For a second, holding a golden necklace above the open mouth of the cremulator, I paused. But only for a second. The cremulator is essentially an extremely hardcore blender: it is used in the funeral business to grind any bone fragments that remain after the fires of cremation have flared and then dimmed. It is not meant to grind jewelry, but I imagine it could if pushed. Games are about messing with systems, aren't they? Narrative games in particular are about messing with systems that the designer has entrusted you with for the purpose of telling a story. I was not meant to grind the golden necklace. I was meant to place it inside the urn with the remains of its owner. And so of course for a second, I paused.
Only a second, though, and that's a testament to the power of A Mortician's Tale - and, perhaps, to the power of death itself. I blunder hilariously through games about alien wars and about chosen heroes embracing their destinies, but it turns out that if you chuck me something workaday and mild-mannered about real death, actual death, no-restarts-or-saves death, I become reverent. How could I grind the jewelry when I had just tended to the body of the jewelry's owner and respectfully committed it to the flames? How could I mangle this necklace when the family were next door waiting for me?
A Mortician's Tale is a gentle, largely undramatic game about a funeral home and the people who work in it. You arrive fresh from training and filled with a sober enthusiasm for the death industry. This is a mom-and-pop place, a small firm that gets things right when they matter most. You spend your day checking emails - from the hearse driver, who sees the funny side of things, from your best friend who has a new job in a faraway city and worries about you, from a mortuary mailing list you've been signed up to, and from your new boss who fills you in on the next task coming your way. And you prepare the dead, for the sealed coffin, for the open casket, for the furnace and the cremulator and the urn.
So much death in games, so much faux death, so much death as an empty stand-in. And yet here, death still has its power. Thankfully, the people in A Mortician's Tale are cartoon abstractions - Playmobil figures in the waiting room, simple flat-colour outlines on the slab - but they still have a power to move you, to convince you that this death is in some way more meaningful than the deaths in Battlegrounds or Halo. The first time I had to shave the stubble from a body before washing it, I hesitated for a second. It felt too much, it felt too little. I did it anyway and had a genuine shiver while I worked, as if someone, you know, was walking over my grave.
A shave is just the start. You wash the body, you place little cups behind the eyelids and glue them shut. You place cotton balls in the cheeks and stitch up the mouth. You break the rigor mortis by massaging the limbs and the torso - it is three drags of the mouse over a cartoon line, but it feels so intimate - and you drain the blood and embalm the body. Sometimes there is a pacemaker to remove. Sometimes the casket is closed, so you don't need to bother with the eyes and the cheeks. Sometimes it's a cremation, and there is no next of kin. There are fleeting differences, but in death we are all largely alike.
Early on, dragging the tools from the right side of the screen, using them in the correct order on the left, I tried to commit as much of this to memory as I could. I knew that at some point the gentle prodding narration - now the shaver, now the thread - would be done with, the tutorial would finish, and I would be left in the mortuary by myself, or as by myself as a person ever is with a dead body that needs sending off. And yet brilliantly, the narration never goes away, the prodding never ceases. You are prompted through your final funeral exactly as you are prompted through your first, because this isn't a game about memory, or even about dexterity, despite the fact that you are asked to tackle something that could feel a little bit like Operation in another developer's hands. This is a game about reverence, about the dignity that the living should afford the dead. The tutorial never ends. Of course. It never does.
Outside of these moments a story slowly unfolds, one email at a time. The funeral home is in financial trouble. The friend is worried. The driver is sometimes too flippant about things. Change is looming. It's fine: the story is all fine. But the main point of the game, I think, is the way that death is threaded in amongst the beats of the narrative: the business of death, the careful, intimate, sensitive business of death, is always a quiet presence.
After each preparation, once the body has been dressed or burned and placed in its urn, you leave the mortician's room and head out to pay your respects publically. The family are gathered, Playmobil figures every one, and they say the things that people say at every funeral I have ever been to. They talk about the dead, but not for too long. They talk about the food, they talk about themselves, they talk about the world that is waiting for them outside, and which suddenly seems vivid but distant, maybe a little improbable. You listen, and you bow before the casket or the urn, and then you head back where you came from. This is a beautiful game. It scared me. It moved me. Most of all, it made me stop what I was doing and think.