By Adam Smith on March 13th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
Manchester to Sheffield, Sheffield to Swansea, Swansea to Stuttgart. I’ve been haunting the highways and low roads of Europe as I aim to build a freight empire the likes of which the world has never seen before. My convoys will convey powdered milk from Berlin to Paris, and machine parts from Edinburgh to Frankfurt. Or, failing that, I’ll just fill my playlist with electronic ambience and watch the world roll past the window. This is Euro Truck Simulator 2.
How many times have you fallen in love while stuck in a traffic jam? Ricardo Donoso’s Progress Chance was stutter-glitching out of the speakers and out of the windows like a futurist-retro cloud, and a fellow trucker was at the head of the column of cars that fumed ahead of me. Driving at night fuses my mind to the road and the brake lights up ahead. There is no scenery anymore and every minor adjustment of the wheel is an attempt to conform to the dictates of the vehicle immediately ahead. Destination is reduced to the space between myself and the rear bumper a few feet away.
When I was eighteen, I was driving home from Huddersfield at about four o’clock in the morning. I’d had no reason to go to Huddersfield but I’d felt the need to drive, either away from something or toward something else, I wasn’t sure which, and I hadn’t aimed for the West Riding, I’d just pointed my beat-up car in a direction I didn’t know and left the roads in charge of the rest.
Roads direct people as surely as the moon directs the tides. They funnel and shape our journeys, guiding and exerting a magnetic pull, bringing us to waypoints and byways that we can convince ourselves we have chosen, but which have been laid out before us by the junctions we’ve already passed. Euro Truck Smiulator 2 understands this. In its shrink-wrapped world – where a city is contained within a couple of landmarks, four blocks of houses and numerous freight depots – the roads are not choices, they are arteries, pulsing, hardening and occasionally clogged with clots.
I was trapped in one of those clots when I fell in love. A flick of the mouse turns the driver’s head, allowing him to lean out of the window and peer back down the length of his vehicle, or across at the dashboard which may or may not accurately recreate an actual truck’s dashboard. I don’t know because I’ve never been in an actual truck. I was stuck in traffic in the wee small hours of the morning, on a country road somewhere in the south of England. I’d been alone for most of the night; something must have happened to bring all of these people together. An accident perhaps, or they could be the last straggling remnants of a festival or concert. The game doesn’t provide the fact but it does provide a hundred contexts for the willing imagination.
Bored, I turned off my headlights. The darkness is shocking. There is no road anymore, no trees or drystone walls, nothing but a pool of oil peppered with lights. I could be at the bottom of the blue, or deep in space, trapped between stars. Birmingham is my Sol and Southampton is Tau Centauri. I flicked the lights back on, fearing a fine, and grumbled forward an inch or two. A plan had formed in my mind.
That impromptu late night trip to Huddersfield had meaning, even if it didn’t have purpose. The car was the quietest space I knew, even while my crappy mixtapes spooled into it, and I remember being surprised by how few companions I had on the motorway. The occasional car, yes, but why weren’t more people driving just because they could? We were outnumbered by lorries, lumbering great creatures that were plying a trade. They belonged and they acted as anchors in the night, chunkily solid and, due to their uniform motion and my own, as good as static.
I drove close to one lorry for a while. It had drifted across into the far right lane where heavy goods vehicles usually fear to tread. Every time I tried to overtake, it seemed to speed up and so I decided to hang back, expecting it to shift back into the slow lane at any moment. When it did make its move, the motion seemed accidental, its bulk straddling two lanes for too long, obliterating the cat’s eyes from view. The lorry lurched and the red glow of its brake lights intensified. I leaned on my own brakes, gently, and came within a few feet of a sixty mile per hour collision.
At the next service station, I pulled into the carpark and started breathing again. There had been no drama and no noise, but I was convinced the driver of that lorry had nodded off for a second or two. The anchor had shifted and the roads were suddenly a little less stable. They still are.
In my own truck, I’ve only ever collided with barriers and walls while trying to park up at the end of a job. I scratch the paint, at worst, but I’m an incredibly careful driver. I rest when I am tired and I don’t take risks, no matter how much an unexpected set of roadworks may have delayed me. My one concession to danger doesn’t threaten anybody else and I can’t explain why I do it; sometimes, at night, when I’m alone on the road, I turn off my lights and take my hands off the wheel as I coast down a motorway. I look to the side, see the illuminated window of a farmhouse in the distance or a towering block with an urban glow, and that’s where I am.
When I turn the lights back on, I’m on track, steady and true, and the road hasn’t changed, but I’m in love again, with the endless possibilities of the spaces between places and the roadside variations on a theme. The United Kingdom I drive through in this game doesn’t much resemble the one I know from my real life travels but recognising the signs and the general location of places is enough to make me feel comfortable. ‘Comfortable’ is a good word to use when talking about Euro Trucking. I mentioned being bored earlier as well and that fits too. It’s paradoxically thrilling to play a game that doesn’t constantly wave explosions and adventures in my face, allowing the quiet to infiltrate and to be punctured and punctuated instead.
I’m infatuated with this game. It’s a twilight experience, something to tide me toward sleep after a day of looking at the internet, a simulated escape into another kind of work and another way of living. I haven’t formed a company with its own employees and I have no idea how deep that side of the game is. I don’t even pick the best jobs available because I’ve imposed my own limits, always taking cargo from the last city I visited so that my journeys across the continent happen in a strange sort of realtime without the un-truckerly magic of transportation.
The roads I drive are haunted by memories, some created within the game some without it. The compact nature of the world and my own peculiar way of playing means that I often cross the same stretch of motorway twice in an evening. As the sun sinks, I scan the fields for a small church that I remember seeing the day before or a highrise that formed a beacon in the night. I turn up the music and turn off the lights.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 is available now.