Games can take us anywhere. Let us do anything. Experience the full gamut of human achievement, from the depths of space to the dawn of time. They can also simulate really, really boring things.
Oddly, that’s not always a criticism! Though the quiet open road of something like, say, Euro Truck Simulator might not be for everyone, there’s a pleasant buzz from simply going from A to B without a care in the world. Likewise, you might scoff at the Farming Simulator series, but it’s got a huge audience that enjoys kicking back and playing with authentically modeled industrial equipment. Beyond that, there are plenty of sims with odd origins stories. SimTower, for example, began life as a lift simulator tool for companies looking to make the real thing.
And then of course there’s the king of boring games, Desert Bus (aka the most infamous part of Penn and Teller’s unreleased practical joke compilation Smoke and Mirrors), which challenges players to drive the eight hours between Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada in real time. With no pausing. And wonky steering so you can’t just turn it on and leave it running. This intentionally life-sapping journey is now the core of ‘Desert Bus For Hope’ - a yearly charity affair that’s so far raised nearly four million dollars for charity. Clearly we excel at finding joy in the mundane.
But for all this, some simulators are just so dull, so pointless, that you have to feel sorry for the makers spending time with them, and ask yourself just who the hell would pay money for these.
Let’s face it: only cats should be allowed to get this excited about boxes. For a game to break out of them, it has to offer more than just playing around with the profitability of a small company and a few niceties like the 3D world to hide the fact that you’re working a crappy office job and don’t even get the fun of the open road.
For a while, it felt like every other game had the word ‘Tycoon’ in it, cribbing from Transport Tycoon and its more light-hearted follow-up Rollercoaster Tycoon. These games offered us the chance to run everything from circuses to ski resorts to beer breweries to dinosaur parks. Most of them were, inevitably, terrible, but at least you could look at them and imagine someone, an actual human with a soul, dreaming of owning such a place. Freight Tycoon? Talk about the modern equivalent of a Voight-Kampff test.
Forbes Corporate Warrior
Look, it has the Forbes name on it, therefore we see absolutely no reason to assume that this isn’t the most meticulous, carefully researched business simulation ever to hit the shelves. So, anyway, you start by driving a tank through cyberspace to shoot at enemies with weapons like the "Ad Blaster" and the "Marketing Missile" before going in for the kill with the "Legal Laser," "Takeover Torpedo" and—wait for it—the "Alliance Harpoon." This is real.
"Cash is ammunition, and amount of cash is your health!" declares the game, though the closest it really gets to feeling like real life is that literally everything you do drains your precious bank account and leaves you with nothing to show for it but deep inner-sadness and prescription for 150mg of Sertraline. The only real strategy involves pressing a couple of keys to track the quality of what you’re producing versus the quality that your customers expect. And what are you producing? Please. As if it matters to the game with the Alliance Harpoon.
The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys
There was a bit of a trend for virtual pets during the late 90s and early 2000s, starting with simple stuff like Neko, the desktop cat that didn’t do very much, and Catz/Dogz, the desktop cats and dogs that didn’t do very much but cost money. By far the most popular example of the form, if you ignore Nintendogs, was the Creatures series, which promised such amazing AI that your little Mogwai-like Norns could be thought of as actually living, if not breathing.
The Amazing Virtual Sea Monkeys is based on an old scam where kids would see an advert full of living, playing little aquatic creatures, send off their pocket money and receive a pack of boring brine shrimp through the mail. Rehydrated, these would do pretty much exactly sod-all, and definitely not start an underwater circus on your desk. Much the same could be said of the game, which was a cut-down Creatures that didn’t do very much, looked pretty ugly, and were about as interesting to play with as a Tamagotchi with the batteries removed. In that respect, a perfect conversion. But hardly a great pet.
Battlecruiser 3000AD series
Honestly, consider this the Battlecruiser series as a whole rather than just the first, self-confessedly flawed original. But seriously. The concept is brilliant. What sci-fi fan wouldn’t want to control their own amazing capital ship and go out on missions in a thriving universe? The catch is that just to get started involves the kind of learning curve more usually associated with nuclear reactors.
This was vaguely acceptable back in 1996, but two decades on, there still hasn't been a version for mere mortals. Even Echo Squad, supposedly designed to be an approachable fight combat game, is tougher to sink your teeth into than an old boot filled with diamonds. It doesn't help that an hour-long tutorial just spools out often-overlapping audio without checking that you’re actually following along, and at one point features the immortal instruction "Leave the controls alone, and for about five minutes, watch as the fighter performs a fly-around the carrier."
Thanks. But we think we’ll stick to Freespace 2. Or paint drying.
Garbage Truck Simulator
Saints Row 2 demonstrated pretty conclusively that driving a sewer truck around town can be surprisingly good fun, when you’re allowed to spray gallons of the stuff like Jack’s nutty chocolate vengeance. Being good and keeping the streets clean isn’t half as much fun, especially when its idea of a treat is breaking things up with some special rubbish to collect. Be careful not to accidentally scoop up its entire city and throw it into the crusher! It would be an easy mistake to make, if an awkward one to subsequently explain.
