In the HBO dramedy Six Feet Under, the Fisher family knows death. It's practically part of the family. They deal with it everyday, whether it's family or friends dying, or just in the bodies they prepare in their family-run funeral home. Six Feet Under was a drama that normalized death like nothing else before it, showing it as a natural cause that every living person undertakes—both in mourning others, and in losing their livelihoods themselves.
Death, Six Feet Under shows, is inevitable. But it shouldn't be something feared. Like famous mortician Caitlin Doughty's autobiography Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Cremator, Six Feet Under roots itself as a "death positive" show. It shows that even in the face of the nothingness of death, people can learn to embrace their lives and live to the fullest.
That's why I was caught off guard by A Mortician's Tale, a new game from Toronto-based developers Laundry Bear Studios. Much like Six Feet Under, A Mortician's Tale dances with death in an alarmingly casual way. Though it's not stuffed with dark humor like Six Feet Under is, that is in making light of grim situations. But similar to the HBO show, A Mortician's Tale—topping off at a crisp hour—is a quiet meditation on what it's like to live when all that seems to surround you is death.
I think naturally over the years, I've grown warmer on the concept of death, in its inevitability. I realize in a twisted way, I've always surrounded myself with it. My favorite bands as a teen—Brand New and My Chemical Romance—sang more about death than anything else. I watch movies about it. One of my favorite albums of the year, Mount Eerie's devastating A Crow Looked At Me, reflects on the all-consuming sorrow after the death of a partner. The album's devastating to listen to at first, but eventually shifts to a solemn, almost warm end, exploring how in death, his love is now in everything the world touches. The sunset. Their child. And beyond.
My favorite game, Persona 3, is an experience where death looms over its every movement. People turn into literal coffins during the mysterious midnight hour; players literally "evoke" demons by shooting a gun into their temple; most nights the teenage heroes climb a dastardly obtrusive structure where their school once lay. Persona 3 is a game that's obsessed with death in tone, in the friendships you pave in social links, in sequence. But it's only at its end where players come to peace with the concept of death. In The Answer, an epilogue of sorts tacked onto a re-release, death is seen as only just the beginning.
At the start of A Mortician's Tale, you're already at peace. The game pins you as a mortician, preparing bodies for cremations and burials and anything in-between. It's a morbid job beginning in such a mundane way: by checking your email to learn about your task for the day. Sometimes I'm embalming a body for an open casket. Other times I'm grinding literal skulls and bones before topping off an urn with the deceased's prized necklace. It's minimal in interaction (in the latest episode of The USgamer Podcast, I compared the poking and prodding of bodies to the board game Operation), but it's affecting.
In making literal death ordinary, A Mortician's Tale's calming method is extraordinary. You wander around funerals, eavesdropping on people talking about watching television shows, wondering what to eat afterwards, or if they ever made peace with the deceased in one last conversation. Despite the doom and gloom, A Mortician's Tale is oddly uplifting, showing that life goes on after death. Sometimes death comes sudden for a family, like a person committing suicide and their parents wanting to go against the bid for cremation in their will to have an open casket. As the player, you have the option to prepare the open casket, or take care of another deceased body without a conflict. I opted for the latter.
That early decision really stuck with me. I wondered if I were actually a mortician, would it be such a big deal? Yet in my mind, as Caty McCarthy and not as mortician Charlie, I felt as if I would be disgracing the deceased; going against their wishes, stripping away the control they held over their life and eventual death. It felt wrong in the cruelest sense. So I refused.
A Mortician's Tale is full of moments like that in its short runtime. Moments of contemplation. Moments that made me pause, and think about my actions. I wish I could say I put myself in the shoes of the mortician at hand, but in reality, I was playing like I was in my own shoes.
Death's engrained in the DNA of all games inherently. Older games had lives systems. Newer games usually have infinite lives. Even the recent hit of Destiny 2, a game where every player is a superhuman with the magical ability to resurrect forever, fails to live up to its concept. There's a moment early on where your "Ghost" (a robot buddy) warns you that if you die, they'll be unable to resurrect you like usual. I wondered if this was a way of framing permadeath in the early goings—before you had your infinite resurrect ability (or the "light") again. Turns out, it wasn't. You respawn as usual, just a little further back than before.
That's about as far as games go when dealing with death, outside of the occasional game like Persona 3 or so. A Mortician's Tale expands beyond its broad themes, weathering ideas like the challenges morticians face in the surprisingly money-grubbing funeral industry, and the emotional weight of being many family's shoulder to cry on.
As I played through A Mortician's Tale, at first I felt as if I was doing my best to do well by the dead, to make sure their deaths were as comfortable as possible. Yet by its end, I felt like I was working more for the living. I didn't want to exploit the people grieving by upselling them insane funeral packages. I wanted them to be just as easy-minded as they were when I eavesdropped on them—wondering about food, shows, other mindless, not death-related activities. I cared about the ones who go on beyond this sad event, that leave the funeral home to go grab lunch or whatever else awaits them beyond the pale walls. As for me, it was always back to the morgue, carefully helping others live another day in my own strange way.