GRUNGE IS officially in. Ripped jeans, bleached hair, piercings and violence against a backdrop of sludge coated wastelands that reek of decay. This is the world of Death Trash, a game that dares to open Pandora’s box and explore humanity through a forbidden, anti-authoritarian lens, and it’s awfully intriguing. Developer Stephan Hövelbrinks is no stranger to game design, but as he explains, Death Trash is his first important project. In it, he taps into a reservoir of anarchy from which he creates a wholly original world that celebrates a more politically incorrect side of humanity. Somewhere inside this grimy, post-apocalyptic place, there’s an RPG experience with oddball characters and trash-talk humour, item crafting, and weapon-based combat in all their unfiltered glory, but at the centre of it all is a burning question.
The idea of Death Trash was first conceived when Hövelbrinks decided to join Art Streak, a tumblr-like community that encourages its users to post a daily artwork. Since then, the game has evolved into a futuristic sci-fi citiscape of sparring factions and conflicting beliefs, animated by a pixel art brush that creates a canvas of trash, slime and destruction that resonates with the Twine games of Porpentine. It seems paradoxical that dystopian narratives like these can carry such allure, but there’s also an unsung melody in these overlooked, taboo pockets of society that people want to learn about.
PopOptiq: How did you get started in game design and development? Is Death Trash your debut project?
Stephan Hövelbrinks: I began dabbling with game development in the nineties as an amateur, coding very simple text adventures and step-by-step top-down dungeon walkers. I did not do much though and did not make any games for nearly a decade. In 2010, I came to a point where I was frustrated with my job and returned to game development. First in C++, coding my own engine etc., which lead to nowhere. Later very small games with Flash, HTML5 and Unity. Last year, I got more determined by making one game a week for a while, to learn and advance in the craft. Also I helped a good friend on his Action RPG “Runic Rampage” for a while. Last summer Death Trash was born-not preplanned, but it just happened while working on art. So while I did already work on multiple things, Death Trash is the first of my own projects that is important. Everything before was for learning.
PopOptiq: What is Death Trash about? What questions does it ask and what message do you want players to take away with them?
Hövelbrinks: There are lots of themes in the world of Death Trash. You can probably see this by the fact that I call it a world of cyberpunk, science fiction, horror, the grotesque, trash-talk and sexual references. Still, the recurring word I have often in my mind is ‘freedom’. What does freedom mean? Why is it so important? Is personal freedom more important than the well-being of society? Do I as a developer and artist on this project have the freedom to create anything I want, place creatures, situations and dialogue in this world even if they are considered bad taste by everyone else and might offend someone?
What does freedom mean? Why is it so important? Is personal freedom more important than the well-being of society?
And I go to great lengths in designing the game to give the player freedom and not take control away: There will be no blocking cutscenes, no second screens apart from the world map, dialogue can always be cancelled and the player can kill anyone in the game. In general I also hope to nudge people away a bit from typical thoughts, give them new perspectives and angles to look at things. I hope to enrichen the thoughts and dreams of people, not add to the boredom.
PopOptiq: Some of the inspirations you list for Death Trash include Ultima 7, Planescape: Torment and Fallout. In what ways do you borrow from them to create gameplay, audio, graphics and narrative for Death Trash?
Hövelbrinks: The most obvious reference people see is Fallout. I think the art style is different, but it shares a similar perspective, the exploring of the world and messing up with people. Also the game being centered around controlling one character which supports a feeling of solitude. Planescape: Torment is a masterpiece in how it uses dialogue for so many things. And it also has this bizarre world, spurring imagination. From Ultima 7 I would love to take the feeling of a living and breathing world. The NPCs did not just stand around there, they seemed to have their own life. There were lots of details, and even crafting of items, useful for not. And still, despite all this simulation, there was this strong narrative focus. If I can get those elements in balance in a similar way for Death Trash, I will be very happy.
PopOptiq: You recently announced a collaboration with musician James Dean on your blog. What kind of soundtrack do you currently envision for the game?
Hövelbrinks: I came in contact with James Dean the first time when I used one of his freely available assets in a small pixelart game, and it was a perfect match. It was a dark and brooding soundscape. So when I worked on the first artworks I imagined something similar, more ambient soundscapes than music, giving room for interpretation and mood. But that being said James has creative control over all audio aspects. I trust him in finding a very fitting sound for this moody and bizarre world. It is still very early for the audio part of this project, so we’ll see where it goes.
PopOptiq: On the surface, Death Trash appears to be quite a controversial game. What have people’s reactions been so far, and what draws you to explore a more grungy side of humanity?
Hövelbrinks: People’s reactions were along the line of “Gross!”, “Holy Fuck!” and “This is awesome.” The art style, characters, situations and dialogue do not hit the taste of everyone, but some people seem to be really in love with it. I guess there are also people who don’t like it at all, but they do seem to pass by instead of commenting it. And someone said “Gross, but you won’t be able to look away” which gives me hope that it stirs curiosity even in those who might have a small amount of disgust at first. I was drawn to these scenarios by gut feeling, but once I was there I began playing with it. And I also admit that I like to push the grossness a bit to see how far I can go while still keeping the coherence of the world. So far it seems to work out good.
“You can see the beauty in the grungy side everywhere…Drunk people at noon who also become philosophers. The broken characters in a Dostoyevsky novel.”
But you can see the beauty in the grungy side everywhere. The artworks and lyrics of Black and Death Metal. How destroyed architecture and the dirty corners of a city look much more interesting than the clean parts. All the small stories and scenes happenings at late night bars and clubs. Drunk people at noon who also become philosophers. The broken characters in a Dostoyevsky novel.
PopOptiq: What has been your favourite thing so far about making Death Trash, and what have you learned along the way?
Hövelbrinks: The greatest thing about making Death Trash was probably the realization that now, after twenty years of dreaming about making an “epic roleplaying game”, I’m finally doing it. It looks totally different than I would have imagined. But that’s the thing: It was always not tangible, it was more hope and murky dream than a real direction. And now everything is in place. I improved with the coding over the years and the framework that’s there now is a solid base for all iterations to come. I learned how to make art that, while not being very polished, works good for this world. I also learned how to animate that art. Still a work in progress, but works for now. And there are areas where I am lacking, but with time and focus there should be improvements too. While learning and improving in different fields happens all the time, the most important insight is probably that anyone can learn almost anything, given time and focus. Start doing it and then it’s rinse and repeat.
PopOptiq: Do you have an expected release date? What platforms are you looking at?
Hövelbrinks: It’s still hard to judge the scope of the game. It would be great to have the full game ready next year, but it might take even longer than that. I would like to publish something playable this year though. A demo or an Early Access version. It will be released for Windows, Mac and Linux first, hopefully on Steam and other stores like itch.io. I am mostly a PC gamer myself, so those platforms will always be important to me. But the game also supports gamepads in addition to mouse/keyboard so it would be great to have it on even more platforms.