Chiwatin isn't your typical video game hero. He pees himself when he gets scared and the snow in the northern Canadian landscape turns yellow under his feet. I wanted to laugh at this the third time it happened, when I realised it wasn't some weird rendering bug and an actual design decision. But then the crows that were bullying the protagonist of Spirits of Spring laughed at him too. And I felt a different — but just as painful — kind of shame as what Chiwatin was feeling.
The trail of urine dripping from Chiwatin's pants sticks around a while after those bullying moments, long enough to make you really uncomfortable. Enough to drive home that it's not meant to be funny. You feel a different kind of fear playing Spirits of Spring. Fear that you've forgotten what it was like to be teased and made fun of. Fear that, maybe, you're the one who's doing the taunting and harassing now.
Spirits of Spring comes from Minority Media, the Montreal dev studio best known as the creators of Papo & Yo. The iOS release — previously known as Silent Enemy while in development — shares a lot in common with its semi-autobiographical predecessor. Both concern themselves with emotional realities that don't show up in video games very often. Papo & Yo drew from designer Vander Caballero's childhood growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father and Spirits of Spring is a game about the corrosive effects of bullying.
A young boy of indigenous Canadian background, Chiwatin controls the Spirits that help keep his land in everlasting springtime. But then three mean crows show up, intent on stealing the spirits and physically and verbally abusing Chiwatin and his animal friends. Players need to guide the boy through his journey to save his land and his own soul.
Spirits of Spring's gameplay is primarily exploration-based environmental puzzle-solving. This means that players will mainly be steering Chiwatin and his animal friends over the top-down landscape and using their unique abilities to gather the magical spirits that let him cross water gaps by dragging a fingertip across the screen to create bridges. He'll also revive dead Spirit Trees, which will melt ice and open up previously blocked pathways but also uses up the previously collected spirits. So, players will also be controlling Chiwatin's animal friends to go places where he can't. Bear can swim through the freezing waters while Rabbit moves faster and can navigate underground via hollows that act like portals. The touch controls take some getting used to at first and didn't feel quite as sharp as I'd have liked. But nothing stopped me from being able to finish.
If the premise of the game sounds very storybook, then it's worth noting that Spirits isn't quite as grim as Papo & Yo was. Set in a countryside caught between thaw and frost, this game is more fantastical in its art style and storytelling approach. Its characters speak to each other via on-screen text, with great music — spearheaded by Brian D'Olivera — and narration that adds weight to the proceedings. Gentler than the game Minority made its name on, Spirits of Spring is less likely to have players bawling by the end of it.
That's not to say Spirits of Spring is lacking as far as emotional impact. Chiwatin is clumsy and falls a lot. You'll be running along just fine and the boy will just trip over his own feet. He's unsure of himself and doesn't have everything figured out. The game's very earnest, almost to the point of being treacly. The sassy dialogue helps offset that, though. Most importantly, the game's emotional arc convincingly puts Chiwatin in touch with his own anger. When he got the chance to sample a destructive power offered by a conniving fox, part of me responded by internally yelling, "Yes! Finally a chance to kill those crow motherfuckers!"
So much of Spirits of Spring feels like the playable version of an afterschool special. But, like Papo & Yo before it, Spirits of Spring has the energy of actual peoples' lived experience inside of it and is trying to express something from those lives to the people playing it. The trauma suffered by the game-makers is palpable, especially in the game's finale. It made me remember my moments of lying on the ground waiting for other schoolkids' blows to stop, realising what might be churning inside the heads of the kids bullying me and lashing out towards friends and family who were concerned for me.
Mechanically, the game can be fiddly and annoying at times. The pathways feel pointlessly labyrinthine and the collision detection is finicky. But emotionally, it's meaningful and resonant. Despite itself, Spirits of Spring manages to be a beautiful game about surviving horrible things.