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Inside the thoughtful design of Thunder Lotus' Spiritfarer

"...we, as a team, engaged in deep introspection, thinking about the people around us who had an impact in our lives and who had passed away." said the Creative Director of Spiritfarer.

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Spiritfarer, a touching look at letting go and passing on, has been nominated for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Audio with the IGF. Combining management elements with personal connections, it follows several characters as you ferry the deceased to the afterlife, sharing in their stories on the way.

Gamasutra had a chat with Nicolas Guerin, Creative Director of the game, to discuss what drew the developer to explore death with their game, how they worked to approach the subject of dying with care, and the elements that went into the game's heartwarming (and heart-wrenching) hug animation.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Spiritfarer?

I'm Nicolas Guerin. I was Spiritfarer's Creative Director and I'm also credited as Lead Designer and Lead Writer on the project.

I've been making games for around 15 years now, and before joining Thunder Lotus I worked mainly in the AAA world (EA and Ubisoft) as a designer and design director on franchises such as EA Skate and Assassin's Creed.

How did you come up with the concept for Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer's core concept came from our wish to talk about the grave subject matter of death and dying, but in a cozy and wholesome way.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Spiritfarer was developed in Unity, and on the assets creation side, Photoshop and Toonboom were used

What interested you in exploring death in your game? 

Death is unfortunately central to our existences, and I believe we spend too little time thinking about it or preparing for it. On the contrary, my feeling is that we spend an inordinate amount of time actively avoiding it. 

What interested you in exploring death with a game, specifically? What do you feel games have to offer the subject that's unique to them?

Although happening all the time in games, death as a topic is almost never seriously approached. Interacting with systems and experiencing them firsthand is unique to our interactive medium, and facing the concept of passing away head-on, of actually losing something, is rather interesting.

What challenges did you face in designing a game around this exploration? 

The first challenge you face in designing a game about death and dying is, of course, trying to make sense of it all. To think about all the elements that could help players explore the topic in a wholesome and kind way, and balancing drama and lightheartedness. 

How did you create your various touching characters for the game? What ideas went into their designs, visually and narratively? 

One of the toughest challenges in designing Spiritfarer was to make sure it all felt genuine and honest. That the characters, the spirits, were actual people dying. At the beginning of the project, I spent quite some time documenting and researching on the topic, meeting patients and caregivers in end-of-life care facilities. In addition, me as a person, and we as a team, engaged in deep introspection, thinking about the people around us who had an impact in our lives and who had passed away. All those stories and memories ended up being the core identities of Stella and the Spirits. 

From a visual standpoint, each Spirit, in addition to taking an animalistic form, is also associated with a flower, on both symbolic and metaphysical levels.

The hug animation is a core part of the game's heart. Can you tell us about the process of getting that right, and the challenges that came with making it work for each character? For capturing so much love and sadness in a single gesture?

The Hug became indeed central to Spiritfarer's development and allowed us to reinforce mechanical ways to take care of others. Big props to Alex Boyer, Spiritfarer's Animation Director, and to the other animators on the team for capturing the personalities of both Stella and the Spirits so well, and creating such uplifting animations!

What thoughts went into designing the moment of passage to the afterlife? The location that would take our beloved characters away? 

Quite a few iterations were necessary to nail the actual location, a place in the game called the Everdoor, which ended up being a half circle bridge reflecting on water. Jo Gauthier, Spiritfarer's awesome Art Director, came up with the concept, and they were also inspired by a few historical bridges which have been considered mystical places by various cultures.

The intent was to have a symbolic place of respite and grandeur, neither fear-inducing nor too whimsical.

Music formed a powerful part of the game's impact. What did you want to achieve with the sound and music design? 

Music played an absolutely key role in Spiritfarer! Thanks to Max LL's wonderful work, some moments in the game became quite memorable. Spiritfarer's score plays both a support role and a lead one, underlining subtly the relaxing action sometimes, and becoming sweeping and epic some other times.

This game, an IGF 2021 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony.  You can watch the ceremony starting at 4:30PM PT (7:30 ET) Wednesday, July 21 at GDC 2021.

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