Since the dawn of 3D graphics, I’ve dreamt of a very specific sort of game; the road trip game. In those early days, the days of my pre-adolescence, I had no idea the limitations of the medium, nor any grasp on how a video game was constructed. Instead, when I saw Cruis’n USA for the first time, I believed it to be an unrestricted race across the whole United States — ripe for sightseeing — and not just a linear race past flat, 2D representations of famous landmarks. One could claim that I desired an N64 not for Super Mario 64, but for Pilotwings 64’s little USA map that let you roam a significantly condensed representation of the country. Indeed, even back in those days, I would land my gyrocopter on a highway and taxi it across the map at ground level to simulate the experience I was looking for. Flash forward nearly two decades and I’d be driving at ground level across the expansive map in Just Cause 2, still hoping for that feeling.
This may be a strange recollection, especially coming from someone who doesn’t drive, but it’s one that is central to my development as a video game hobbyist. In my youth, my family would take the typical Canadian migration and head south to Florida. Watching the journey from the back seat is an experience that sticks with me. Waking up and being in a new place, stepping out into the early morning, eating dinner under the yellow lights of some foreign restaurant, wearily reaching the safety of a motel each night; there’s a certain energizing confusion about the whole ordeal.
2016 brought the release of three games that I had greatly anticipated, each of which demonstrated that, perhaps, I’m not alone in my vision. Each, however, would follow their own approach to the subject matter, but would center around a car. The first game already saw its full release as Final Fantasy XV, a total bro-ad trip in a complete “My dad is a lawyer (or king, rather)” sort of car; one that screams affluence. It featured nightly lodging at motels and hotels, campfire cooked meals, and lots of sightseeing. Or at least half the game features that. The rest of the game railroads you (sometimes literally) through to the end at high speed, kicking all that road trip malarkey to the curb in favour of sending the whole crew into a custom-fit fate that the narrative failed to adequately lay out. The disappointment faced in the later chapters of the game is still felt, so let’s set it aside for now, and I’ll sort out those emotions later.
The two games hit Steam’s early access around 6 months apart of each other in 2016, Jalopy being out of the gate first. The game is set during the early 90’s after the fall of the Berlin wall. As the Eastern Bloc dissolves, your uncle wishes to return to his homeland of Turkey, and asks you to take him there. You depart Berlin in your Laika, a two-stroke heap of a car (based on the real-world Trabant) that has to be kept fueled and maintained along the way. You start the day by picking a procedurally created route to the border of the next country, and end it by checking in at the border town’s motel. As you travel, boxes containing an assortment of goods can be picked up at the side of the road and sold in shops, earning you money to upgrade and repair the Laika. Initially, it’s difficult to make it through more than a couple of countries before breaking down, but eventually, with the right upgrades, the entire journey can be completed in moderate comfort.
My Summer Car is more local. Taking place in a fictionalized chunk of 1995’s rural Finland, it centers around the life of a bored young man with absent parents. In the game’s current state, there is no defined objective, but you’re not left with much else to do aside from piecing together your Satsuma, a small coupe based off a Datsun 100A. While Jalopy’s Laika consists of a small handful of specialized parts that are easily slotted in and out, the Satsuma contains a dizzying number of components that have to be painstakingly assembled and carefully bolted together. It’s no easy feat, especially for someone, like myself, unfamiliar with the inner workings of an automobile. On the other hand, it’s far more satisfying to hear the engine turn over in the Satsuma for the first time than it is with the Laika, which is easily assembled during a tutorial. There is no such instruction within My Summer Car (at least there isn’t at time of writing), leaving it up to you to look up guides and how-to’s (none of which were available when I first assembled the car at the game’s launch).
There’s another layer to My Summer Car, which is survival. The survival genre has bloated out in the wake of Minecraft, now to the point where games with crafting and slowly depleting hunger bars have become a fixture in today’s PC climate. My Summer Car is special among these, as you merely struggle to survive rural life in the middle of nowhere. That’s easier said than done, as you’re left at the mercy of drunk drivers and the game’s own temperament. Death is standardly punished severely, forcing you to start from scratch each time. It can be harsh, but it demands that you get involved in the game’s mechanics.
THE SAME ROUTE TO DIFFERENT DESTINATIONS
The differences between the games are stark, but they demand comparison. The car, for example, comes front and center in both games, requiring that you care for it if you hope to reach your goals. Both mechanically and objective-wise, however, their purpose diverges. My Summer Car demands the maintenance of both your car and your person, whereas Jalopy omits any personal maintenance and instead focuses only on the car. Greg Pryjmachuk has acknowledged this difference directly, defending the omission as removing unnecessary bulk and that, in order to avoid boring or overwhelming the player, vehicular maintenance is the only survival needed. It’s a respectable focus, fitting of the game, but whether or not it’s the right choice will depend on the player.
