Frazer Blog

Challenging death: An interview with Gabby DaRienzo

by | Dec 2, 2016 | For Families

video game controller

“Americans … are so obsessed with youth and triumphing over every challenge they face that they become afraid of aging and death, often seen as life’s ultimate defeat.”

— Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlife, in an interview with CNN.

Death is a hard subject to tackle. Not much is understood about it, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that we don’t like to talk about it. Until recently.

In the past few years, there have been new movements that are pushing for a death positive approach. And these movements are making strides in changing the way we talk, feel, and think about death.

We’ve mentioned the concept of death cafés, where people come together to eat, drink, and discuss death and dying. We’ve also talked about the new phenomena of people attending their own funerals — whether in real life or virtually — as a way to open up about death and funeral planning.

One of the people helping to challenge death’s stigma is Toronto-based game artist, Gabby DaRienzo.

She is the co-founder of the game studio Laundry Bear Games, where one of the projects she is developing is called A Mortician’s Tale. The game is based on the day-to-day tasks of a funeral director.

Gabby said her inspiration came after reading Caitlin Doughty’s book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

The Beginning: Mortuary Simulator

“I was hugely inspired to make a game where you play as a funeral director tasked with running a funeral home. I made a simple pixel art prototype that I titled Mortuary Simulator, shared a few screenshots online, and left it at that. People started becoming very interested, and asking me questions about the game and about the death industry, which was something I didn’t expect but was very excited about, so myself and my co-founder/partner Andrew Carvalho decided to make Mortuary Simulator into a full game.”

In A Mortician’s Tale, you do everything a funeral director does — including embalming cadavers.

A Mortician’s Tale Comes to Life

As interest grew, the game received some backing from the Ontario Arts Council — which allowed Gabby and her partner Andrew to collaborate with musician Halina Heron, illustrator Jacquelin de Leon, sound designer Jen Costa, writer Kaitlin Tremblay, and audio programmer Robby Duguay. Together they were not only able to bring A Mortician’s Tale to life — but also their own personal experiences and feelings about death.

“In A Mortician’s Tale, you take on the role of recent funeral director graduate Charlie as she learns the ropes of the business and industry. You are tasked with preparing eight different cadavers (via embalming or cremation), attending their funerals and consoling their loved ones, and interacting with Charlie’s coworkers, clients, bosses, and friends through email. Through these interactions, you’ll discover more about the funeral home Charlie works at; learn about the western funeral industry, green burials, and alternative funerals; and uncover stories about each individual deceased and their loved ones,” Gabby explained.

Of course, being a funeral director also means a lot of emails.

Challenging Death

Death in video games is usually a bad thing — a defeat or a setback. Gabby wanted to challenge that notion.

“The interactivity of video games makes them the perfect medium to explore topics like death, giving players the opportunity to participate in and explore mortality, loss, and grief directly. Traditionally, death in games has often been utilized as a mechanic in order to punish and/or challenge the player — encouraging them to do better, or giving them motive to continue playing. These methods are tried and true, but often it feels like game developers don’t always consider if these traditional death mechanics best fit their games.”

Gabby also explained that as game-making tools become more accessible and the ability to distribute them becomes easier, it opens the door for a more personal experience with video games. Artists can inject their personal experiences, emotions, and feelings — adding new layers of depth that video games haven’t seen before.

As for the death-related video game, she’s hoping it can dispel some of the taboo.

“In western society especially, death is still a topic that we are told not to talk about, and thinking about it too much or asking questions about it is deemed as ‘morbid.’ Unfortunately, I think this fear of talking about death is harmful to us and makes death and funerals a lot more difficult to deal with when it happens to a loved one. Luckily, that seems to be changing. The death positive movement is encouraging people to explore their thoughts and feelings about death. Death cafés are popping up all over the world, giving people the opportunity to share their thoughts with like-minded individuals.”

A Learning Experience

Gabby’s biggest hopes for A Mortician’s Tale is that it will be a learning experience.

“In A Mortician’s Tale, players will learn some of the ins-and-outs of the industry, including specific processes that aren’t normally talked about but that are important for us to know in order to make informed decisions regarding our (and our loved ones’) funeral wishes. My biggest hope for the game is that it will encourage players to really think about what they want for themselves when they die, and maybe spark some much-needed conversations about death with their loved ones.”

Her Own Experiences

Between making A Mortician’s Tale and getting inspired by groups like the Order of the Good Death, Gabby has reflected on aspects of her own funeral.

“One of the most common things I’ve encountered — and something I myself am guilty of — is people wanting very specific things for their own funerals without considering what is best for their grieving loved ones — whether that’s financial or otherwise.”

“At one point during a conversation with friends I had mentioned I wanted my funeral to be a fun and arcade-filled, with all my favorite video games and catered by my favorite restaurants. A close friend, who had lost her father a few years prior, responded by saying that ultimately funerals are less about you and more about the loved ones you leave behind. Funerals, on top of mourning you and celebrating your life, are also meant to comfort your loved ones and help them through the grieving process.”

“It was a great point, and something I’ve thought about a lot since she mentioned it. For me now, it’s important that my family know my burial wishes (which, for the record, have gone from ‘fun arcade’ to ‘something ideally green, modest, and affordable’) but otherwise, whatever is best for them to mourn me is a-okay with me.”

Besides her work as a game artist and co-founder of Laundry Bear Games, Gabby DaRienzo also hosts and produces The Play Dead podcast, which explores the concept of death in video games with other game developers. To keep up-to-date with Gabby’s work, you can follow her on Twitter.


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