Glancing around the web, you can currently get both this fine piece of code and its sister Street Cleaning Simulator as a pack for around £5. If that idea sounds tempting, for £10 I’ll let you clean my oven. Bring your own tools, gear and a sufficient lunch to satisfy until the job is done. Please, no riff-raff.
Okay, so it’s fish in a barrel. Or bowl, in this case. But really. Toilet Tycoon is the kind of thing you’re meant to joke about and then move on from, not actually turn into an actual game that exists. As the name suggests, you’re in charge of a public toilet, and it’s your duty—nobody say it—to become the best toilet owner in the city, because that’s something people aspire to. You have to kit it out with equipment, engage in dirty tricks against other toilet owners by hiring folks like ‘Barry Barf’ to filth up their places, and somehow spend tens of thousands of euros on researching new toilet seats that will still leave your pooping patrons down in the dumps. That’s before you get to the level of apparently hiring spies to perform a little industrial sabotage, which might be okay, if it didn’t mean giving five grand to a guy called Dick Damage.
And they say Germans don’t have a sense of humour…
World of Subways
The most recent of these games takes place on London’s Circle Line, which is quite possibly the most boring rounded-rectangle ever to squeeze tourists against a window until the pressure turns them into coal. The other two take place in New York and Berlin—admittedly, two prime places for controlling a train that just goes one way, underground and so blissfully undistracted by all the amazing colours and night-life above your head.
For a true party though, the kind that will leave your pulse pounding, drool pouring from your captivated lips, just imagine the warmth of the sun. The wind whistling past your window, not scented by recycling, air conditioning, or the barrage of a thousand farts and hour. Not being a prisoner, but being able to set foot in the world. Seeing the smiles on the happy children as they dream of being train drivers, and then returning to yours for a sad ‘toot-toot,’ like a manic depressive Womble whose union never thinks gets paid enough.
Oh, yes, yes, it looks like an adventure game. It smells like a bad adventure game. But if you’re unfortunate enough to play this spy game designed by Police Quest creator Jim Walls, you’ll quickly learn more about submarines than you ever wanted to know. Much as Police Quest was a procedure-driven experience bordering on being Copy Protection: The Game, there being precious little chance for civilians to deduce the next step or code, this is a spy game that expects James Bond to have done his damn research.
Every step has to be meticulous, or you and typically everyone around you is going to die. No wonder it’s one of the least LPed Sierra games around—and the planned sequel, Codename: PHOENIX was canned faster than you can say “Step one, open the spreadsheet of future game releases. Step two, select Row B5-“
So it’s come to this: a simulation of sitting in front of a camera. This isn’t to demean the actual job of being a successful YouTuber, which is typically hard, less profitable than many things, and impossible to predict. We’re also not saying that plenty don’t get into it as a business, with the hope of striking it rich. But goodness, this renders the whole concept about as generic and soul-destroying as just giving up on your dreams and getting that job at the local cheese factory instead.
You get to choose a few things, like whether to run a gaming or cooking channel, and upgrade from a simple webcam until you’re ready to make a terrible movie about your reviewer persona, probably. On the plus side, there’s no sitting around for three hours while a video encodes and uploads, only to realise you’ve somehow just misspelt your own name. Still, if you want your crack at the YouTube life, maybe just buy a Logitech webcam.
Tow Truck Simulator
Towing illegally parked cars already doesn't sound like much of a thrill, but any small satisfaction that might come from ruining some inconsiderately-parked person's day is lost due to the surface-level nature of this sim. For example: there actually aren't any people's day to ruin, as the game is completely devoid of humans. You're not the driver of a tow truck: you're the truck itself. There are no people in the world, only cars. And not the fun sort of talking Pixar cars, the boring sort of boring cars.
There are a few chuckles to be had from goofy physics, but seeing a car float around like a kite isn't enough amusement to make up for a dreadfully dull car-towing experience. Don't look for help from the sim itself: the tutorial consists of a green arrow pointing to the car you're supposed to tow. And that's what you do: follow an arrow and tow a car. Sometimes it's a red car. Other times, it's a blue car. A yellow car? Yes, sometimes. But sometimes not.—Chris Livingston
No, not Deus Ex. Very different game. This is the sequel to a survival game called Robinson’s Requiem, most notable for the fact that you can have an eye torn out and spend the rest of the game staring at the blobby side of your own nose. But more likely, die. A lot.
Deus ups the stakes by maintaining the survival element, but casting you as an intergalactic bounty hunter charged with tracking down several particularly nasty folks, but again, most likely, dying a lot. A big reason for this is its in-depth medical system, which expects you to handle everything from an infection to a broken leg. If necessary, by reaching for a tourniquet, wrapping it round the problem limb, and lopping it off. (But if you experiment, don’t leave the tourniquet on too long or you’ll die of gangrene).
Sadly, this sounds a lot more awesome than it actually is, being a moment of eye-popping weirdness in the middle of a deeply uninteresting game, and a good reason why Deus Ex let you fix up with a basic medkit.