Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun's 141-year history to pull out one of the the best moments from the archive. This week, another Jim road trip, only this time he's cleaning up the mean streets of Street Cleaning Simulator. This article was first published on July 8th 2011 with the title, "Street Cleanin' Man", an age before we were all au fait with labour sims.
Discovering that this game existed was a moment of perverse joy for me. I knew that it would be deeply boring - it really is – and that I would have to play it extensively for no reason other than to take joy in being quite deliberately boring. It's the kind of non-challenge I relish, and I gleefully set about compiling a diary of the events – or lack thereof – in the life of a simulatory street cleaner.
Read on to find out how I got on with that.
The existence of banal, municipal or commercial activity simulators delights me in a way that I often struggle to articulate. I've already described it as perverse, and in some ways it is: I am not genuinely interested in the simulation, so much as the fact of a videogamelike experience that is not actually trying to be fun. The received wisdom that “games are (or must be) fun” has always struck me as a little empty, and when boring simulator games come along and are not fun – and are consequently enormous fun – I have always been unreasonably pleased with the paradox.
There's also some genuine curiosity folded into this particular simulator. I always take some time to play truck simulators, or crane simulators, farming simulators, or whatever else the simulation industry throws out. But the idea that there was a simulation of something so obscure and so niche – let alone so unexciting – as Street Cleaning, really did intrigue me. What was going on in there?
Somehow this investigation was not a totally blank slate for me, either. A few years ago a friend of mine was working for our local newspaper. She wrote a report on the local street-sweeping machines, which are exactly the same as the starter vehicle in Street Cleaning Simulator (there are two other big and better vehicles to upgrade to.) The article was about some aspect of street cleaning deployment, but the only fact she actually came away with was that the tiny, oblong machine cost £40,000 a year to run. She told me that fact, and now I end up thinking of it every time I see the street cleaning machine shuffle by. It is a brainworm of the kind you get when you attach a primary fact to something you know nothing else about: “You cost £40,000 a year!” announces my brain - the fact clicks into place like clockwork as soon as my senses detect the hissing contraption. The same thought sprang into my head when I saw the cover of Street Cleaning Simulator. We had a connection. And I could do something about it.
Perhaps now I would be able to learn a little more about this machine. Now that I was about to engage with it on a simulatory level, I might push past that brainworm and install new thoughts about the street sweeping process. I would be able to study its habits, and to feel like I understood its world. The game immediately threw me, however, by making me not some kind of abstract controlling ghost in the machine, but an actual person. There I am, in my high-visibility clothing. I don't look like I care too much about my appearance. Perhaps I don't even care about my crap-defeating chariot. That would be a shame.
I am also alone. I notice there are two seats in the machine. I hope to be joined by another cleaner at some point in my experience. I will be disappointed. There will be no trash-talking RPG elements here.
We start, of course, with a tutorial. It's surprisingly complicated, and unsurprisingly unintuitive. Up cursor key is the gas pedal, so of course pushing down does not throw you into reverse, as it generally does in videogames, and instead you have to manually change gears. Initially confusing, and ultimately frustrating. There are nine keys to control where the brushes are positioned, more for water spray activations, for lights (including indicators!) and for dumping collected gutter-waste from your container. The camera controls are comprehensive, too, because as I was to realise, adjusting the brushes is tricky when all you can see is the inside of your ride.
In the tutorial I run around the cruddy yard, refilling my fuel tank and refreshing the water tanks.
The game's missions are jobs which are emailed to you via an “office” in the yard, which is a menu screen that appears when you walk towards the doors. My first mission – and you may have anticipated this one – is to clean a street. Let's do this.
I don't really know what I was expecting, but the street cleaning experience is even less exotic than I had imagined. You really do just clean up that thirty centimeters of muck that appears in the gutters at the edge the street, where the pavement meets the asphalt. Sure, there are a few places where the crap decal is right across the street, but for the most part you are trundling slowly along the margins, hoovering up slightly darker, messier pixels. It's slow. You are slow. It takes ages. A queue of cars backs up behind you. You have to stop at the traffic lights.
