A Mortician’s Tale: Death and Taxes

I’ve asked this question a few times before: how do you represent God in a video game? You can manage it visually, that’s one thing, but how do you integrate God or a divine being into gameplay? One option is to go down the Age of Mythology route, where your divine beings offer quantifiable power-ups and benefits. If you commit yourself to Zeus, your Villagers will generate favour 37.5% faster. But that seems kinda inappropriate, philosophically speaking – surely your gods should have some sort of transcendence. They shouldn’t just fit into the deterministic rules of the gameworld. They should be transcendent, super-natural – literally above the natural, above the laws that govern how the fictional reality works. So how do you code a divine being? Simply put, you can’t. You can make them extremely powerful, but they’ll always be constrained within the system, rather than above the system in any way that relates to how we typically think of the divine – that is, as transcendent, spiritual, or supernatural. Note especially here that including supernatural elements in your story doesn’t make them supernatural in the sense of being beyond the confines of the laws of the natural world. It just means that you’ve expanded the bounds of the natural world to include beings that would normally not be included. Supernatural, in this sense, doesn’t simply refer to whatever does or does not belong in the real world. It’s about that which is uncontained by systems or laws. It’s about the things that exist outside the rules of the game.

Really all of this is just a poetic way to get you thinking about what video games can and can’t depict. Gameplay in particular is pretty unambiguously about systems. It’s not great at representing things that are unsystematic, like love, or God. Either you can’t represent those things in gameplay, and you’re reduced to keeping them in cutscenes or non-gameplay elements, or you force it into gameplay and kinda limit its range and meaning. That’s particularly a complaint you’ll see around romance options in games – if they feel mechanistic and transactional, it’s because this fundamentally unsystematic thing has been forced into a systems framework. In a similar fashion, video games are often fertile ground for discussions around capitalism. Capitalism reduces everything to a financial framework – and whatever it can’t reduce, it discards as useless or unproductive. It’s the classic problem for Arts students: what are you going to do with that degree? How are you going to translate that into the workforce? The implicit assumption here is that if you can’t turn your History major into stable employment, your knowledge is worthless and you’re simultaneously poor, unemployed, heavily in debt, and fucking stupid. The value of the degree is determined by market forces: if you can’t sell it, it’s not worth anything.

We’re moving pretty quickly, but even in a brief form, I think we can see the parallels here. Both video games and capitalism go round forcing things into systems. Some stuff might not fit into that system, and that stuff gets chopped off or ignored. Our question from the start, then, can be motivated either by religion or by a class analysis. How do you represent God in a video game? How do you account for the unsystematic in a systems-based medium? How do we live our lives in a capitalist society, navigating the rules of economic value while also maintaining our integrity and decency as human beings?

Anyway, unrelated question – ever played A Mortician’s Tale? It’s a death-positive game about working in a funeral home. You spend your time preparing the bodies of the deceased, whether that’s for cremation or burial or whatever else, and also read a bunch of emails. It’s fucking great. And it’s not difficult, either. When you’re preparing the bodies, you work through a series of repeated actions. You massage the body to break rigor mortis, you put eye caps under each eyelid to hold them shut – it’s quite graphic, actually, maybe I won’t go too far into it. But you prepare each body by carrying out a standard series of steps. There is some variation, depending on individual circumstances, but for the most part, you’re working to a pattern. It feels like a ritual – which is interesting in the context of that God problem we were talking about earlier. From one perspective, a game system is limiting, confining, giving everything definite value and limits. But a ritual is something that casts us out into the unknown. It is a series of actions that carry meaning beyond their materiality. For example: at the end of high school, I was baptised. I went under the water, and I came up again. In a material sense, that set of actions has a pretty limited range of meaning. I was dry, and then I got wet. But those actions also have a spiritual meaning. They transcend their mere material nature and connect us to the divine. In a video game context, ritual is interesting because it offers a way for us to transcend the confining systems of gameplay. It points us beyond the machine, out towards the unsystematic and unquantifiable. In one sense, A Mortician’s Tale has you carry out actions that are systems-driven and contained within a strict, formalistic ruleset. You run your mouse over the arms and torso to break rigor mortis. You drag the cotton wool into the mouth to puff it out, so it doesn’t sag. It’s just following the formula – but it’s also more than that. You’re caring for the bodies of the dead. It’s sacred. It’s a ritual. It offers meaning beyond the enclosed structure of the game.

So ritual is a pretty core part of how people think about religion in video games. It’s not a new concept per se – it’s been part of the literature for a while. But what’s interesting about A Mortician’s Tale is that it doesn’t just stop at ritual. Ritual isn’t the solution for the all-encompassing system, for capitalism. Instead, A Mortician’s Tale offers us both at once. At the beginning of the game, you’re working for a sweet old lady who’s running an independent funeral parlour. She gets bought out by a big corporate partway through the game, and for the rest of the time you have to deal with corporate fuckwits interfering in things. And that’s kinda the interesting thing about the funeral business – it’s this special, sacred act, this ancient ritual that’s existed as part of human history and culture since the beginning, and it’s also a business venture. It’s about putting the dead to rest, and it’s also about cost efficiency. And it’s kinda about how you exist in between those spaces.

In the simplest reading, the game is about rejecting capitalism and maintaining your integrity – and humanity, really – as a true custodian of death. The main character likes her original boss, the small business owner, but hates the corporates, and at the end of the game leaves her job to set up her own business running green funerals, which are environmentally friendly and all. It’s also shown explicitly that the corporates don’t want to get into that type of funeral, because it’s not cost-efficient. They also, for example, hate people keeping the body at home (can’t charge for that), they hate people bringing their own food (can’t charge for that either) – they just find all these little ways to remove the organic human decisions and squeeze money out of their clients. They push people into a system that maximises profit for the business owner irrespective of what those people might want or need.

So there’s this obvious tension between ritual and capital, between the integrity of the job and profit. The main character ends the game by rejecting capitalism, quitting the corporation that she works for – although even then she’s not really able to escape it entirely. She still has to make bank. Still has to pay the bills – otherwise she’ll go the way of the old lady from the start. She’ll run out of money and her business will shut down. You can never fully escape the system. At best, you can live in a doubled world. You can work within the system and gesture towards something beyond it. You can sell the last rites. The tension will still be there – you’ll always be a pilgrim, picking your way through an unjust, money-hungry world. But then, eventually, you’ll pass beyond the veil. You’ll be released from all of the bounds and constraints of the world. You will move beyond systems and laws, and those who stay behind will perform their own rituals to mark your passing. A Mortician’s Tale says something about our lives today – and it relies on the video game medium to say it. It pushes right up to the bounds of a rule-based system, and peers over into the infinite. That’s where we’re going, it says. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.

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