Road to GDC: The Game That Helped Me Overcome Death Anxiety

The developer behind A Mortician’s Tale discusses her fear of death and the game that helped her get over it

When I was 9 or 10 years old, a girl in my class and her mother both died in a very horrific car accident.

I remember overhearing our gossipy neighbor next door telling my mom the gruesome details of their deaths over hushed tones, and then a short while later, I remember my mom sitting me down in the kitchen to tell me what happened (in much less gruesome detail).

This wasn’t the first time that someone in my life had died, and I wasn’t particularly good friends with this girl or anything, but her and her mother’s deaths had an overwhelming effect on me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how they died, no matter how much I tried not to. I had vivid dreams about what their deaths must have been like. Not only that, but I started to constantly think about my own death and the death of my own mother. I worried nonstop about how I would die, how she would die, when we would die, and what would happen to our bodies when we died.

My new anxieties surrounding death subsequently also caused me to develop separation anxiety. Going to school was very difficult, and I would often convince myself I was sick so I could stay at home with my mom. I couldn’t go out to see movies with friends or have sleepovers because I would have panic attacks thinking that my mom might die while I was away from her.

Along with this separation anxiety, I also developed an obsessive compulsive disorder. Everything I did had to be in equal, measured actions: my steps needed to line up to fit between cracks on the sidewalk, if one arm brushed up against my side I needed to make the other arm did the same. Before I went to bed, I had to flip the light switch on and off an exact number of times before touching each wall in my room and hopping into bed.

If I could control everything else in my life, maybe I could stop my and my mother’s deaths from happening.

My mom, seeing all of this behavior, decided to sit me down and talk with me about it. She encouraged me to ask questions about my classmate and her mother’s deaths, and to talk with her about my feelings and fears about death too — to draw photos of it, write stories about it, etc. And in hindsight, I really appreciate this outlook from my mother. So often, parents think the best thing they can do after their child experiences a death is to lie about it, or cover it in fluffy words like “grandma’s with the angels now”. In actuality, the best thing you can do for your child is just to be honest with them, and understand that kids are new to the concept of permanence and death, and that sometimes they explore this in weird, creative ways.

I remember after that, I started to develop a curiosity for more “morbid” things. Before, I would avoid the horror movie section at Blockbuster, getting that dreadful knot of anxiety in my stomach every time we passed, but after talking about my death anxiety with my mom, I started to curiously eye some of the box art I would see in the horror section — namely movies with cute girls on the cover like Ginger Snaps and The Craft.

This curiosity (about death, anyway) also extended to video games.

When I was a kid I was obsessive about video games, so much so that my parents didn’t want us to have a game console in the house. However, on occasion, my parents would rent an N64 and 2 games from Blockbuster as a reward for me receiving good grades in school. Most of the time, I would pick Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo Kazooie, but after seeing the super dark trailer for Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask play repeatedly on YTV, I was curious and decided to pick that up instead.

And I.

Fell.

In love with it.

For those who haven’t played, Majora’s Mask is the black sheep of The Legend of Zelda family, both in terms of its weird, mask-wearing and time manipulation mechanics, but also in terms of it’s dark storyline — featuring a giant, terrifying moon that will crash into the face of the earth within 72 in-game hours.

The thing that struck me the most about Majora’s Mask, and why it meant so much to me as a kid, was how its characters dealt with their inevitable deaths. You as the hero know you can manipulative time and stop the world from being destroyed, but the residents of Termina don’t. They constantly relive the same 72 hours out again and again, not knowing anything but their certain doom.

Some of these characters, like the town’s guards, are convinced they can evacuate the city, and that will be enough to save them from the literal moon falling into the literal earth, while others deny it will happen completely, like Mutoh and his carpenter sons. However, some deal with their inevitable demise by continuing to live on their lives, worrying about where their fiance is, or making sure the mail arrives on schedule. And that part is what really stuck with me as a kid dealing with not knowing how to deal with death — you can’t stop death, but life still goes on.

I spent a lot of time with Majora’s Mask, and continued to re-rent it from Blockbuster, but never beat the game as a kid. In fact, I didn’t really progress too much outside of Clock Town. I really enjoyed spending time with all of the townsfolk, seeing how they interacted with each other, and their responses to what was going on in the world around them. I loved it so much that I even made this super adorable walkthrough for it when I was a kid.

By interacting with these themes and these characters directly, I ultimately was able to come to terms with my own mortality, and eventually overcome my death anxiety and the additional anxieties and disorders caused by it. I can’t say i’m not afraid of death, but I will say that this attitude of being at least willing to talk about it, and explore my feelings, has made the deaths that have happened since I was a 9 or 10 year old a lot more bearable to deal with — including my own mother’s death last year.

And ultimately, this death acceptance (or “death positive” attitude) inspired me to make A Mortician’s Tale — a game that very directly encourages players to interact with death, and face their own thoughts and fears about mortality.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask helped me overcome my own death anxieties and I am in a much better place because of it. My hope for A Mortician’s Tale is that it can do the same for its players too.

This is part of a series of columns written by developers speaking at the Game Developers Conference in March. 

Gabby DaRienzo is a Toronto-based independent video game developer, and the creator and artist of the critically-acclaimed, death-positive funeral home simulation game A Mortician's Tale, which she developed with her studio Laundry Bear Games. She also works as a freelance game artist, most recently creating art for Celeste, Parkitect, and Graceful Explosion Machine among many others. When Gabby isn't making games, she hosts and produces the Play Dead Podcast which talks with game developers about how death is used and approached in their games. She is giving a talk at GDC ( A Mortician's Tale': A Different View on How Games Treat Death) and her game is an IGF Finalist.