I used to think I understood video games. They’re a way to lose and immerse yourself in an impossible world, away from the tedious, depressing world of tax bills, bad backs, wedding arrangements and cleaning the dishes. Who would want to sit in a pub, or read a book after working 40 hours a week when you could be an adventurer in Skyrim, a wasteland wanderer in Fallout, or a pudgy platformer crushing turtles to death while stuffing yourself with mushrooms? An idiot, that’s who.
I used to think that. Then I came across the simulator series of games. Games about simulating professions have been around forever. The Atari 2600 had a flight simulator, and games have been attempting to recreate sports since Pong. A recent popular series of games had me puzzled, though, it’s the [Insert Obscure Profession] Simulator games. You can now buy games that let you simulate all kinds of ridiculous jobs. You can play Euro Truck Simulator, which lets you simulate the experience of driving a truck and owning your own haulage firm. There’s Woodcutter Simulator, European Ship Simulator, Farming Simulator, Tabletop Simulator, Scania Truck Simulator, Construction Simulator, Car Mechanic Simulator, Ski Region Simulator, Munich Bus Simulator, Railway Simulator, the list goes on and on and on, that’s before you even get into the parody games, like Surgeon Simulator and Goat Simulator.
Why do people play these games? Why spend your free time, away from the rigors of working in an office, pretending to work? Spending time pretending to do something and not getting paid, indeed, having to pay a premium for the pleasure? I asked around, but before we get to that, let’s try some of these games. I’ve gone for Farming Simulator, Euro Truck Simulator 2, one of the most successful and critically acclaimed of the simulator games, and I’m also going to try Woodcutter Simulator 2013, because it seemed like the most hilariously tedious of the lot. For balance, I’m going to try the slightly silly Surgeon Simulator 2013.
Woodcutter Simulator 2013 is a game with a ‘mostly negative’ review rating on Steam. This should have been my first warning. The game costs £10.99, which is more expensive than Skyrim, Fallout 3, Civilization IV and various other classic, timeless games. It is developed by the catchily-titled United Independent Entertainment GmbH, who also released Professional Farmer 2014 (£14.99, mixed reviews), Driving School Simulator (£10.99, mostly negative), Warehouse and Logistics Simulator (£10.99, mostly negative) and so on and so forth. If there’s a crappy job you wouldn’t really want to do in real life, UIE have made or published a game that lets you simulate it.
I don’t know why I gravitated toward Woodcutter Simulator. I always loved mowing down enemies in Doom with the chainsaw, so I suppose being able to run around the German countryside chopping down trees sounded like it could be an amusing distraction. I made my purchase, silently cursing myself for pissing away £11 on something that is going to obviously be terrible. The first thing that hits me is the music. It’s some kind of terrible Eurodance bollocks. It doesn’t really fit in with the world of manly lumberjacking. I don’t know what I thought would, but it’s definitely not this. Still, the game is clearly low budget, and this has to be something they’ve got for free from a library somewhere, so I give the developers the benefit of the doubt — they’re putting all their resources toward the actual game, right? I hit the new game button and land in the world of Woodcutter Simulator 2013 — all I see is movement. I am spinning around at tremendous speed. Did I accidentally install Taz Simulator? Why is my lumberjacker spinning and spinning? It turns out the game can’t handle two input devices at once, namely my mouse/keyboard setup, and my Xbox 360 controller. This hasn’t been an issue in any of the 150+ games I own on PC, but it’s definitely pissing this game off. We’re off to a good start. I leave my guy spinning for as long as I can, wondering if the game will simulate vomiting, needing to take a day off, maybe simulate faking a trip to the doctors. This game isn’t quite so sophisticated, sadly.
I finally fix the issue and try and work out what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s no tutorial, and alt-tabbing to try and find some information crashes the game, which then crashes Windows. Not the best of starts, but I crack on, determined to cut some trees down.
