This is going to be a little different from my usual comparative reviews because I found a novella and a videogame that both made me feel the same inside!
Spiritfarer by ThunderLotus Games is a cozy management game that just happens to be about reminiscing before dying. Your character, Stella, gives a listening ear to the various spirits she encounters who need a little time before they decide to let go. They need to work out a few things within themselves, and while they do that, Stella ferries them around and feeds them their favorite foods and gives them much-needed hugs.
This game clicked a few boxes for me. I love to collect things. Checklist? check! I love a good story hooking me along. The art is colorful and clear, and there are mini-games! Who doesn’t love a mini-game? But, it’s also a sweet game. It feels like it matters. People who are close to death often need to unburden themselves, to leave a mark (sometimes a painful one), and to know they won’t be forgotten – that their story was heard and meant something.
You, the main character, hardly speak. You get to say yes or no. That’s it. I struggled with this, taking time to hug my cat in game, and to wish I could eat some of the food I was preparing.
While I loved the game, and spent several days engrossed and compelled, I don’t think it would make for great replay. ThunderLotus is planning to release more content – more spirits and side quests – to make up for maybe other people feeling the same way. Sometimes I was frustrated by how “on rails” each achievement was, so unless they loosened that up a bit, I don’t know that I’d want to do it again.
My only real complaint about what is otherwise a wonderful game was the weird platform jumping required after some spirits went through the Everdoor. It was very frustrating and tiring, and often turned my emotional state about the spirit I’d just released into anger. That seems to run counter to the intended goal of play.
This game is unusual in that it’s based on real people. The character of Stella is based on a real-life hospice nurse and her patients. I know this because when the game ended, I had lingering, burning questions.
Specifically, what about BUCK?! I grew very attached to him, and at the end, you can give all the force-ghosts hugs, but he is nowhere to be found. He is never taken to the Everdoor. After frantically searching the boat everywhere for him, I gave up and trusted the game to make it make sense. It did not. I had to go online to find that there’s no ending for him in the game, and that in real life he wasn’t a patient Stella knew, but someone she’d heard stories about. It was unsatisfying, and I legitimately feel guilt about leaving Buck behind. Which, I guess is true to life…or death.
The Empress of Fortune and Salt by Nghi Vo is a lovely little novella (124 pages) that felt like a tangent to Spiritfarer!
You are Cleric Chih, and you have a bird (a neixin hoopoe) named Almost Brilliant, as your companion. Your job is to collect history together for the newly restored Singing Hills abbey.
“Sometimes the things we see do not make sense until many years have gone by. Sometimes it takes generations. We are taught to be content with that.”
You are on your way to the Capitol to witness the new Empress and see an eclipse, but first you stop off at Lake Scarlet.
The lake and cabin there are the historical site of exile for unwanted wives of the Emperor. When you arrive, you meet an old woman who invites you in.
While you sort through the belongings left behind by the last occupant, she tells you the stories behind the items. More importantly, she tells you the stories she needs you to understand.
“Astrological chart of the constellation of the Baker. Fine rag paper and ink. Signed in the lower-right corner with the character for “lucky.”
Like the Spiritfarer game, you are collecting. You are listening. You rarely say much, as that is not your role. You take comfort from your neixin, just as you do the cat in Spiritfarer.
And, just like the game, there comes an end that you may or may not be emotionally prepared to face.
“My allegiance lies with the dead, and no matter what the clerics say, the dead care for very little.”
It’s a tight little tale, told with lovely but accessible language and emotion. Usually, I resist stories-within-story framing, despite it being a traditional and ancient form, but this one kept on a straight enough line that it didn’t bother me. I sat down and read it right through without stopping.
So, it shares being compelling with the game. And it shares that sweetness. And it shares giving your attention to people who need to reminisce.
Thanks for reading!
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