Review: Spiritfarer (Nintendo Switch)

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.

Canon and Campbell

There is an on-going discussion about SFF canon amid general dissatisfaction with a couple of related aspects of this years Hugo Awards.

The short version of my take on all this is that canon is important but it is not THAT important. Put another way, there are books of great historical significance and there exactly zero books that you must read.

head canon

Canonical books and writers serve two roles:

  1. They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
  2. They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.

The second point implies a populist conception of canon where it isn’t the critical acclaim of a work but its popular influence. For example, I think it is an easy argument to make that when looking at contemporary fantasy Avatar: The Last Air Bender is a key text, even though it was a kid’s cartoon (all be it one that was critically acclaimed as a kid’s cartoon).

On the first point I’d cite Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion, which has canonical qualities to it but which is also a shining example of something that is not required reading. Yet it’s existence is a simple way of pointing to a whole gaggle of aspects of SFF publishing in the second decade of the 21st century (social media, Amazon ebook niches, culture wars etc). You don’t need to have read it to make sense of a whole bunch of stuff that went on in that recently departed decade but it really helps to know about it if you are hoping to make sense of a whole pile of things.

Significance, impact and influence are more relevant factors when thinking about canonical works (IMHO) than literary merit or critical acclaim (or awards) but those factors aren’t wholly independent of each other either.

But canon is also political. Political in the sense of power and of privilege. This is true whether we think of canon in terms of edifying work of great literary merit or canon in the more populist sense that I am using. Not all works get the same chances and “significance” and “influence” can exist for good and bad reasons. That is an issue when considering history in general. The British Empire is of great historical significance but mainly because of all the damage it caused in multiple regions around the world. Historical significance includes disasters, wars and acts of malice and when we consider literary significance there are parallels. Works or influential figures can be significant not just in spite of negative aspects but because of them.

John W Campbell is manifestly a significant figure in science fiction. His role as an influential editor shaped popular perceptions of science fiction particularly in the US (and hence because of the political, cultural and economic power of the US, the world). So yes, if you want to understand science fiction in a historical context it is hard to ignore Campbell. But…it’s hard to ignore Campbell because Campbell was powerful and the how and why of “powerful” are necessarily political questions.

And so Campbell himself becomes a metonym not just for SFF in his time but also for debates about SFF and its future in our time.

Consider two propositions (one of which I believe to be false):

  1. John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction because his talent & skills as an editor, his imagination & skill as a creator of science fiction, and his vision/aesthetic for science fiction were better than his contemporaries. He gained that influence because of his own individual competence.
  2. John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction through a combination of chance, wider social forces, some genuine talent and skill, and personal ambition.

I don’t think I need to belabour that the first proposition is the one I think is false. What is significant about it is that proposition 1 is not just a ‘great man’ view of history but also neatly aligns with the pseudo-libertarian view of history which also neatly aligns with that section of science fiction fandom that also regards itself as Campbellian in outlook.

The compulsion to not just make some historical figures canonical but also to canonise them is even more obvious in one of Campbell’s proteges, L Ron Hubbard. Hubbard famously (and with Campbell’s initial assistance) first blurred the boundary between science fiction and pseudoscience with Dianetics and then went on to found his own toxic religion. Within Scientology Hubbard’s science fiction writing is consider the most significant of all and part of Hubbard’s visionary powers.

That Scientology is manifestly nonsense and that Hubbard’s role as a cult leader is largely undisputed outside of Scientology, makes Hubbard a simpler figure to talk about than Campbell. If I write Tweets about Hubbard’s many and well documented flaws, nobody (aside from Scientologists) is going to get upset or use such Tweets as an example of ‘cancel culture’. Put another way Hubbard arrives in a discussion about the history of US science fiction pre-cancelled. However, if you want to know about the history of the genre, Hubbard is definitely a figure you should know about but clearly NOT because he was a good person or because he was a particularly talented writer but because he was somebody who used the genre to gain power and influence far beyond his abilities.

What Scientologists do with Hubbard is to take the undeniable significance of Hubbard to their movement and then re-apply that significance as a moral virtue of Hubbard, which in turn establishes in their eyes the broader moral virtue of Hubbard as a person. For want of a better term, let’s call that process Hubbardisation — the process of canonising influential figures in science fiction. The flip-side of Hubbardisation’s confusion of significance with virtue is that when people cite facts about the painted-saints of SFF that cast them in a bad light (Campbell’s racism for example) it is perceived as an attack on their significance because of the confusion of significance with virtue. The more you think about it the weirder it is, after all there’s no shortage of historical figures in wider history who are significant precisely because THEY WERE BAD PEOPLE (Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler).

Not every notable SFF writer is equally Hubbardised. I guess on the left Le Guin gets somewhat Hubbardised and I get the defensiveness that arises when people point out the moral failings in writers you admire. Other writers not so much. Philip K Dick seems less prone to this process — his struggles with mental health are perhaps too integral to his work for him to be seen as saintly and hence he is romanticised into a tragic figure.

