Author’s note: this is the first in a series of articles that will explore the connections between video games and new music.
Just two more hours, and then I’ll finally make it to Carson City. I’ve been on the road since early this morning, early enough that I’ve been able to trace the movement of the sun through the sky and past the horizon. My trailer is filled with 30,000 lbs of rice–it’s not exactly an urgent delivery, but I’ll get a bonus if I deliver it early. And bonuses mean more money to funnel into my fledgling delivery service. Every little bit counts, even if it means skipping on a few extra hours of sleep.
On February 2, 2016, the Czech video game developer SCS Software released a game entitled American Truck Simulator. As a video game, American Truck Simulator is almost exactly what it sounds like—a vehicle simulator where you play as a truck driver and make deliveries throughout the United States (only California and Nevada at this point, with adjacent states being released as downloadable content on later dates). Making deliveries on time grants you experience points, which accumulate and allow the player to unlock new driving specialties (as of this writing, I have unlocked the ability to transport hazardous materials—it turns out there’s a lot of virtual money to be made in hauling medical waste). As a work of interactive world-making, though, American Truck Simulator is one of those rare games that transcend the mundane logic of their systems to signify something much greater.
I’ve been listening to an 80s pop station for the last hour, letting the sounds of the Talking Heads and Cyndi Lauper keep me awake. There’s not much to keep me conscious on this drive—in this part of the country, every little truckstop and Ma and Pa store starts to blur together into a never-ending monochrome expanse.
Driving through the long, great highways of California and Nevada proves to be a singularly meditative experience, one that recalls the cultural shadow of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. While the geography and cityscapes of North America have been condensed in ATS for gameplay purposes, one still gets an overwhelming feeling of the vastness of the continent while driving the lonely roads between Los Angeles, Reno, and over a dozen other cities. It is precisely this emptiness that allows for a sense of active peace so rarely found in modern video games; while the game is goal-driven through its emphasis on earning points and virtual currency, the fundamental nature of the game is aimless. You can keep building your trucking empire indefinitely, but no matter what, you’re always driving over the same stretch of roads, day in and day out. The real beauty of ATS is that such a feeling of wanderlust can be found in what is fundamentally a mundane and mindless task. By co-opting and adapting the experience of long-haul truck driving into such a peaceful and repetitive pursuit, the developers at SCS Software have produced a work that allows the player to put a bit of themselves into the game, to become wanderers.
I just unlocked the ability to haul high-value items—no more hauling food and steel pipes for lowball contracts. But, I still take whatever work comes my way, and hope that I’ll be able to crack into the higher paying contracts some day soon. I have driven over these roads more times than I can remember, yet I still find myself drawn to them. There is something comforting in the almost oppressive loneliness of the highway—I have time to be myself out here. One hour to go now…..
In the same way that the developers of ATS have used the experience of long-haul truck driving to create an entirely new kind of interactive world, so too have many composers transformed the commonplace activity into a vehicle for expression. One example that sticks out to me in particular is Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s Strange Autumn, a work that likewise finds meaning in the expression of the mundane. In Takasugi’s hands, the raw experiences of recitation and interpretation are used as lenses into a bizarre and almost unnamable alternate reality—one experience providing a bridge to another, more nebulous experience. Takasugi is well aware of these meanings; the percussion part includes references to “Japanese tea ceremon[ies],” and explicit theatrical directions are fundamental to the interpretation of the work. This heightened experiential awareness of the outside world is not new within the world of contemporary art—an immediately obvious forerunner is found in the work of Cage, particularly his own solo performances. The long heritage of this kind of artistic act makes it no less powerful, though. Beyond Takasugi’s work, one can find glimpses of this kind of experiential awareness in a number of composers and creators of all kinds—for instance, Jennifer Walshe’s brilliant and probing “doll opera” XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!!.
Only a half hour or so of this long brown highway, and then I’ll be able to sleep through the night before taking another job. It is peaceful, driving over the same roads each and every day. The same will happen tomorrow, and every day after. There are always deliveries to be made. And in that repetition, there is a certain kind of beauty, a peace that can be hard to find in the real world.
Like Takasugi’s work, Jennifer Walshe’s opera ritualizes the ordinary in pursuit of the extraordinary. By reclaiming the act of playing with dolls and positioning it within a particular sociocultural context, this work is simultaneously grounded in reality and expanded into a full-blown critique and examination of identity and gender. A game like ATS does little to match such lofty critical heights, yet the process is still largely the same. Driving ersatz trucks through a digital landscape may not exhibit the particular brand of self-awareness evident in the works by Walshe and Takasugi, but they all utilize the everyday in pursuit of the unexpected.
There are many other games I could be playing right now, games that are more exciting, more feature-filled, more everything. I put 100 hours into Metal Gear Solid V, yet never managed to finish the last few missions. The same could be said for Grand Theft Auto V, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Transistor…the list of orphaned games in my Steam Library is as extensive as it is varied. Yet still I return to the unbroken roads of Nevada, to the dense cityscapes of San Francisco, and Sacramento, and Las Vegas. Perhaps there is no reason for such slavish devotion—maybe I have simply found a comfortable gaming experience, and wish to stay here for as long as my attention span and interest allow. But maybe….maybe there is something greater here, some secret worth to be found in the endless monotony and routine of the road.
The performance and reception of works like Strange Autumn and XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! is almost impossible to describe, and it is likewise just as difficult to put into words why a game like American Truck Simulator can be a truly enlightening and serene interactive experience. One has to live through these works first-hand to get a glimpse of the transformative power of the mindless repetition, and to understand why anyone would spend hours upon hours driving a virtual truck through a simulacrum of the American West. For all of its logical opaqueness, though, a game like American Truck Simulator can provide a window into the almost overwhelming boredom of our own existence. And in the end, it is often the blank stretches of experience that give shape to our own lives.
Talea Ensemble performing Steven Takasugi’s Strange Autumn