Spiritfarer is a bit of a thematic oddity. The game is an upbeat and cheery adventure that also deals with the not-so-cheerful topics of loss and death. You play as Stella, a chipper ferry master who helps spirits pass on into the afterlife from the comfort of her boat. On the one hand, you get to meet a bunch of adorable characters, but on the other, you get to find out how they all met their end. It's a game about making new friends, but also knowing you'll have to say goodbye to them.
You'd think that Spriritfarer would suffer from a serious case of emotional whiplash, but after playing an hour-long preview with creative director Nicolas Guérin as my guide, the duality of finding comfort in death is so finely balanced it's admirable. Thunder Lotus has always been open about how Spiritfarer will be a death-positive game, and for Guérin the experience of making Spiritfarer has been all about perfecting this balance.
"It's been a journey, I can tell you that," Guérin says. "One of the very first intentions we had was not to impose a message on people. We didn't really want to say something specific except that we wanted to get accustomed to talking about death more. It's a haunting subject, it's both extremely common and extremely dramatic."
Having spent over a decade in the industry working at Ubisoft, Guérin wanted to try something a little different. Leaving the brutal stabbings of the Assassin's Creed games behind, he wanted to create something a little more close to his heart. Making a death-positive game meant finding compassion in the times where people need it the most.
Caring for the spirit residents on your boat involves completing small daily tasks. There are different stations around the ship where you can craft, cook, and farm to make sure that all your boat folk are happy and comfortable.
"Everything is centered around care," Guérin says. "We knew we wanted spirits on the ship and we knew we wanted Stella taking care of them, being there for them, and doing things for them. All the mechanics are there to make you feel like you're taking care of them."
Spirits return the favour by teaching you different skills. You can use your new-found skills on the boat's 13 different stations, and this will give you more abilities to fulfil the needs of the characters. For example, the anthropomorphic mushroom Stanely has a craving for french fries, so I'm put to the task of cooking them from scratch. I first need to collect some potatoes and sunflower seeds from the garden, grind down the seeds into the oil with the crusher machine, and then finally dash to the kitchen to fry the spuds in the oil. It's a lot of running around, but the little dude seems more than happy when I give him my fine work— it's adorable.
You also have daily chores like waking everyone up in the morning with a satisfying bell ringing. Some resources won't be available on your boat and you'll have to venture out to new locations using the ship's navigation map to find new materials. These tasks are very reminiscent of the daily duties in life-sims like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. You'll become closer with a character when you fulfil their needs, whether that's going to the ends of the earth to mine some minerals or just giving them a heartwarming hug.
There's a wide variety of characters on their own journey into the afterlife, but there's more to them than being extremely cuddle-worthy. Guérin explains that almost all the characters you'll meet in Spiritfarer have been inspired by the team's real-life families and that the refined—if slightly problematic—lion Giovani was inspired by his own grandfather.
These little stories show a more intimate side to the cast. They're not exactly the same as their inspirations, but a cherry-picked mix of traits anecdotes from the team's loved ones. Honestly, I was expecting the comfortable character fluff reminiscent of games like Stardew Valley, but you'll be faced with some tough decision making with these spirits. A character whose backstory surprised me the most was Gwen, Stella's first, and closest boat friend.
The majestic deer Gwen has been all over Spiritfarer's screenshots, demos, and trailers, and my impression of her was that she had an elegant exterior with a soft heart. Guérin takes me through the moments when she tells Stella that it's time to say goodbye and we escort her to a portal where she gets to peacefully pass on. It's a moment where Gwen comes to terms with letting go for good, and Guérin tells me a little of her backstory.
"Gwen used to be Stella's best friend in the living world so she's got a spiritual connection with her," Guérin explains. "She gives you a specific heirloom, a lighter, that represents her rebellion against her father who was a controlling person. And the irony is, of course, that ultimately it's being a heavy smoker is what killed her."
After handing me her lighter, Gwen and Stella hug for the last time and she goes through the portal. It's pretty heartbreaking even though I've only known her for a short amount of time. There's a weight to these characters, and if every single goodbye is going to be like Gwen's then I'm in for some serious heart palpitations.
Spiritfarer is shaping up to be something very special. It's full of heart and good-natured through and through. It's not only about saying goodbye to characters but reflecting on what they leave after they've gone.
"We're actually the result of all the mutual interactions people had with us," Guérin says. "Connections with our families and our friends stay with us and Spirifarer is about that. People still live in us no matter what."
I'm very much looking forward to Spiritfarer when it finally sets sail this year, although I might need to watch videos of cute puppies in-between character goodbyes otherwise my heart won't be able to take it.