It’s late and my head is a scribble of thought, all go go go. I browse the list of games already installed from Steam. I click FUEL, a game that takes too long to start up but can be difficult to put down.

Seems I last stopped in Drownington Cove so I go from there. FUEL doesn’t really care that much, I could start from any helipad or challenge I’ve found on the world map. But this would require thought.

I’m on a bridge, one of the few large man-made structures I’ve found. There’s a dead, sunken city behind me but it’s paper-thin background material. Water protects you from reaching it and killing the illusion. But this bridge is solid.
I head off the bridge into the wilderness. I just keep going. That’s all I want to do. Keep going. You can do that in this massive world that has little need for walls.
I’m not off the bridge for long before something inside of me wants to break the rules of the road and head into a tree-studded nowhere. I steer right and the wheels do the rest.
The weaving left and right around the trees is a little hypnotic and there’s an element of transgression, driving where you’re not expected. I’m totally alone here. No police car is going to pull me over. No alien spacecraft is going to swoop down and blow me to pieces. There are no wanted stars and there are no gangsters.
The ground rises and my quad-bike finds it difficult to stay the path. There’s a vista somewhere ahead, marked by the green flag. I doubt it’s just over the rise. I give up the ascent because it’s too much game, obstacle rather than liberty. I want to keep going. I turn and travel parallel to the ridge.
Eventually the slope becomes shallow enough to permit ascent and I see what lies on the other side. The cove. The vista point, as expected, is far away. I can’t reach it from here, but I choose to accompany the coast until she tires of me.
My wheels tear up the water. It’s authentic enough to amuse me, like a child wearing wellies who wants to stomp in every puddle. In the distance, there are signs of smoke from burning forests. I wonder if I’ll go there. Rain begins to fall.
The coast pulls away and I won’t follow; she can go her own way. I head back towards remnants of civilisation and bid her farewell.
I slow and trundle around a few old buildings. I’ve seen buildings like these a hundred times but somehow I still find the urge to stop and stare, as if there’s some new detail I’m going to uncover. I have a pop at one of the mini-challenges, using a conveniently positioned ramp to try to get up onto a roof. This bike isn’t up to the task so I head back to the road where a truck is travelling.I said I’m alone. That’s not entirely true because there are trucks out there pounding the infinite asphalt – but they’re ignorant of my presence, like petrol-guzzling ghosts fashioned from pre-apocalypse memory. It’s possible that I’ve imagined this wrong and I am the ghost.
Sunset comes, the rain stops. I’m still following the same, tired road. I haven’t checked the map once, I just keep on trucking. Indicators like flares against the twilight sky make futile attempts to peel me away from my dedicated yet aimless drive. Look challenge! Look livery! Look vista! Look, road.
Night falls and creates a world of silhouettes and shadow. I pause. But not for long.
On a whim I take a sharp left off the highway and go AWOL. It’s off-road time again. I want to see what’s up here. Probably nothing I haven’t seen before, but you never know.
At the top of the ridge is… another ridge. Every time I think I’ve made it to the top, the game throws me another hill to conquer. Let’s go.
The world is flattening out and I’m a disappointed there’s no view. It’s a large plateau so there’s nothing to suggest I’ve climbed any great height. I wonder if there’s anything interesting in the trees in the distance. Daybreak is coming. I keep going.
The woods are dense and I crash several times. My concentration breaks and I’m starting to remember I exist beyond this polygonal quad-bike. This is not what I came here for. I need to get out of these woods soon.
Soon enough we’re into a clearing but it looks like I’ll only be able to relax for a minute before we’re back into trees. Daylight at last.
But these woods hide a secret, a steep slope going down. Still no view, but lots of trees to navigate.
Finally, the trees begin to thin out…
…to reveal a flooded canyon. And I am heading straight for it. Let’s do this.
I soar down the canyon slope. The quad-bike tries to hug the ground but fails oh so many times. I’m not looking where we’re going, I’m looking at what we’re passing. We plunge straight into the cove and the game instantly respawns me back near the top of the slope. We go down, drown again. Respawn, down, drown. It’s Groundhog Day without the ability to alter the destiny of my journey unless I go back to the main menu.The spell is broken and I am back in reality.

Twenty-five minutes have elapsed and the short experience has been enough to quieten my mind and encourage me to go to bed.

When I purchased FUEL, I had imagined myself an explorer. I would never have bought a game that was just an aimless driving simulation set in a vast but empty post-apocalyptic world. So why is it I spend more time in free ride mode and ignore the races and challenges and inane collectibles? Maybe what I really wanted, but didn’t know it at the time, was what Five Players discussed just this week.

For now, driving across a dead world with nothing on my mind except direction, is the perfect meditation for the late-night soul.

