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Embalming corpses in The Mortuary Assistant is oddly satisfying

(Image credit: DarkStone Digital)

It's nice to know that we still live in a world where a random indie horror game can blow up the Steam charts due to screaming, petrified YouTubers. The Mortuary Assistant (opens in new tab), developed solo by the Connecticut-based Brian Clarke, sends me back to a kinder, simpler realm—the heat of 2012, when PewDiePie was mostly making videos that featured various Amnesia mods. To date, The Mortuary Assistant has gathered over 1,000 reviews on Steam, and is responsible for over four million views for guys like Jacksepticeye, all on the back of a graphic style that would've looked outdated on the Xbox 360. What a time to be alive. Reject modernity, embrace uncanny, plasticky character models. 

As you could probably tell by the name, The Mortuary Assistant puts you in control of an eccentric young woman named Rebecca who—for some baffling reason—has decided to embalm corpses for a living. You are summoned to the crematorium in the dead of night, are confronted with some exposition by your shady boss about the mechanics of demonic possession, and then go about the business of preparing the mortal remnants of the recently deceased. The Mortuary Assistant is pockmarked with whiplash-inducing scares, but I think the game shines the most with its genuinely uncompromising presentation of what morticians do on a day-to-day basis. If a dead body is all it takes for you to lose your wits, then The Mortuary Assistant will have you coiled and jumpy from the opening credits.

Pumping a body full of formaldehyde (also known as: fun). (Image credit: DarkStone Digital)

Because, in this videogame, Rebecca is asked to wire jaws shut and preserve the pupils of decomposing eyeballs. You will need to drain all of the fetid blood out of these corpses using a pump and a cocktail of formaldehyde, and ram a metal gauge up into their guts in order to inject their innards with preservatives before wheeling them back into cold storage. It is wondrously, euphorically disgusting, and it makes you consider how no matter what you accomplish in life, we all eventually end up on a gurney with a variety of metal instruments desecrating our body. The Mortuary Assistant lavishes over that profanation; you feel a twinge of macabre joy with every nauseating, postmortem ritual.

Of course, Rebecca will need to accomplish all of those duties while the infernal spirits rotting the heart of this accursed funeral home rise up against us. That is the thing with The Mortuary Assistant—there is a good chance the corpse you're working on might spring back to life and knock you on your heels. The horror here is all pulpy jumpscare stuff. Lights flicker on and off, dark shadows cross through the periphery, a shadowy figure lurks at the window—double-take, and they might disappear. Mechanically, this is more or less a walking simulator with some haunted scenery, but at least Clarke knows how to mix in the classics. Is that a Ring-like wraith standing behind you in the bathroom mirror? You bet it is!

Long after the frights fade into the distance, I'm still going to feel the urge to beautify a few corpses.

From what I can tell, The Mortuary Assistant has multiple different endings, built around some puzzles you can piece together during the moments where you're not embalming, or getting your underpants set on fire by a demon. One of the first things you'll discover in the main game is a wooden, Ouija-ish panel studded with glyphs that surely the player can decipher in order to uncover some Great Eldritch Terror. (Already, I've identified a mysterious locked cellar outside, that surely plays into some sort of obscure True Ending route.) 

I greatly anticipate the Five Nights At Freddy's-esque lore videos that will surely propagate into my YouTube algorithm as The Mortuary Assistant continues to carve up the discourse. But even if you're not the type to sweat over audio logs and practice some amateur cryptology, you'll still have plenty of fun defiling cadavers and getting spooked by the spirits.

Wiring a jaw shut (even more fun). (Image credit: DarkStone Digital)

Honestly, my main takeaway from The Mortuary Assistant is that the grim art of embalming could easily be redeployed in an endless supply of future indie games. We're living through a boom period of developers morphing mundane physical labor into eccentric tails of splendor (Strange Horticulture, the forthcoming Haunted Chocolatier, and so on), and I would gladly don my undertaker in a realm where I was not constantly harried by the restless phantoms of the astral plane. Perhaps through a gauzy pixel-art veneer? Don't tempt me with a good time. 

I'm telling you, Brian Clarke is onto something here. Long after the frights fade into the distance, I'm still going to feel the urge to beautify a few corpses. Call me crazy if you want, but just wait until you play The Mortuary Assistant for yourself. You'll see. You'll all see. 

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting (opens in new tab). As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.