In the world of simulation video games, realism is the key to the gameplay. Games like BeamNG.Drive, Farming Simulator, Eurotruck Simulator and even The Sims are some examples of games that emulates said realism in an impressive scope, and at the same time, trying to eliminate the mundane and boring aspects of reality to elevate the experience. But what about a game that embraces the dull aspects of real life, and yet still delivers on a unique experience?
Sandbox, Open World, Car Simulator?
My Summer Car is a game developed and published by Amis Tech Games. While the name would lead you to believe that it is a game development studio, it should be noted that most of the work done on the game is solely by Johannes “ToplessGun” Rojola, with help by his Wife and friends. The game itself was launched in 2016 on Steam’s Early Access program and has been in active development ever since.
The game is set in rural Finland, in the year 1995. The player, living in the fictional town of Peräjärvi has been left alone in his house, having told by a note on the fridge that they went on Summer Vacation, leaving the player with a Beer crate, a pack of sausages, and hundreds of parts laid in the garage that are needed to repair his father’s 1974 Satsuma AMP (Based on a Datsun 100A). This unique cultural setting is one of the most significant factors of the game’s overall charm, even to non-Finns.
From the get go, the game establishes itself as a comedy, but also strives to simulate reality, and thus incorporate realism in its elements, creating a semi-sarcastic world. The narrative starts with the player being born in SUOMI FINLAND 1975, in the car that is to be assembled to the song “Porilaisten marssi.” This introduction cinematic itself is a good representation of the game’s merits: Immersion, Realism, and Irony.
To Be A Finn in the early 90s
Open-world game design is a particularly difficult topic that has many elements to it, most vital of them being world-building and non-linearity.
Let’s start with world-building. Open-world games tend to have vast maps with a large amount of activities to do, and creating an environment in which the world itself feels “real”. Rockstar Games and the Grand Theft Auto series are not just the pioneers, but one of the finest examples of open-world games at its peak, feeling much more alive and lively than any other game itself. NakeyJakey has made an video essay noting the details of how the Location, the massive amount of explorable space, mechanics to reward players for exploring, how the weather and scene affects the game, and. In Essence, the world- and everything in it affects in how the player learn to relate and immerse themselves in the world.
My Summer Car is no different. We know that the game is set in Finland, and the extent of this setting is astonishing. The lore, the world, and the subsequent gameplay represents the many hardships of rural Finnish life, such as a single store (Teimo Kauppa) in the entire area having to serve many different functions, or the agonizing distance someone has to travel to even fulfill basic necessities. 1995 coincidentally occurs in the years of the 1990s Depression, and this is reflected by the population of alcoholic, unemployed middle-aged men and lack of women (due to them moving to the more urbanized South), and the player himself having to do multiple odd jobs to make ends. The entire game is mostly in the Finnish language, with only English present in the form of subtitles, and plays many, many language based puns. This thorough representation of Rural Finland is remarkable, and contributes to a world that is believable, even for someone who lives halfway across the world from Finland.
The game also lacks a minimap: a feature from open-world games that many consider immersion breaking. The map of the entire region is only present in the house, and players have to continuously study the world around them, using landmarks as references, reading road signs, and continuously challenging the players knowledge, emphasizing exploration and learning more and more about the world from information scattered in posters, signs, and even NPCs, which brings us to the next element.
One of the more infamous characteristics of this game is how difficult it is, for better or for worse. The game does not give any information other than the small note written on the fridge. No instructions on how to drink beer, how to urinate, and best (or worst) of all: no instructions on how to build the car. While frustrating, it is surprisingly refreshing given that many open-world games seem to suffer from monotonous, linear gameplay. Non-linearity prompts players to make creative decisions without being told to, and My Summer Car performs this well.
For example, this non-linearity is demonstrated by routes and methods taken to the store. The store is an essential gameplay feature, and players must make frequent trips to refuel, buy supplies, and send post orders. The player can use a variety of methods, each having a consequence: A) The Boat, taking the shortest distance and necessitating the player to walk a considerably to and from the store to the boat B) The Tractor, taking arguably the safest but the slowest, or C) the Moped, the quickest but the least safe method due to how unstable it is in bumpy roads. One way of circumventing the walk necessitated after the boat is by bringing the moped along, as the moped can be picked up. This makes the walk much less tedious, but brings the risk of the moped falling down the lake due to how unstable it is.
The other methods share this decision making: with cars, you can take the highway or dirt roads, which both have advantages and disadvantages; the player always has a choice, not an illusion of one present in many open world games with set routes and GPS navigation. This non-linearity gives the player many, many ways of doing the same task, rewarding or punishing them based on the risk they take.
And punish they do.
Hard Car Game
My Summer car, due to its loose approach towards gameplay is consequentially regarded as one of the most difficult games in the modern era. The general lack of direction and direct instructions may provide players with a breath of fresh air due to oversaturation of the same tropes in many similar games, giving players freedom to solve problem as explained above, but at the same time getting punished severely for baking a slight hiccup. One of them being the lack of autosave and pause feature: players are always at risk of losing hours of gameplay due to errors such as wrecking the car or dying, with hair-tearing consequences. Permadeath has been one of the game’s most unique aspects, as it will delete the entire save if the player ever dies (thankfully this can be turned off).
