You Can Embalm Dead Bodies In This Funeral Home Video Game

Through a mortuary simulator and a video game death podcast, Gabby DaRienzo is challenging how gamers approach death

Illustration R. A. Di Ieso
Oct 19, 2016 at 10:26 AM ET

For many people, the first intimate experience with death is pixelated. Pac-Man collides with a ghost. Mario gets hit by a fireball, turns to face the screen, lifts his hands in the air, floats, then sinks into the netherworld. “Mortal Kombat” contestants disembowel their opponents. A Sims dies of old age. The protagonist of “Fallout 4” watches his wife get shot as he’s restrained, helpless, in his cryogenic tube.

Death is a game mechanic. It’s a check mate, a character motivation, a point earned, a fail state, a loss, a reset. In many games, death is everywhere. But even though death is woven into most games, rarely do games have a funeral or ritual associated with death. And that can deprive the gamer, according to Carla Sofka, a professor at Siena College who specializes in grief and online communities. “When a book or a TV show kills off a popular character, people often grieve, so it’s important to validate that. Even if something is fictional or virtual — that doesn’t mean people don’t get connected to the character,” Sofka said. “Giving people a chance to validate that grief is a wonderful thing.”

Toronto-based game developer Gabby DaRienzo wants to provide that validation. “I very much am a fan of games that have a traditional death mechanic to them and I think that mechanic does exist for a reason,” DaRienzo said. “But it’s just that — a mechanic. A way to punish or challenge the player, to convince them to keep going. Maybe your wife or your child dies at the beginning of the game and that motivates you to get revenge. There’s not much more beyond that and it feels very shallow.”

As a child, playing death-themed games like “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” helped DaRienzo get over her own death anxieties, but her strongest artistic inspiration came from death-positivity collective the Order of the Good Death. Mortician Caitlin Doughty founded the group in 2011, bringing together death industry workers, scholars, and creatives who promote conversations about death and work to dissolve anxiety about death. In her mission to lift the veil of death and the death industry, Doughty created the web series “Ask a Mortician” and wrote The New York Times bestseller “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.” Other members have given a TED talk on mushroom burial suits, written dozens of articles on mortality, and organized Death Salons.

DaRienzo discovered the Order in 2014 through Doughty’s book and the club’s spirit of death exposure encouraged DaRienzo to develop a game that would help people understand death. She began work on a project that would eventually become “A Mortician’s Tale,” in which the player runs every facet of a funeral home — from answering emails to meeting loved ones of the deceased to preparing cadavers to attending the funeral. The game is scheduled to launch early 2017.

As she researched the project, she spoke with other developer friends about how they approach death in their games, and she was taken aback by how poignant these conversations were. One such talk was with Augusto Quijano, the concept artist for Drinkbox Studios. One of Quijano’s most popular creations is “Guacamelee!,” a game that pulls heavily from Mexican folklore. The main character is a luchador named Juan trying to save his love from an evil charro skeleton. Throughout the game, Juan teleports back and forth between the land of the living and the land of the dead. “Since he’s from Mexico, the way he grew up with death is very different from the way I grew up with death and that has a huge impact on your games and how death is treated in games,” DaRienzo said. “I wanted to share this with people.”

So DaRienzo started the Play Dead podcast and invited Quijano to be her first guest. They discussed the Mexican culture’s celebration of death and the challenge of convincing his team to make the dead realm vibrant and to break away from the typical gloomy, Gothic interpretations of the other side. Quijano also introduced Drinkbox’s latest game, “Severed.” After the main character, Sasha, loses her arm and her family to monsters, she hunts down the creatures. Death often appears as a neutral character, neither good nor bad, simply a part of nature that guides Sasha through her grief process.

For another episode, DaRienzo interviewed Pippin Barr, a professor at Concord University and an experimental game developer. Barr discussed his series of tongue-in-cheek recorded permadeath speed runs (most speed runners try to get through a game as quickly as possible, but Barr tried to die as quickly as possible) and the importance of purposeful death in video games. In his simple game “Safety Instructions,” death is inevitable, funny,  and the most enjoyable part of playing. In his game “Jostle Parent,” the focus is building a bond with your children, who will ultimately die. In “Series of Gunshots,” the player goes from one dreary grayscale exterior shot to the next, and can only control when a gunshot goes off inside the building, which works to “strip away the visual and other visceral rewards usually associated with killing in games,” according to Barr.

As a developer who makes death a key point of interest in his games, Barr appreciates DaRienzo’s focus on the intersection of death and games. “Games might help us to grapple with death personally in a way that might help our growth as people… If things are done one way in games, I want to see more examples of people not doing them that way. That’s important for exploring the potential expressivity of our medium,” Barr told Vocativ. “Gabby seems very determined not just to think about these things for herself, but to help and encourage others to think about them.”

DaRienzo expected to get 10 listeners who appreciated her niche focus. Now she gets about 10,000 listens per episode. She finished the first season in June and took a break to focus on “A Mortician’s Tale.” Every interview she conducted over the 10-episode season impacted the development of her game. In the beginning, the game was about death in games, but over time it became about death itself, as DaRienzo decided to focus more on the duties of a mortician.

After interviewing Lucas Pope, the indie game developer behind “Paper Please,” which focuses on the work of an immigration officer and his monotonous tasks and the weight those tasks can carry, DaRienzo chose to bring more administrative duties into her game. “I was talking about the mundane stuff that goes on in the death industry and he was like, ‘That’s what I want to see. It’s super fascinating to me.’ And he was right,” DaRienzo said. “The office work, talking between co-workers, and hearing these procedures. There’s a whole section of the game where part of the main flow is reading through emails. It’s how you choose the bodies you’re working on that day.”

Through those managerial tasks at Rose and Daughters Funeral Home, players will learn about the Western funeral industry and how to grow a family-owned business and eventually sell it to a funeral conglomerate. But more importantly, they will console the mourning family then take scalpel and sutures to skin. Playing as a young female mortician, Charlie, gamers will see death and grief up close. After being immersed in that world for several hours of gameplay they might emerge slightly more prepared for their own permadeath.