PEGBRJE: Death and Taxes
Round out October with some existential dread. Happy Hallowe’en!
Death and Taxes is a narrative decision making simulation made by Placeholder Gameworks, an indie dev team out of Estonia. One of the more recent games to come out in the bundle, you play as a nameless Grim Reaper forged by fate to take on the arduous task of deciding who lives and dies in a bureaucratic office setting. Perform your task by reading over dossiers of individuals slotted for death, and decide whether or not they will live or die based on the quotas given by Fate and your own selfish desires. Take a load off at the bar on weekends to get outside opinions on your job as the Reaper struggles to figure out if there is a point to what they are doing while everyone around them seemingly has an agenda they are not privy to. Mess up too many times, and get fired. Such is the life of a pencil pushing deathmonger.
If you’ve ever played ‘Papers, Please’, this title’s gameplay and general atmosphere will be quite familiar to you. I personally have not, but know enough people who have to understand some of the core similarities, specifically around player choice and impacting decisions. Unlike in Papers, Please, however, Death and Taxes does not have ulterior requirements that the player character feels compelled to complete — a Reaper is created for the sole purpose of this job, and has no family or loved ones to consider. In retrospect, this may seem like a detriment to the game as the weight of your decisions feels less impactful. In some ways, this is the point of Death and Taxes. It is a disillusion game, one that explores the depths of bureaucracy and how detached it can cause one to become when they cannot see nor understand their actions. To the Reaper, they are just stamping a square on a piece of ethereal paper, not removing a life from Earth. Even the app can fuel the apathy of the Reaper, as while it informs the player of the results of their decision making, it is not visible. The Reaper only sees words on a screen, and the death on the surface means little to one who is already dead. Unfortunately for you, the player, you aren’t dead. You have to deal with that fallout yourself.
The narrative structure and the characters within this office building are what drives Death and Taxes out of being just labelled a clone of Papers, Please. Those with no direct connections to the department work are more lighthearted and jovial than the rest, but can also be concerned with the apathy that they know plagues their establishment. The bartender, Cerri, is an ear to listen to your problems, however you describe them and attempts to give advice even if she knows that she hasn’t the foggiest idea what to do about it. She doesn’t claim to be better or worse, just that people need drinks and sometimes, advice. Other patrons of the bar give incites on the other departments, such as the plant department, to shed more light on how vast and unfeeling the corporate entity is. They know what you are going through, and all give their own viewpoints on it, ranging from excited to work, to burnt out and wondering what there is to bother.
And then there’s Fate.
Fate is your boss, the one who made the Reaper you control. After every shift, there is only one destination: his office for a performance review. This is the only chance Reaper gets to interact with their cat-cradling boss, and can open up to dozens of different conversation paths depending on reactions and decisions made whilst receiving the review. Not to mention, if there were any mishaps, Fate will address them and mark it down for later which could mean getting fired or just altering the state of his mood. Without making this sound philosophical, Fate is the driving force behind the plot progression in Death and Taxes. At first he serves only to react to progress and decisions made, usually talking about some Equilibrium and keeping the balance and all, but slowly over time he begins to unravel and play the vague game of ‘not telling you anything directly’. The narrative begins to devolve in a sense, where Reaper acts on the information given by Fate yet is completely unsure of which information is correct or is just Fate’s musings. No one can be completely sure, and the more hard decisions (or lack thereof) made causes the company to spiral out of control in different directions. It doesn’t help that certain purchases can also lead to different opinions from other individuals that cannot be named due to spoilers.
Death and Taxes is an intriguing game about the apathetic nature of bureaucratic corporations — the idea that nothing is truly ‘your decision’ is an easy trap to fall into, yet creates dissonance between the idea that your job is important and mandatory. There’s a lot of subtle aspects that can be recalled during later moments in a playthrough, from instructions being unclear to words from previous work days being suddenly relevant to the current workday. Yet without any real time limits, players can explore these intricacies at their leisure while systematically going crazy trying to figure out if they really need to kill the number of people on their instructions. Only the Reaper can decide, or at least that’s what we’re all told. Finding out what can and cannot be done is one of the fun parts of life, even if the protagonist is completely dead.
If you are a fan of existential dread and the numbing pain of bureaucratic nonsense, or just really like narrative games that burden you with choice, grab Death and Taxes. It’s easily the scariest game in the bundle so far for the completely wrong (right?) reasons.
This was going to be a double review as I didn’t feel I had enough for a single review, but a few things changed my mind.
First! I ended up completing a round of Death and Taxes and getting halfway through another before realizing how much time I sunk into it. There were some aspects I couldn’t fully explore without finishing the game, and oddly enough this is one of the few titles that I wish was a little shorter. It’s selling point to me is that there are so many different endings that can alter the fate of everything, yet 30 days of interactions started to bog down the time to get in between, and I couldn’t just ignore them all.
Two! This was a Hallowe’eny kind of game, and felt like it should be the game I talk about last before Hallowe’en, since the next one is a little more friendly.
Three! Coincidentally, Death and Taxes just had an update yesterday introducing the patrons at the bar, a bunch of Hallowe’en based accessories, and a few other goodies. The bar’s additional content technically made the review above a little different, as if I had played earlier it wouldn’t have been there. It’s a free update from what I can gather, so it shouldn’t affect your feelings towards the game in that regard, but do be aware of this fact.
Four! It’s completely voice acted, which is intriguing. I didn’t have much to say about it, seemed fine to my untrained ear.
Five! You can’t pet the cat. I tried multiple ways. If you can, please tell me how I’m begging you.