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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.

Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.

Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.

Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.