Thunder Lotus’s Spiritfarer, billed as “a cosy management game about dying”, might be the queerest game of 2020 so far. You take on the role of Stella, a child in a big hat who takes over from Charon as the ferrier of souls from this world to the next. Stella and her cat Daffodil sail an ever-growing ship across the seas, collecting spirits, feeding them and helping them complete their unfinished business until they can finally pass over in peace.
Spiritfarer is queer, because dying is queer. Dying estranged from your family, with a found community of kindred spirits, is queer. And helping others find peace at the end of their days is queer as hell. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the first spirits you meet is Summer, a snake wrapped up in a hooded green robe. She plays sitar to your plants and follows a vegan diet and meditates in nature, a serpentine cottagecore devotee. And she loved Stella’s aunt Rose.
“I sold everything I owned. Took every dirty penny I ever earned. I bought a plot of remote land, and started anew,” she tells Stella. “I carved this little nest in the middle of the woods. And when finally it responded—when the flowers and the trees and the birds started flourishing, stronger than they ever could with the touch of poison—on the day of the solstice, when the hill was emerald green—well, that’s when I asked her to marry me.”
Rose is gone, and—by virtue of being a spirit—Summer is, too. But Spiritfarer avoids the “bury your lesbians” trope because everyone in the game is dead. Her care for Stella, her nurturing nature and understanding of her own boundaries, made her my favourite spirit in the game. She felt like the grey-haired queer women I’ve met in real life, the ones who wear sensible sandals and reminisce about 70s activism but stop themselves short of releasing their righteous anger at the world today.
While Summer is tangentially family, many of the spirits you meet are unrelated to you: mobsters, a museum curator, an anticapitalist union rep fighting for workers’ rights. Ragtag bunch-of-misfits narratives resonate with queer people, because they recognise the power of found family over blood relatives.
We’re more likely to be estranged from parents and siblings, but we find power in relating to people who are like us. Spiritfarer holds these relationships up as something pure and sacred: caring for spirits, bringing them food, improving their homes and setting right their unfinished business are all powerful forms of caring that create kinship. While your spirit passengers might fight or bicker, they ultimately hold each other up. Jovial frog Atul cannot find peace until he cooks for the other passengers, while whimsical mushroom Stanley needs people to watch his play. The spirits rely on interpersonal connection — and while dying has removed their biological families, they can forge new bonds with their fellow ferried souls.
This level of care and patience spent with the dying speaks to how queer people deal with death. Current queer culture is ultimately shaped by loss, due to how HIV tore through our community in the 80s and 90s. We’re missing a huge swathe of gay men and trans women, taken too soon by a disease that political bodies were so quick to turn from. When lovers and friends were dying in hospitals, it was queer people who showed up for each other: soothing them on their deathbeds, organising their estates, planning funerals for people whose families wouldn’t touch the bodies, organising and protesting to honour the dead and fight for the living.
Cut to today, and the LGBTQ community still faces higher rates of suicide and violence than our straight counterparts. Our lives are still marked by grief. We hold the Transgender Day of Rememberance every November, and organise among ourselves to care for people that society leaves behind. Our non-traditional family structures hold us up in life, and hold each other together after we die. Ultimately humans don’t know how to deal with death: we can’t wrap our hearts around it. Spiritfarer says there’s no one right way to have a life well-lived, no one right way to look at your impending mortality, no one right way to grieve those we’ve lost. In this sense, the game queers death by challenging traditional approaches to it — the same way Queer Death Studies asks those questions academically.
Of course, Spiritfarer is a watercolour game where death is as simple as slipping through a door. You don’t have to read anything queer into it. But Summer’s inclusion hints that maybe this queerness is intentional. Taking so much time to talk about death is queer. Taking on a familial role to help people during their darkest days is queer. Asking a woman to marry you on the day of the solstice is queer.
Spiritfarer is queer.