I’ve talked about two aspects of canon but there is a third aspect of looking at literary history which is that it is a buried treasure house. Not everybody is going to enjoy older works but plenty of people do. There is also a hidden history of people whose influence was minimised, under-played or erased from popular recounts. We can infer as well that there must be many people and works that in different circumstances would have been of great significance but through social and political circumstances or the malign influence of powerful figures, never had the opportunity. Exploring this other history is valuable and rewarding in itself but also helps us understand how interesting works and creators still end up being sidelined and marginalised today.

A few more Hugo Stats

Firstly if you haven’t checked out Martin Pyne’s Sankey diagrams showing how the preferences flowed, check them out on Twitter:

One thing we’ve looked at before is how many finalists should there be. I still think 6 is the sweet-spot and I also think this year validates that.

This bubble graph compares the ranking of the finalists in the EPH stats with the final ranking from the transferable vote stats. As a generality, popular nominees are popular finalists, as you might expect. If you had to bet on what the final rankings would be with nothing but the EPH rankings to go on then you generally wouldn’t be very wrong if you just picked the EPH ranking. However, you’d still be wrong quite often.

Notably Best Related Work and Best Editor Short Form both had winners that were sixth in the nomination process. That’s a notable divergence from the bubble graph being something other than a diagonal line. A more quirky difference is Jonathan Strahan in Best Editor Short Form is the only finalist to be second in both processes.

O Westin asked in the comments:

“I might be misreading/misrepresenting the data, but if I understand things correctly, the closer the initial points are to the number of nominations, the more focused that person’s nominators are”

I think that is correct and if so, we could look at the ratio of the raw vote to the initial set of points to quantify that a bit. Here I’ve ranked fan writers by that stat (sorry, it’s the only category where I grabbed these numbers).

Elsa Sjunneson81%
Adam Whitehead76%
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw71%
James Davis Nicoll66%
Jason Sanford60%
Alasdair Stuart53%
Paul Weimer51%
Sarah Gailey48%
Bogi Takács48%
Charles Payseur47%
Cora Buhlert43%
Camestros Felapton41%
Adri Joy40%
Aidan Moher39%

Note that the ratio certainly doesn’t sort finalists from non-finalists. There is a finalist (Adam) in the 70s and a finalist in the 40s (Cora). Primarily this is because with EPH the raw votes matter most. When it comes to each elimination you get more points for your raw votes if your votes are more “bullety” which makes it a bit less likely that you end up in a head-to-head elimination. However, in the end, it is raw votes that decide whether you get eliminated. As people get eliminated, the survivors own points get more bullety.

tl;dr a “bullet vote” set of ballots is neither a substantial advantage or a disadvantage with EPH and nor is the opposite. EPH really only makes a difference when comparing two nominees with a similar number of raw votes.

I think the two-stage voting process for the Hugos is pretty neat all round. I wouldn’t change it currently. However, if I was devising a new award and wanted only one stage of voting, EPH looks pretty good.

  • Voters only have to list things they like.
  • You get many of the features of ranked voting without the rankings
  • It avoids ties. (arguably this is a bug rather than a feature)

If I suddenly had a lot of money/time to create a new SF award program, I’d go with single stage EPH voting with voters having up to 10 nominees per category. However, rather than a single winner I’d award the final three as the joint winner.

BDP Short Graph of No Meaning

This is still just messing around. The difference this time is I included the finals voting process as well. That’s dodgy obviously as it is a different method. I included directions this time but I’m still messing it up as the arrows point to where the votes came FROM not where they went to. Numbers after the title just indicate which instance in the show (reading down the first Good Place episode listed in the stats is Good Place1 etc)

Hyperspace Fan Writer Network

I don’t know a lot about social network analysis but I do know how to plug numbers into software I don’t entirely understand. So there’s no blistering insights from the following graph, I just thought it looked neat.

This is the data from the previous post converted into a network graph. The thickness of the bar are the proportion of points that re-allocated as a nominee was eliminated. The data is essentially incomplete because EPH stops when the six finalists have been identified. In theory the algorithm could keep going until there was one ‘winner’. So, for example, Cora and Paul don’t have a connection because they were both finalists. I also turned it into an undirected graph because I messed up how I imported the data into Gephi ( ) and the arrows were pointing the wrong way round.

The main thing is that it ended up looking pretty, like a faceted gemstone. It also shows that EPH functions in a way that is somehow both competitive but also mutually supportive.

EPH Fan Writer

Just looking at how EPH operates and as fan writer is the most personally interesting (to me and some regular readers!) I thought I’d show an interesting aspect.

As each person is eliminated, the points get redistributed. By looking at the change in points for each surviving nominee, you can calculate the proportion of points that the survivor gets from the eliminated.

For example, when I go out Paul, Cora and James get most of the extra — which makes sense I think given overlap in readers etc.

