SpiritFarer, Grief, and…Me

“...the whole point of a story is like someone building an emotional experience for you, and if they’re very good writers, and it’s a very good story, everything you’re feeling, you’re feelings safely; you just have to remind yourself of that, that none of this is real...and that in some ways, it’s about building up a...strength around that feeling.” 
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the Scaredy Cats Horror Show 

In February of 2020, I was six months out of an abusive relationship. On most days I felt one of three things - very good, very bad, or,,,nothing much at all. SO! While the crowds at PAX* aren’t usually  my thing, that year, I had a superpower: in my mutedness, my depression, or my mania, I was IMMUNE to convention claustrophobia.
*Penny Arcade Expo - big gaming convention
So I drifted through the crush of bodies, and eventually found myself at the Thunderlotus booth.
ThunderLotus staff standing in front of SpiritFarer banner: “Guaranteed to make you cry!”
Maddy: “Ah, heh, that’s...pretty unlikely.”
ThunderLotus employee: “Yeah, we hear that a lot.”
Spiritfarer’s tagline is “A cozy management game about dying.” You play as STELLA (They/Them), taking up the job of ferryman from Charon himself, collecting passengers and helping them prepare to cross through The Gate to whatever… lies beyond.
 The gameplay has platformer aspects, as well as a mysterious open-world ocean to explore, a houseboat you can modify and upgrade, and characters whose moods and well-being need to be monitored. 
The demo was smooth, the music was gorgeous, and I found myself sailing through every inch of the available map.
At one point, Stella gained a power-up. As I watched them float up above a glowing ball of light, the music soaring, I noticed that I had started to cry.
Maddy, thinking (and crying): “huh.”
What was shocking for me about the SpiritFarer demo wasn’t that it made me feel something so intense...it was that it made me feel anything at all.
When I was a junior in high school, my family lost nine people over the course of eighteen months.
I went to SO many funerals, but my own feelings grew further and further away. I found the experience of trying to share my grief with others horrifying. 
When I moved out, I left my funeral dress in my closet of my childhood bedroom. 
When I came back to visit, I didn’t open the closet door. When my folks sold the house, I had them throw the dress away.
As an adult, when someone expresses grief around me, I fixate on how my reactions will be perceived, and quickly get bored or distracted.
I can sense softer feelings, but I can’t access them.
I reach into that part of myself, but I only touch the slippery outlines of emotions, distant and ephemeral. 
So my reaction to SpiritFarer felt bizarre, and as I sobbed in a convention bathroom stall, I set up an alert for posts from the ThunderLotus twitter account. 
By the time the following summer rolled around, the entire world was* having this massive, traumatic experience, and everyone I knew was angry, sad, and scared, while I just felt VERY FAR AWAY. 
*IS
Then on August 20th, SpiritFarer launched, and for me, some things began to - shift. 
The characters in SpiritFarer by turns made me angry, scared, and exhilarated, genuinely hurt my feelings, and even made me laugh aloud. 
(Banner reading: SPOILERS)
The NPCs feel incredibly real. Those whose souls you ferry are sometimes mean, defensive, and hypocritical as well as kind or soft. 
ATUL so successfully uses his joviality to obscure his guilt that I felt legitimately embarrassed when I realized it had worked on me. 
SUMMER I came to love fiercely, though I didn’t like her at first. She reminded me of real people I struggle to love, and who have hurt me. 
ALICE was a difficult character for me. She can be kind one moment and petty the next. Above all, she seemed lonely and afraid. In the end, I was glad to be there for her.
ASTRID is such an uncanny reflection of so many people I know - even myself, in some ways. An idealist and an organizer, she’s also a gossip, a snob, and stuck in a bad relationship.
I started to talk about the game in therapy, and updates became the focus of our sessions until I finished. 
I built very strong attachments to the various characters - especially Summer. Taking her to the gate was genuinely hard. 
Afterwards, I often had Stella play the plant-growing song that Summer taught them, long past the mechanic’s practical usefulness. 
Eventually, I had a realization. 
Maddy: “Ugh. I think Stella is gonna die.” 
Maddy’s Therapist (virtually): “Oh?”
Maddy: “Yeah - I mean, they’re already dead, I guess, but I’m gonna have to take them to the gate. And I think they’re… scared? It’s getting to me.”
The idea of taking Stella to the Gate made my heart freeze in my chest. I almost didn’t want to play. 
Maddy’s Therapist: “Do you remember that quote about stories that we talked about earlier this summer? Maybe you just don’t have any practice handling grief, and this game is giving you some!”
Maddy: “gross, but possible.”
But SpiritFarer is a game that holds you. (kind of literally.)
SpiritFarer gave me room to feel loss, frustration and grief in a setting humming with comfort and warmth. This game gave me a place to safely experience feelings I hadn’t had access to since I was a teenager. 
So when it was time to say goodbye...both Stella and I were ready.
When I lost my great-granddad in March of 2021, I couldn’t travel to his funeral. He was a “complicated man” - something of a recluse, with bigoted politics and a bitter attitude. But as a child, his ranch had been my refuge, and he my patient teacher - a font of Knowledge about the flora and fauna of our beloved Texas Hill Country - and, as I grew up, a stalwart supporter of my artistic pursuits. 
The tools I learned while playing SpiritFarer helped me have a real starting point from which I could, finally, experience and process los in real time. All my sorrow and sourness over how he acted towards others, all my unasked questions - and all my quiet, lovely memories of time spent together - I can pick up any of it, turn it over in my hands, and feel its edges clearly. 
So, Happy Belated Birthday, Stella, and thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Maddy Dye

Maddy Dye

Maddy is a sequential artist based in the Northeastern USA. They are fascinated by fabric & fiber art, storytelling as among the most basic forms of human expression, and glam rock makeup. They have an extremely loud and beautiful elderly cat, and an endless love for video games, TexMex, and playing video games while eating TexMex. They also have that weird genetic thing where cilantro tastes like soap, and a lot of useless knowledge about Emily Dickinson.
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