I've never had a burning aspiration to deliver wood shavings from London to Stuttgart IRL, but there's something strangely compelling about doing it on a screen.
We play video games for many reasons. For some, it's about learning and mastering a game's systems, and the feeling of empowerment and accomplishment that comes with it. For others, it's about being whisked away to another world and escaping the grey routine of everyday life. And then there are the simulator fans. These guys don't want to fly starships, run criminal empires or pretend they're windswept warriors from the Wilderness of Death: they want to empty bins, fertilise crops and tarmac roads.
Niche simulators are quietly successful on PC, and there's an astonishing variety of them. There's OMSI, which sees you driving a bus around the streets of 1980s Berlin. Or how about Garbage Truck Simulator, which asks the question: do you have what it takes to be a trash tycoon? And if you've ever wondered why tube drivers earn £50,000 a year, try playing London Underground Simulator. It took me almost an hour, with a manual, just to start the engine. Then I overshot Edgware Road by about half a mile.
Simulators, and the people who play them, are easy targets for piss-taking. They're the contemporary equivalent of the stereotypical train-spotting, Thermos-clutching anorak of modern English folklore. But thanks to YouTube, that's slowly changing. Suddenly these games are being exposed to audiences of millions, and normal people are starting to play them and realise that, hey, some of them are actually pretty good.
I don't play many sims, but I was intrigued by Euro Truck Simulator 2. Not because I had some burning desire to drive heavy goods vehicles around Germany, but because I heard from a few people that, honestly, seriously, it's really good. So I had a go, as a joke, and ended up playing it for over 30 hours. That's an entire day and some change I've spent driving along imaginary motorways, obeying the speed limit, delivering wood shavings to Stuttgart and hauling powdered milk to Aberdeen. Time I could have spent hunting space pirates in Elite, battling demons in Dark Souls or just going outside.
Euro Truck Simulator 2 gameplay
The game recreates a huge chunk of Britain and continental Europe. It's not to scale, because that would be insane, but it still takes ages to drive across it. If you've taken a job to deliver something from, say, London to Warsaw, it's going to take you over an hour to get there – and that's not counting traffic, service stops or any accidents you might have along the way. You have to get there as quickly and smoothly as possible, and will be punished for being late, dinging up your truck or breaking traffic laws. If this all sounds deathly boring, that's because it is. Playing this game is probably an idiotic way to spend the only life you'll ever have, but at the same time there's something strangely compelling about it.
Most of your time is spent on long motorways. Here, your only interaction is keeping your wheels straight, managing your speed and occasionally changing lanes. Like driving on an actual motorway, then. But it's here that the game is at its most hypnotic. The muffled rumble of the tarmac under your wheels, the swish of the wipers, raindrops tapping at the windows. It's bizarrely soothing, like a screensaver for your brain. You can listen to live radio from whichever country you're in, and I have fond memories of screaming down a rain-soaked autobahn listening to Fleetwood Mac on a German classic rock station.
It's so relaxing, in fact, that it's become an unexpected form of meditation for me. If I'm stressed out or feeling overworked I'll go and drive down the M4 for half an hour in a big fucking truck. It clears my mind, and eventually the only thing I'm worried about is where the next service station is, because I'm low on petrol, or if I'm going to get these bags of sand to Rotterdam in time. Don't bother paying a guy in flip-flops £50 a session for transcendental meditation lessons: install Euro Truck Simulator 2 instead.
But then it catches you off guard. Your GPS sends you down some narrow, twisting country road in the middle of nowhere. It's the dead of night and you've got 20 tons of explosives resting precariously on your trailer. Then your headlights blink off because you battered into wall earlier and damaged your engine. Now you have to guide your lump of a truck down this nightmare backroad with instinct alone. But then, mercifully, the lights flicker back to life. Between all the lengthy, uneventful drives down bleak motorways, there are these rare, but unforgettable, little moments of heart-in-mouth excitement.
It helps, of course, that it's a solid, well-designed game. The driving model is weighty and satisfying, and the simulation elements – traffic, weather, physics, sound effects – are all detailed and realistic. A lot of sims are a bit creaky and low-rent, but this boasts proper production values and surprisingly beautiful visuals. Well, as beautiful as a stretch of concrete and asphalt can be. The rain in particular looks amazing, with droplets that streak across the window as you speed up. If authentic drizzle is your thing, this is the game for you. It nicely captures the feel of each of its featured countries, although there's some weirdness, like incongruous sunflower fields lining Glaswegian A roads.
If this wasn't thrilling enough, the game also has support for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. So, naturally, I had to give it a go. Combined with a steering wheel and pedals, it was remarkably convincing. I could look around the cabin by moving my head, and even lean out of the side window to look back at my trailer. After about 20 minutes I'd genuinely tricked my brain into thinking it was a physical space, and at one point I was so confused I tried to lean my arm on the non-existent window to my left. Using a pioneering VR headset to drive slowly down a dual carriageway in a lorry might sound like a gross misuse of the technology, but it's impressive as hell.
Above all, Euro Truck Simulator 2 (and the entire simulation genre) is just another form of escapism – as much as any fantasy RPG or fetishistic military FPS. It just happens to be an escape into a world not many people want to escape into. Still, I'm glad it exists, because it's a testament to how broad and varied a medium gaming has become. There really is a game for everyone, whether you want to be a survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a forklift driver. I never wanted to be a trucker, but Euro Truck Simulator 2 has given me a newfound appreciation for this curious subculture of very odd games.