“Dead Bodies in a Funhouse”: ‘The Mortuary Assistant’ Developer Previews His Spooky Autopsy Simulator [Interview]

horror

“The amount of people who want to be morticians, or have some kind of interest in embalming, is alarmingly high!”

Brian Clarke (aka DarkStone Digital) discovered just how common it is to have this ghoulish fascination with death, when he released his initial prototype for The Mortuary Assistant back in 2020.

Serving as a 10-minute appetiser — for what would later be expanded into a full game— the indie horror had a gripping premise. In it, you played as a funeral director’s newbie apprentice (named Rebecca), who was thrown in at the deep end when her employer bailed on a shift at the very last minute.

You were subsequently left holding the bag on what turned out to be the mortuary’s busiest night ever and had to prepare all the dead bodies yourself. This entailed donning the appropriate attire, mixing the embalming chemicals, and collecting a grisly assortment of tools so that you could make a jugular incision.

Being left alone in that situation is probably scary enough for most people but, this being a horror title, things quickly went from bad to worse. While you were performing your duties, lights would flicker of their own accord, scrawled messages instructed you to kill yourself, eerie whispers could be heard emanating from off-screen, and the cadaver you were meant to be operating on unaccountably disappeared from its gurney.

As a proof of concept, it was a short but sweet experience that culminated with a decent jump scare and an abrupt cut to black (as is tradition for these things). No matter how efficient you were as an undertaker, you could only ever make it about a third of the way down your to-do list before a demon attacked and then it was game over.

However, there was something about this prototype that managed to capture people’s attention, which is why Clarke decided to pursue his macabre idea a little further. Flash forward two years later and he is now on the cusp of launching a finished version of The Mortuary Assistant on Steam.

Published by DreadXP, he hopes that this more fleshed-out take will be able to satiate those who were (perhaps a little too) invested in completing their original shift over at River Fields funeral parlour.

To find out more, Bloody Disgusting spoke to Clarke in an exclusive interview.


One Seriously Messed Up Fun House

The Mortuary Assistant 3

“With this full release version, you’ll finally be able to do the whole embalming process from beginning to end. Apparently, that’s what everyone wanted to do the first time around. At least, that’s according to the feedback I got.”

Upon telling us this, Clarke lets out an unnerved chuckle, presumably taken aback by how great an appetite for corpse preservation there is within the gaming community.

Sure enough, those who are keen to hone their embalming technique will have ample opportunity to do so with the Mortuary Assistant’s new build, as you’re no longer merely taking care of a single body. Instead, every playthrough will get you to deal with three (randomly selected) cadavers, each with their own unique backstories and preparation requirements.

During any given shift, you’ll have to get bodies out of cold storage, spot their identifying marks, input findings onto the River Fields computer system, drain fluids, make clinical incisions and even dabble with a bit of cremation.

In other words, you’ll be responsible for all manner of gruesome nastiness. Which wouldn’t be quite so distressing, were it not for the fact that the place is also haunted and you’re being stalked by a malevolent presence throughout.

Delivering his impromptu elevator pitch, Clarke said: “I’ve distilled my idea into one brief sentence: ‘Dead bodies in a funhouse.’ Because that perfectly sums up what I’m going for!

“I thought it was a cool setting that people hadn’t used much before in video games. So, I wanted to do it proper justice and decided to carry out in-depth research into how mortuaries [operate]. I watched tons of instructional videos on YouTube, read countless articles about mortuary sciences and even read some educational documents about how to use the tools.”

Don’t go mistaking the game for an accurate simulator though, as Clarke did take creative liberties in order to make the interactions feel more visceral.

“I ended up going with this weird combination of modern and slightly archaic techniques, picking whatever was creepiest for the scene in question. For example, the specific trocar method that we use in the game is not that prevalent anymore and usually involves a few extra steps, but I felt that the old-fashioned way was much better suited to horror. “I’ve had actual morticians reach out to me after playing the demo, complimenting its authenticity and the level of detail. But they always follow up that praise with something like: ‘We do [embalming] this way’, ‘That’s kind of outdated’ or ‘the trocar process should be a multi-step thing.’

