I’ve been putting it off a bit, but, yes, let’s talk about the themes. This is not, in fact, a game about death as I initially believed. The actual act of dying is often glossed over; characters don’t dwell on it for long and only vaguely hint at the reason for their departure. I say ‘departure’ intentionally by the way, because that’s the exact kind of language that gets used. Characters aren’t dying, they’re “leaving soon.” They “have to go.” It may sound like the game is pulling its punches but I assure you it’s the complete opposite. Spiritfarer skips the often reductive topic of ‘death’ to deal with something far more heartbreaking: Loss. Losing people. It deals with how you say goodbye, it deals with what you leave behind, and it deals with how to be the one left behind.
As soon as I began the game I knew exactly what I was getting into, and it’s a strange experience. You meet a character and you know, unequivocally, that they will die. The entire point of the game is to ferry them onwards, it’s in the name and everything! Halfway through upgrading a character’s home it occurred to me that in some unknown volume of time, that home would be left empty. The person that I built it for would be gone. The happiness bar I was trying to raise would be gone. A few stray thoughts wondered at whether this meant I was wasting my time, that all the resources I poured into it were for nothing. I wondered how I would feel if and when I had to demolish their emptied home to make space for others.
The parallels to real life are clear. Of course the time isn’t wasted. It’s time that you spent with, and for, loved ones. Their enjoyment is never ‘gone,’ it existed. They existed. Time doesn’t unwind, and the memory doesn’t go away. To that end Spiritfarer reminded me immediately of something fundamentally important about death, namely, that it doesn’t matter. It happens, it will happen, and dwelling on it too much will sour the time before it. People come and go but it’s when they’re with us, how we spend that time with them, that matters. To think about the departure is to focus on the wrong thing entirely.