It's raining, so I flick on the windshield wipers. The rain goes with my mood: cold and foul. I've been swearing at my computer screen, wondering if I should uninstall and reload, pretty sure the game is glitching to all hell, and searching for the one damn thing that would make this miserable experience worthwhile.
The truck itself somehow manages to be ungainly and nimble at the same time, like a sperm whale riding a Vespa.
Then I see it: a trash can.
My elation is difficult to describe. I've been playing Garbage Truck Simulator for over ninety minutes, and this is the first garbage can I've found. The world map is useless. The only indicator of where I should go is a straight yellow line that cuts directly through buildings, across rivers, and leads not to the trash I need to pick up, but to the city dump miles out of town. I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out how to leave the depot. The truck itself somehow manages to be ungainly and nimble at the same time, like a sperm whale riding a Vespa. The lack of precision is costly, since I get fined every time I damage property, run a red light, or exceed the speed limit. These fines are levied by omniscient, invisible policemen who dock your bank account the moment your speedometer nudges 41 kph. Crushing pedestrians nets you a fine of 100 Euros. On my first attempt at waste management I racked up 17 violations, lost 1,005 Euros in fines, and flipped my truck after riding up on a curb. After that, I learned it was best to drive like a sloth whacked on codeine. And then there was the lack of garbage. I'd always heard about the cleanliness of German cities, but come on.
But all that didn't matter, because there was garbage now. "Garbage!" I crowed to my girlfriend across the room. "Honey, I found trash!"
She arched her eyebrows and smiled at me with concern and pity.
When I approached the trash can, I was supposed to be able to control the bin man on the back of my truck, but nothing happened. I pressed a button. I clicked the mouse. I pressed another button. I pressed every button and ground a layer of enamel off my teeth.
Increasingly frantic, I circled the bin like a diabetic dachshund trying to find a spot to lie down. Pedestrians died beneath my wheels, shrieking in German. I cared not.
The game crashed. My truck disappeared, leaving my mutton-chopped driver squatting in thin air, hands out as if holding a wheel. He looked like he was using a phantom toilet while reading an invisible newspaper.
Who would play this game? I wondered. In a medium where you can be a Space Marine or a Viking Lord, who would choose something so banal?
Lots of people, apparently, at least according to Daniella Mangold, PR rep for Buschbaum Media, which represents Astragon Publishing. Astragon's simulation games are extremely popular in Europe. According to the company's press releases, Farming Simulator 2012 sold 500,000 copies across France and Germany. That's a strong showing for a niche indie game.
"There is a wide variety of gamers interested in simulator games," says Mangold. "They come from all walks of life and belong to several age groups." There's a lot of crossover with model hobbyists, for instance, who like the opportunity to work with interactive versions of the trucks, trains, and airplanes that they build. These hobbyists aren't attracted to videogames in general, but appreciate the attention to detail presented in sims. "Then we have a group of gamers that are actually doing the simulated jobs in real life: bus drivers, farmers, truck drivers, construction workers, etc." These players, Mangold says, enjoy trying out types of machinery they haven't yet worked with, or even play as a form of stress relief. Other players just like sampling a career that fascinated them as a child, but that they never pursued.
Older and younger gamers take to simulators as well. "Senior gamers appreciate the lack of time pressure these games offer," says Mangold, while children enjoy driving vehicles they see in real life. Parents also appreciate them, since they see them as a wholesome alternative to games that might include violence and profanity.
I was still skeptical when I took to another Astragon game, Underground Mining Simulator. Unlike its cousin, Mining Simulator was less complex, and involved regularly switching vehicles between excavators, bulldozers, rail lines, and a platform for placing explosives. While Garbage Truck Simulator seemed like government training software gone wrong, Mining Simulator resembled playing with trucks in a sandbox. I still didn't find it fun, and bugs plagued the experience, but at least I had no trouble figuring out where to go and what to do. According to Dirk Ohler, head of Product Management, Astragon tailors the level of detail to the platform and the vehicles represented: "Our main goal, especially for PC simulations, is to provide as much detail in a game as possible. Our Bus Simulator, for example, is a very highly detailed simulation, where you can control nearly everything up to the position of the seats."
In fact, the level of detail makes me worry that I - and most American game journalists - aren't fully objective when it comes to simulators. Yes, Garbage Truck was a buggy, unintuitive mess with zero momentum and dull gameplay, but its strokes of detail undermined my assumption that it was a cynical cash grab. There was a button for the windshield wipers. The headlights had a hi-beam setting. In the first person view, the dashboard of the truck was exquisitely rendered, from the steering wheel to the odometer and included working sun visors. This wasn't shovelware - there was love in this game, and that filled me with doubt.