Right down at the core, most games find their pulse in the friction between freedom and repetition. There's a sweet spot, always different depending on an individual game's context, between the player's own agency and the knowledge that you can always start over if things go wrong.
Those twin impulses are what drive Garbage Day, a new indie game from 19-year-old Lithuanian developer Svajūnas Žemaitis. The game takes place in a small town that somehow has its own nuclear power station. The inspiration here is less Simpsons and more Groundhog Day, however, as an accident at the power plant leaves you stuck repeating the same day over and over. Every time you wake up, it's up to you what to do. Your long term goal is to work out what caused the accident and escape from the time loop.
Your short term goal, however, will likely involve a lot of mischief and mucking about and it's here that Garbage Day's freedom will really make itself felt. Within the confines of the town, nowhere is off limits and everything works as it would in the real world. You can take a shower. Eat cereal. Watch TV. Games being games, you can also take to the streets and murder strangers in an orgy of blood and body parts. That's probably not a great idea, though, since you'll need to talk to a lot of these people to solve the mystery behind your temporal situation. At least you have the reassurance that everything will be back as it was when you wake up the next day. Or the same day. You know what I mean.
"The idea of freedom came mainly from when I first played GTA 3 and the character couldn't enter inside most of the buildings," Svajūnas explains when I ask him about his inspirations. "When I got into game development I realised that it's only a matter of putting in hard work into modelling the interior of the buildings". And what of the sheer amount of interactions and distractions the game will apparently offer? "The things that players will try come mainly from me putting myself into the player's shoes and thinking of how things would interact in real life. If I test my game and I can't do something with an object, then I put the interaction into the game. The main driving force for me is to create a game that I would be excited for as a kid."
Working completely solo, the reason Svajūnas has been able to include so many things to do is down to his deliberately simple low polygon art style. "This game would not be even close to being possible to be made by a single developer if I had to texture and sculpt every model," he says. "My main focus is gameplay, not art and I hope people appreciate that."
That's not to say the game's bright and clean aesthetic isn't without its charm and, as the trailer shows, it's far from a rigid and lifeless place. The juxtaposition of the cheerful imagery and the brutal ragdoll physics in particular play a huge role in making your more confrontational excursions fun. That's because having already built the game last year in Unity, Svajūnas switched to Unreal 4 about a month ago and started to remake it all from scratch. The pre-baked visual features offered by UE4 meant that the game's anarchic concept could really take flight. "The main things that make my life easier are Blueprints, the visual scripting tool that makes programming probably three times as fast, and the premade visual effects - atmospheric fog, ambient occlusion, temporal anti-aliasing. The destructible environment was implemented only due to switching to UE4."
This level of freedom is an area often over-promised and under-delivered by developers, and I'm fascinated by how much will actually be squeezed into Garbage Day's toy town diorama. "I'm trying to make the world as large as possible," Svajūnas explains. "Currently there's a single neighbourhood of eight houses, two shops, one office building, a park, a basketball court - but keep in mind that this was made in a single month of development and I still have until the end of summer."
In other words, while this won't be a gigantic Skyrim-style map, what is there will be as interactive and functional as possible. "There won't be any locked doors," he promises. "You can open every fridge, microwave, drawer, etc."
The other big question mark is how much structure will there be underneath the free-roaming diversions and whether, as the trailer suggests, it's being designed more for the Postal 2 rampage crowd. Thankfully, it sounds like the crazed slaughter is being used as a hook, but that there will be real substance for those who want it.
"I'm trying to make the game almost like a regular day simulator, with the ability to choose what you do with your day. The game starts with a prologue of the accident that causes the time loop and then it's up to the player to explore the world."
You'll be able to converse with NPCs, with different dialogue options depending on who you speak to, though Svajūnas isn't sure yet whether they'll have unique faces or just different shirt colours. Talking to characters is one way of gathering information about the accident, but - rather excitingly - there will also be puzzles inspired by classic point and click adventures. "The main puzzles will be combining things you find in the world in a logical way, kind of like the old Sierra games," he says. "There is no inventory in the game, you have to physically take an item and combine it with another by touching them together."
Svajūnas is, understandably, keeping the endgame close to his chest - "I can only tell you the ending is not at all like in the movie Groundhog Day" - but it already seems like there's enough here to be excited about. I won't deny that the prospect of demolishing this chunky building block world doesn't appeal, but it's the knowledge that there's a whole world to prod, poke and explore that makes Garbage Day especially enticing. We'll find out for sure when it releases for PC later this year.