I am in my car and I am slowly learning how to drive. I've put my seatbelt on, started my engine, turned on the lights, set the wipers wiping, slipped into first gear and pulled smoothly into traffic. Naturally, my instructor dryly points out that I've forgotten to indicate.
Pulling up at the first set of traffic lights, I lean forward and peer into the night beyond the rain-streaked windscreen. The traffic is bad tonight. I use the spare moment to take a drink of beer. My instructor - Russian simulator City Car Driving - says nothing, but drinking while driving still feels wrong. I put the beer back down on my desk, push down on the parking brake and continue my journey into the night.
On advice from RPS among others, I purchased a Logitech Driving Force GT. It didn't take long for me to grow weary of eating gravel in wheel-supporting racing games and to crave the calmer, more sedate pace of Euro Truck Simulator 2. It similarly didn't take long for me to further crave new locales, busier roads, less forgiving driving models. City Car Driving, purchased long ago and never played, was the perfect fit.
Just as Arma builds a game upon a genuine military-funded simulator, so City Car Driving makes a game from what was and is a driving instructing tool. It makes fewer concessions to player pleasure than Bohemia's game. City Car Driving is sterile, its fictional city characterless and its presentation humourless. It lacks even the charm and humanity that bus simulator OMSI 2 gleans from its real-world city, historical setting and exquisite creaking bus sounds.
Yet I keep returning to its motorways and highways, its backroads and roundabouts, to play its free driving mode. In this mode destinations pop up on the map at random, giving you something to aim towards should you need it, but you're otherwise free to roam the city as you please. Set it to nighttime, turn on the rain, and the low-polygon environment disappears behind flaring headlights and instant atmosphere. It's a Kavinsky Simulator.
It's even less of a traditional game than its roadmates. Euro Truck Simulator ties a trailer of business management and high scores to its truck driving. OMSI 2 hails to the bus driver, layering upon its urban journeys an upper deck of challenge as you aim to travail an accurate route, time attack its bus stops, and steadily carry your ticketed passengers to their desired destination. City Car Driving has a challenge mode, but I don't play it. In its free driving mode, it reminds you when you make a mistake, but there's no consequence to error beyond a dented fender and dented pride.
Yet, that illicit beer. (The excellent Badger's Golden Champion, FYI). I'm not going to pretend I stopped drinking it, but it did feel weird to continue sipping its contents while immersed in an accurate, pernickity driving simulation.
I spend more and more time playing simulations, and I've realised that they immerse me more than any other kind of game. They're a kind of roleplay, in the most literal sense. City Car Driving quickly indoctrinates me into the role of a commuter or Sunday driver.
Its controls are not expressive in the way something like Receiver can be, but driving a car is full of similar performance rituals. Those steps I perform before every journey are a spell: seatbelt on, engine started, lights gleaming, wipers wiping, slip into first, away. By the time I've finished the incantation, I'm engrossed. I'm annoyed at failing to indicate again not because of the message that pops up unobtrusively, but because I've failed to act the role I'm trying to inhabit.
Same with the beer. Same with the pedestrians which line City Car Driving's pavements. They step across crosswalks in front of you and I've never hit one of them. I considered, briefly, running one down for the sake of this article, out of journalistic intrigue, but I don't want to. Not because a message would dryly appear on screen, "You have had an accident", as if I'd just wet myself, but because I don't want to break the spell.
It's the same with the way I sit in traffic jams, tooting my horn even though I know it doesn't make a difference. Either an accident has happened up ahead, the AI has broken, or it's testing me. But still I sit and toot before pulling into traffic and going around. It's the same with the way I always park at an end of a session, finding somewhere quiet, and running through the ritual in reverse until my car is off, in neutral, safe.
I'm engrossed in City Car Driving's world, in spite of its meagre polygons and iffy textures. I care about the things it cares about, because it has communicated a set of values to me through that polygonal world and through that stale atmosphere and through that rigid, testing AI.
That's good design. Just as DayZ's world of apocalyptic need engages players to commit heinous acts of cruelty, when I eventually hit a pedestrian in City Car Driving, it will be a legitimate accident and it will be terrible. Even if there's no collision detection and I clip straight through the crude character models, I know it's going to feel awful.
There's another reason why I play City Car Driving: it's relaxing. I can't drive in real life, but I'm experiencing the same thing as I imagine real-life Sunday drivers find relaxing. The graceful flow between lanes, the rhythmic changing of gears, the view from the window, the momentary challenge of navigating roundabouts (roundabouts: the driving sims' boss battle), the way method and repetition occupies your brain and your hands without ever fully requiring either.
I'm reminded again and again of this old Chris Taylor quote, from an interview with Kieron. "When I ride the lawnmower, I put my son on it, he falls asleep and when I’m mowing, I don’t think about steering and gas and cutting grass... I think about life. I think about work. I think about things I have to do. I recharge. I re-create. Not recreate. RE-create. I charge my batteries up. When I finish mowing the lawn, I haven’t done a chore – I’m actually ready to take on something. I’m sitting on my ass on a lawnmower, so there’s not a lot of physical energy there. That’s what I think gaming needs to be. Look at your Saturday. Do you want your entire Saturday to be laying around or do you want your whole Saturday to be about working, or would you rather a combination of both?"
I pull up at a set of traffic lights and lean forward against my steering wheel to peer out at the night beyond my windscreen. Should I turn left or right? By the time I push down on the parking brake and pull away, it no longer matters. I'm thinking about something else. City Car Driving is ugly, fiddly, obtuse, dry, characterless and humourless, but it cuts my mental grass. If you have a wheel, consider trying it.