Opinionated: Why games need to talk trash

What you throw away can say a lot about you. By way of illustration: Just this morning I threw away a sealed box of tampons, three cats (or obsolete kittens, as I prefer to call them) and an empty grog barrel.

By this you could infer that I am a sensitive, kitten-loving swashbuckler of a guy, which is a remarkable approximation of the truth.

I think useless shit is a sorely neglected aspect of gaming, and I can no longer remain silent. I’m taking a stand! Of sorts!

For one thing, junk is the cornerstone of any self-respecting dystopian society. Those clever scamps over at Valve understand this with bells on. Let’s take Half-Life 2 – remember all the litter lying around the train station at the beginning of the game? Remember how the wind caught it and wafted it about?

Then there’s the friendly guard who knocks a Styrofoam cup from a dustbin and beats you with a lover’s tenderness when you don’t pick it up. And that’s just the beginning. That’s not just rubbish – that’s rubbish with physics. Valve obviously knows how to tell a story with trash. You go, Valve.

Meanwhile, where would your average post-apocalyptic wasteland be without fathomless tonnes of trash? A much nicer place to live, yes, and probably featuring groundwater that won’t cause vicious mutations for generations to come, but is that any excuse to stop polluting the planet? Ecological activists need to start thinking of the children: What sort of fun are they supposed to have in a nuclear devastation free of litter? How else would they make fun hats?

It’s also important economically. Think of those bottle caps in Fallout. Start hoarding, friends. One day the little suckers will be worth their weight in bottle caps.

Worthless stuff is important enough that some developers spend months modelling it, and it’s about more than just atmosphere. When you’re building an experience, trash is valuable in its very lack of value. It’s a foil for the better stuff, being both a deprivation and a promise.

Nothing says "get off my lawn" like a pair of automated twin minigun turrets.

When a developer takes the time to include things that I have no intention of ever picking up but then goes on to let me pick them up, that tells me something. If I really want to wander about for the remainder of the game carrying a punctured blow-up doll and a tin of beans last edible before the Cold War, that’s weird, but that’s the illusion of free will for you. And take that judgmental tone out of your mouth before you talk to me.

More importantly, interactive trash makes me wonder what the opposite end of the item spectrum looks like. Invariably I start to salivate at this point and I have to sandbag my peripherals, but that’s beside the point.

Really, if you’re aiming to mash a believable world together out of bits of code and geometry, you absolutely have to fill it with the mundane crap that nobody wants, because that’s what humans do best to worlds. The sense of rarity that makes an in-game find feel so worthwhile often comes of having trudged through things that were purpose-made for mediocrity.

"Well, this mess won't clean up itself."

And it’s worth noting how many adventure games have started the player off by dropping them in the dustbin, sometimes literally. The Legend of Kyrandia 3 sees you wake you up in a junk yard, while the first thing you do in Full Throttle is biker-punch your way out of a dumpster. Hell, in Space Quest 3 you get picked up by a giant space-trash freighter; garbage doesn’t get much grander than that.

Crawling out of a dumpster intimates the approach of expansion because it’s rock bottom. “You are nothing now,” these games say, as if to ask, “What’re you gonna do about it?” Actually, I’d probably do something I’d never do in real life: I’d shuffle through the unhygienic horrors in the hopes that I’d find something useful, like a password into Area 51 or a squirrel trap, two things I have unfortunately never happened upon in real life.

Just face it. Trash is responsible for your happiness. It’s like pop music – it makes you glad when it’s gone – so show a little respect to the next thing you throw away, would you? You never know who could be rooting through your bin bags next.

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