The realities and predatory tactics of death are explored in A Mortician’s Tale.
Games have an amazing ability to build a bridge between people and sensitive topics. Gone Home explored topics about young love, homosexuality, and damaged families. Cibele focused on similar themes but explored across the internet. Then you have titles like This War of Mine, which show the scary realities of war from a civilian’s perspective. Papers, Please asks what you would do as a human being versus what your country asks. I could go on, but I think you get my point.
A Mortician’s Tale is unabashedly about death and the realities of the industry that exists around it. How does the old saying go? ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.’ Death is big business. It’s an uncomfortable fact but a fact nonetheless. So when I heard about A Mortician’s Tale, the idea of it seemed very intriguing. Could death — and even more, being a funeral director — actually be fun? Educational, sure, but it still had to be a game; most of the games I listed earlier are viewed as fairly fun and have quite a fanbase.
Well, I got my hands on A Mortician’s Tale and played it from start to finish. I will admit to having gone in with some preconceptions. When a credible source calls the game ‘One Of 2017’s Best Games’, that catches your attention. Well here I am now and I can’t help but feel deflated.
A Mortician’s Tale teaches you about death but forgets that it’s a game as well.
You play Charlie, a fresh new hire at a funeral home that is owned by a small owner. You start the game by reading a bunch of emails and getting familiar with the idea of having to deal with death. Your character is described as ‘odd and not really bothered by the dead’, as described by her sister. The controls are rather simplistic, only requiring one button for the entire game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see A Mortician’s Tale ported to a mobile devices in the near future. After finishing your first day’s worth of reading emails, you finally get a corpse and get to work.
Keep in mind that the entire game has a bit of a cartoon feel. Perhaps I am desensitized, but I just wanted to see what tasks would be required of me, what the morbid nature of death and burial were truly like. What I got was something akin to a point-and-click game, except it guides you every time. There is no deviation or room for error. It’s completely on rails, with nothing you can do to stop it, change it, or have any input of your own.
There are three primary tasks that you complete: either embalming a body, cremating it, or attending the funeral. Embalming and cremation is the ‘game’ aspect of A Mortician’s Tale, entirely comprised of you following lines that are drawn on the cartoon corpse and clicking tools. That’s it. Look, I’m not saying I wanted to play with people’s guts here, but there could have been more to this game. At one point, you receive an anonymous body that is unclaimed by the city or any family. This could have been a moment for Charlie to do something right and perhaps investigate the body to find more information. I get that that goes outside the ethical code of conduct, but instead she just cremates him and calls it a day.
If every game followed the rules of reality they would kind of be boring. A Mortician’s Tale wants to send a message and educate the player about the unethical practices of large funeral corporations, but at no point though do you really do anything about it. This strikes true obviously, but doesn’t make for a fun game.
Cremation is a small aspect of the game but worth mentioning. You collect any metal objects, place an ID inside the casket and finish with the cremation process. Then you grind the bones and seal up the vase. I guess I couldn’t really ask for much more from this aspect, but it doesn’t seem to add a great deal to the overall experience.
The other half of your time is spent attending the funeral, which includes no actual gameplay, consisting entirely of chat bubbles. Earlier, the game mentions how appropriate attire and tactfully navigating conversations when it comes to the deceased’s loved ones is so important. None of this is incorporated into gameplay. We don’t ever get to see Charlie interact with anybody; she just bows to the deceased and moves along to the next client. It feels like an opportunity was lost to show different customs, rituals, and other cultural ways of dealing with death. Instead, you get to read about it in these long, drawn-out emails. Even the people attending the funeral don’t seem to change all that much. I could have sworn I saw the same dude twice.
Finally, the pace of the A Mortician’s Tale is jarring, beginning as quickly as it ends. There is no bang here, mainly whimpers, pun intended. The game eventually takes an interesting turn when the small business is swallowed up by a huge company. Charlie becomes disgusted with the cold nature of the business and its practices. She decides to quit and open up an eco-friendly, green funeral home. I appreciated learning about these methods for funerals and found them fascinating, but of course the game literally ends right there. Just when it felt like the story was preparing you for something, it stopped.
I finished A Mortician’s Tale in seventy-two minutes. If you don’t read anything and just skip to the game parts, it’s half an hour, tops.
I re-iterate: I might have gone in with preconceptions, or maybe it just didn’t click with me.
I honestly thought there was more to this than what I got. The realities of death and the funeral business are laid out to you and in that regard, A Mortician’s Tale is a success, but I could have gone to Google for the same information. The point of mentioning the games I did earlier is that they educated you in an interactive and fun way. If you are going to explore something morbid, why not go all-in? Let me prepare the body from beginning to end. Another character is described as dressing and applying make-up to the body for the funeral. Why not let the player do that? I understand that some players would use this to be jerks but that’s a fact in any game.
If I act like a jerk and put on clown make-up on a deceased person, the game should punish me appropriately. The same way Papers, Please doesn’t just let you let everybody get through the gate in mass droves. There was an opportunity, here, and I think A Mortician’s Tale missed the mark.
From an aesthetic point of view, A Mortician’s Tale is perfect.
From the way colors are used to the music, the theme is spot on visually and musically. Four original tracks were created for the game and each is quite pleasant — you can purchase them with the base game or separately.
In fact, there was a lot done right when it comes to the feel of the A Mortician’s Tale. Even the final moments when Charlie starts her own business still carry the harsh reality of death. The tone is on point and I think that is what I liked most about the title. There is an eerie calm to the entire process. Sometimes, moments of peace that I felt as I drained the blood from a person’s body. A somberness to visiting an anonymous man’s funeral which no one else attends. Getting frustrated as the corporation changes the funeral home’s website and adds ‘packages’.
I hope A Mortician’s Tale is just the beginning.
No one can say that this concept and way of dealing with death isn’t innovative. That is the beauty of video games. It makes bridges for sensitive topics. I am happy that A Mortician’s Tale got the recognition it did, as it can open the door to many future possibilities. Mortality is a scary subject, and it’s one that at some point we are all going to have to think about. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to explore in a fun, safe way? I think so.
To wrap up my review, A Mortician’s Tale is a short, short game. There is no replay value. It doesn’t have alternate paths. It’s a one-and-done type of deal, for sure. Those interested in making a purchase should definitely do their research. While it has a great amount of information to give and nails the overall feel, I just wish that it remembered to be a fun game as well.
A Mortician’s Tale touched a nerve with people. That is a hard thing to accomplish. For that, it deserves your attention. You may have a completely different experience from mine. That’s perfectly okay. As it says itself, everybody handles death in a different way.