An American truck driver at the end of the world

america-truck-simulator-offroad

My friends, today I achieved the dream of dreams. I boldly went where no-one has gone before. I went behind American Truck Simulator‘s invisible wall. I saw the world that lay beyond the road. I saw views to take my breath away. I saw the land torn asunder. I saw the laws of physics collapse and invert. And then I met my doom.

American Truck Simulator is my all-time favourite driving game (and I am not, in general, someone who plays driving games), but, in the wake of its new and highly-recommended New Mexico DLC, it is, in my perception, in the middle of an existential crisis.

It has built – and is still building – an incredible amount of world, the detail of which is steadily on the rise, and as such tries to meet the twin objectives of being a somewhat realistic lorry-driving simulation and a dramatic touristic odyssey across a shrunken but still enormous America.

The trouble is, the more it builds and the better it looks, the more players like me – in it for the zen roadtrip experience rather than vehicular accuracy – want to explore and get up close to all these wonderful natural and man-made sights. Sadly, it is not (yet – hope springs eternal) designed to be that kind of game. It is designed to be a game in which you haul cargo along major roads.

ats-view

Until now, I’ve been relatively content with that, at least in part because the major landmarks of California, Nevada and Arizona (the states covered prior to New Mexico) were iconic enough and gigantic enough that seeing them from the side of the road pretty much did the job. New Mexico is different, in that it has fewer world-famous sights but, as its unofficial assignation ‘the enchanted land’ suggests, it is nonetheless peppered with wonderful things – it’s just that little bit harder to find them.
That’s what I’ve been doing, after reaction to my ATS New Mexico review suggested that the bleak, down-at-heel impression I’d gotten of the state was only halfway true. So I’ve been deliberately leaving the beaten track in search of its most recommended places, and documenting them in this photo diary (currently only available to RPS subscribers, but I’ll be making it public once it’s complete).

Most recently, I went in search of Los Alamos, birthplace of the Manhattan Project’s first atomic bomb, and which for me was to be an entree before trying to locate the staging ground of the Trinity nuclear test in the Jornada del Muerto desert, which played a lynchpin (pun semi-intended) role in the most recent series of Twin Peaks.

I hit a snag. That snag being that Los Alamos exists in a sizeable section of New Mexico which ATS has not recreated. There’s a vast expanse of land in the general direction of where it should be, but there are no roads through it. And, generally speaking, ATS will only allow you to drive where there are roads: go off-road and, within seconds, you’ll hit impassable invisible walls.

Here’s Los Alamos and surroundings in Google Maps…

GMAPS

…and here’s the same area in game:

amap

Tough luck me, in other words.

I spent some time driving up and down Route 84, hoping I might at least be able to glimpse Los Alamos in the far distance, but a whole lot of guesswork was involved. Far more problematically, the game prevented me from driving more than a couple of metres off the side of the road. A cat’s cradle of invisible walls runs through the game for precisely this reason: to keep you on the road, to keep you seeing only what you’re meant to see, and even to keep you from driving your truck into oblivion.

Close to giving up, I aimed for the highest point I could find, and drove through the nearest fence gap to at least gain the few inches I could, just in case a distant town popped into view.

It did not. But I kept on driving. And on and on.

ats-wall2

I braced myself for the familiar, sudden shudder of force-feedback and screen shake that would mean I had hit the wall once again, presuming I had just found myself in some layby missing its sign posts. It did not come.

ats-wall-4

I was Jim Carrey at the end of The Truman Show, finding the secret door at the far edge of the world, the one that opened into the real world. I had done it. I had broken free.

ats-offroad

This one place – this one place – that I had found quite by chance, some development oversight in a tiny section of the map, and it changed everything. The world – or, at least, the breathtakingly unspoilt interior of New Mexico – was mine. Most importantly, was there a Los Alamos out there somewhere? If I drove deep enough in, would this traffic-free ghost town await me?

That, I never did find out. I drove on towards the river – the Rio Grande, I believe, which I had previously only seen as a murky brown scar underneath a freeway, but here it was glittering and magnificent – only to encounter a second invisible wall along its perimeter. This, I have not found a way to pass. Not yet, but I shall persist.

