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Dev Q&A: A Mortician's Tale challenges how games depict death

October 27, 2017 | By John Harris

October 27, 2017 | By John Harris
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Business/Marketing, Video

Death is ubiquitous in games, but it's far removed from the every day reality of death, and the fact that we're all going to die someday. Players have been racking up extra lives since the arcade era, and mass murdering enemies is so commonplace in games that Uncharted 4 gave a tongue-in-cheek trophy for your thousandth kill.

Laundry Bear Games’ first release A Mortician’s Tale takes a different tack. It’s a small narrative game set in a funeral home that presents players with a view on death from the perspective of a character deeply entwined with its effect, but not so much with its victims. 

Gamasutra had the pleasure of talking to designer and lead developer Gabby DaRienzo about making the game in a recent Twitch stream. She talked to us about the game's message about death, as well as about the game’s development, and what other indies hoping to find success with niche games can learn from A Mortician’s Tale. 

We've transcribed some of the more interesting passages of the conversation below.

You can watch the stream embedded above, or click here to see it. And for more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.


Bryant Francis - editor at Gamasutra

Alex Wawro - editor at Gamasutra

Gabby DaRienzo - co-founder of Laundry Bear Games, designer and lead developer of A Mortician's Tale

Death can be gross

Wawro: I was reading this book (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes), and the thing about it and this game is, it opens up something that is very taboo and not talked about at Aall, at least here in America in my experience, and I was fascinated, I never thought to ask: "What happens after you die?" But it's crazy. It's marvelous and gross and beautiful in all kinds of measures. In this game that seems to be one of the core components, letting players go through the ritual, of cleaning and rubbing and scrubbing. This is going to sound weird, but how did you know where to set the bar on that? Because in the book, it can be real gross.

DaRienzo: Oh yeah.

Wawro: But the game so far has been really meditative and kind of beautiful and not at all icky or gross. So, I kind of wanted to know how you decided how far to go with that?

"It's really important for us to find the correct amount of accuracy versus comfort. It's very different to read about a thing, and imagine it, than to directly interact with a dead body."

DaRienzo: I think, with the game, and understanding that it is a game, and encouraging players to interact with this stuff directly, it's really important for us to find the correct amount of accuracy versus comfort. It's very different to read about a thing, and imagine it, and directly interact with a dead body, like you are right now. There's a lot of things we did to try to find that balance, and I think we did an "okay" job at it? (laughs)

One of the things is the art, which as you can see is very purple. Part of that was inspired by the prototype I made a couple of years ago in Pico8, which has a very limited palette. It was really purple-y, and I really liked that aesthetic and wanted to bring that over to the full game. It matches the melancholy-yet-hopeful vibes we're bringing to it.

This monochromatic-ist color scheme also masks a lot of really gross things in the game. The body is not jaundiced, there's not any blood or guts or any kind of bodily fluids. We also distorted the people a bit, so their heads are a little big bigger. Not by much, they still are people, but they're distorted enough that we break any kind of uncanny valley vibes we're getting. It's very different to work on a body that looks like you than one that's a bit more cartoony.

That kind of balance we've also extended to quite a few things. Our sound designer did a good job at finding that balance, she was really comfortable with listening and doing lots of research for the game, and listening to really gross stuff. You don't have the sound on, but the embalming machine, every mortician that we've shown the game to says "You nailed it," it sounds so good. There's a lot of sounds that sound really good, but some are more cartoony and satisfying. It's well done in a way that's not too gross, there are a lot of sounds that could be gross, but she did a good job of making it not too bad.

Wawro: Yeah, that's exactly the word I would have used as I was playing through it, it's very animated and cartoony, it's very satisfying, like jabbing with the trocar, it's very satisfying in a strange way. Pop it in, pop it out, stuff comes out, it's very approachable in a way I appreciated. I was wondering if you had set the bar farther than that, then taken it back during development?

"I tried to find a line. We wanted to show as much as we can, but there are certain procedures when it comes time to preparing the body for burial that we can't show."

DaRienzo: There are a few things, yeah. We had talked about having children in the game. It was something we felt we had to talk about, and be honest about it. But at the same time, none of us on the team have had the experience of losing a child, so we didn't feel like it was appropriate for us to explore that so we decided to take that out.

Another thing, there are some grosser procedures when it comes time to preparing the body for burial. I tried to find a line, we wanted to show as much as we can, but there are certain things we can't show. One of the things, I think it's in (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes), it's talking about putting diapers on people so their bodies don't leak. And so we were like, there was no way that we could do that, there are certain stores we can't bring this to. There's a certain level of comfort that we need to aim for, and as soon as we bring in diapers we lose that.

Pricing a niche indie title

Francis: There was a question earlier. This is an interesting, a different kind of game to sell on Steam. It's kind of short, I'm actually doing my best not to run through the whole thing here. It's about an hour and 20 minutes, and you're selling it for 15 dollars. Once you realized that this was the game you wanted to make, and that you wanted to sell it through traditional online game marketplaces, how did you arrive at the decision to sell at this price, and how did you figure out how to market it to people who'd want to buy this game?

"There's so many short narrative games that come out that price themselves way too low, and I think, as game developers, we need to value our hard work, and value what we do."

DaRienzo: We talked about this a lot. I don't like the idea of pricing your short games low, that idea of, like, "It's only a couple of hours long, it should be a dollar." We put a lot of time, effort and craft into A Mortician's Tale, and I think it deserves to be at a larger price point. I don't think $15 is an unfair price-point for what the game is, and for how long it is. Some people have been very upset by that, but overall so far it has been overwhelmingly positive. In every piece of media and press, 99% of feedback we've gotten has been positive.

