Picture the scene: you’re a writer burnt out from trying to write your new book and you’ve retreated to the rural East Asian countryside to try and get it done. Then you accidentally drink tea that lets you see the spirit world and you find yourself rapidly having to help every denizen of your new village, whether they’re alive or dead. You’re also running a bathhouse for ghosts.
That’s pretty much the deal with Spirittea, the life sim from solo developer Daniel Beckerton and published by No More Robots. If you’re thinking of Stardew Valley mixed with Spirited Away you’re not the first one to make the comparison, but as Beckerton says to NME when we chat on video call ahead of the game’s announcement, Spirittea is a very different experience.
“It’s definitely not a farming sim, because there’s little to no farming in it,” says Beckerton. “But the real change is that the game is really focused on player freedom. There’s no set sleeping time, there’s no pressure to do any quests or do anything you’re not interested in. You’re here to finish your book and you can get inspiration from eating barbeque, singing karaoke or just enjoying some hobbies. Once you’ve put that inspiration into the book and it’s finished, you can just hop on a bus and leave town.
“Really, outside of the first spirit you interact with as part of the tutorial, you don’t have to get involved with the spirits at all. I don’t think that’s what most players will be here for, but you could if you wanted to.”
Beckerton also points to the game’s East Asian influence, a byproduct of the years he spent teaching English in Korea. Beckerton’s path to games was somewhat roundabout: after studying nutrition and biology at university in his native Canada, he taught English in Korea for four years. While he was there, he started to learn Unity using a Udemy course, before jumping into GameMaker Studio 2 and following YouTube tutorials. This led to his first real release, the Zelda-esque adventure Fables of Talumos.
For the follow-up, Spirittea draws heavily on his time in Korea. While Beckerton is now back in Canada, he created Spirittea so that players could, hopefully, get a taste of somewhere that isn’t often explored in video games.
“I can’t like emphasize how much of an amazing experience it is to go to another country and really spend time there – not just for a trip – but to actually live there and see what it’s like to try and experience an average life. I kind of wanted to give that impression to people through Spirittea. I’m hoping this will feel like a little holiday for players, and because of the setting you’ll be like feeling like you’re somewhere different that you’re that you’re used to.”
While Spirittea isn’t actually set in Korea – Beckerton claims his pixel art isn’t good enough to be a realistic portrayal of the country – it is definitely informed by his time bouncing around Korea.
Beckerton lived in a few different areas throughout his time in Korea, and felt a real affinity for the more rural areas, laughing as he explains that even the smaller towns he spent time in like Yeosu – a small coastal city of 300,000 – felt hectic.
“For most Koreans, Yeosu is viewed as not really a city. For me, 300,000 people was huge.”
As a result, Beckerton gravitated towards the quieter areas of Korea and the locales of Spirittea took a lot of inspiration from his time there.
“You can head to the shop and find a place that’s very small town countryside – you go inside and there’s a small shop that sells everything you can think of. Ice cream, eggs at room temperature, instant noodles, things you might actually expect to find in these small shops.”
Even the school in the game, while not a huge part of the whole experience, takes inspiration from the last school Beckerton taught at in Korea. “I was teaching at a school that had barely 50 students in it, spread across six grades. I was teaching kindergarten and grade one, which was just chaos.”
Beckerton laughs: “they couldn’t even really speak Korean, let alone English.”
Spirittea’s school is laid out similarly to this school, even down to its approximate size. “It’s not the focus of the game, but it’s going to be filled with these NPC students and looking like the school I taught at,” adds Beckerton.
Of course, as a life simulator there are a variety of activities to do and characters to befriend, living and dead, as Beckerton aims to make Spirittea’s friendships feel more organic. “You grow closer to the NPCs by spending time with them, not just by like giving gifts to them,” adds Beckerton. “There are 24 human characters in the game right now and each of them have two different activities they like doing – cooking, bug catching, karaoke, something like that. You do these activities and you slowly learn more about them.”
But all of this is the window dressing around Spirittea’s main course: opening a bathhouse up in the mountains that caters for spooks, helping to make them happy. Beckerton says that users shouldn’t expect “Factorio complexity” but that there are a lot of mechanics to keeping your ghostly guests happy, whether that’s making sure the water is warm enough for the baths or ensuring that spirits that don’t get on are sat far enough away from each other. Lastly, you can feed and drink the spirits to keep them happy.
Spirittea is due to release some time this summer. As for what’s next, Beckerton mentioned that there’s a ton of extra spirits that he wants to add. “The original plan was like, 80 spirits. No reason, it just seemed like a good number. At first I thought ‘that’s nothing, Pokemon had 150 at the start’ but then it became 60, and then 40. It’s still plenty in the game, but it feels low compared to what I had planned originally. when I actually like play the game and manage the bathhouse I see a spirit I’d forgotten about because I made it so long ago. I think in the future i’d love to add in some more cool spirits through free updates.”
For now though, the goal is merely to keep making games. “I finally found something I really like after jumping through these different professions. So if I can keep doing it, that’s what I want.”