Content Warning: the following post is about the video game Spiritfarer and contains spoilers for the game, along with discussions of grief and mourning.
I was right. Everything I thought was gonna happen in Spiritfarer came to pass. I feel so incredibly validated by how neatly I anticipated the shape of the story from the very beginning. Also incredibly sad. So very, very sad. Not exactly mournful. Not grief-stricken. Not even the morose sort of feeling I typically associate with feeling “sad.” I definitely recognize this feeling as a form of sadness adjacent to grief, but the feeling is more than that. I know that what I’m talking about is catharsis and what I’m experiencing is a healthy expression of the pent up sadness and grief I’ve accumulated over the past few years as I’ve lost my grandfather, distanced myself from almost my entire biological family, dealt with a pandemic, and become ever more aware of the uncaring powers-that-be. I know that, but it feels like so much more than some simple idea I learned about in college in relation to literary criticism and I’ve begun to wonder if maybe I just never really knew what proper catharsis felt like.
Honestly, even after taking another few hours between paragraphs to think it through, I’m not entirely sure I can say that this was just catharsis. I’m having a genuinely difficult time putting this feeling to words and I like to consider myself pretty skilled at putting my feelings to words. I practice pretty much daily, between this blog, my journaling, and the various other little writing projects I do every day as a means of self-expression. I’m just not sure I can really lump this incredible, beautiful, and touching game into a simple emotion. Or even a complex one. Maybe a complex collection of emotions, but even that feels like I’m just rambling as I try to figure out how I really feel about this (as evidenced by the four paragraphs of rambling I deleted and replaced with this one sentence parenthetical statement). Still, I have to talk about this game somehow, or else I’m never going to figure out how I feel about it.
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I delayed the end of this game. It doesn’t take a keen storyteller’s mind or masterful insight into the secrets of narrative development to see where the game is going as you play through it. It tells you, explicitly at times. There is no doubt what is happening. Between the various spirits you help to the Everdoor (where the spirits cross over from this final post-death but pre-eternity realm to actual eternity), the being who speaks to you a few times after helping the other spirits, and the slow layering of hints scattered throughout the conversations of the people you’re helping, the game makes it abundantly clear. So I put it off, knowing there would be no coming back from this. Sure, the game’s last save is right before the final step off your boat, but I knew that once I went on that trip, I wasn’t going to return to the game unless it got some kind of incredibly compelling DLC or new characters and even then I’m not certain that I’d return.
I didn’t sleep a lot while I played this game. The past few weeks of my life have been chaotic, messy, and stressful, leaving me constantly feeling like I’m trying to catch up to myself. Between a few painful anniversaries, my relatively recent distaste for my own birthday, work stress, a health scare that seems to have amounted to either nothing or an untrustworthy doctor, and needing to find a new therapist, I found myself wrapped up in some of my worst coping mechanisms, many of which unfortunately centered on staying up way too late to play Spiritfarer. Which means that as I played through this game, I found myself in the difficult position of knowing I needed to stop doing something that was somewhat helpful for me and that also offered me an emotional outlet when I needed it most. So I delayed the end of this game for as long as I could, trying to eke out every bit of benefit from it that I could before I went on the final mission. Thirty-six hours of enjoyment, peace, contentment, and happy order.
But I knew the end was coming. I saw it with every forward step of the plot, with every side quest I completed that ticked my “requests completed” percentage toward one hundred, with every single small realization that I didn’t need to collect some resource any more because I had more than I’d ever use. I could see it looming ever closer on the horizon as I ran out of things to do and, inevitably, came face-to-face with the final quest in my quest log. Which isn’t to say that I was dreading that moment. The game is absolutely beautiful, with amazing character design, stunning background art, and character animations that had me losing track of what I was doing as I watched the protagonist gracefully leap around. I didn’t just collect materials and endlessly pursue side quests so I could check the “complete” box in my mind. I smelled the roses, at least so much as a game without scent-interaction would allow me. I kept bees, experimented with recipes, climbed everything I could and probably a few things I wasn’t supposed to. I explored every inch of the map, played every mini-game, and sometimes just watched the shooting stars overhead as I took the long way through an eclipse zone just so I could enjoy the music. Honestly, I was tempted to keep playing, to put off this last quest, just to have something peaceful and calm to do now that the urgency of all the other quests had played out.
But the end was there and I was tired. I had pushed myself too far, drawn out this period of ultimately unhealthy coping for too long. I needed to get some sleep, to recover from the ordeal of my past month, and to move on to something new. So when that final step in the final quest finally arrived, I didn’t hesitate. I reached out to some friends for the small bit of emotional support I needed and then finished the game. It didn’t take very long, as I’ve said. The final bit was maybe five minutes long and the game was saved right before that, so I could go back to that moment and cruise around the world again if I so desired.
I don’t think I will, though. I was ready to finish the game at the same time the game was ready to be done. I was ready for Stella’s final voyage to take the last lingering spirit through the Everdoor: herself. Alone except for her constant companion, a cat she’d loved dearly, I guided her to the Everdoor and through it. A final moment for both of us, shared as the credits rolled and a lovely song played, and that was it. The emptiness of a conclusion you were ready for and the fullness of an ending you earned. The complex joy of having done and seen intermingled with the grief of knowing you will probably never do or see again.
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I do not know that I can recommend this game to you based on my experience with it. After all, I don’t know if I could have intentionally created the experience I had. I don’t know that I’d want to, either. What I can say that this is a game about grief, about processing grief, about loss, and about acceptance. It is a game to play while those things are a part of your life as well, but perhaps it is not only to be played then, nor is it only for people processing those things. It is about them, but I do not think you need to bring your own to the table to enjoy this beautiful example of what a game can be without violence. I think that this game makes space for you to bring your grief and loss and mourning, if you have them, and that the creators brought theirs when they made it, but I do not think it is necessary.
I have so much I could still say about this game. Maybe someday, I will write more about it, once I’ve had time to sit with the thoughts I’ve recorded today and sort through the well of feelings it created within me. But for now, I don’t think I have anything I want to add. Believe me, I’ve tried. Another three paragraphs, written and deleted, as I’ve spun my wheels on the end of this post. Even now, I hesitate to button up my experience with Spiritfarer because the thought of lingering on is so tempting. But there is a time for endings, a time for conclusions, and as Spiritfarer made clear: you can put them off for a time while you process your feelings and come to grips with your new reality, but eventually the moment comes and you should move into it without looking back when you’re ready.