Alasdair S23%23%17%7%3%10%6%34%0%
Paul W14%0%36%1%16%40%6%1%23%
Bogi T4%15%8%38%0%10%54%26%8%
James DN3%23%2%7%26%0%6%0%23%
Cora B9%0%5%8%6%0%3%1%33%
Adam W23%0%10%14%0%0%0%0%5%
Charles P7%0%9%6%0%10%0%36%8%
Camestros F0%0%2%8%49%0%26%1%
Jason S3%0%1%0%0%30%0%


Elsa S0%0%1%7%0%

O Westin0%0%1%0%

Sarah G7%31%4%

Adri J0%7%

Gavia BW0%

Aidan M

Hugo 2020 Stats First Look

Firstly, that ceremony was just not very good. Sorry ConNZ people, I know you’ve done a lot in difficult circumstances but yikes that was a slow landslide of bad things. The idea of long pre-recorded segments to allow for technical hitches was sound, having most of them been rambling dodgy anecdotes from GRR Martin with bonus Robert Silverberg was not good. A tour round the WETA workshop or somebody talking about the Hugos in nearby Rivendell etc. And then the mispronunciations…people will make allowances for live mistakes but recorded…not good.

Anyway. The results were a lot more fun than the ceremony and at times the results were duelling with the ceremony (e.g. Jeannette Ng speech from last year’s ceremony winning Best Related Work).

So what is interesting in the stats

Best Novel

The answer to why Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower wasn’t a finalist is that she declined the nomination. This resulted in Charlie Jane Anders book The City in the Middle of the Night being a finalist. I think The City... was a worthy finalist but I thought it would come last. While it was low ranked in the final vote it still beat The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

The winner, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, was my second choice and a very deserving winner. The ironic surprise is that Martine didn’t quite make it to be a finalist for the Astounding Award. She was eliminated in the final EPH round of the nomination phase. I’m sure she’ll be happy with the Hugo Award for Best Novel as a consolation prize thought.

The longlist is quite strong in Best Novel. Some books I have enjoyed (Tiamat’s Wrath, Children of Ruin) and books I’ve seen strongly recommended.

Short Fiction

No big surprises here. The longlist for Short Story is a stronger set of stories than the longlist for Novella and Novelette IMHO but that’s the way of those categories. Short Story is a tougher and more competitive field. There was some interesting stuff going on in the EPH rounds as a consequence. Sen, Ramdas, Greenblatt, Kowal, Bolander, Osborne and Wise all battling it out with some Nebula finalist stories not making it to the Hugo finals.

Dramatic Presentation

Boring choices dear Hugo voters and I say that as somebody who thoroughly enjoyed The Good Place. Longlist is a bit dull to.


I don’t pay much attention to this category. Not sure why Navah Wolfe wasn’t eligible but interestingly the winner of the category, Ellen Datlow was ranked relatively low in the initial nominations. Some EPH battles going on in later rounds also. The net effect of all of this was nil as Wolfe then won the other editor category.


A decent longlist with Hugo Book Club, Rocket Stack Rank and The Full Lid, just below the cut off to be finalists.

In the final voting there was a bit of an exciting preference battle between The Book Smugglers and Nerds of a Feather, with the Nerds overtaking the Smugglers briefly after Galactic Journey got eliminated.

Fan writer

You naughty people! Looks like I got to play some fun EPH games! (The only name I don’t recognise in the long list is Stitch. [ETA: really interesting blog here ])

So I had an EPH battle with Sarah Gailey and then with O Westin, then stood aside while Jason Sandford had a couple of bouts, then he and I fought and then I had to fight Cora but she beat me with one of her secret power attacks. None of us remember this happening of course and reading the EPH stats looks like a very weird game of Pokemon as explained by an eight year-old!

The race for the winner proved to quite close at the end. After eliminations, there was only 21 votes between Bogi and Cora. It was always going to be a tough category to vote and so it proved! A talented set of finalists.

Hugo Ceremony Link

The livestream will be available here


  • Wellington NZ: Saturday 1 August 11 am
  • Sydney AU: Saturday 1 August 9 am – nice!
  • Perth AU/Hong Kong/Singapore: Saturday 1 August 7 am
  • Delhi: Saturday 1 August 4:30 am
  • Most of Europe & Africa: Saturday 1 August 1 am
  • UK & other more westerly bits: Midnight Friday 31 July/August 1
  • New York/ East Coast US: Friday 31 July 7 pm.
  • All those other US time zones: etc I lost track
  • Hawaii: Friday 31 July 1 pm.

It’s a neat problem of how to schedule a worldwide event so it hits civilised times. In this case, NZ gets a rare opportunity to pick but Europe & Africa have to have a late night party.

What should go in the 2020 Hugosauriad addendum?

I had a short Twitter conversation about the lack of Dinosaurs in this year’s Hugo Awards. There were two good suggestions from people:

  • Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series has plesiosaurs in Book 5 Chaos Choreography. I’ve not truly engaged with Best Series but cryptids and prehistoric marine creatures are a different strand in dino-literature.
  • Omphalos of course does not dinosaurs in it because it is a story set in a world were Young Earth Creationism is factually correct. I do like it when things are defined by their abscence.

So post the Hugo results, I’ll do a 2020 addendum covering those two or maybe an essay each. Ted Chiang and Seanan McGuire themselves are relevant topics in a Hugo history as well, so that’s kind of neat.