Spiritfarer: Orbital Magazine’s Game of the Year!

Orbital's best game of 2020, by Alex Whiteman

2020, despite everything, ended up being a pretty good year for games. We saw the release of hundreds of fantastic titles, like the blood-pumping Doom Eternal, the adorable Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the atmospheric Ghost of Tsushima, the revolutionary Half-Life: Alyx, and the surprising first episode of Final Fantasy VII: Remake. However, our Game Of The Year comes from indie team Thunder Lotus, with Spiritfarer: A Cosy Management Game About Dying!

One of the reasons I love indie games is the sheer devotion to a singular idea, and Spiritfarer is no exception; it takes a unique concept and runs all the way with it. Part 2D platformer, part farming simulator, and part story-driven character study, it exhibits all these genres not to create an experimental, genre-defying experience, but simply to bring a singular, unique vision to life.

In Spiritfarer, you play as Stella, a recently deceased woman tasked with finding lost spirits and helping them come to terms with the lives they’ve lost and move on from this plane of existence. Guiding these spirits doesn’t just require listening to their concerns and helping them solve their problems, but also creating a home for them on your boat, feeding them their favourite food, giving them attention and intimacy on a regular basis. It’s a much more positive, affirming experience than most games about death. You’re less like the Grim Reaper and more like the manager of a seaborne hotel.

The most impressive, and honestly beautiful, thing about the game is how all of its moving parts link together. You’ll start with a barebones ship and one passenger, who’ll help you find the materials you need to build a kitchen and a guesthouse, so any spirits you find along the way will at least have food and shelter. Exploring will net you new materials and food, which allows you to build houses for your passengers, cook for them, and keep them content while they travel with you. The happier they are, the more helpful they are, eventually teaching you how to create new buildings to make more specialised material (for example, your second passenger shows you how to build a sawmill, which turns wooden logs into planks, which are needed to upgrade your ship). The small tasks like farming, cooking and building feed directly into the bigger task of making your passengers happy, and vice versa. Ingeniously, too, is the fact that despite being helpful, each passenger requires a lot of work and attention, and when your ship gets too crowded, your time becomes noticeably spread thin. So, as hard as it is to say goodbye, it has to happen eventually.

What makes the grind all worth it is the characters you look after. Meeting them, listening to their stories, learning their favourite foods, watching them face their fears; all of this makes Spiritfarer worth playing. They are genuine, thought-out people, with a life beyond your own, and needs you don’t necessarily have to understand. Despite the game’s cheerful demeanour, your passengers aren’t afraid to throw complicated issues your way, like depression, abuse, and being raised in poverty. And of course, when you finally come to know a passenger, when they finally come to terms with their life, it’s time for them to move on. 

None of these emotional moments would have landed if it weren’t for the game’s gorgeous animation and art style. Stella and her anthropomorphic passengers exude personality in every frame, from the way they eat their food to their unique hugging animations (because yes, there is a dedicated hug button!). My personal favourite interaction is when you hug a particular passenger, who looks visibly surprised for a split second as Stella squeezes her around the middle, before completely melting into it, her massive arms swallowing Stella in a comforting embrace. It’s such a complex emotional reaction conveyed in just a few seconds, but it’s just one of many small moments you’ll find yourself completely taken aback by.

Honestly, the only criticism I can make is that some emotional moments don’t land as well as they should; I can think of two or three instances where character interactions didn’t make much sense, even after I’d said goodbye to them. I won’t spoil anything, but there are two characters who don’t get a traditional goodbye scene, and while one of them works perfectly, the other wasn’t handled especially well, seemingly for the sake of gameplay. It’s an otherwise flawless game, which sadly makes even the tiniest missteps stick out.Overall, Spiritfarer is a wonderfully emotional game that pushes you forward through the grind, challenges you to keep growing, so you can help your friends achieve a bit of peace. It is both incredibly life-affirming and distressingly sad, taking a much more serious and nuanced approach to life and death than a game this colourful or charming deserves to be. Having come out in a year where interacting with our loved ones became more difficult than ever, Spiritfarer demonstrates that those connections are restorative, powerful and crucial, and well worth the maintenance; so that’s why we’ve made it Orbital’s Game of the Year!