This price point has not detered anyone from playing it. There are 30 people on Steam who are unhappy about it, but those people would be unhappy no matter what the price point is, because it is a short, narrative-driven game that has feminism and lesbians in it, and I think that some people are always going to be unhappy with what you make. So we looked at this game, we looked at how much effort we put into it, and we thought $15 was a good price for this game. I don't know how else to justify it, and I don't think I should.

There's so many short narrative games that come out that price themselves way too low, and I think, as game developers, we need to value our hard work, and value what we do. I'm sorry if a person in chat is upset about the price point, but that's where we landed on that decision.

Francis: Yeah, I think those comments are good, that standing up for yourself and the work you put into a game is something a lot of developers have to balance. We've talked to a lot of one-man teams and multi-person teams throughout the year about how they priced their games, and I don't think we've gotten a consistent answer all year. The only consistency is, they thought it should be lower, then they ticked it up a bit so that they could eat.

Wawro: Yeah, we're going to walk this line to the end of time. Are they products or are they works of expression, and they're both. No matter which side your game ends up leaning on, you're going to hear from people on the other side who'll say this isn't a well-priced product for me, or this isn't enough of an artistic statement for me.

Indie business results

Wawro: I want to jump back to the business of putting this game out. It's 2017, the Indiepocalypse has come, and gone, and come and gone again, and is still going on, but everything we hear from devs is that it's real rough out there, right now, to put a game out, and I wanted to get your take on this this has been. This is a non-traditional game, it's out on Steam with everything else, what are your expectations for this at all, how well has it done so far?

"The amount of people who were interested in it just exceeded our expectations."

DaRienzo: It has exceed our expectations, by a lot. We had a conversation about what numbers we were expecting, in terms of sales. We had a month goal, what we expected to make in the first month, and we more than doubled it in the first day. We didn't expect anyone to like this game, we knew it's super niche, we knew it's a narrative game and that it's short. But the amount of people who were interested in it just exceeded our expectations.

It's been like two days... it's been two days since we put this game out, and again we've had lots of positive press, and every single piece of press we've seen so far has been really wonderful. We've gotten a lot of messages from people, emails and comments, overwhelmingly into... unless you're talking about money-wise. (laughs)

Wawro: Both are good to hear about.

DaRienzo: It's nice that people like the game, is what I'm trying to say, but it's also nice that we're doing okay sales-wise too.

Wawro: That's fantastic. It can be tricky to have these conversations with a game like this. Clearly you didn't just make it to keep the business going, this is clearly something you guys believe a lot in, that you took very seriously and that you put a lot of yourselves into. But it's also good to be able to eat, pay rent and pay your collaborators. For fellow devs out there who might be thinking about doing their own projects, as you look back now, after only a handful of days after releasing this, what do you think helped this do as well as it has done?

"I think it's really important for me to bring up Ontario Arts Council. We're really privledged to live in a country, in a province, that has really good art funding."

DaRienzo: I think it's really important for me to bring up Ontario Arts Council. We're really privledged to live in a country, in a province, that has really good art funding. So we did receive, it wasn't a ton, but we did receive a little bit of funding which helped us pay our collaborators. So that was a bit thing, I thought it was really important for me to point that out. We didn't have to remortgage our houses to make this game. So that put us at a great advantage.

I think the biggest advice that I can give is, you can't plan for this kind of stuff, all right? It sounds depressing, but I think someone in the chat said, this, you gotta lower your expectations, that anything good that happens is good. It's such a depressing thing to say, but I think it's important to be realistic about this industry. I think it's really important to come into it with a really good plan for how you're spending your time and money. I think it's really good to be aware of what the market is when you release and you're working on it, but I think ultimately it comes down to luck. I don't think I'm saying anything positive or motivating. I'm sorry!

Wawro: (laughs) No no no, don't be!

Good Death in Games

DaRienzo: I was having conversations with other game developers about death in games, and it was kind of neat to hear about how different their feeling were about it. And I was like, obviously this is a subject I'm interested in, I'm going to interview people about this. That's kind of where it came from. I don't know what else to say, clearly I'm a fan of death in games. It's a topic I'm into.

Wawro: It's fascinating because no one talks about it. It just is. You die in video games and it starts over, or you load a checkpoint, or whatever. What other developers have done an interesting thing with the concept of death, that you appreciate or that you think is fascinating?

DaRienzo: Oh god, there's so many. Just recently? What Remains of Edith Finch.

Francis: That's so good!

DaRienzo: So good.

DaRienzo: Kaitlin Tremblay, who's the writer, I think she's in chat, talked about it a bunch. It was really cool. I think Night In The Woods did a really good job. It's not as explicit there but they deal with the topic of a community dying really well. I think Severed is a really good game, they guys who made Guacamelee made a game called Severed last year. It does an amazing job of taking traditional games mechanics and flipping it on its head to make it a bit more death-positive.

The goal of the game is to find the bodies of your family. At the very end of the game the goal is--I guess I'm kind of spoiling it? It's in the trailer. The goal of Severed is to find your loved ones so you can give them a proper burial. It's using mechanics that you would find in Zelda, you're going through dungeons to get the treasure, but the treasure is just your brother. And at the end there's no "everyone's magically better and everyone's alive!" No, you're just able to give them a proper burial, and the process of the game is like the process of grief.

I could go on, there are so many games that do good thing with death and grief, but those are a couple that spring to mind.

For more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

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