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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

How Spiritfarer Helped Me Through the Pandemic

by Matthew Tyler (@PalliDad)

During what can only be described as a challenging year, I found Thunderlotus’s game Spiritfarer just in the nick of time. In this “cozy management game about dying,” you assume the role of a young woman named Stella who is charged with shuttling spirits to the gates of the afterlife. Unexpectedly, Spiritfarer served as both an escape from and means of processing my experience as a healthcare worker during the pandemic.

From top to bottom, Spiritfarer exudes tranquility. The animations are bright and vibrant, and the music is soothing yet melancholy, invoking nostalgia for younger innocent days. With this backdrop, you spend your time in game managing the physical and emotional needs of your passengers. This entails gathering materials to upgrade your boat’s ability to reach more distant islands, constructing customized quarters to accommodate your growing roster of spirits, and cooking meals uniquely suited to each passenger’s preferences. I was especially delighted to learn I could hug passengers to boost their mood, though sometimes they will decline your offer - bonus points to the devs for promoting autonomy! Your efforts are reflected in the mood of each spirit - as it improves they share more about their lives. Ultimately, each story arc culminates in a heartfelt goodbye at the gate to the afterlife. For most of the spirits, at least.

One day, I was passing by the home of one of my favorite companions and saw the outside had been covered with flowers. My stomach lurched. Flowers only appeared after a spirit had passed through the gate, but how could this spirit already be gone? I hadn’t finished their storyline or said goodbye. What kind of closure was that?

At that moment, I was flooded with memories of conversations where I had to tell someone that their loved one was dying from COVID. Since our hospital restricted visitors I never knew the faces of these family members, just their tortured voices as I broke the terrible news by phone. I did this over and over again every day for what felt like an eternity. There were no proper goodbyes for these families. There was no closure, because how could there be? The breakneck pace someone could go from healthy to dying was impossible to wrap their heads around. It was impossible to wrap my head around it too.

In palliative care, we provide the medical knowledge necessary to help patients and families prepare for the future. We don’t talk about how that knowledge helps clinicians cope as well. Understanding how an illness progresses gives us mental schema to process the suffering to which we must bear witness. Yes, it’s awful to tell someone that the last line of cancer treatment didn’t work. But because we know the trajectory of metastatic cancer, it’s a conversation we mentally prepare to have at some point. There was no pre-existing narrative for COVID to emotionally brace ourselves for what was coming. So while I worked hard to navigate the devastation in the most optimal (or least terrible) way, I simultaneously resented the need. None of these people were supposed to be dying in the first place.

Spiritfarer was a gentle nudge to loosen my grip on how I think the future is “supposed to” look. It reminded me that, scale aside, COVID does not hold a monopoly on unanticipated loss in this world. Nor does working adjacent to death afford any control over it. Though the lesson goes deeper than that. Even if we can’t control how or when someone’s story ends, we are still encouraged to play our role in it. We keep working to discover our companion’s favorite dish. We take a moment to embrace them when they are feeling low. We hold space to listen to their stories and what is most important to them. Spiritfarer drives home that the inability to control an outcome does not mean we can’t be active participants in the process. And ultimately, taking care of our community is how we shape our future. So we chart the best course we can, and let the open water take us.

Spiritfarer is available to play on PC (Steam), Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo Switch systems.

This post has a companion piece video narrated by Dr. Matt Tyler and hosted by Digital Doc Games (embedded below). Check out the Digital Doc Games YouTube channel hosted by Dr. Amiad Fredman for videos on how video games have a huge power to have a positive impact on people's lives.

For more Pallimed posts about grief.
For more Pallimed posts about the experience with COVID-19.
For more Pallimed posts by Dr. Tyler click here.
For more Pallimed posts on video games, click here.

Matt Tyler is a palliative care doctor in Chicago. If he's not watching Cocomelon with his daughters, he is probably playing video games or making palliative care skits on TikTok.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 by Pallimed Editor ·

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