultimately some existential comfort to spirits as they look to gain a final acceptance of their place in the world as it finally moves on without them.

Here the foreboding River Styx is reimagined as an impressively vast ocean with dozens of islands to discover, scale and forage through in the form of Mediterranean coasts, arctic glaciers, Scandinavian mining colonies or garish urban environments. The majority of these locations host a range of lost, or at least preoccupied souls.

What unfolds is a game that is essentially a hybrid of a 2D adventure platformer in the tradition of Metroid, with the more relaxed tasks and agricultural focus of Animal Crossing. Outside of the core gameplay, the world of Spiritfarer also owes something of a debt to the iconic visual and auditory style of Japanese animation maestro – Hayao Miyazaki.

Beyond the zen, otherworldly design of Spiritfarer’s oceans, the game also seems to directly evoke some of the key themes of transformation, growth, aging and morality that underpins one of Miyazaki’s most renowned works, Spirited Away.

This can be seen in the way that the player travels the game world. They ultimately must build up their small wooden barge into potentially becoming a steampunk cruise ship that over time is built into a fully functioning village on which a host of beautifully animated, sometimes exasperating spirits ask you for kindness and home-cooked meals.

It is a game that is part carehome simulator/part cruise ship manager, while also playing out as an empathetic quest to find peace within the complexities of our own inner nature and the people that we share all or even part of our lives with.

Time and meaning

The ocean setting is hugely important for conveying these main themes of the game, particularly when compared to the stationery settings of games such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon that ask the player to build some sort of digital homestead and farm. Spiritfarer has a clear and well defined cycle of day and night as you travel the game world – repeating endlessly until the player’s quest is complete.

As you sail between islands to uncover new lands, treasures or exotic crops, the game asks you to manage your time and all those important and mundane moments in between.

As you sail to strange new locations or familiar towns to complete quests or barter for seeds, livestock, goods or some old tat that one of your ‘guests’ might desire, Spiritfarer becomes a surprisingly effective meditation on how we use our time.  It even incorporates a fishing game that feels both effectively rewarding to play, while also helping a player to slightly unwind after having to perform a range of tasks in quick succession.

With orchards and crops to be cultivated, a picky vegan spirit to be fed, and a host of quests to be completed based around building new homes, or making metals, glass or cheese on your boat – mornings, afternoons, dawns and starry or stormy nights can seemingly occur relentlessly. 

Rest and downtime can feel equally important in the game, particularly after an arduous or lengthy voyage where the player might also be required to care, listen and occasionally cwtch multiple spirits.  

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Players might find themselves deciding to take a less intensive in-game day or two to do nothing but fish, jam with musicians staying on the boat, or just to generally slow things down and take stock of your progress and what is needed next.

Alternatively, players are free push on to try and retain a sense of pace and urgency in their actions.  After all, that cellar that will allow the player to begin manufacturing cheese for one character’s pizza party will not build itself, and there is a surprising sense of achievement to the game’s gentle focus on progress and questing.    

Challenge without confrontation

There may be nothing to slay or defeat in any physical or confrontational sense, but mining some valuable metal and minerals from a giant, temperamental, but oddly gentle serpent does ramp up the overall intensity and challenge in the game.

This sense of seemingly endless days and nights passing in the game world, and how we choose to travel through them, can therefore feel vitally important in the game.  How the player chooses to use each day and night cycle is hugely flexible and perhaps one of the game’s most effective features.  For, in keeping with the overarching theme of life and its respective value to the people we share it with, it is often in the small conversations and interactions between a player’s big tasks and overall journey where the game’s plot and purpose is slowly revealed.

Eventually, every character is required to be brought to the ‘Everdoor’.

These different spirits are to be ferried to whatever awaits after life, while getting to say a final goodbye to the audience as a plea for understanding and purpose.

In the slow, sometimes effectively moving row up to the peaceful and foreboding Everdoor, those little moments, awkward quirks and small culinary triumphs between the player and their spectral passengers are laid bare and perhaps reveal their value and purpose. Sometimes, this happens with some great or simple truths, other times through a sense of sadness tinged with gratefulness for those small shared moments between the beginning and the end of all things.

Characters such as Gwen, a seemingly troubled individual in both their human and spirit forms, never are able to fully shift their doubts and demons by the time of their slow, peaceful voyage to the Everdoor. However, the player can better understand in these final moments that Gwen has been a great love in a vitally platonic way for having chosen to share both their best and worst sides with Stella.

In these small moments of the game, which can range from profound discussions on love, grief and disappointment to those more simple everyday interactions, there is some beautiful writing in Spritfarer that is as equally important to its world building as the game’s code.

As more and more colourful spirits are brought onto your boat, with their unique needs, quirks and sometimes complicated pathologies, the player has to begin to reshape their day around their needs. The aim of being able to run and manage a self-sustaining vessel to cultivate foods, materials and other creature comforts is constantly changing in line with the changing needs of those around us.  And after all this, each character must then decide if they are ready, or perhaps need to make their way to the Everdoor for some kind of peace.

As opposed to defeating some pesky and fearful boss creature, some of the key game play milestone’s in Spiritfarer can involve building the apparatus and skills to produce cooking oils so that Uncle Atul can have Fried Chicken that he fondly remembers from a complicated life.  While effectively just performing fetch quests, the game creates a notable sense of achievement in the small kindnesses that the player gives on a random day, whether it is providing comfort in a storm, or conjuring up some comfort food or healthy vegan dish.

Spiritfarer’s existential relativism

Much like with Galileo’s motion relativism, the game has its own form of existential relativism built into the plot as the player starts to find themselves wondering whether it may be Stella, and not the crew, that are preparing for the end of their lives.

Is it the Spiritfarer’s job to send those who she has loved, or that have confounded her in life to a peaceful and final end? Or, is she herself saying a gradual goodbye to the vital characters that have shaped her story as the Spiritfarer prepares to embrace the finality of their own existence?

Perhaps the question is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  In the end, we are all travelling to some kind of Everdoor, a place where there is no coming back from and perhaps where there is nothing beyond, regardless of whether we are ready or not.  

But for a game built around colourful mini-game challenges in an unrelenting cycle of days and nights, Spiritfarer asks us to find solace and enjoyment in those big and little moments between things and to embrace the different characters we are sharing it with.

The game’s meaning can be found as equally in its grand meditations on the end of existence as it is in the value of sharing something as innocuous as making a chicken schnitzel with someone whose importance, possibly only in their eventual absence, lies behind words.

Not a bad ambition for a self-described “cozy management game about dying”.

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