Spiritfarer's Art Director on Encouraging Relaxation, Exploration, and Just Chilling on a Boat

Spiritfarer's Art Director on Encouraging Relaxation, Exploration, and Just Chilling on a Boat

How Spirited Away led to a cozy management sim about the afterlife.

The world of Spiritfarer is colorful and lively. You are Stella, the captain of a boat sailing on the rivers and oceans of the world. But your crew is not alive; you're ferrying them not just from one port to another, but from death into the afterlife.

When I stumbled upon Spiritfarer at E3 2019, I was taken aback by just how serene a game about death could be. It is a self-described "cozy management game about dying," and as Stella, your job is to satisfy all outstanding woes and anxieties of spirits who aren't ready to drift into the great beyond just yet. It's both relaxing and extremely somber.

At PAX West 2019, I got a chance to chat with Jo-Annie Gauthier, the art director behind Spiritfarer, as we played it in co-op. One of us as Stella and the other as trusty feline companion Daffodil, we set sail for new horizons. We weathered storms of velvet jellyfish, and after an arduous process, we remedied the maladies of an ancient dragon.

What helps keep Spiritfarer's somber tone from ever feeling oppressive is the vibe set by its art and design. When I asked Gauthier about the team's influences for the look and design, she references Disney, Studio Ghibli, and the works of Don Bluth for the animals. But when it comes to the world, she pulls out an artbook of Yoshida Hiroshi's work, painting wood blocks of different areas around the globe. Their goal was to simply make places people dream of going to, through paintings and printings like these blocks.

"A lot of it came from that, and how to make people want to be on a boat, in order to go to different places in a world that they had never seen," Gauthier says.

It's nice to be able to take in the scenery. | Thunder Lotus Games

But how can caretaking feel like a vacation, or relaxing? Gauthier likens it to a particularly well-known Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away. The protagonist of Spiritfarer, Stella, is equal parts Spirited Away protagonist Chihiro and Charon on the River Styx. In fact, Ghibli's film seems to have played a large part in setting the tone of Spiritfarer, especially in that Stella, like Chihiro, is a normal human out of place in the realm of spirits.

"Most of all, the one that didn't belong was Chihiro herself, who was a human," Gauthier tells USgamer. "A lot of that management was important to us, in order to catch that 'other-ness' feeling and her being so enthusiastic about taking care of people."

The other-ness in the spirits is their animal-like tendencies, including those who try to fight their appearance. Gauthier says these spirits were once humans themselves, but are now in animal bodies. The more animalistic they act, the more they resemble the animal bodies they inhabit, so some protest by acting human.

Your ultimate goal is to bring them to ease with themselves, so they can move on. This can be done through fulfilling their wants and needs, carrying out tasks for them, or simply sharing a nice hug. (There is a hug command.) But as you travel the world, other quests or tasks may pop up. Minigames, like catching lightning or jellyfish, offer distractions along the way, as well as fishing off the side of the boat.

You can also go mining with your magical pickaxe. | Thunder Lotus Games

It's important that, when travelling from point A to point B in the world of Spiritfarer, you experience it in real time. It's an intentional choice, as Gauthier tells me. Spiritfarer is about relaxation as much as anything else, and it doesn't seem to ever want to throw too many chores at you or chide you for not playing enough. In a world of "forever games," Spiritfarer doesn't want to be that. It wants to be your relaxation game.

"The way I personally see it is, it's meant to be a game where you've had a long day at work, you have half an hour to kill or you just want to unwind," Gauthier says. "You can just boot it up and start from wherever you left off. You're not going to be penalized for not logging on for a week."

With a co-op mode that's rarely demanding and no fail states present, it seems to be doing just that. I walked away from my PAX West demo of Spiritfarer much like I walked away from my E3 demo: feeling calm and relaxed from the world outside receding for a moment. I tended crops and fished off the side of a boat. I saw the sun rise and set. And in the end, we helped someone feel better, and move on to a new stage of the grand adventure of life. It's sad but soothing, a mood I'm looking forward to seeing more of once it launches.

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Eric Van Allen

News Editor

Eric is a writer and Texan. He's a former contributor to sites including Compete, Polygon, Waypoint, and the Washington Post. He loves competitive games, live music, and travel.

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