Spiritfarer starts off with your character, Stella, taking over the role of Charon, ferrying the spirits of the dead. Though, right from the beginning, your behavior doesn’t feel like any prior conception of Charon that I had: instead of having you ferrying anonymous souls en masse, Spiritfarer has you ferrying a small number of individuals, and frequently they’re individuals whom Stella already had a prior connection with. And, in fact, you’re not ferrying them straight to the underworld: instead, you build each spirit their own room on your boat, furnish it according to their specifications, and act as a sort of hospice or halfway house or something, all the while doing various errands for them.

Which, I guess, is fine? If we pretend that the game had never used names like “Charon” and “Hades” to refer to people in the game, and instead just accepted that it’s a game about helping people who aren’t quite yet ready to die but who aren’t far away from that state, combined with a lightweight building / farming / task management sim, then I guess that’s a mixture worth trying?

But I can’t say I found that mixture to be a particularly successful one. On the one hand, there’s a theme here that’s unusually weighty for games, and occasional conversations that gesture at that theme. But, on the other hand, you spend most of your time just going from place to place, doing busywork of watering plants, cooking meals, and so forth, instead of engaging directly with that theme. And, on the third hand, you’re trying to make various video game progress markers advance: checking off tasks on your request list, expanding your ship so you can fit more buildings on it, and so forth. And those three hands didn’t work together particularly well, in my view.


To be sure, almost everything in video games could in some sense be described as “busywork” if you look at it from an appropriate angle. And, thematically, you could make a case that, in a game about preparing for death, the presence of mundane tasks is a virtue: life goes on, somebody has to keep putting food on the table, and both the dying and their caregivers have basic needs. But, in Spiritfarer, that didn’t all come together for me: while I was playing, the constant tasks felt too much like busywork; and, now that I’ve finished the game and am stepping back, I don’t see the game doing the work necessary to bring out and tie together the broader themes.

Take Stella, for example: the game connects her with Charon, but that analogy falls apart almost immediately. But if she’s taking up a role of a smaller-scale caregiver, then why has she taken up that role, for whom, and why for those people in particular?

Or, starting from the other end: maybe the game is supposed to be focused on the stories of the spirits that we’re ferrying along. But, if that’s the case, then I wish the game would lean into that! As is, it fails on the one hand because you spend so much of your time doing tasks that aren’t directly related to those stories, and it fails on the other hand because so much of those stories are only gestured at, instead of being told.

Many of the spirits are people Stella had prior contact with, and I suppose if I’d been taking notes on every single conversation, then I’d be able to start to piece together a larger picture. But, most of the time, when I’m engaging with a work of art, I want to have a more basic story at the surface level for me to interact with; the backstory should be there to provide richness to make the world feel more real, to give me something to dig into on repeated dives into the work of art, and so forth. Spiritfarer didn’t give me that basic level of story, it was all backstory, seeming instead to assume that I’d be motivated to figure out connections without that. And I just wasn’t.


Having said all that, there’s still something there in Spiritfarer; I was surprised to be feeling somewhat emotional the first time I dropped off a spirit at the Everdoor, that was a pretty unusual experience for a video game. But also, in retrospect I kind of wished I’d stopped playing at that point. I’d seen what the game was going to show me, the core gameplay loop isn’t good enough to stand on its own, and the story didn’t get any richer.

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