It has been quite the year, politically and personally. I bend no truth when I say that, were it possible to spend 16 hours a day pretending to be a lorry driver in a computer game, I would seize that opportunity gladly. The simplicity of having to get from point A to point B, the slow-motion pressure-and-release of needing to refuel, a view of the world that is landscape-led, not people-centric. American Truck Simulator [official site] is not, first and foremost, a motorised vehicle simulation game. It is pure escape, genuine freedom via a screen, as close as it comes to a real roadtrip without the expense and discomfort.
Unfortunately, ATS' initial vision of America, as well as being thus far limited to California, Arizona and Nevada, was hyper-compressed. Journeys were measured in minutes, not hours, day/night flew by like nature documentary montages, and open land was but a quickly-drawn breath between suburbs and cities. I loved it, but it felt bite-size; America: The Trailer, not America: The Movie.
Things have changed, and beautifully so.
The facts are these: for some time now, the developers, aware of grumbles that they seemed to have made usa rather than USA, have been diligently re-scaling the in-game landmass. This is not simply a matter of making roads longer and plains wider, but of manually adding more roads, more intersections, more gas stations and even more towns and cities. It's not simply blown up: the new space has been diligently filled-in too. The effect is revelatory.
It's still the same game, of course. That is to say, a game about being hired to drive cargo from point A to point B and, if you so wish, spend your earnings on gradually amassing a fleet of your own trucks and drivers (I have never much cared for that side of the game myself).
If you want to get relatively deep into the mechanics of trucks and how they handle then you can, but this can all be sidestepped entirely if, as is the case for me, your preference is simply to get out on the road. Controls can be anything from, essentially, arcade to frighteningly involved, but it is all a matter of preference, not of playing it 'right.'
The difference, as of the 1.5 update now available as a public beta (just opt-in via the betas tab on Steam), is to the sense of journey as well as simply scale. That sense was there already, but undercut with a clear sense of compromise. I took it, believing this would be the best we'd get, so to find that ATS has now evolved from a sort of greatest hits of America and into America is glorious. (Again, with the proviso that it only has three states so far - we should be seeing more later on).
Some vital maths: where previously driving most of the length of the map (South-East Arizona to North-West California) took somewhere in the region of half an hour, now it's two hours, pushing three. Far, far more than that if you want to take the long way round.
This is the difference between feeling a mild sense of relief and pride when you arrive at your destination and feeling real fatigue, even desperation, during the journey. Between thinking "cool, let's do another job" and having to stand up, stretch, walk around, maybe go have a meal or a lie down. Between being someone who played a truck sim for a while and someone who just finished a long, exhausting drive across America.
We had a chat in the RPS treehouse about other travel games we enjoy or would like to see. Elite Dangerous came up, which though its multiplayer aspects are not for me, does a fine job of being a space travel game - long flights, grand scenery, submline docking procedures, perfect sound effects. Graham expressed a wish for a Cowboy Bebop game. Alice is in walking simulator heaven but also wants "wacky, tacky Americana" sights. Adam thirsts for the perfect driving-horror game.
Me? I think I've got it already. I can't think of any travel/road trip/sightseeing game I want more than American Truck Simulator on a vast scale.
Sure, I'd like more graphical improvements, particularly to vegetation. (There are some already here - the lighting and the skies seems improved). I hope and pray that, one day, it will be possible to exit my truck, slip into a worn red leather diner seat and refuel with coffee and pie. To solemnly urinate by the side of the road, or to lay down on a lumpen mattress in a flea-bitten roadside motel. Like Alice, to go get a close-up view of bizarre and beautiful Americana, be it the iconic scenery or the forlorn roadside attractions. To get lost in the woods.
Perhaps silly things all (and yet nonetheless a tall order for a game that currently specialises in vehicles, not humans), but all part of dreaming that I am someone else, somewhere else, away from all of this. Just point A and point B, and soaking up/surviving the space in between them.
ATS feels enormous now. The sweep of the land, the size of the sky, the long wait between cities, the even longer wait to escape a city's lights and junctions and speed limits and grid-bound maze of roads.
The slow loss of light, the pinks of sunset, the alien feel of dusk and headlights, the endlessness of the night and the unsettling silhouettes of distant mountains, the lonely click of your indicators on an empty road, the exhalation that comes when the sun finally rises.
Tension and boredom and exhaustion and freedom and bliss and sweet, sweet relief when the GPS' time remaining counter drops to single-digit hours.
The mingled joy and sadness when the journey ends and purpose is removed. Standing up, shaking the leaden feeling from my legs, getting a drink, feeling awful reality creep back in, cracking my knuckles, sitting down to it all again.
In its original form, ATS only wove in and out of its fantasy, only hinted at the sweet monotony it could have been capable of, never quite made me feel small. Now, I am an insect in a giant world that turns oh-so-slowly. Wouldn't have it any other way.
It would be remiss of me not to restate the importance of the right soundtrack here. Initially ATS automatically included a roster of appropriate radio station streams, but now it seems these must be added manually (or locate someone's older copy of live_streams.sii, for instance mine, and place it into
My Documents - American Truck Simulator). Find something that fits your fantasy America - maybe it's country, maybe it's spit'n'sawdust rock, maybe it's hip-hop, maybe it's Elvis, maybe it's 60s pop, whatever - and you will have yourself a road trip.
An added benefit of the expanded ATS is that a journey is now long enough for a full album, or several, or an audiobook, or a podcast - or the entirety of a local station's breakfast show, complete with news and ads and idents that are so America it hurts.
And something else. Something very timely. Hearing local radio stations, with their focus on community and local folks, their 'news' bulletins about local bake sales, and, heartbreakingly, their adverts asking for food bank donations "to help your neighbours", gave me a certain insight that my main contact with America - liberals tweeting from the globally-minded SF, NYC and Austin games scenes - simply does not. And, frankly, nor do UK news reports about the alt-right or snarling rally-goers.
I know the facts and the theories behind what led to the election result, of course I do. Actually hearing what those communities sound like, voices rather than headlines, is something very different indeed.
I drove across America (or a section of it), and where before it was a megamix of iconic scenes, this time it was vast landmass and lonely gas stations. I felt bored sometimes, and I liked that boredom. I listened to some of what the people who live in small places I blew right through listen to every day. It was not hateful, but it was not interested in the world either. Perhaps I understand America a little more, just a little. I am still so very scared of what's going to happen. But I feel, once again, that it can be the place of my escapism - if only in games, for now.
American Truck Simulator is my game of the year. Again. If we get more states in 2017, it almost certainly will be my game of the year then, too.