This article originally appeared in VICE Canada
In today's video games, you can choose to assume the role of a high-powered military dynamo in the Call of Duty series to murder other soldiers in glorious HD, or you hop into the boots of an alien in Destiny to zoom across moonscapes with a jetpack and a space rifle. But in the glory days of the Canadian edutainment software industry in 1991, the name of the game was delivering potash from Saskatoon to Winnipeg in the most subdued and frustrating manner possible.
If you grew up in Canada's elementary school system in the 90s, there's a good chance you sat in front of a text-command-driven truck driving simulator called CrossCountry Canada. The weird thing about the game is that most people who played it seemed to have fond memories of it. Sure, the concept makes a rudimentary flight simulator feel like Quake, but there was something oddly soothing and patriotic about taking the helm of an 18-wheeler and traveling across Canada bringing valuable goods from city to city.
Given that I hadn't played CrossCountry Canada in about 15 years, I was excited to power up the emulated version on the Internet Archive, which—unless you've been living under an internet-free rock for the past few days—just published over 2,000 MS-DOS games that are free to play in your browser.
I immediately felt a rush of nostalgia as I saw the CrossCountry Canada title screen pop up in my browser, and was excited to enter my name of choice: Thrillho.
Once Thrillho was strapped into his 18-wheeler, I was presented with a map of Canada and a blinking command prompt. I wasn't sure what to do, but I knew I wanted to drive north to deliver some gold in Manitoba. I tried entering "N" to go north.
Oh, of course my fictional MS-DOS truck isn't turned on. My bad.
Now that my truck was on and spewing virtual pollution into a virtual Canada, I was ready to get moving. I tried "drive north" instead of just "N," and the game kicked into gear. I was on the road in Winnipeg, feeling the wind in my hair and presumably cranking some sweet CanCon tunes on the road. But it wasn't long before the game threw a wrench in my plans and presented an unexpected challenge: My headlights were off, and I wasn't driving safely.
Clearly the game wasn't about to let me disobey the rules of the road, so I acquiesced and fired up my headlights. Just like Future told me to do in his hit song, I turned on the lights.
Unsurprisingly, turning on my headlights wasn't going to be the last challenge that CrossCountry Canada would throw my way. Far from it. I guess I was turning up too hard, cranking up the radio as I tore through Winnipeg: I got into an accident.
Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out what the hell the game wanted me to do. It told me I had to get to a gas station to get my truck repaired, but I couldn't get to the gas station without getting my truck repaired. I was stuck in an infinite feedback loop. The game had beaten me.
Frustrated, I shut down the game and got in touch with one of the game's programmers, a blues artist from Vancouver named Jimfre Bacal. Bacal's primary duty in the development of CrossCountry Canada was to port the original version from Mac to PC. He told me the game intentionally did not provide its users with the language needed to control the game, and that the developers caught a bit of flak for that. But I suppose trying to figure out how to play the damn game is where the edutainment comes from.
Bacal said programming edutainment for "little pipsqueaks" was a "garbage-heap of money" in terms of salaries for programmers in the mid to late 80s. He clarified that point by saying: "There was a 'newness' about educational software during that era and sales were low compared to today's video game sales. Big companies mostly shied away from school software and many small independent software companies competed against each other to fill the void. By the 90s, gaming software had become the big thing with the introduction of game boxes that supplanted desktop computers as the main target for game companies."
Despite Bacal's somewhat gruff comments about his experience coding CrossCountry Canada, it seems the nobility of making edutainment software for kids has left him with a strong impression about the possibilities of software development. Playing CrossCountry Canada even for a few minutes on the Internet Archive brought back some great memories of going on potash runs, via MS-DOS, through the Canadian landscape. And while he might use metaphors about garbage to talk about his pay at that time, the CrossCountry Canada experience provided a rare, oddly patriotic relief from the ennui of elementary school life on the ancient computers that populated Canadian school boards.
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