About a year ago, my grandfather died. It had nothing to do with COVID–his illness predated the pandemic by nearly a year, and the whole family had had a chance to say their goodbyes and make his eventual passing as easy as possible. I was one of the pall-bearers at his funeral–which was sombre but, like many Dutch events, unemotional. My cousin choked up in the middle of his eulogy, and there were some very stiff faces as the coffin was lowered into the ground, but for the most part my Dutch relations were calm and stoic. I myself, though I had known my grandfather well and called him occasionally during my time in Texas, felt a strange twisting in my chest, but little more.
A month later, I found myself doubled over in my bedroom, ugly-crying into my pillow over the death of an anthropromorphic hedgehog. I’d been playing the video game Spiritfarer.
This would likely deeply disturb my brother Matt (will, if he’s still reading these.) My brother thinks there is something profoundly creepy about people living vicariously through video games–experiencing the beauty of nature through The Witcher or playing sports only in FFA 12. He doesn’t worry about people confusing reality and video games, but he does worry about people experiencing life falsely, only through a buffered illusion. If you’re more impacted by the death of a fictional character than a relative, are you ignoring your relatives and living through a false, illusory narrative?
It’s a worthwhile question, so let’s discuss it. And, while we’re at it, let’s talk about Spiritfarer, because it’s a beautiful game that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while.
Spiritfarer is, on the face of it, a beautifully animated base-building/resource management game where you create homes and prepare meals/gifts for various passengers on your gigantic houseboat–passengers which are actually deceased souls on their way to the afterlife. Yet that really only scratches the surface of what Spiritfarer is–almost more akin to a Visual Novel about dying that beautifully explores the various ways grief unfolds.
I’m overusing the word “beautiful.” Let me stop doing that, though it’s true.
The core of the game is its characters and the player’s relationship with them. The mechanics of gathering materials and constructing gardens, kitchens, and woodshops on the boat are engaging enough, as is the varied and interesting world you explore. But the emotional punch comes from forming friendships with the amazingly human passengers of your boat, and the eventual, inevitable grief of having to take them to their final destination.
I doubted, when a friend told me of how they cried. Then I took the first passenger to their resting place. And I doubted no longer.
It absolutely befuddled me. This character had been a jerk. They’d ordered me around, made me fix them meals and construct them a room, forced me to go on quests for them. This arrogant moose with a cigarette holder had not been particularly nice or considerate. But as on that final boatride to the afterlife, they reflected on their past life, their relationship with their father, their career… I just bawled my eyes out.
And then came Alice.
Alice was the spirit of an elderly grandmother, a sweet old lady who helped out wherever she could, and unlike the others, was never demanding or petty. She was full of stories about her grandchildren and loved reflecting on the dimestore Swedish adventure novels she had so loved. For reasons only the game designer knows, she took the form of a little round hedgehog wearing a Sunday bonnet. She helped you cook food and watch over the other passengers.
Then, in the middle of a trip to a frosted-over port, as she was reminiscing about her favorite novels, she stumbled and nearly fell over. You had to slowly walk her back to the boat. Soon after, she started mistaking you for her granddaughter, Annie.
I didn’t even realize it was time for her to go. I went to the afterlife’s door because the amorous lion character had decided he’d done enough in life. (I didn’t care a lot about that guy. He kept cheating on his wife.) When I went back to the boat and came to talk to Alice, we started walking toward the exit. And I noticed the other passengers lining up to say goodbye.
The thing was, Alice didn’t even realize it was happening either. As we went toward the door, she continued to talk to my character as if I were her granddaughter, saying how beautiful the trees were, how my grandfather would have loved it, how they should come back next year.
That destroyed me. She had just a small, lucid moment just before the door, saying: “…you’re not Annie, are you?” And then she was gone.
I had to pause the game. I had to go in my bedroom. It was maybe ten minutes before I felt recovered enough to keep on.
Quick confession. I did cry for my grandfather, but it was several months before his death. I’d just visited him after my time in Texas and had seen him for a few hours. He was especially doped up on morphine and not very coherent, but very weak. He was clearly at the end of his life. I didn’t really get emotional about it, though, until I went out to the car and stepped inside. And then I had a quick one-minute cry while I waited for my parents to finish up.
So it’s not as though video games have used up all the emotion I should have for living beings. But still, is there something creepy about being so invested in a fictional character, in feeling more about their death than a near relation? It might… but I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here.
First of all, allow me to repeat that I didn’t exactly see anyone else bawling their eyes out at the funeral either. A number were visibly holding back tears, but no one was ugly-crying. I don’t for a second think my uncles and aunts were unmoved, but it’s not really socially acceptable to “create a scene” by bawling your eyes out, even at a funeral (at least at a Dutch one), and there’s a lot more restraint that comes into play when you’re in a public place than when you’re at home alone in front of a computer. Arguably, a lot of my grief at the computer might have been grief I hadn’t let go of with my grandfather. “Catharsis,” is what literary scholars call this–using art as a medium to release pent-up emotion so that, for instance, one gets out one’s violent impulses by watching scenes of violence. I’m a tad sceptical it always applies–I don’t know anyone who’s felt less romantic after walking out of a chick-flick–but at the very least, grief is an important part of life, and one SHOULD experience it.
Second, and this is something any work of art tries to do, but Spiritfarer fine-tunes the process of evoking emotion, specifically the feeling of grief. It’s a professional emotional armor-piercing bullet to the feels . It’s a calculated tanker truck of tears poured out to break the dam and release a flood of emotion. It’s one long brutal gut-punch packaged in gorgeous animation and cutesy animals.
How did it do that? This is the question I was pondering throughout Spiritfarer. How did a videogame make the loss of videogame characters so impactful? What made the game able to so precisely break one’s composure?
