Look at the top of the all-formats UK game chart this week and you'll see the usual suspects: Grand Theft Auto, FIFA, Call of Duty. That reliably profitable triptych of crime, football, and war. But nestled among them, sitting inexplicably at the number two spot, is a game called Farming Simulator 15.
It's the latest in a long line of niche simulator games, but one of the first to make the transition from PC to Xbox and PlayStation. There are simulators for anything you can imagine: Garbage Truck Simulator, European Bus Simulator, London Underground Simulator. But you don't often get the chance to play them on consoles. These games are usually pretty complex, and don't map comfortably to the limited buttons of a controller, but Giants Software's Farming Simulator is pretty simple compared to the confusing multi-button nightmare of a hardcore flight simulator.
Farming Simulator 15 inserts you into the mud-caked wellies of an agriculturer and gives you a vast swathe of land to plough, seed, and harvest. There's no end goal or objectives to complete: you just farm. Forever. You grow crops, harvest them, sell them and then use the money to buy more seeds and better machinery. The more money you earn, the more cool farming stuff you can do.
You spend half your time managing your farm and its finances, and the other driving tractors. This might sound like a bizarre thing to base a video game around, but not everyone wants to pretend they're rugged fantasy warriors or futuristic cyber-soldiers; some people just want to toil on an imaginary farm. I don't know who they are, but they're out there. Simulator games sell better than you might expect, especially in Germany. People love this shit.
I start a new game and it walks me through the basics. I learn how to operate a combine harvester, dump the wheat into a tractor-trailer, and then sell it. I learn how to plough fields and plant seeds in the freshly tilled soil. But as thrilling as that sounds, everything in Farming Simulator 15 boils down to essentially the same thing: get in a tractor and drive in straight lines, up and down a field, repeatedly. Actual farming is probably just as repetitive, though, so can I really criticise it for this? It is a simulator after all. A reflection of reality. Although real farmers can't teleport instantly between tractors at the touch of a button. I think.
The tutorials end and I'm set free to shape my own agricultural destiny. I spend what feels like an eternity harvesting a massive field of crops in a combine. It's weirdly satisfying at first, watching the wheat being sucked into my threshing maw, the chaff spewing out the back. But then, about halfway through, it dawns on me that my time on this planet is terrifyingly finite, and I'm spending it doing this.
I finish harvesting the field, but there are spots I've missed: infuriating little tufts of wheat poking out, taunting me. So I spend another ten minutes mopping them up. I exit the harvester and sprint around the newly flattened field in first-person, admiring my handiwork. "I did this," I think to myself. "What a fucking waste of time."
I bring up the map and notice there's a town nearby, so I decide to pack the farming in for the day and go for a drive in a tractor. When I get there it's like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's eerily silent. Blank-faced pedestrians pace the street like animatronic shop mannequins. No one reacts to my presence. I try and run them over with my tractor, but I pass through them. Are they holograms? There are cars driving around, but they don't seem to be going anywhere. It's unnerving.
Farming, eh? Such a Noisey business.
I've got a theory. I don't think this game is merely a farming simulator. I think it's actually a harrowing psychological horror, in which a farmer is being punished in the afterlife for some terrible crime. He's trapped in a nightmarish purgatory, forced to toil in the fields, endlessly, with no reward. The people in the town don't acknowledge him because he's a ghost. He never ages, the seasons never change, and the crops always need harvesting. It's like Silent Hill, but on a farm.
Or maybe it's just a bit shit, and that's why playing it feels like facing judgement. Most simulators are, after all, terrible. There are a few exceptions, like the genuinely brilliant Euro Truck Simulator 2, but they're few and far between. It's not because the developers don't try their best – it's because their niche appeal means the budget is usually low, and making a quality, polished game costs a lot of money.
Euro Truck Simulator should be, by all rights, mind-destroyingly tedious. But the weighty, responsive driving controls and polished visuals make it weirdly compelling. It is, fundamentally, a good game. In comparison, Farming Simulator 15 just feels a bit cheap, and none of the vehicles are particularly enjoyable to drive. Unless you're really into farming, it won't hold your attention for long.
'Farming Simulator 15' launch trailer for PlayStation platforms
But someone will love it. That's the beauty of these incredibly specific simulator games. They aren't made for a broad audience; they're for the obsessives. That doesn't explain how Farming Simulator 15 managed to scale the heights of the UK charts, though. If The Witcher 3 hadn't just been released, it might have reached the very top.
A big part of it, I think, is the rise of YouTube. These games are routinely covered by people like PewDiePie, a YouTube personality with an astonishing 36 million subscribers. His Farming Simulator videos have millions of views, which is better marketing than anything an entire PR team could dream up. Many of those sales will be from people buying the game ironically, to snigger at it – not diehard farming enthusiasts. I don't like the game, but I'm still glad it charted. It's always good to see weird indie games sitting comfortably alongside giants like GTA and FIFA.
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