Spiritfarer shows the cost of living for others, rather than for yourself
© Thunder Lotus Games
Living your life in service to others is a noble goal, but Spiritfarer serves as a cautionary tale for those who would entirely cut off their own needs and desires for the sake of everyone else.
Games are built on objectives. Whether it’s objectives that are built into a game’s structure or ones generated by players, games thrive when we’re working towards goals, breathing life into sets of mechanics and giving them purpose.
But too often we treat objectives as intrinsically what pushes us forward in a game at the cost of thinking about what we’re doing within the games’ universes.
When a game has explicit objectives, they’re often attached to people with problems that you can help solve, to the point where you start to feel like a gofer with very little agency to find your own happiness. When you live for others at the expense of yourself in real life, you can end up feeling the exact same way.
On personal sacrifice
Spiritfarer is all about this sacrifice; giving you a whole world of options and possibilities to explore, but shackling you to a very rigid crafting chain in service to what other characters want. That results in a cautionary tale about the cost of total selflessness, and the question of whether it’s worth paying.
Spiritfarer is a management and crafting game that casts you as the successor to Charon in ferrying spirits to the 'other side'. To do this, you invite wayward spirits onto your boat and help them with what’s still tying them to the world of the living until they’re ready to move on. This usually involves either crafting something specifically for them or going to a certain place on the map (which can often require that you craft something else to unlock a new location, anyway).
Either way, your objectives are always concrete and tied to the spirits you meet throughout the game. And while there’s a location that keeps track of each thing you’ve created and rewards you for it, you’re mostly laser-focused on your passengers’ needs.
Mechanics Vs Narrative
This is a bit strange when you consider the legacy of management and farming games. In Spiritfarer, you’re expected to work along a strict crafting line to please your passengers in a very linear setup. Compare that to games that put you in charge of your own destiny – like Stardew Valley – and you begin to realize what’s missing in Thunder Lotus' modern classic.
Entire crafting recipes become obsolete before they’re even introduced, and improvements to certain buildings just don’t seem worth it when put next to priorities that will actually help you towards your spirits’ goals.
An entire chunk of the game feels utterly wasted because it’s not in service towards these concrete crafting chains. It feels like an oversight, having the game designed in a way that actively encourages you to ignore large swathes of it.
But then you discover the origins of your player character Stella. Up until this point, you thought you were just some kid who happened to be given the keys to the underworld. You start to notice that a surprising number of the spirits you pick up seem to know or are even related to you.
Finally, when you’ve helped enough spirits cross over, you learn the truth: you’re a caretaker who dedicated her life to dying wards, giving them comfort as they inevitably passed away.
Death visits you several times in the game to question your motives. Why devote yourself to the dying? Was it so that you could feel less afraid of death itself? The ending raises many pertinent questions about our relationship and comfort level with death, whether it be our own or how other people deal with loss.
The game ends up raising other questions, though, ones entirely tied to the aforementioned 'wasted' portion of Spiritfarer. It’s implied that Stella devoted her life to the dying, and that’s clearly represented in-game. What’s lurking under the surface, though, is the idea that there was very little room for herself in her life. Stella is a silent protagonist who only sees herself in what others tell her about her.
None of your objectives are your own, but rather other people’s. The game actively discourages you from experimentation with its systems, instead leading you down a pre-planned path that cuts out anything that doesn’t directly benefit your passengers. There’s just very little room in your life for things that are just your own and no one else’s.
Make room for yourself
What ends up happening in Spiritfarer is a cautionary tale of what happens when you completely lose yourself in the service of other people. While it sounds like a noble goal to completely take yourself out of the equation, you’re going to have to be okay with giving up the possibility space of leaving even a little room in your life to take care of yourself. Spiritfarer also is completely unconcerned with the health and well-being of Stella.
You can work through the night without any apparent penalty, and sleeping is only useful in passing the time when you need it to. There is no concept of self-care in the game as you tirelessly work in service of your wards. And once you’re ready to meet Death yourself, it’s too late to make room in your life for you. Even if it wasn’t, the entire world of Spiritfarer doesn’t encourage you to make your own goals at all, mirroring what is doubtlessly Stella’s real-life priorities.
Really, though, Spiritfarer portrays a particular dynamic at its most extreme. It’s not that you can’t live your life for others to some degree or even to a large degree, nor is the game calling for people to live a more selfish life. But you have to realize that taking yourself out of the equation excludes necessary things like self-care and self-agency. It also means cutting out parts of your life that you’re going to miss out on when you’re caring for others.
Deciding the level of service you want to be to people requires you to do serious calculations about what you’re okay with losing out on. If you take it too far, you might find yourself staring down death as it’s too late to make room for you, just like Stella.