Train Simulator

All you had to do was drive the damn train, CJ.

Secret Santa. The frustration of trying to work out who in the hell Barbra is. Getting the guy who no one knows what they’re into. Or getting the boss. Its fraught, but there's the opening of the tat you were given, realising no one at work knows you - or worse, something so on-the-nose they know you too well. This year I got Train Simulator: London to Brighton - my daily commute. I guess all I talk about in the office is gaming and Southern Fail. Well played Barbra.

I’ve always avoided those games like a plague sim. I don’t understand why anyone would want to play something real. I get realism, but I game to be better than I am in the real world (and avoid it); why would I spend my free time doing someone else’s job? I can’t imagine a worse game to play.

But … I have suffered at the hands of Southern Rail for a decade now; I know the announcements, the excuses, the world-weary sigh in the conductor’s voice as they announce the train is no longer in service. I am a Southern Fail ninja, leaping from platform to platform, hopping trains as the service crashes to its knees at the sight of a falling leaf. I’ve been cancelled, delayed, abandoned at places I’ve never heard of. I've missed connecting trains, parties, birthdays, films, gigs, restaurant bookings. I can't plan anything when Southern are involved; my homepage is their delay-repay. I have a “I survived the Southern strikes” t-shirt. Southern is so bad they have to be some sort of Government sociological test like MK Ultra or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. To actually spend free time playing as Southern is an insult, like the FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS A YEAR I PAY FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF TRAVELLING ON - And yet … what I have here is a chance to prove Southern can’t run a rail network; that it is as easy as it looks. I was once delayed for a total of 48 hours over a single month; enough to claim I was a missing person.

I am instantly in the mindset of Southern; I have no idea what I’m doing. There’s a HUD and the actual controls, but once past the tutorial (okay, I may have skipped most of the tutorial) and realising I can’t re-bind the keys, Driver FBT is just pressing everything to see what happens. Ohh train whistle! Toot Toot! I got this. I find the button to change view and lean out the window. The platform is basic, and there’s nowhere near the number of passengers usually at Victoria; aggravated commuters mixed with flight-missing tourists who have no idea what “train displacement" means. It’s a fairly accurate representation of Victoria though, even down to the lack of platform staff or helpful info.

My train is announced and my passengers saunter up to the doors; boarding a Southern train is usually like a scene from World War Z but here they hang around passively. Oh yeah, the doors. Which key is it? One Google later and I have it. It’s the T key. Not D for doors. This being Southern I expected it to be C for ‘Cattle’ or some other C word. I check in on the passengers. There’s seats to spare! This isn’t realistic of Southern at all. Normally you’re so crushed together someone’s pregnant by Three Bridges. After lots of knob twiddling and pressing things, we rumble out the station. We’re off!

Southern commuters have a Bingo game; will it be congestion, 'overrunning engineering works', an ‘earlier incident’, 'operator error', a vague ‘disruption’ or the dog-ate-my-homework classic, 'signal failure'? Yesterday it was the two-year-old announcement of Temporary Staff Shortages. Not on this train buster, this train will not be delayed. Even if it briefly starts going backwards and I get an emergency break alert. All right, we all make mistakes. Or ‘Operator Error’ as it’s called. So that’s what that means. Scary stuff. This game is giving me Siderodromophobia. AKA Southernphobia.

The game does reconstruct the journey incredibly well; the view from the windows is spot on, although it’s very 2002 graphically – fitting, that’s the last time Southern had a train on time. I’m kidding; they never had a train on time. I wonder if my real fellow passengers are confused by my laptop screen showing their commute – nope, they have the same listless, thousand-yard stare of my digital passengers; this is your life, and it’s ending one Southern delay at a time. Developers Dovetail Games got the Southern experience spot on.

My real train is delayed because we’re behind a ‘stopping service’. I on the other hand am blasting through the route. I’m ahead of myself. Wait, was I supposed to stop at Clapham? I hunt for a skip mission or speed up button, but this is real life. Real time. Real boring. There’s nothing to do. Oh East Croydon! As I slow down I realise it’s not going to happen. We screech past and I’m warned I’ve missed a station. Minutes later, while searching for the button to turn on the lights I run a red signal; Another Operator Fail – I’m fired. The union takes up my case, the whole network goes on strike. I’m reinstated. Bless the Union.

After several more operator errors, including trying to back the train up after I miss East Croydon again (it creeps up on you), I’m still determined to get to Brighton. I realise this is the first gaming experience where I have to behave and that’s hard to do, but after a while I start to get into it; there are challenges, there’s a lot to being a driver. Actually, there isn’t, the biggest challenge is not mucking about. Really, it’s stop in time and stay within the speed limit – which is interesting; on Southern’s Brighton route you get bounced about so much it’s like being on the Vomit Comet; I have gone Zero-G around Hayward’s Heath, but they insist it’s within speed limits; I was told not to sit ‘over the wheels’ if I wanted a comfier ride. What the hell kind of advice is that?! But here, whenever I get above 80 the train lurches and I get a speed warning. Suspect. I trust a computer game more than Southern.

"'Do not lean out of the window'. I wonder why?"

It’s fair to say that some of my befuddlement and red-light running is caused by the confusing controls; at times it’s maddening. I spent most of the time with my head stuck out the window like a dog. V is for Window Wipers; what was wrong with W? But, ignoring the messy control system and basic design, Train Sim is surprisingly realistic - except the toilets, where by accidentally clipping through the door, I find a fully clothed man sat on the loo; that weird - like any of the toilets work on Southern. But it's strangely compelling, after a while I find myself totally into it; it becomes a point of pride to hit the stations bang on time, keep on schedule. Once I’m out of the city and barrelling along I enjoy myself. It’s not fun in the traditional gaming sense and I’m not a sim convert - I still try to crash it and misbehave, closing the doors before the passengers can board, but that’s me gaining a Southern attitude, not the GTA in me - when I reach Brighton I honestly feel like I accomplished something. I’m weirdly proud to watch my pissed off, plans-ruined passengers disembark. Some of that enjoyment might be down to the familiarity of the route, and the fact that unlike Southern, I actually want to get me home.

Dovetail could have made a Sim based purely on Southern’s management; choosing when to blame Network Rail or Thameslink, timing cancelling a service just after the next one leaves, or once it’s full, claiming it was wrong kind of rain on the track, or the wrong kind of track, last minute alterations, diverting trains, not assigning a driver, sending people to the wrong platform; as a Southern Sim it would be more realistic to stop passengers reaching their destination, but Train Sim isn’t a Passenger sim, it’s genuinely trying to give you the train driver experience. It may be a budget game, but there’s a lot of options, including events that cause changes to the route, weather, seasons, journey options and trains other than Southern’s Cattlecarts, as well as challenges and an editor.

I appreciate what Sims do now; the same as any other game - let people experience something they admire or may never get to do in the real world. For some, that’s driving a train not beating a Boss. I did get a train from London to Brighton and it wasn’t delayed. It really isn’t that hard Southern. I actually learnt a thing or two about trains, tracks and train management too; I’ll be using those in my next Delay Repay claim. Thanks Barbra.

2015 | Developer, Dovetail Games | Publisher Dovetail Games

Platforms; Win