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Premature Evaluation: Garbage Day


Each week Marsh Davies descends like a hungry urban gull upon the reeking heap of Early Access, hoping to yank free a tasty treat without choking on a crinkled Space Raiders packet. This week, he’s been stuck in Garbage Day, a game that is nominally about replaying the same looping time period, again and again, until you piece together the mystery and escape your temporal prison. In its current form, however, it’s no more than a colourful but cramped chaos sandbox, in which you can kill and maim cartoonish inhabitants of a highly-smashable town in the knowledge that any consequences will be reset as soon as the clock strikes midnight. But does its eternal present suggest a plan for reaching a less frivolous future?

The traditional telling of Cromwell’s campaign is that he was about the worst thing to happen to Ireland - perhaps even worse than the Potato Famine or Riverdance. Famously, he slaughtered entire towns, man, woman and child, as he and his New Model Army tore up and down the country, leaving only bloodshed, famine and plague in his wake. Yet, this was always a feature of his biography that sat at odds with what little else I knew about him - a man who was otherwise seemingly fastidious in pursuing what he perceived as just, a man who, in many of the ways in which he opposed the power of both a despotic monarchy and corruption in the Church, seemed remarkably modern. His Parliament may have lambasted Christmas as a papist folly, but he also introduced a period of religious tolerance that saw Jews permitted into the country. His behaviour in Ireland was, it seemed, as aberrant as it was abhorrent, but generally accepted as undisputed fact.

According to Google Docs this is my 57th Premature Evaluation and - perhaps you should be sitting down - it’s going to be my last. There, there. If I’ve been able to discern any trend during the time I’ve been reviewing Early Access games, it’s that no one knows what they’re doing. Developers don’t know what they’re selling, customers don’t know what they’re buying, and I often don’t know what I’m reviewing - each week I play two or three games in the hope of finding one which is recognisable, even loosely, as a product against which even the vaguest expectations might be tentatively measured. The rejected games are frequently so amorphous in their unfinished (or, perhaps more accurately, unbegun) state that to review them at all would just be to bellow pointlessly into their cavernous absence of purpose. Sure, the boundaries between bare-bones alpha, fantasist Unity Asset Store piffle and outright scam are porous indeed, but I think most of the time developers of these games just don’t understand what it is reasonable to ask of a customer, what it is ethical to sell or what they need to show in order to convince people that their game can reach the future they have promised.

It’s probably fair to say that, in terms of the English acting like absolute bastards abroad, a category which is not in want of examples, Ireland has built up a pretty good case over the centuries. Cromwell’s campaign led to a programme of resettlement that was devastating to the local population, and there certainly were atrocities at this time perpetrated by the mercenary armies acting under Parliamentary interests. But many of the key facts around Cromwell’s own expedition have been rather distorted by the shifting politics of the centuries following it. For one thing, this was not, as I had always thought, merely an act of English colonial expansion against a native Irish population desperate for independence. It was a messy extension of the English civil war between Parliamentarian and Royalist - that division itself further fractured by nationality and religion. Prior to Cromwell’s arrival, multiple armies had been chewing up the country for the better part of a decade, and few of these factions were interested specifically in Irish independence. The closest parallel to current day Irish nationalist interests was found in the Celtic forces, led by Eoghan Ruadh O’Neill - but, while he, a Catholic, desired a liberated Ireland to ensure his religious freedom, the intricacies of the political situation led him instead to declare allegiance to the English crown, hoping to negotiate better terms under the English monarchy than he would receive from the Puritan Parliament. In doing so he threw in his lot with forces who he would previously have seen as his antagonists - joining the international forces of the Crown to defend Irish towns against the Parliamentarians. This war was by no means a clear-cut battle between separatists and their suppressors.

Garbage Day is therefore not only a frequently all-too-accurate alternate name for this column but paradigmatic of its problem. The central premise is currently entirely absent in any meaningful way from the game; the nuclear power plant accident which has apparently trapped you in time, Groundhog Day-style, is an event entirely confined to the Steam Store description. The power plant itself comprises a handful of empty rooms, and so it is with many of the buildings of this very small town, hemmed by unclimbable mountains. The occupants are similarly vacant, offering only the phrase “Blah blah blah” as they wander aimlessly back and forth. There are no clues to find in the sandbox mode that is currently the entirety of the game, and, moreover, no clue as to how such clues might be inclu(e)ded at a later date. Garbage Day in no way suggests how it will become more than it is, how it will seed its world with interactions that might unlock a complex plot.

