A Mortician's Tale explores the poignant — and mundane — realities of death
Toronto-made video game heavily inspired by the 'death positive' movement
Charlie starts her work day like many others do. She checks her emails for today's tasks from her supervisor, reads up on the latest industry news, and corresponds with her friend from school who is now working overseas.
It's an unremarkable morning routine, except for the dead man's body sitting on a table next to her.
As a mortician working at the Rose and Daughters funeral parlour, it's her job to clean and prepare dead bodies for funerals, as well as meet with the deceased's friends and family members.
And since Charlie (Charlotte) is the main character in a video game, it's your job too.
A Mortician's Tale, by Toronto-based indie team Laundry Bear, deals with death in ways decidedly unlike most action-packed video games that often dominate the public consciousness.
Embalming bodies, consoling bereaved
Running approximately an hour long, A Mortician's Tale (available for PC and Mac, from digital stores like Steam and itch.io) isn't especially difficult or challenging — unless the subject matter makes you queasy.
Each day you're assigned to prepare a corpse for an upcoming funeral.
For open-casket funerals, bodies must be cleaned and shaven. Eye caps have to be inserted underneath the body's eyelids, since eyeballs deflate after death. You'll drag the mouse cursor over the body to massage it, breaking rigor mortis, before making a small incision in the upper right shoulder to insert a tube to inject embalming liquid.
Cremation is a simpler affair, preparing bodies for the incinerator and then placing leftover bones in the cremulator, blending them into a fine powder and depositing them into an urn as though operating a morbid coffee grinder.
The game's simple animated style and palette of purple tones help offset the grisly nature of your work.
Eventually, as Charlie rolls up her sleeves to clean and embalm yet another corpse, what once might seem eerie to players becomes routine, just like any other day job.
After that, you'll greet friends of family of the deceased during the wake, listening to some of their conversations.
Some are overcome with grief, while others are more reflective. One day, an attendee tells her friend that at Chinese funerals white, not black, is the traditional colour of mourning. At another, a woman laments the last argument she had with her mother, who died of breast cancer, before being consoled by her father.
Over the course of the game, Charlie has to deal with her own challenges, as Rose and Daughters — an independent, "mom-and-pop funeral home" — is eventually bought by Hillside Heritage Enterprises, a large corporation more concerned with maximizing profits than consoling the bereaved.
Real life (and death) stories
"It's very much a story about individual grief and family grief, but it's also a story about the industry, and what the funeral home goes through," says Gabby DaRienzo, designer and artist on A Mortician's Tale.
This rings particularly true for DaRienzo, whose mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the fall of 2016 — right in the middle of the game's development cycle.
All the research that we had done, all those experiences we had working on A Mortician's Tale, allowed me to give my mom a good death.- Gabby DaRienzo, game designer and artist
"The game absolutely had an effect on me when it came to my own mom," she recalls.
"When she died in March ... I remember being very aware of what decisions to make, while simultaneously supporting my dad and her sister, who did not handle it as well as I did, while also being able to process at the same time."
The research she and her team had done working on the game helped her prepare for herself, and her family, for her own mother's impending death.
"I'm really glad that we had done that research, and [that I] was given that opportunity to immerse myself in that world. Because ultimately all those things, all the research that we had done, all those experiences we had working on A Mortician's Tale, allowed me to give my mom a good death. And that's something that we really hope we can give to anyone who plays the game, who might learn some stuff from it," DaRienzo says.
A Mortician's Tale was heavily influenced by the real-life story of Caitlin Doughty, an L.A.-based mortician and author who started the so-called death-positive movement, which aims to demystify and destigmatize discussions and cultural taboos surrounding death.
"The term death positivity sounds really weird, because it sounds like, 'Hey everybody! Let's be cheerful about death! Death is cool now!' But it's not that," says DaRienzo.
"It's not trying to erase feelings about grief or sadness or mourning someone. It's more about encouraging people to be open to having discussions about death, and exploring our thoughts and feelings about death."
In addition to writing books and hosting her YouTube channel Ask A Mortician, Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death. Executive director Sarah Chavez describes it as "a collective of death professionals, artists, academics, activists, who through their work explore different ways to prepare our death-phobic society or culture for their inevitable mortality."
"I think it really provided a unique opportunity for players to immerse themselves in the subject of death and grief and mortality, in a way that goes beyond kind of the stereotypical killing aspect that a lot of people think of in gaming," Chavez said of A Mortician's Tale.
"I think that it really does what we try to do, in the death-positive movement, is try to pull back that veil of secrecy on what happens after you die, behind closed doors."