As I write this article, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room and looking out the balcony window to the parking lot outside. It’s a cold winter morning in February and there’s a layer of ice covering the world outside. Two years ago I sat down on a day just like this one to write an article about the kind of farming sim I wanted that I imagined would never be created. The first time I ever played a Harvest Moon game was during a quiet, sad winter, and as a result I’ve always associated games in this style with the snow and the cold. I described in that article a farming sim quite different from the typical idyllic rural landscapes portrayed in these games. It would capture the moody atmosphere of winter, the themes of decay and regret which also reflect my lived experience in a rural part of the southern United States. When I wrote that article and described my ideal farming sim as “Harvest Moon but Depressed,” I never imagined that a day would come when I would play the game that scratched that itch. Yet in 2020’s (after)life sim Spiritfarer, I found the melancholy I sought – plus a little hope to go along with it.
“But Ian,” I hear you say, “how exactly does a game about ferrying spirits to the afterlife match your weird description of a Billy Joel inspired farming game where everyone dies in a meth lab or…whatever the hell you said last time?” Fear not, adventurers, because this very article will strive to explain how Spiritfarer hit exactly the notes I was trying to describe previously, but better. It’s a great opportunity in particular to have a focused discussion on the story and characters, elements of the game that I didn’t really touch on at all in my first article about the game. We’ll first talk about how Spiritfarer meets the basic requirements of being a farming sim, then touch on how the game’s story structure supports its ability to share a more focused narrative, before finally touching on how the characters and their individual journeys capture both the melancholy and the sense of community that make the game unique.
It may feel odd to describe Spiritfarer as purely a farming sim due to the elements of platforming, but in my view this game hits so many of the same notes mechanically. Growing crops in your field and garden are a big part of your daily activities. Just like in Story of Seasons you’ll be planting seeds and regularly watering your crops when they’re thirsty in order to facilitate each plant’s growth. You’re farming on a smaller scale but everything grows faster so you’re going through the cycle of planting, watering, and harvesting more often. The things you grow can be gifted or sold as is, but often you’ll want to utilize them as the basis for other products. Food cooked in the kitchen can make more complicated recipes that sell better than plain fruit or vegetables, but also are more likely to satisfy the unique tastes of the spirits on your boat and increase their happiness more. This is similar to making animal products into mayonnaise or cheese in Story of Seasons, and similar to those games you unlock more facilities that process your plants in unique ways as you play the game and expand your farm – I mean ship.
If there’s a side activity you can think of in Harvest Moon, there’s a good chance it exists in Spiritfarer. Chopping down trees to make wood so you can create new buildings? That’s here. What about mining ore to upgrade facilities to make them more effective? You can do that too. Want to do some fishing to supplement your income or expand your recipe selection? Not a problem! And just like it takes time in Harvest Moon to raise the money and materials necessary to build coops and barns to take care of animals and collect their products, once you’ve upgraded your selection of blueprints and expanded the size of your ship a bit you’ll be adding cows, sheep, and chickens for you to take care of and collect their milk, eggs, and wool to even further expand your creative options. Each of these activities is essential to accomplishing your goals in Spiritfarer, and they will regularly feature in your day to day life on the ship.
Finally, a big part of something like Stardew Valley is getting to know the villagers. Now one limitation of Spiritfarer compared to those games is the lack of ability to pursue marriage and children, but every other feature you would normally expect from a farming sim in this style is present and accounted for. Each spirit on your ship functions similarly to a Stardew villager, with their own history and personality as well as likes and dislikes. Rather than raising your affection level with a particular spirit, you raise their happiness by making sure they are fed, giving them their favorite things, and hugging and conversing with them on a regular basis. Happier spirits are more likely to assist you on the ship in some way – providing you with resources they made in one of the facilities or giving you items they have scavenged. Interacting daily with your spirits works in tandem with the activities described in the paragraphs above to cement Spiritfarer firmly in its genre. If you’ve played a game Story of Seasons, Harvest Moon, or Stardew Valley, you’ll be in familiar territory with Spiritfarer and can easily identify the commonalities it shares with those games.
In my article about the concept of a melancholy farming sim, I made a point about how it was unlikely that a farming sim could ever tell the kind of story that I wanted because that story would be more easily told in a different type of game. I pointed to how the town segment in Toby Fox’s Deltarune felt something like what I wanted but because that game was an RPG and didn’t have to focus on day to day interactions, it had an easier time telling a concrete story compared to a game where daily interactions were a possibility. Most of the farming sims that I have mentioned by name at this point allow you to speak to every villager on a daily basis, and because you can interact with them essentially infinitely, they run out of unique things to say pretty fast. It doesn’t take long at all to see repeated dialogue, especially when certain conversations are locked behind the affection level of the character.
Spiritfarer addresses the problem of repeating text in a couple of ways. While you will almost certainly see repeats of simple snippets about the character being hungry or them saying good morning, there’s a distinction between the filler text you get when initiating a basic interaction and the proper conversation text when you choose the talk action with a spirit. You can only talk to a spirit when they have something unique to say, which keeps those discussions fresh and full of new information about the character’s life. Sometimes these conversations can reveal details about a character that never really factor into their “main story.” For example, Giovanni – a character for whom the bulk of his dialogue focuses on his adulterous relationship with his wife – may describe an incident from when he was a soldier, revealing details about his military background that otherwise aren’t major parts of his character. The other big way that Spiritfarer keeps repeated dialogue from being a concern is that each spirit has a limited amount of time with you. In other farming sims, villagers do not leave. You don’t have to deal with them departing, which by extension means they are inevitably going to repeat conversations because you can speak to them essentially an infinite number of times. Ferrying spirits to the afterlife is a core part of the story of Spiritfarer, and it is one you can’t really avoid engaging with unless you flat out stop playing the game. Mechanically speaking, when spirits depart they leave behind an essential item without which you can’t upgrade your ship. Without ship upgrades to travel to new areas, you can’t meet more spirits, and without more spirits to depart through the Everdoor you cannot move towards the ending of the game. So a time will come when you have to say farewell to a character, meaning that their conversations can be more finite and impactful since only so many are possible.
