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Characters lined up on the spiritfarer ship Image: Thunder Lotus Games

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Video games revel in death, Spiritfarer focuses on what happens next

It’s based on classical Greek mythology

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Spiritfarer is a game about death, but in a way that’s different than most video games.

Death doesn’t come at the tip of a bullet, with numbers accumulating on a scoreboard. It’s not a restarting point, with a loss of time and progress, as if you’ve run out of life neatly calculated in a counter running in the background. Many video games depict death in these ways. They depict loss — wins and loses — but almost never approach the topic realistically.

Death is natural. It’s inevitable and unavoidable. It’s also crushing, scary, and complex. I can understand why most video game developers would choose not to address these realities: a first-person shooter would be an entirely different game if the bodies didn’t simply disappear into the ether as more and more pile up.

Now there’s Spiritfarer, a game about death and grief, a theme developer Thunder Lotus Games led with throughout its development and marketing: “a cozy management game about dying.”

a lion turns into a light spirit in the underworld on a boat Image: Thunder Lotus

Spiritfarer is based on classical Greek mythology: the story of the river Styx, a waterway that’s said to be a pathway between Earth and the afterlife. In the myth, spirits are transported by Charon, the ferryman, through the river and into the underworld, paying passage with a token. Spiritfarer follows this story closely, as Stella and her cat Daffodil take over from Charon. Stella is the spiritfarer, and she captains a large boat to ease the dead into whatever comes next. The act of dying, which we often see in video games, is less important than what happens after death in this story.

The game begins as Charon retires, with Stella just beginning in the role. She travels between islands in the Spiritfarer world, meeting spirits that are stuck and need help in moving on. Most of the characters on the ship, picked up throughout the game’s watercolor world, are Stella’s friends and family. Some are not, but each has something they need — something Stella must provide. Her large, but initially simple, vessel is her way of doing so.

The ship gets larger and more complex with each passenger that comes aboard, whether a garden to grow vegetables for a vegetarian spirit has been added, or the kitchen is upgraded to create elaborate meals for picky passengers. These additions, which include orchards and a massive crusher for grinding things to dust, stack precariously on top of one another, a slow game of Tetris, as shapes get more complex and harder to fit in the constrained space of the ship.

This is where the “cozy management” of “a cozy management game about dying” comes in. Resources collected throughout the world are brought back to the ship and processed through these additions to the boat, whether that’s turning sugar and flour into a cake, or flattening glass into sheets. The management elements of the game, while repetitive and straightforward, are made essential because they are acts of care — the relief Stella can provide to the dead as they move toward the Everdoor, the portal to the afterlife.

It’s not entirely unlike how you’d manage an island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, slowly accumulating the materials needed to tend to your creation. But in Spiritfarer, it’s the action of traveling to islands to collect resources, then harvesting them into something usable, that is the core. Stella controls the boat through a map at the ship’s helm, but there’s no need for players to guide it through the world. Once a waypoint is set, the boat heads in that direction itself, sometimes encountering surprises — like a shipwreck with treasures — along the way.

The play may seem mundane and repetitive, but the role of the spiritfarer, caring for these people in their deaths, gives each action depth. When Stella reaches her destination, she’s able to hop on a dinghy to reach the islands, which vary in what they offer. Some have puzzles gated behind abilities learned later in the game, while others are only necessary for gathering materials. There are trees to cut down, used later to create planks necessary in building structures. Other areas have merchants selling seeds, like cotton or sunflowers, which can be woven into linen or crushed into oil for frying, respectively.

Characters — a human, frog,lion, and ox — gather together. The frog says, “Are you ready to eat?” Image: Thunder Lotus Games

Spiritfarer works because the entire game is built around creating these connections to the characters, all of which are complex people with tangled stories. And none of the spirits are purely good or bad; some are people leaving a mess behind for others to grapple with. Sometimes they’re angry — at Stella or others on the ship. They’re challenging in ways I haven’t seen often in video games. The investment in these characters, though, is what makes the rote mechanisms of Spiritfarer’s gameplay feel worthwhile, because those connections happen organically.

There’s something to be learned about the spirits on the boat with each resource mined or meal served. Their stories unwind as they’re tended to. Sometimes, this means making a spirit’s favorite meal. Atul, Stella’s late uncle that appears as a frog, loves pork chops and fried chicken. The process of acquiring these things requires multiple trips to multiple islands, looking for vendors who sell each of these meat products. And then there’s the oil, necessary for frying the chicken — that must be harvested from sunflower seeds grown from the flowers in the garden, which are crushed down into an oil. These meals have memories for Atul, and they help him move on.

The spirits talk about what they’re afraid of, or the things they’ve done wrong in their past. They share things they need to complete. One spirit requests you help finish an elaborate Dungeons & Dragons campaign, which is a touching highlight. There’s a big, emotional payoff for embracing the mechanics of the game, however many times you’ve visited the docks to harvest iron ore. There are no cheap tricks in establishing a connection to Spiritfarer’s characters and their deaths. You work for it, which helps ease in the pain and grief of it all.

I’d prefer not to think about death. I’m afraid of it — so much that I often force myself not to talk about it, as if I might speak those fears into existence. But I played Spiritfarer at a time when I could not ignore death; in the middle of a pandemic that has killed (and continues to kill) numbers of people I can hardly comprehend. And days before receiving the review code, a dear family member died tragically and unexpectedly, the grief of which made starting the game almost too painful. Not necessarily because I didn’t want to confront the things I was feeling, but because I was worried about seeing the experience flattened in a video game package — reduced to a concept too simple to evoke any real feeling. I know that death is not neat, that there is no bow to tie up my own personal grief.

At no point during Spiritfarer did I feel helpless, like there was not something I could do to bring some sort of relief to the spirits on board the ship. It’s a stark contrast to how I’m experiencing the grief of death in real life, but it’s comforting.

That’s not to say, though, that in Spiritfarer that these acts of caring labor fix the spirit’s current or past problems — they don’t. But they do help the spirits come to terms with their deaths, and ease them into the afterlife as they work through their own grief, anger, and confusion. It’s that sort of help — in being able to help someone figure something out for themselves — that makes the repetition of management and care feel so rewarding.

Spiritfarer launched Aug. 18 on Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One; it is coming later to Google Stadia. The game was reviewed on PC using a download code provided by Thunder Lotus. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.