Every Monday we abandon Brendan in an empty shack in the countryside with only disassembled bits and pieces of an early access game to entertain himself with. This week, the brake lights and hubcaps of My Summer Car [official site].
I’ve woken up in the toilet again. It’s pitch black outside and I am almost starving. I fumble around in the dark of the house, looking for the light switches and hoping that they work. Nothing in this game is reliable. Thankfully, they light up. I wobble outside and find the light in the garage. Pieces of metal are strewn on the floor, arranged randomly around a half-assembled engine. I have no idea what I am doing. I am so, so hungry. I slouch back into the house, into the kitchen, and open the fridge. It is completely barren. I suddenly remember that I have already eaten my only packet of sausages.
Welcome to My Summer Car, a sim which, on the face of it, is about putting together an entire car from scratch and driving it around the Finnish countryside circa 1995. But it is also a game about flipping strangers the bird, dying in pointless crashes or sitting in a sauna to remove grease while drinking from a crate of steadily warming beer. I implore you to check out the official website of the game, which may give you some insight into its general tone. “I am making this game because this game needs to be made,” says the developer in bright blue font on a burnt orange background. “This is not made because this is fun game, but because it is NOT.”
It also has a very unforgiving permadeath mode by default (although this can be toggled off) and offers you no help or instructions at all. Someone on the internet (I forget who, sorry) said that we are going to have to refer to Dark Souls as “the My Summer Car of fantasy RPGs”. Having tried my damnedest to put together an engine without documentation or any prior knowledge, I can see why. The half-engine on the floor of my garage looks up at me, pathetic, broken, yearning for death.
I decide, after about an hour of fiddling with bumper plates and cylinders and back seats, to start again and seek help from YouTube. This isn’t in the spirit of the game, but without it there is no way I will get this column done before Q1 2017. For the same reason, I’ve also turned off permadeath. Again, this is clearly against the game’s philosophy, as illustrated by the “I am coward” achievement that immediately pops up.
You start off with a crate of beer, one packet of sausages and a rusted frame along with all the other parts necessary to put a car together. There’s also a blue van in your driveway. I entered this van and started trying to drive it, twisting the ignition and fiddling with the handbrake. Nothing happened. It would be hours before I realised that you need to hold down the ignition and “pump the gas” with the accelerate key at the same time in order to get this van moving. Like I said, nothing in this world is reliable.
When I finally did set out in my van, I got lost on the desolate back roads of Finland looking for a shop that would sell me food and petrol. I finally spotted a single man sitting under a shaded stall and slammed the brakes. I got out and tried to talk to him, but he did not respond. He just sat in front of a piece of paper about drag races. I pressed random buttons in the man’s direction until I started to piss all over him. I had forgotten the game had a ‘urinate’ button (it’s ‘P’).
Back at the garage, I had to piece together the car. This is done by clipping bits of the car onto the frame and using a set of spanners to tighten bolts. Without the tutorial, which I was watching and pausing every few seconds, I don't know how this would be possible without already knowing a lot about a car’s innards. There are hundreds of pieces. Brake lining, clutch cylinder, steering column, oil filter, radiator, wishbone thing, backwheel part, giant Energizer, engine wobbler.
On top of this the tool set comes with about a dozen different sizes of spanner, and you need to know which size is right for every bolt, not to mention how many bolts may be hidden among the obscured metal layers of each part. It is a baffling game, and a fiddly one too. Often you know where a piece ought to go, but you can’t find the right hotspot whereby the game will allow it to click into place. A tick mark shows up when you find the right ‘zone’. You spend a lot of time looking, reaching, praying for this tick symbol.
Undoubtedly, this is all part of the appeal. Once I knew where parts needed to go, I found myself concentrating on the job and losing track of time. There was an odd sense of satisfaction to finally screwing on the wheels, after they popped off multiple times, leading me to squeal at the screen in frustration. I think (because like everything in this sim, it is unclear) that putting pieces onto the car in the wrong order leads to them violently popping off. But this also seems to happen if you don’t bolt the part on with a spanner quickly enough.
Eventually, I put the back wheels on first, then tried the front ones again. It worked. The rusty, yellow junk heap of a frame now resembled something like a vehicle. I felt good about this and I can only imagine the sense of reward for someone who didn’t use a video tutorial, someone who fumbled through the whole thing bit by bit. Probably downright jubilant, but also probably several hours poorer in time.
Spoiler: I never did get the engine put together. That is for another day, another diary perhaps. But there is clearly something going on in the wider world that I would love to see from the front seat of my own battered piece of crap. Every so often, the phone in the house would start ringing and I would pick it up, greeted by the Finnish demands of “nearby” folks, asking me to come and drain their sewer tanks, or calling me in the middle of the night to pick them up from the pub. I have no idea where the pub is and, at the time I got this call (waking me up from the sleep I needed to regenerate my fatigue meter), I still did not know how to start my van. I thought that it was out of oil, because a little red oil can would light up when I twisted the key. For all I know, it is out of oil and that’s why the ignition needs pumping help to start. I have zero knowledge about cars. I have never even been behind the wheel of one. I am 28 years old.
But there are so many details that this lack of knowledge only makes things more interesting. A magazine in your house lists car parts which you can order by post (I don’t know where the post office is) and the presence of other NPCs in the world suggests that there are more dumb missions to take on - a map above your phone gives you some idea of the landscape for this. Or you could just drink a load of beer and go for a drive and be pulled over by the police, for example. You can go to the store (no, I don’t know where) and flip them the bird while buying meats for the fridge. Yes, there is also a dedicated swearing button and a key that makes you show people the middle finger.
But the things I like best are the smaller details that perfectly set up the atmosphere. There is a fly that constantly buzzes around you, and you need to wash yourself by sploshing water onto hot coals in the tiny sauna of your house. The darkness of night is total and debilitating, forcing you to turn on the garage lights or set up a flashlight pointing at whatever dark part of the driveway you need to see. You can push your car with your hands, provided the wheels work. The driver’s door of your van never closes properly and you always have to slam it shut twice. To save the game, you need to go into your cramped bathroom and use the toilet, meaning that every time you start the game, you begin by staring at the dirty tiles in the bathroom. Then it’s back outside to scream Finnish swearwords at the left trail arm as it falls off the frame every time you try to screw it on.
As a simulation of Nordic rural life in the nineties, I can’t speak to its accuracy (maybe someone can testify in the comments) but I can confirm it has a sense of humour. Like Jalopy, it is about things going wrong, on or off the road, and how you react to that. This feels a lot more hardcore – something that will appeal to some folks and repulse others. Some games refuse to hold your hand, My Summer Car doesn’t even know what a human hand is, apart from classing it as “the thing responsible for offensive gestures and opening beer bottles.” Funny, detailed and thoroughly confusing, it won't be for everyone. But it’s definitely a game that’s easy to get lost in.
My Summer Car is avilable on Steam for £10.99/$14.99 . These impressions are based on build 1426952.