Firstly, A Great Management Sim
It’s been a few months now since the release of Thunderlotus’ excellent Spiritfarer on all major platforms. In a year full of bombastic releases across the medium, whether it be Doom Eternal’s demon-slaying shenanigans or The Last of Us: Part 2’s revenge tale or even more updates for the numerous battle royales, it has certainly felt like a year dominated by tales and experiences of large-scale violence and some grim stories.
However, along with the latest Animal Crossing and some acclaimed indies such as Coffee Talk and Necrobarista, Spiritfarer so willfully embraces tranquility it’d make Overwatch’s Zenyatta proud. Spiritfarer itself has players take control of Stella as she sails the high seas in search of souls to prepare them for the afterlife. To do this, you spend your time managing various tasks on your ship like solving personal quests for your companions or cooking plenty of fish after catching it.
All of these are to be expected from a management sim and Thunderlotus handle the gameplay mechanics with great care, taking the time to flesh out the game’s many activities whilst balancing it delicately with the personal stories of the characters you build relationships with. As you’ve guessed from the title of this piece though, we’re not here to discuss that. Instead, let’s talk about something else.
Spiritfarer is a game that welcomes thoughtfulness. Its peacefulness provides a relaxing experience that quietly lulls you into the gorgeous world through its dialogue and individual stories. The characters provide a broad thematic outlook in the storytelling, but this poses a hindrance across the game’s ridiculously long playtime. On the one hand, stories such as the deer spirit Gwen and her difficult relationship with her father or Astrid’s long-running relationship with her lover, provide a wide breadth of themes that the game gives plenty of time to address.
That said, the time it spends in other areas leads to some stories that feel rushed and have since received public backlash, with Gustav’s plotline being heavily criticized for pushing harmful ableist tropes that Thunderlotus have since apologised for and patched out. Ultimately, Thunderlotus has a desire to examine the complexities of human connection, which gives plenty of opportunity for analysis of the gameplay itself.
As previously mentioned, Spiritfarer is a management sim. You spend most of your time preparing meals tailored for your various guests’ appetites, sawing trees and collecting fruits from islands, and building new abodes and workplaces on your ship. This distinction between the gameplay and narrative does wonders. The game prides itself on exploring death’s finality and what specifically the characters leave behind after they’re gone.
While the characters themselves contemplate relationships and goals that they’ll leave as their legacy, the gameplay quietly has you building homes for them on your ship. With each of these spaces receiving a character’s personal touch, the overall mood of each character is improved as a reward; Stella is delighted when you build her a reading corner in her house and giving Summer a table to observe her various gems reaps a similar reward.
Spiritfarer embraces materialism as meaningful. I’m sure we all have innumerable examples of, or are at least familiar with, this concept of materialism. After all, in death we all leave physical things behind, sometimes innocuous things that still hold great value to a specific person. For me, one of those things is a coffee mug from my grandmother’s house that I still keep. A small everyday item that gives me a slight smile – remembering the house I spent loads of time in as a child with her.
Dealing with Materialism In-Game
In an alternative colder sense, there is the concept of economic materialism in which we apply personal value to goods and their consumption. When it comes to Spiritfarer itself, materialism is embraced in the way that characters introduce Stella to numerous skills. When we meet Gwen, she introduces the mechanic of catching jellyfish and even teaches Stella how to use her loom. Atul spends time early in the game teaching you how to use a fishing rod. The characters teach you skills through the tools you use.
Specifically, Gwen’s story exhibits a more materialistic approach; as you advance towards the Everdoor, she leaves behind her barely working lighter she stole from her dad, asking Stella to remember her with it. I even found myself shedding a tear travelling to the Everdoor, sitting with Gwen in the reading corner I had built for her as we journeyed to her final destination. After all, I tailored that space for her with everything she needed and wanted.
Spiritfarer communicates how our interactions with others are partially built on possessions. Yet, crucially, this isn’t the ultimate goal of the game’s questlines. You don’t prepare Gwen for the afterlife by having her read every novel to exist, nor do you grant Astrid eternal peace by giving her rare metal ingots. Ultimately, the characters’ questlines are more about them reconciling their own personal struggles, not getting them the perfect coffee mug to pass on to the grandkids. Spiritfarer embraces physical items only to a point to demonstrate that whilst possessions are beneficial as a physical form of a person’s life, they merely serve as a part of said life. The relationships we build, and the special moments created by said relationships, are the key to life. Possessions are ironically immaterial to those relationships.
Why have I written this? Because whether a purposeful thematic beat from Thunderlotus or something I’ve grasped from my own experience, Spiritfarer expertly uses its gameplay, built on the power of possessions and materialism, to serve a thematic purpose that meshes seamlessly with its narratives. Any game that can do that is worth examining and praising.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to tackle the rest of Gwen’s library and do some fishing. I need to use those tools I was taught.
Words by Alex Green
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