June 12, 2012

IN DEFENSE OF 'TRAIN SIMULATOR'


A couple years ago I noticed that a PC train simulator called Railworks (which has since been renamed Train Simulator 2012) had become a popular laughingstock among the members of the Reddit gaming community.  I understood why after I found a few gameplay videos like this one...



Compared to the hyperactive cyberworlds that we've come to expect, Railworks is a snoozefest.  There are no enemies or obstacles. Of course you're literally on rails, so steering isn't required.  Primary controls are limited to forward, reverse, throttle— oh, and a there's a windshield wiper on/off switch.

Your in-game character lacks any super powers, or a sword, or even a key chain container of mace. You don't sport body armor, or even a leather jacket. In fact, this is you...


The missions occur in real-time so in some levels you can set your train on course and actually leave the controls to go play X-box for an hour before your locomotive needs further attention.

Naturally, the game's low stakes anti-action invites this sort of send-up...



Actually, the mockery wrought by Railworks is nothing compared to their street cleaner simulator. I'm serious. The Gamespot community banded together to ironically vote it up as the highest user-reviewed game on the site. The staff responded with this tongue-in-cheek, seventeen minute video...



Railworks most joked-about feature is the additional downloadable content that's available for it.  The core game runs about thirty-five bucks and comes with a variety of engines and routes, but if you wish to add to your collection you are faced with dozens of expansions that range from five to twenty dollars.  And if you want all of the extras? Unless you wait for a sale, that will literally cost you $2,027.97!  The DLC is key to their business strategy to the extent that Railworks 2 owners were automatically issued a free upgrade to version 3.

So I laughed along with my fellow "hardcore" gamers.  I took time from my own pointless geekery to scoff at the lesser dweebs who are so easily placated with sub-par graphics and pricy, new CG train models. But at some point it became a fascination with me, as these things often do.  I found myself looking up sincere in-game footage and visiting Railworks message boards, on which a fair amount of time is spent defending their interest from the heckling trolls at large.

My mind kept returning to the Railworks enthusiasts, and I started seeing things through their eyes. Of course it's mundane, the goal is realism, and real conductors could not sustain decades-long careers if they faced daily warfare or alien invasions. And the developers don't expect anyone to purchase all the downloadable content any more than a hobby shop expects you to buy one of every model train that they sell.  Speaking of which, model train collecting can be even more expensive, and they only travel in circles.

My respect for the Railworks community began to grow as it occurred to me that their passion does not require thrills, instead they are contented by life's subtleties. Their fantasies don't rely upon adrenaline or destruction, they just wish to peacefully command a Class 47 Triple Grey all the way from Oxford to Paddington.  They bask in the sights of the uninterrupted countryside. Their serenity is found in the rhythmic valley echos of rumbling tracks. Hobbies are supposed to be relaxing, right? Most of my video gaming ends up driving me to internet walkthoughs in fits of frustration.

It wasn't just the Railworks state of mind that I envied, I also fantasized about having enough spare hours to leisurely delve into each sauntering level, gazing at my monitor blissfully, pausing only to adjust the camera angle every few minutes, or turn on the windshield wipers.

By the time Railworks 2 went on sale for eight bucks I was primed to join the ranks of the noble virtual conductors. I proudly bought a copy.

The cross-country journeys were as soothing as anticipated and I even felt like I was getting a pixelated glimpse into the United Kingdom where most of the missions take place.  The environment is said to be pretty accurate.  I decided to put this to the test when I noticed one of my routes passed through the city of Slough which is known to me as the setting of the original British version of The Office.

Here's an actual photo of the city with the fictional Wernham Hogg building highlighted (otherwise known as Crossbow House at 40 Liverpool Road.) Notice it's just a block from the railroad...


And here's the in-game neighborhood with an approximation of where the building would be...


Such simple pleasures go a long way, but the truth is, I haven't become one of them.  I've played for twenty-plus hours, but I rarely complete a level without acting on the urge to derail. I have little to contribute to the message boards, nor can I share in the excitement over the announcement of the latest downloadable train.

I even purchased a downloadable content package. Trains versus Zombies for $5 seemed impossible to pass up, but it turns out the zombies are just the regular passengers with green-tinted skin. They never rush the train, they just stand at the stations checking their watches.

I'm sure I'll continue to revisit the game from time to time, but what gets me excited is the thought of future editions when the landscape will eventually resemble a true virtual reality.  As soon as I retire my first task will be to upgrade my copy to Train Simulator 2038.

5 comments:

Dex1138 said...

It must be a "thing." I've seen all sorts of Simulator games: Bus/Cable Car, Tow Truck, Delivery Truck, Ambulance and even Road Construction!

Kirk D. said...

Yeah, most of them are from the same company, Rail Simulator Developments, and they seem to have found an audience.

Anonymous said...

Oh god no!!! Why??? Why do I have these thoughts? Curse you Kirk for making think of this...

"Speaking of which, model train collecting can be even more expensive and they only go in circles."

And here it is.. Someone needs to buy about seven 14" LCD monitors, wire them all up to the same computer as one large screen. Then have Train Simulator run as one big simulation on a desktop.

Arrgghh stop it... And they can fashion it into a nice coffee table... with a glass cover. So that while you talked to people on your couch, all of you could watch the train simulator.

Kirk D. said...

anon- Ha, you brought it right back around! A giant virtual toy train is not crazy at all. We just need a giant Nintendo DS screen so that it will be 3D as well.

Anonymous said...

Hey. I liked this and posted it on www.PCGamesN.com. You should drop by and comment on the stub.

http://www.pcgamesn.com/s/12165

Cheers