Review: A Mortician’s Tale

I’d never heard the term “death positive” until a few days ago. As I’ve since come to learn, it is a movement encouraging people to be open and comfortable with discussing issues dealing with grief and mortality, subject matter that many of us in the human race find innately awkward or are even fearful of talking about. It’s a fascinating subject for a video game to broach, and Laundry Bear Games has done so with reasonably successful results in A Mortician’s Tale.

A Mortician’s Tale unfolds from the perspective of Charlie, a newly hired graduate working for the mom and pop Rose and Daughters Funeral Home. Using a simple point-and-click interface, you guide Charlie through a sequence of funeral preparations. Each day starts in Charlie’s office/morgue, where much of your time is spent reading through her inbox full of emails containing details on the different jobs, correspondence with families dealing with the passing of their loved ones, and conversations with coworkers about life occurrences, business matters, and general small talk.

After reading the emails and hitting the auto-reply on the day’s one mandatory message required to advance, the game transitions into a cadaver preparation simulation where you have to complete an embalming or cremation mini-game, which is predetermined for each case based on what the funeral home has been hired to perform. Whether tasked with embalming or a cremation, the game holds your hand step by step through a simplistic process of clicking different tools from a sidebar menu grid and dragging them over to the deceased presented from a top-down surgeon’s table viewpoint. While this part of the game doesn’t come anywhere close to the complexity of, say, the surgery simulations found in the Trauma Center series, the interactions are vaguely similar as far as grabbing the correct tool and following dotted guidelines to perform the relevant actions, such as cleaning the body with a sponge, massaging body parts to break the rigor mortis, suturing the mouth shut with needle and thread, or placing tubes from the body to the embalming machine to inject the preservation chemicals.

Cremations are even simpler; after the body has gone through the incinerator and been reduced to bone fragments, a mini-game begins where you place the urn into the cremulator, drag and drop the bone fragments into the machine to be ground into the ash-like remains, then remove the urn, insert the identification tag, and put the cap on.

Everything’s performed using mouse clicks and drags, with unnecessary tutorial text provided throughout the whole game. The hand holding could have been toned down, that’s for sure. I would have preferred tutorial guidance for maybe the first two or three bodies, and then being left to complete the rest on my own. As is the game never requires you to learn its simple set of mechanics and then apply what you’ve learned to complete the rest by yourself, it just continues to tell you how to do everything.

Once the embalming or cremation step has been completed, the game transitions to a funeral service scene, where you are given the opportunity to walk around and, if you’re interested in the added narrative depth, read the speech bubble conversations and thoughts of the deceased’s family members before clicking on the casket or urn to pay final respects. Then the next day begins, and the process of reading emails, preparing the body, and attending the funeral repeats anew.

In the same vein as other recent narrative works, like Gone Home, A Normal Lost Phone (and its sequel), and What Remains of Edith Finch, A Mortician’s Tale is barely a game at all, instead using the familiarity of rudimentary video game interactions as a means to tell a meaningful, linear story. No scores. No fail states. No player agency. The most game-y thing here is an optional though fully playable minesweeper mini-game with graves and ghosts called Tales from the Crypt Sweeper, which can be accessed from a secondary tab on Charlie’s computer only during a specific part of the story progression.

A Mortician’s Tale excels most at connecting its narrative to social awareness. While the characterization is a little thin in terms of building enough depth to form a true emotional bond, the dialogues between Charlie and her clients and coworkers are effectively used as a gateway to inform the player about important issues surrounding grief and death and other societal causes. Each job presents a relatable death scenario–suicide, sudden heart attack, vehicle accident, breast cancer, and so on–and uses it to teach about different aspects of funeral preparation and the grieving process. Receiving thank you messages from pleased clients adds to the poignant tone of the game, while a fictional Funerals Monthly email newsletter is used to sneak in valuable commentary that can be applied in real life, including information on general funeral etiquette, green burials, tips on what to wear and things to avoid saying at a funeral, and different cultural traditions surrounding death. A key running subplot also revolves around the small mom and pop funeral home being bought out by a larger company, inserting issues related to the “western death industry” as the staff is forced to follow stricter guidelines as corporate greed begins to take over in place of providing personal, affordable end-of-life service.

The core story is engaging and well written, but it does feel like an opportunity was missed to fully explore the subject matter in greater depth and complexity. Despite numerous points in the story that could have been fleshed out into a branching narrative, the game fails to provide direct control over making moral choices or influencing anything that transpires. The predictability of using big, bad, evil corporate capitalism as an antagonist felt a bit lazy and one-sided to me as well.

My favorite thing about A Mortician’s Tale has to be its presentation. Despite the dark, morbid subject matter, there is a cuteness to the artwork and character design that makes an uncomfortable issue more approachable. In particular, the game world itself looks like a tiny, isometric diorama of a morgue and funeral home, the sterile gray and muted purple color scheme providing a minimalism that feels appropriate to the subject matter. Equally somber, poignant, and relaxing, the subdued soundtrack beautifully complements the story themes at play.

A Mortician’s Tale only lasts between 45 minutes and an hour, ideally sized to finish in a single sitting and then leave you to contemplate and fully absorb the material. I’m not one to condense a game’s value down to a simple equation of how many gameplay hours it provides compared to how much it costs, so the brief length doesn’t bother me a bit. But ultimately that determination is up to each consumer to make. Something I very much do value, though, is replayability, which sadly this game is lacking entirely. This is where I wish the developers would have written a more complex dialogue system with choices and branching email conversations, because I totally would have been into going back to see how different outcomes could’ve played out based on replying to an email one way over another. Though interesting as a one-off, the story by itself isn’t broad or complicated enough to inspire repeat playthroughs.

Having experienced the sudden passing of a family member earlier this year, A Mortician’s Tale hits close to home for me at a base level. On a deeper level, though, the game falls a bit flat in terms of following all the way through on providing a memorable, emotionally resonant narrative. I enjoyed reading the emails and getting to know the characters, and without question I have taken away a greater understanding of the funeral home business and respect for what morticians and funeral directors do. But while the game has an important message that deserves to be heard, I think that message could have been packaged in a richer narrative with deeper player involvement.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Art style and music set appropriate tone and atmosphere
+ Tackles difficult themes in an approachable, relatable way
+ Interesting and informative storyline

Cons:
– Feels like it missed an opportunity to offer a deeper, more resonant narrative
– Holds your hand too much

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Laundry Bear Games
Developer: Laundry Bear Games
Release Date: 10/18/2017
Genre: Narrative Adventure
ESRB Rating: RP
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by developer

Buy From: Steam, Humble Store, and itch.io for $14.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!