The concept of death is not new to the video game world, but it is mostly used as a simple mechanic piece in the game play. A character dies when you get hit by a shell, and this puts you back to the beginning of the level, or you can find health items to revive you from near death, or add extra lives to your character. Death can also be used as a narrative device to move the story forward, or to shock and scare the player in a horror game; your partner is suddenly eaten by zombie dogs letting you know that the hallway you are in is dangerous, or something like that.
This pushes the idea of death and dying to the back of our minds. We are not confronting our own mortality when we are in game play. We are too focused on gaining a 1UP.
Are there video games out there that can actually teach the players about death? Can we play a game and not just battle against a level 10 boss, but against the ultimate villain in our lives — death denial? Spoiler alert! The answer to this question is yes!
There are a growing number of titles that use death as the driving force of the game. So hit continue and level up by reading our list of 10 Death Positive Video Games.
Death Positive Video Games
A Mortician’s Tale
A Mortician’s Tale is not your average action filled, car race, shoot at everything kind of game. It offers a more subtle and meditative game play from Toronto-based Laundry Bear Games. It was released a few years ago, back in 2017, and takes you through the workday of a recently-graduated mortician named Charlie as she checks emails, prepares bodies for viewing and cremation, and attends services at the Rose and Daughters Funeral Home.
The game is available for Mac and PC and is designed to be as realistic as possible to take the player on a journey where they will meditate on death, grief, and mortality.
Warning! This game may inspire you to get a career in death care.
Felix the Reaper
Felix the Reaper, released in 2019, is made by Kong Orange and is designed to open the player up to the Death Positive Movement. This is a 3D shadow manipulation puzzle adventure game of dance, dying people and love.
Felix works at The Ministry of Death and is in love with Betty The Maiden from The Ministry of Life. Felix becomes a Reaper in order to one day meet his love, and teaches himself to dance to impress her.
The Graveyard is a simple and poetic short game that was developed by Tale of Tales back in 2008. Like The Mortician’s Tale, this game takes place in real time and is a gentle meditation on the end of life. The player assumes control of an elderly woman walking through a graveyard to a bench.
As stated on their website, “It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.” An ode to the end of life, and the beauty that can exist there.
Jo-Anne Gauther, from Thunder Lotus Games, describes Spiritfarer as a game that “uses a soft, watercolor style to introduce a darker concept of death, a concept that should not actually be considered dark after all.” In this game you ferry the spirits of the dead to the afterlife, and part of your role is to comfort them in their death.
All the spirits are based on real people who have died, and the game is said to take a realistic approach to death and grief, despite its artistic look.
Developed by Ivy Games in 2015, Gravity’s Ghost is a physics-based puzzle game in which you play the ghost of a young girl, reuniting animal spirits with their physical bodies and uncovering the story of your death and the deaths of the animals you’re helping. Bonus points for flying through a fantastical version of space with your friend who is a fox ghost.
This fantastical game focuses on the cycle of life and death, and how death is not just part of our personal lives, but of our greater universe. It is designed with bright colours and swirling action to keep you engaged.
What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch is a 2017 adventure game developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Interactive. This is another puzzle game, again with a quiet and meditative tone. The game centers on the character Edith, a member of the Finch family, afflicted by a perceived curse that causes all but one member of each generation to die in unusual ways.
During the first person gameplay, you explore the rooms of each deceased family member learning how they died, while Edith Finch narrates your journey. Each room is uniquely designed, reflecting the different characters and the ways they died. The game beautifully explores memory, death, and the legacy we leave behind to our loved ones.
That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer is unlike any other game on this list. It is in essence an autobiographical tribute to Joel Green who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old, and then lived four more years before dying in March 2014. This is not your typical game play, and uses the point-and-click adventure game to create an interactive and immersive experience where the player goes through the same highs and lows the Green’s experienced.
The game was initially developed to relate Ryan and Amy’s personal experience with Joel when they were uncertain of his health, but following his death, they reworked much of the game to memorialize and personalize their time and interactions with Joel for the player. Alongside the game, there is also a documentary, Thank You for Playing (2016), which shares the last few years of Joel’s life and as well as the development of the game.
To the Moon
To the Moon is an independent PC game developed by Freebird Games in 2011. This game is more of a story-driven adventure that puts players in the shoes of two doctors armed with the seemingly impossible task of granting a dying man his final wish. Like some of the other games on this list, this is not your typical action game play and is heavy on cut scenes and dialogue.
Created by Kan Gao, who was inspired by his own meditations on end of life, the game uses 16-bit-style visuals, all-text dialogue, and emotionally-engaging characters to build a world that explores themes of love and loss.
Blackwood Crossing is another puzzle game that is shrouded in surrealism and takes the player through a mystery that reveals the complexity of loss and grief. The game is set on a moving train as two children, Scarlet and Finn, learn to navigate their relationship with each other, until their paths cross with a mysterious figure.
Through a series of creative and contextual puzzles, players unlock key details about Finn and Scarlett’s past and uncover the mystery behind the train journey. The game was the first console/PC game developed by indie studio, PaperSeven.
The last game on our list is a colourful and fun game inspired by Mexican culture and folklore. The game features characters that are mostly made up of skeletal calaca figures. Guacamelee! is an action game developed in 2013 by DrinkBox Studios that features the character Juan, a farmer-turned-luchador who must save his love interest and El Presidente’s daughter from an evil charro skeleton.
During game play, Juan can teleport between the world of the living and the world of the dead to help him solve puzzles or fight his foes. Sounds fun!
Why Video Games can Ease our COVID-19 Anxiety
There are also some beautiful examples out there of players and game developers using a piece of game play to memorialize the dead. Famously, there is the tribute to Robin Williams in World of Warcraft, a man who loved video games so much he named his daughter Zelda. Recently an online community Final Fantasy XIV community held a funeral for their deceased friend.
As recently reported in The Conversation, apocalyptic fiction can help ease anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. Others find solace in watching pandemic-themed movies. Video games may offer a similar cathartic release, giving us the opportunity to confront our fears and worries through a creative outlet, even if that outlet is Animal Crossing.
Death positive video games are a great way to explore the concepts of death and grief that can be both meditative, engaging and fun! If we have missed your favourite game, please leave it in the comments below!