Jalopy: Car as Companion
Jalopy's a really cool game, and I'm glad that I finally get to talk about it! If this video got you interested in slowly driving to a place, check it out on Steam: ... The driving game genre isn’t exactly one that appeals to me.
I mean I understand the appeal; going fast, good graphics, uhh.. going fast? But that doesn’t exactly get my engines rumbling. The thing that appeals to me about driving in video games is how it can emulate regular driving. Those quiet drives early in the morning or through a wooded area or just on a dark, rainy night. Need for Speed is cool, Burnout is cool, but Jalopy? Jalopy is what I want in a game about driving. Jalopy is the closest thing to a road-trip simulator that I’ve ever played, and that’s exactly what I want. It’s just a game about going from city to city under different terrain and weather conditions in your Uncle’s old, beat up car. And the driving is genuinely calming. The sound of rain pitter pattering on your roof, the tinny radio, it all makes for a genuinely atmospheric experience. But that’s not to say that the game is all about blankly staring out a window as you make your way to the next destination. You’ll spend a lot of time in the game repairing the engine, picking up things off the road to sell, refilling the gas tank, and sleeping in motels, and if you think “Well that’s not very exciting.” You’d be right - but it’s not supposed to be. What I think makes Jalopy so interesting to me, is that it’s only focus is on you and the car. The game does take place in the recently disbanded Eastern bloc of Europe so there’s a bit of military and political pressure going on, but it’s never the focus. No, the core of the game is just about driving and maintaining this old fictional Laiki 601 Deluxe. You’ll spend hours fighting with the limited trunk space trying to store things in there to sell so you can improve the car. You’ll need to clean it, refuel it, repair it, make sure it has the right amount of oil, change the tires based on driving conditions you’re going to run into. In a weird way it’s almost like the car is a companion similar, in a lot of ways,
to The Last Guardian’s Trico, except the whole bird-dog thing it’s got going on. You have to make sure both have their needs met, you need to take care of them, and most importantly, you need both to proceed. In The Last Guardian you need Trico to go places that you can’t without your giant pet, and In Jalopy, you can’t just get out and keep on playing as if the car isn’t even there - you need it to proceed through each city - and you can’t just steal someone else’s car; this is the only one you’ve got. So when you inevitably run out of gas in the middle of your journey and have none left in the trunk, you can either “return home” and redo your trip from the start, or haul ass to the gas station and walk a tank back. As reluctant as you might be to walk however far in either direction to get gas or a new tire, you have to if you want to make it to the next city on your trip. You’re stuck in this almost symbiotic relationship where you and your crappy Laika 601 Deluxe are reliant on each other to survive and thrive. And that’s sort of antithetical to the idea of “the car” in the vast majority of games that contain or center around driving. The cars you find are just vessels - tools - their sole purpose being to support you in reaching whatever your weird goal might be for the time being. If they break down, you can spend a little money (or none at all depending on the game) to instantly fix them. And if you can’t fix them, you can usually - very easily - get a new one. That’s not a bash on these games, though, they’re not designed to attach you to a single car, so of course they don’t. Games like Grand Theft Auto, The Crew, and racing games like GRID 2 and Burnout Paradise are focused on letting you go as fast as you can while driving. They’re not concerned with your attachment to the vehicle or its well-being because all of that gets in the way of going fast. But Jalopy foregoes that methodology, it forces you to respect your vehicle even if it is a bit of a pain sometimes. You’re required to be the caregiver for the car in a weird way, which is why the tutorial
doesn’t teach you how to drive, but instead how to repair the car. Of course the process is super boiled down, but the point of repairing the car isn’t to show your mechanic skills, but rather to actively engage the player in the act of taking care of the vehicle. It’s not an instantaneous process where you drive through a repair shop or lay down some cash, you have to do it yourself. Same goes for upgrading and customizing your car, and while there are ways to make your car slightly more durable or faster, all of those changes don’t make the car impervious. If you warp back home you don’t get to instantly have all your parts that you spent so much time and money gathering brought back to perfect condition, you still need to repair things if you don’t want to have wasted all your time. All of that makes for a unique experience, one that asks you to connect with a vehicle in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever felt in another game. Now, Jalopy is still in Early Access so a lot of what I’m talking about could change, The developer has stated that he wants to add more story elements in the near future, and I welcome them, but just what this pre-alpha state of the game has on offer is something that I deeply appreciate. Having that level of a connection with your car, one that almost perfectly represents the experience of driving your first clunker for days and days across the country, is something that I’ve wanted for a long time. Being able to build a connection with a vehicle. To be able to launch the game months later and remember all of the stuff that I did in this exact car, the times I had to push it back onto the road or the time I ran out of gas right at the end of my trip with two cars piled up behind me, or when I saw a bunch of cars just, sitting there on the road together. All of those memories, all of them happened in this one car.