Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
New love is a little like dreaming: echoes of the past sneak their way in, even if what you’re experiencing is unique, singular. Death Trash feels like picking up Fallout for the first time. It feels like playing Ghost of Tsushima after years of average Assassin’s Creed games. It feels like a weekend in the town where she lives, where the whisky is single malt and kissing is fireworks and your hand fits perfectly in hers.
Death Trash is a salvietic blend of old-school CRPG decision-making baked into a post-apocalyptic planet where machines rule the land and psychic flesh sprouts from the earth like wildflower.
You begin absent your memory, thrust from a safe life into the wastes. You’re contaminated with some sickness, that’s all you know. The world is dangerous. Full of mutants, plagued by transient flesh that seems to have a mind of its own, strange machines in varying states of breakdown stumble the planet’s surface. As you leave the world below, the first thing you discover is a bloated, decaying flesh kraken.
Why is it there? No one remembers when it wasn’t. How is it alive? The flesh is a mystery. What’s wrong with you? It’s hard to really work out but it has something to do with the flesh. Like Fallout and Wasteland and all the good Divinity games, Death Trash observes the central tenant of CRPG’s: knowledge must be won through perseverance, and what is won must progressively complicate the story or world.
Death Trash opens with your character being expelled from an underground bunker. Your memory has been wiped, and a bunch of androids explain you’re sick, you need to leave. So you do, no idea what to expect or where you’re going, motivated only by diagnosing your illness. Now we’re going to talk about the flesh kraken.
There’s no other way to describe it. A giant, living mass of raw flesh seems to grow out of the cave wall. And it speaks to you.
The flesh kraken speaks in stilted nouns, conjuring a booming, ethereal intelligence. Your character takes the kraken in stride: it’s weird, sure, but what isn’t, you just got expelled from an underground vault run by androids because of a mysterious illness, what’s a bit of sentient flesh.
And this is where Fallout is most present: the tone of the dialogue is aware of its own lunacy. The second thing you run into after the flesh kraken is a naked man who thinks you’re crazy for wearing clothes.
The old man doesn’t… do anything. He doesn’t give you anything. He’s just a weirdo you can chat with. And discovery becomes the primary verb of Death Trash here. While there’s combat akin to Moonlighter, the real substance is the exploration. The drive to discover what the deal is with the flesh. And the machines, and why are they seemingly connected. Why exactly is society controlled by the androids, and who programmed them to do so? The rich, deliberate world building feels ripped right from a season of Friends At The Table, a pastiche of hard sci fi, diesel punk and post apocalyptic retrofuturism overlaid with lovecraftian horror.
The first town you come upon (and the only one in the demo) is a gathering of lean-tos. No one seems to be in charge. Everyone is either sick or safe enough they never leave the town. The way the residents behave reveals a lot about the world. They’re used to the flesh everywhere, so we know it’s not new. And more than that, it’s so normal and pervasive the townsfolk have stopped wondering about its origins. There are characters who venture into the world here, but they are visually distinct: they bear weapons, armour. They don’t shuffle around under the weight of the blasted landscape, they take up arms. Proof that you can do the same. That even in a hostile wasteland, it’s possible to fight back.
To say Death Trash understands what made Fallout work is an understatement. There’s a great skill system with unique abilities and powers and weapons. I ended up using a sword and implanted electricity for the most part, feeling like a cool wasteland blademaster. Even though a lot of the skills system depth is not present in the demo, it’s clear these mechanics are going somewhere interesting. And with the amount of flexibility in how you create different loadouts, I’m excited to see just how rich and nuanced character builds will become.
While it’s uncertain if the game can stick the landing of action and consequence that makes Baldur’s Gate and the early Fallouts so singular, there just isn’t enough game out to know, what's here is promising. The world feels fresh, electric and exciting.
The demo concludes with the reveal that you can communicate with the flesh nexus, the underlying psychic network that knits the flesh together. You meet an intelligence through the network who calls out to you from across the wasteland, beckoning you.
And then the demo ends. You have your quest. How you get there, what choices you make, how you’ll influence the world, what you’ll do when you reach your objective, these lay ahead of us. The demo is brilliant. Like the first weeks of a new love, it’s worth savouring every moment. The way she looks right after she smiles, like you’re a city she’d move to. The way she gets excited to tell you something while halfway through a sentence then stumbles over herself while trying not to giggle and the way she does that thing with her hair when she’s flirting with you: every moment of perfection before things become complicated.
I adored my time with Death Trash. It’s weird, engaging and unique. I’m not sure what happens next, and if it can live up to the feeling of those first few weeks, but I’m willing to trust. It might be the best thing that never happens, but it could be brilliant. Death Trash is one person’s passion project, a leap of faith. And I’m thrilled to step off the edge and find out where it goes.