Having retired from world-saving heroics, Christopher Livingston is living the simple life in video games by playing a series of down-to-earth simulations. This week he's unloading cargo ships, dumping rocks into the ocean, and sitting in the lap of a mysterious, smiling stranger.
I'm excited to be playing Ports , a simulation about being a dockworker, because I actually know a little something about ports, what with my blue-collar background of having watched Season 2 of The Wire a couple times. Here's what I know: dockworkers are also called stevedores and load and unload cargo containers that are also called cans that are sometimes used to smuggle drugs or prostitutes into the country at the behest of foreign men who are constantly sipping out of comically tiny coffee cups. Oh, and every time Ziggy appears onscreen you should fast-forward because who wants to listen to that annoying white-trash idiot carry on about his stupid duck?
With that useful knowledge in hand, I speed through the tutorial on how to use all the different types of vehicles and cranes, and get right into "Business Game" mode, where I own and run the docks. This works as follows: a large cargo ship pulls up at the dock, a little window pops up to tell you what to do, and you do it, and you make money. Business! They've really captured how it works.
While the financial simulation is a bit lacking, there are at least a number of interesting vehicles to pilot, such as the straddle carrier, which lets you drive right over a stack of cans, pick one up, and carry it between your "legs."
There's also the container crane, a massive structure to allow the loading of cans on and off the cargo ships, and there's also the reach stacker, a smaller crane that lets you pick up and maneuver cans around on the dock. Loading and unloading cargo ships requires using these vehicles in conjunction: pull a can off a ship with the container crane, drive it back to the yard and stack it with the reach stacker or the straddle carrier. Of course, with all of these massive vehicles carrying giant cargo containers around at high speeds right on the edge of a canal, it sure seems like something ridiculous and terrible could suddenly happen and screenshots could be taken of it!
But, um, no. If you're waiting for this column to turn into Chris Completely Destroys The Dock And Plunges Into Financial Ruin By Stupidly Trying To Stack Fifty Cans On Top Of A Moving Straddle Carrier, then sorry to disappoint. This game is entirely idiot-proof, and you're hearing that from me, an entire idiot. You can't drop cans from great heights, you can only place them on officially sanctioned flat surfaces or on top of other cans. Crashing cranes into each other doesn't result in anything happening other than your cranes stopping. Vehicles can occasionally get stuck, but tapping a key repositions them. This is both good and bad. Good, in that you can't accidentally (or purposely) drive an expensive five-story crane into the bay or knock a huge stack of cans over into a scattered pile. Bad, because those things would probably be a lot of fun to do.
The game, oddly, also doesn't care what you do with the cans you unload. You never have to put them on trucks or trains or even keep track of what cans came off what boat, or what's inside them. Same with loading ships: the game will tell you to put five cans on a boat, but it doesn't bother with any detail beyond that. Once I realize that, I don't even bother moving the cans back to the yard, I just build a nice little wall on my dock and keep on adding and subtracting cans as needed. Hey, China, all those American flags you just shipped to America? They're coming back on the next ship! That's not a political statement, it just saves me, an American business owner, some labor. Okay, that might be a political statement.
Besides loading random containers on and off visiting ships, a few other chores pop up. I'm informed that some rubble has been spilled on my dock, and that I should use my bulldozer to dump the rubble into the water. Scooping up rubble with my little bulldozer is fun enough, though I feel a little weird about dumping it right into the water. Pouring unspecified quantities of mysterious rubble into the channel where the cargo ships arrive seems like a bad idea. I'm worried that the incoming ships will scrape their hulls, and worse, the bodies of all the murdered union leaders down there might be disturbed and float to the surface. Turns out, I don't need to worry, because the rubble I dump just clings to the side of the channel like some sort of predatory alien that refuses to be blown out of an airlock.
Since missions only appear when a ship arrives, and a new ship arrives only about five minutes after the last ship has departed, I have plenty of time on my hands. Which is weird, because Ports is subtitled PRESSURE AT THE PORT. Yet there is honestly no pressure at the port. There is a distinct lack of pressure, actually. The only time sensitive missions are for cans that need to go into cold storage, and they give you plenty of time for that.
There's also no one else in the game. Just me, running the port by myself. There are no cars on the streets outside the docks, no other simulated little people on the sidewalk, no options to hire other workers. The cargo ships pull up every few minutes, but I can't see anyone driving them and no one ever gets off or talks to me. It's nice, it's quiet, I can get my work done at my own pace, but it does start to feel a little bit eerie at times, especially when, while driving my forklift in first-person mode, I turn around in my seat and HOLY LORD WHAT THE HELL IS THIS HORRIFYING IMAGE STARING INTO MY SOUL
It legitimately scares the crap out of me. Just imagine playing a mostly silent game for a couple hours, a game in which you are literally the only human being in existence, and then turning around in your seat and seeing THAT.
Is that supposed to be me? If it's me, I'm not sure how I can turn around and look directly into my own hideous, creepy, unsettling face. If it's not me, then am I to assume I've been sitting in some silent, disgusting man's lap this whole game? Why did he never say anything? Couldn't he have at least cleared his throat once or twice, to let me know he was there, or was he just being super polite? Maybe he was simply enjoying it? Is that what it is? Is his silent stare trying to communicate that I have a choice between being forever sealed inside a cargo container or becoming his "dock wife"?
Conclusion: Well, except for the fact that the game is so buttoned down that you can't have any fun breaking and destroying things, and except for the financial simulation basically being an adding machine, and except for realizing that the entire game takes place while sitting in some strange, silent, leering man's lap, this is kind of a fun simulation! You can't go completely wrong with giant cranes and stackable boxes.
And remember, if you ever find yourself the last person on Earth, turn around periodically and make sure you're not sitting on someone.