When it comes to Snowrunner, what I really want to tell you about is the back window of the starter truck. I appreciate this is not a normal sort of thing to come away from a game with, but isn’t that just Snowrunner in general?
Anyway: most of the time the back window is just a back window. Through it you get a partial view of the truck interior – the dash, the seats, a guy at the wheel trying to stay in control. But then the truck jounces and rolls and lists and yaws and that window catches the light a certain way. Suddenly, the texture! The glass is not just something you look through but something you look at – it’s covered with a fine layer of sprayed mud, tiny particles of the stuff, and it almost looks like someone’s tried to wipe all the grot off it before moving on to better things.
Details matter in Snowrunner. They matter because, like Spintires, the origin story of this strange and wonderful series, you have time to notice the details. It’s not that you’re up close as such, but more that the landscape moves past you at about two miles an hour, and that’s when things are going well. This is a game about being stuck right in the moment – often a moment in which you’re stuck, right, in the mud. You get time to see the breeze in the trees, the speckles of the earth, and the smear on the surface of a window.
Spintires! That was a game! Soviet trucks stuck in the earth and often not moving very far at all. If Ridge Racer is all about ghosting around that first air-cushioned curve as a jumbo takes off overhead, Spintires was all about fighting your way up an extremely modest incline and then finding your tires sinking into the mud and moss at the top. Wheels weren’t for moving forward so much as they were for churning you deeper into the ground. It was a driving game about being heavy, about inertia. It was a waft of gritty incense directed at Sisyphus.
Compared to Spintires, Snowrunner, like Mudrunner before it, is practically a radio-friendly unit-shifter. After about a minute of play in the opening Michigan section, I’d actually started moving forward! Moments later, whisper it, there was tarmac under my wheels. Tarmac! I skipped Mudrunner, so Snowrunner came as something of a shock. So forgiving! So eager to please! So ingratiating! Look! I’ve travelled 50 meters without blowing my engine to fragments. It’s only half-ruined!
Obviously this is all relative. While I was cruising along at great speed in Mudrunner, which meant that I was only watching a single tree move past my window for five minutes or so, I got a text from a friend who was jumping into Snowrunner totally cold, as it were. “Is there, like, a button for going fast?” he asked. No, friend. There is not a button for going fast. And you shouldn’t want one. Blocked and reported.
Spintires felt like proper outsider art. The mud was thoughtfully, obsessively modelled and thoroughly convincing, but the rest of the game was a glorious ramshackle thing indeed. You made your own fun, which is actually the greatest compliment you can pay a game, but whatever. What I’m getting at, I think, is that Snowrunner, like Mudrunner, sees the series shedding a little of its outsider appeal. It’s no longer a mouthful of ulcers from start to finish. But it’s also a long way from being Burnout.
I’ve had amazing fun so far. The Michigan starting area is filled with classic Spintires stuff: mud and gravel and mud with gravel in it. You tootle around very slowly, using 4WD or low-gear mode or both when you get really struck, trading extra fuel for traction. There’s a bit of a story about a flood that’s ravaged the place but it’s just an excuse for simple jobs – fix a bridge, ford a river, carry this heavy stuff from here to there. You earn money and unlock trucks. The Americana is of the rusty, threadbare sort. The FM radio has the tang and twinge of AM. The businesses on main street all look like they’ve had their insides eaten away by Wal-Mart.
God it’s lovely in its barrenness, its sagging loneliness. Just you and an expanding roster of trucks. Just you and jobs. Just you and your winch to get you out of trouble, you and a churning river you cannot get across, you and a moment of hardwon progress as you spy, on the map, a dirt path that might take you around the river and right to the embrace of an Ed Hurley-style gas station.
The Snow part of Snowrunner crops up after you’ve got used to Michigan. Suddenly we’re off to Alaska, where the rusty landscape is now frozen, bisected by oil pipelines and filled with teetering firs. The mud’s still there, but it’s often covered with thick snow, so that’s two things to sink into at once. There’s also ice of various flavours – thin and deadly on the road, absolute carnage if you venture onto the thick, cracking surface of a frozen river. After not moving at all, suddenly you’re moving too far. We had a cat with arthritis once and my mum foolishly had the floorboards in the hallway varnished. This cat would leave a room moving forwards and then hit the floorboards and go sideways for a little while before coming to a stately rest in the middle of nowhere, totally unable to move or get any traction. It was horrible for the cat – I think we gave in and unvarnished everything – but it’s brilliant in Snowrunner because it’s a new kind of disaster to think about.
More than the actual mechanics offered by the snow, though, Alaska does something magical to this game. It gives its knockabout exterior a coating of pure Kubrick white. It makes the whole thing crystalline and austere.
This is the secret, I think. Spintires, a series about cars so toxic and mechanical that many of them have little factory chimneys stuck to the sides, is actually a game about nature. It is great to be in nature here, whether it’s leaf-strewn Michigan giving way to autumn or sparkling, clear-aired Alaska, where you can turn off the engine when you’re terminally stuck and just look at the trees, the powder all around, the absolute silence riding the air.
Beyond Alaska I gather Siberia awaits. I will work my way there, no doubt, one mindless freighting job and vehicle purchase at a time. But I will not be getting there quickly. This is a game about wallowing and loving the act of wallowing. It’s a game about getting stuck and then enjoying the view. And there is no button for going fast.