Where We Discover I Can’t Drive a Train (and Musings on Simulators)

Dear gods, the dials...and levers...

Between some looming RL deadlines coming up in a week, Guild Wars 2 Final Beta Weekend, and Steam Summer sales, I find myself distracted from being able to put in sufficient time with The Secret World.

It’ll keep.

Meanwhile, here’s an interim post about me test driving Train Simulator 2012 – something I picked up for the hell of it while it was at 90% off.

Simulation games deeply fascinate me with their intense focus on simulating something as close to reality as possible. I also suck at pretty much all of them. Something about not reading the effing manual, I think, nor giving myself time enough to learn all the controls and nuances.

I used to be much better when I was younger – I recall hours and hours on the Amiga playing Silent Hunter, a submarine sim, or Gunship, a helicopter sim, or F-16 Combat Pilot. I think I even gave Flight Simulator a go, though I never quite saw the point in those days of playing something without any missiles. What? Just transport people around from place to place? How boring is that, like a glorified bus driver?

(Then I found a book about Flight Simulator adventures, and Threading The Seattle Space Needle sounded immensely fun…)

Of course, as a kid, the one thing I could never figure out was how to land the fucking airplane without crashing.

(Nor did the virtual Needle ever survive my attempts to fly through it.)

Oops.

I didn’t read the manual then in those days either.

Nor did I really understand all the stuff on the HUD besides basic radar and what weapons were selected. I pretty much just treated the games like toys and had my fun with them regardless, even if true sim grognards would be recoiling in horror.

That is, until an adult neighbor came by for a visit and by chance, I happened to be fooling around with a flight sim. He also happened to be a real pilot.

Intrigued by the realization that personal computers were actually sophisticated enough to run sims (presumably he was more used to practising with full scale aircraft simulator equipment), he asked for a turn with the joystick. While explaining what little keyboard controls I had discovered by trial and error to him, I confessed I had no clue what the hell all the other dials and knobs and lines were, nor could I ever master landing planes.

Laughing, he opened my eyes to the depth of the simulation, “it’s just like a real plane” and explained every single dial, altitude control and what not, while I attempted to pick my jaw off the floor and absorb even a smidgen of the information he was imparting so matter-of-factly. Then he promptly demonstrated landing the plane safe and soundly. He’d barely touched the game for five minutes.

Dayum. (Well, considering he landed real passenger planes as his job, he’d -better- know how to land the things smoothly without a hitch, but as a kid, it knocked my socks off at the time.)

And so began my unrequited love affair with simulator games. (I’d like to get to know them better and they slap me in the face, pretty much.)

First things first, this is -not- a review of Train Simulator 2012. Nor is it a first impressions post. It is the ‘first post’ diary of a complete and utter newbie to trains.

(They’re not really my thing. I go for tanks, battleships, gunships, submarines, infantry, airplanes, cars, trains, pretty much in that order. Mechs, spaceships and weird shit like farming or janitorial implements and construction equipment not included in the above rankings.)

The good news, I found, is that it actually has tutorial missions.

 

The first tutorial explains the simplified controls (another plus!), which basically consisted of a lever to work up and down (up for more acceleration, and down for deceleration) and a button to push to determine if you were going in forward or reverse.

Phew. I can handle that. Thanks for remembering the newbies, developers!

It explains the portion of the interface which shows where your train is in relation to the track, including the destination where you’re trying to stop at, the speed limit indicator, and passenger boarding.

Already, trying to predict and apply the appropriate acceleration/deceleration rate to stop a heavy mass like a train on what essentially seemed like a dime (but was in virtual reality, a station) was proving a challenge worthy of my nub lack of skillz.

I got through the first tutorial, albeit with some embarrassed reversing as I overshot the target, and a new appreciation for subway train drivers, even if most of the trains in my country are completely automated and driverless or run with ATO and a human operator for safety.

Having gotten more or less a grasp on the basics, I decided to try out a scenario with simplified controls for fun. There was a huge list of them, neatly sortable by the type of train or the route, and helpfully labeled with difficulty level and the expected time to complete (some of them running in the hours! Eep.)

Easy difficulty level went without saying for the noob. I was debating between the shortest two, 15 and 20 minutes, when a Coals to Newcastle mission caught my eye. 30 minutes.

Extremely tickled by the phrase, and the historical link, and with Sting’s Soul Cages and Island of Souls echoing in my brain, I went for it – though I was anticipating a good half hour of extreme boredom since this -was- easy difficulty level, on simplified controls.

I figured I could always try to roleplay it to kill time. (“Roleplay” is used in the sense of this article, which has an amazing paragraph on how you can even roleplay while playing Solitaire.

