Spintires is less about how thinks look, and more about how they respond to the player.
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Spintires: a deceptively simple game that turns mud, logs and trucks into an addictive narrative

In this game, driving between two points on the map in order to transport some logs becomes a gruelling, fascinating expedition.

Spintires is the sort of game that more games should strive to be. Hidden beneath a deceptively simple concept, driving big trucks through big mud, lurks a game that is at times challenging, dramatic, spectacular and even funny. It may also be, for nostalgia reasons, gripped and sorted. In an industry where developers will spend fortunes designing this year’s variation on the grizzled male protagonist  in order to achieve optimal penetration of the key demographic it is a pleasure to find a game that has been designed to be played rather than sold.

The premise of a game of Spintires is simple enough. On each level you have garages, lumber yards, refuelling stations and sawmills. The aim of the game is to start from your garage, collect logs from a lumber yard and take them to the sawmills. The trucks that you start with may not be fit for the task and so you might have to find and recover other trucks out in the world in order to do the job. Also much of the map is blacked out and must be revealed by locating things called cloaks that reveal areas of the map when removed. On paper this seems easy enough, and it would be if the game took place in a car park, however the maps of Spintires are absolutely brutal. This game is the Dark Souls of driving games.

Driving in Spintires is an inelegant process that takes a lot of getting used to, particularly as the camera controls can be frustrating. The trucks themselves are monstrous clanking, rattling beasts, belching out great gouts of exhaust fumes as they grumble through mud, foliage and water like dieselpunk dinosaurs. Their animations and textures are exquisitely detailed, capturing the instability of the vehicles with their high centres of gravity and huge squashy tyres as well as their propensity to get covered in muck. In spite of or even because of all this ungainliness the vehicles are huge fun to drive, skidding over what little tarmac can be found, accidentally squashing saplings and chewing up the ground like farm machines. Each of the vehicles handle quite differently from the others, the powerful eight wheelers can roll through almost any amount of mud for example, while the UAZ (think Russian jeep) has to take advantage of its ability to travel off the beaten path in order to avoid getting absorbed into the gloop.

The maps are the antagonists of Spintires. The serene Siberian forests with their babbling brooks and tranquil glades look almost idyllic at first, but the visuals of Spintires are less about what things look like and more about how they move and respond, as many of the terrain features will react badly to having a colossal Russian lorry rumble through them. A still image of the game cannot do justice to just how naturally things responds to contact, from the mesmeric way that water flows over tyres as you ford bodies of water to how the mud shifts and sticks under the weight of a loaded truck. The visuals are uniquely ambitious and that ambition pays off, particularly as it appears to all be so very well optimised.

The main weapon that the world of Spintires will hit your valiant trucks with is mud. Most of the pre-existing tracks through the maps in Spintires are muddy, and this isn’t ordinary mud. No, this is some deep, dark, rutted, slimy, suction mud from the devil’s own allotment. This stuff will try to eat your truck and so you have to avoid it as much as possible, which if you’re hauling cargo can be very difficult. If the mud gets you then you’ve got options, such as winching onto trees, or getting a friend to tow you along if you are playing multiplayer, or just abandoning the vehicle and pretending it was like that when you got there.

The mud does not work alone. Rocks can batter your truck. Water can flood your engine. Gravity can tip you over and spill your cargo, or just slam you down painfully if you go too fast over a rise. Fuel can run out. All these problems can strike alone or in combination, so that every journey out into the world is a battle of attrition. Whether you are scouting the world to remove the fogged out areas from the map screen or attempting to actually shift cargo damage mounts up, fuel is expended, and the risk of getting permanently stuck or flipped over is ever present. A simple drive between points on the map becomes an expedition.

This is an area where the game shines, creating a sense of adventure and the unknown. The game does not present you with a story, or sequential levels, or the usual trappings of a game structure – these elements form organically as you play. A session of Spintires is thus not without form or narrative. Dealing with an obstacle becomes a distinct block of play, where you assess the problem, tackle it and then feel ridiculously pleased with yourself until the next obstacle appears. As each obstacle is overcome these blocks of narrative thread together, so that what started as a plan to drive across the map to get logs becomes an epic saga of mud, sweat, toil and tears.

Success can be achieved by brute repetition in the lower difficulty setting where you can recover vehicles automatically. It is possible to fail completely in the hardcore difficulty, where immobilised vehicles have to be recovered using the rest of the fleet until you have nothing left.

As an indie title, and not a cheap one either, Spintires can look to be light on features, and though the original tech demo version of the game has hundreds of new vehicles modded into it, these have not yet made it across to the launch version. Elements like the dodgy camera and the lack of ability to save the progress of a multiplayer session, or join one in progress, undermine what is in most respects an extremely polished game. Fixes are promised and the way that the game is set up lends itself to easy expansion, so it looks likely that the developers will stick with it and flesh out these features over time, but there are no guarantees with future content. That said, it’s a great game even in spite of those limitations. The fact that it might actually get better is an added bonus.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder