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    Spiritfarer

    Game » consists of 0 releases. Released Aug 18, 2020

    Gather supplies and maintain a ferry for the dead in Spiritfarer, a management game from Thunder Lotus.

    Was Spiritfarer good, or was it predatory?

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    Strathy

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    #1  Edited By Strathy

    This has been nagging at me since I played this (I eventually dropped it, quite far in).

    Spiritfarer was lauded fairly universally when it came out in 2020, with many commenters becoming openly overwhelmed with emotion when discussing it. But my experience was a jumble of extremely shallow game play systems arranged around what might as well have been a visual novel game. Shallow game play is what it is, and this title is hardly the worst offender by a long shot; what really turned me of was the narrative threads, which all seem meanderingly tangential (boring in most cases, top be honest) until it's time to cast out the net and fish for any memories of grief and loss the player might have.

    I have Asperger's pretty hard, so I admittedly see this emotively engaging stuff through a somewhat skewed window, but I wasn't buying what Spiritfarer was selling here at all. All the people discussing the game as some profoundly effecting thing seemed to be driven by a past episode of personal loss that Spiritfarer had dredged up, rather than anything that materially occurs within the game itself.

    I guess my thesis statement here is that Spiritfarer is effective the same way that showing arachnophobes pictures of spiders is effective, only we are all susceptible to the grief of losing loved ones. I think the actual narrative it spins is self-indulgent and lazy, but gets away with it because it strikes at a place where so many people are so open for manipulation.

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    Yesiamaduck

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    It helped me process and co e to terns with my mother's death. Only great art does shit like that

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    alistercat

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    I also have Aspergers. Very little art has intrinsic value. It isn't schematics for a machine, or a chair that you can sit in. The value of art is invoking emotion in the person. It can do that by being clever, novel, innovative, but it can also appeal to emotion.

    The truly important games are the ones that transcend the medium in to ourselves. No single piece will move everyone because humans are so diverse, but rather than pondering why people like something you think is bad I suggest just accepting that there is an ineffable power in that transcendent quality.

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    Atlas

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    #4  Edited By Atlas

    I also have Asperger syndrome, and I had a bit of a weird experience with Spiritfarer. I loved most of the mechanics and thought the presentation of the game was stunningly beautiful. I spent most of the game thinking it was a 10 out of 10 game, an easy GOTY contender, but towards the end I started to feel much colder on it. I guess I was starting to feel fatigue with the mechanics, and I found the late-game characters to be much less interesting which dropped my feeling of engagement. When I realised I was very close to the end-game, I put it off for a good two weeks or so, before finally picking it up to finish it which only took about 15-20 minutes. So yeah, I spent most of the game thinking it was a 10, but it probably ended up closer to an 8, still very good but not a landmark game that has to be experienced. It's no To the Moon, that's for sure.

    And then all the GOTY praise came in and I realised how much emotional resonance other people had with the game, and how affected they were on the experience as a meditation on grief. And I understood where that sentiment was coming from, but found it something I couldn't relate to. But that doesn't mean that they were wrong.

    I've bounced off other games that depend on emotional resonance in the past, and I'm sure my autism is a big reason why. But I would never go so far as to say that Spiritfarer is lazy. I think you only need to look at some of the things that were written about the game to understand just how powerful of a chord it struck with people - Alex Navarro's write-up is genuinely hard to read because it's so heartfelt - and not all of these people are as easily manipulated as was maybe suggested by the OP. Also remember that there is an aspect of a buy-in when it comes to media; sometimes we put our shields down and allow ourselves to be manipulated, and maybe that's something that us neuro-divergents struggle with.

    So yeah, as far at this thesis is concerned I relate to a certain degree, but could not disagree more with the conclusion.

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    Broshmosh

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    No single piece will move everyone because humans are so diverse, but rather than pondering why people like something you think is bad I suggest just accepting that there is an ineffable power in that transcendent quality.

    Couldn't have put it better myself.

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    tartyron

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    #6  Edited By tartyron  Online

    I enjoyed Spiritfarer quite a bit. That is a conclusion I came to, regardless of what intention the developrs had. I made it art with how I processed it. If that matches with the artist intention is irrelevant. That is power that an individual viewer has. Another person can look at it and see some sappy lifetime network crap, others will see a sub-par platformer, others will not care about the story at all but singularly love the animation. If you see it as predatory emotional manipulation, then that what you see. I don't share your view but that doesn't mean your view is wrong.

    So, in some ways it could be argued that anything engaged in commerce immediately loses it's artistic integrity as the desire for payment makes any for of emotional conveyance predatory. If that is true, then art simply doesn't exist and perhaps never did. I don't think this is universally true, because we all have to find our ways to eat. While predatory emotional manipulation absolutely exists and is sometimes employed to sell products, most things I think are created with good intention on the creators part.