The controls in this game are just awful. You have to hold down the right mouse button to move your lumberhead around. The game runs poorly, with pop up a particular problem, it seems to have a draw distance of about a metre. A lot of the scenery has no mass, it’s just a picture. A rock feature near a stream can be walked through, buildings and trees are mere illusions, you awkwardly waft and float through this hideous German countryside like a crap ghost.
I finally work out how to cut down a tree, and of course, it is awkward and not at all fun. You have to get close to a tree, but not TOO close, and there’s a poorly implemented radar to help your aim. When you’re ready to cut down a tree, you hit a red button, and just like in real life, which this is masterfully simulating, you’re treated to an interminable cut scene as your badly animated avatar cuts down a tree in the slowest manner possible. There is no control over the chainsaw, which is the one and only thing I had any interest in doing. You can’t manually chop anything, you just go through this horribly long cut scene every time.
57 seconds is how long it takes to fell one of the few corporeal trees. 57 horrible seconds. It never changes. It’s always the same animation, the tree always falls down in the same hilarious manner, and is instantly chopped into wood for you to collect later.
I murder two trees and then decide to give in. The music is relentless, bouncing from Eurodance, to country, to anything the developers could get for free online. It’s so loud and drowns out what little ambient sound there is.
It looks bad, it sounds bad, it feels bad, it plays bad, it barely actually simulates the actual act of woodcutting and is probably one of the worst games I’ve ever played. £10.99. I move on.
Surgeon Simulator 2013 is next. Developed by Shoreditch-based Bossa Studios, SS2013 started life as a 48 hour project at the 2013 Global Game Jam, but was later fleshed out and released commercially in January 2013.
Being more of a mad man’s arm simulator than a surgeon simulator, you use the mouse to move the mentalist’s arm around, and the keyboard to control individual digits. It reminds me of QWOP and it’s basically a more fleshed out version of that, crossed with Operation. The game is really polished, with lovely, chunky cartoon graphics, a fantastic soundtrack, like a a dark electro Casualty. The game dumps you in your reception and you get to play with the stuff on your desk. Initially I am overwhelmed, just trying to move around. After a few minutes I gleefully work out how to flip the bird, then I’m rewarded with an achievement for “answering the phone” (I smashed the receiver off the handle, by accident, of course).
I eventually work out how to start my first operation, which is a simple little heart transplant. My first problem is trying to remove the fabric covering his wound. I finally manage to slap it off, and it lands near the patient’s face, covered in various bodily fluids. I’m sure this is sanitary.
Next I have to get to work on cracking open the rib cage. I don’t know to do this, so I pick up the first tool I can find, which is a saw. To put it lightly, it doesn’t go wonderfully well for the patient, as seen here. Next I check my watch, and it’s Hammer Time! This is slightly more successful, but I’m not really sure where to go from here. I use a drill and some sort of terrible electric saw, but unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, we lost the patient.
It’s not quite a parody, like Goat Simulator, or I Am Bread, another Bossa Studios release. It’s a joke, but it’s a good joke, with incredibly silly physics, a game probably designed to be played and shown on YouTube or Twitch. It’s a Daily Mail reader’s nightmare, what some Tory voters probably thinks goes on in the NHS. For this thought alone, it’s worth a play.
A more serious simulator game next, Farming Simulator 2013 by Giants Software (only the 2015 version is available to purchase, £24.99, very positive). I’m playing the demo of FS2013, because I have spent way too much money on these games so far. The tutorial, confusingly, launches me straight into harvesting potatoes. Unlike Woodcutter Simulator, this game seems to have been made with a bit more care. It looks better, the music is more suitable for the setting, and the controls are smooth enough.
I’m charged with harvesting potatoes, so harvest I do. There’s a long stretch of crops ahead of me, so I put my foot down (press the up key) and soon I’m cruising at 12mph, harvesting like a mad man. The game soon chastises me for going too fast (the potato police will not be pleased), so I slow down, but I grow bored of going in straight lines. I’m not an ordinary farmer, and these aren’t ordinary potatoes, so I ram my harvester into second gear (press up more) and start doing donuts, all the time cackling and harvesting my precious, tasty crops.
