The Uncertainty of Death and Taxes

Follow-up of sorts to: Easy Mode and Hard Mode, also Spoiler-Free Review: Death and Taxes

Epistemic Status: Early exploration of concepts that deserve a better, tighter treatment at a future time. This has been in my drafts for a while, figure I’ll push it out there and then redo the important stuff again later.

Spoiler Alert: This post is about and contains full spoilers for the game Death and Taxes, attempting to use it to make broader points. Death and Taxes is a game that benefits greatly from being played blind, which is kind of the point of this post. If you’re debating whether to play the game, see my short spoiler-free review. This post is designed not to rely at all on the reader having played, but it will definitely ruin what the game is going for.

Death and Taxes illustrates the richness and complexity of life and its decisions under uncertainty. When you don’t know what matters, everything matters. Then it illustrates the importance of retaining that richness and complexity, and thus on some level that uncertainty, by taking most of that uncertainty away. When that happens, the fun and meaning go out of the process. It loses its soul. 

Death and Taxes is a game about making discrete choices. 

You play as a grim reaper. Each day, you wake up. You go to your desk and are given instructions and several profiles. You have to decide who lives, and who dies.

Once you have done that, you go up to have a conversation with your boss. Your boss will look to see whether you killed the right number of people, and whether you fulfilled any other requirements, and pay you for the day accordingly. 

You can then go to Mortimer’s to spend that cash on various clothes and trinkets. You can also go to the mirror, where you can change clothes and listen to a mysterious voice. 

Over time, you learn that your decisions matter, and determine the fate of the world. Depending on your choices, it can be a world of war or peace, prosperity or poverty, health or sickness, paradise or hellscape. 

You also determine your own fate. You can be fired, get promoted, become your boss’s pet or usurp your boss’s position. That boss, of course, is also called fate.

Uncertainty

What makes the game interesting is not knowing what is going on, or what actions lead to what results.

When looking at a profile and deciding what to do, there are lots of things to consider. Should you kill the old and spare the young? Judge who has been good and who has been evil? Is being a mother worth more than a career? What about an aimless student who seems to be wasting their life but has time to change that? How do we feel about this AI researcher’s approach to safety? How do you feel about killing anyone at all on someone’s say-so? Does it matter that this isn’t happening directly? What impact hath a man upon the world?

There’s also the figure-out-the-designer’s-mind questions, as opposed to your own opinions. Is getting into the head of the designer mandatory, appropriate or deeply against one’s moral principles, and how does that translate to others who model the world differently than you and then pass judgment on your decisions? Do the designers think that paying close attention to inequality is the key to prosperity in third world governance? Do they think that arms dealers are causing sales that wouldn’t otherwise happen and that matter? Will these hybrids or bots inevitably go berserk? Exactly how scope insensitive is all this?

Then there’s the question of to what extent you should follow instructions. You are told that your actions are necessary for some sort of ‘balance’ and the instructions have justifications. Do you believe that? Will there be bad consequences if the instructions are not followed? For you, or for the world, or both? If you are told to kill everyone middle aged today, but one of them clearly should otherwise live, what do you do? What about if you’re asked to spare the serial killer?  

It is clear early that you don’t have to follow every instruction exactly, although you are strongly encouraged to do that and they threaten to dock your pay if you don’t. It’s also made clear that if you break enough rules bad things presumably happen on Earth. There’s huge uncertainty how many broken rules cause what level of bad things. It is plausible from your perspective that even one missed assignment on one day has consequences. It is also plausible that following the secondary rules matter very little beyond your pay.

Then there are the conversations with your boss. Do they matter, or are they idle background talk? Should you suck up, or stand up to him? Say you’re happy or unhappy? Go with what you’re feeling as a player, what you think you’d feel as Grim, or what you think will help get results? Should you buy a snazzy tie to impress him and maybe get a raise, or dress like a cat because you can and you feel like it and it probably doesn’t matter? Maybe that will impress his cat? Speaking of which, what about when the cat is there instead of your boss? 


At one point you get a plaque and are told to display it on your desk, but it gets in the way and doesn’t do anything. If you stick it in a drawer, will your boss find out and punish you? Or does it not matter? 

Finally there are the widgets and clothes you can buy. Do your clothes do anything? Do most of the gadgets do anything? The eraser is useful but shouldn’t be needed, although it can combine usefully with the lamp. The mirror unlocks some stuff but it’s not clear how you dress matters or that the voice matters (and you don’t know about the voice when you buy the mirror). There are enough hints that you can figure out that each gadget unlocks the one behind it, so do you buy things that seem useless to hopefully find other useful things later? Maybe your money will get used for something else at some point? Surely making more money has to matter somehow, right? And how are we doing at all this? What’s the big picture? What’s going on?