One mechanic I fixated on (perhaps wrongly) was the “hugging” mechanic. Part of keeping your passengers happy was to walk up to them occasionally and give them a hug. There was no tangible impact this had on the gameplay, other than to help keep the passenger happy, but it seemed an unusual and almost random inclusion. It did, though, help demonstrate the passenger’s response to affection, and their relationship with the protagonist. Maybe that had an impact.
One other trait, definitely, was how human the characters seemed. Many were lovingly detailed, with backstories, flaws, and eccentricities. Oftentimes, as you escorted them to the door, they’d reflect on their whole life, preparing themselves for their final passing on, talking about their regrets, dreams, and mistakes.
That too is probably part of it. The game prepared you to feel grief. It hyped, you could say, the grief, building your anticipation of the moment until it finally arrived. In a way, it did that from the moment you first met them. And perhaps, too, having to do all the little tasks for them, care for them, provide homes and food and little decorations made you feel invested in them as people.
But it does better than that, because even after they leave, you’re constantly reminded of them. Unlike other buildings on your little boat, the small homes you make for them, with all their furnishings, cannot be destroyed. They remain, forever, a part of your boat, and forever a reminder of the person who you personally took through the door into the afterlife.
Even worse, the game is constantly reminding you of how you used to play with them. Each character has little minigames connected with them, necessary for collecting various resources. You need to chase flies, or collect lightning, or fight giant sea serpents. Each is a task that a passenger trains you how to do and helps you with. And after they’ve passed, and you need to return and collect the items again, you’re forcibly reminded of the character who taught you.
That amorous lion? I didn’t care about him when he left. But when I returned to his minigame, where I needed to chase meteors, I was shocked by how much I was suddenly affected by the game, remembering who used to urge me on as I chased the colorful sparklers to the beautiful music.
I said I was going to stop using beautiful. Darn it.
Well, so what? Wouldn’t it be better to learn these things about grief, experience this grief, with reminders of my grandfather?
Sure–but the gaming experience helps me understand and process what is sad about losing my grandfather. It also helps me appreciate that such grief is universal, and that many people feel it in the same way. Gwen, the chain-smoking moose, puts part of it this way: “You know what I’ve always said… people come and go, but don’t pay attention to each other. They never really did. That lives are only ever parallel. Adjacent at best. Well. That’s bullshit. … I can see that now.” Spiritfarer helps you appreciate the parallel lives and inspires you to pay attention to others’ grief.
A colleague of mine lost her granddaughter to COVID recently. It wasn’t the first family member she’d lost, and there was a few days warning. She was, for the most part, okay. Until the moment she stopped at a stoplight, looked up, and saw a star. She thought about texting her granddaughter about the star, because her granddaughter loved stars. And then she remembered–her granddaughter was dead. She had to stop the car and cry.
Richard Feynman relates something similar about the death of his wife. She died while he was busy at Los Alamos with the bomb. He was there, when she passed, and nearly immediately went back to work. It was only a few weeks later, when he was passing by a shop window and saw a nice dress, and thought his wife might like it, that the grief finally hit him, and he was able to sob it out.
CS Lewis explains this. The great thing about friends is how they enrich the world. Each friend has a specific reaction and adds more to events and items–this is part of the delight of a friend, including how friends interact and bring more out of each other.
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…CS Lewis, The Four Loves
So the sadness of a death is in part how a person leaves the world poorer–no longer can they add to the world through their specific reaction to events, items, or people.
All this I knew in the abstract. I suppose I’ve even felt it, in reality, in connection with my grandfather. But the very artificiality of Spiritfarer, with it’s bizarre boat and anthropromorphized animals, helped me understand and feel it on a more universal level, so that I could see I wasn’t alone in my grief. And that’s more important than ever to realize, when so many have lost so much in the pandemic.
A late game revelation, which almost ruined the game for me at first, is that the protagonist herself is the spirit of a former nurse, and the souls she has been guiding are patients she actually knew and cared for in their final days. The twist made (for me) the characters’ deaths seem a little less real, less impactful. But it also explained, suddenly, why the boat was full of the empty rooms that the dead passengers had once occupied. You suddenly understood why the mechanics were based around caring for the passengers, bringing them food or little items for their rooms.
Grief is universal, but Spiritfarer is good at evoking grief precisely because it is based on the experience of people who have the most persistent and constant experience of death and loss. Nurses. And while Spiritfarer‘s development predates the pandemic, I don’t think there’s any dispute that nurses, in the past three years, have undergone tremendous emotional turmoil. And again, I knew this in the abstract–even heard about it from online friends–but Spiritfarer helped me actually feel a part of the turmoil such people go through.
Spiritfarer is a truly special game. And while my brother indeed has a point, and I should be sure to leave myself open to feel grief in reality, experiencing it in the abstract helps me understand how it impacts others–both universally and in a very specific context.
My other grandfather recently suffered a stroke. I went to see him at my parents’ house, where they were helping him recover after he left the hospital. And when he saw me, he asked: “Now what’s your name?”
He remembered the second I told him. But all the same I felt a great throb. He’s been declining for years, and at times he’s been forgetful. But he’s the one we called “Big Grandpa,” a powerful, stubborn, independent man. I spent a chunk of a summer with him about six years ago, and while we didn’t do a lot together then, he probably knows me better than most of my cousins. Or at least, he did.
I don’t know that playing Spiritfarer at all changed my reaction to my grandfather’s forgetfulness. But it certainly didn’t feel like it made it any less. I’d certainly say that Spiritfarer, along with other artworks about age, helped me interpret what was going on. And, hopefully, prepare for what it might mean, while also being assured that I’m in no way alone in how I react to it.
That’s what good art does.