    Anyway, TL;DR: if that's how you see it, you're right....for you. Any of those that saw beauty are right....for them.

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    Nodima

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    #7  Edited By Nodima

    I wrote this about the game awhile back:

    As you start getting lost trying to find materials, and some of the new shipmates get more and more demanding (I'm looking at you, Bruce and Mickey) the empathetic nature of the game recedes in favor of, well, a game. And that game is actually about managing the incredibly petty desires of some very stereotypical anthropomorphic representations of ethnic and cultural stereotypes that undermines the very empathy it's attempting to, actually, weaponize against the player rather than extract from them.

    I know, not a common take, but by the back third of the game I was so fed up with this thing, I couldn't help but see Spiritfarer as an exercise in artifice, and thus the ultimate conclusion of this story as one of self-service rather than selflessness.

    So yeah, I'd say I agree. And I am not an emotionally closed off / reserved person - I've recently gasped and shed tears during the trailer for Across the Spider-Verse, watching a Kenny G documentary and while failing to defeat the third boss of Returnal for the umpteenth time. But Spiritfarer really struggled to hide the unnatural, mechanical underbelly from me, thus the ninth spirit fared felt very different from the first.

    I also didn't dislike the game: Forgiving a bit of idling time, I put 33 hours into the game and for a while all I cared about was discovering recipes and unlocking new upgrades for the ship. It's a solid 3/5; I just find the narrative unconvincing. Which as others have said is fine! I thought The Last of Us Part II was a deeply flawed masterpiece, others saw pure schlock and exploitation. That's the beauty of art.

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    DemiGodRaven

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    The wildest thing to me was that apparently the game receives seasonal updates ala a small live game where they've been adding new characters to expand the story. I found this out because I bought the game on Ps4 recently and while playing through it bumped into the small owl, bird neighbor character for the first time. It seemed so strange to me to be like 'here's the next incredibly sad story of a person you helped cross over to the side, coming this fall!' As a standalone story I thought it mostly worked but its a very fine line to tread before someone will start reading it as being emotionally manipulative and I think that line is different for each person. The animation in that game is incredible though.

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    ALLTheDinos

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    I didn’t feel it was predatory, but it’s definitely a fine line to walk. Most of the stories avoid treacly arcs, and it treats the actual sending-off with mixed emotions (uplifting score vs. never seeing that character again). If they were going for emotional manipulation in a more sinister way, I think it would have been more unilaterally sad or clumsily implemented. However, as others have noted, if you see it as emotionally predatory, I think that means there’s truth to that. The devs have been pretty thoughtful to tread lightly on sensitive topics (such as rewriting Gustav in an update), but ultimately there’s only so much you can do when selling a game to make people feel complex emotions.

    For what it’s worth, I found the game extremely comforting when I lost my grandmother to dementia last year (take a wild guess why!), and also when putting one of my cats to sleep this past April. I’m not sure another game has had that emotional resonance with me, so even if it was manipulation, it helped me process my grief.

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    zor

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    I felt that the game over stayed it welcome, and if it had been about 1/3 to 1/2 shorter, it would have been great. But it didn't, so it ended up feeling dull, and like a chore by the end. Also this pacing issue that I think makes it feel like it using emotions rather than embracing them.

    My guess as to why it was brought up in a few GoTY talks, for websites, is that they didn't finish the game (since video game site people tend not to finish games, since they don't have the time, so they usual just play a few hours of everything, instead of a couple things a lot (this is the impression i get, listening to the podcasts and such, and am sure there are exceptions to this, but overall this is what it sounds like most of them do)), so the length issue, wasn't one, for them.

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    splodge

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    #11  Edited By splodge

    So... I was not able to finish the game. I enjoyed the base building / farming aspect quite a bit, and was very much on board with the evolving narrative and trying to figure out exactly what was happening. However, once I got an idea of what was actually going down later on in the story, I just quit. I did end up listening to Alex / Vinny's thoughts on it, and I appreciate what the game did for them, but for me it was just a big no no.

    My mother died in a hospice after a frankly horrific and never ending battle with cancer that left my family and I emotional wrecks for a long time, and I still have not recovered. I wont go into details, but it was about as bad as any fight with cancer can be, and I was in my late teens when it started. It was a seven year catastrophe. I find it really, really difficult to engage with any media that has to do with hospices / cancer patients.

    While I don't really think the game is "predatory" as such, I do think if you are going to explore those themes it needs to be done reeeeeeal fucking carefully. Weird shit happens to cancer sufferers. Depending on their pain meds, a lot of cancer patients can basically be opium addicts in the end, like my mother ended up being, because its the only thing that eases the pain and you have to take so much of it just to even barely function. They can change into completely different people. For my mother, that happened about 5 years in. For me, the pain and damage that causes is not something that can be fully expressed in any medium really and the only way I will ever approach that topic is in therapy.

