Come the Truck in, or Truck the Truck off

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Pulling up to a t-junction, I ease off the accelerator and, applying a little bit of brake, quickly shift into a lower gear to avoid stalling. I’m five, maybe four car-lengths away from the junction now so I indicate left and turn my attention to the right, scanning the oncoming traffic for a gap large enough to fit a lorry (complete with a delivery of three forklift trucks bound for a quarry in the south of France) through.

My driver yawns slightly as I pull out into the turning and, once I’m happily onto the straight road, I take a moment to glance down at the dashboard, mentally noting and make a note of my low fuel levels. Neither my driver’s fatigue nor the amount of petrol in the tank are cause for concern; thanks to the ample amount of time on the clock I can plan for an overnight stop just south of Paris, where I should also be able to refuel.

A short EuroTunnel ride later and its starting to rain. Windscreen wipers on, headlights set to half-beam, and the dulcet tones of a podcast… Suddenly I’m fourteen years old again, being driven down the M4 after a long weekend spent with extended family. The sounds of the road are muted by watertight windows, and the warmth of the car breeds that feeling of safety you can never quite recapture once you’re old-enough to recognise your parents flaws.

I’m not going to claim that Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a revolutionary game. It is, after all, a game that requires you to deliver cargo from points A to B, occasionally scheduling in a pit-stop to ensure your driver doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel. I’m still unsure as to whether I actually enjoy playing it at all, or whether it’s an ironic joke I’ve somehow managed to internalise. I think that’s part of its charm though – there’s nothing challenging about the experience that it offers, leaving you to play almost on autopilot and focus on something else you wish you had more time for, and yet feel guilty devoting your whole attention to.

With this game it’s all about atmosphere over mechanics. There are no complex rulesets to remember, no combinations of button presses to drill into your muscle memory. Put ETS2 in front of anyone who’s ever used a keyboard and they’ll be as good as you in half an hour (excluding, of course, the frankly remarkable amount of skill it takes to back a trailer into its destination). The enjoyment comes not from the challenge, but from the familiarity. You’re not forcing yourself to tackle Nietzsche, you’re re-reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.

More to the point though, this says something important about the disadvantages of automation in game design. When I played Tomb Raider I felt, more than anything, like the game was playing itself. I would sneak up to cover, and Lara would fix herself to it; I’d enter a cave, and she’d diligently light her torch. Of course, in both of these situations I would have done exactly the same thing but, by seeming to take away a decision, the game took away a part of the fun.

In contrast, ETS2 makes you responsible for everything. You can always use your indicators, even if the other drivers on the road barely acknowledge them and, when it starts to rain, there’s no helpful tooltip telling you to turn on your wipers. Mastery is enjoyable, and even when it’s limited to driving a virtual truck, the lack of hand-holding here is satisfying.

Best practice says that you give the player control when they need to make a decision and then, at the moment their actions become inevitable, you automate the process. When the player empties the magazine they’re inevitably going to reload, but you’d never tell them which gun to use in a firefight.

ETS2 eschews this mentality but the game already embraces its slow-pacing enough that it doesn’t really matter. Instead, it allows you to master the mundane routines of driving, working not one but two (!) indicators, as well as several levels of headlight beam.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever play it whilst I have something better to do, nor can I stomach more than ten minutes without a podcast to accompany me but, having sunk over 20 hours into a truck simulator, I’ve realised that sometimes there’s fun to be had in indulging in what is little more than comfort food for the thumbs.

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