A rough semester and my fair share of time spent recording a podcast about Star Trek later, I’m back and ready to write. I’m ready to write about Euro Truck Simulator 2.
I’m an hour outside of Sheffield. I lived in Sheffield a little while ago, or a long time ago depending on how my memory chooses to work. The calendar tells me it is just over twelve years since I arrived in Steel City, but that only proves my calendar cannot be considered to be reliable. No, there is no way it has been that long. Everything feels familiar, the surface of the road and the vague shades of green to the sides. Pulling into Sheffield reveals a lightly rendered recreation of an urban industrial district. It reminds me a little bit of the area behind Hillsborough Stadium. This may or may not be a trick of the same imagination that insists I lived in Sheffield five years ago, and not twelve. Where are the halls I used to haunt so ineffectively in my youth, armed with pints of bitter and little else? I spend most of this time checking my rear view mirrors and my speed; a silly accident or a gentle creep across the speed limit will eat into the job’s profits. I can’t have that. If all goes well, I’ll be driving to Carlisle immediately after I drop off these tractors.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a weird game. Well, no; my experience with Euro Truck Simulator 2 and my rapid infatuation with it has been weird. I haven’t been this interested in a sim, an honest to God use square bracket keys and the quotation mark key regularly sim, in a very long time. I’m not entirely sure if I’ve been this into holding down an arrow key while dotting my hands across a keyboard since Gunship 2000. I cheat, of course. I’m a grown man now and my wife thinks it’s weird enough that I’m driving a truck around a virtual representation of the English midlands. I’m not taking on a Volvo F14’s manual transmission. This actually makes my playing of the game more odd, by virtue of the fact that I have reduced it to controlling a virtual truck through careful use of side mirrors in an attempt to get to an industrial hub in a timely fashion. Sometimes I park the truck so my frequently invisible avatar can get some sleep, once he has rudely snored into my headphones enough. I stop the truck for diesel, and I get on ferries.
It’s funny, but this is one of the first things I did. I picked Great Britain as my home base because Ireland wasn’t an option and because I’ve lived in Britain for extended periods. As soon as I got the chance though, I was getting a ferry from Hull to the Netherlands. And then back. I’m not sure what I’m getting out of Euro Truck Simulator 2, but whatever odd mix of nostalgia for my home continent drew me in has given way to genuine fascination with the game’s mechanics. I look forward to levelling up, to owning my own company and hiring other drivers. I play a game that involves driving on the motorway a lot. I hate doing this in real life but it is the most relaxing game I’ve played in years.
These days my game playing is often marbled with anxiety, particularly around work that could be getting done. This is largely a product of my line of work, which does not lend itself well to clocking out at five or six and being done until the next morning. There is always something I could be doing, and learning to enjoy your free time as an academic actually takes a certain amount of discipline. Still, it can be hard to convince yourself that video games are worthy of that time. This is mostly subconscious, as I am heavily in support of treating video games, as a medium, with more respect. Still, whatever programming there is in this brain from my childhood acts up when I sit in front of the computer. Not so for Euro Truck Simulator 2. Maybe my brain thinks I’m driving to Birmingham and has decided to cut me some slack.
The gameplay itself is fascinating. The designers have cut down on long straights were feasible without removing the experience completely, focusing a lot of the driving on changing lanes, entering and exiting motorways, stopping at red lights and other thrilling encounters from my everyday life as a man living in car-crazy America. Yet I enjoy it and find it pleasant. I’m not the only one. I hadn’t realized how many people on my modestly sized friends list on Steam play the game. Its appeal is broad, apparently. God forgive me, but I may or may not be excited about American Truck Simulator arriving in 2015.
All of this comes back to an interesting theme in video games that just will not go away: the medium is continuing to diversify despite attempts by a cartel of leviathan publishers and console producers to harness games into clearly defined and marketable products for a clearly defined and traditionally marketed audience. So much of 2014 was taken up by a poisonous and intellectually illegitimate “movement” railing against the idea that video games can be about more than white boy power fantasy and voyeurism, yet a game that simulates being a truck driver in western Europe exists. Exists and thrives. Of course, long time PC gamers would scoff at the idea this is somehow a recent development. The key here is the growth of the audience. Video games became “legitimate” for a certain type of young male in the 1990s thanks largely to the Playstation and has continued on with Microsoft and Sony’s subsequent consoles. This fed into the idea that the market is, and should be, driven by people that buy a Playstation 4, a Call of Duty game, Madden and repeat the habit annually. The truth is that the inscrutable, oblique storytelling that has been in video games since their inception survives. It is this potential for storytelling that holds the medium’s future. As much as we (justifiably) laud “Triple A” titles for successfully adopting the storytelling techniques of cinema and literature,[ref]I don’t want games that tell a clear story to go anywhere. The Last of Us is one of my favourite video games of all time, for example. The King’s Quest games are the reason I play video games today.[/ref] video games can take us further as they allow us to tell our own stories. That may be as a put-upon count in fourteenth century Bavaria in Crusader Kings II, or the lonely miner, explorer and warrior of Terraria. Or perhaps as a truck driver trying to get home to the family after a long run to Rotterdam.