Review: Death and Taxes – Afterlife Bureaucracy

In life, there are two things we can always be certain about. You’ll find both of them in Death and Taxes, a new paperwork simulator from Placeholder Gameworks. In Death and Taxes, you assume the role of a recently created Grim Reaper composed of lemons and probably some other stuff too. Your job is to carefully examine the forms that arrive on your desk each day and carefully decide who will live and who will die thanks to a handy dandy marker and some helpful choice boxes. Each form includes a photo, name, age, occupation and a short description. That small amount of information is all you have to go on to determine if someone lives or dies.

Mechanically speaking, Death and Taxes is about as simple as can be, but there’s more to it than just what’s on the surface. Each day, you’ll be given a specific set of instructions to follow, like “At least two people have to die” or “Make sure you spare anybody with a career in science.” Sure, on some days this will be incredibly easy and you might find yourself choosing between a man who kidnaps children at sporting events and a medical student who loves her grandma, but some choices may have you feeling a bit conflicted. On one of the days, I was given five forms and was instructed to kill three people. After reading through all the forms, I found three people that I believed I could kill with no quarrels and two that were no brainers to stay alive. Except one of the three people had an extra note attached from my boss instructing me to keep them alive, so I was now forced to make a decision. Do I want to go with my gut and save the two people I believed in? Or follow my extra instructions and prove myself loyal to my company?

Will you do as instructed, or follow your own sense of right and wrong?

You are definitely free to disobey your daily tasks, but doing so may result in a scolding from your superior, a dock in pay, or if you’re too lax with the rules, full termination from your position. So whether you’re looking to rebel against your higher-ups or simply trying to follow your own ideals of right and wrong, you need to be careful how you go about it. It’s entirely possible that letting one person live may result in the deaths of many others down the road. Each day your phone let’s know what’s going on in the news, and this information may help you make a decision or may have you questioning if your earlier choices were as solid as you initially thought. One day my phone had a news blurb about a restaurant in the middle of the desert people should check out. On my desk that day was the man who owned that restaurant. Except he only built it as a tax shelter and was serving expired ingredients to people. I let him live, but the next day the news was reporting that hundreds of people got sick from eating there. This could have been avoided if I’d killed the owner.

I love games where I have to make choices like this. Any game that has me looking back and forth between two options and asking myself “Oh man, what should I do!?” gives me a sense of immersion that I just don’t get with most titles that claim to offer choices. Most games have a good option and a bad option, but there are so many invisible underlying factors in every choice you’ll face in Death and Taxes that it can be tricky to balance it all. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though. Of course, Death and Taxes isn’t all doom and gloom. Sometimes your decision will just come down to choosing whether or not to spare the man who enjoys pineapple on pizza. There’s a nice degree of levity to the descriptions on the forms and it definitely was able to make me laugh. The writing in general is quite solid, and the voice acting of your superior, Fate, is haunting and memorable. The in-game music is perfect for the exciting nature of performing rudimentary paperwork as it has that calming background elevator muzak sort of vibe. The art style sticks out with an almost comic book style feel. The thick black outlines makes everything feel highlighted, and the limited use of color in some places makes it all the more memorable. I’ll never be able to forget Fate’s bright yellow bow tie in an office made almost entirely of grays.

Death and Taxes 1
Some choices may seem easier than others, but will I feel so confident when I read tomorrow’s news?

A game that may come to mind as people play Death and Taxes is Papers, Please, another title that involved carefully analyzing paperwork in order to hopefully make the right decision. Two big differences though, are that in Papers, Please you were on a strict time limit where the more work you did correctly could earn you more money, and that money was necessary to take care of your family. You could choose to break the rules to reunite a couple, but you’d make that choice at the risk of your wife and kids. In Death and Taxes, money is primarily used for novelty desk items like a fidget spinner or a squeaky gerbil toy, or even more ways to customize your character. You’ll always start out as a skeleton in a suit, but as you buy more head and body options you can make yourself a cat girl in a tiger robe or a plague doctor wearing a bow tie with pineapples on it. The things that you can buy are certainly nice little additions, and some even provide extra mechanics like keeping track or your days or letting you flip a coin.

The problem is that you never really need to spend your money in Death and Taxes. At the end of each day, Fate reviews your work and will generally just say everything seems to be in order or that you did a good job. If you break the rules, the worst he’ll do is say you need to be more careful, and those gentle reprimands never felt like a proper punishment. The general idea is that Death and Taxes sometimes feels like it wants you to break the rules now and then, but I think it would’ve benefited from having the player lose something valuable in the process. Not being able to buy a new desk lamp from my pirate skeleton friend until tomorrow just didn’t have much of an impact. As long as you’re not choosing to let everybody die every single day, which will eventually end your game prematurely, you’ll be fine.

The rules of Death and Taxes are easy to follow, but the choices you can make create an engaging atmosphere with a lot of variety. Will you dedicate yourself to the company as a loyal grim reaper? When you read about an upcoming virus will you kill the scientist working to create a cure? There’s an entire world of order, chaos and everything in between, and whatever happens all boils down to what you do at your desk. It’s a low pressure, but high stakes game where most of the adrenaline will come from the conundrums you’ll be creating for yourself. Sure, this corrupt politician that hunts people for sport should probably die…but this guy likes pineapple on pizza…and I can only kill one more person today. The choices are yours.

John reviewed Death and Taxes on Steam with a copy provided by the developer.

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