Some seven miles outside of sleepy Folkestone, a Volvo FH16 Globetrotter thunders along the M20 like an angry metal brick on wheels, the piercing beams of its powerful headlights carving through the darkness like the reaper’s flashing scythe. Its 16 litre, 750 horsepower engine roaring like a hungry princess ready for her next meal. The tyres doing something else to form some other dramatically overwrought metaphor.
Inside the cabin an indicator light click-clacks into life, a winking green eye in the darkness that sends 120 tonnes of pure truck gliding into the middle lane, just another elegant foutté in the unending ballet of the motorway.
But none of this is real. This is Euro Truck Simulator 2, a game in which you assume the role of a long haul lorry driver transporting cargo between European cities. While real trucks are increasingly being driven by virtual drivers, real drivers are increasingly driving virtual trucks. In these games you obey the speed limits while adhering to a demanding timetable of deliveries.
You must avoid ploughing into oncoming cars. You must sit and wait patiently in simulated traffic and crawl through dense city centres, carefully manoeuvring your wide load along narrow streets. It is, in effect, a job, one that’s tedious and time-consuming but somehow utterly compelling to those who play.
“Games are an escape,” says Andy Kelly, creator of Other Places, a video series exploring the vast virtual worlds found in videogames. “When you play Call of Duty you temporarily become a soldier who can single-handedly win a war. When you play FIFA you’re the world’s best footballer. It’s about stepping into another world, living another life. The same applies to mundane simulator games. They’re escapism as much as Call of Duty is; just a very different kind of escape.”
Unless you’ve lobotomised your sense of childhood wonder, there’s likely a small part of you that still thinks trucks are noisy and cool. For many players, these simulators offer a rare opportunity to fulfil those long forgotten ambitions to take control of trains, planes, trucks and buses. And whether you're in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet or a delayed Central Line train, the more complex and realistic the simulation, the better the experience.
“Once you’ve played London Underground Simulator you’ll never look at a tube train the same way again,” says Kelly. “It took me an hour just to figure out how to switch the engine on, then I overshot King’s Cross St. Pancras by about five miles. You might think these jobs are mundane, but they require far more patience and skill than say, shooting guns at virtual bad guys.”
Accuracy and authenticity is paramount in this genre too, and to help immerse players in the experience developers go to great lengths to ensure that their world is a convincing one. This is true not just of simulators, says Kelly, but of videogames in general.
“The best virtual worlds are defined by their attention to detail," says Kelly. "You have to get a sense that this isn’t just a load of polygons and textures stuck together. You have to feel a sense of history and culture. You need to look around and feel like people actually live there. It has to feel like you’ve stepped into a place that will happily exist whether you’re there or not.”
The attention lavished upon these finely simulated worlds also extends to the trains, trucks and buses that populate them too. Each is built to exacting standards, from how they look and sound, right down to the most inconsequential of details. Just as Sony licensed real cars for Gran Turismo, the recently launched Bus Simulator 16 has secured the rights to include real world buses. Everything from the unique ticking sound of an indicator light to the particular whoosh of a pneumatic door has been recreated with painstaking authenticity here. Fans demand it.
“Detail is important to our players,” says Susanne Schübel, producer of Bus Simulator 16. “The bus manufacturers give us blueprints, audio recordings and photography, which we use to create the 3D models in game. We want to recreate every button in the driver’s cabin, and to have those buttons work as they do in real life.”
But while having to learn the individual functions of a dashboard full of buttons, knobs and lights sounds stressful, developers say their players find the process strangely relaxing. Control, they seem to agree, is satisfying.
“It can be tough to sell the idea of a simulator to somebody who’s never played one,” says Rob O’Farrell, senior vice president of development on Train Simulator. “I think a lot of your readers will look at our game and think, I’m stuck on a train almost every day, why the hell would I want to pretend to be on one in my spare time? But there’s something about these games that many people don’t understand until they start playing. They find it relaxing.”
So while games about guns, tanks and explosions take every effort to shock, frighten and surprise you, the gentle predictability, repetition and tranquility of esoteric simulators offers an unconventional means to unwind. But why do we find comfort in simulating the mundane?
“Games do a better job than our real jobs in giving us feedback about what we're doing well,” says Jamie Madigan, a psychology Ph.D. who writes about the overlap between psychology and games. “In jobs you wait weeks, even months before getting feedback and you don't have much control over how you do your job, or what parts of it to do. On top of that, you have to deal with all kinds of different obstacles, resource limitations and costs.
“Games that simulate real world jobs either remove those barriers or turn them into game systems that are interesting and fun to interact with. Games have clear goals, give you clear feedback about your progress towards them and give you unambiguous rewards. Sadly, most jobs don't.
“Furthermore, games often let you experience psychological flow more often than jobs. Flow is the state where there's a good balance between a task's demands and your ability. Not too hard, not too easy, with clear goals and clear feedback. This is often why games that have tight gameplay loops and repetition are so appealing. They get you into a state of flow.”
“I’m at peace when I’m hauling 10 tonnes of yoghurt down a Belgian motorway,” says Kelly. “Honestly. You can feel your stress melting away. Watching the scenery roll by, listening to the soft rumble of your tyres, the rain on the windshield, the squeak of the wipers, it’s incredibly soothing. It’s like a screensaver for your brain.”