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The rise and fall of whimsical simulators

July 15, 2017 — by Nachiket "therapist" Mhatre0

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Feature

The rise and fall of whimsical simulators

July 15, 2017 — by Nachiket "therapist" Mhatre0

How their meme-like quality spawned a whole new genre, and their inherent simplicity attracted impostors

“Do you yearn for the feeling of power that flows through you as the hard steel of the bucket digs into the earth while you remain in keep complete control?” goes the description for Dig It! – A Digger Simulator on Steam. If the poorly written description wasn’t enough, the idea of spending hard earned money on simulators that involve digging up the earth with heavy machinery ranks pretty high up on the totem pole of all things strange.

Good vs dodgy simulators

To understand why we reserve such disdainful incredulity for such games, let’s begin by stating that we mostly detest all sorts of sports games such as Don Bradman Cricket <insert year here>, NBA <insert year here>, Madden NFL <insert year here>, and so on and so forth. You see, video games exist as an escape that enables us gamers to experience the sort of exciting stuff that we otherwise cannot in our mundane lives. You know, things like repopulating Earth following a zombie apocalypse, fighting space aliens, and chainsawing Nazis into giblets. This also includes legitimate simulators such as racing and flight sims, because (a) these games incorporate a high skill ceiling and learning curve for a truly rewarding experience and (b) because not everyone has access to multimillion dollar fighter aircraft and exotic supercars. It’s therefore hard to make a case for sports games since most able bodied gamers can go out and play the said games. You know, in real life, with the best possible graphics and physics to boot.

Stupid simulators
A turning point

Now that we have established that there’s evidently a fundamental difference between good simulators and the dodgy ones, we are left guessing why the latter even exist. Aren’t modern video games supposed to be huge endeavours requiring massive budgets and highly skilled manpower? What exactly prompts grown men to fork out cash for simulators that deal with driving buses, trucks, trains, forklifts, and other unexciting vehicles in an orderly manner, without even a sliver of hope for any form of excitement?

Like watching paint dry

To answer these seemingly complicated questions, we fired up Steam and made a beeline for the Steam Store listings of these games. Well, the aforementioned Dig It! – A Digger Simulator has been reviewed (and also purchased) by seventy genuine owners on Steam. That isn’t a lot of buyers. So far so good. However, our faith in humanity was short lived because Train Simulator which involves the “challenge of running [trains] to tight schedules”, has ten thousand reviews. And it gets worse. Euro Truck Simulator 2 – nearly a lakh reviews. Even Farming Simulator, a game with one of the most insipid premises, has spawned a few dozen annual instalments and the sort of legacy that would give EA’s FIFA series a run for its money.

Turns out there are plenty of takers for what’s basically the video game equivalent of watching paint dry. This mass obsession with terrible video game ideas may seem bizarre, but there’s a method to this madness. The mystery behind the seemingly illogical successes of these mundane simulators can be explained – at least in part – by drawing parallels with trainspotting.

Trainspotting

The hobby essentially revolves around the simple act of trainspotting. Too mundane for it to be a thing? Look it up, and here’s what you shall find:

“Trainspotting is a hobby where participants try to spot and document as many different types of trains as they can, and as a group, reconstruct the routes and schedules of shipping and rail companies. It’s a bit like bird-watching, but with trains. Irvine Welsh, who wrote the novel, has compared this hobby to heroin addiction, in that both seem pointless, confusing, and unpleasant to outsiders, but make perfect sense to enthusiasts.”

And that pretty much explains it. Playing these insipid simulators is a bit like trainspotting. What these weirdos lack in sheer numbers, they make it up with their insatiable addiction and unwavering dedication towards their fetish hobby. After looking up Steam profiles of gamers who have sunk hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours into ONE such rail simulator, one can understand why such games exist and end up spawning annual instalments. These games succeed because they cater to the sort of niche that has a lot in common with junkies. In effect, the people who make these games are a bit like drug dealers, so they don’t need to trifle with economies of scale. Especially when they can count on a consumer base with plenty of time and money to spare.

Stupid simulator
Has it really come to this? We need to simulate grass now?

It gets worse

Let’s be honest here. Farming Simulator might be boring, but it painstakingly replicates well-known brands of tractors, crop sprayers, and combine harvesters while providing cutting edge support for third-party steering wheel and pedal sets. Ditto for Train Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator, which go the extra mile to replicate the cabins and recreate whole city routes to perfection. We may have spent a good part of this story taking a wholesome dump on what are undoubtedly boring games, but there’s a lot of effort and real gameplay merit that’s poured into these games by their creators. And if you thought that these simulators were the worst, boy are you in for one big nasty surprise.