Notice that I mentioned the ending of the game? Most farming sims are designed in such a way that an ending isn’t part of the equation. They are meant to be played in what is essentially a constant loop, an endless cycle of years where the point that you stop is whatever arbitrary goal you choose for yourself. This makes it difficult to tell a concrete story with a beginning, middle, and end, and ultimately most games in this style don’t try to. Spiritfarer is different in that there is a clear endpoint for the game. You do have the ability as the player to choose when that endpoint happens to a degree, but the game makes it quite clear that the time is coming to bring the story to a close. This narrative structure better supports an experience where a contained story can be shared, allowing you to follow each character – including the protagonist – through an arc which comes to a satisfying conclusion. This narrative structure much better matches my preferences for how stories can be told, the second ingredient in the recipe for my ideal farming sim.
So we have a game which concretely falls into the territory of farming sim and which shares its narrative in a way that matches my preferences for storytelling. All that remains is the melancholy, the willingness to acknowledge real world problems and show how people deal with those problems in a small community. I was surprised when I initially began to play Spiritfarer to see that a game with such a childlike charm and beauty to its aesthetic could tackle such mature topics. The first time a character dropped a curse word I think I noticeably flinched – not that I don’t use “foul language” in my own life, but it seemed out of place coming out of the mouth of one of these gorgeously drawn animal spirits. Soon I would learn that Spiritfarer does not pull punches when it comes to the lives of its characters. Cheating husbands, estranged parents, dementia, and coming to terms with a disability are just a few of the subjects covered by the game. And remember, all of this happens in the context of helping these spirits resolve their lingering concerns so they can pass through to the afterlife. It’s one thing to understand generally that each of these characters has died – it is quite another to realize that the child hanging out on your boat has lost his life and to know that helping him accept it means saying goodbye to him yourself.
Part of what makes Spiritfarer so powerful, in my mind, is this sort of vagueness to it that allows you to fill in the blanks yourself. There is not a lot of specificity as far as when all of this is happening. Astrid shares a story of hiding children in her basement during a war that for me evoked World War II but could easily be about any martial conflict. Gwen’s struggle with her lousy father is a tale as old as time, and while Bruce and Mickey’s life definitely happened during an era of history where cars are present, that still leaves plenty of details open to interpretation. There’s a subtlety to the story as a result and it grants the opportunity to form your own theories and headcanons about what exactly is going on while still giving you enough detail to make the characters concrete and realistic. I found myself seeing my own family and friends in some of the characters: Uncle Atul’s passion for food and his loving relationship with Stella reminded me of my grandfather, Alice’s sweet disposition but drifting mind evoked my great-grandmother, and Stanley’s passion for experiments and mischievous attitude match my own son’s personality. The ability to make these personal connections with the characters makes it even more poignant when you lose them. There’s this moment when Stella (the protagonist) takes each character to the Everdoor where she runs up and gives them one final hug before they disappear to the other side, and that moment often brought me to tears as she shared that one final human contact before having to say a permanent goodbye to the ones she loved. It was a challenging reminder of the mortality of the ones who those characters brought to my mind, some of whom I will inevitably have to process the loss of at some point in my life. Others may have to learn to deal with losing me instead.
Mortality is hard to face, and these characters struggle with issues that any of us may have faced in real life. The feeling of melancholy that comes with that is powerful, but Spiritfarer doesn’t just want to make you sad. In the same breath that it shows you the fleeting nature of life and how difficult and complicated it is, it shows you the beauty of it, too. After your aunt Summer tells you a difficult story about her regrets from her corporate days, you can share her favorite snack with her and wrap her in a comforting embrace. When Alice is too physically weak to climb the ladder to her house, you can move it to the ground level and let her lean on your shoulder when she moves around the boat. These moments of connection between people are evocative of the parts of life that make it worth living. There’s a joy that comes from helping Buck to get his buddies together to play D&D or finding Gustav a piece of art he was looking for to add to his collection. Our relationships with other people add joy to our lives and each character reminds us that while loss is inevitable, the memories we hold of the amazing people we connected with are precious and beautiful reminders of that joy.
When I wrote the article two years ago about “Harvest Moon but Depressed,” I didn’t have the game design knowledge or the storytelling imagination to picture a game as beautiful as Spiritfarer. Tied up in the sadness of winter, focused on the cold and the bleak exterior, I neglected the beauty that can be found inside the warm comforts of home and the embrace of other people. The fleeting nature of life adds to its beauty, and at the end of the day Spiritfarer is a story about that beauty. It satisfied what I was looking for in a farming sim better than I could have imagined, and it is a game that I feel will sit with me for quite some time.
As I finish writing, I’m still on my couch in the living room, laying with my computer in my lap and facing the balcony window. It’s still cold as hell and there’s still ice outside. One thing has changed since I got started, though – next to me is my son. He’s got a plate of crackers and his tablet, and he’s watching cartoons while he idly snacks away. It’s a small moment, the two of us totally engrossed in separate things as we share the seat together. But it is inevitable that a time will come when the two of us can no longer sit together like this. Spiritfarer has been a reminder that these unremarkable moments are precious, fleeting instances of beauty in a life where we’ll someday have to say goodbye. I want to do my best to cherish that lesson – even now, as my son climbs on top of me and smashes buttons on the keyboard because he decided he wants a hug. There’s beauty in that too, after all.