“Which I do appreciate, because I did my due diligence and researched everything. However, I’m just trying to abbreviate the process for the sake of the player and that means omitting certain things and playing up to the horror aspect.”


Thinking Small, Dreaming Big

The Mortuary Assistant 2

When describing his ambition for the game, Clarke said: “I knew I wanted two things. I wanted spooky dead bodies and I wanted a claustrophobic setting that gave me a high degree of control over what the player sees. The mortuary scenario happened to meet both of those requirements.”

On that note, one of the first things that might strike you about The Mortuary Assistant is how remarkably condensed it is. The entire thing takes place within the confines of a funeral home and the only respite you get from this suffocating environment is a quick prologue and a few surreal dream sequences.

Of course, the decision to make the game so pared down was an intentional one, given that Clarke already has his work cut out for him as a solo developer. After all, he is responsible for creating the story, writing the complex lore, programming the various systems, and figuring out the artistic design. So, it naturally made sense for him to have a manageable concept.

None of this is to imply that Clarke is an amateur though. Far from it, he has 17 years’ worth of experience in the industry, 13 of which he spent at AAA companies working on MMOs like Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Rift and Defiance. He even had a stint over at LucasArts, where he served as lead environment artist on a Star Wars project.

As such, it is fair to say that Clarke has got considerable pedigree. Nevertheless, he is still getting used to doing everything on his own.

Since adopting the DarkStone Digital moniker, he has developed a number of solo projects and experimented with a few different genres to refine his craft. He’s done bullet-hell shooters (Outstation), sci-fi puzzle outings (The Subject) and a narrative-driven escape room (Our Secret Below).

Reflecting on how he is steadily finding his groove, Clarke admitted: “The last one was a little better, because it was at a scale that was easier for me to manage on my own, and I could focus on telling a clearer story. That’s why I’m continuing down that same path with The Mortuary Assistant.”

Yet while this latest offering might appear slight in terms of its pure square footage, it’s actually way more ambitious on a technical level. In the developer’s own words, the small environment belies a “whole lot of work that went on under the hood.”


Introducing “The Haunt System”

According to Clarke, most of his considerable time and effort was channeled into refining the game’s unique “Haunt System”, which ensures that every single playthrough is a little different from the last.

He explained: “People tend to equate length with value for money nowadays and it only takes a few hours to ‘complete’ an average run of The Mortuary Assistant. However, there’s a lot more content in the game than first meets the eye.

“I wanted to make something that people could experience over and over again, while still encountering something new each time. That’s why I built the [Haunt] System.”

In terms of how this works, the title is basically broken up into a series of vignettes that, unbeknownst to the player, can be mixed and matched together. There are multiple iterations of the opening, the second act can veer off in a few different directions, the main antagonist can take various sinister forms, and there are five major endings.

Unlike in, say, Until Dawn or The Quarry, these aren’t presented to you as branching paths that you can influence. Rather, there’s an element of potluck going on behind the scenes, with all the important decisions being made by the game itself. Right under your nose.

Clarke elaborated: “The system essentially builds your experience when you first load in, dictating which narrative elements you’re going to see over the course of the night. Someone may get more of Rebecca’s story, whereas another person might get to explore the history of the mortuary instead. Or even a combination of both.

“At the beginning of the shift we determine the key story events, the demonic entity that you’re going to be dealing with, and the bodies you’re going to have to process. But as far as the ending is concerned, that’s very much dependent upon what the player does, the lore documents they’ve found and if they’ve made any grave mistakes.”

Think of it like a prix fixe restaurant menu. The interchangeable dead bodies are your appetisers, the story focus is your entrée, the chosen demon is your dessert course, and The Haunt System is a presumptuous date who insists on ordering for you.

Regardless of what it decides to serve up though, you’ll inevitably end up with a fragmented view of the narrative. It’s impossible to see everything in one go, as each telling of the story is filled with gaps and unanswered questions. So, the only way to get a full picture of everything is to play through it numerous times.

Clarke continued: “The idea is that you do it again to see more and over time gradually ‘collect’ all the missing pieces of the puzzle. The game remembers what you’ve already seen in the previous night and then feeds you something different for your next shift. And this keeps happening until you’ve experienced the entire story.”