In the meantime, what sights I did find. I saw great beauty…

…I saw danger…

ats-danger

…I saw corruption…

ats-ugly

…and I saw wild and weird impossibilities.

ats-map-4

I drove across places no-one was meant to drive across..

…and I drove into barriers I could not see. So many times.

They were everywhere, always unexpected, always impassable. I gradually learned to recognise particular trees and rocks which marked a path through, and slowly a map drew itself in my mind. A map of my limited freedom.

It was the ride of my life, but for my truck, it was another story entirely. The fuel would only last so long, but more critically, the harsh terrain and regular collisions with unseen walls steadily inflicted deep damage upon it. I would have to retreat to ATS’ intended world of highways and find a service station, repair the vehicle, fill the tank and then try again to cross the Rio Grande.

But I had crossed some Rubicon. I could not go back. Whatever parting the wall had made for me was now sealed up, or I could not find the very precise trajectory required to pass through it. I was stuck here, in New Mexico’s own Upside-Down.

I tried and tried, but time and again that barrier, the barrier I was now on the other side of after so long yearning to be, would not let me though. Each collision doled out more damage, and before too long, my engine failed and would start no more.

I sat in the cab, watching the sun rise and the sun set. I would die here, in this beautiful world I was never meant to be this close to. I had achieved wonderful, impossible things: I had escaped The Road and found freedom, but the cost was my life.

Another night fell. I waited for the cold to take me.

Then I remembered that I could just press F7 to call roadside assistance. So hey-ho, we’re back in Santa Fe.

With the truck repaired, I immediately hit Route 84 again, breathlessly returned to the scene of my crossing-over. I crawled and ground across every millimeter of the same roadside, but this time it would not yield. I had had my one chance. I had seen the face of God, I had chosen to live rather than die* and then I had been sent home. Only The Road Now. Farewell, Los Alamos, wherever you may really be.

***

I have a savegame, you know. A snapshot of my time on The Other Side. I’m going back. If you never hear from me again, know that I am happy.

* I know there is no death in ATS, but allow me a little a poetry, eh?

42 Comments

Top comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Adding another voice to the "lovely read" verdict here.

    It also reminded me strongly of an out-of bounds excursion I went on with a few guildmates in Elder Scrolls Online. I think there's something to it beyond just the "you're not supposed to be here" thing; something more along the lines of "no one else goes here, has seen these things, or even knows about them." Real exploration in a world meant to be a canned experience.

    We started at a shrine way out in the boonies, walked 5 or 10 minutes to a nondescript pile of boulders, and elder scrolled our way up between them to the forbidden cliffs at the zone's boundary. The lands beyond were sometimes undulating, sometimes unnaturally flat, sometimes patterned like chess boards, occasionally not actually land at all, but always vast. We traveled around half the zone and visited the back side of a blocked gate presumably leading to some future area. We kept going, jumping over or getting ourselves and our fleshy vehicles stuck in jagged pits, and hung out on some other forbidden cliffs for a while, just chatting. That remains one of my favorite memories of that game.

    Weeks later, I tried alone to find the place again. I knew the starting point but hadn't taken any pictures along the way to aid my memory of the path we'd taken. It felt very much like re-reading old dreams I'd written down – often completely forgetting the way after passing an immediately-recognized rock or cluster of trees, and then experiencing the joy of coming across another familiar bit after a some more traveling. Eventually I came across the boulders and managed to get on top again – they hadn't logged us all being out of bounds and put up a wall! Exploring the lands beyond was a similar experience, as I sought out all the places I'd remembered going the last time.

    I did the same a couple weeks or months after, recording a video just in case they patch it up some day... It's an odd feeling to try to describe, especially for someone as unpoetic as I, but exploring my old university stomping grounds after ten years away made me giddy with the similarities. It didn't have checkerboard landscapes, though.
  1. hughie522 says:

    “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

    *drives back to Santa Fe* XD

    • defunct says:

      Always loved that quote, and how it was delivered in the movie. It was scene stealing. The movie could have ended right there.

      • Blackcompany says:

        Rumor is, he ad libbed the lines. Apparently, the original speech, as written, was miles longer and said much less. Very much the “guy before the Gettysburg Address” type situation.

