IF Comp 2019: Truck Quest

truckquest.pngTruck Quest (Donald Conrad and Peter M.J. Gross, Twine) is a game about trucking and getting ahead in the world.

It’s fully illustrated, typically with animations. I do not love its MS Painty / cheesy 90s Windows game aesthetic, but it undeniably adds a lot of weight and expression to the game.

Considered purely as a trading game, it’s minimal – less complex even than last year’s Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise. It’s more of a simulation of a trading simulation than anything. There is no real mechanical significance to travel. You’re trying to pay off predatory loans, but there’s literally nothing else to spend money on, so this isn’t as much of a wrench as it might be. Your choices about cargo are limited to three missions at any given time, and it’s not transparent how much different options change your chance of success: I failed missions often enough even when taking lower-paid ones and driving cautiously, and the essential feeling is of randomness. The Good Truckin’! success messages don’t feel as if you did much to earn them, and the getting-pulled-over failures don’t feel like you fucked up because of bad choices; they feel like a baseline level of fuckuppery that can’t be avoided.

This is because it’s not really very invested in being a trading game; it’s a parable about 21st-century work and politics. Your ‘progress’ never allows you to save money, even as your absolute income increases, because that just involves access to larger predatory loans and fees – paying your vehicle loan off isn’t hard, but every time you do then the loan guy cleans you out with surprise fees, then arranges for your old vehicle to get accidentally destroyed.

A travel-and-trade game is designed to make commodities trading fun, with exploration and a broad range of strategic choices; Truck Quest makes it a boring, low-agency grind. This is by contrast to the bright enthusiasm the protagonist expresses for trucking; you’re meant to feel the tension between the cheery thumbs-up style of the art and the lined, defeated face of your mentor Joan, a retired trucker. It’s meant to be a game about how the pressure exerted by financial systems can turn a vocation into a joyless grind, and the fairly arbitrary feel of success or failure is part of that.

As the game progresses, you are offered special missions by figures representing various ideologies: corporate establishment, libertarianism focused around personal privacy, a sort of Obama-ish liberal bureaucratic technocracy, and finally the Disruptive Tech figure. All of them show you an initially sunny face, but have unforseen social effects and won’t personally have your back against the loans guy. Doing missions for a particular side will skew the nation’s priorities, with the negative effects primarily being shown through conversations you have with Joan; you can make your loan payments without this, but their missions pay out quite a lot relative to your basic income.

The disruptive tech giant, and the prospect of it replacing you with robot trucks, looms in the background of the story from the beginning. At the game’s climax, you start doing missions for Regina Towers, their head, and it turns out that the whole enterprise is a monstrous sham: disruptive tech has no good ideas of its own, and can only sustain its inflated value by cannibalising established industry. The asshole trucker who’s set up as a rival in the early game is an asshole, but not the real enemy. You can get an apparently happy ending, but after what’s come before the Good End doesn’t feel very real.

As a comprehensive political critique, there are plenty of things to pick apart about this. But I don’t think that’s really the idea; and as an attempt at encapsulating a particular political feeling about work in the ’10s, it’s doing a pretty decent job.

(I am not sure whether choices you make earlier in the game lead to different endgames. But I’m absolutely not going to replay for, say, a No Political Missions run, or paying off the final loan without working for Regina, because the grinding on that would be entirely too much.)

Honestly, ‘pretty decent job’ kind of sums up my feelings about this, which probably puts it into the 6-7 range. It is capable, purposeful work and I found quite a bit to appreciate, but not a lot to really get enthused about. It’s kind of operating under the constraint that it’s difficult – not impossible, but for sure difficult – to make a game really inspire enthusiasm when its rhetorical point involves tedious, low-agency grind.

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