There’s something beguiling about the romantic Hollywood image of the American desert. Those vast, silent stretches of sand, rock, and scrub, occasionally interrupted by sleepy towns, roadside motels, and diners. A desolate place laced with quiet mystery, where a person can disappear whether they mean to or not. I’ve always found a desert to be a compelling, atmospheric setting, from There Will Be Blood and Paris, Texas to Breaking Bad and No Country For Old Men. So I was surprised when, of all things, a game about driving trucks evoked similar feelings.
Of the handful of states released for American Truck Simulator so far, Nevada is by far my favourite. Leave the gaudy, fluorescent bustle of Las Vegas behind and there are miles of desert road to rumble along. And as any fan of SCS Software's superb truck sim series will tell you, there’s something curiously hypnotic about these games. On paper it sounds lethally boring: driving along largely empty roads, delivering cargo, dutifully obeying speed limits and traffic laws. But in practice it’s hugely satisfying, helped by refined, weighty handling and surprisingly beautiful visuals. At sunset the sky is painted in hazy shades of pink and blue, and you can almost feel the air getting cooler.
Then, when night falls, American Truck Simulator becomes, surprisingly, of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. A desert is evocative enough by day, but when the sun sinks below the horizon it takes on a sinister new form. In a lot of games night just means the sky turns a darker shade of blue and your vision is slightly dimmed. But here the evening plunges you into complete blackness, with only the glow of your headlights to guide you along the road. You can’t see the sandy expanse around you anymore, but you can /feel/ it. A looming, immense darkness on all sides that makes you feel oddly small, despite the fact that you’re behind the wheel of an enormous Peterbilt truck.
Sometimes the silence is broken. A dilapidated motel on the side of the road where you imagine adulterous couples and fugitives spending the night. A buzzing neon sign illuminating a sad, lifeless diner. Sometimes you’ll see a military jet from a nearby Air Force base streaking across the sky or a ball of tumbleweed rolling languidly across the road. In a game where nothing much happens, these little moments are almost a reward. Something to distract you, briefly, before you’re fixated on the journey again. And the forgotten motels and restaurants that line the roadside only add to the bleak, lonely ambience.
Listening to the right music is important too. You can really enhance the atmosphere by making a playlist of appropriately dark, moody music. Something like by Johnny Jewel, by Bohren & der Club of Gore, by Boards of Canada, or Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack for . There’s something about this kind of music that complements a night drive perfectly, more so than listening to a classic rock station on the in-game radio. The haunting isolation of the desert is hard to fully appreciate while you’re jamming to Jefferson Starship.
And then the sun rises, turning the sky golden and banishing the night. It’s remarkable how a realistic simulator, traditionally the least enchanting and romantic of all genres, is capable of being so atmospheric. But that’s part of the magic of American Truck Simulator, a game that has no right being as immersive as it is. I don’t know if the developers ever intended for players to have an experience like this while driving through their deserts. I suspect not, but the fact that I did makes me love this weird game even more.