How Spiritfarer Helped Me Say Goodbye

Minor spoilers for Spiritfarer within.

When I first played a demo of Spiritfarer at PAX West 2019, I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me a year later. It was a game I had seen in some video game showcase that I thought had a great art style but that was about the extent of my knowledge on it. When one of the devs at the booth invited me to play it with a pitch including Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley I was especially intrigued. And while those light farming management bits certainly helped with the gameplay, what really resonated were the stories and characters of Spiritfarer.

In Spiritfarer, you play as Stella, a young girl tasked with ferrying spirits to the other side when they have passed on. Throughout your adventure, you will sail around to different islands, recruiting these spirits, and complete tasks for them in order to prepare them for their final trip to the Everdoor and onto whatever may be next.

One such character is Alice, a kind hedgehog who spent her days in the living as a stay-at-home mother, looking after her children and family. When you recruit her, she is warm and kind and sets up a little place on your boat in her cute little cottage. But as her time with your motley crew of other spirits continues, the journey starts to wear on her. One of her quests will highlight the fact that she is having a harder time with mobility so you will be tasked with placing her cottage on the ground floor (the ship can often become a jigsaw puzzle of assorted homes and resource buildings being stacked atop one another so it’s fairly common for her cottage to initially be placed a few levels up by the time she joins the ship). She’ll then ask you to walk her to the bow of the ship one morning (and then back in the evening). While all of the other characters typically have autonomy to wander the boat and maybe even help out with some tasks, Alice will not move without your aid here.

When I saw my father’s mother for the last time, it was at my Aunt’s wedding a little bit outside of Chicago in 2014. Growing up in Arizona with most of my dad’s family back in and around Michigan, I didn’t see them too often growing up. We took a few family road trips out to Michigan over our summer vacations to see everyone and bounce around from our cousins in Lansing, to other relatives in Detroit and my grandmother in Grand Rapids.

We called her “Nintendo Grandma” because when we visited in the summer of 1994 (I remember the O.J. Simpson trial being all over the news), we would play in her basement on the original Nintendo Entertainment System she had bought herself. In addition to staples like Mario and Zelda, I remember playing games like A Boy and His Blob or Maniac Mansion. I only ever played these titles there since we didn’t have them back home. Years later, I remember upgrading to playing stuff like Myst on her PC in 1999 (I remember that date because we watched the video for Weird Al Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins” a lot in those early days of internet video). Eventually, when the time came to move out of her home a few years later (circa 2005), my father and I took one last road trip to Michigan to help her pack up and move her into a smaller place. Her eyesight was well worn down at this point so I asked if I could have the NES and she graciously gave it to me.

I probably only saw her once or twice more between then and my Aunt’s wedding in 2014. My life became busier and busier with college and then moving into the workplace and she just wasn’t able to travel much anymore. I was actually the only member of my immediate family who was able to make it out for that trip and I definitely remember prioritizing it in order to see that side of the family for the first time in a long time. Nintendo Grandma sat there, surrounded by loved ones in her wheelchair, unable to really navigate the world without assistance.

As I walked Alice around the boat, I thought of wheeling my grandmother around the wedding, and how she would pass away a few years later.

Much more present throughout my life was my mom’s mom: “Skip-Bo Grandma” (so named because we grew up playing a ton of that card game with her, of course). Skip-Bo grandma lived about a mile from my childhood home and was a constant presence in my life. Not only would we see her once or twice a week throughout my childhood, but pretty much every holiday meal was hosted at her house. But about 10 years ago, her memory really started to deteriorate. Eventually she too got to the point where she couldn’t really be left on her own so my mother and aunt took shifts as her primary caretakers for years.

During this time, I found it incredibly difficult to be around her. She would still be brought along to our weekly family lunches but she became quieter and quieter and it became apparent to me she recognized us less and less or just couldn’t quite keep up with the conversations. And she was constantly in pain too so looking up from my meal to see her silently crying broke my heart.

Alice’s memory also gets incredibly foggy at this point in her story, repeatedly mistaking Stella for her daughter Annie and slipping in and out of old memories. In fact, the only way to get her to follow you to the Everdoor at this point is by wearing Annie’s old clothes and tricking her into it. As you two make the solitary journey to wrap up her story, she speaks to you as if you are her daughter but there is a brief moment of lucidity where she sees through the fog of her mind.

My last memory of Nintendo Grandma was a brief conversation we had where she was asking me about a brother I don’t have. I laughed it off at the time but it weighed on me that she didn’t quite remember who I was and I couldn’t blame her since I hadn’t really been around in her life in years.

My last memory of Skip-Bo Grandma came a couple days before she passed away earlier this year. After years of pleading with my mom and aunt to get her professional care (not only for her but for them after seeing the toll years of looking after her had taken on them), they finally got her into an assisted living facility. But in the many months she spent there at the end of her life, I never once could bring myself to visit. Until I got a call from my aunt saying they didn’t think she had long. For me, given what I had seen, I had been treating things as though I really said my “goodbye” to her years ago, so I didn’t really feel compelled to go say it now but I wanted to make the effort to be there for my mom and aunt in their time of need. On that one and only visit, she was sadly bed-ridden, tangled up in her sheets and moaning in a steady pain. But I stood there as my mom and aunt tried to comfort her and take care of her. I said goodbye to a person who I’m fairly certain didn’t hear me, and probably wouldn’t have even known me if she’d been able to open her eyes to see me one last time. A couple days later, I got the call at work from my dad that she had passed.

In Spiritfarer, one of the little gameplay mechanics is the ability to hug the different characters in order to improve their mood. You also hug each character as you send them through the Everdoor. In that moment, hugging Alice in her brief moment of lucidity, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and tears because it was immediately apparent I was getting a fresh chance to say goodbye to my grandmothers.

Thank you, Spiritfarer, for giving me a moment virtually that I wasn’t able to have or appreciate in reality.

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