        But Rutger Hauer understood that it needed to be briefer and more succinct in order to convey real meaning. So he changed it on the fly, or at least, that’s the story I heard.

  2. Shkspr says:

    See? This is the New Mexico of my youth. This is why they call it the “Land of Enchantment”.

  3. GernauMorat says:

    These kind of articles are why I love RPS. Can’t wait to read your complete diary (as a filthy poor.)

  4. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Lovely read, cheers!

  5. Premium User Badge

    CrackedMandible says:

    Great read! Those screenshots make it look like your digital alter-ego transcended the game boundries via some peyote!

  6. Daymare says:

    Loved this tale. Oh the strange magic of breaking and bending a game world’s rules.

    Reminds me how The Stanley Parable was prepared for that.

  7. Yellow Devil says:

    “I saw beauty…I saw danger…I saw corruption…
    …and I saw wild and weird impossibilities.
    I drove across places no-one was meant to drive across..
    …and I drove into barriers I could not see. So many times.”

    So…it’s like exploring real life New Mexico?

  8. Top Hat Zebra says:

    I am getting serious Car Boys vibes from this article.

    This is why I love RPS.

  9. Orchids says:

    This land is your land, this land is my land,
    From the glitchy forests to the road free wild lands,
    From the travelled highways to the unknown inland,
    This land was made for trucks and me…

  10. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Adding another voice to the “lovely read” verdict here.

    It also reminded me strongly of an out-of bounds excursion I went on with a few guildmates in Elder Scrolls Online. I think there’s something to it beyond just the “you’re not supposed to be here” thing; something more along the lines of “no one else goes here, has seen these things, or even knows about them.” Real exploration in a world meant to be a canned experience.

    We started at a shrine way out in the boonies, walked 5 or 10 minutes to a nondescript pile of boulders, and elder scrolled our way up between them to the forbidden cliffs at the zone’s boundary. The lands beyond were sometimes undulating, sometimes unnaturally flat, sometimes patterned like chess boards, occasionally not actually land at all, but always vast. We traveled around half the zone and visited the back side of a blocked gate presumably leading to some future area. We kept going, jumping over or getting ourselves and our fleshy vehicles stuck in jagged pits, and hung out on some other forbidden cliffs for a while, just chatting. That remains one of my favorite memories of that game.

    Weeks later, I tried alone to find the place again. I knew the starting point but hadn’t taken any pictures along the way to aid my memory of the path we’d taken. It felt very much like re-reading old dreams I’d written down – often completely forgetting the way after passing an immediately-recognized rock or cluster of trees, and then experiencing the joy of coming across another familiar bit after a some more traveling. Eventually I came across the boulders and managed to get on top again – they hadn’t logged us all being out of bounds and put up a wall! Exploring the lands beyond was a similar experience, as I sought out all the places I’d remembered going the last time.

    I did the same a couple weeks or months after, recording a video just in case they patch it up some day… It’s an odd feeling to try to describe, especially for someone as unpoetic as I, but exploring my old university stomping grounds after ten years away made me giddy with the similarities. It didn’t have checkerboard landscapes, though.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      “Also reminded me strongly” at the start should probably be “put me in the same headspace”. It’s quite a nice headspace, so extra thanks for writing this piece.

    • verazero says:

      can we see the video?
      (link – upload)

      • Premium User Badge

        particlese says:

        It’s kinda rough and shows the UI and such since I didn’t plan on sharing it, but here’s the video, albeit with some bits cut out to make the entrance location more obscure. (In our original wanderings, we all agreed not to spread it too much for fear of it being lost to a very unlikely fix from the devs, and I do intend to hold myself to that. This was a year ago, so I have no idea if it’s still there, but if so, you might find it with a little inference and exploration.)

    • Blackcompany says:

      Years ago, in Oblivion, I discovered a gap between two dungeon walls. And I wandered off into a world of darkness.

      For whatever reason, I didnt just fall into the darkness. I was able to walk on it. And lo and behold…I was outside the inside of a dungeon. Around me, hallways stretched and walls cordoned off entire rooms. And while I stood beneath the world, within the eerie dark…i also stood outside the world. Beyond it, in absolute absence of anything like a world.

