This Game Explores What Happens to Your Corpse When You Die
Unlike most video games, where dead bodies are swept away, 'A Mortician's Tale' forces you to deal with what comes next.
A still from Mortician's Tale
Welcome back to Post Mortem, our column that explores death and dying but without the euphemisms and other bullshit.
There's a lot of killing in video games. It's perfectly within the realm of possibility that you've stabbed, shot, decapitated, and ran a character over with a car, all within a single evening of gameplay. But you rarely see what happens to the bodies of the deceased.
That's set to change with the release of A Mortician's Tale. According to the game's designer, Gabby DaRienzo, it is the first video game that takes place entirely from the point of view of a mortician.
Charlie, the main character, is a newbie undertaker who takes a job at the fictional Rose & Daughters independent funeral home. Gameplay is split between the prep room, where Charlie embalms and cremates bodies on her own, and the funeral parlor, where she checks in with loved ones during the service. If you've found yourself wondering what goes into preparing a body for viewing or cremation, this is the game for you. Players get to practice everything from massaging the body to break rigor mortis to putting bones into a cremulator (a.k.a. a bone-crusher).
In addition to making death a huge part of Mortician's Tale, DaRienzo also hosts the Play Dead podcast, where she explores death in video games more broadly. She spoke with VICE about where she got her inspiration, the game's highly personal nature for its creators, and cool death trends she sees in gaming today.
VICE: Where did the idea of making a game based on an individual mortician come to you?
Gabby DaRienzo: I actually have quite a few friends who are morticians or have previously been morticians and are now game developers. I've always been very fascinated with their jobs, always asking questions and things like that. But I wasn't really inspired to make a game until I read Caitlin Doughty's book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, which is very, very good. That's where I learned about the death positivity philosophy, and I thought that was really awesome. But I was also inspired by her story specifically.
Without revealing the entire story, summarize what happens in A Mortician's Tale.
In the game, there are eight bodies that you deal with. Each has its own story and loved ones that they leave behind. You can listen to them and how they are individually grieving. There's also an overarching story about the funeral home that you're working at, and how it changes as you're there. It starts off as a mom-and-pop shop, and then midway through it's bought out by a larger corporation, so you see the changes.
The stories behind the dead bodies that Charlie works on are pretty diverse. Are those taken from real life?
Most of the deceased and a lot of their loved ones are directly inspired by personal deaths that our team has experienced. We didn't put people directly in the game or anything like that, but the stories are very much inspired by things we've had to go through. It's a very personal game.
We are a team that is mostly made up of queer women, and that was an important thing that we wanted to talk about. There's one email in the game, where we talk about LGBTQ deaths. Misgendering is a huge thing that happens to the diseased, so that was a big thing. And a lot of people on our team have lost people through suicide. So we wanted to talk about that.
Watch VICE News Tonight speak with a man who buries dead terrorists:
How did you research embalming?
A lot of it was interviews, talking to people who walked me through the process. There's a wikiHow on how to embalm bodies I found that was also kind of helpful. Didn't find too many videos about that though.
It's hard. I found a video of an embalming. But the reason it was shared is disturbing. It was from a gore forum somewhere, and I think the members had a necrophilia fetish. It was an instructional video from the 1950s or 1960s of a young adult male being embalmed.
I did find a video about pacemaker removal. We have that in the game. And I googled it. I thought I was gonna friggin' pass out. I'm pretty good at dealing with this kind of stuff... but man, that one video. That was one thing we had to figure out: How do we make this less terrifying?
My sense is that killing is a part of video games, but not what happens to the body. Mortician's Tale is heavy on embalming and cremation. Was that juxtaposition something you had in mind when you created the game?
For sure. I think video games use death in a lot of different ways, really violent ways. I don't see anything wrong with that, but it is cool to see other games do really interesting things with death.
What's a cool death trend happening in video games right now?
You should check out What Remains of Edith Finch, which is a first-person, narrative-based game. You're the last remaining member of the Finch family, coming back to your abandoned family home, where you find the memorials of family members who've died. And when you interact with them, it takes you to the first-person perspective of that family member's exact moment of death. It's so good. I don't want to talk about it too much because I don't want to spoil it.
Severed is another good game. I don't know how to describe it. It's an action/adventure game where you play as a young woman whose family has been attacked and your arm has been severed off. It's like a first-person Zelda. At the end of each level, you find your family member, but they've been killed. Your family members are dead. Your little brother, your dad, your mother, they're all dead. But the goal of the game is to just give them a proper burial. Normally in video games, magically at the end, everybody is OK! They're all alive. So knowing that, as the game progresses you're dealing with your character's grief. How they use traditional mechanics to give a death positive spin on it is so, so smart.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.