Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Sonder on the Highway to Kiel

This was originally posted on tumblr on 2nd October, 2014.


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It’s 1am and I’m transporting 22 tonnes of peas across Western Europe for a large paycheck like a capitalist mercenary. I have the radio on, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is player Mahler’s Second Symphony. My high-beams glint off of the tarmac and reveal my solitary condition – I check my mirrors and confirm that I am by myself on this German highway. I turn a shallow corner, and as I do the grassy bank on my right side recedes, unmasking the moon: bare, beacon-like. And I am alone.

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Of  Glitchhikers, Brendan Vance writes:

“We may use the keyboard to change lanes, to accelerate or decelerate, and to look out the side windows. These mechanics provide no ‘utility’ in the sense we typically associate with videogames. They do not advance the player towards victory or defeat, nor do they compel her to spend money via microtransactions.”

Indeed, for a game about driving, Glitchhikers places very little immediacy on its driving mechanics; it is impossible to crash the car, to steer off course, to stop, to ever endanger the act of driving. That’s not to say that the driving is an unimportant aspect of the game. Instead, as Vance also goes on to argue, its importance lies in its relation to the games wider concerns as expressed through the dialogues between the player and their strange, otherworldly passengers.

These conversations are big in terms of their subject matter; they cover topics from the roots of the Hindi language, to the role of the sun and earth in ancient mythology, to the place of the individual in an inconceivably vast universe, to the meaning of existence, the point of living a life. But the encounters themselves are fleeting, transient. Hikers appear in your car as if they were always there, speak sonorously and knowingly for around five minutes, and then disappear as if the whole thing never happened. It adds to the dream-like – others have said “Lynchian” – quality of the game, its pervasive sense of pseudoreality, or even unreality. The moon is always present in the sky, but when the player passes through a tunnel and comes through the other side it turns red, becoming both recognisable and alien. And that’s before you pick up your more explicitly alien passengers who talk about their lives on distant worlds – one of my monocular travellers recalled a war that made her home planet uninhabitable. They were pregnant and wanted me to deliver them to the nearest hospital in time for the birth.

Driving is so important to the game because driving itself is liminal. It connects us to places through motion, and this reflects the way that Glitchhikers navigates the space between the intimate and the universal, between the enclosed space of the car and the bewildering vastness of the universe. These envoys from distant worlds connect the player to the stars in the sky through their stories and musings, but when they’re done the player is left solitary on the terrestrial road in their small vehicle. In their attempts to shed light on a spectrum of experiences and existences, they end up reinforcing the singular condition of the driver. And then, the radio DJ pipes up:

“You are all alone out there, but you know, you are never alone. Millions of distinct bacteria share your body. You’re never alone. Keep driving, driver.”

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Euro Truck Simulator 2 never wants to be anything other than a good truck simulator for fans of good truck simulators. I have never considered myself part of this demographic, but I like to play it when I’m not in the mood for anything intense either physically or intellectually, when all I want is some space to breathe. It’s an undemanding experience, especially if you play on the simple automatic control scheme as I do; you don’t have to worry about gears or the clutch, just forward, brake/reverse and turning. You can control the entire vehicle from the left joystick of an Xbox 360 gamepad.*

The best moments in the game are when you’re transporting goods at night along the motorways where you spend most of your time. The traffic begins to thin out, giving you even less to be aware of on the road, and between 10 and 11PM the sky becomes pitch black. With your high-beams on, you have enough of the path ahead illuminated to be aware of any upcoming turns, but the surrounding countryside vanishes and the sky, unless it’s raining, fills with stars. These are the moments of peaceful solitude that turn a game based on the constant, unending cycle of capital into a sort of spiritual retreat for one.

It’s strange that a game on the polar opposite of the thematic and tonal spectrum to Glitchhikerscould be so similar to it. One of the hikers you can pick up in Glitchhikers talks about the concept of ‘sonder’, which they describe as:

“[T]he sudden realization that every other person, all the people around you, driving those cars, are fully conscious people with their own stories and goals and loves and thoughts.”

As I drive along at night in ETS2 and see the occasional other vehicle passing from the opposing lanes or overtaking me, I remember this concept and try to incorporate it into my conception of the game as a whole. The whole premise of the game works on helping the player feel like they are part of a system, both in terms of the business management aspects which sketch the outline of a working economy and the continent-wide road system which the player uses alongside other vehicles obeying the same rules. There are no lives, stories, goals, loves, thoughts, in those other cars and trucks, but the game wants you to think that there are because that notion of humanity adds to the simulation aspect, to the believability or – forgive me for saying it – immersion in the fantasy of the trucking scenario.

And yet, as in Glitchhikers, the player in ETS2 is utterly solitary. The closest you come to interaction with another human being is when you’re hiring other drivers to expand your business, and even then they simply spend their entire time driving around and automatically making money for you. Even when you’re in cities at the end of a journey, you very rarely actually see pedestrians on the streets.** The game world is populated, but only really by other vehicles. It is, for all intents and purposes, a machine world, and only on the most fleeting of occasions do you not feel like the only person in it.

This is why I prefer to deliver at night, the moon always in my windshield or my wing mirror. It’s when the simulation that ETS2 wants to sell you works best and tries the least to do so, when it’s no longer so concerned with navigating around other drivers and delivering chemicals for profit. Driving to me is not about feeling part of the wider transportation network, but instead about being by myself, stars in the sky, radio on. And I am alone.


Notes

*- There are of course keyboard commands for turning indicators, lights and windscreen wipers, but those are only used in particular circumstances. For the vast majority of the time you’re just accelerating and turning.

**- They do exist, and I have seen them. Four, to be exact, across about 30 deliveries.

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