The city is boring.
Whoa! - I drove slightly too fast and didn't pick up all the stuff in the gutter – but it's okay I slowed down again.
This continues for a while.
Even my extensive tolerance for boring projects is up against a wall here. Street Cleaning Simulator doesn't even provide enough mental activity to produce “The Reviewer's Trance”, which is a mild mesmerisation-through-boredom which can often rack up large tracts of game time simply by keeping the hands busy and letting the brain disconnect from its moorings. Some games can be boring, but still busy enough. This one is not.
What am I going to do to pass the time while I slowly driving along the sides of simulated German streets? Eat? I'm all out of flapjacks. Listen to music? I guess it's better than the dull drone of the brushes. Read Twitter in another window? No, that's all my friends boasting about their exciting lives while I am sat inside being deliberately boring in a poorly translated sim.
Hmm. I've just got to focus and power through. It's going to be okay.
The mission is over quicker than I expect, thanks to the fact that the game informs me that I can invoice for the cleaning before I have finished! I don't know if this is some kind of meta-commentary on German street cleaners being particular half-arsed about their cleaning responsibilities, but it's okay by me. Screw that final seventeen yards of dirt, we're making good speed back to HQ.
I wonder what the city council will have in store for me on the next mission!
Another street needs cleaning. Yeah, I know, but surely something must happen in this game? It can't be street cleaning with no jeopardy? No drama? Right? Surely there must be some sub-plot, some rival firm? Anything?
I turn around the orange box and trundle back into the town.
Doubt is creeping in. This game is even managing to defeat the purpose of a game diary. A diary is explicitly for recording events, and this is a game in which almost nothing happens. Hell, it's a game in which almost nothing can happen. That's what I wanted, I suppose, but now my perversity is beginning to balloon into a special kind of despair. What if there's actually nothing at all to be gleaned from this? What if subjecting myself to the near-silent trundling through a simulated town of lifeless automatons births no insights, not even into boredom, or indeed, into street cleaning?
I begin to think about boredom itself, and about things I have read about boredom. There's actually at least one decent book on boredom, which I have read several times. It's worth picking up.
Things spiral onward in time, like a weak cup of tea left to go cold in a grey room. The machine trundles along, picking up dirt, picking up dirt. As long as I occasionally correct its path, I have little to do.
I start Googling boredom. This is an amazing quote:
The essence of life is the smile of round female bottoms, under the shadow of cosmic boredom.
- Guy de Maupassant
That Guy de Maupassant guy was so right. That actually is the essence of life, now that I think about it. And I have plenty of time to think about it, because I am travelling along the side of a street at about the same speed the pedestrians are walking along beside me.
This simulator, however, isn't even boring enough to -FUCK! My street cleaning machine has spun off the road and somehow become stuck half way up a traffic light! Action has found me, just when I'd written it off.
My street-cleaning character dismounts to survey the damage. It is unclear to me what will happen next. Out of nowhere, a sudden bolt of drama! I get back into the vehicle and try all the controls, but to no avail. Even the brushes don't actually clip with the scenery, so there can be no emergent pushing myself back to rights with the tiny spinning arms. It looks pretty fatal, even despite (or perhaps because of) the total lack of damage model. I had assumed – thanks to the way the machine bounced around like a tethered balloon when struck by other vehicles – that actually flipping the vehicle or otherwise getting it into permanent danger was going to be impossible. Perhaps I was wrong.
Would I have to buy a new one?
Would this thing be stuck here forever like some overly expensive work of street art?
Where might this disaster take us?
Find out in the next (speculatively speaking) installment of Street Cleaning Simulator, when we return to the awesome unmajesty of: Street Cleaning Simulator for more... street cleaning.
There was no part two.