Death is nothing new in video games, whether you're cutting through busloads of enemies or kicking the bucket because you absolutely misjudged how far Lara Croft could jump – death is just another fail state. But it's rare for a game to feature death that actually feels real, that helps you understand the losses we will all inevitably face.
A Mortician's Tale is trying to go there, by mixing a serious subject (dealing with dead bodies) with a crazy, cute art style and satisfying game mechanics. When I played the game at the Day of Devs indie games event last year, I shaved a corpse, pumped him full of embalming fluid, and later met his family. As soon as I was done, I had to know more, so I spoke to Gabby DaRienzo, one of A Mortician's Tale's creators at Laundry Bear Games, about what it takes to make death fun.
So how did this all start out?
A couple of years ago I read Caitlin Doughty's book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and I have a few friends who are either currently or previously worked in the death industry – morticians, funeral directors, pathologists – and so I've kind of always just been very curious about their jobs, always asking them questions. Then in 2015, when Caitlin Doughty's book came out, I picked it up and I was immediately just like, "This is the fucking best. I love this so much." I was so inspired by her and her stories and that introduced me to The Order Of The Good Death [a collective of funeral industry professionals trying to change our death-phobic culture] and all these other cool death professionals. I was inspired to just make a game.
I convinced my partner and the cofounder of my studio to make this into a real thing. From there, I found this grant from the Ontario Arts Council and submitted my super niche death game and they ended up giving me the grant to make it into a full game. Which was really nice, thank you Ontario government! Because of that grant, I was able to assemble a team and pay people to work on the game with us. So A Mortician's Tale isn't just my game, it's a collaborative effort from a lot of people.
There's a lot of death in games, but not quite in this way...
I actually have a podcast called Play Dead, and that came about because when I was starting to work on this game by myself, I was doing a lot of research and having all sorts of conversations with my game developer friends about it. I was really interested in how people were using death in their games. Interviewing developers and seeing their history with it being reflected in their games is fucking cool. Thinking about games as a whole, I think overall we've done a pretty shit job at looking at it openly and honestly. When you think about video games, especially mainstream games, death is mechanics first. It exists to challenge the player. If we see it in cutscenes, it's usually at the beginning of the game and it's usually there to give the character motivation – here's why they're doing this thing. Their daughter died, their wife died, their whatever was killed, that's your motivation. It's very tired and a lot of those mechanics just seem very boring.
Sometimes, game developers use death in really interesting ways. We've seen that in lots of AAA games like Final Fantasy 7 – the big one, with Aerith – or even just thinking about how death is used in Dark Souls.
A lot of the game is about dealing with the deceased and listening to their loved ones' stories. There's a lot of rough stuff that we handle in the game.
We're also now seeing indie developers at the forefront, being open to putting their own personal thoughts and experiences into their games. You don't need publishers anymore, you can make your own games and you can distribute them on Steam, itch.io, whatever, and not having a publisher allows you to say, "I want to make a game about my child who died from cancer" and you can just do it and people will buy it and they'll play it. There are lots and lots of indies who are doing really fucking cool things with death. Things that stand out are That Dragon Cancer, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, even Undertale. My personal favorite is Severed from Drinkbox.
What sort of research did you do?
A lot of it comes from having friends who currently or have previously worked in the death industry. A lot of it is also me doing my own research, going out and having informal interviews with people, doing Twitch streams of developing the game with Sarah Wambold from The Order Of The Good Death coming and hanging out and answering questions. A lot of it is research, a lot of it is the death positive community just being really open to answering questions, a lot of it is just me Googling things. My search history is really fucking gross. 100 percent, the government is watching me!
That's been a really big challenge for us, showing this accurately and talking about things honestly while also trying to make sure the game is easily digestible. We're very aware that the subject matter is not very comfortable for most people, so we're trying to show it in a way that people who are not normally comfortable with the subject will be OK playing the game. It's been a really big challenge.
So how do you decide which parts make it into the game, and which parts are just too much?
We're trying to show embalming as accurately and as honestly as we can. And embalming is really gross. It's really gross, it's definitely not something I'm interested in doing myself. Something that we specifically took out is that in preparing bodies, whether it's for open casket or closed casket, embalming or not, when bodies start to decompose, they leak. They start to leak out of orifices, including the genital areas. So a lot of morticians, my friends in the death industry included, would put diapers on people or use cotton balls and just kind of put it in that area just to make sure that nothing leaks. That is a pretty big part of corpse management and we wanted to be as accurate as we can, but this might be the thing that crosses the line. We want to bring this to various game marketplaces and as soon as we do that sort of thing, we can't, or we automatically get an M-rating, or we can't bring it to Australia. There are certain things we can't show. We're showing a lot of pretty gross stuff, but we're not showing the grossest.
A lot of it also just comes from trying to be as respectful as possible. A lot of the game is about dealing with the deceased and listening to their loved ones' stories. There's a lot of rough stuff that we handle in the game. But one thing we were talking about for a long time was, should we include children in the game?
It's a very, very sad thing, but children do die, it's a thing that happens in the industry. All my friends have had to deal with it at some point, but we made the call not to include that. None of us on the team have ever had to deal with a child's death and it felt like it wasn't OK for us to [depict that]. It wouldn't be respectful for us to do it because we've never had to go through that experience.
How does the visual style of the game play into that? It could be much grosser if the color palette was more realistic.
That was definitely intentional. Stylistically, the humans are kind of cartoony, they don't have realistic proportions, the colors are very purple. A lot of that comes from trying to make the subject matter a bit more digestible for people who are not inherently comfortable with it. We disguise a lot of the grosser things by having this kind of monochrome palette. You're not seeing bodily fluids, blood is not red. It makes it easier for people. It's the same reason why the people aren't more humanoid.
A lot of it is because I don't want it to come across as a horror game. There have been so many people saying, "Oh, this game looks spooky," and it's really not. It's supposed to be positive, we're trying very hard to showcase the subject matter in a positive way because that's very, very important to all of us, but especially important to me. We're trying to make this game as death positive as it can be.