Interview: Placeholder Gameworks

If you’ve ever wanted to step into the shoes of an office-based Grim Reaper, Placeholder Gameworks has a game for you!

Combining influences from such titles as ‘Papers, Please’, ‘Reigns’, ‘Beholder’, ‘Animal Inspector’ and more, ‘Death and Taxes’ offers players the chance to complete paperwork reaping’s in the hopes of earning what would possibly amount to the ever-coveted Office Reaper of the Month Award (or… is it?).

Continuing our ongoing collaboration with Bad Ghosts, we here at AltWire take a moment to discuss the delightfully macabre ‘Death and Taxes’ with indie development team, Placeholder Gameworks!

Placeholder Gameworks:
L: Leene Künnap, creative lead / digital artist.
O: Ott Madis Ozolit, tech lead / programmer.

AltWire: Hi! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions about the game, and of course congratulations for the recent success Death and Taxes has received! First off, what would you say first inspired the concept of an office-dwelling Grim Reaper?

L (Placeholder Gameworks): I have always liked Grim Reapers and media about them. The character is usually shown as an evil character but I like the depictions that show them in a neutral/positive way. I really like Terry Pratchett’s grim, the grim from Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and so on. In western society, death is a touchy and hushed subject and I think it shouldn’t be. There is a movement called Death Positivity and we like to think that we are a part of it.

The idea of Death being an office worker came from a small animation called “Zing” (this one:

). The problem of Death being a worker that decides about ending or not ending the life of a person based just on a piece of paper is an interesting moral dilemma, and suits well in an interactive setting where people can think about their own values.

AW: There are a lot of really wonderful influences peppered throughout the game, where would you say some of the core design choices’ inspiration came from – such as the art style?

L (Placeholder Gameworks): The art style is mainly inspired by old comic books and watercolor paintings mixed together. The setting is a mixture of different ages, showing that the office building/hotel where the game takes place has been there for a long time. There are smartphones but the office is still stuck in the nineties with fax machines and physical papers. There are a lot of elements from different ages and cultures, symbols like the ankh from Ancient Egypt and bright colours/masks from the Mexican holiday about death (Día de Muertos).

O (Placeholder Gameworks): Besides the art, there are influences in the game’s design from various media. There is a certain element of ruthless satire, akin to Terry Pratchett’s or George Orwell’s writing. We have discussions about moral philosophy, most notably utilitarianism and existentialism, and these topics weighed in heavily on our decisions when it came to gameplay and game feel. We wanted even the game’s most basic framework to support the story that we wanted to tell.

AW: As noted in the Bad Ghosts review, we can’t help but notice some sneaky references in the game! Are there any favorites in the game that fans have perhaps missed/had a hard time recognizing?

L: Oh boy, there are so many good ones to choose from. I snicker every time I hear the character Fate say: “Papers, please, where are you.” while looking for some papers on his desk. That is, of course, a reference to the game “Papers, Please!” which was one of the inspirations for the main mechanic of the game. To be honest, I might not even know all of the references that went in the about 580 handcrafted profiles from our writers. But I managed to hide a surprising amount of Batman references to the customization of the main character with visual items from Harley Quinn, The Joker and also Batman himself. There is even a special profile for “Brooke Way”, a vigilante (tee-hee). Also there is a profile for the plant that a lot of people overwater by accident in Life is Strange.

O: There’s a lot of cool stuff. There are references to certain bands and their song lyrics, like Library Tapes, for one. I won’t spoil which ones are there, though. We tried to balance out nods and references to more popular subjects with more obscure ones, too. There are various events and people we reference that have been personal inspirations in our lives or for this particular game. It would be impossible to count them all, I think. One of my own favorites that I wrote in was a hypothetical grandmother of Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island series, which I only really reference by the grandmother’s strange affinity to porcelain. It’s kind of like a low-key love letter to all the wonderful, creative people out there, gamedevs or otherwise.

AW: The briefest glance at the game’s development always indicates that the team had a blast developing Death and Taxes, were there any moments throughout the game’s development that perhaps seemed a little less thrilling?

L: At one point, I was still studying full time, working part time, while dabbling (and failing) to lead the team at the same time. We also took part in a game development competition where they wanted to disqualify us because there was some negative feedback from industry people thinking the game is immoral (because of the heavy topic of Death) and is “not a game”. Even though most of the game happens in players’ heads and the objectives are blurry, I still think there is no reason to say that Death and Taxes is not a game.

O: Fixing game-breaking bugs the morning after release, while suffering a hangover with the power of the Nine Circles of Hell. Rookie mistake. Otherwise it’s all been peachy! We never had any serious conflicts or massive “oh no” moments, and we improvised whenever we were met with an obstacle.

AW: Despite being a small one, the voice cast of Death and Taxes shines as a clear example of wonderfully written/delivered dialogue. How did you come to work with the voice actors?

L: We feel so lucky to find such talent for our game! I met Doug Pennant at the Train Jam, riding coast-to-coast in the USA with hundreds of game developers. Other voice actors were suggested to us from other developers. Having a good network in the industry helps a lot! Going to events and being active in the online communities is a good idea for an indie developer.

O: I’m waiting for Doug to release his personal audiobook collection now. He is so good.

AW: One of the most fascinating points of the game’s DevLog touches on one of the most crucial aspects of any artistic release – the dreaded question of what to name the project! Were there any names that nearly took top spot before finally settling on ‘Death and Taxes’?

L: I did like “Grim Office Simulation” a lot, simple and tells what the game is. At first there was over a hundred names suggested by our friends. I think there were like 12 names we chose from in the end and Death and Taxes won by far. I really wanted the name to have “Death” in it because it is the core theme of the game.

AW: Another dreaded question incoming… now that Death and Taxes is finished, have you begun to touch on what might be coming next?

L: We just started working on a small free Halloween DLC for Death and Taxes so there will be a bit more content, some things that our fans wanted like the underground bar in the game, will be opened. We are working with Pineapple Works to bring the game to other platforms (Switch!) and maybe other languages too.

In the near future, we will surely start working on some new games with more interesting stories. There are a lot of ideas already for very different games and we have to decide on what we will do next. What we can say is that we will steer clear from shooters and simple puzzle platformers that the market is overflowing with. But we will continue making games because that is what we are passionate about.

O: What she said. We don’t want to say anything specific yet, because all of the ideas are still taking form. We’ve been thinking more about creative, expressive games, some that are non-violent, some that would be more mechanic-heavy as compared to Death and Taxes, and even a turn-based strategy game. I think the only thing to say here is: Watch this space! Follow us on our social media, we’re most active on Twitter and Discord.

AW: One last question from us… the game of course features multiple endings, so if you were the fateful Office Reaper playing the game completely blind, how do you think you would fare?

L: After taking a break from making the game, I played it from the beginning to end and I did destroy the world by accident. It was amusing. I was mostly working on the art side of things so I didn’t know what numbers were really behind some of the profiles. The people working more on writing/programming might have done better.

O: I am such a klutz that I would probably either end myself, or my boss purely by accident somehow. Who knows how the world would end up like in that case!

If you’re interested, support Placeholder Gameworks here!

About the author

M. Stoneman

"If you combine horror movies, rock music and Silent Hill, I'm the result: a British writer who will likely gush over guitar solos and ambient horror game soundtracks.”
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