      It was a fascinating thing, wandering around like that. Seeing the “outside inside” of a place. Strangely alluring, and nigh impossible to explain why.

  11. poliovaccine says:

    Definitely enjoyable, definitely why I like RPS in particular. I think it’s funny, though, seeing all you Brits oohing and ahhing (er, excuse me, “cooing” and “corring”) at the America I know for desolation and meth haha. But I completely get the experience via Euro Truck Simulator – architecture any older than Brooklyn is immediately fairybook land to me, and I feel like Europe is green one time for every time America is brown.

    Btw, I think the metaphysical bent to this article is sort of what David Lynch means by his “Inland Empire,” which is also the name for that geographical/social/financial blob of California.

  12. Chillicothe says:

    Driving thru NM can do that to a man. Can confirm.

  13. legopirate27 says:

    Magnificent read. You are a poet Alec.

  14. and its man says:

    Yet driving out of Trackmania Canyon is more enlightening.

    • trashbat says:

      This is excellent, thanks for posting it.

      • and its man says:

        This is from a 2011-2012 series of videos that juxtapose, and try to build a dialogue between philosophical discourse and “alternative gameplays”.

        Back then, they only did 3 episodes in the series. The Trackmania Canyon one was the first. The second used a custom map in Doom (a large map filled with legions of enemies, aligned and ready to get slaughtered with a BFG 9000), while the third has them trying to get Kirby killed in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a game with no game over.

        I just saw a fourth episode was made four years later, in 2016, using a gameplay sequence of The Witness.

        • trashbat says:

          Yeah, I can read French (although not fluent enough to fully process long running conversations) so got some of the gist from the YT summary. I like what feels like their fairly serious philosophical approach to something that’s ostensibly pretty silly.

  15. Al Bobo says:

    You need to do that with VR goggles on. Report how it went.

  16. verazero says:

    We gonna build a wall, and we gonna make it invisible!

  17. Ramshackle Thoughts says:

    This reminds me of reading China Meiville’s ‘Iron Council’. The characters have to consider building a trainline through The Torque, a place where colours turn to gasses, and the ground bubbles with sulphur or blood or sugar, and the vanishing point of the horizon is in six different places at once.

    • oyog says:

      God damn. I’ve had a couple of China Meiville’s books on my list for a couple years now. I’m thinking I might have to make a trip to the library on my next day off.

  18. OmNomNom says:

    This was a lot more fun to read than the game probably is to play

  19. KidWithKnife says:

    Now this… THIS needs to be made into a movie. American Truck Driver, the Movie: Alec’s Odyssey.

  20. defunct says:

    Thanks Alec. This is why I still come to RPS. To find articles like this. Which makes it a little sad when I say, I don’t read RPS very much any more.

  21. coconuts says:

    This reminds me of my fondest memories of Halo 1 and 2. The Halo series had this weird environment design where the forerunner (the ancient aliens that made the rings) structures were gigantic, geometric, repititous and would often continue far past the playable part of a level. This was done to create an imposing and mysterious feel to the enviroments, but it had a side effect of there being large parts to levels that were never meant to be accesible by the player. In Halo 3, the game designers kept players in with the simple method of closely hemming the play area in with instakill barriers. In the first two Halo games for whatever reason they didn’t take this approach however.

    I spent hours in custom Halo 2 matches trading arcane knowledge of how to escape the normal play area of a level and explore the weird territory outside. Invisible floors, walls, and domes over the level that you could walk over, textured areas of the map that could never be seen from the play area of the level and other strange oddities awaited. The method of escaping into the outside was always strange too. It involved positioning a vehicle at a precise spot and angle so that when you jumped out you would pass through the normally impervious barrier of the world. Or one player would stand on the head of another player, and in a difficult to execute sequence the top player would jump, the bottom player would plasma sword lunge at the top player, cancel the attack at the last second, and the top player would jump the moment the bottom player contacted them. You would repeat this sequence until both players had levitated up above the walls of the level.