I finally reach 100% and the game congratulates me. Time to start my career as a farmer. Hopefully it’ll be exclusively potatoes I’m working with, I’ve got that down. I go with easy mode, which gives me a larger starting capital and a “comparatively small bank loan”. This is so much better than Woodcutter Simulator. The graphics aren’t amazing, but they’re functional, and don’t just look copy and pasted. It’s 6.43am and there’s a gentle breeze blowing around me. I hear birdsong and the distant grind of machinery greets me to my farm. I turn around and am met with a surprisingly pretty sunrise. A plane flies overhead, the trees billow softly. I am ready to farm.
My first order of business is to ignore the game completely and try to break it. I spot some decently rendered clothes hanging up outside my house. I assume I can walk through it, like most of the scenery in Woodcutter Simulator, but to my surprise they’re solid! I find a fence, and it too is solid, and I can gently hop over it. This game is actually functional!
I wander around and find my farming tools and vehicles. Again, I’m struck by how comparatively lovely this game looks. It has a weather system! There’s ambient sound. Ooh, fertiliser!
I soon find myself getting bored. There doesn’t seem much of a structure, perhaps because it’s a demo, so I try and go to a nearby town and I’m surprised when it turns out I can. I find a shop with licensed vehicles (this is probably very impressive, but I don’t know any farming vehicle manufacturers). The town is nice, but lifeless, with a few people silently walking around, aimlessly, with the same character models repeating over and over again. It feels a bit like purgatory; it’s a place when damned farmers come to spend the rest of eternity, endlessly sowing and harvesting, sowing and harvesting.
I can imagine someone enjoying this. It’s functional, it’s decent to look at, it doesn’t seem broken. I chat to a guy on Reddit about what he gets out of this game.
“I played a lot of games like Harvest Moon, but you could never really get too in depth. This game lets you do all sorts of stuff, like breeding cattle, more detailed crops, I don’t know, it’s just non-threatening and nice.”
I get it, then. It’s simple and calm and a million miles away from the Call of Duties and Skyrims of the world. But, it’s also prone to silliness. It seems great, I just can’t be bothered.
Euro Truck Simulator 2, then. It’s the Citizen Kane of simulator games. It’s critically acclaimed, with reviewers often feeling bewildered that they’ve enjoyed the game.
I have wasted thousands of hours playing Football Manager, the closest you can get to a simulation of being an actual manager without having to risk getting headbutted by Alan Pardew or choked out by Nigel Pearson, so I can understand how hard it can be to explain how you’ve not only enjoyed playing something that looks so dull, but have been so immersed by something so dull. I am never going to get my coaching badges, but every year or so, I will spend a week’s worth of game time being a football manager. I’ll wait for my fiancee to go to bed and stand up and shout and gesticulate like a mad man at my tiny, polygon employees. I will genuinely shout and bitch and moan when my pixelleted players screw up an offside trap, or when my badly animated goalkeeper messes up and lets the cheapest of goals.
For these reasons, I can understand someone spending so much time simulating something they love, but driving a truck? Towing cars? Being a car mechanic? I don’t get it. John, a guy who works in an office and has never driven a truck, indeed can’t even drive himself (though he does have a provisional licence he explains, almost like he’s trying to reassure me) tells me why he plays Euro Truck Simulator 2.
“Working in an office is boring. It’s sometimes stressful, but a dull kind of stressful, and I don’t have the energy or the time to sink into something like World of Warcraft or…”
“Skyrim?” I offer.
“Yeah! I’ve had that game for years now, but I can never get into it. Euro Truck Simulator, though… I can just come home, pick a route, and just drive and chill out for a few hours.”
“It’s meditative, almost?”
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t really do meditation, I smoke a lot, play the game, put music on, drive-”
“Sounds like meditation to me.”
“I guess it is. It’s a bit embarrassing.”
“Well, spending any amount of time playing games can be seen as a bit of a waste of time, I guess, but to spend it driving a truck? I don’t know. Just seems stupid, but it chills me out, you know?”
