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Spiritfarer turned death into a management sim that still hits hard

And it’s now available to play via Netflix’s games app

A player’s base built upon the river, with multiple rooms stacked upon a boat, in Spiritfarer Image: Thunder Lotus
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

There’s so much death in video games. It’s always fleeting, a You Died screen or numbers racked up on a scoreboard. These deaths have meaning, of course: reflections of perseverance, skill, progress. Spiritfarer takes a different approach, looking closely at the finite reality of death — of people and things dying and moving on. It’s equal parts grief and optimism, a playful and sad portrayal of caring for someone who’s leaving this world. It’s among the best games of 2020, and you shouldn’t miss it.

Spiritfarer is no longer on Xbox Game Pass, but anyone with a Netflix subscription can play it on mobile. It’s only for Android and iOS devices, and while this may not be the best version of Spiritfarer, it’s still a beautiful game that I think about often, even years after first playing it.

Developer Thunder Lotus describes the game as a “cozy management game about death.” It pulls from classical Greek mythology, specifically the story of the river Styx, the iconic pathway between Earth and the afterlife. Styx’s ferryman is Charon, who brings spirits across the river and into the underworld. Spiritfarer’s story replaces Charon with a young person named Stella and her cat, Daffodil. In their green boat, Stella and Daffodil recruit new friends, build a sprawling home on their boat, and ease their neighbors into the afterlife once it’s their time to move on.

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

This means traveling between the world’s islands to meet spirits who are stuck behind. Once aboard, these recruits become crucial in farming crops, cooking, and building a mobile town composed of stacked rooms — personal quarters for each spirit, but also a garden, chef’s kitchen, and resource grinder. Spiritfarer can be repetitive and slow as you head out into the world to find resources, process them, and attend to your spirits’ needs. But this slowness serves a purpose; these activities are acts of care. The time and effort it takes to meet those needs only adds weight to the ultimate goal of leading the spirits to the afterlife. Spiritfarer is such a special game for how effortlessly its gameplay mingles with the story. There is no management simulation for the sake of it; each of these efforts is a deliberate act.

The reward for these acts is in getting to know each of the spirits, yes, but also to help bring their stories to an end. It’s often incredibly sad, and a sense of melancholy is inevitable when you know that the very people you’re taking care of will ultimately leave you. But the grief comes second to the joy and hope found in each of these stories, which are sometimes messy but always thoughtfully told.

Unfortunately for Spiritfarer, the Netflix mobile port does have some problems with crashing and unwieldy controls. But there’s a solution, at least, for the control problem — use an external controller. It’s better played on a larger screen through an iPad, but phones are just fine. Spiritfarer can be played cooperatively — one player as Stella and the other as Daffodil — on PC and console, but that feature doesn’t extend to the mobile port, perhaps due to the size of the screen.

Management and life simulators have seen a resurgence over the past few years, with players looking for lower-pressure games and something of a slower pace. There’s no shortage of them. But Spiritfarer stands out among the crowd for how perfectly its management gameplay serves its moving, emotional story.

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