This confusing international conglomeration of Irish Catholics and Protestant Royalists were bolstered by Catholic English settlers of several generations past, and Catholics fleeing England in fear of religious persecution. The fear was very well justified, but it would be a mistake to cast the influence of Rome as entirely benign, seeking mere religious tolerance. Rome was keen to recapture England as a Catholic country, militarily if necessary, and its efforts to do so posed a substantial existential threat to both Protestantism and England’s fledgling democracy. In no small way was this threat facilitated by Ireland’s geography, if not always its people: it had acted as a launch pad for the Spanish Armada within living memory, and Ireland’s coastline was busy with pirate vessels sponsored by the Confederacy of Flanders to accost all enemies of the Catholic cause and the English Crown. Its reaving was a substantial operation: by the time of Cromwell’s invasion, Wexford-based pirates now threatened shipping from the Irish sea to the Mediterranean. These were fears which informed such a swift and ruthless effort to subdue Ireland, and they were not unfounded.

This said, nothing about the game suggests it couldn’t meet such expectations, either. It is a fine, frivolous and passingly funny thing, and I’ve enjoyed all the minutes I’ve spent in it, even if I don’t feel compelled to spend many more. There is a naive slapstick to the low poly animations and a simple pleasure in the physics-enabled destruction of this chirpy, cartoon town. There’s a quality to the modelling, to the high-saturated blue-tinted palette, to the infuriatingly chipper music, to the way the moon rises right in the crevice of a mountain pass, which confirms that aesthetic choices have been made - and good ones, too - rather than emerging semi-accidentally from an assortment of Unity Asset Store parts. There are systems too, albeit disconnected from any real function: cash registers and bank vaults can be looted. Donuts can be ordered. Lawmen can be angered - although your wanted status can presently be erased by getting in or out of a car. It’s not the only bug: run over a shotty-toting sheriff and sometimes one of his identical mates will instantly explode in sympathy.

There were more venal interests, too, at play - albeit informed by a degree of necessity; Ireland’s land was needed to pay Parliament’s long-serving armies. And it was undoubtedly a bloody conflict that had tragic consequences for the country. There had been grotesque massacres on every side, although, confusingly, many of the key figures responsible - indeed, entire factions - switched allegiances, making it even harder to keep track of the moral high ground. But if Cromwell’s contribution to this war was decisive and ruthless it was also, according to Tom Reilly’s book, scrupulously fair - and entirely within the rules of war as they were defined at the time. Much of the supposed evidence for the massacre of civilians, he asserts, emerges only after Cromwell’s death, reported by people who were not eye-witnesses and were perhaps prone to embellish their tales with details more pleasing to the contemporary powers. To get a sense of the new politics to which these narratives appealed, it is worth remembering that the English monarchy had since been reinstated and Cromwell’s dead body exhumed and beheaded. It was not a good time to be a Cromwellian. So, too, do the reports of a bloodthirsty Englishman appeal to the later developing interests of Irish nationalism. The vagaries of politics in both England and Ireland have uniquely suppressed any appetite to debunk the claims of Cromwell’s cruelty.

Waking at 7am, my first instinct is to trash my house, slinging its unanchored physics objects about and seeing what breaks. The game is a little inconsistent here: glass shatters and wooden doors can be obliterated, but a basketball will survive a point-blank shotgun blast. People don’t, though. Bits of them splurt off and roll about independently. Disappointingly, feeding them into a woodchipper produces no particular interaction. In fact, I think I’ve pretty much covered all the game’s interactions over this and the last paragraph. An array of weaponry sits in front of your house in the sandbox mode, and it does largely what you might expect. Melee weapons elicit an illicit giggle, but since cops will shoot you on sight after any act of violence, you might as well take a gun to even things up. As yet, climbing over the counter of a shop and emptying the register does not count as an infraction, and the citizens are remarkably tolerant of wanton property damage, too.

However, the forensic detail of Reilly’s book, with its wealth of contemporary sources, makes a pretty devastating case against this prevailing narrative. Reilly makes plain that not only are most of the sources claiming civilian massacres untrustworthy in the extreme, but he scours every contemporary account and primary source and finds barely anything to corroborate stories of civilian death. Even Cromwell’s enemies report no such atrocities in the immediate aftermath of Cromwell’s various successful sieges - and they would have every reason to propagate this narrative. In some cases, Reilly discovers that those who were later reported to have died at Parliamentary hands somehow live on in the minutes of local council meetings for years afterwards. Not that Cromwell was exactly soft - in the first instance of a siege, he demands surrender and makes it clear he will offer no quarter if his terms are rejected. And they are rejected, the walls fall beneath Cromwell’s cannon and the besieged forces are not spared, but slaughtered almost to a man. This may not have been against the rules of warfare at the time, but it is nonetheless shocking. Yet shock was its purpose. Cromwell knew Parliament could not long afford a war, and to that end he hoped a decisive and merciless rout would break the spirit of his foe, hasten the conflict’s close and prevent, as he frequently liked to say, “a further effusion of blood”.

