Day seventeen of The RPS Advent Calendar, which highlights our favourite games of the year, takes us away from the red tides of murder and into absolute serenity. A driving game without races, a vehicle game more about what's at the side of the road than what's ahead of you. A state of mind as much as it is a videogame.
It's American Truck Simulator!
Alec: It’s my game of the year. Obviously, it’s my game of the year. Look, for personal reasons it would not be fair to share with you, this has been the most hideous 12 months of my life, by quite some margin. What might need to happen in order to have an even worse year is almost unthinkable. I look back upon 2016 and see a grey ocean of numbness, with sudden, rocky coastlines of horror - and, once in a while, tiny, tiny islets of Feeling OK.
Those were the times when I spent a day or so playing American Truck Simulator. Wide roads, slow lorries, canyons and trees, gas stations and donut stands, the radio playing, always the radio, the perfect simplicity of reaching a destination. 2016 has been a year in which reaching any destination has proven traumatically impossible, so the straightforwardness of drive to the place, no need to rush has been a fleeting balm.
Could another game have served the purpose? Well, perhaps a Test Drive Unlimited or a Burnout or a Fuel - but they have gasoline in their veins. Hearts that yearn to go faster and to triumph over others. I don’t want to race. I want to drive. Enjoy the road, and everything that passes by my window, and that sure conviction that every song the radio randomly plays was somehow tailor-made for me. A simulation of sitting by the window on a long train journey, headphones on, the soundtrack of your life.
And the spaces between the songs too, the banality and the cheer and the distance of local American stations. I tune in to some friendly voices, talking about stupid things. I can't be left to my imagination. Escape.
Some of this I can take from ATS’ largely similar predecessor, European Truck Simulator, but, child of the cinema as I am, there is a visual language to the American landscape, even in ATS’ slightly stark and boxy rendition of it, that I find irresistible. Europe is somehow too known, too ordinary to me, even though I have not visited most of it. (That said, the Scandinavian DLC does conjure the necessary sense of otherness - I suspect I will spend some time with it over Christmas. The time feels appropriate).
With the recent ‘rescale’ that bumped the size of the Californian/Nevadian/Arizonian map significantly, it feels so much more cinematic - the vastness of the land and the sky, the long pauses between settlements, that snowballing sensation that the road is infinite. It calms me like very little else can. Just me, in a place I recognise but do not know, free from responsibilities - but with bounds enough that I am not listless.
I wonder, often, if the developers truly understand what it is they have made here. When they read the things I have written about American Truck Simulator - and I know that they have - do they feel pride at the understanding of their work, or bafflement that someone would make such claims about their nerdy lorry game? Did they mean to make Zen And The Art Of Intersection Navigation, or was this only meant to be Truck Simulator?
I think, perhaps, it is is best that I never find out.
Graham: I love the Truck Simulator series, but in truth they're not games I spend a lot of time with. The time I do spend with them is magical though. It always involves digging out my steering wheel from the cupboard and bolting it to the desk; it often involves a beer nearby, for occasional sips between journeys; and it never fails to provide the most thoroughly recharging moments of my life.
In many ways, these occasional journeys are performing the role that travel used to fulfill in my life. Now that I have a kid, there's little opportunity for trips away, and the trips we do take are no longer of the kind we used to go on. For example, my partner and I once took the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, a train journey which takes two and a half days and cuts across Iowa, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and many of America's most iconic landscapes before pulling into California. It was an uncomfortable journey, and an impossible one with a baby, but it was also one of the most memorable holidays I've ever been on.
I don't think American Truck Simulator's ability to perform this role is by accident. Like Alec, I wonder about authorial intent, but I've decided that SCS Software absolutely knew what they were doing when they made this games. The landscape rescale seems like proof: it doesn't just make the world more accurate, but leans in to the zen-like state the game can trigger as you flow along its highways. It makes me dream of two-and-a-half long drives across American's remaining iconic landscapes. I can't wait.
Adam: I’ve been playing the Truck Simulator games for years now and I still have no idea if they’re a) good at simulating trucks or b) even slightly interesting if you get into the whole business side of things. I’m one man with one truck and all the roads I could ever need. The truck is essentially a window onto the world, a vehicle only in the sense that it moves and has some sense of purpose (go here, deliver that). It’s a camera lens, the Google Street View interactive experience I’ve always wanted.
There are lots of games set in the real world, here on planet Earth, but few capture the sense of being a tourist in that world like American Truck Simulator. There were several games about roadtrips this year, including a Final Fantasy that did some interesting things with the idea of souvenirs with its NPC photographer, but none can match up to Truck Simulator, which understands the appeal of the road better than any other game I can think of.
Use this while you play.