I am attempting to put some thought into the 2021 Hugo Award Video Game category. In earlier posts, I’ve tried to identify possible contenders and one reason for doing that is to help me make choices. There are a lot of games out there and the cost and time investment for games can be significant (and not always proportional). So I have used some of the data to pick out games I haven’t played that
- are technically eligible
- available on a platform I have access to (basically Mac, iOS or Switch)
- aren’t wholly unsuited to me (i.e. require more coordination than I’m physically capable of)
- look like they might be interesting/notable from the perspective of science fiction & fantasy as a broad genre
That last one is tricky. There’s no shortage of SFF themes in video games — it’s almost a default. However, the Hugo Award isn’t an award for ‘random book with rockets in it’. There is an expectation of some degree of advancing the genre in some way. At the same time, the award in other category isn’t used as an award to reward just the most innovative or the most boundary pushing work in that category. Novelty is just one of numerous dimensions against which we should judge works but it is a relevant one.
I’d like to see the winner of this category be a game that has some popular and critical acclaim but also be something notably a bit different. If the category is to work, then “Hugo winning game” should be a notable fact about a game.
As I have said before, I suspect the game Hades is the likely front runner, even though it has some eligibility issues. I have played it but I’ll save a review for later in the year (assuming it is a finalist).
However, the game I will nominate in this category isn’t Hades but a game set in a quite different afterlife: Spiritfarer. The two games couldn’t be more different and yet both borrow Charon the Ferryman and Hades as characters from Greek mythology and both use (different) genres of game play to lead you to interact with a series of characters from whom you learn about their lives (and deaths) and your own characters back story. Spiritfarer has fewer murderous, laser firing crystal things though.
The genre of gameplay is resource management and exploration. You have a ship with a small number of passengers and you sail between islands collecting resources and improving your ship. It’s all presented as 2D animation largely moving horizontally.
However, the world and characters are notably unusual. You play Stella, who (along with her cat Daffodil) has been recruited to take over from Charon as the person who ferries souls to their final afterlife. The world you sail around is a kind of staging place where people are still holding on to their material lives and issues or just generally getting on with stuff (including some industrial dispute in which you intervene).
Your broader task is to find particular souls (many of whom you know from your previous life) who come to live on your increasingly chaotic ship. You build them cabins (stacked up so your ship looks like Howl’s Moving Castle) and cook them food and run errands for them. You also listen and help each one work through things. Eventually, you take them when they are ready to the Everdoor where they transcend into constellations.
That may sound very maudlin and there is a lot of sadness within the game but it is more wistful then depressing. Having said that, there are certainly some departures that hit harder than others (which I won’t spell out because spoilers). There are also some guests on-board your ship who are just absolute pains but that also adds to the general atmosphere.
For a game with wistful themes and music that feels like the opening music to a Studio Ghibli film, you stay extraordinarily busy. There are plants to water and a variety of meals to cook for guests with distinct food preferences (is my favourite character the one who just likes everything I cook? Yes) and flying jellyfish to catch and lightning to bottle. There is also a lot of jumping around and flying about (on zip lines) as if you are playing a platform game but I really like how very little of this is punishing. There are few penalties and few things you have to do by a particular time (except for one character nearer the end).
I think the character work here is extraordinary. The game uses the physical exploration of the islands as a practical metaphor for exploring people’s lives. The quests they send you on you have to engage with literally to humour some of them (annoyingly so at times e.g. the character who you know doesn’t eat seafood demanding that you make them lobster rolls for dinner). Yet that is part and parcel of the theme of these people finding what they need to let go of, like restless spirits in a ghost story. The faults, demands and in some cases, unlikeability of the characters all adds to the impact of their final times.
Aesthetically, the game uses simple designs to create a feeling of participating in beautiful 2D animated film. There are some lovely visual aspects including a crystal plagued sea dragon and ghostly bugs that dance around your ship but which are only visible when the weird mushroom child character’s pet bug is with you (oh, and you also grew the mushroom kid in your garden after fishing a seed out of the sea because…I don’t know, it made sense at the time).
You also get to pet your cat and hug (except one) your guests.
I played the game on a Nintendo Switch Lite and generally there were few aspects that taxed my slightly limited hand-eye coordination and slower-than-average reaction time. Unfortunately, some of the in game text (especially numbers on recipes and coordinates on the map) where too small to see easily on the screen (at least for my eyes). I don’t think I’ve got sufficient background to do a thorough overview of accessibility issues in video game reviews but I’m also confident that if I’m bumping up against issues then plenty of other people will be, including in places where I didn’t encounter a problem.
Emotionally, I think the game might not be a good choice for some people in some circumstances. Death and emotional burdens are integral to the plot and while the game is genuinely fun, it also plays with the idea of emotional labour and there are times when I needed to take a break because I felt the sense of loss a bit too keenly. I know that many indie and experimental games have explored deeper issues about emotional well being and mental health but Spritifarer manages to pull some deep themes into game is also one where you get to build a wacky house boat and have adventures exploring mines.
I think it deserves a rocket.