Press X To Hug
Games are in a unique place when it comes to the types of media we consume. More than any song, movie, or book, games put us — the player — in an active role to experience what it has on offer. And with that comes stronger emotional feedback. Whether it’s saving the princess, solving the puzzle, or winning the match, it means more because it happened to us directly.
A good game sticks with us because of this emotional bond we create with it. Think about the last game that made you cry. Or laugh. Or swell up with pride. Or caused you to become so angry that you threw your controller at the screen and stormed out of the room. These are all emotions that we as gamers are well acquainted. Sometimes, though, a game doesn’t just stick with you. It helps you to be a better person.
A Game About Compassion
When I first saw Spiritfarer, I didn’t really know much about it. It had a cute art style and it was about managing spirits on a boat, or something to that degree, which was enough for me to pick it up and check it out. About an hour after starting the game, I breathed a contented sigh as multiple months worth of stress began to leave my body. Even at that early point, I knew that this game was going to be special.
One of the most notable functions in the game is the hug feature. Go up to one of the passengers, push a button, and boom. Hug. Such a simple thing, but incredibly important to the identity of the game. It felt natural to go up and glomp on to each passenger, watching as their surprised reaction melt away to genuine joy as they reciprocated. I never got sick of it. And as I went in for that daily hug, I found that I was genuinely wanting to help these lost souls.
Every aspect of Spiritfarer is based around helping others. Everyone in the game was hurting in some form, and it’s up to us as the player to help them. For some, they have a hard time coming to terms with their situation. Others have unresolved trauma. Sometimes, they just need to grow a bit before they can move on.
We Are All Hurting
Six months into a pandemic, I thought I was handling things rather well. My girlfriend and I had a nice place together, we had each other, and we were both working. But each day was becoming rote. Get up, go to work, get through the day, come back, lie on the couch and watch TV. We were supporting each other, but the world was constantly chipping away at us. We were both tired.
I didn’t know, until that first contented sigh, just how much had been weighing on me. With the tension gone, I began to think about my life as I delved deeper into the game. I spent a lot of time looking after the characters in the game, so why couldn’t I do it in my own life? I was tired, yes, but weren’t we all? I began to connect with friends using the tools I had available. I invited my family up to the mountains for some much-needed time outdoors. Whenever I could, I would hug someone close to me.
There was a connection between the passengers in the game and the people in my life. Both were hurting, weary from a world that just wouldn’t let up. They were afraid for the future, angry at their own impotence, and tired of everything that was happening around them, to them. And in practically every case, they wanted someone to hear them.
Stella, the main character, doesn’t talk. While having a silent protagonist isn’t uncommon in many games, in Spiritfarer it’s a choice that’s used to great effect. The conversations with the passengers are all one-sided — they speak, and Stella listens. At first, they use Stella’s silence to say whatever they want. They bark orders and make demands, keeping to the narratives they’ve built up for themselves. Over time, however, they organically open up, give up a bit more of their stories, painful as they are.
So I did the same thing. I invited my friends to open up about what they had on their minds, and I listened. What I found was a similar trend. Friends told me about what they were going through. I was asked for my thoughts and advice. Coworkers began to tell me about their struggles being an essential worker during a pandemic. Life was eroding away at each and every person I met with. I wasn’t the only one that was tired.
We all need someone to listen to us at some point. It revitalizes us, both as listener and speaker, as we are able to express and process those thoughts that are welling up inside of us.
At some point, after connecting with my passengers for so long, the game forced me to say goodbye. It’s probably the most heartfelt part of the game. The spirit gives their farewells, one last hug, and then the sendoff, leaving nothing behind but a small reminder that they were there. This happens every time, with one exception. At one point, a passenger — who to that point has been nothing but helpful and encouraging — just leaves without explanation. No sendoff. They’re just gone, leaving everyone else on the boat to wonder why.
As the player, I was first confused, and then quite hurt that this character would leave without saying goodbye. I did everything they wanted, right? Was there something I missed? No, I didn’t do anything wrong. It dawned on me that as a passive listener to the lives of my passengers, I never got their whole story. I just heard what they were willing to share. Ultimately, this one passenger had to deal with their own pain themselves. And I just had to come to terms with that, and move on.
You can’t always help. It’s one of those truths that life repeatedly bludgeons us with constantly. Despite our best efforts and intentions, there will always be times where things just fall out of our hands. Everyone deals with problems in their own way, and it’s important to let them do that.
With all that is and has happened in the past year, it is more important now to reach out to one another, and offer up a bit of compassion. Maybe we can’t fix each other’s problems, but we can at least be there, and maybe offer a hand, an ear, or a hug when we need it the most. And if comes back unwanted, then we can at least offer up some space.
Spiritfarer reminded me what it meant to be a human being when I needed it the most, and how a little bit of compassion can go a long way. We’re living in a time where it’s harder to connect with one another than ever before. Make sure to check in with your friends and family. And if you’re able to, maybe give them a hug. You don’t know what they’re dealing with.
I strongly recommend checking out the game out for yourself, if anything I’ve said up to this point has piqued your interest. It’s earnest and heartfelt, and at least in my case, gives something back to the player. In a sea of repetitive and uninspired games, those are rare traits.