There are all sorts of interesting ideas for games floating about out there. If you can think of a concept, I’m sure it’s all but certain that someone has made a game on it. Obviously there’s all the standard ones, like heroes embarking on a magical quest or people out for revenge and all that guff, but one thing I’ve found very fun about the last, say, 15 years or so is that we’ve experienced a huge boom in auteur indie development, and with that has come a whole swathe of niche game themes, like being a bus driver, or a simulator built around being a cleaner after a sci-fi massacre. A Mortician’s Tale carries on this grand tradition by being about death, and the important job of what happens to our bodies afterwards.
A Mortician’s Tale (iOS, PC [reviewed])
Released Oct 2017 | Developed / Published: Laundry Bear Games
Genre: Interactive narrative, Simulator | HLTB: 1 hour
One of the most important and defining traits for A Mortician’s Tale is that it bills itself as being “death positive”. What that means is that it approaches the subject of death with a great deal of emotional intelligence. Death is treated not as something scary or to be hidden away, but as something which is a constant and vital part of our lives. That’s not to say it glorifies death either; instead what we see here is a game which invites us to consider our own personal relationships with death, and to ask ourselves whether our thoughts are healthy.
It’s a tough question to answer for many of us, I’d imagine. I’m sure that the vast majority of people who play this game will have had some sort of experience regarding death; it’s unavoidable after all. Most of us probably know someone who has died. While this isn’t the context into which the game was released, certainly now I suspect we’ve all been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic which claimed so many lives, and as a result these last few years have placed more of us in contact with death than might have been had it not gripped the world. For me, I think that means that games, or indeed any form of art, which tries to evaluate our understanding and responses to death become ever more precious and necessary. It’s a tough subject, and not one we are all prepared to deal with.
The way A Mortician’s Tale chooses to go about this is through the delivery of a short, intense narrative-focused game. We play as Charlie, a newly qualified funeral director who gets a job at a mom-and-pop parlour. Your only form of communication is via email as you receive messages from your boss, your co-workers, your friend and the grieving families who have come to you for your services. Charlie doesn’t have much of a voice through us, as all we can do is read her emails and send replies in the affirmative to requests for work, but it’s clear from the way the other characters react that she has a pretty strong personality. There’s an ongoing plot which highlights the struggles small funeral homes undergo as the crushing force of heartless corporations drive them out of business, absorbing them and replacing their ethos with a profit-driven soullessness. It’s a fairly standard depiction of the inherent coldness and anti-humanity of the capitalist machine, but it’s no less effective or realistic for that, and to her credit Charlie clearly stands for her own morals and sticks a defiant middle finger up at it as she refuses to upsell funerals and advocates for natural burial methods.
The rest of the cast is small but no less well-realized. The owner of the small funeral home she works for, Amy, is a kindly elderly woman who apologizes for her mothering of Charlie’s work but gets away with it because she’s a good soul who wants to provide a personalized and respectful service to her clients, while the hearse driver, Michael, is a jovial chap who brings a smiling attitude to his job. Watching them try and manage their emotions as their business is bought out by a condescending corporate CEO is heartbreaking. Amy’s despondency and Michael’s rising frustration are both very clear stages of grief, and so we’re invited to consider the buyout of the small, caring funeral home as a death of its own. This ties into that death-positive billing; we’re asked to confront the concept in all its forms, not just the obvious.
The actual game part works sort of like a point-and-click as you direct Charlie around her office. The main gameplay comes when you’re asked to prepare a corpse for their funeral. Cremations are simple, as all you need do is pop any jewelry off to the side, before the remains are put through a cremulator (that’s a kind of grinder which reduces the bones to a fine ash – you see, you learn stuff in this game, or at least I did, and that’s almost certainly part of the point as A Mortician’s Tale wants you to be more knowledgeable about the process as a way of helping you to understand death) and finally interred in an urn alongside their final valuables and a name tag. However, when corpses are embalmed it’s a bit more of an involved process. The game takes you through a very straightforward set of actions, including cleaning the corpse, massaging to offset the effects of rigor mortis, setting the face to avoid the effects of decomposition and finally replacing the bodily fluids with formaldehyde. It’s all treated very matter-of-factly, but also with a professional respect. There’s no gameplay challenge here, as it were, and that’s the right decision; gamifying it too much would have cheapened the effect. On that note, I adore that the final part of every funeral which you’re expected to do is to pop along to the service itself and simply be seen, chatting to the gathered loved ones and paying your final respects to your client. It’s a deeply human touch that is, for me, the most powerful part of the game
While it’s not a game which wants you to do anything as tacky as make standard videogame binary moral choices, there is still a strong sense of morality built into A Mortician’s Tale. During the course of the game you are asked to make only one decision, and that is whether or not you want to prepare a corpse against the stated wishes of the person as a family uses that person’s mental state and the circumstances of their death as a reason to override their own wants. It’s a stunningly powerful moment, made all the more poignant that one of the emails you’ll have just read is about the importance of self-determinism and respecting the choices made by people regarding themselves. It’s also a moment built entirely on asking you to explore your personal convictions; there’s no penalty for taking a stand based on your beliefs. It’s a moment recalled later on in the game where a similar situation occurs and you’re not given any agency in the matter, both as a player (things happen regardless of input) but also because Charlie finds her agency being eroded by the corporatization of the parlour.
A Mortician’s Tale was one of those games I put off for a long while. The last couple of years have put me more into contact with death than I wanted to be, and I worried about my own resilience in exploring that. While I was fortunate enough not to lose any close friends or family to COVID-19, I still know people whose lives were utterly ruined by it. One of my friends won’t sing again due to their lungs being damaged beyond reasonable repair, and my own parents’ business was shredded as people could no longer attend their tiny gym. These are all little deaths, as entire parts of people’s lives were lost and we’ve had to rebuild from it. But the most crushing one of all was knowing that I live a mere handful of miles from the care home my grandmother lived in and not being able to see her. She went in, suffering from dementia, not too long before the pandemic caused nationwide lockdowns, and there she rapidly deteriorated. We were not allowed to see her. She must have thought she was utterly alone.
Her death was hard. We had been close. I’d felt like I’d failed her, like I ought to have made more of a fuss to try and get in to see her. Not that I’d been allowed to, obviously, and not that it would have been sensible to breach perfectly reasonable anti-COVID measures just for my benefit. But these unwanted and unwarranted notions are insidious. They creep inside your mind and squat there and shaking them loose is a task of herculean will. As I write this, my father received a cancer diagnosis. While the prognosis is currently good, we all know that cancer turns on a dime, and death remains a constant presence in my thoughts. I’d always liked to think that I knew how to celebrate after death, how to remember a person’s life and to take joy in what they’d done rather than be consumed by the loss.
Now I’m not saying something quite as twee as A Mortician’s Tale helped me come to terms with these thoughts. Perhaps it has done that for some folk, and more power to them, but I suspect for most people, like me, processing and dealing with death and dying is too multi-layered and complex to simply be solved by one very good piece of art. However, these kinds of narrative, in whatever form they take, are important. While grief is a crucial part of dealing with bereavement, having a grounding in what literally happens after a person dies is also a powerful tool to be able to fall back on. It can help clear the grey fog of despair and gives us something concrete to hold onto. I don’t think A Mortician’s Tale will be a game for everyone, but it did work for me. I enjoyed seeing the process play out, I was grateful to be able to read facts and learn how many different ways we as a species have approached death, and I loved the way the game allowed me to sink back into the heavy heartache of a funeral but feeling that warm tinge of hope and love that comes with the memories of those you loved.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.