If you let it, the game thus conveys the feeling of being a confused cog in a mysterious machine, afraid of potential consequences at every turn and not knowing what matters. 

Like life.

People don’t get the luxury of knowing the rules or mechanics. You know some of the rules, certainly. But also many are hidden, others are complex, and many are actively lying to you about them. Ideally you also know some of the mechanics of what causes what, but you’re always missing many of the rules and mechanics that matter most. 

You know some ways to not lose, but not how to win. Nor do you know what winning would mean. 

Lack of Meaning

This kept the game interesting most of the way through. In the fourth week, things broke down, indicating that perhaps the game was a little longer than would have been ideal.

By that point, there had been enough iterations that most of the basics were clear. 

As long as I killed the right number of people, the secondary instructions didn’t matter much. They didn’t even dock my pay in multiple spots where I accidentally messed up, and then in one spot where I broke the rules on purpose. I certainly wasn’t getting yelled at. It seemed easy enough to follow the guidelines close enough to not get into trouble, so I didn’t worry about where the line might be.

I didn’t test how bad it would be to kill the wrong number of people, but it never seemed like I was in a bind where I’d be forced into a horrible decision. There were some choices both ways I was a little sad about, but nothing more.

The restrictions mostly get less intense later, so you can mostly just choose whoever you think is more net positive to live, and whoever is more net negative to die. I tried a bit to focus on peace issues when it was clear that my peace number was in trouble – you can buy a globe that tells you how you’re doing – but didn’t get or identify my big chances to improve, or had already sunk too low. I remember letting an arms merchant live because I don’t think that it matters, but I’m guessing the game thought it mattered a lot. Later in the game when I got more focused on what the game likely thought people would do, I would have killed him.

That’s another pattern. As I did more of them and got used to the patterns, and got the increasing sense that my concerns weren’t impacting the game, I noticed my concerns shifting more towards what values the game likely assigned to people, and less what values I would assign to them. Because I now had a better guess as to what the game would do, and also wanted to kind of Get On With It and focus on getting a good ending and all that.

The globe and lamp also made it clear that the game was keeping score of four particular things, and that the people were numbers. Which took all the tension out of the room. Now all it was, was an optimization problem. The lamp is supposed to tell you what each person does for the world (I’d read a review before playing, couldn’t be helped). I tried briefly to figure out how that worked, couldn’t figure it out, then realized that knowing would make the game less interesting and stopped trying. If you know everyone’s numbers, why read the profiles? What’s left of the game? 

It turns out the lamp only works after you make the decision, at which point you’d have to use an eraser to reverse course. I’m glad I didn’t figure this out.

If a game world works the way the designers decide, is it more ethical to do what they think works in this situation, or what you think would work in this situation after updating for what you think they think, whether or not it will work in the game? Is it different for purely moral choices?

Items followed a similar pattern. Each day you get three things you can buy. 

At first, there were all sorts of questions. If I don’t buy this now, will I ever get a chance again? If I don’t save my money, will I miss out on or postpone getting the really good stuff? Does high price mean better? Does clothing matter at all? Which widgets matter? 

Later, it was clear that each thing unlocks a new thing you can buy, and that most of the things don’t matter. The mirror matters, the globe and lamp matter, and that’s pretty much it unless you want erasers. The rest was pure atmosphere. And if you mostly did your job you’d have enough money to buy out the store. So money didn’t matter, which meant job performance up to a point also didn’t matter. Suddenly all these trade-offs got a lot more straightforward.

It’s not that I think the stuff had to matter. It’s that it had to potentially matter. Once it didn’t matter anymore, it stopped being interesting. Dressing up and looking sharp is interesting and meaningful because it might matter. Your boss might care. A client might come in and care. You might get a hot date. Every little bit helps. A lot of people live a lot better day to day because they want to be ready for the unexpected. You never know! 

Certainty

Having now read how the game works and what determines the various endings, what is the game ‘really about’? What would happen if I played again?

You are essentially balancing five things: The four meters of how things are doing on Earth, and your relationship with the boss slash quest for whatever resolution you want of your own storyline.

Each person gives one set of impacts when they live, and a (mostly opposite) set of impacts if they die. Some people help, others hurt. Some people matter a lot more than others. Assuming you want things to turn out well, you’ll want to save anyone who looks obviously great, and kill anyone who looks obviously evil, with an eye towards big impacts. You’ll buy the globe and lamp as soon as possible so you can be told the right answers outright, passing on any other purchases except the mirror.

I got three out of four on my first attempt while following almost all the rules and not trying hard or looking at the answers, so I have to assume that while looking at the answers it’s pretty easy most of the time (who you see is somewhat random).

