From The Armchair: The Rare Luxury of Playing Video Games

What ho, chums!

Long time no speak, eh? In fact, I just checked, and remarkably the last time I spoke to you ‘From The Armchair’ was way back at the end of 2019. My, my, what a lot has changed since then. Not least my armchair.

Alas, I’m afraid I haven’t been giving this glorious website of ours the attention it deserves of late. You see, I’ve spent the best part of the year working on an absolutely wonderful Secret Project that I’m afraid I can’t tell you about just yet – but all will be revealed in a few months’ time. Suffice to say, it’s very exciting indeed. And it’s also been incredibly time consuming, hence the lack of attention to this dear old website from yours truly. Mea culpa. It’s all worth it though, I assure you. And thankfully, good old Mr. Mason has been holding up his end wonderfully well with a parade of top-notch reviews of sometimes obscure but always interesting indie games – so hats off to Mr. Mason for his sterling work.

Anyhoo, work on the Secret Project has now wrapped up (for the time being at least), which has finally given me the chance to indulge in some good old-fashioned video gaming. These days I often find myself writing about video games a lot more than actually playing them – and typically the only video games I play are ones which I’ve been asked to review. What with all the tiresome adult responsibilities that go with middle age, there is little free time in which to cut loose for a few hours with a game of my own choosing – let alone with some of the gargantuan 100-hour-plus monsters we’re treated to these days. As much as I loved the original Xenoblade Chronicles, for example, I despair at ever finding the time to play through the just-released Xenoblade Chronicles 3.

However! Successfully completing the Secret Project provided me with a couple of days’ respite, a glorious window in which to play whatever I chose without a care in the world. And instead of plucking one of the many, many unplayed games from my heaving Steam library of shame, I opted to purchase a little title called Spiritfarer that I’ve had my eye on for some time, and that was handily reduced in the Switch summer sale.

Spiritfarer is the third game from Montreal-based Thunder Lotus, the talented folks behind Jotun and Sundered, and it retains the developer’s trademark lush animation and vibrant colour scheme. But whereas the first two Thunder Lotus games focused on hectic, screen-filling combat, here they’ve gone for a completely different approach – what they call a cosy management game about death.

It begins with Charon – the mythical being who ferries souls to the afterlife across the River Styx – resigning his post, leaving it up to you, a young girl called Stella, to take his place. As Stella, your aim is to pick up the various souls dwelling on islands across the seas (the Styx is more like an ocean in this imagining) and then fulfil their final requests before delivering them onwards. Mostly those requests involve building them a lovely house on board your boat and cooking their favourite meal, but they also tend to have unfinished business to do with unfulfilled relationships and psychological dramas that are a bit more complex to solve. Still, it all tends to boil down to a mix of exploration and careful resource management, as you grow crops, tend animals, weave fabrics, refine ore and expand your boat to accomodate more and more guests and useful buildings. You know the score: get a thing, use it to build another thing, then use that to get more things. The things just keep piling up, and every thing makes me happier.

It’s quite lovely, you see, and an easy way to lose hours and hours in blissful tinkering and serene sailing. There’s no rush to do anything – these lost souls literally have all the time in the world. It’s quite, quite relaxing. But there’s a curious note of melancholy, too, since eventually all of your guests will, at one point or another, ask to move on to the next life. Having got used to their foibles and daily greetings, your boat can feel achingly empty once a long-resident guest departs. It’s quite the moment, and unlike anything I’ve encountered in a video game before. To advance, you have to say goodbye. What’s the point of doing all these errands for people, you may be thinking, if that person simply disappears, leaving nothing behind but the house you spent so long building for them? But then you could say the same thing about life in general. For such a colourful, charming game, it invites some unsettling thoughts about the way we spend our time on this earth. In a nutshell, Spiritfarer is enchantingly, morbidly beautiful, and you simply have to play it.


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