Forget Goat Simulator, or even Grass Simulator, you’ve got games like Dude Simulator [renamed to What The Heck, Dude?] now. Games that sound and play like the by-product of the developer being dared into creating something truly nonsensical at best, and those that are solely produced by random developers of zero repute to milk the ongoing trend of quirky simulators at worst. To put that into perspective, Dude Simulator is basically Postal 2 with the gameplay, graphics, and every single worthwhile game design element removed; whereas, Grass Simulator will run through its bag of non-existent tricks within the first five minutes of your playthrough.

The veritable progenitor

However, for every hundred Rock Simulators and Grass Simulators, there are few gems such as I Am Bread  that manage to be funny while offering genuine gameplay merit. Make no mistake; all of these games either started out as jokes among the development team, or as games that were genuinely designed to be funny and self-aware. Bossa Studios’ I Am Bread, for example, contains its entire premise within the title. You play as a slice of bread that must transform into toast, but the real gameplay genius lies in how the game goes about using complex, yet clever physics implementation to create a whole world of possibilities between your perilous journey from the dining table to the toaster. The game combines physics that are just real enough to induce laughs when combined with a deliberately awkward control scheme to create the sort of absurd hilarity that’s lacking in other genres of video games.

Stupid simulator
The one that started it all

Exactly how I Am Bread manages to pull this feat off is better understood if we hark back to the very progenitor of this genre – the legendary QWOP. Developed by Bennett Foddy, the simple browser game involving the world’s most poorly coordinated Olympic athlete took the internet by storm. Just like I Am Bread, QWOP relied on two basic elements: comical ragdoll physics and tragically bad controls. It thrusts upon you the responsibility of controlling the eponymous Olympic runner with a total of four keys QW and OP corresponding to the left/right thighs and calves, respectively. Designed to be nigh unplayable as a joke, players invariably find themselves driving the poor athlete into a spastically crumpled heap within seconds. The game nevertheless spawned a rabid fan following that went about posting literal speedruns showcasing almost superhuman skill.

The PewDiePie connection

However, this was 2008. PewDiePie wouldn’t begin his YouTube career for two more years and gain global recognition for another four years. This seemingly disparate little detail would turn out to be the very catalyst that would spawn this brand of whimsical simulators. Much of the fun associated with games such as QWOP and its sequel GIRP was watching others either fail miserably at these games, or exhibit godlike skills needed to master them. However, it was only several years later when YouTubers such as PewDiePie popularised the concept of Let’s Plays (video game playthroughs replete with commentary by the gamer) that games such as Surgeon Simulator 2013 managed to transcend from projects meant as jokes to real commercial endeavours.

Before Bossa Studios made I Am Bread, the development house found its footing with Surgeon Simulator 2013. The game took the controls and physics of QWOP and raised the stakes from an Olympic track and field event to invasive surgery in all its 3D glory. With a button assigned for each finger and the mouse to rotate the hand along the cardinal axes, the comically gruesome game set the stage for players to wreak a gory mess. This made for such great Let’s Play spectacle that the game turned into a successful commercial endeavour. Released, a year later, Octodad: Dadliest Catch was another QWOP-inspired game in the same genre. A darling of Let’s Players, the game was so commercially successful, that it went on to be one of the first games to be successfully Greenlit on Steam.

The Curse of the Goat

The very pinnacle of this absurd simulator genre, however, was achieved by Goat Simulator. Released in 2014, it achieved this feat by combining all the Let’s Play bait tactics of the games before it, but it also contained just the right amount of whimsicality and humour to achieve a meme-like status. The game was a blend of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater with GTA, in a simplistic yet glitchy and buggy setting replete with trampoline, fans, hapless humans, and destructible objects. Within a year, the game managed to sell 2.5 million units and made Coffee Stain Studios a whopping $12 million. Enough money to turn the small time video game developer into a video game publisher.

The rest is history. The success of Goat Simulator was so unprecedented and surpassed its peers by a margin so wide that it prompted every independent developer to try their hand at the genre. Soon enough, Steam Greenlight platform was saturated with wannabe Goat Simulator clones; majority of which were devoid of any redeeming value. And that, dear readers, is how unsuspecting gamers have been sinking money into poor Goat Simulator clones, just like sort of gullible souls that tend to fund Kickstarter projects too good to be true. So far, I Am Bread has been the only notable game in this genre that actually delivered on its promise since Goat Simulator popularised the genre. Needless to say, tread carefully and be smart while funding the next idiosyncratic simulator game.

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Nachiket "therapist" Mhatre

Nachiket has been obsessed with computers and videogames since the 8086 days. But don't you go asking him about his earliest gaming memory. Not unless you are fine with being subjected to an interminable monologue romanticising the warm monochrome glow of early DOS games and how the medium has since lost its soul at the turn of the millennium. When he isn't being a corporate slave at MySmartPrice.com, Nachiket spends his free time tinkering with hobby grade R/C, practicing archery, or just sharpening his knives for relaxation.

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