After a half an hour, I feel like I have exhausted most of the entertainment to be had ploughing through picket fences and gunning down donut retailers, and so I seek a way out. A mountain pass leads out into desert. Cacti disassemble most satisfactorily, I discover, though my car handles the terrain poorly, slipping, sliding and sometimes snagging on a vertex and flipping end-over-end. I make my way towards a lighthouse which I can see peeking over the dunes, but my car spasms itself into the water of the bay instead. Luckily it appears impossible to drown, and I am able to clamber slowly up a murky polygonal shelf to the surface. Dusk is setting now - I have scant few minutes of real time to reach the lighthouse before the day resets. I clamber up and around, but there is no way in.

Furthermore, Cromwell - in this communication as in later ones - also makes plain that no civilians were to be harmed, nor their property ransacked, so long as they did not take up arms against him. There’s every reason to believe he was true to his word: only days before his first supposed massacre, Cromwell had hung a number of his own soldiers who had stolen a chicken from a local woman. He was quite clear in his declarations to his own highly-disciplined forces that the native populace was not to be molested, under pain of death, but instead generously compensated for whatever intrusion the New Model Army made upon them. As the campaign drew to a close, and victory became more certain, Cromwell proved lenient in both his terms of surrender and his offering of quarter. In some instances, he shows tremendous patience. Reading his letters is a delight - the exchange between Cromwell and the governor of Wexford is a masterclass in polite menace and dry wit. The governor, playing for time and overplaying his hand, asks for exceedingly unlikely terms - Cromwell is marvellously withering, dismissing the demand that all hostility end while negotiations are laboriously spun out: “I consider that your houses are better than our tents, so I shall not consent to that”. But Cromwell nonetheless does allow the governor many further chances, presumably again being reluctant to cause a further “effusion of blood”. After receiving an exasperating letter in which the governor relates an excuse for his various delays, Cromwell replies: “Sir, You might have spared your trouble in the account you gave me [...] These are your own concernments, and it behoves you to improve them.”

Before I started doing this column, the excellent Chris Livingstone used to walk RPS’s Early Access beat, writing under the title “The Lighthouse Customer”. It was a phrase that I hadn’t heard before and I had to get Graham to explain it to me: like the canary in the coal mine, a lighthouse customer might warn others of dangers ahead. It seems fitting that, for my last review - of a game which is typical of Early Access in its embryonic formlessness and unknowable destiny - I discover the lighthouse doesn’t even have a door.

Garbage Day is available from Steam for £11, which is quite a lot for something this thin. I played version with the Build ID 940948 on 22/01/2016.

Though Cromwell was amenable to surrender, the situation at Wexford got out of control. It seems a Royalist commander of the town’s external fort decided to surrender unexpectedly, and unbeknownst to Cromwell, who at the time was writing yet another letter to the governor. Once the fort’s cannon were turned upon the town wall, the defenders abandoned their positions, and the Parliamentary forces - not waiting for Cromwell’s command, seized the advantage and began to storm the town. The result was the demolition of many of the buildings - which Cromwell seems to regret only because he’d wanted to capture it intact - and the drowning of many of those alarmed defenders who tried to flee by boat, piling on until the vessels capsized. This, of all the sieges described in Tom Reilly’s book, looks to be the one in which civilian deaths were most likely to have occurred, albeit without premeditation and against the explicit instruction of Cromwell himself. Nonetheless, Reilly maintains that most if not all townsfolk left in the town at this stage were likely to have been armed and prepared to fight; the commander of the Royalist forces had long since issued an instruction to evacuate all people non-essential to the town’s defence. And again, no contemporary sources describe civilian deaths - even though a larger number of defending soldiers were this time spared and so would have had the chance to pass on such accounts of atrocity.

Thanks for reading the column over the last year and a bit! You all look very nice today.

None of this makes Cromwell an angel, but Reilly’s book convincingly acquits him of being a devil - and, in the context of his times, makes him out to be a better man than most. I find Reilly’s investigation fascinating, not just because of the detail it brings to Cromwell’s remarkable life, but because it demonstrates how entirely the lens of history can be distorted, how regimes will dig up the past and mutilate it for the purposes of their present convenience. It might make you wonder what other dearly held beliefs are also waiting to be reappraised and overturned. Though, given the vast knowledge RPS commenters have shown in response to these alt-texts, it’s likely you already have a suggestion or two...

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