The system also decides which scares to feature in your playthrough and where exactly to deploy them for maximum impact. By Clarke’s estimates, there are approximately 100 of these dynamic events in The Mortuary Assistant, ranging from shadowy figures looming in the corner of a room, to naked corpses peering at you through windows, and a freaky creature (dubbed “The Mimic”) perching itself on nearby cabinets.

You might be confronted with all three of these during your first shift, or you might not see any of them. The uncertainty is meant to keep you on edge, as even veteran players won’t be able to tell what’s coming, and there could always be a surprise around the next corner.

“The system checks against things like: which demon has been summoned in the playthrough; how fast you are progressing; where you are in the room; what you have in your inventory, which direction you’re facing, and whether the lights are turned on. If the right criteria is met, then it will fire off the appropriate scare event. If not, it’ll circle back through and find another one.”


Inspired By ‘True Events’ and YouTube Clips

The Mortuary Assistant 1

As you’d expect, this randomised approach made it quite difficult for Clarke to script the horror or to perfectly calibrate jump scares. Yet that wasn’t too much of a concern for the developer, as he was instead aiming for a feeling of insidious dread.

“I was inspired by the ambient feel of found footage movies” he explained. “Paranormal Activity was a big one for me [because] it was one of the first [films] that really left me feeling uneasy afterwards. I’m a big fan of that ‘it could happen to you’ style of horror. “I also watch a bunch of creepy shorts on YouTube. There’s a channel called Slapped Ham, that has a whole lot of closed-circuit TV clips, with ghosts being caught on camera and stuff like that. You know, those things where disturbing music plays in the background, while a weird dark figure is peering out from the closet in a home video or whatever.

“As silly as all that is, it really inspired me with the Mortuary Assistant because so much of that stuff is easily relatable to people. They see these home videos where there’s a weird face in the dark or somebody ominously standing outside a window, and they feel like it could happen to them.

“I wanted to capture that feeling in a game. In fact, there’s actually a disclaimer at the very beginning, just for flavor and fun, that says the things that happen here are based on actual events. Which is kind of true. It was inspired by online articles that I read and those weird videos.”

When you get around to playing the game, you will immediately understand what Clarke is talking about. The scares here aren’t loud and in-your-face, but chillingly quiet. For instance, you could be investigating some eldritch markings on the floor, only to look up and see a pale hand outstretched from the darkness, beckoning you to approach.

“Some people have been calling them ‘silent screamers’, but I prefer the term ‘reverse jump scares’. While I don’t explicitly draw your attention to them, I have implemented a detection system so that these events won’t trigger until you’re looking in the right direction.

“I didn’t want to simply wrestle control of the camera away from the player and then startle you with a frightening image. I want you to feel like you’ve noticed the creepy thing by sheer [happenstance]. That way, you’ll constantly be wondering if there’s something else watching you.

“In fact, there have been numerous occasions where YouTubers and Streamers have got in touch with me to say that they were editing their gameplay footage, and noticed a demon in the background that they didn’t see before. I love that. I think it’s really eerie.

“Even if it means that the average player will miss about 70% of those more hidden scares, I still think it’s worth it for the people who do spot them.”

You’ll be able to scour for these unsettling images yourself when The Mortuary Assistant launches on August 2. Reflecting on the encroaching release date, Clarke said: “It’s never going to seem ready to me. I’ve been working on this thing for two years now and there’s so much that I feel like I could add to it. I could put in new haunting events, do some extra fine-tuning, or give it a little more polish […] It can be tough to feel like it’s done, but I know that eventually it does have to come out.”

That being said, he won’t necessarily be finished with the project once it unlocks on Steam. On the contrary, Clarke told us that he has plans to port the game to Xbox and PlayStation in the future and that he is hoping to send it to a localisation house, so that it can be enjoyed in languages other than English. Most enticingly, he also mentioned that regular updates (particularly around Halloween) could be on the card to give it a little more longevity.

If that’s the case, then those embalming fanatics that have been waiting around since 2020 will have a lot to look forward to.

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