The question then is, what ending do you want for yourself.

If you want to kill off all of humanity – do I have any true negative utilitarians out there this evening? – all you have to do is follow every requirement to the letter, because fate is trying to make this happen and doing everything will mysteriously get this done. Nothing else matters much, so that game is really not interesting. The only decision is, do you suck up to the boss and become his pet, or do it without sucking up and get fired. Your call.

If you’d like to not have that happen, all you have to do is at some point not follow an order. Then you can choose whether you’d like to take over by force as a usurper, or take over by fate’s choice and get promoted.

Usurper’s path is again straightforward. Buy the mirror, follow the mirror voice’s orders and the instructions on red characters, and that’s it. Everything is either mandatory or irrelevant once again, so you can spend other choices on optimization of the world’s stats.

Given there is only one other ending, you don’t have to do much to get it beyond avoiding the first three. That’s the one I got, and seems like the superficially best outcome.

There’s still some amount of game left. Part of that is that there is still some uncertainty – it’s possible that breaking too many rules will get us into trouble that interferes with finishing the game, although there should be no need to tempt fate (as it were) on this. Part of it is that you need to balance four numbers at least a little, if you care. But that’s pretty much it.

Choose Your Mode

I’ve explored similar issues before with easy mode and hard mode. Many readers thought I was stacking the deck in favor of hard mode over easy mode. Many games do things that feel the same way, implying that easy mode is bad and if you use it you should feel bad. Often they will outright mock you. That was never my intention. One should use a mix of both as appropriate to each situation. 

In particular, easy mode shines in subproblems when you know and can state explicitly exactly what you want. In that case, you’ll often also want others to be in easy mode as well, since you can tie what you want to what they want. Markets and shared incentives are powerful things.

The default is to think that the pattern is to first play on easy mode, then graduate to playing on hard mode. In games, that’s often how it works. But in life, and even when playing many games, that’s often not the way it works.

Playing on easy mode is often poor training for playing on hard mode. Instead, much of the time, one trains on hard mode, then can know how and when to dominate on easy mode. 

Whereas playing on easy mode often ends up destroying your ability to succeed at hard mode. Bad habits are developed that will need to be unlearned. Strategies are refined that sacrifice things that can’t be sacrificed, or that aren’t powerful or efficient enough, and won’t work. One stops paying attention. One gets sloppy. 

At other times, often overlapping times, if you tried starting on hard mode, you’d never make heads or tails of what is going on. That won’t work, either.

Thus, training requires a certain special kind of easy mode that good games specialize in – an Easy Level on Hard Mode. Do something easy, but do it right. Care about every little detail. Everything matters, but with margin for error. This allows deliberate practice, even leading to it without the player knowing that is what they are doing. That’s the best way to learn not only the intended lessons, but also others that show up along the way. Even if overall success is assured, there’s always something small to focus on and improve. The way of the Kata. It is also the realm of the Artisan and the Passionate, those who could skate by but instead care about making the absolute most of every opportunity. 

The 2×2 is implied. 

You can be in either Easy Mode or Hard Mode, and have an Easy Level or a Hard Level. 

An Easy Level on Hard Mode is Kata. 

An Easy Level on Easy Mode is an Errand. You don’t learn anything, the stakes are low, success is mostly assured. What matters is efficiency. You want to get through it spending as little time and money and attention as possible, while still extracting what you want.

A Hard Level on Easy Mode is a Puzzle. It’s not easy to figure out how to get what you want at a reasonable price, let alone minimize what it is going to cost you. But you have a big advantage. You know the rules. Like many I know, I love solving such puzzles.

A Hard Level on Hard Mode is a Challenge. If it’s too hard, you fail without learning much. If it’s the right amount of hard, you get into the zone, you learn, you grow stronger, and maybe you succeed. 

Errands are necessary, and they’re not scary. They’re boring.

Puzzles can be quite the trap. They feel more rewarding than they are, like you’ve accomplished something harder and more valuable than you’ve accomplished. I definitely have to look out for that.

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1 Response to The Uncertainty of Death and Taxes

  1. FM says:

    During the lecture I keep thinking that I’m completely certain about what you’re doing here. I am constantly modeling your mind and trying to solve the puzzle you’re presenting here. When I feel certain that I do understand what you want to share, I feel astonished and think “this man can say what I want but don’t know how to say”, and you even do it without leaving tracings for those who are not searching on the same direction of yours. There is the lens of people that wouldn’t grasp any meaning by these bit combinations.

    I have a strange feeling of connection with “Zvi”, a label behind this great mind that points his light cone on a direction that I admire and follow.

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