I don’t. But I’m going to find out.
After a bit of loading, I know this game is already better than Woodcutter Simulator by having nicer music. I fill in information about my fake haulage firm and I’m asked what kind of gearbox I want. I skim the descriptions, looking for words like ‘easy’ or ‘beginner’. Simple Automatic it is, where forward makes you drive forward, and backward reverses.
The game lets me choose Birmingham as my hometown, which immediately gives the game a place in my heart, so I begin the tutorial happy. When I finally get to play, the first thing I notice is that this game is actually really good looking. It looks polished, it has menus, it has tutorials, it looks like a proper game. I’m thrown some basic instructions, but nothing too overwhelming. I learn how to use the satnav, I put some tunes on the radio, and I’m ready to make a delivery of wood to ‘Birmingham docks’.
First problem, I don’t know how to drive. I can’t drive in real life and most of my other driving experience comes in Mario Kart. I just don’t understand the basic principles and I end up getting stuck. Really stuck. Really, really stuck.
Eventually, I manage to smash my way out of the yard, bits of my cargo lying on the ground. I get onto a main road and yeah, I can see why this would be satisfying. Everything feels real. The traffic behaves like real traffic, with working traffic lights. Unfortunately, the dumbest driver on the road is me, and I manage to smash into a car, go around a roundabout the wrong way, drive on the wrong side of the road, and scrape my lorry against a barrier.
Finally, mercifully, I deliver my cargo. The game tells me that I can hit the enter button now and skip the parking stage. It involves reversing and delivering my cargo in a more realistic way. If I don’t take this shortcut, I can get more experience points and it’ll just be more realistic and immersive. I’ll feel more like a man.
This is the result. I try to reverse, but the logs keep going in different directions. I keep thinking I’m gonna make it, but then it just veers off wildly to the side. It’s brilliant, funny, but I also feel a bit stressed out and annoyed at how bad I am at this. I end kind of half-parked. I give up, hit enter, and I’m congratulated by the game. Satisfactory, it beams. I am penalised almost four times the amount of money I made for the delivery because of the damage I caused, and lose tonnes of experience for generally driving around like an idiot.
Strangely alluring, meditative, a zen-like experience, all ways people have described the game, and I get it. I think if you had a steering wheel set up, like some people have, it’s even better. You have a functional indicator, horn, you have to fuel up, watch out for speed limits, you can even stream live radio stations. It’s brilliant, but perhaps not for me.
I love that people have elaborate set ups to play flight simulators, like this, or can just spend an evening chilling out, riding the motorways of Europe, listening to podcasts or the radio. I think when I’ve had more practice I might give the game another go, maybe when I’m feeling a bit less stressed out, maybe on a slightly easier mode. I can’t handle the logs.
My dad spent about 10 years driving a truck up and down the country. I would occasionally go with him, and it was a great way to bond with him. I remember a long journey to Truro, waiting in the cab at about 3am, freezing while he loaded up and dealt with paperwork. It was a seemingly endless trip to Truro and required staying down there overnight, and we had a great time watching Truro City FC (I still remember the strong tang of Vicks VapoRub that floated from the pitch into the stands).
We watched telly in the surprisingly comfortable bunks in the cab and it was an enjoyable trip back, listening to all the different local radio stations, trying to work out how to read a map, drinking terrible coffee from a massive flask, munching on the packed lunch mom made the day before. I didn’t realise at the time how hard it must be to drive for that long, having to concentrate, keep alert, how uncomfortable it must get to be stuck in that cab for so many hours with the motorway the only sight. Playing the game has given me a bit of insight into that and I appreciate and respect him even more than I already did.
I ask dad how he feels about people spending their free time and money trying to recreate the job he spent so many years doing.
“I think it’s a bloody waste of time and they need to find something constructive to do.”
Maybe, but I’m still going to try and park those logs.
Mostly written in The Midland, Bearwood, and in bed, also Bearwood.
Soundtrack - Sunset Mission by Bohren & Der Club of Gore, and The Unified Field, by IAMX.