On Roadtrips

(All images in this post are screenshots I captured in The Crew. More in a gallery here.)

Last week I moved to Brisbane, Queensland from Melbourne Victoria. My partner had moved up several months earlier to start a new job, so I drove for two days and about 1700 kilometres by myself. In America, that’s about the distance from New York to Memphis. In England, that’s about the distance from London to Budapest. An important difference to stress, though, is that Australia is far less densely populated than America or Europe. The vast majority of Australians live in urban centres along the east coast around Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Beyond these, towns can often be hundreds of kilometres apart.

Usually when we drive from Melbourne to Brisbane, we go via Sydney. It’s almost impossible not to. Sydney is a concrete sprawl that sucks in all the roads around it. If you want to get from one side of Sydney to the other, you either need to go through Sydney or way, way around it. We have friends up the coast so we typically use the drive as an excuse to see these friends. An easy day’s drive up the dual-carriageway of the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Canberra; a short day from Canberra to Maitland through Sydney after the morning peak hour and before the evening peak hour; then a final long day up the ever-terrible Pacific Highway through the beautiful scenery of northern New South Wales and wide freeways of the Gold Coast to Brisbane.

I didn’t want to go to Sydney on this trip and, besides, recent flooding was reportedly causing havoc around some of the major bridges just north of Sydney. So I took the inland route. I started early, around 7am, and took the Hume Highway just past Gundagai and the Dog on the Tuckerbox before exiting onto Muttama Road. From there, it was all winding old roads through towns with names like Coolac and Cootamundra. Towns with a few thousand people living in them, at most. Mostly retirees and children and teenagers just waiting to turn eighteen and move to the city. Some towns are mere intersections in the highway. After driving 110km/h in a straight line for ninety minutes, you hit a Give Way sign at a T-section with a pub on one side and a gas station on the other that has either been closed for one day or ten years.

Sometimes the endless farmland turns into endless scrub and forest. Driving along the Newell Highway through the Pilliga Nature Reserve it’s all red dirt and brown trees and the occasional emu. You can do this trick with your eyes (the road is so straight that there’s nothing else for them to do) where you shift your focus so at 110km/h you either see the endless strip of red dirt on each side of the asphalt, or you see the endless line of discarded plastic bottles tossed out of car and truck windows.

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I have no interest in cars. I know how to drive them but beyond what sort of petrol to put in one and which pedal makes the car move faster, I know nothing about them. I drive an automatic and have zero understanding of how a manual car would even work. But I enjoy driving. Or, more accurately, I enjoy moving over land. Cars or trains or buses, it doesn’t matter. Air travel makes places too discrete, but when you travel over land you are forced to appreciate just how much land there is, that this place is connected to that place. All that ‘in-between’ space are places too. You drive past an old woman watering her garden behind a cyclone fence hours from the nearest town and you are hit with this realisation that this is somewhere; not just a between.

It’s the continuity, I think. The gradients and rhythms. The way there are moments where you are definitely ‘in’ a town or ‘in’ a forest but if you went and tried to draw a line at the exact point a town ended you wouldn’t be able to do it. Towns turn into suburbs turn into industrial areas turn into farms turn into farmland turn into forests turn into farmland turn into farms turn into industrial areas turn into suburbs turn into towns. It’s this constant rhythm that’s incredibly clear at any given moment but trying to distinguish any one point is like trying to determine where one ocean wave ends and the next begins.

But cyclical rhythms are always punctuated by linear repetition, as Henri Lefebvre might say. The undulating landscapes are punctured in a roadtrip by toilet breaks and refueling. Every two hours you hit another town that might as well be a carbon copy of the last town and you stop in another Lions Park where the only difference is the names in the toilet graffiti. But you go to pay for your fuel and the cashier knows the guy who came in before you after filling up his mud-covered ute. These people live here and know this place and you’re just some city guy in a Toyota Echo riding the asphalt surf through their lives.

Driving, in particular, forces an attention be paid to this passing of land that getting a bus or a train might not. It’s just as uneventful and ‘boring’, but demands far more attention. At any moment a truck might require overtaking, or a kangaroo might jump out onto the road. A police car will drive in the opposite direction at just the moment you realise you haven’t actually looked down at your speedometer for a minute or so. It demands an attention if not to the landscape around you then definitely to the landscape in front of you, to that constant shifting of landscapes. To what’s coming next. But you never truly see what is coming next. Even a huge city like Brisbane is just kind of not there and then, suddenly, is there.

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The best open-world videogames capture this rhythmic continuity of space. They don’t just have a City Zone and an Ice Zone and a Desert Zone. Rockstar are masters of this, and it is why I will keep playing every new Grand Theft Auto despite the dreadful and embarrassing writing. In Grand Theft Auto IV you will travel from a poor socio-economic area to a business district but you could not place your finger on the exact street where things changed. In Grand Theft Auto V the city peters into green hills into barren wasteland and trailer parks with an expert granularity. I can think of few non-Rockstar titles that achieve this. A good roadtrip videogame would have to achieve this.