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8 thoughts on “Road Yoga

  1. So wonderfully written. I didn’t like Fuel myself, but I love the way that sometimes the mere existence of an imaginary world behind a game can transport you, like staring at a tiny path you never noticed before in a landscape painting and wondering where it leads.

    Then other times you wish those goddamn trucks would occasionally do something interesting.

  2. I absolutely agree with it being “the perfect mediation for the late-night soul.” I’ve spent many late nights driving around the wonderful world of FUEL. I love switching the HUD off, and driving on and on across the landscape, meandering off the path onto desire lines. This might just be me, but my greatest niggle with it is that I wish the headlights didn’t switch on automatically but toggled to a key press.

  3. @Switchbreak: Thanks! I bought the game for cheap pennies over 6 months ago because of the RPS’ write-up of an eight hour explorathon. I’m not much of a racing game fanatic but always loved driving around the cities of GTA. Saints Row is pretty nice too but on the PC the performance is abysmal and you have to turn off all the shinies. I’d love for there to be more in the FUEL world but I think it’s sheer epictude means you’d probably still end up with masses of “dead space” unless they came up with something cleverly procedural, more than just the occasional truck and jet.

    @Sam: I often use the liveries and vista points as an excuse to drive around but would end up forcing myself through races and challenges (you need the career stars to get proper access to other zones) but it really wasn’t what I was enjoying about the game. Only writing this piece made me admit what I enjoyed about FUEL.

    Now there’s something I hadn’t thought of – being able to turn off the headlights would certainly something extra to the night-time drive. That reminds me, I really need to check whether the REFUELLED mod is going to make any notable changes to the experience. Thanks for quoting me, it highlighted a typo in “meditation”. Fixed!

  4. It sounds lovely, but I only enjoy driving around in games as a time-saving measure. Some hidden bitterness about never getting a license due to a bullheaded driver’s ed instructor probably figures into that, but who knows?

    Poetic write-up. I like it.

  5. That was great. It reminds me of my time in the world of Oblivion. I pretty much didn’t bother doing anything but wandering around for about 40 hours until I realised I hadn’t done anything but wander around for 40 hours. I subsequently turned the game off and never played it again.

    I saw this game for about 14 dollars in a bargain bin the other day, your write up makes me almost tempted to buy it… But I don’t need another game I haven’t finished.

  6. Thanks for positive feedback, all.

    @BC: There’s no big prize for finishing everything, so to me FUEL is just about having a bit of a lark. Playing around. I doubt I will ever finish all of the challenges in the game. I think I bought it for under five British pounds and I really got my money’s worth. I’m getting over beating up myself for not “finishing” games. I just don’t have time to play stuff which stops being fun – especially in the absence of a carrot. I have Oblivion waiting on my hard drive, like everything else.

    @Sid: I dropped my first driving instructor after a few lessons and got someone who suited me better: Jill. I always liked Jill – little eccentricities like winding down the window and shouting “you twat” at cyclists who jumped out in front of us without looking – and she always gave me a telling off when I didn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the mirror or being aware that traffic lights could actually change. It took me four attempts to pass but the lessons were always a fun time. But the weird thing was, after I got my life back and was no longer stuck in lessons every weekend, I missed those lessons. The best teachers are the ones you get on with yet still smack you upside the head when you deserve it.

    A year later, maybe two, it was an absolute gut-punch to find out on the local TV news that Jill had died. While she was out on foot not far from home with her two children, the driver of a nearby car had a heart attack. As the driver slumped, the car accelerated and mounted the pavement, ploughing into Jill and children. She was killed instantly, carried on the bonnet until the car crashed into a van further down the road. Her toddler daughter was physically unharmed but her baby son was rushed to hospital with brain injuries.

    And typing this still upsets me, almost 15 years on.

  7. Well I just popped over here to look at the pictures and say how I ought to get FUEL now I have a PC that will run it, but just noticed your last comment. What a sad, sad story. Sorry to hear it.

    “The best teachers are the ones you get on with yet still smack you upside the head when you deserve it.”

    That was very much the case with my instructor. He was a lovely guy but wasn’t afraid to grill me if I had a ‘bad lesson’. The days after those lessons I’d roll over the things I’d done wrong in my head and make sure I didn’t do them again on my next one. Eventually I stopped making silly mistakes and went on to pass first time. His temper paid off!

    Did you ever watch Happy Go Lucky HM? You should watch it just for Eddie Marsen’s amazing performance as an erratic driving instructor. It’s a good film though otherwise.

  8. Thanks, Gregg.

    I haven’t fired up FUEL for a long time now, there’s always so much to do and new things to I have to play. Damn, even FUEL has been edged out…

    Wait a second, what happened to Mass Effect!?

    I’ve not watched Happy Go Lucky (Mike Leigh film if I recall?) but I’ll try to make a point of watching it next time it’s on the tellybox.

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