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    whitegreyblack

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    If I can get incredibly reductive for a minute: "Different strokes for different folks."

    Something I always keep top of mind anytime I find myself thinking "who in their right mind could like this thing?" is the knowledge that all people come to any item or experience in this world from a place of different backgrounds, experiences, perception, values, and tastes. There is not a single thing in this world that is universal to every human, beyond the basic needs of survival such as water, food, and shelter.

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    ajamafalous

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    If I can get incredibly reductive for a minute: "Different strokes for different folks."

    Something I always keep top of mind anytime I find myself thinking "who in their right mind could like this thing?" is the knowledge that all people come to any item or experience in this world from a place of different backgrounds, experiences, perception, values, and tastes. There is not a single thing in this world that is universal to every human, beyond the basic needs of survival such as water, food, and shelter.

    I don't get the impression that that was what the OP was saying at all. Maybe I'm misreading it, but the dig seems to be 'the game is emotional because it dredges up feelings that people have from past real-life events outside of the game' rather than 'the game is emotional because of events that happen to characters inside the game,' which it seems like most people, even those who loved it, agree with. The criticism doesn't seem to have anything to do with 'personal taste' or anything like that.

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    DoctorFaust

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    @strathy said:

    All the people discussing the game as some profoundly effecting thing seemed to be driven by a past episode of personal loss that the Spiritfarer had dredged up, rather than anything that materially occurs within the game itself.

    I guess my thesis statement here is that Spiritfarer is effective the same way that showing arachnophobes pictures of spiders is effective, only we are all susceptible to the grief of losing loved ones. I think the actual narrative it spins self-indulgent and lazy, but gets away with it because it strikes at a place where so many people are so open for manipulation.

    I mostly agree with this first statement, but the last paragraph really seems like jumping to conclusions. Spiritfarer engaged players through two primary avenues. Considering the absolute shitshow of a year that 2020 was, Spiritfarer was hands-down one of the best meditative, relaxing, forget-about-your-worries experiences of the year, and people resonated with that completely apart from the narrative. What you called shallow gameplay was a lifeline of escapism for many people who were going stir-crazy or other kinds of crazy. But... I'll admit that also made the emotional narrative gut punches that much more effective for some of the players. Still, this whole premise approaches (but maybe doesn't cross) the "I don't like it = It's bad" logical fallacy.

    I'm going to pick on your analogy, because exposure therapy is a real treatment used for phobias. "Showing arachnophobes pictures of spiders" could be perceived as dismissive, since it's not like this is done in a pornographic manner and is more akin to the arachnophobia sliders developers put into Grounded. "Manipulation" as a concept often has a negative connotation that brings up predatory images, but manipulation in and of itself is not negative or harmful. Socializing your child not to be a little shit is a form of manipulation. Therapy to address unwanted or problematic behaviors and thoughts is a form of manipulation. It's essentially intentional manipulation with consent.

    Spiritfarer never marketed itself as anything other than a relaxing sim where you take care of animal people and then have to say goodbye to them. I think the fact virtually everyone who talked about the emotional resonance of this game mentioned it in terms of helping them practice saying goodbye to someone in the near future or revisiting how they said goodbye to someone in the past says everything we need to know about any predatory intentions behind this. Of course, that wasn't the case for every player (as people in this thread mention), but I think a "predatory" version of Spiritfarer would have people actively campaigning against its insincerity rather than just bouncing off of it because they themselves needed a different approach to addressing such sensitive issues.

    Digging up a corpse and shoving it in your face versus lovingly going through a scrapbook of memories are both ways to remember someone, but I would say this roleplaying with animal archetypes is closer to the latter than the former. Really, I think it falls somewhere near the middle of all this, because it's a relatively neutral approach, and I'm always going to champion the degree of difficulty required to effectively create a game around this subject matter.

    TL;DR: That's just, like, your opinion, man. But you don't have to ascribe any intentionality behind it.

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    DoctorFaust

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    Maybe I'm misreading it, but the dig seems to be 'the game is emotional because it dredges up feelings that people have from past real-life events outside of the game' rather than 'the game is emotional because of events that happen to characters inside the game,' which it seems like most people, even those who loved it, agree with.

    I think that's the entire point, though. This is what it means for something to be evocative or resonate with an audience. It's why the characters are somewhat vague archetypes rather than having really specific and detailed backstories. The question is whether intentionally designing a game to do this in this manner is predatory or lazy or whatever, and I have to disagree in this case.

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    whitegreyblack

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    @ajamafalous: Agree to disagree, I guess?

    The OP also seems to be describing a problem reconciling why people would find the game emotional and that they theorize that it is more-so based on their own past emotional experiences.... I think my description of how people approach experiences – on the basis of their own "backgrounds, experiences, values, and tastes" - not any one of those things alone in a vacuum... but all of those things informing who they are and how they experience things – is in response to that theory.

