Death is such a major part of video games, but rarely in a way that’s constructive–it’s most commonly a failure mechanic for you or the ever-present goal for you to enact on others, regardless of whether you’re facing other players or NPCs. A story-driven game’s most dramatic moment may use the death of a beloved character to create a severe emotional response and plenty of horror games rely on surprising character deaths to produce jump scares. But that’s usually the extent to what games do with death. So in the few cases when games actually do deal with death and grief as a reality, it’s almost always surprising.
Video games should talk about death more. And I don’t mean just show it; more games should really talk about it and explore how normal it is. Video games too often gloss over or demonize death but that’s not an accurate reflection of real life. We’re all going to die someday, as are everyone we know. And as frightening as that may be, those deaths will probably be boringly normal. So too, in turn, are the emotions associated with coming to terms with that, whether it’s depression, grief, anger, or acceptance.
It can be difficult to talk about death, especially in the western part of the world where it’s almost considered a taboo topic for everyday conversation, but that’s all the more reason that people should. Continuing to shy away from the uncomfortable nature of death and grief prevents the normalization of both.
Several games have already started the conversation by putting you into the role of a caretaker of the deceased–encouraging you to think about dying and to normalize the associated feelings. The upcoming cozy management game about dying, Spiritfarer, is one such example. The Thunder Lotus Games title sees you play as Stella, a ferrymaster who sails through a purgatory-like setting in search of lost souls to befriend before helping them move on to the afterlife. Laundry Bear Games’ A Mortician’s Tale takes a less mystical approach, having you play as a funeral director, Charlie, who prepares bodies for burial. Giant Sparrow has also created an experience where you care for the dying in What Remains of Edith Finch–a more figurative case where you ensure a dead family is remembered by helping its last surviving member, Edith, tell their stories.
“I think it’s funny the way that, in a lot of art forms, you’ll see several people exploring the same area suddenly, and it’s just like something that bubbles up, and maybe that’s some of what we’re seeing in games right now,” What Remains of Edith Finch creative director Ian Dallas said in an interview with GameSpot. “A lot of people have had similar reactions and thoughts, and now we’re starting to see the fruits of that on the developer side.”
In regards to how Thunder Lotus Games decided to approach death positivity in Spiritfarer, creative director Nicolas Guérin said, “We stumbled into the idea of trying to talk about death in a positive way, which is [a subject] we should all be trying to do more with … Death is terrible. It sucks. It’s something that we can’t really escape and it’s actually pretty tough to casually talk about.”
For a game centered around death, Spiritfarer’s visuals are remarkably positive. The world is illustrated in bright colors, a cheery soundtrack accompanies the rhythmic hum of your ferry’s engine, and you can seemingly just hug people whenever you want. Despite half of its story taking place in a morgue, A Mortician’s Tale also steers clear of gore and morbid imagery, presenting its world in a muted-purple and the characters with exaggerated proportions. What Remains of Edith Finch puts a surreal, almost otherworldly spin on its terrifying tales, which Dallas thinks helps transform the game into a collection of “campfire stories.”
So none of them are doom and gloom all the time, and the three don’t try to meddle with their death-positive message by getting into the nitty gritty of religion and faith. “We made sure that the game was agnostic and not taking sides about who’s right and who’s wrong [when it comes to] heaven and stuff like that,” Guérin said. “The only position we take is to say that death is okay. It’s okay to be fragmented. It’s okay to feel lost in grief. It’s okay to have all those negative emotions.”
The key to conveying this message, according to Guérin, is to not preach to the player. You can’t just tell someone to believe that it’s okay to talk about death or that they should allow themselves to feel sad when someone dies. You make a good game and then include this message within its mechanics, encouraging players to act through the movements of a character. In Spiritfarer, for example, you literally can’t continue through the game without talking to the spirits you encounter, which leads you to learn their stories, befriend them, and want to walk them through their own lingering grief. The grieving process and personal stories for each spirit are different, allowing you to engage with a range of experiences and emotions for what it’s like to care for someone in their final moments. Then the game takes them away from you one at a time, just like death does in real life, and you’re forced to acknowledge that they’re gone forever (at least until you start a new playthrough, of course).
“It’s something that I think more designers should be doing,” Guérin said. “[I] want to make [stories] that only games can achieve, using game mechanics to say something that can only be experienced in that specific medium.” For Guérin, video games offer opportunities to talk about death and grief in ways that movies and books simply can’t–largely because games can force someone to interact as a part of the story instead of allowing them to passively observe.
It’s a sentiment shared by A Mortician’s Tale game designer Gabby DaRienzo. “A Mortician’s Tale is meant to be an accurate-but-gentle game about being a funeral director, and we wanted to make sure all the mechanics in the game supported this. As a funeral director supporting those in grief, your job is largely to listen rather than speak,” DaRienzo said.
“A Mortician’s Tale is a death-positive game–meaning that our goal was to speak as openly and gently about the topic of death, grief, and the funeral industry as possible,” she continued. Charlie’s story is very linear, without much in the way of choice–but the game uses its on-the-rails gameplay loop and simple mechanics to create a powerful story. “In the game, we force players to go through a daily loop–reading emails, preparing the bodies of the deceased, and attending their respective funerals,” DaRienzo said. “This goes on, day after day, and the player becomes accustomed to this mundane loop. When a day comes that Charlie is tasked with preparing the body of a man in which no one attends his funeral, the player is suddenly thrown for an emotional loop.”
