| Wow, I really liked this. Last time I taught Death, Grief, & Dying, I had students play That Dragon, Cancer. Then I asked them to seek out other games with themes related to the course, and this was one they came back with, along with Gris, which I have queued up. |
So, first thing, the game is short. Like an hour or so. It took me almost an hour and a half because I was trying to win a stupid Minesweeper mini game. But it packs a lot of information and story into that hour. I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer unless there was a lot more gameplay variety.
A Mortician's Tale is a death-positive game that aims to educate people about the death industry, burial practices (especially eco-friendly types), cultural differences in death and grief, and so on. They obviously collaborated with Caitlin Doughty, who has become quite well known as a...if this is a term...public mortician? Go read her books and check out her YouTube channel if you're interested in the death industry.
In the game, you play as a mortician (who looks suspiciously like Caitlin Doughty) for a mom-and-pop funeral home. You check email (you have a friend, a friendly co-worker, a boss, and a listserv that will email you). The email from your boss always has some description of your next job (who died, what their family wants, etc.), and then you go prepare the body. You have a few tools, and you just follow explicit instructions each time. It's a bit zen in that way. Once you prepare the body, you go to the funeral parlor and can talk to the attendees. I enjoyed this because some will be acting quiet and reserved at the funeral, while others will be sobbing, others will crack jokes, others will be on their phones. They'll discuss feelings, cultural differences, wonder whether they've made their loved one happy, and so on. It's often sweet. The purpose is to show the player that there are many different ways to grieve and that not all funerals are alike (point driven home at the end of the game).
The game's strongest accomplishment is teaching players about alternative (eco, mostly) burial practices, which are gaining popularity in the US. Before I taught this course for the first time, I had never heard of green burials, alkaline hydrolysis, orbital burials, or anything! But most everything I've heard of is in the game, including cremation jewelry. The game also discusses grieving, seeking help, considerations for preparing trans people, wills, religious perspectives on burial practices and corpses, and a major narrative thread shows how small funeral homes struggle in the face of large corporations buying them out.
There are two cases in the game that stood out. The first was when you get an email about a suicide victim. The game asks you (the character, but you) if you want to take the job (the only choice the game ever asks you to make). If you opt out, then you just get another body to prepare. This is nice for people who may be triggered having to interact with a (virtual) person who killed themselves. The second was when you have to prepare a homeless man. When you take his urn to the funeral parlor, there is no one there to see him. It was sad and made me reflect on inequalities related to death.
I noticed as I played that I became desensitized in a short amount of time to the work of preparing bodies for burial. This reminds me of Paul Kalanithi's excellent memoir When Breath Becomes Air, where he discusses this at length regarding his time as a hospital resident. When you get a job, you stand over the body and are instructed to clean it with a sponge. The first time doing it, I did it slowly, like wow, I'm washing a dead person. It was reverent. By the end of the game, I was just like yeah yeah, wash wash scrub scrub, into the furnace you go! It's awful! But that's a main theme of the game, our desensitization to death, our distance from it, the impersonal nature of burial practices especially when they become handled by corporate entities.
Yeah, so I really, really enjoyed this and will definitely create an assignment for my students play this in Death, Grief, & Dying this semester. Perhaps they can choose between this and That Dragon, Cancer. We shall see.
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