    Halo 2 also had this phenomena called the super bounce where if you crouched and jumped in a narrow space that your character couldn’t quite stand up in and than immediately jumped onto a part of the level where two polygons met you would be launched incredibly high up into the air.

    There was this sense of poking at the edge of the universe and coming up with novel ways to explore to just a bit further than you were meant to that was extremely interesting to me. The sense of being on the edge and seeing the laws of physics crumble around you was great. I was sad that in Halo 3 the designers took the “easy way out” by closely hemming in the levels with instakill barriers. It wasn’t like most of the methods of escaping the levels were exploitable in competitive play.

    Then again, I understood even at the time that this kind of thing was a weird video game experience that was far too strange and subtle for a large game developer to identify and purposefully integrate into game design. It’s the kind of experience that can only seem to spring out of an unintentional oversight in game design and not by intention. Although there were some things like the scarab gun in Halo 3 that you had to jump through hoops in to get outside of the normal play area and obtain.

    I think this kind of video game experience is the opposite of polish. It is the joy of seeing through the part of the game that is meant to be presented to you, and recognizing that you are glimpsing some piece of the machinery that surrounds and supports the play experience. The backstage to a play where the stagehands coffee cup is resting on a piece of furniture from a previous play, the ropes to lift setpieces up and down, the chair positioned just past the sightline of the audience so that an actor could watch a scene they weren’t in. Every element of an artistic experience has a hidden network of supporting elements that exist solely for their utility, and there is something deeply compelling about dragging those support elements into the spotlight and recontextualizing it as part of the artistic experience.

    This fascination is related to what makes game worlds feel alive or dead. A game world must have a degree of autonomy from the player, must feel like it exists for it’s own purpose and motive beyond being a playground for the player to feel truly alive and interesting. This exploration of the fringes of a game’s environment is a craving for that kind of experience I think.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      Ooooo, yes, I completely agree. Good words.

      You probably already know this, but for the sake of semi-completeness: The first two Halo games also had intentionally super-obscure things hidden around. The first only seemed to have stuff like the names of developers’ or their spouses written on walls and the like, but the second one seemed to ambrace the joy you describe by hiding skulls in hard-to-reach places which could later be used to change facets of gameplay. Kinda neat in that they played with this a bit, though it’s definitely not the same feeling as going into fully-unkempt regions only there to support the production. Disappointing that they boxed the player in so much in the third one.

      My personal favorite thing in Halo was piling grenades under the jeep on the beach in the Silent Cartographer map, blasting it with a rocket onto the top of the map, and running around up there. I think there was a way you could jump on another player’s head to get up there, too — similar to what you describe but without the plasma sword — but I’m not so sure now. Fun and exciting stuff, at any rate. I must’ve spent hours on my friend’s Xbox poking around up there, and again when I got the PC version a couple years later.

  22. Ghostwise says:

    Sounds like you actually want to play Google Maps in Street View mode, mate. :-p

  23. Admore says:

    I love this sort of space in video games. I often love it more than the actual space, or the plot. I spent a great deal of time in such places when WoW came out, found a lot of things later scrubbed out.

    As for New Mexico, I’m sad the game didn’t include 284 up from Clines Corners to Santa Fe. In the late moonlight it was one of the most desolate stretches of road I can ever recall traveling, but gorgeous too. You might see one other car in an hour. Pre cell phone days it could be scary if your car broke down (I say from experience).

    ATS seems to have captured the poverty in some places of New Mexico, I wonder if it’s gotten the sheer terror you can experience on its roads…

    It is indeed the Land of Enchantment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good enchantment.

  24. jnik says:

    I love how I ask a question in a comment and get an article out of it. Looks like they just pretend 285 doesn’t exist, which is a really funny omission and cuts off some great scenery but keeps them from having to hit a wall at Colorado. At least 84 north of Abiquiu is pretty awesome, if you didn’t continue that way after bouncing around the Jemez Pueblo.

  25. Premium User Badge

    ADinVA says:

    You sure you didn’t take a wrong turn and end up in Area 51, that’s some weird alien physics.

  26. Zephyr says:

    I really hope they dont patch this, its little things like this in every game that makes it more fun

  27. sonofsanta says:

    +1 to the That Were Proper Lovely brigade

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