[Note: at the time of writing, Jalopy went under the working title HAC. The article has been updated to reflect the new name.]
Although in recent times I have alluded to sim racing as a whole being in pretty rude health, said health perhaps covers quality and quantity if not diversity. All of the big sim racing titles bring their own unique properties and qualities (along with faults and shortcomings) to the table, and are clearly different enough to divide opinion. But it could be argued that there isn’t a huge amount of variety right now within the sim market.
Predominantly, this is a by-product of the ever-increasing content rosters forcing overlap between titles. When Grand Prix Legends came out, it was completely different by virtue of featuring period content. That very same content (or at least a sample of it) now appears in a number of today’s titles, along with all the other usual suspects. We’ve seen that Reiza have been able to demonstrate the ability to tap into lesser known subject matter, though most sim racing titles are generally rather homogeneous on this front.
But a title isn’t just defined by its content; how it delivers that content, and what it allows you to do with it, is what shapes the experience. It’s true that all of the big titles certainly differ, but I don’t think it’s being unfair to say there is a certain lack of creativity or originality when it comes to driving sims. That isn’t as much of a criticism as it might sound; what creators are doing is developing and evolving a certain type of title, a certain type of experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But again, we see from the evidence a considerable level of uniformity across the board.
I have long craved for some extra attention to be lavished upon the vehicles found within our simulations, and with it a shift in emphasis and direction from pure lap times to an element of existence and persistence within a virtual world.
One title taking the driving simulator and turning it on its head is Jalopy (formally HAC). Aside from the stylised visuals and presentation, Jalopy is doing something that few vehicle based titles to date have done: shifting the emphasis from getting from one place to another as quickly as possible, to the journey itself.
So what is Jalopy exactly? At first glance, a classical genre-centric, and perhaps slightly lazy, description of Jalopy would be a merging of RPG elements, A-to-B driving dynamics, and deep lying elements of vehicle simulation. For a better explanation, Jalopy’s developer Greg Pryjmachuk explains:
“I’d describe Jalopy as an immersive road-trip simulation game. There’s elements from RPG games like ‘Borderlands’ with the ability to ‘gear’ the car with improved components. There’s elements from survival games with scavenging for fuel, water, repair kits, etc. There’s procedurally generated elements from rogue-likes like ‘The Binding of Isaac’ with both town and the routes between them being generated at runtime. There’s also simulated elements in there, with the fuel consumption, tyre grip, component conditions, water level, battery charge, weight, etc. all defining how the car performs. And then there’s even a little narrative in there that you can choose to investigate further.”
As mentioned, Jalopy adds something unfamiliar to the driving sim: narrative. Whilst some titles have flirted with this to varying degrees (perhaps most notably in Codemaster’s career modes), the driving titles covered on this site typically start and finish with the car and a track, and not a lot else. netKar Pro’s “Doom mode” added an extra level of immersion by allowing the driver to exit the car and explore the surroundings on foot, but it was ultimately a fairly superficial, though not unwelcome, addition to the sim. But that is a long way short of providing a context, a story, a reason or a purpose to be driving in the first place. Jalopy is pushing the limits and boundaries we are used to seeing in driving games, though this wasn’t explicitly the goal for the title:
“I wouldn’t say I’m trying to define genre limits, the project originally started as me wanting to do something like ‘Gone Home’ in a ‘Euro Truck Simulator’ setting, and it’s gradually evolved into a big, comfy road-trip simulator.“
“Evolving” seems to be an important word when it comes to Jalopy’s gestation and development. From the way Pryjmachuk codes and implements ideas to the broader direction the title has taken, it has been one of natural evolution and change rather than meticulous planning and regimented execution.
“I’d say it’s all a pretty natural process, I don’t use paper design except for tracking statistical stuff and task-lists. Some of the really off the cuff design is my favourite, like recently I’ve started thinking about a gating system for scavenging, where different gates would require different tools to open, anything from a crowbar for breaking a lock or the car jack to lift a shutter to using the battery of your car to open an electrical gate.
The best additions to Jalopy have been stuff I’ve just bashed out and then refined later on. I think it was Kerouac who said “something you feel will find it’s own form” and I like that crazy bum, I mean he wrote ‘On the road’ which is like the travel bible so he must have done something right.”
A large part of this approach lies in stark contrast to Pryjmachuk’s past development career, which saw him work for a number of years at Codemasters developing their F1 series of games.
“The process of working on the F1 games, or any mid sized studio, is weird because you have so many ideas of what making games in team is like and it ends up mostly just being a whole lot of meetings and paper design. I’m not really one for paper design, I think it’s pretty worthless with how quick you can prototype stuff these days, but the thing with working in a corporate studio is you need to convince producers the value of something. That’s all paper design is for me, a big sales pitch, coders don’t ever read them because why would they when they can just walk up to you and ask how to implement something?”
Having the freedom to make games for himself, and not being solely motivated by the commercial requirements and deadline demands of a large development team in a big publisher, have clearly lead to a very different kind of game and player experience. Again, Jalopy as it stands wasn’t always the dream or the plan, but rather it is the result of a process:
“I wouldn’t say it’s the game I’ve always wanted to make, but I’m now finally making games with the sensibilities I’ve always wanted. I love road trips but I’d never thought about how that could be a game of sorts till I’d worked at Codies long enough to be desperate for a change.
And yeah, I guess Jalopy is very much an antithesis to those F1 games I was a part of. Rather than driving the premier in Motorsports engineering, your driving a scrappy little 2-stroke. Rather than throwing your engineering around the tax-dodging haven’s of Monaco, you’re pottering through the crumbling socialist states of East Germany, ČSFR, Yugoslavia, etc. On paper, Jalopy sounds so boring in comparison to F1, but I think the values in the execution of things, ideas are overrated.”
