I was late to the party with Spiritfarer, playing it only recently in line with its long-awaited physical release on PS4.
I was gutted to have waited so long though, because when I dived into it I found a gorgeous, emotionally-charged journey filled with wonderful characters, a beautiful world and multiple story strands that I quickly got invested in. Needless to say, Spiritfarer is something special; games like this don’t come along very often.
Developed by Thunder Lotus Games, the team also behind Jotun and Sundered, Spiritfarer initially seems like a completely different pace. But talking with Nicolas Guérin, Thunder Lotus’ creative director over email, he was quick to correct me.
“It’s not as drastic a pivot as it might seem at first glance! Long time fans will note the through-line and initial inspiration for our projects always lies within a rich source of lore,” he explained. “We use that (such as Norse mythology or Lovecraft) to springboard towards an exploration of themes surrounding death. Spiritfarer is not so different: it was inspired by the Greek myth of the ferryman Charon, and we’re once again looking closely at death… just not in the active sense of ‘taking’ life. We wanted to delve a little deeper by looking at questions of legacy and heritage, and also take these themes out of the darkness and into the light.”
Indeed, where Jotun and Sundered both place you in a warrior type role, armed with weapons and a multitude of enemies to kill, Spiritfarer is completely free of violence. But that theme of death perseveres. This time, you play as Stella who finds herself taking over Charon’s role, being the new ferryman (ferrywoman) bringing the recently departed to their final resting place. Along the way, you’ll complete final requests for your passengers, ensuring their journeys are comfortable. You’ll pick up new passengers, provide them with hearty meals and give them somewhere comfortable to stay, all while finding out about their lives – both the good and the bad. When the time is right, you’ll deliver them to the afterlife.
And so while its mythological theme centring around death may be consistent with Thunder Lotus’ other games, it’s safe to say its tone, overall feel and gameplay is very different. I was intrigued to know where the initial inspiration for Spiritfarer came from.
“The initial idea centred around a mythological source, in this case the Greek myth of Charon ferrying souls of the dead across the River Styx,” Guérin said. “But coming off three years working on a somewhat grim and dark project (Sundered), the entire team was of the opinion that a lighter and more colourful take on the subject matter would do us some good.”
One thing that Thunder Lotus has done incredibly well is juxtapose that dark subject matter against light-hearted, almost whimsical, gameplay. I was surprised to hear that this was something that came naturally to the team. “I can’t say if there was any ‘balancing’ of the sort to be honest,” Guérin explained.” Spiritfarer’s main goal is grim in essence, and the rest of the game’s world and mechanics are usually light-hearted, with a few exceptions here and there (notably some Spirits’ dialogues and situations).”
It’s difficult to imagine a game that sees you planting crops and cooking bowls of stew in a tiny kitchen as one that deals with such a serious subject matter. And yet Spiritfarer does this so well. “The tone may be light, but the subject matter no less profound,” Guérin expertly summarises.
Spiritfarer feels like a lot of genres in one at times. There are some light platforming elements, management, building and adventuring/exploring. They all work together flawlessly – but I was intrigued to know what came first. I asked Guérin if the team always intended to have so many different elements, and how they all came together.
“The farm-sim definitely came first, since the game was supposed to be a farming simulation from the get go,” he said. “Once Stella and Daffodil (the game’s lead character and her feline companion) had been drawn and animated, it became impossible to resist using these guys with platforming mechanics. As for the game’s metroidvania-esque progression, it just felt natural to allow players a high level of exploration freedom in large part because of the ship and the open seas.”
I was also keen to learn how Stella and Daffodil came to be. After all, Stella’s a petite young girl; she isn’t the typical figure you’d imagine when picturing the ferryman of the River Styx. But she is adorable, happy-go-lucky and a character you instantly warm to. And as for Daffodil the cat? Who doesn’t love a video game cat?
“The births of both Stella and Daffodil was an elaborate and lengthy process,” Guérin explained. “It was driven by the ambition to create the most vibrant, loving and simple characters. There’s quite a lot of criteria going into how a character is drawn the way it is and Jo (Gauthier), our extremely talented art director, excels at finding the perfect balance between simplicity, style, personality and emotional impact.”
There really is something to be said for Spiritfarer‘s gorgeous art style. 2D, colourful and rich with detail, it instantly feels like stepping into an animated film. Not only does it give Stella and Daffodil so much personality and life, it effortlessly brings ever other character to life too, as well as the islands that Stella visits. It’s no surprise that the work of Studio Ghibli was an initial inspiration for the team. I asked Guérin if any other games, films or media had been instrumental in inspiring Spiritfarer.
“Beyond the initial inspiration from Studio Ghibli’s worlds, we wanted to explore our fondness for farm/village simulators, like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and more recently, Stardew Valley,” he said. “Eventually, this evolved into a nautical setting. Finally, our desire to explore dying less from our (and gaming’s) traditional ‘how/why to kill things’, and to look more at ideas of heritage and legacy, how we process death culturally, etc. This all seemed to naturally lead to the cosy management game about dying that Spiritfarer became.”
While Stella is ultimately the most important character in the game – she’s the protagonist, after all – Spiritfarer wouldn’t be the game it is without its supporting cast. The passengers that Stella takes on board her boat all take the form of an animal. From Atul the frog and Bruce & Mickey, an unlikely bird and buffalo combo, they’re all wonderfully designed, each with their own personality. And many of them are inspired by real people.
“Many Spirits Stella encounters were indeed inspired in parts by team members’ friends or relatives who passed away and had a huge impact on our lives,” Guérin said. “Buck, Astrid, Giovanni, Alice, Atul and Bruce & Mickey were the results of such a process. Jackie, a new spirit coming to our roster in the next update is also inspired in parts by a team member’s deceased father.”
Guérin wouldn’t tell me his personal favourite character, though. “I’m afraid it’s impossible for me to choose! In a way, they’re all our children, all equally interesting and lovable.”
Being a game about death, I had to wonder if Spiritfarer was, in part, created as a tool to help players (and even its creators) deal with the loss of loved ones. But Guérin says not. “I don’t think Spirifarer was specifically meant to help people process their own emotions about grief or loss, but as human beings we’ll all have to deal with such emotions throughout our lives.”
“I think our primary audience was mature players who were fond of indie games in general, willing to try something new and different,” he went on to say. “Also, all of Thunder Lotus’ games have visuals which are 2D and hand-drawn, which can be a huge draw for some players but might not interest everyone.”
I asked if Thunder Lotus would create something like Spiritfarer again. “As for what’s next… well… I can’t exactly comment on it,” Guérin said, “but what I can say for sure is that we’ll continue tackling universal themes, experienced through the lens of evocative game design and deep character development.”
No matter what Thunder Lotus is working on next, it’s safe to say we’ll be very interested to find out more. Thank you to Nicolas for taking the time to answer my questions.
Spiritfarer is available now on PlayStation, Xbox, PC and Switch. A PS4 and Switch physical edition is available to purchase from Amazon.