In A Mortician’s Tale, out now from the Toronto-based Laundry Bear Games, eyes must be outfitted with spiky eye caps and glued shut, limbs must be massaged to allow embalming fluid to flow, and bones must be ground to ash in the cremulator. The video game takes players through the everyday pace of a funeral director, from corpse preparation to funeral.
“I think the benefit of games as a medium is their interactivity,” Gabby DaRienzo, designer and artist of A Mortician’s Tale, told Hyperallergic. “There’s a lot you can do with death and how players interact with it via games. In A Mortician’s Tale our goal was to tell a story about death and grief, and in a way educate people about the Western death industry, all through play.”
DaRienzo hosts the podcast Play Dead, which discusses mortality in video games. Although death, with the kill screens and body counts, is an active element in gaming, it’s rarely presented so directly as in A Mortician’s Tale. Eight bodies are prepared in the short time of the game (about an hour), with eight funerals where families and friends mill about. Clicking on them activates overheard dialogue, sometimes on the loved one’s life, other times on sports teams and Netflix shows. Like the click-based action of your mortician character, Charlie, it has a matter-of-fact quality to it and the grief is not sensationalized.
“We have a few friends who are currently or previously have been funeral directors who were wonderful resources,” DaRienzo noted. “There were also many members of the Order of the Good Death in particular who were lovely and patient, and who gave us loads of feedback on the game.”
The brief plot of A Mortician’s Tale follows the takeover of a family funeral home by a corporation, and then the main character’s decision to start her own green burial practice. The soft hues and meditative music of the game, as well as the isolation of your character in her mortuary lab (the sole contact with friends is through email), hints at the heaviness of this work without it being didactic.
Playing the game, I did wish for more opportunities to apply what I’d learned about the funerary process. Each stage has text directions, and I was not allowed by the mechanics to, say, accidentally shave off a person’s eyebrows or leave in a pacemaker for an explosive cremation. The game also evaded the more unsavory details of embalming (all of the orifices stitched and sealed are on the face), and there was just one point where I had to make a difficult choice. A body comes in from a man who wanted cremation, but his family desired embalming, and I had to decide if I was comfortable performing it. Yet there were no consequences from opting to not carry out the family’s request.
However, A Mortician’s Tale is successful in asking people to participate in an unseen side of the funeral industry, particularly as it operates in the United States. When the bodies of our loved ones disappear into a funeral home, only to reemerge with rosy cheeks and lips formed in peaceful expressions, we tend not to ask how this transformation occurred. And the conclusion of the game, where people are peacefully burying a shrouded body amidst the trees, quietly reminds the player of alternative options for how we treat our dead.