As I have read more about Jalopy and its development, and in speaking with Pryjmachuk, I find myself in the unusual but nice position of really not knowing what to expect from the experience. For all the developments and improvements over the years, if you look at any of the main driving titles the unanswered questions before driving for yourself is usually a simple “How good is it?”; there’s typically very little in the way of surprise or discovery but for at the level of subtle driving dynamics and performance. As someone who drives and enjoys driving, the simple fact is that the pleasure I derive from driving is not out on a track, it isn’t racing or trying to beat the clock. The pleasure comes from both the driving experience itself, but also from the context; where am I going, what am I doing, why am I doing it etc. These are notions that few driving titles ever really touch upon, and those that do are usually within the confines of a workplace scenario (for example the likes of OMSI and ETS2).
Jalopy is clearly aiming to deliver on both of these fronts: the driving experience in itself, and also a broader, more holistic experiences of car ownership and making a journey. So first of all, what might the driving itself offer? If Jalopy is a journey simulator, is it also a driving simulator?
“The simulation stuff for the car depends on a bunch of factors. For example, we get the car’s fuel consumption rate from the quality and condition of the carburettor, the weight of the car the level of torque exerted and even the fuel mixture (The car is based on the old Trabants of East Germany which used 2-stroke engines).
Each component under the hood has a unique effect on the car. Some components don’t appear to have a direct effect on performance, like the air filter for example, which reduces the rate at which the engine will wear, but a mindful driver will know that the weight of each component also affects the car’s performance, and will keep a look out for a lighter air filter where possible.
The simulations aren’t all number based as such, I’m looking to put in components with unique properties in the future. Right now my minds drawn to typical travel gear; a roof rack which doubles your trunk and spare tyre space, or even something like mud flaps, which reduce the dirt accumulation on the car.
I’m keen to express this is a game about car travel, rather than car performance. While you can certainly develop your scrappy 2-stroke into a bit of a beast, it’s still a 2-stroke car, so expect some performance issues and constant love and understanding towards it. The joy’s in getting through the journey with your car, rather than just simply in it.”
Returning to the narrative element Jalopy adds to your journey, much of this is provided by your in-trip companion: your elder uncle. Anyone who has made a road trip will likely know that the most memorable and meaningful adventures include the company as a part of the context and experience. Pryjmachuk is no exception:
“I don’t think any road trip is complete without someone to share it with. I was originally worried the story would remove some agency from the game, I’ve actually embraced it and now found the opposite. So, the story is told entirely through your uncle, who you’re sharing the journey with, through dialogue and his letters. Rather than have a hard fail or win state, I wanted something more forgiving but equally reactive to a game over screen, which I feel is a bit of a hangover from the arcade era of games we’re still clutching onto. So, rather than saying at any point “game over, you ran out of fuel”, we use the Uncle, and change the relationship with him based on factors like this. Run out of fuel, then you’re uncle will leave you in the car and walk off to a petrol station, we flash time forward and have him bring back some fuel during the night. You can now resume your journey, but at the cost of the Uncle not opening up to you and cutting some narrative threads, and, more mechanically, arriving at the next town during the night, which will mean the shops and mechanics will be closed.”
The inclusion of a companion, and the role they play within the experience, is nothing new to computer games at large. In this respect, Jalopy is treading paths that aren’t necessarily ground breaking or novel in themselves. But within such a context, and within such an experience, nothing springs to mind which has attempted to deliver on such a scenario when it comes to driving a simulated car.
This is in stark contrast to the typical driving title experience. Outside the likes of the Grand Theft Auto series, it is usually a case of “you and the road”. How well this all works and holds together will remain to be seen, and despite the unusual setting, it’s the same sort of tweaking, tuning and balancing that any other game that provides a sidekick will need to deal with (Half Life 2 and Resident Evil 4 being two great examples where my feelings towards my in-game company have contrasted markedly – just piss off Ashley!). For those fearing that someone else imposing on your road trip might somehow spoil the experience, Pryjmachuk seems fully aware of the potential consequences:
As a developer, I think you have to be careful not to take control away and force something on players. I want to tell a personal story, but I fully understand that if it’s not working for someone, they can quite easily leave it at the sidelines.
As mentioned previously, the title and its content have seen significant changes over the course of its development (see here for weekly development updates that detail the changes and decisions behind them). When you start making a game following more a “feeling” than a concrete game design specification, that is not unsurprising. In terms of where the title now stands, the foundations are in place and no doubt other things will change as development continues:
“The core loop’s nearly there. You can get from A to B between each country easy enough, the problem now is adding in a comfortable enough level of challenge, and providing enough reason to be travelling between these locations. I’m pretty set on two solutions I have to make it worth your time, one being the narrative elements, the other being self-development of both in the car and another location I’m not ready to reveal just yet.”
Quite how the development pans out, and what that means for the player and the final experience, remains to be seen. Jalopy is certainly atypical of the content normally featured on this site, and for those wanting “<conventional sim> in open world setting”, Jalopy may not be that title. However, as a car fan (real world and simulated), and as someone who feels there are lots of directions with plenty of room for today’s crop of titles to expand into, I wholly welcome someone taking the driving genre and doing something novel and unique with it. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on developments. Oh, and it looks bloody gorgeous to my eyes.
I have no idea what getting into that 2-stroke Trabant and embarking on a journey will be like or quite what it will entail, but then that’s all part of the mystery, romance and adventure of a road trip.