The scene in question certainly rocked me the first time I played through A Mortician’s Tale. I was struck by how sad it was that, in the urn of ashes in front of me, lay the remains of a man who apparently had nobody in his life–or at least no one who cared. It’s one of the few moments in A Mortician’s Tale where you have a choice: you can walk around the room, return to your work station and prepare the next body, or go up to the urn and give a little nod of respect. I chose the latter, even though I knew next to nothing about the deceased–seeing as I had no one to ask about who he was. And although I mostly did it because I felt bad for the dude, a small part of me wanted to do it for me. In the event I die alone, I’d like to hope that at least one person (even if they don’t know me) will take the time to remember that I was here and that I mattered, much like Charlie did for this man. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about before that moment, and I’ve had small realizations like this for most of the indie games I’ve played that revolve around death and grieving.
“I think it’s easiest to see and understand death on the effect it has on everyone around us,” A Mortician’s Tale writer Kait Tremblay said. “I mean, that’s how we know and understand death, right? Our experiences are always focused through how it affects us and so writing A Mortician’s Tale definitely focused on this: what does death leave behind, how do we pick up the pieces, how do we find our way through mourning, and understand our feelings about what has happened? Because we have to keep living and we have to find a way of accepting death, and that’s kind of what A Mortician’s Tale is about, in some respects, right? It’s about that conversation, about understanding death, and finding a way through it, so focusing on the mourners embodies this.”
Granted, taking a harder look at the uncomfortable emotions surrounding death is not going to make any of those feelings suddenly easier to deal with or make the grieving process for a loved one any less sad. But at the very least, death and grief deserve to be treated as things that are normal. Your calm acceptance of a loved one’s passing is just as valid as breaking down in tears–and how you continue to deal with the grief in the aftermath isn’t likely to be exactly the same with every death in your life. Video games can’t and shouldn’t handle the complete burden of normalizing what it means to come to terms with dying and grieving for a lost loved one, but considering how many kids do play them, they’re an excellent portal for broaching the subject and informing people they are allowed to dig deeper, ask questions, and embrace their emotions.
I wish that, as a kid, I would have had something like Spiritfarer, A Mortician’s Tale, What Remains of Edith Finch, or any of the other games that put you into the role of a caretaker of someone who is dead or dying (Blackwood Crossing, To the Moon, and That Dragon, Cancer, just to name a few more). Media that is strictly educational is fine, but it’s hard to absorb something when it feels like you’re being preached at. These games do for death what games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice do for mental illness–they’re not hitting you over the head with the message you should normalize something that has been demonized for years as something scary and evil. They’re just good games, ones that also happen to use their mechanics to lead you towards making your own conclusions.
“It’s nice that games are reexamining some of the elements that have been with us for a long time, but have just gotten this patina of conventional ways [in how] they’re handled,” Dallas said. “[Like] enemies just flicker away when they die–that’s an approach to death that we just think [to include] automatically. I think that’s fine for [certain] games, but there’s so much more interesting stuff to explore that I’m happy to see other games moving into.”
“I’m pretty sure tons of triple-A developers want to do games like this too; they want to tackle complex subjects,” Guérin added, speaking to his experience as a game designer at Electronic Arts and level designer director at Ubisoft. “It’s just that the system is not working for them–in the sense that you have to sell a shit ton of those games and make sure that you can recoup your investment … You have to make sure that everything you do pleases a much larger crowd.”
Guérin went on to point out that the triple-A games that are beginning to go into topics like this are the ones that can afford to. They’re either games like Red Dead Redemption 2, which are made by studios that already have a proven track record of broaching complex content, or they’re games like The Last of Us, first-party exclusives that are usually allowed to be a bit more experimental. Still, he adds, triple-A games are rarely allowed to be as niche as an indie game. “Triple-A games are awesome but they need to [fit] on a broader spectrum,” Guérin said.
It’s unlikely that we’ll soon see as many triple-A games tackle death and grieving as well and as thoroughly as the indie games that are doing so already. But as more games like Spiritfarer make a splash at E3 and ones like What Remains of Edith Finch and A Mortician’s Tale leave lasting impacts, it increases the chances of more studios choosing to change how we experience death and grief in games. “[These games] are about dying, but at the same time [saying] dying is okay,” Guérin concludes. “It’s normal. It’s human. You know, people who die still watch football matches and TV. They don’t stop doing everything … Enjoying life is part of the message as well.”
To stay up to date on Nicolas Guérin, check out Spiritfarer–which is due to release in 2020. Gabby DaRienzo is now an artist at Drinkbox Studios, the developers behind games like Severed and Guacamelee. Kait Tremblay has taken her talents to Ubisoft Toronto, where she’s lead narrative designer for Watch Dogs Legion–recently delayed to the latter half of 2020. Ian Dallas is still at Giant Sparrow, leading the charge on the indie studio’s third game.