In free JRPG-looking politic-em-up Postmortem you play Death, and you are on your way to a dinner party to kill someone. Your orders are to kill only one person, it doesn't matter who; The Secretary has told you so. Perhaps the world has been encased in some sort of Malthusian Deadlock. But as you begin to develop an uncharacteristic curiosity about the guests, engage them in discussion, and investigate the documents and trinkets of the venue, you enact an oddly human bias. You realise that who you kill might have a greater impact than just having a waiter drop his hors d'oeuvres. But is your curiosity shifting history down another track? Is your very interest sending a cosmic ripple down the trouserleg of time? Right from the menu screen's orchestral, foreboding, almost overbearing adaptation of Pop Goes The Weasel from Kevin MacLeod, you feel like whatever you do in this game, something awful is going to happen.
It's October 18th, 1897, and local businessowner Bill Seldon is holding a Gala for a vandalised school. You enter the fundraiser to find various attendees with vocal political views: those with very firm 'OldAger' views of tradition and socialism, and 'NewAger' opinions of progress and capitalist ravagement. There have already been factories and small businesses blown up in protest by a militant arm of OldAgers who want fair wages and workers' rights, and this Gala is not without tensions between patrons. They say never talk politics, religion or money at a party, but two of those three dominate affairs as you move from room to room, talking with guests and quietly judging them.
Postmortem is the brainchild of lead developer Jakub Kasztalski, whose interest in politics has strongly shaped Postmortem's narrative and outcomes. Very text-heavy, Jakub's background in Comparative Ethnic Conflict, which he studied in Northern Ireland, really shows through in the scraps of paper, leaflets and books you will read and the dialogue you will take part in throughout. “I've always loved videogame development. I used to work at a games studio for two years. And so a lot of what I learned [in my Masters in Ethnic Conflict] was inspirational to me personally,” Kasztalski says.
The transplanting of pronouns for fictional places and people like “Antrim”, “Thatcher”, and others might seem a tad hamfisted as signposts initially, but by the end of the game it becomes apparent that the narrative structure has been much more nuanced than you might have initially assumed, and point towards a deep awareness of real-world conflict and the paths nations can take. “It's not so much whom you choose,” Kasztalski explains. “but how you choose, in the sense that... is it fair for me to decide? Who gives me the right? How much of an educated guess without education?” Interesting too, that in Kasztalski's experience, games have done very little in the way of exploring how to resolve conflict without violence, or placed too much importance on a win/lose state. “A lot of my testers were looking at - how do we win? How do we fix the conflict, you know? That doesn't surprise me,” Kasztalski muses. He goes on to cite The Walking Dead as a big inspiration, and talks of his ideas on implementing statistics at the end of the game so you can compare your choices with fellow players.
The complexity of Postmortem's characters is especially noteworthy. Games have a real tendency to portray characters as being either palpably virtuous or sinister, but in Postmortem it is difficult to be put off by even the most extreme political views - not only are the characters written polite and conversational, but also they have a realistic mix of conservative and liberal thought processes, making concessions to some ideas, ruling others out, and sometimes even being particularly hypocritical. Of note is Ophelia Thatcher, whose views on women having better representation in politics and broadcast media is certainly laudable, and I felt myself nodding along, the first stirrings of Feminism and Votes For Women brewing in her and all that - and then later she makes remarks about how awful immigrants are. And I was suddenly reminded: people can be hypocritical and exist in power hierarchies - why is it so strange that this videogame character might hold hypocritical views, when they would in reality? The greatest triumph here is that the conversations you have are not leading in any manner and flow naturally, which happens little elsewhere in videogameland.
The structure of the game is interesting: when you eventually pick your murder, a series of newspaper stories then inform you of the fallout from the Gala event. When at last you are aware of how your presence as Death was interpreted by the guests (even the dead one), you come to understand how nuanced the conversation branches were, and how they were not exactly what you expected. There is a huge emphasis on freedom of choice. “A lot of people were like 'Well what's stopping people from picking a person and ending the game in two minutes?'” Kasztalski says. “And I was looking at them thinking, 'Why should they be stopped'?” And it is a very replayable game, in terms of looking at the subtle outcomes that are interpreted by your choices.
Though the JRPG art and classical music is fairly rudimentary - Kasztalski tells me is constantly evolving as it is developed - the writing (though there is a lot of it, and it is quite dry) is good, laid on thick like political jam. It was refreshing to not be completely patronised by a game, to be treated like a critical reader. The only disappointment for me was that there weren't more interesting artifacts to examine, more shocking mysteries to uncover, and that there weren't more characters in the world to explore. It's very short game, and though it must have taken a long time to construct, it only takes about an hour and a bit to play. I'm looking forward to this being polished up, and being held up as an example of how to write nuanced characters with a reach into complex late-game branching narratives. An excellent little slice of intrigue that is worth a look. It's coming out later this month, entirely for free, perhaps with small bonus extras for a little donation.