    I could have delved deeper into how some people's ability to use empathy to find the emotion in fictional characters and situations, without having similar past personal emotional experiences, can be a factor here... and how sometimes being on the spectrum can work antithetical to this. I didn't. Hence, the "incredibly reductive".

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    AlanMcKinnon

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    All art is attempting to move people in some way. It can be done well or poorly, but calling it predatory is a bridge too far, IMO.

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    wollywoo

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    #18  Edited By wollywoo

    I really enjoyed Spiritfarer. I didn't find it especially manipulative or emotional. Actually, I didn't find the story particularly memorable in general, although it is well told from what I played (did not quite finish.) Mostly, it's a very relaxing time and the art style is lovely. I mean the main character is just so damn cute and lively! That's enough for me. Maybe I would've reacted differently if I had gone through more personal loss. It was interesting to hear from some of those who've experienced it differently. Thanks for sharing to those who have.

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    Pezen

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    We empathize with things we can relate to, either through emotional identification or specific experiences. I don’t think a piece of art having you think about your own experiences is somehow less artistic or in some form predatory manipulation. Really, all mediums are built to elicit emotion using tools that work. And it’s very well known what works and what does not. And certain experiences are, in general, universal.

    The artistic nature of these things is not that they’re pushing ’the emotion button’ but that they made people think about and reflect on things outside the game. To me, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that’s even more impressive.

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    geirr

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    it was good!

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    darkholmme

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    The first versions of the game felt a little unfinished—I found some of the stories a little under-told—but to call it manipulative is to ignore how anything crafted with an audience in mind is going to be manipulative. I think it helps to put the game in context; this is a medium in which death has always been depicted as impermanent and imperfection. You die in Mario, it’s because you messed up, but you can go right back to playing the game. Spiritfarer’s success is, to me, indicative of how much desire there is for games to use the interactive medium for more, or at least for something else.

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    Junkerman

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    Interesting Thesis - and while I think @alistercat's closing comment is deep wisdom I think there is also always room to scrutinize exploitative mechanics be it storytelling or game design (or anything!).

    I havent played the game in question but I think its on GamePass and I've been interested in checking it out. Should I get around to playing it in the next few months I'll return here with my own thoughts to add to the discussion.

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    cikame

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    I mean... making a game about loss is going to affect people who have lost someone, right? That's not a fault of the creator that's just incidental to the story he's telling.
    I haven't played it myself but i don't see people just straight up saying "the gameplay is horrendously boring and ruins the game", i'm assuming it's just simple tasks that are secondary to progressing the story, which i know some people like Alex are totally fine with.
    So i don't think it's manipulative, at all, it's just a sensitive story that will affect certain people and awesome gameplay wasn't the primary goal, as you say, like an interactive visual novel.
    ...
    Which is why i haven't played it, sounds good though.

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    tartyron

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    #24 tartyron  Online

    @cikame: I would mention that I don’t think visual novel is a category I’d put it in, it’s more a task-based sim with platforming that has a story, closer to a very light stardew valley meets a very light hub-based metriodvania platformer. That said, there are long conversations without much in dialogue options so I also wouldn’t compare it to an RPG per se, just not a visual novel, in my opinion anyway. If that is what is stopping you, I’d maybe try it anyway. Still might not be your jam but I’d you already have game pass it’s a zero risk proposition to try it out a little, other than some time. You’ll know in about an hour if you want to continue or not.

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    Undeadpool

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    I think "predatory" is far too loaded of a term because it implies that the designers had no emotional resonance or put nothing of themselves into the game and only made it to draw tears out of people to...no end? Because the DLC's all free, so unless they're just doing it to be lauded and showered with awards...? I mean the closest thing I can think of is "That Dragon Cancer" where people accused the game's creators of exploiting their own child's death to "make a buck."

    Which was ALSO weird because that was people judging a family dynamic they knew nothing about because people on the internet, when they're not falling for every dumbass con and conspiracy theory created, are incredibly scared of falling into such, and even MORE afraid of sharing a genuine emotional reaction. But saying this game is "predatory" is a bridge too far as it somewhat also gets into that argument of "why isn't every game just Tetris?" "Why isn't every MOBA and fighting game just simple shapes with different moves battling each other? Character designs like Ryu and Dhalsim and Blanka are just window-dressing to the REAL point of the game!" People play videogames for different reasons, just like they watch movies for different reasons.

    Is "Logan" a predatory movie because it reminds me, specifically, of my emotionally distant father, so the ending hits me far, far harder than most other people in the theater? Or does that mean my own personal history causes the movie to resonate differently with me?

    I don't think you experiencing nothing from it means you're "wrong," I don't think an emotional reaction is ever wrong. It can be misguided or unintended, but not "wrong."

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