There’s a moment in Spiritfarer: Farewell Edition where I wish Stella, the game’s protagonist, would stop smiling. It’s been three months since my father died. I’m playing Spiritfarer, the celebrated “cozy” game about dying, to help process my grief. I’ve returned from the Everdoor – a celestial bridge where the dying pass on. It’s where Gwen, the tutorializing deer & Stella’s childhood friend, disappears forever.
I’m back on my ship. It’s night. There’s an empty room. Gwen is gone. I think that now I must be inside the tranquility where grief begins. Yet Stella keeps smiling. And I realise how this game offers me a blanket of comfort, not necessarily the sharp catharsis I realise I need.
It’s not just about Stella’s idle animation, because Spiritfarer rarely asks you to be idle. It is a management game after all: You water crops, install an HVAC system, master mini-games that turn ingredients into different ingredients. The spirits you shepherd are almost always grateful and the truly dead are rarely mentioned after they’re gone. Death needn’t be scary, there is always something to do.
Inside this beautifully achieved fantasy of palliative care is the familiar rhythm of a game that wants to assure me everything will be okay. Writing this brings me sorrow, because the neatness of this game bears no resemblance to the messiness of grief I’m living through.
“Please, video game,” I think to myself as Stella completes chores with a giant smile, “keep me from this feeling.” Spirits around her are dying from dementia, cancer, suicide. One spirit dies far too young. The video game tells me it is okay: It gives me something to achieve, rewards my hard work, lets me be loved by characters who accept my help, wraps timers in charming aesthetics. This video game is kind to me: It tells me what to do. Even if I’m sad, it wants me to smile.
The overwhelming positivity here feels alienating. I’m reminded of a line from Mad Men where suave grifter Don Draper finally unravels from grief. In a group therapy session, two strangers hug and their therapist calmly asks: “Does hugging feel honest?”
Spiritfarer knows how comforting the tight, full circle of a hug is – and, to its credit, does have characters and moments that speak to how smothering this embrace can feel. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or lesser with this kind of escapism. It simply isn’t for me as I’d hoped it’d be. Grief transforms you, whether you like it or not. Spiritfarer gives something to aspire to in face of the inevitable – if you’re going to transform, why not be one of the ethereal butterflies that flit about Stella? My mind shifts to a darker transformation.
Moths are everywhere in The Last of Us: Part 2, a game fresh in my mind after playing Spiritfarer. Moths are on the guitar Joel, surrogate dad, gives Ellie, one of the protagonists you play. They’re part of Ellie’s tattoo. Moths swarm around lampposts in the game’s loading screens. It may be strange to compare these two games that seem nothing alike, but they are two sides of an Obol, the coin you pay the ferryman when you die. Spiritfarer envisions serene self-awareness at the end, while The Last of Us: Part 2 shows how grief breaks you.
It seems Ellie is on the other side of grief. After a bloody campaign of revenge, she achieves the impossible. She is inside goodness: A domestic dream of peace and comfort with Dina and a baby. Yet pain still feels far more real, more urgent to Ellie. Grief has come to find her in these Elysian fields, but perhaps it never ever left. There is still something awful inside Ellie, like the cordyceps lodged within her mind, where nothing can feel real until she lets the poison out.
Grief is misunderstood – even now in the face of global tragedy like Covid. Researchers investigate ideas of ‘ambiguous loss’, an idea that suggests closure itself may be a myth. This game teaches you a similar lesson in the tradition of tragedy. Ellie’s hubris is believing she can find closure–first through revenge, then domesticity, and finally sheer nihilism. By game’s end, Ellie is transformed for the worse. She can no longer physically play the song Joel taught her on the guitar. Her grief becomes literal: A melody that can no longer be resolved.
Both games offer drastically different, contradictory perspectives into grief. Cozy closure that is still wise in Spiritfarer. An uncompromising honesty & brokenness in The Last of Us: Part 2, but perhaps too nihilistic. I try to make games a part of this process I am going through, but they are not entirely honest with me about grief. I return to a memory of my dad:
After my grandfather died, my father took my sister and me to see Big Fish. We didn’t know what the movie was about, which was a mistake, but also wasn’t. For the entirety of the movie, Albert Finney is dying and Billy Crudup, his son, is mad at his dad. Their feud is simple: Albert tells fantastical stories and Billy sees this storytelling as a painful distraction from reality. By story’s end, Billy finally plays the game his father has been trying to teach him. As Albert lays dying, Billy decides to tell a fantastical story – his father’s. A movie with a mechanic that becomes the message, how storytelling transforms from distraction into a moment of truth, then becomes both at once on a deathbed: a son embracing his father’s story through story.
At that young age, my anger toward my father is shapeless, repressed. When my father cries on the way back to the car, he doesn’t really talk to my sister and me. I watch quietly, my own life a kind of cutscene where I am not given the opportunity to interact. I see who my father is, but he is so far away.
Games teach me to meditate on do-overs. Comfort my father then or let him cry. Feel sad for him or stay angry. Spend my time playing a game or finally call him to talk. His body is already cold in his favorite chair. Grief makes all of this happen at once. Life is not kind like a game, it offers no waypoints to guide me through.
John Baxa is a writer and freelance contributor to NME.