How serious simulator games made their way into the mainstream

Or, the story of how a truck simulator has educated a non-driver on the purpose of all-wheel drive and locking differentials

For years now, there’s been a tangible gulf between serious and silly simulator games. You’ve got your hardcore, PC-based audience who are proud to lap up the spreadsheet intricacies of something like Train Simulator. Yet on the other side, there’s a growing casual console crowd who see the simulator suffix as an excuse for absurdity.

Games like Goat Simulator and Untitled Goose Game are great examples of this – they’ve warped the criteria of what a simulator can be, providing voyeuristic gameplay experiments with incredible viral potential. The horrible honking goose is now a bona fide cultural icon.

The crucial difference between these two genre factions is a new focus on how silly sims feel and present their game world. In the past, the aesthetics of a simulator game have been of little importance due to the spreadsheet set dressing. But modern games like Planet Zoo or Goat Simulator are endearing to look at and easier to play, providing an avenue for a genre often bogged down in ugly systems to excel elsewhere.

Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game. Credit: House House

Thanks to this approachable veneer, players have started to take simulators seriously, and they’ve entered into the mainstream with relative ease. As a result, the lines between serious and silly simulators have blurred considerably, resulting in some truly unusual developments.

Take Empyrean’s House Flipper, an oddly captivating hybrid where you must buy, renovate and sell houses. You’re probably imagining a series of graphs and automated processes, but in reality, you do everything in House Flipper by hand. Installing and repairing plugs, breaking down walls and assembling furniture – the entire game is played in the first-person perspective, and you must use your tools (often clumsily) to meet the briefs set by your clients.

By literally stripping the inaccessible walls that traditional simulators throw at players, House Flipper exists in this exciting, accessible middle ground. Despite it’s grounded premise, the game is anything but mundane – crucially, it leaves the door open for chaos by giving the player a developed sense of agency.

House Flipper
House Flipper. Credit: Empyrean

Yet, this isn’t even the most interesting blend of old and new simulator sensibilities I’ve stumbled upon so far – that has to be the CaRPG.

As serious driving simulators have started to pivot away from reality to provide options for a more casual audience, we’ve seen these adaptive simulators take root and become massively successful.

Forza Horizon 4 is a driving game where you can finely tune your car with mind-boggling detail, yet if you wish to ignore that, boot up Spotify, hold the acceleration trigger and cause mayhem in the English countryside, the game isn’t going to stop you from having a great time. All the while, you’ll be building XP, unlocking new vehicles and enjoying a fantastic feedback loop. Like any RPG worth its salt, you get out what you put in. This fluid approach to gameplay – one that moulds simulator intricacy with RPG systems – appeals to both a hardcore and a casual audience, and this new frontier is where the once-daunting genre of simulator games can thrive.

Let me tell you about SnowRunner. This is a game where your worst enemy is the ground beneath your tires. It’s a lot like Death Stranding, if you’ve experienced it, but instead of playing as renowned celebrity actor Norman Reedus, you slide behind the wheel of a hulking lorry. The premise is the same: you’re tasked with travelling across harsh environments while grappling with a frustratingly realistic control scheme.

Forza Horizon 4
Forza Horizon 4. Credit: Playground Games

Yet in SnowRunner, the truck is the protagonist. Imagine you were playing an open world game like Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5, but you hopped into a jeep and the game suddenly locked the doors, refusing to let you out – the map, with all its points of interest, vantage points and puzzles remains the same, yet you can only interact with the world from the comfort of your cockpit.

That’s SnowRunner – it’s an open-world RPG where you play as… an intricately simulated car. It’s one of those lightning bolts of creativity that mashes together genres and demands to be played to be believed.

The in-game maps which span Michigan, Alaska and Russia each have unlockable watchtowers, situated in uncharted bits of territory you must navigate to in order to unlock new symbols and activities on the in-game map. There’s even a short cutscene, just like in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, that provides a stunning vista of the new area you’ve unlocked. But when the cutscene ends, you don’t receive a quip from some sculpted voice-acted protagonist in a suit of armour – you’ll just hear the deathly hum of a heavy goods vehicle with heaps of cargo in its flatbed.

In co-op, the game becomes a hilarious back and forth of recovering trucks from all kinds of maddening situations, using cranes and human ingenuity to unstick trucks from SnowRunner’s ultimate grimy antagonist: sludge. This month, I’ve lost countless hours trying to recover a lost cause with tears in my eyes, as we eschew common sense and throw logic out of the window in the name of finishing one of SnowRunner’s delectably addicting missions.

Let it be known that I’ve never previously enjoyed serious driving simulators (which might have something to do with the fact I can’t drive.) Yet, because of its mud puzzles, aesthetics and accessible design, I’m dangerously obsessed with SnowRunner’s simulation, to the point that I now understand the purpose of locking differentials and all-wheel drive…

As the genre matures, it’ll be interesting to watch these hybrids blossom as development studios create traditional simulators influenced by modern game design. For now, even if you’ve been averse in the past, there has never been a better time to dip your feet. Now that they’ve made it into the mainstream, you may be surprised at how accessible serious simulators truly are.

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