My Summer Car, conversely, relishes in such mundanity, offering no apologies for forcing the player to make the trek to the far reaches of the map to get gas and groceries. You have to manage stress, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, and it’s up to you to keep a case of beer nearby if you want to survive. A lot of time is spent traveling empty stretches of dirt road, kept interesting only by the danger posed by every tree at the edge of the path. Unlike Jalopy’s mystery boxes that lie on the side of the road, full of salable items, you’re expected to work for your money. This takes the form of various odd jobs, such as septic sucking and chopping firewood. These aren’t small mini-games, either, as you’re required to carry out every action yourself, so you will certainly have to wait while the septic well empties. For a game that can, at times, be chaotic and bizarre, My Summer Car has a rigid devotion to realism.
BEHIND THE STEERING WHEEL
The difference in approach is the only thing that really separates these games, but that divergence makes a massive impact. Greg Pryjmachuk is an efficient and professional developer, carefully tempering his expectations and ambitions. He seems to know exactly what his limitations are and builds with them in mind. Everything fits together solidly, and the result is something that, even in this early state, feels polished and stable. My Summer Car is the opposite of that, but seems to equally depict the mind of its creator. Johannes Rojola is an extremely capable developer, but he doesn’t seem to care how well the individual mechanics of his game fit together, and he doesn’t make any apologies when his ambitions don’t mesh with reality. As such, almost every facet of the game is loose and wobbly. Clipping will lead to objects being dropped by the roadside and wonky Unity Engine physics result in bizarre instances where your car will react to subtle pressure by flipping end-over-end. His method for addressing these oddities is a series of checks and leniencies. For example, when an object that passes into the game world and vanishes to the ether, it will pop back up in the junk yard.
This is again represented by the two games’ visuals. Jalopy demonstrates a stylized, minimalist art-style whose chunky polygons seem custom built to be easily managed by one artist. It’s modestly attractive, being clean and simple. My Summer Car is similar in that its artstyle is designed to be managed by one artist, but rather than stylize it, Rojola instead embraces its amateur ugliness. The cars that you drive and construct are detailed, but the people are oddly proportioned in an almost freaky way. Likewise, the environments are detailed and varied, but extraordinarily ugly with angular terrain and flat, oddly cropped trees. Its awkwardness merely adds to the charm, portraying the weirdness of the world in an honest way.
Both games include their own radio music, commissioned specifically for the games by their developers. Pryjmachuk’s selection are a variety of 80’s style synth tracks that pleasingly melt into the background, while the oddball ensemble brought together by Rojola is a clash of barely listenable “shit music” and charmingly awkward pop. Once again, both approaches perfectly represent the games that feature them, as well as the attitude of the developers. Jalopy wants to make sure you’re comfortable, while My Summer Car gives a mischievous grin and says, “hey, man, check this out.”
HEAD ON COLLISION
I don’t recall how they entered my radar, probably through some other indie developer giving them a shoutout, but in both cases, I immediately glued myself to their developers’ feeds, hungry for new information about the games. My Summer Car presented the longest wait; originally being casually slated for Summer 2015, before quietly slipping back, as indie games often do. Jalopy, on the other hand, was efficiently developed to a playable state within two years, and received near-monthly updates after that.
The release of My Summer Car was disheartening for Greg Pryjmachuk. Upon its release, it quickly rose to nearly three times the sales numbers of his Jalopy, which was otherwise starting to languish. Its chaotic gameplay resonated more with the meme thirsty Twitch crowd than the more subdued Jalopy, and that reflected in how the games captured the attention of the masses. Pryjmachuk has also found frustration in his own playerbase, finding that Steam reviews often seemed unfairly negative about his fairly regular update schedule. Pleasing the early access crowd seems to be an impossible task, even for someone as devoted to communication and honesty as he. The gameplay of My Summer Car, on the other hand, seems to attract the sort of audience that shuts out dissidents, scaring away anyone who habitually complains about the state of things.
For Greg Pryjmachuk, however, the ordeal has been a loss. As Jalopy rattles its way to the end of Early Access, he’s basically already started performing the autopsy. He’s publicly stated that by every metric, My Summer Car is a better game than his own; garnering better sales and a better reception. That’s not to say he’s bitter, or if he is, he hasn’t shown it, nor has his acceptance of the perceived defeat affected the quality of the game. The results from Jalopy just haven’t met his vision for the game, and he makes no secret on that.
For me, however, and for the purposes of this article, I don’t really care which is the better game, as my library has been notably deficient in experiences like My Summer Car and Jalopy, and I’ll continue to hungrily devour them, as I already have. I’ve waited a long time for these games to come along, and there’s certainly room in my heart for both of them. I’m happy regardless of whether I’m behind the wheel of a Satsuma or a Laika, and even while I wait for the full release of both games, I also look forward to what comes next from Pryjmachuk and Rojola; two developers I admire for different reasons. I also hope these games don’t represent the peak of the road trip sub-genre, as there is no doubt many more kilometers of road left before I find what I’m looking for.
Both games were purchased from Steam by the author. They have had no prior communication with either developer.