Corpses leak and pacemakers are cut out: Dealing with death in A Mortician's Tale

Death in most games means either a Game Over screen, or watching your corpse get relentlessly tea-bagged. A Mortician’s Tale is different. This is a game that deals with the reality of shuffling off this mortal coil, and is ready to bury the taboos surrounding it. 

You're a mortician, preparing bodies for burial or cremation. Yes, that involves pumping liquids out of corpses, shaving them, cutting out pacemakers (so they don't explode in the furnace), and sticking spiky caps into eyeballs (to keep those corpse peepers shut), but it isn't gory. It's stylized, with a simple palette in candy shades of lilac and mauve. 

"We understand that the subject matter is really uncomfortable for a lot of people," says designer and artist Gabby DaRienzo. "The purple hues reinforce the game's death positive narrative. It's very melancholy and sad, but still hopeful and bright, [and it] doubles as a way to mask some of the grosser things in the game."

DaRienzo mentions the term "death positive" more than once in the interview, and—as well as being a great name for an emo band—it's a concept that's at the heart of A Mortician's Tale. "Basically, it's like sex positivity," she explains. "It's lifting the veil on the death industry and funeral industry, and allowing us and encouraging us to explore death and mortality and our fears around us in creative ways. It's not trying to erase feeling of death. It's not like, 'Oh, mom died and I'm okay with it.' It's more on just the idea of being okay talking about it and opening up about it."

DaRienzo and her team at Laundry Bear Games wanted to examine death in a way that took away the fear barriers. "People really like to 'ask are you a mortician?'" she says. "I am not a mortician, but we have a lot of friends who are funeral directors. Caitlin Doughty [author of the brilliant mortician memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes] was a big inspiration to the game too."

I remember finding a video on YouTube about pacemakers, and I thought I was going to pass out. It's so gross.

Gabby DaRienzo

While most of the reviews of A Mortician's Tale will probably focus on grinding bones (in the ominously named cremulator), you can also choose to spend your time exploring the grief and challenges that are all part of a mortician's 9 to 5. It's all tucked away in emails—depressing demands from a mercenary new boss, updates from a friend, the stories of the people who have passed—so it's optional, but you do have pay your respects after completing your work, passing through the dearly departed's mourning family as you go. 

"The game's quite short. It's only eight bodies that you deal with, but their respective stories and a lot of what we chose to include are based off of our personal experiences with death," explains DaRienzo. Wanting to find a personal link to the stories they were telling also helped the team decide on what sort of bodies and situations players would face. 

They didn't want to tackle the death of a child, for instance, despite acknowledging it's a tragic reality of death. "Part of our decision was maybe we should include these things because it's a thing that happens, and we should talk about it," she says. "On the other side of it none of us on the team have ever experienced that loss and it didn't feel appropriate for us to explore that."

The game does tackle some particularly upsetting deaths and situations, but you won't find murders or some of the grislier techniques of corpse care. "Cadavers will leak when they're decomposing and so morticians will often put diapers on people to make sure that nothing is leaking down there. We decided not to include that for a few reasons. Mainly because I didn't want to deter anybody from playing the game more than we already are, but it also risks us bringing it to certain platforms in certain countries if we do things like that." 

Needless to say, DaRienzo is probably on some sort of government watchlist for her search history. "I remember finding a video on YouTube about pacemakers, and I thought I was going to pass out. It's so gross. I had to study that and figure out a way to put it in the game without it being too gross. That was hilarious."

Talking to her friends in the death business also helped DaRienzo change direction on how many different processes people will see in the game. "I initially thought about every single body in the game having a completely different procedure that you have to do," she says, with a reference to the difficulties of dealing with a bloated cadaver.  

"Every single person I interviewed, all of their stories about a body that they couldn't handle were purely based on the story around that body," she says. "The procedure is no different than what they're used to, but just the circumstances of which that person has died is so personal to them that they just couldn't do it. I really, really wanted to emulate that in the game."

A Mortician's Tale will be released on PC on October 18, and between that and her podcast, PlayDead (where she talks to game developers about death), DaRienzo has made her peace with being the first person friends and family send anything spooky to. "It's great because whenever anything spooky pops up, I'm sure to have people send it my way and I'm always very excited about it. I'm the spooky girl. I'm down for it, I'm here."