So how the heck do you roleplay while playing solitaire? There are no adventures or quests in a game of solitaire, no puzzles to solve, no dragons to slay, no princesses to rescue, no character attributes to build up – in short, none of the things we’d expect to find in an RPG. Well, in this type of situation, you have to roleplay in your mind. For example, you might put yourself in the role of a World War II Allied pilot who has been shot down and captured. Now, you’re in a prison camp. You’ve just been thrown into a solitary confinement cell for complaining about not getting enough food. It’s pretty dark, but a bit of light does manage to get in through the small slit window. And when the guards threw you in, they were laughing too hard or they were too lazy to bother searching you. As the result of this great stroke of luck, they didn’t find the dog- eared deck of playing cards that was in your pocket when they came for you. So you play solitaire. You play quietly so as not to alert the guards. And you play with a quiet desperation, not merely to entertain yourself, but to stave off the pangs of hunger – you’re getting even less to eat now – and to maintain your sanity.)

The briefing sets you in the mood already. It’s winter, there’s strikes happening all over, a backlog of freight to clear, and your job is to haul a load of coal to be transferred to a waiting ship. On time, or you won’t have a loading bay to unload in.

Turns out my ignorance of all things train-related yielded moments of skin-crawling anxiety and imaginary terror, mixed in with relatively bored uneventfulness.

I managed to get started okay, accelerating slowly, then fast, listening to the engine make strange noises in reaction and wondering if I was doing anything I shouldn’t. Then I debated with myself on the appropriate speed to maintain and settled on approaching as close to the speed limit as possible.

The glorious coal payload, and accelerating from 10.3mph to approach the 25mph speed limit. Gee, this is going to take a while…

Then the speed limit changed suddenly from 25 to 40. Eh? Er, okay, I’ll go faster.

Then to 85. Oooh er, should I be going that fast? What if I need to stop this thing?!

In retrospect, and as explained by the -second- tutorial mission, the one with the advanced train controls, the speed limits are actually indicated on the interface, highlighted in yellow. But I didn’t realize it then. I just noticed the speed limit changing at seemingly unpredictable moments.

Then there were the lights. The railway signal lights, that is. Remember, I know next to nothing about trains.

The first few lights I passed were facing away from me, but still glowing green. Okay, presumably those don’t apply to me. They must be for other trains and are just scenic ambience.

Then I passed some that were facing me, and green. Okay, green means go, presumably, just like normal traffic. But oh my god, what if they turn red, what do I do, what do I do, this train is moving damn fast, I hope there’s no railroad crossing traffic or an oncoming train switching rails, because it’s not going to be pretty with a noob at the controls. Come on, this is -easy- difficulty level, surely they won’t include such things until intermediate or hard, right?

Adding confusion to the neurotic worrying was the fact that as my train passed the railway signal, they changed from green to red. Oh god, does that mean I should have stopped? Or maybe they’re just indicating that my train is passing…

Wait, that one is yellow, do I slow down, am I supposed to slow down? Hang on, that’s hanging over another rail, there’s one nearer to my rail that is green.

After a while of this, it did seem like all the signals were green, and I decided not to worry about something that I probably didn’t have the current capacity to react to, anyway.

The rest of the journey went by in a mind-numbing haze, punctuated by me humming snippets of the Soul Cages, taking screenshots of passing landmarks, and experimenting with camera views as I succumbed to “What does this button do?” temptation.

Coupling view. Train tracks…passing… fast… Ulp.

I can see my house from here! (Nah, not really.)

At last, after numerous accelerations and decelerations, I reached the target yard. Wherein I discovered that I had no clue how to uncouple the coal wagons, nor where precisely I should be leaving them, and after a bunch of trial-and-error clicks, managed to decouple my engine from the entire string of wagons.

Alas, that didn’t seem to end the scenario – presumably because I was only supposed to leave specific numbered wagons, but had no clue how – and I ended up trundling my lone engine up the track further to no avail. Changed my mind as the 7.50 deadline was approaching, and went into reverse.

The plan was to back up to the abandoned coal wagons and attempt re-hitching and further trial and error. But having only two minutes on the clock made me a tide… hasty.

Going at way too fast a speed to brake appropriately (or rather the speed of a car going what, 30mph?), I careened into the stationary coal wagons and my engine swayed precariously, and promptly derailed.

ROFL. Oops.

Well, that’s one way to bring up the scenario end screen.

On checking the tutorial mission list, apparently How to handle freight is numbered tutorial mission 4, though number 3 is not currently showing.

I decided to sit through number 2 first, the advanced train controls, which was slightly more complex with a throttle, brake, and forward/reverse controls.

Alas, I overshot my passenger stop and failed the tutorial, and decided to stop there for the night. Until next time.