The middle-management sim to die for!
It was Benjamin Franklin who once said there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. I would like to add, however, that a third thing is a sure bet, and that’s that the game based on life’s only certainties — aptly named Death and Taxes — is shaping up to be one of the best indie gems of the year.
With a release date slated three days from now on February 20, 2020, developer Placeholder Gameworks, who boast team members who have worked on titles such as Disco Elysium, have a highly polished self-published game on their hands that has even managed to capture Markiplier’s attention. With its cheeky discourse on death and thinly-veiled morality tests that would make the likes of Kohlberg and Piaget proud, Death and Taxes is an invitation to discuss fate, free will, and consequences of our actions.
Death and Taxes opens up on a newly born Grim Reaper — you — on their first day in the office (and of life, actually). Your job? To sift through paperwork and decide who lives and who dies. There will be parameters to follow of course, as set by Fate, but they’re pretty straightforward. As long as you read all instructions and everything in the case file, you shouldn’t run into any issues…
…that is, on paper.
Let me explain.
On your first day, the objective is to kill one human out of two possible options. Looking at their paperwork, one might hope to find something that indicates one person is more worthy of living than the other, but truthfully? Both files are practically the same in their unremarkable nature. You might get a student, a game programmer, a retiree… normal humans living fairly normal lives. Who’s to say one deserves to live and one deserves to die?
Well, you are, actually. This is your job. And if the first day is any indication of how hard it is to make a decision, the last few levels will be absolutely paralyzing.
You see, you have a week to prove yourself to Fate that you are a capable worker; in fact, if you impress your boss enough, you might even be promoted to middle management! Exciting, right?
So as the week goes by, you realize your choices start to have an impact. On day 3 you might be asked to kill off all medical personnel, and, if you comply, by the last day you have an epidemic on your hands, as all humans capable of fighting off the disease have perished. Fate seems to have noticed the need to balance things out, so you’re then tasked to kill 6 humans, but with the condition that you spare anyone who might leave the world in a better place.
Upon reading the files, however, that’s easier said than done, as it seems the dregs of society are all that’s left to choose from that day. From smugglers to mafia bosses, from lumberjacks that accidentally destroy protected habitats to professors that have lewd relationships with their students, literally no human is without fault on the last day, and only those who might help others are deemed worthy of sticking around.
It’s this particular part of the game that I can see Psychology professors using to drive home Kohlberg’s moral stages of development; surely the mafia boss won’t be missed by their victims, but does the lumberjack — who, may I remind you, accidentally destroyed protected habitats — deserve to be painted with the same brush stroke? There are those who would argue intention counts for something, but there are others who only look at the end sum to determine acts of good or evil. At the end of the day, it’s up to the player to pass moral judgement, and the internal dialogue one has while doing so can be enlightening.
While it’s easy to compare Death and Taxes to Papers, Please, they definitely have their differences. Both demand players hit a certain quota in a job-based setting; however, where Papers, Please is rushed and morality is questioned mostly to drive storyline, Death and Taxes is at a player’s pace that allows careful thought and review. Instead of taking each file individually, players must weigh files against each other, carefully and methodically, until they are sure the decision that rests easiest in their hearts has been made.
It’s not just morality that needs to be taken into account, mind you, as it’s important to consider the occupation and background of each person before sending them to their maker. For example, if you mark the pilot for death, you may inadvertently kill all of his passengers along with him. As Fate tells you a few days in, the humans land on your desk because they’ve put themselves in literal life or death situations, so, in the case of the pilot, he could save himself and all his passengers from a fiery wreck if you so choose, or they can fall out of the sky. Either way, you’ll read about it later on your phone’s news app, Cawker, which shows you the consequences of your actions throughout your week.
I’ve spent so much time digging deep into the morality aspect of Death and Taxes that I’ve failed to mention every other superb detail. It’s pretty obvious the game is beautifully illustrated, and the voice acting is fantastic. I did love that there were a few Reaper options for me to choose from, such as a painted skull a la Dia de los Muertos, and I loved that the game went into great detail why these files were landing on your desk, if there was a department for animals, and if buildings were dead or alive. If you’ve even remotely pondered what lies beyond this mortal coil, you’ll want to pick up Death and Taxes.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve played a game like this that made me excited to challenge my morality and talked about death in such a blunt, straightforward manner. I’m really excited for the release of Death and Taxes, and, if Papers, Please was up your alley, you should be, too. If you’re still not convinced, download the free demo and try it out for yourself. Can you last a week as a pencil-pushing grim reaper?