Death is a common element of videogames, though it can be split into at least two categories. There’s the fail state, which rather trivialises the concept, as most games simply let you try again to the point that death is an annoyance to be conquered. Where death itself is the subject matter, the tone tends towards the melancholic, such as exploring the lives of a family gone too soon in What Remains of Edith Finch or the heavy-handed bleakness of JRPG Oninaki.
Developer Thunder Lotus is no stranger to dabbling with death: in the studio's first game Jotun you play a recently deceased viking who must prove herself to the Norse gods to enter Valhalla, while in its Lovecraftian metroidvania Sundered pretty much everything is out to kill you. Death is once again at the core of its new game but, while the studio’s beautiful hand-drawn cartoon art style remains intact, the approach couldn’t be more different.
Spiritfarer is a cosy management sim where you befriend and tend to the needs of recently deceased animal spirits. Much like how Norse mythology formed the core of Jotun, this game draws light inspiration from the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman who carries the souls of the newly deceased along the River Styx. However it’s quickly apparent that this is more of a subversion of the dark and grim underworld in favour of something creative director Nicolas Guérin calls “bubblier and more colourful.”
For starters, while Charon has been depicted as an unkempt old man beating poor souls with his oar, or more commonly like the skeletal grim reaper complete with black cowl, here he’s replaced with the cheerful and much better-dressed Stella (she’s also accompanied by her pet cat Daffodil, who can be controlled by a second player for local couch co-op).
The spirits you meet, at least the initial ones I encounter in the demo, also seem accepting of their fate - no one’s trying to bargain with you - but they nevertheless have unfinished business. So as well as ferrying them on your boat, you’re also fulfilling last wishes so that they’re free to leave for the afterlife.
The first spirit you meet, for instance, is a mellow old snake called Summer who, as the name suggests, is a bit of a hippy. As a new guest on the boat, she asks you to rebuild her home on-board while later on she’ll want you to recover a lost family heirloom. But before all that, let’s get to one of the game’s key interactions.
You can hug everyone. Yes, I know petting the dog is popular right now, but the warm fuzzy feeling of a hug is the loveliest thing in Spiritfarer, especially when it’s uniquely animated for every character of different size, stature, and mood. Having previously pondered on videogame attempts to capture physical connection, Thunder Lotus absolutely nails this.
It’s rare for games to include any playable form of physical interaction that isn’t a violent one, but Spiritfarer is the opposite. Where even the chilled farming life sim Stardew Valley allowed players to go fighting monsters in the mines, there really is no combat here. It’s a refreshing change for both the studio’s past output and Guérin, who prior to this had been at Ubisoft for many years working on the very stabby Assassin’s Creed series.
If there's one thing I've learned as a seasoned consumer of all things horror, it's that situations are rarely as innocent as they seem. Dolls will spring to life and kill you. That big, beautiful house you got for a steal is haunted.
You know how it goes.
I let my guard down with Stardew Valley. "A gentle farming sim," they said. "Get married and grow some artichokes, it's so relaxing." I should have trusted my instincts. As my artichokes grew, so too grew the terror.
Even without combat, it’s hardly lacking in other activities, since Stella has in her possession the Everlight, a glowing omni-tool that handily morphs into everything you need from a watering can to a fishing rod to a pick-axe. Because just as well as carrying out requests for each of the spirits you befriend, which there are 15 in total, and each with their own unique home, it’s also about meeting their daily needs, such as feeding them, hence the farming and cooking mechanics, with plenty of recipes to learn while you figure out each spirit’s tastes.
Returning to Summer's request to build her home, this will be a requirement for each of the spirits who join you, while they wait in a guesthouse (the devs warn that some spirits will get mad if you leave them there for too long). I take a trip to the shipyard where I talk to an anthropomorphic shark and then 'building' Summer’s house is as simple as drag-and-dropping it onto the boat.
The height and location of each spirit’s home can also be adjusted at any time - for instance, some spirits might ask to be housed closer to other spirits - and over time the impossible renovations and extensions slowly transforms the boat into some kind of floating village.
The other unexpected surprise with the additional buildings is that the player suddenly has more platforms to jump around. As it turns out Spiritfarer is also a smooth 2D platformer: not only can Stella glide when you hold down the jump button, she also satisfyingly slides down roof slopes, while by the end of the demo I unlocked a double-jump upgrade.
For the most part, it just makes moving around the game feel great, though I’m tested a little later on in a quest where I’m running and jumping around using the Everlight to catch bolts of lightning. I’m an absolute sucker for games that excel at traversal but it’s not something you would expect a farming/life-sim to prioritise (I mean, fans were in hysterics at being able to pole-vault across rivers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons).
“Moving the character around for us is important, so it's a big component of the game,” Guerin says. “It could have been just a simple farm sim with menus, but we couldn't help ourselves.”
In both its atmosphere and movements, Spiritfarer is such a joy to play that one almost forgets the omnipresent theme of death. Looking at its bright colours and locales devoid of anything remotely macabre, there's little to remind you this is about helping souls pass on to the next life. Perhaps that’s the point.
“It's for us a way to think and talk about death in a way that makes us all a bit more accepting of it,” Guérin tells me. The game is not about death-as-antagonistic-conflict. This may be because it's also a personal game for the studio: each of the animal spirits are inspired by relatives of team members, including Guérin's grandmother who passed away last year.
These depictions are essentially tributes to their lives, and doubtless there’s some significance to the animal form each spirit takes. They incorporate a message of legacy and heritage, too: Stella and the player may care for these spirits, but they also impart knowledge to Stella, who learns new skills and becomes a better version of herself.
Death isn't an easy subject, but Spiritfarer explores the topic without the the rather grim trappings and simplistic mechanics we've come to expect from video games. For Guérin it’s something that humans have been trying to make sense of through the ages, hence the grab-bag of different mythologies underpinning Stella's strange and unusual journey. There are no answers, only the question of how you feel about it. And if everything's getting you down, you'll have no shortage of buddies to hug.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.