drive, he sd: Glitchhikers

June 16, 2014 · Print This Article

alien

Several years ago a friend of mine was going through the intense heartbreak at the end of a lengthy relationship and I was younger and ill-equipped to offer the right kind of support, so we drove. In my heart I knew it was a terrible idea because gas prices had just reached their all-time high—a price that now, much later, feels downright reasonable. We lived in Texas, where you drive long enough in one direction and the landscape doesn’t change but the things that define it do: buildings and sidewalks turn to great expanses of trees, sky, and fences, which in the daylight you can look past to see cows grazing on burnt, unloved grass. I gave my friend the option of the four cardinal directions and we drove, as far as we could stomach, towards each individual arm on a compass, first west, then north, then east, then finally, south, back to where she lived.

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I don’t remember picking up a hitchhiker but there she/he/it is, a presence in my car, asking me questions—like why was I driving—and prompting me to choose responses that float up over my windshield, remain even in the face of the wind as the car hits a 100 km. This is the steady ephemera of Glitchhikers, a driving simulator in the loosest sense. Hold forward to speed your car up, hold back to slow your car down. Once you let go of either you’ll return to the same pace, in the same way that letting go of the buttons that allow you to look left or right out of the windows will return your view to the center. You can switch lanes to avoid traffic, but there’s not much point; the only cars on the road with you tonight are tiny red taillights in the distance, which seem to ebb back and forth and always stay out of reach.

stars

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I remember taking a family road trip north to stay with my grandparents in Wisconsin and also visit college campuses for my brother, who would be out of high school soon. Nothing stands out about the experience except that in Arkansas, after driving on roads that weren’t even paved we arrived at a campus I’ve forgotten and he refused to get out of the car. At the time I wasn’t really old enough to consider the ramifications, but I didn’t really blame him; the lack of paved roads seemed to be at the time the ultimate evidence that this wasn’t a good place. My parents grew frustrated and we drove on, and his feet never touched ground in the state. Now, I wonder if subconsciously he was worried that if he left the car, he would never be able to go back home.

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In Glitchhikers, a sign rolls past telling me it’s 49 kilometers to Phanteron, a place which I never really intended to go to. My first passenger disappeared just as quickly as they’d appeared, after talking briefly about drugs, driving, and the other kinds of topics that can feel utterly significant in the small talk that occurs on a highway after midnight. A new one is in my car, decidedly alien, from a place where a star exploded and destroyed her home, creating so much of the universe in the process. She’s pregnant, she says, and asks if I would drop her at the hospital. Not many of my species seemed willing to take her, she says. I speed up as fast as the game will allow me and the next time I look over, she’s gone, but I don’t remember passing a hospital. On the other hand, it’s late, and my eyelids grow heavier and stay closed longer with each passing blink.

baby

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I didn’t learn to drive until I was 18. At the DMV to get my learner’s permit the person behind the counter was aghast. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to just take the driver’s test and get it over with. I didn’t know how to drive, I told him. It wasn’t that hard, he said. Later, I would fail the parallel-parking portion of the driver’s exam, rolling my rear right tire over the surface of the curb as the woman sitting next to me sighed, checked a box, and told me to move on.

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There are several different passengers in Glitchhikers—they seem to occur based on the responses you choose to their questions. Before one appeared in my car, I saw them sitting on the edge of a bridge above me as I drove under it, their legs dangling down and over the lip. We talked about suicide; how almost everybody who had attempted it regretted it, how it actually hurt more people than the person attempting it assumed. How easy it would be to drive straight into a concrete divider, or over a cliff, careening at high speeds. How something in this world, or within ourselves, always stopped us. Next, a small, goat-like ghost appeared as I passed what seemed like a canopy of dead trees. It hated its parents; it didn’t seem like it owed them anything. I agreed, and then it asked me why I was driving.

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It’s easy to think of the car as the ultimate American symbol of freedom. So much of our legacy is entrenched in this idea of the highway, the vein that draws a line across the surface of the nation and leads to infinite places and nowheres. Even as the environmentalist in me loves Chicago’s public transportation, there’s that piece buried within the self that longs for the easy option of the car, the ability to drive until night turns to early morning and watch as the scenery around you speeds by and changes without consequence. I guess at some point deep within me I long for an easy illusion of progress, one where I only have to turn a key and press down on a pedal to feel as though I am exerting some change on my environment. Really though, when it comes down to it, I am trapped in the car, and the feeling is fleeting—I must always return to the point at which I began.

infinite

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Glitchhikers is as much about choice as it is about a lack of choice. In dialogue with its eponymous passengers, you can choose from a handful of responses, which then go on to influence that conversation and which passengers occur next. But at the same time, the car here is not so much a symbol of freedom or choice as it is a vessel of inevitability, taking you forward on this unnamed highway until the game decides that it is time to end. Going faster or going slower doesn’t ultimately affect your journey; what does is how quickly you answer questions and click through responses. Your travel time is your reading speed. Eventually, after a stretch of alien, angular trees, a blocky city will approach in the distance, and a series of signs will warn you that the left-hand lane is for exiting only. No matter which lane you stay in, the game ends and your digital eyelids close, either in sleep, death, or something else.

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Just like driving, Glitchhikers isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. Even in the wake of similar questions from different passengers and a road that goes nowhere, it’s an intensely personal experience, one that begs the player to take part in difficult thoughts and conversations. The game isn’t so much a game as it is a setting, in the same way that a car is not necessarily a mode of transportation but a singular place in which to exist, even as the world around you changes and falls into the perimeter. And while both may be personal experiences, they’re by no means unique ones. One passenger—purple headed with a large, singular eye—explains to me the concept of “sonder,” or the realization that every other person around you is a fully conscious being with their own life, story, existence. The power of this statement isn’t so much reflected in the digital cars around you—which do not exist—nor in the actual, theoretical cars around while driving in reality. Instead, it feels more like a comment on the other people that might also play Glitchhikers, ponder the oddly deep questions presented to them by aliens, and consider, what it is to talk to strangers, and what it is to drive after midnight, both in here and out there. “Millions of distinct bacteria share your body,” the radio host quips at one point. “You’re never alone.”

 

Glitchhikers can be bought or downloaded for free here.

 

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