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The Crew is not a good videogame by any stretch. It’s a poorly designed, Frankenstein mess of ill-conceived systems and incoherent user interfaces. The story is as as naive as it is forgettable. It is literally unplayable without a constant internet connection. It is a full-priced triple-a game with microtransactions. It remains, however, one of the best roadtrip simulators I have ever played. Not through any deliberate accomplishments of the game (with the exception of the environment artists who truly have done a spectacular job), but more through the ability to ignore everything the game wishes you to do. The entire world is unlocked from the get-go, and every single interface element can be switched off, leaving nothing between your car and the open road.

The world is huge and, largely, empty. It’s an abbreviated “postcard America” as Austin Walker describes so beautifully in his review of the game for Paste (still one of the best things written about videogames in recent times). I am not particularly interested in The Crew‘s accuracy of portraying North America, but in its vastness and diversity of spaces and—crucially—the continuity that has city roll into countryside without a clear distinction between the two. I appreciate it’s willingness to let me bored.

In The Crew I leave the highrise mess of New York and drive south down the freeway towards Miami as the sun rises over the ocean to my left and paints the orchards on my right a blood red. As I near Miami I turn west and twist around the swamps before hitting another freeway that crosses a massive expanse of desert. Perhaps I leave this freeway, too, and turn back north down a dirt road, driving by trailer parks and overtaking slow tractors. Eventually I end up near the West Coast and find myself spiralling up a mountain range past giant trees and, ahead of me, I see the smoggy high-rises of Los Angeles as the sun begins to set.

Night time driving is the best. Beyond the cities, the stars shine bright and the ground is tinted a dark blue. Sometimes you can see break lights disappearing around the next corner or the inverted galaxies of another city across the desert. It’s lonely and quiet and black and boring and uneventful and beautiful. Sometimes you drive through a small turn and all the lights are off except the flashing neon of the motor inn by the highway.

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A good roadtrip game would be long and boring and mundane with an ever-changing landscape demanding your full attention. It would feel like being in the middle of ‘nowhere’ while, at the same time, if you pulled over anywhere in that ‘nowhere’ it would feel like somewhere people live. It would force you to do nothing but drive for hours (actual hours) at a time, but have you constantly on the lookout for cars to overtake or obstacles to avoid. Not constant obstacles, but a constant potentiality of obstacles.

It would be like a walking simulator but one that is obnoxiously long. Imagine Dear Esther or Proteus but six hours long, perhaps with an ability to save your progress only appearing once every two hours at a motor inn. You would have to plan ahead before you sit down and start playing it.

It would tell stories through its environment. At one point in my roadtrip last week I saw the same billboard every 30 or so kilometres between two towns, advertising the Duck Inn Cafe. When I eventually got to the next town, I saw the Duck Inn Cafe. “That’s the cafe from the signs!” I thought to myself. As I drove by, I saw the curtains were all drawn and a FOR SALE sign was stuck to the closed door.

It would be intrinsically pleasurable to play. It would use a controller like a 360 gamepad, something that just feels satisfying to hold. Something you can get comfortable with while you use. Holding that right trigger in at just the right pressure to maintain a constant speed while your palm grips plastic like it would grip a steering wheel. You wouldn’t need to ‘do’ anything because driving and looking out the window would be enough. (In The Crew you can, at any time, rotate the right stick to look in any direction as you continue to drive forward, greatly increasingly the game’s roadtrip potential).

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Several existing games capture the roadtrip feel well, but typically that roadtrip-ness is secondary to other goals. Glitchhikers and The Long Way are two games about hitchhiking (in the first you pick them up, in the second you are trying to be picked up). Each captures this nice, banal feeling of long drives, but each is relatively short and focused more on conversations than the drive itself. Glitchhikers still deserves special mention for the phenomenal sense of solitude and mystical introspection that comes with long-distance night driving.

Joe Wintergreen’s in-progress Magenta Sunrise has inspired ideas such as using the car itself as a sort of inventory. Being able to play with all the ‘bits’ of the car. Maybe you want to wind the window down for a while and listen to the rush of wind and the nearby cicadas rather than the dull thud of the engine and your own music. Maybe you need to change the radio station while also keeping your eye on the road. Maybe you have a spare tank of petrol in the boot for particularly long drives.

Deadly Premonition doesn’t do roadtrips, but it does do long, banal drives at the speed limit around a town spectacularly well. It offers the same sense of downtime and introspection with the character talking to himself as he putters along.

Fuel, got the vastness and the boringness right, but perhaps didn’t have enough of actual interest to look at. It perhaps felt too empty (though, in an essay for Kill Screen, Ben Abraham noted just how similar driving in Fuel felt to driving through western New South Wales). It still provided decent roadtrip material, however. 

Robert Yang’s Stick Shift isn’t about roadtrips but it captures the atmosphere and lighting of night driving in a really satisfying manner.

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There’s an intrinsic pleasure in traversing space and seeing all the places between here and there. Videogames like The Crew don’t understand that driving across land in and of itself is (or at least, can be) a pleasurable activity. There is no need for racing or stunts or challenges. 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.

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