Weekly News

A Mortician's Tale Might Be the First Game to Really Get Death

October 20,2017 15:18

Videogames have never really gotten death. They're full of death, of course, but only as a conceit, a shallow reading of a much deeper concept. Death in games is a punishment, a roadblock, a temporary setback, an opportunity. It's not a real end; ...and more »


Videogames have never really gotten death. They're full of death, of course, but only as a conceit, a shallow reading of a much deeper concept. Death in games is a punishment, a roadblock, a temporary setback, an opportunity. It's not a real end; it's mechanical, never philosophical. Gaming, as a medium, struggles to understand death in its real weight and complexity.
A Mortician's Tale, a game created and published by Canada's Laundry Bear Games for PC, is a breath of formaldehyde-tinted air. It takes death—the real thing, that universal human experience of being divorced from all sensation, from existence itself—and handles it in direct, even quotidian ways. It makes the end of life visible, and in doing so crafts one of the only meditations on death in videogames that feels authentic.
Because games aren't alone in not getting death. Western culture often fails as well. Mourning is rarely understood: pain being pushed to the margins after a hectic week of burial and funeral services. We avoid talking about it in polite company. We fear corpses. Death is, paradoxically, too important to even talk about. When it comes for those close to us, we can't handle it. When would we have ever prepared?

Laundry Bear Games

So that's where A Mortician's Tale puts us—in the preparations. You play a young funeral director, preparing bodies for cremation and burial, navigating the messy world of living souls while managing death. Playing this, I learned that cremation doesn't really turn bodies to ash, at least not in the hermetically sealed, set-it-and-forget-it, leave-no-trace way we imagine it. I put broken-down bones into a machine to crush them and complete the cremation process. I massaged the limbs of corpses to help embalming fluid flow through their stiff bodies. I drained blood from dead organs. After every body prepared, the game brings you to the funeral, where you have a moment to confront the human cost of all of this, to see it and identify with it. A Mortician's Tale insists the player mourn, if only in an abstract, impersonal way.
The great intelligence of A Mortician's Tale is to bind all of this action to the simple structure of a click-based simulation game, in which you do most everything by clicking on the mouse. Games in this style are often browser-based, and compel the player to perform simple, repetitive tasks, either on a schedule or to gain concrete rewards. Here, the clicking emphasizes the mundanity of the mortician's tasks. Here is one of the scariest things in the world, happening in the most casual way. Click the scalpel, make an incision. Drain the blood. Don't forget to wash your hands when you're done.
It also brings the realities of the death industry to bear. One of the game's major plotlines, occurring in email correspondence in between other work, involves a large, corporate funeral service imposing its structures and ideology upon a small, mom-and-pop funeral home. You're forced to consider the possibility of going against a dead person's wishes, of trying to upsell a grieving family unnecessary funeral packages while ignoring what would be best for them. It makes the work you do even more personal, as you see how people are exploited and taken advantage of in this incredibly vulnerable time, how personal and fraught every little choice is.
A Mortician's Tale slowly moves toward an embrace of the death positive movement, using its delicate balance of tragedy and mundanity to make death feel more familiar—more manageable, more real. A game can't ever answer all of our cultural fears about death, but Laundry Bear Games does what it can to start to open up this broad, unending cultural wound. It's a valuable service. As a culture, we could stand to take death more seriously, with honesty and generosity. Videogames certainly could, too.

indie games,PC Games

Share this article

Related videos

A Mortician's Tale - Death Positive
A Mortician's Tale - Death Positive
A Mortician's Tale - Change of Heart
A Mortician's Tale - Change of Heart

DON'T MISS THIS STORIES