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

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism