If Werner Herzog made a driving game, it would be Snowrunner

, | Game reviews

Speed is a cheap vulgar thrill.  It has none of the tension or innate drama of torque.  You cannot savor speed the way you can savor the interaction of traction and mass.  Speed wants nothing to do with the earth.  It wants to leave it.  But torque wants to defeat it, to prevail over it, to wrestle with it and throw it down and then tear loose from it to declare the victory of forward motion.  Torque is determined to triumph.  Torque is a battle.  Torque grapples and struggles.  Speed was barely even here.

That’s the premise of Snowrunner, and Mudrunner before it, and Spintires before that, all games about trucks wrestling with bad roads.  Videogames have been letting us go fast for as long as they’ve been around.  But the unique contribution of the Spintires line, which has its fullest expression in Snowrunner, is its intimacy with the ground.  If you’ve ever driven a manual transmission, you know what I’m talking about.  

What Snowrunner adds to the formula is…okay, yes, snow.  That’s in there.  You could tell from the title, right?  That it adds snow?  What you can’t tell from the title is that it adds a larger gameplay structure in which you move stuff around the map.  The promise was always there in the earlier games, and lord knows, I put in my time trying to figure out how to get a bunch of goddamn logs onto the back of a truck just so I could carry them where the game wanted them to go.  But it took Snowrunner to fully realize a world crying out for logistics the way Middle Earth cried out for a strong-hearted hobbit, or Azeroth cries out for a healer, or the animus cries out for some douchebag in a hoodie.  In Snowrunner, the expanses of drivable open-world have been beset by mishaps.  Wreckage blocks roads, oil wells are missing their tools, floods have wiped out bridges, farmers have gotten their pickup trucks stuck in bogs, someone misplaced a trailer full of cement.  Catastrophes abound, and each one needs someone to move something somewhere.  Snowrunner is a latticework of logistics quests, some spanning multiple maps.  It’s an open world in need of a hero, not to bring a piece of jewelry to a volcano, not to offset whatever damage the tank takes, not to wristblade guards throughout history.  But to simply move something where it needs to go.  Not all heroes wear capes.  Enter you.  

The road ahead is terrible.  Uneven, crumbling, sometimes barely even there.  You couldn’t have known this from looking at the map.  The map just showed you where the road was supposed to go, how it swerved left here and veered right there.  But to see the state of the road, you had to reach this point.  You would be here one way or another.  Once you took on the mantle of logistics hero — ha ha, you are wearing a cape! — you didn’t have a choice.  It’s always only been about moving forward, toward your destination.  It’s always only been about getting closer.  Progress is the enemy of distance.  The road being shitty doesn’t mean you won’t make progress and it doesn’t change the distance.  It just means you have to work harder, more carefully.  It just means you need even more patience and effort.  What else are you going to do?  Sit here in the mud?  Go back?  There is only ever the road in front of you.

Logistics is the act of taking something from where it is to where it’s supposed to be.  It is the act of fulfillment, of completion, of potential realized, of consummation even.  Not like that.  You know what I mean.  It’s turning the world from the way it is — this food is over here, but those hungry people are over there — to the way it should be.  Now those hungry people have food. Logistics rights wrongs.  Logistics makes the world the way it should be.  

It’s not sexy.  It’s not particularly dramatic.  It’s not like slaying a dragon or fighting a battle or making a family (again, not that sort of consummation!).  It doesn’t take an exceptional person.  You don’t have to be smart.  Donkeys can do it.  You don’t have to be brave, because it’s generally not dangerous.  Maybe it’s just dull.  You don’t have to be strong.  If you can push a wheelbarrow or just drive a truck, you can do logistics.  But it is vital.  The world would come apart at the seams without it.  You wouldn’t be reading this.  You would probably be dead right now without logistics.  At the very least, you wouldn’t be able to play Snowrunner.  

That’s the subtext of Snowrunner.  The actual playing is mostly pleasant, moving giant trucks across roads that don’t want any kinds of traffic.  “Ha ha, Earth,” you laugh, “I don’t care that you flooded this road or cracked that asphalt or ruined this infrastructure.  You did your worst, yet here I am, industry incarnate, exerting dominion over you whether you like it or not.  Taste my big fat carbon footprint!”  You atop these sighing, puffing, gurgling beasts and their perseverance, sometimes for only inches at a time, by wheel or winch, indomitable!  Except for when they’re not and you have to get in another truck and drive way the hell out to where you’re stuck and pull your old truck’s sorry ass out of the mud or ice.  Or you can just give up and teleport your stuck truck back to the garage.  At least you didn’t run out of gas this time.  Did you?  Tell me you didn’t run out of gas again.  Maybe try again later with a better truck?  Maybe go around the other way?  Stupid Earth.

Snowrunner has more than just inching through mud.  Of course, now there’s inching through snow, as I mentioned earlier and as I’m sure you have inferred.  To paraphrase the great Samuel L. Jackson before he was interrupted by a shark: “You think mud is bad?  You should see ice!”  But there’s more still.  Snowrunner introduces different kinds of tasks, and even divides its map progressions into discrete stages.  There’s the exploration, then laying the infrastructure, then the collecting, then the delivering, each with their own kinds of risks, challenges, and payoffs.  There are even timed challenges, like plucky little side races for extra cash.  

Did I mention the cash?  There’s cash.  You need it to buy more trucks, of course.  And to put cool stuff on your trucks. Never underestimate a set of kick-ass tires. But, whoa, look at those prices.  How are you ever going to be able to afford the good stuff?  One of Snowrunner’s best kept secrets is that you can get a full refund at any time.  Sell your upgrades when you’re done using them.  Sell your crappy trucks to buy a bad-ass truck.   You can even sell the bad-ass truck for all your money back, which you can then spend on a more bad-ass truck.  When I play Snowrunner, there’s no small amount of fleet management.  I even hit up the trailer vendor for my money back when I’m done with a trailer.  Being a logistics hero sometimes means abusing the refund policy.

You also have an avatar.  The original Spintires was played with sentient driverless trucks because the developer wanted to make an existential statement about industry vs. nature.  Or maybe because it takes a lot of work to make character models that don’t look dumb and he couldn’t be arsed.  Who can say?  But the folks who have made these games since Spintires insist on putting people in the trucks, and it feels weird.

After having dinner with some friends in a crappy part of Los Angeles one night, me and a friend were walking back to our respective cars, which were parked on the same side street.  As we came to my friend’s car, we both noticed someone sitting in his passenger seat, holding up a flashlight, and going through his glove box.  It was a surreal moment and I remember it well because I remember the dumb thing I said to my friend.

“Do you know that guy?”

That’s how I feel when I see a driver in my Snowrunner truck.  In the driver’s seat view, my truck driver’s hands snap frantically back and forth on the wheel, all but ruining the view with his jerky animation.  It’s otherwise lovely from in here.  The humanless isolation, so perfect for a game played during a pandemic.  There are radios playing twangy country music in the abandoned gas stations.  The motel signs are lit, but there’s no one around.  Someone left a dog in town.  You can hear it, but you’ll never see it. There’s no traffic, no people, no activity, not even any wildlife.  This is still a Spintires trucks vs nature game, but with half-hearted suggestions that you’re a person in the game, and possibly even the last man alive.  I don’t need it.  Frankly, I don’t want it.  Humanity has no place in this war between driveshafts and mud.  The mud has a new ally — snow, as you might have guessed from the title — but in this world built with a new sense of purpose, nature doesn’t stand a chance.  This trailer loaded with metal bars will get where it’s going eventually.  Like progress itself, as sure as torque creates traction, trucks are inevitable.  Snowrunner is what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force.  As long as the irresistible force has a winch, the immovable object will lose.

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  • Snowrunner

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, murder, and trucks getting stuck in snow.