Thunder Lotus CEO William Dubé laughingly admits his games have a bit of a preoccupation with death.
It's not just that all three of his studio's games include death somehow -- most games do. But rather, the way Jotun, Sundered, and Spiritfarer take death seriously and approach it as an idea not only magnifies it as a concept more than most titles, but also reflects in some ways Thunder Lotus' journey as a studio.
"I think it's something I have to talk to my therapist about," Dubé says. "For Jotun, it was about Thora's journey of proving herself to the gods to enter Valhalla, the idea of climbing a mountain. She is dead, and that's something I can't get away from, but it was really a metaphor about the indie studio starting out in the big games world and having our own mountain to climb. Sundered, in a way, was a bit more confused. And maybe we were a bit more confused as a studio at that point. And now with Spiritfarer, we're embarking on this grand journey. That's me getting a bit too carried away, but I enjoy seeing things that way."
In 2014, Dubé quit his job to put Jotun on Kickstarter, and his pitch about a young woman trying to gain favor with Nordic-inspired gods managed to get more funding than it asked for. The game was successful enough to get the studio going properly for a second game, Sundered, which launched in 2017. Now, Thunder Lotus is a team of 16 people (14 developers, two publishers) working on Spiritfarer.
Spiritfarer is the first of Thunder Lotus' titles not to be crowdfunded. Instead, the studio has secured funding from Kowloon Nights to build its project, and it's also getting a hefty dose of a different kind of support from Microsoft. The game debuted on the Microsoft stage at E3 2019 with the promise of a presence on Xbox Game Pass at launch.
The prospect of being a launch day game on a subscription service is one that some might balk at, as offering a game for "free" theoretically would lower the number of people who actually pay money for it directly. But Dubé doesn't see it that way.
"What's appealing for devs [about subscription services] is getting your game into the hands of, I don't know what the numbers are, but hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of players on day one," he says. "Getting that buzz going, getting that word of mouth, and getting people enjoying the game. As creators, that's a really strong driver. You want people to see your message and understand what you're trying to communicate through the game. There are a lot of economic incentives as well, but the fact that your game is instantaneously reachable by this huge audience of people looking for curated games is a huge win."
Spiritfarer's "message" is central to its development, something that's probably evident by its charming trailer. In it, the player takes on the role of a character who ferries anthropomorphic animal spirits to their ultimate destination in the afterlife.
And yet, Spiritfarer is described as "a cozy management sim about dying," two ideas that seem a tremendous juxtaposition and marketing challenge. But Dubé says the game received a warm reception at E3, and believes that was in part due to its sincerity about both of its thematic halves.
And neither Dubé nor the game's creative director, Nicolas Guérin, thinks those halves are opposed to one another -- they're rather complimentary and in many ways a natural progression from the games that Thunder Lotus has worked on in the past.
"The games the company released before were all based somehow in mythology," says Guérin. "The initial pitch for Spiritfarer was to do a farm sim-lite game with the concept of the myth of the souls of the dead on the river Styx, but in a much more colorful and bubbly way, which was nicely supported by the art direction. Once we had that core principle, we then thought about the actual theme and message and pretty quickly came up with the idea of talking about death lightly, in the sense that it's a dark subject matter but we wanted to talk about it in an uplifting way.
"And we don't talk about death enough. It's something that's going to happen to all of us; spoiler alert! But in Western civilization, we tend to forget about it or try to make sure that it's hidden as much as we can. How many people have you seen die? Not many. But I think we're all haunted by the idea of it, and the more you get used to the idea, the easier it becomes to accept it. The whole idea is to talk about death in a way that makes you have an insight on it that's positive rather than negative and dark."
"I think we're all haunted by the idea of [death], and the more you get used to the idea, the easier it becomes to accept it"
Though death in some form is an idea present in the vast majority of popular video games, making a game that explicitly tries to discuss death in an impactful way can be challenging. Different cultures and belief systems have different ideas about what death means, and as Guérin mentioned, it can be uncomfortable for many.
The team wants to approach the subject in a sensitive way, and is doing so by treating death less as a grand idea they need to have a takeaway about, and focusing more on telling personal stories that were meaningful to individual team members.
"During E3, people were reacting in a very intense way to the game we're making, which is nice, that's the whole point," Guérin says. "But it also comes with the idea of bearing responsibility. We want to make sure that what we do takes into account different sensibilities. Most every character you encounter in the game is inspired by relatives and friends of team members that passed away, so we have a huge database of stories we want to tell. One of the characters is heavily inspired by my grandmother, who died last year.
"It's a mix of personal impressions, and also making that painful effort to think about who these people were to us and what they brought into our lives. One of the core messages of the game is looking at death through the lens of legacy, inheritance, and heritage. It's not just about death. It's more of a personal testimony rather than a grand message, because it's all very personal for everyone."
Making Spiritfarer focus on the personal stories of its spirits also helped solve another challenge -- it made gameplay far more inherently fun. Spiritfarer is a non-violent game. Without combat as an activity, you instead perform actions common to other life or management sims - smelting ore, tending crops, and shearing sheep.
"I think it's important to make games that aren't only stabbing people in the neck"
Guérin acknowledges that those kinds of chores can become boring in a video game setting, but because they're activities taught to you by the spirits themselves in order to care for them, they become meaningful. "Everything you do, you do for the spirits," he says.
And this is where Spiritfarer departs from Thunder Lotus' previous games, which all included violence. Despite this game being all about death, you're never the cause of it. Rather, it's your job to make the inevitability of death into something both the dying and their loved ones can accept.
"I think it's important to make games that aren't only stabbing people in the neck," he says. "I'm not saying those aren't great games. Violence [in games] is okay to a degree, but with Spiritfarer we wanted to do something more inclusive, more toward 'tend and befriend' rather than 'maim and kill.' For me, it was crucial to make sure we were doing games that were not just something the game industry at large turns out in truckloads."
Dubé concludes, "People are looking for different experiences and are looking for a bit of comfort in this crazy world we live in. This game can fulfill that role and be this zen, relaxing experience that also makes you think. We want to make beautiful, 2D games, but we also want to make games that have intention; that are meaningful for us and hopefully are meaningful for the people who play them. We think the idea of heritage is important, that death can be treated in a different way, and that we can talk about it."