To me, American Truck Simulator is all about the journey. It’s about the moment-to-moment happenings as you cruise down another gargantuan highway, with cargo in your rearview mirror that may as well be as long as the eye can see. There’s just something oddly compelling about obeying the rules of the road.
In the vast majority of games that stick you in a vehicle, you often need, and want, to drive as fast as you possibly can, so there’s real value in a game that requires you to drive authentically—one that wants you to constantly monitor your speed to keep it under the limit (lest you pick up some unwanted fines), stop at traffic lights, turn on your headlights as the sun disappears behind the nearest hillside, and even use your turn signals when there’s no discernible reason to do so other than the fact that’s just what you do when you drive.
And I think that’s key to why I enjoy this game so much. If you drive in reality, all of this stuff is second nature. Transfer it to a video game, however, and suddenly you’re having to retrain your muscle memory and actually think about what you’re doing. The simple act of driving to the letter of the law becomes completely engaging.
It helps, of course, that this rather expansive chunk of the American west is such a pleasure to drive through. There’s all the obvious excitement that comes from crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, pulling into Los Angeles and seeing the Hollywood sign off in the distance, or driving down the Las Vegas strip in the dead of night when it’s all lit up in its seedy splendor. But the real thrill comes from those moments in between, out on the open road—when you’re driving down some nondescript highway in the middle of the desert, you haven’t seen another sign of human life for miles, and suddenly you spot a prop plane flying overhead and are bafflingly filled with joy.
It might not make a whole lot of sense, and I can’t explain it myself, other than to repeat what I said before: that American Truck Simulator makes the mundane—seeing a shooting star streak across the night sky, or spotting a herd of cows locked in a paddock at the side of the road—almost thrilling. Even tumbleweed gliding across the road is a little exciting, and the first time I saw paragliders flying overhead I stuck my head out the window just to get a better look.
I never thought the simulator genre would be for me. These near-authentic recreations of real world professions always appeared impenetrable, or at the very least mind-numbingly dull. They’re the sort of games that need knowledge or a fervent interest in the subject matter to fully appreciate them, and you often need to blow a decent amount of cash—like hundreds or thousands of dollars—on downloadable add-ons (like new trains and routes available in games like Train Simulator 2016). I mean, seriously, you could probably buy an actual train for how much it all costs.
Plus, there was this ugly stigma attached to the word “simulator,” a blemish that has accrued over the past few years with cynical releases like Grass Simulator, Tree Simulator, Goat Petting Simulator, and Simulator of a Simulator all cluttering the Steam store and its “Greenlight” early access program, which lets developers make their games available to fans before they’re complete. The word had seemingly lost all meaning amidst this wretched wave of cheap joke games, with the vast majority simply looking to make a quick buck off the back of exposure from a popular YouTube video or Twitch stream. Urgh.
Then curiosity got the better of me. I watched a few videos about some genuine simulators—admittedly for the potential comedy value more than anything else—and found the footage strangely appealing. There’s just something uniquely engaging about, say, managing a farm, slowly propelling a tractor a few miles just to fertilise another field of crops; or pressing and pulling on all these buttons and levers to get a train moving, and having to monitor and maintain speed throughout the journey before hitting the brakes at just the right moment to gracefully slide into the next station and pick up another batch of passengers.
I’ve often found myself slinking off to my big red truck for a night of long distance haulage
Maybe it was just the novelty factor of the whole thing, or the surprisingly positive word-of-mouth, but it didn’t take long before I caved in and bought Train Simulator 2014 when it went on sale. It was cheap, risk-free, and for a few hours I was hooked. Sure, I didn’t play it for very long, but I contracted the simulator bug. There’s only so much you can do with a train after all, so I wanted something a little more freeform—a little more exciting—and so I also bought Euro Truck Simulator 2.
Again, it got its hooks in, but only for a few short hours. My attention was probably diverted by some game with spaces battles, world wars, or whatever else comes to mind when you think of the ridiculous bombast of the common video game. But at least my curiosity had been satiated—my horizons expanded—and I had a newfound appreciation for the genre and the knowledge that these games don’t have to be impenetrable, or dull, or require huge investments to glean some enjoyment out of. And so my brief flirtation with simulators came to a happy end.
That was until this past month, when I noticed American Truck Simulator in Steam’s “New Releases” tab.
There was comfort in Euro Truck Simulator 2’s familiarity (it’s one of the few games to feature locations in the UK that aren’t London after all), but the lure of America’s big cities and even bigger highways and the potential for near-boundless exploration was far too salivating to pass up. So I bought American Truck Simulator, and this time I’ve stuck with it. Perhaps it’s because I’m a little older, a little more patient, or in need of a little more relaxation in my life—I’m not entirely sure—but despite my patchy history with the genre, and even with games like XCOM 2, Far Cry Primal, and Firewatch all vying for my attention, I’ve often found myself slinking off to my big red truck for a night of long distance haulage.
As a trucker operating in the states of California and Nevada, you begin as a driver-for-hire taking on various odd jobs hauling cargo from one location to another, with the truck, fuel costs and any damage incurred all handled by your temporary employer. Once you’ve earned enough cash (or taken out a substantial bank loan) you can buy your very own truck, and can then start charging more money to deliver the same types of cargo, all while building your business by upgrading your truck, buying new trucks and eventually building a fleet of trucks and hiring other drivers to drive them all. Essentially you’re making money to spend money to make more money. Capitalism 101!
This is all well and good. It gives you immediate objectives and long-term goals to strive for. But I’ve never been particularly bothered about the destination or the business side of things.
I never felt this way with Euro Truck Simulator 2, and I think it’s because there’s always been this exciting ideal of the idyllic American road trip that American Truck Simulator captures in some small way. As an outsider, its recreation of California and Nevada at least looks and feels authentic, from something like San Francisco’s rolling hills, to simple things like road signs or a small town convenience store. But there are also moments when it resembles a postcard version of America where the sun takes on an otherworldly quality, and you get this perfect snapshot of a clear blue sky, a beautiful mountain range off on the horizon, and a pastoral farmland stretching out before you.
People often play video games to be whisked away to another world and escape the banality of everyday life, but American Truck Simulator and games of its ilk ground you in that banality with common careers and familiar sights, yet manage to achieve a sense of joy and wonder regardless. It’s a different kind of escapism, but escapism all the same.
I’d even argue it’s meditative. Driving from one city or town to the next, with little to think about other than when to stop and refuel, or when to pull over and sleep so you don’t pass out at the wheel (which is actually rather terrifying). It’s mostly relaxing, though! At times, I’ve even gotten nostalgic; cruising down some lonesome road in the dead of night with nothing but the headlights and interior dashboard to illuminate my surroundings. Moments like these can’t help but invoke memories of days out as a child, where I would inevitably fall asleep on the back seat of my family’s creaky old Volvo to the passing glare of other cars’ headlights in the darkness, and the sound of some awful ‘90s power ballad blaring out of the radio. You know, happy memories.
Usually when I write about a video game, it’s a full stop on my time with it—a bold period to signify our divergence. With American Truck Simulator, however, all writing this article has done is made me eager to wind down for the night with another relaxing round of deliveries, another opportunity to venture out onto unexplored roads, seek out higher-paying jobs, and simply drive to my heart’s content. It’s an odd thing, this niche game about trucks, but more than anything it’s a shining example of video gaming’s growth: that you can be a space marine, a cocky demonspawn, or a simple truck driver, and get something worthwhile out of each experience. It’s a wonderful thing.
Now if you’ll excuse me, this haul isn’t going to deliver itself.
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