Please give a warm welcome to Rob Zacny, the new writer of Premature Evaluation. Each Monday he’ll be picking through the detritus of early access to separate the games might one day be assembled into something worthwhile from those which should remain on the scrapheap.
A confession: I think sandbox games are boring.
Which makes their popularity kind of ironic, considering that Jim Rossignol once wondered whether games might one day “banish the curse of boredom from our lives.” If you look at the great majority of popular Early Access games on Steam, you’ll find they are either about sandbox construction and crafting, or about survival, or both.
Entire worlds at our fingertips, all manner of heroes, explorers, and villains to choose from, and yet the surest way to players on Early Access is to leave them with a few building blocks, a lot of room to use them, and nothing else to do. So it is in Scrap Mechanic.
Scrap Mechanic is a mechanically-minded sandbox kind of sandbox. It’s an erector set, not Lego. You play a slightly unpleasant-looking dwarf (think Rumplestiltskin as a harassed building superintendent) in a bucolic and empty world. With an unlimited supply of jet engines, I-beams, gas motors, bearings, and metal plates and absolutely nothing else to do in the entire world, Scrap Mechanic invites you to build the improbably intricate machine of your dreams but, at this early stage, prohibits purpose. You are Noah in an age of drought.
Yet boredom has its appeal, because it’s in moments of boredom that your mind can wander so far that it encounters itself as a stranger. Left with a pile of scrap-equipment and nothing else to do, my subconscious starts building little monuments to itself, and when I start to see their outline coming together, I get a little jolt of recognition. “Of course I would build something like that!”
In my case, the fun began when Scrap Mechanic taught me how to build myself a car. I flipped open the in-game guidebook and went through the steps for creating my first vehicle, which was a breeze thanks to the clear instructions and diagrams for each step. Scrap Mechanic is about as well laid-out as a Lego construction set, with simple templates that teach your the principles you can use to attempt more ambitious designs.
The default car, I am sorry to say, was a bad car. Really, it was like a workout bench with a lawnmower engine and four wheels. It could barely navigate the undulating terrain of Scrap Mechanic’s beaches, cornfields, and forests. It tipped over during turns.
Somehow, without really thinking much about it, I started building a different car. One that was lower to the ground, wider so it didn’t tip over so much. Then I started driving it around the world, looking for decent stretches of road or flatland to put it through its paces. The next thing I knew, I was erecting barriers and placing traffic cones as I constructed a race course to test my designs.
This is the kind of self-directed fun you’ll need to have with Scrap Mechanic right now, because there’s nothing else to it. While the Steam Store description promises that Scrap Mechanic will one day be a survival construction game in which your little engineer is attacked and hunted by rogue farming equipment, right now there is only an empty sandbox and a set of construction materials.
There are more ambitious things you can build. The tutorial handbook teaches you how to use switches and sensors to create objects that can transform, and perhaps given enough time I would find a way to turn my little cars into mini-mecha. But for me, it was enough just to try and rig up some kind of vehicle that could take a sharp turn at more than a crawl.
My second car was both too wide and not responsive enough. It turned like an ocean-liner, and got wedged between the rocks of a narrow, winding canyon that formed one of the more exciting parts of my little makeshift race course. It was also incredible nervous, bouncing wildly over every bump in the road and going into a terminal skid the moment the back end stepped out.
Years of playing racing games have taught me that the suspension was probably too stiff. That, and the fact that my little car didn’t actually have a suspension of any kind. My next vehicle, though, would have sport shock absorbers on it.
The giant, easy to use building blocks of Scrap Mechanic were user-friendly enough, but they defied efforts to make something that looked the least bit graceful. As I got to work on the Mark III Scrap-Mobile, my attempts to build a Formula 1-style nose eventually gave way to a rather threatening wedge at the end of bright orange I-beam. My dreams of following in the footsteps of Adrian Newey were dashed once again.
I knew, from the moment I left my makeshift starting line at the launch-pad near the cornfields, that I’d built a winner. While the long shock absorbers forced me to build something with a high center of gravity, it was nicely settled by the shocks and the huge, powered wheels on the back end. I was taking turns almost flat-out, only slowing a bit through the switchback hairpins, and sailing through the canyon.
I wasn’t quite done, of course. There was an overambitious experiment with a rocket engine that didn’t quite yield the Batmobile performance that I anticipated, and a series of crashes, but I’d reached the end of my quest to build a test track and a fast car. Like the tide, boredom was rolling back into Scrap Mechanic.
This doesn’t make Scrap Mechanic a bad game, but it is the kind of game that Marsh was describing in his farewell to Premature Evaluation, when he said that many developers on Early Access simply don’t know “what they need to show in order to convince people that their game can reach the future they have promised.”
Nothing that you can do in Scrap Mechanic makes any promises about the game it might one day become. It’s easy and pleasant enough to use that I’ll be happy to revisit it once its eventual shape becomes apparent, but at the moment, playing Scrap Mechanic is a return to long dull days on misbegotten summer vacations, and the creative, restless boredom of child’s play.