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Spiritfarer is a game about death, but it’s not scary

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‘A cozy game about death’

a ship with a person fishing, with an island in the center that the sun is setting behind, in Spiritfarer Image: Thunder Lotus Games

In 2017, developer Laundry Bear Games released A Mortician’s Tale, a game that approached death in an unusual way. Set in a funeral home, A Mortician’s Tale is described as “death-positive,” part of a movement to encourage people to talk about death and dying — after all, it’s something that will happen to all of us.

That A Mortician’s Tale is about death is not what made it special; most video games, while not explicitly about death, have a lot of it. In Red Dead Redemption 2, we shoot and kill humans and animals to progress an Old West story. Death is like sport in games such as Overwatch and Call of Duty — the more people we kill, the more likely we are to win. In a game like Spelunky, death is to be avoided at all costs, or you’re to lose all your progress.

A Mortician’s Tale approached death literally — the mortician handles the messy reality of death, embalming bodies or crushing bones down to dust. As Julie Muncy wrote in Wired in 2017, A Mortician’s Tale may have been the first game to depict death as it actually is.

Spiritfarer, expected to be released in 2020 on Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One, will follow a similar though more abstract approach. Thunder Lotus Games art director Jo-Annie Gauthier described it as a “cozy game about death.” Playing the game at PAX East in Boston last month, I immediately noticed the cozy, but death is less overt. Inspired by the work of painter Hiroshi Yoshida, the game’s colors are muted but varied — cozy, even. Spiritfarer uses a soft, watercolor style to introduce a darker concept of death, a concept that should not actually be considered dark after all.

Gauthier described the story to me as we played through a co-op segment of the game: me as Stella, a ferrymaster, and her as Stella’s cat, Daffodil. Stella is the captain of an evolving ship, one that’ll eventually be stacked high with rooms and visitors, that ferries spirits of the dead into the afterlife. But she’s more than just the ship captain; these are her friends, her loved ones, and she’s helping them cope with their own loss before they move on. In that way, maybe it’s more accurate to describe Spiritfarer as a game about grief — about what comes after death.

“It plays a lot into the desire to make death not so scary,” Gauthier told me. “It’s meant to reassure people.”

Whereas the art style is inspired by Yoshida’s woodblock paintings, the story is rooted in Greek mythology, Gauthier said. In particular, of Charon and the Styx and Acheron rivers, which are said to have separated the living and the dead. Charon, like Stella, was the figure that transported spirits to the afterlife. But while Charon mostly took on the role of ferrymaster, Stella is more connected to her guests, and so are the developers making the game.

A deer-looking character hugging a human with a white cat nearby, on a small boat Image: Thunder Lotus Games

Gauthier said that many of the spirits are based on real people who have died, people that the developers knew. “There were a lot of tissues and crying,” she said. The team spent a lot of time just talking about these people — the good and the bad — and how each one could be memorialized in a character that feels whole. Again, the goal was to focus on the idea of approaching death and the dead with compassion rather than fear, which is new and uncomfortable for me.

I’ve always feared death — my own, but more often of those I love. It’s hard to even say it out loud, as I have before, as if I could speak my own fears into existence. I’m not sure I’ve ever approached death from anywhere else except fear. It’s inevitable, ordinary. People die everywhere, every day, in all sorts of ways. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to stop being scared of it, but I appreciate a game like Spiritfarer that reminds me there are more emotions to attach to death than simply fear.