“There’s an intrinsic pleasure in traversing space and seeing all the places between here and there … Give me places to see and a wide open road to connect them and the means to look at them and a satisfying vehicle that I can just drive for hours on end.”
brkeogh.com “On Roadtrips”
I’ve had a long love of roadtrips, stretching back into childhood where a family holiday would generally start with a two to six hour drive and more recently as a series of multi-week adventures through the American Southwest. They now occupy a fantasy space in my mind as an idealised mode of being, always between spaces and places, forever isolated but always going somewhere to someone or something, every obligation left behind. The post linked to above reminded me of a couple of my own experiences of when roadtripping and gaming met. Not in the sense of games being played on the road but where games had in some way occupied the same fantastic space. Reading the post my first reaction was that the idea that you could simulate the experience of a roadtrip in a game wasn’t plausible, that a game could only provoke nostalgia, rather than be its own authentic experience of motion, travel and of having no place (to be). The first memory is of GTA: San Andreas, and is very much a memory (or experience of) nostalgia. The second however, is much older, a game called Midwinter.
I spent about 3-5 weeks on the road in the American Southwest each year in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. In between these trips I found myself re-playing the game not to complete missions but rather to drive around the Las Venturas of the map trying to satisfy the longing nostalgia brings. The game had captured elements of the American southwest with only a few minutes of drivable area. As level design goes it was a cramped reproduction of the icons of the southwest – Vegas, Roadside Diners, Red Canyons, UFOs, Truck Stops and so on, but it also managed to also capture the sense of distance and isolation that comes with the high deserts, particularly at night. Unlike say, a Skyrim or Farcry III, which had a kind of artificiality largely due to their abundance of activities and locations, GTA:SA captured the essence of several specific experiences (red canyon, small desert town, quirky motel) which allowed it to maintain the reality of sparseness while drawing on a shared cultural knowledge of the southwest to evoke nostalgia or prompt the imagination. Driving aroudn
Midwinter was a very different experience because unlike San Andreas, it came long before travel did.
It was until my mid-twenties that I first saw snow on mountains, real snow on real mountains. But the first time I felt like I had seen snow on mountains was in the early 1990s. That feeling came when I first playing Midwinter. I don’t remember how I came to own it, since I was barely into my teens at the time, I suspect my father had scooped it up for me in one of his occasional raiding of the bargain bins on my behalf. What I do remember, with remarkable clarify given the time that has passed, is the slow ride in a cable-car up the side of a blue-white mountain and then the fast and dangerous descent into an adjacent valley on skis.
I suspect my memory was less of the visual landscape itself which pushed the limits of my beloved Amiga 500. It was a barren world of flat blue-white geometries running at what was likely no more than fifteen frames per second. What I think I recall is the sense of the place I was playing within. What I recall, in both memory and body, is the unnerving sense of the world falling away beneath my feet, of being caught alone in a cold, haunting wilderness. Then, as I launch down the far-side of the range, the exhilaration of zig-zagging into the valley below at breakneck speeds, and the utter relief as the mountains flatten out into a gentle rolling valley.
Midwinter had a few other mechanics that helped with this feeling of really traversing the landscape and that was its use of time. Time came in discrete 2hour (gametime) periods, you would cycle through your recruited characters each playing out their two hours. It lead to some unusual occurrences if two characters operated in the same location over the same period without interacting, but for the most part it worked. It worked because it made you plan your journey. With limited energy to use and the risk of being stuck out in the middle of a frozen wasteland, a critical part of success was knowing how far you could get in 2hours, what kind of conditions you’d be facing, and picking the right destination. Another mechanic was energy, or fuel (depending on whether you were skiing or driving, hang-gliding was free), this worked closely with time and terrain. A hard slog up the side of a mountain would cost time and energy, and running out of energy could mean you’re stranded, more likely to fall and be captured.
In a good roadtrip the last thing you do in a day (or first thing in the morning), after checking into your $20 a night interstate-side motel, is take out a map and look at the next day of travel. You check distances, fuel stops, and anything between you and the next destination that needs to be investigated. And it is important to note that the destination is never final. It is only a series of next destinations. The final destination is always somewhere a little too distant. It’ll be reached, but first you must plan. So much of Midwinter is simply traversing the landscape and you really feel the scale of distance, especially when on ski, but even when you’re in other forms of mechanical transport. It is slow, riddled with anxiety when energy gets low and distances get further, and it is awesome.
What was special about Midwinter was it had become a source of nostalgia, in the sense that I developed a long fascination and love of traveling through snowy mountains and I feel as though much of this has a root in my experiences as a kid with Midwinter. The same thrill and awe that I first encountered in Midwinter came back to me as I drove up into the Californian Sierra Nevada, or into the Rockies of Colorado. The real experience of travelling through these enormous landscapes reflected and evoked nostalgia for the flat planned reality of Midwinter. The sense of needing to get over the mountain and into the safety of the valley, the fear of the endlessness of the white cold, and the planning of stops through to what would just be one of many next destinations.
Does this mean that a pure roadtrip-simulation could work? I’m not entirely convinced. Both Midwinter and GTA:San Andreas do a great job with elements that are evocative of roadtrips, they also both have other gameplay elements that give you the opportunity to do something else (blow up a warehouse, get into a firefight with the constabulary). But gaming is at a stage now where new ideas are really being tested in different scenes and communities, so it is possible that I could just be having a failure of imagination. Games like The Long Dark (and many others) demonstrate that there are developers that recognise the different between graphics and aesthetics. Midwinter, rudimentary as the graphics are, had a strong aesthetic that situated the player in the environment. The storytelling and narrative power of games is equally being refined, recognising the strength a narrative gives to other design elements (see, Life is Strange, Sunset, etc). Perhaps these principles and growing strengths in the community will be what manages to draw a roadtrip game out.