R.I.P.: A Mortician’s Tale

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For the overstressed, neurotic, and habitually frenzied, video games can offer a form of easy relaxation. People justify video game bad behavior such as killing prostitutes and little girls, waterboarding, mowing over pedestrians with an ambulance, and animal abuse by invoking the pseudo-scientific notion of “blowing off steam.” While I do find what is called the “catharsis hypothesis” to be more than a little troubling, I also find video games to be an effective means of temporarily eschewing real world concerns. I, like many others, appreciate the momentary respite that comes about by disappearing into a 2D landscape of technicolor galaxies and rickety yet ultimately benign jungle bridges.

But the PC game A Mortician’s Tale (2017), in many ways, is the opposite of catharsis. In it, you assume the role of a recent funeral direction graduate tasked with operating a mom and pop funeral home. You become the character Charlie, and as Charlie, you sit down at a computer, check your email, receive e-assignments from your boss, prepare the deceased, and attend visitations. Sometimes you read an e-newsletter from Funerals Monthly on topics such as “What to Wear When You’re Attending a Funeral from a Different Culture” or green funerals. Sometimes you scan an email from your best friend, Jen Love, who tries to sign you up for a dating site for people who work in the funeral industry. You scrub cloud-shaped dirt off of corpses and inject them with embalming fluid. You massage their arms and legs and torsos to distribute the fluid throughout their bodies evenly. You remove jewelry from bodies and put the bodies in the crematory. You nod your head over caskets and urns in the visitation room, paying respect. You do this over and over again until you get fed up with the corporation that has taken over your mom and pop funeral home, and you quit.

The overall impression you get from playing A Mortician’s Tale is that being a funeral director is probably a lot like every job in that it involves stretches of time at the computer and dealing with people and rules you don’t particularly like. Total game play is about an hour, and in that time, you don’t do much more than check emails, prep bodies, and visit with loved ones of the deceased. You get ragged on by higher ups for failing to meet the dress code. You continue to ignore the dress code mandate by wearing a t-shirt and exposing your sleeve of tattoos. You digitally sympathize with a friend who’s having a meltdown about her coworkers making sexist remarks. You consider quitting your job and eventually do. Being a mortician, in other words, is pretty mundane.

Boring your players is not exactly most game creators’ goal. But perhaps for the creators of A Mortician’s Tale, that is kind of the point. (Though “boring” is probably not the word they would use; instead they’d say something like “The game offers a life-like experience,” or “verisimilitude,” or “a realistic portrayal of mortuary work,” etc.) Most games deal with death obliquely. In a game like Call of Duty, there is a gratuitous amount of death, but it’s all under the guise of some glory-seeking mission. When you’re blowing up Nazis with a panzerschreck, death becomes an afterthought in pursuit of the noble goal to “preserve freedom in a world on the brink of tyranny.” Yet, in A Mortician’s Tale, your only mission is to cremate Mrs. Diaz, to embalm Mr. Jones. Death becomes the focus. As a game player, you fixate on every body that passes under your hands, obsessing over the gravity of your task. But ultimately, after so many ID tags placed into the crematory, you become accustomed to the process. When all you do is perform the rites and rituals of death—death itself becomes ritual.

So A Mortician’s Tale doesn’t exactly help the player blow off steam, but that was never its purpose. But the game does offer another form of release—allowing the player to confront an idea that she has resisted, repressed, the reality that one day she too will be a body on a table, ash in an urn, a weight that, gradually, via tedious gameplay, begins to ease off of her shoulders. A Mortician’s Tale may not be all that exciting, but what could possibly be more cleansing than accepting that death is an unremarkable part of life?

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Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.

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Lee Matalone writes a monthly column for The Rumpus on death, loss, and mourning. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, VICE, and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans. More from this author →