Oops, killed Markiplier
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and, by opposing, end them.”
Whether it be Hamlet’s pontification over shedding this mortal coil or Freddie Mercury’s raw, emotive cries to his mama (ooooh): “I don’t wanna die, but sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” both men approach the same concept in dramatically different ways — not only is life taxing, but even death — and what may possibly lay beyond — isn’t necessarily relaxing (“To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub”). Only in the total lack of existence may we find peace.
tbh, I’m here for it. I’m pretty burned out and I’ve always wrestled with an existential crisis (“nothing really matters, anyone can see”). I agree with Mercury’s sentiments and don’t feel like dying, but doesn’t an eternal slumber sound… nice? Like, I’m really tired, and if I’m just here to work and be productive, I’d rather just not… be.
Of course, the second you start talking about it, people put you on suicide watch, but it’s not even like that. Why can’t we just talk about death without people thinking you’re gonna off yourself the minute you mention the word? What is this complete and utter aversion to death — as if talking about it will make it happen? Why can’t we just admit that there doesn’t need to be a Heaven for death to be great — just the endless void where we can finally get some rest?
It’s these concepts that self-published developers Placeholder Gameworks aim to discuss with players in their newest title, Death and Taxes. Launching on Steam on February 20, 2020, the indie title with multiple endings and tons of replay value promises to be a Papers, Please-esque middle management-sim absolutely worth dying for.
Death and Taxes opens up on a comic book style storyline with Fate cooking something up. Turns up that something is a new grim reaper — you — and immediately orders you to get to work. Death waits for no man (nor reaper), so it’s time to get cracking at your new job, which is to decide who lives and who dies.
If an image of a literal reaper with scythe and all popped into your head, you’re forgiven — it’s far less brutal than that. Instead, it’s all pencil-pushing paperwork, as this version of grim reaper is more a desk jockey than a dreary harbinger of death (I mean, kinda both but… you get the idea). The name of this game is to determine which humans that land on your desk end up going home or end up meeting their maker.
As each day begins, each new batch of humans finds their way to your capable, bony hands. Some instructions will also appear, complete with parameters regarding how many humans need to go and any other pertinent information, such as occupations to look out for, age range, and potential to do good in the world. Use your pen to mark a file as either “life” or “death”, but be forewarned — each decision, once made, is permanent, so be sure you’ve made the best choice possible.
Of course, which is the best choice? If you need to kill two humans, for example, who do you choose? The 114 year old retiree? The lumberjack who accidentally kills protected habitats? The smuggler with no scruples? The loop-hole finding CEO? The attorney who finds guilty parties innocent? The reformed murderer? The drug dealer? The professor who’s had lewd relationships with their students? The perpetual student seeking their fourth degree? Markiplier?
Well, whoever you decide, you’ll have to answer to your own maker at the end of each day. Fate will review your work and wax philosophical each night, answering any questions you may have about life, death, and the great beyond. As it would turn out, there’s an entire industry revolving around death, serving to process the lives of humans, trees, animals… maybe buildings? Hmm. Fate seems to be stumped as often as he has answers, but either way light is definitely shed on this exciting bureaucratic new world you were literally just born into.
After each successful(?) day, you’re given coins for all your hard work, which you can go down to the basement and use to buy fancy clothes, desk knick-knacks, and helpful tools such as an eraser or a calendar. Each time you buy something, Mortimer, a skeletal pirate whose booty you be plunderin’, tells a tall tale about how he received each item in life. You can almost taste the sea air and see a twinkle in his non-existent eye each time he starts rambling about cat ears or a snow globe. It’s oddly endearing.
As for what makes a successful day, well… that’s up for each individual reaper to decide. Trying to play it safe and be a good lil reaper, I played strictly by the rules each day. I followed all instructions to a tee. It got to a point where I didn’t even bother reading the character sheets to see how each human lead their lives. The brief wants me to kill old people? Good-bye, grandpa. Time for medical professionals to die? Prognosis: death. Sleazy CEOs need to go? You’re fired. The less information I read on these files, the better, their humanity practically gone as I found a strange comfort in obeying every order. After all — I was quite literally born to do this job, why not do it perfectly?
As it would turn out, that would be mine — and humanity’s — undoing. You see, just as death is a sweet, sweet release for individual humans, killing off ALL of humanity would mean Fate and his team of grim reapers can also rest. Why employ afterlife associates if there’s no one left to process? Why not just kill all humans and be done with this nonsense? Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound peaceful? Doesn’t that sound like… freedom?
Well, Fate certainly seems to think so, which is why, if you follow his instructions perfectly, he’ll have you carry out his master plan of wiping humanity from the face of the Earth so that he — and you — may finally stop existing too.
As I sat there, recognizing how my ambivalence towards humans lead to everyone’s demise, I kind of realized how much I didn’t… care. Not because of the writing, mind you, but because of how much I agreed with Fate. Humans are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the universe will continue to exist without us. Without me. There’s really no point to any of this, so why not end it all and just be done with it — if only to finally have peace?
After what I had felt was the perfect ending — one where I agreed with “the villain” so much — a small, unexpected voice piped up.
It was Mortimer, the dead pirate who had cheerfully sold me his wares and spun stories upon each visit.
Mortimer, strangely enough, reminded me that it’s really not about an end sum. In just a few lines of text, he reminded me that it isn’t about why you fill the years, but how you felt during them. Each item meant so much to him, reminding him of his many misadventures and time spent with those he cherished. I realized, in that moment, that even after I’m long gone, others will remember me — even in passing — and the impact I had on them. And as stupid as it sounds, even for a moment, it made me not so tired after all.
That still, small voice that begged me to keep going — to rebel a little and save humanity — prompted me to start a new game+ file, play it all over again, and see if I can’t actually save all humans this time around. Maybe it’s pointless when you look at the grand scheme of things, sure, but in Mortimer, I saw that twinkle of humanity again, and remembered that there’s more to a life than what we just see on paper.
Death and Taxes has so much more going for it than I’ve even been able to discuss. The art style is fantastic, the voice acting is perfection, the music is brilliant, and the mechanic is sure to delight any Papers, Please fans. But what really, really stuck with me was not only how it dove deeply into existentialism in an entertaining way that didn’t get mired in the macabre, but how it quietly — so subtle, you could miss it — elevated the feel right back up at the end, aligning morals back to a human scale and setting the expectation and desire to do better.
“Any way the wind blows,” Death and Taxes NAILS the discussion we need to be open to having about mortality, and I’m so excited a game like this finally exists. I cannot wait to play more to unlock all the endings and discover what other sides of life I should be exploring. If you’re looking for a great game that perfectly toes the line between cerebral and esoteric, please pick up Death and Taxes.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Placeholder Gameworks; Developer: Placeholder Gameworks; Players: 1; Released: February 20, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Death and Taxes given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.