A Mortician's Tale deconstructs how death should be designed

Laundry Bear Games' Gabby DaRienzo discusses how A Mortician's Tale innovates on death mechanics, and shares strategies on how game developers can best explore death in their own games.

When it came to overcoming death anxiety as a child, playing Majora's Mask was the perfect way for Laundry Bear Games' Gabby DaRienzo to deal with grief.

The realization that some characters confronted the inevitability of death in different ways was a turning point for DaRienzo, who attributed the game in helping her overcome a fear of death.

"Majora's Mask as a whole is very death centric," she noted. "That was the thing that stuck out to me the most." 

With that, DaRienzo opened her talk at the Games Developer Conference this afternoon on how A Mortician's Tale deconstructs death in games, and explored the concept of death as a theme.

Like Majora's Mask, video games have always dealt with death in different ways, depending on how the designer intended to include it. 

She points to Final Fantasy 7 as a title that blends both narrative and mechanical elements seamlessly together, leaving a lasting impact on the player. DaRienzo mentions that while many video games feature death, not a lot of them ask players to confront it.

Final Fantasy 7 is designed where Aerith is the primary healer, ensuring that players would include her in their party. "When they kill her off, you have to rethink how you play the game," DaRienzo explained. "It's a really good mechanical way to represent grief." 

When A Mortician's Tale was being developed, many deliberate design choices were made in order to maintain accuracy and keep players comfortable throughout the playing experience. 3D models of the bodies are abstracted so that they aren't photorealistic. The purple color palette is deliberate, masking otherwise unpleasant visuals (blood, etc.) with various cool tones. 

The game encourages players to be hands-on with the process. "We're asking players to deal with the body directly," said DaRienzo.  "It's important to spend time with the body. It's an important part of the grieving process." 

So how can developers interested in exploring the concept of death and grief do so in a way that makes player's comfortable while still fitting with their vision? DaRienzo provides three questions for consideration:

1. How will your game use death? Think about how death can work best for your game. 

2. Do your research and consult. Make sure you're being accurate and respectful. Pay your consultants.

3. Be understanding with your players. How are they going to handle death in your game? 

Most importantly, developers should assess their own feelings about death, and take time for self-care. 

"Developing A Mortician's Tale has changed me for the better," admitted DaRienzo. "I hope it can be as therapeutic for you as it was for me." 

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