Dying itself contributes to how unforgiving this game is, as the game will constantly throw things at the player that can lead them to die. For example, obvious ways to die include smoking during refueling will cause the car to explode. Another, more subtle method of dying includes driving without a windshield, killing the player due to being hit by a wasp. The game constantly surprises players on how easy for them to die, all of course without telling players what kills and what doesn’t.
Dying in a car simulator too obvious? There are numerous ways the game will punish the player (of course). Killing NPCs, stealing, not paying will land players in jail in a fairly accurate representation of law enforcement, forcing players to serve your sentence in HOURS of gameplay time. Flipping the car and getting it stuck will render it useless, forcing players to walk to a nearby town for help or frantically push it in hopes that the Unity engine will register it and throws the van in the air.
Part of this difficulty is part of the game’s emphasis, perhaps religiously on realism. For every step the player makes, the game is ready with a baseball bat in the next room. The game is still regarded as one of the most realistic games in its genre, and challenges car simulator games that are only about driving, or only about fixing cars. With cars being more and more electronic and less mechanical, it’s a very nice way to bring the lost art of mechanical tinkering involved in cars.
No discussion on this game can be made without talking about the car itself. The Car, a “Satsuma AMP” is torn down to the last bolt, with extremely high detail and accuracy. Customization of the car is a large part of the game, giving the player choices on making a pure stock car, a rally machine, and even building a performance demon with aftermarket parts. Tuning is also prevalent in the game, allowing the player to play with parts such as the alternator, rocker shaft, gear ratios, carburetors and many more.
The open-world and survival elements that are mixed in with car simulation gives much more meaning and relationship in creating the car; The player HAS to build the car, not just to do a task being told by the game, but to actually use it as a means to get around effectively. The player HAS to be careful with it, because wrecking it would cause the player time, money and energy to fix it.
Ironically Realistic Game Design
So far, I have done nothing but praise My Summer Car. It’s impressive amount of detail put into the world and mechanics make it one of the most unique game experiences on the market. So, game of the year for 5 years straight and 10 million downloads, right?
Well, not exactly. The graphics are some of the worst looking modern titles, looking like something to come out on the PS2 era, and while “bad” graphics is usually tolerated in Indie games, My Summer Car just has far too much inconsistencies to deserve a compliment. The game is built on the Unity Engine, which is not the best, or at least not the most popular engine of choice for games. The controls are janky, unreliable and leads to a frustrating experience, especially when building the car, where it’s usually far too precise or far too loose. Intentionally hard games do rely on player frustration to drive a more rewarding experience, but there’s a certain level of fairness that’s employed, usually with a consistent set of rules and goals.
What also nearly ruins this game is the fact that as of writing this article, the game is still in active development, with disastrous consequences. If dying in the game or losing essential items due to them clipping through the floor seems unfair, updating the game can render certain save states unplayable due to a number of reasons. A small price to pay to play the game in it’s nearly 5-year Early Access state.
Rojola in an interview admitted that the game was initially a small project, and that he did not “expect such a large following”. In the same interview, he stated that game development was merely a hobby and not something he did professionally, and it reflects many of the choices done with the game, with such high amounts of details on seemingly unimportant details.
What I believe to be the game’s main strength is how well it implements irony in the game. The game isn’t meant to be serious, and yet it centers the game around being as realistic as possible. The lowest setting of graphics is named “Shitty” and the best is named “GoldenEye” which refers to the GoldenEye game released in 1997, admitting that even the best graphics the game can offer is comparable to something from nearly 25 years ago. It isn’t trying to be something it shouldn’t or couldn’t be, and accepts its limitations.
This game reminds me of a game named “Desert Bus”, a game which Penn Jilette described as “Stupefyingly like Real Life”. The game consists of driving a bus peaked at 45 mph for from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada. The entire 360-mile trip is done in real time, which roughly takes 8 hours, with nothing happening during the trip, no challenges but requiring the driver’s attention as the bus veers to the right every so often. What results is one of, if not the most painful video games ever to be created, with the only reward being one point after every finished tip.
I brought up Desert Bus as an example of how hyper-realism is inherently never fun. No one plays Desert Bus as a desire to fulfill their entertainment needs; it’s purely an ironic gesture. My Summer Car is similar to Desert Bus in it’s approach to reality and irony, but offers much more entertainment value to set it apart as merely a joke; We laugh with My Summer Car, not at it.
I can never really do My Summer Car justice in a single article, there’s far too much content in this game that will most likely spoil the fun for anyonee curious enough to play it. It is truly one of the most unique game experiences on the market, especially for the car simulation genre (and why not? It’s only 15$). The success of this game is reflected by the cult following of this game, enough to spawn a modding community that is actively finding faults and trying to fix the game, from optimization mods to quality of life mods like showing bolt sizes. Although Rohjola has received criticism for not listening to player feedback and continuously making the game harder and harder every patch, (he plans on scattering car parts across the map to encourage exploration) his ongoing quest to build “the ultimate car owning, building, fixing, tuning, maintenance AND permadeath life survival simulator” is something to be applauded for.