Driven to non-deterministic destruction
Question, reader. Don’t worry, it’s rhetorical. Have you ever gotten genuinely annoyed at a game because it’s more enjoyable than it has any right to be? I certainly have; there’s no point being a critic if you can’t back up how you feel about a work with some kind of reasonable argument, otherwise you’re just a lighthouse beacon of arbitrary tastes to which like-minded souls will moor themselves. Some games just defy reason at first glance; you have a gut response, and a series of facts, but no matter how much you rummage through your shoebox of ideas, none of them seem to have the right number of pins to join the two.
Clustertruck is kind of like that. On paper, at least, its design philosophy sounds so counterintuitive that one wonders how the idea was ever pitched in the first place. For example:
Interviewer: So, tell me about your game.
Developer: Well, it’s a first-person platformer, and...
Interviewer: Not a problem. Continue, please.
Developer: Um. Yes, a fast first-person platformer, about jumping on the tops of moving trucks.
Interviewer: This doesn’t sound terribly accessible, but we shall see, I suppose. Are the trucks very stable? Predictable? Consistent?
Developer: Not, ah, exactly. Not at all. They’re—how do I put this?—physics objects.
Interviewer: Physics objects.
Developer: Unpredictable physics objects.
Interviewer: I see. What happens if you touch the ground, then?
Developer: What? Oh, you die. You have to start again.
Interviewer: (inhales slowly) Understood. And the same if you touch the walls?
Developer: Well, you die. Sometimes. I mean, you see, some walls are walls, and some walls—
Interviewer: I think we’re done here.
Alas, it is an elevator pitch in the most literal sense of the word, and thus neither party can walk away until it reaches the lobby. They stand in excruciating silence for thirty seconds, go their separate ways, and live generally unfulfilling lives for the next sixty-odd years.
Back in our universe, however, Clustertruck exists, and is every bit as baffling as it sounds. Each level deposits you atop an infinite convoy of trucks—that is to say, lorries, not preposterous overgrown utes with wheel arches you could lose a baby in—and tasks you with reaching a goalpost by running, jumping, scrambling and hopping across their unsteady backs, like the hero of an extremely high-budget action flick that has long since stopped giving a damn. As is usually the case in the world of wacky physics games, your task is complicated somewhat both by the inclusion of the Sen’s Fortress Starter Kit—a plethora of obstacles and traps that promise to disrupt the flow of trucks in as spectacular a manner as possible—and on many occasions, by the random chaotic whims of the engine.
Now look, first-person platforming may never have exactly been the apple of the industry’s eye—mostly because gamers have a curious inability to predict where their feet will be if they aren’t looking straight down at them—but there are things you can do to minimise the gnashing of teeth: forgiving targets, tight air control, consistent jump behaviour, that sort of thing. Clustertruck is a curious case in the sense that it actively shirks such features in favour of an experience that would, in the wrong context, be nail-rippingly infuriating. On an unsteady footing it’s often tricky to gauge just how high and far you’ll actually jump if you press the button at a given time—especially if, say, you’re leaping from atop a flying truck that has its own contribution to make to your vertical velocity—and once you’ve actually picked up some airspeed you’ll find that you have the inertia of a grand piano being shoved out the back of a cargo plane, ACME-style. This, it turns out, can make it somewhat difficult to land yourself on the back of a heavy goods vehicle being driven by a wasted Niko Bellic. Especially if you actually care which one you land on.
There’s also the inherent problem of packing a hundred or so physics-enabled trucks onto the same stretch of road and then asking the player to rely on them for platforms: they can’t. The capricious hand of chaos is all too keen to stick a finger in and stir things up between attempts, and sure, you could make the argument that this is a fine way to ensure people think on their feet rather than memorising a pattern, but sometimes it’s not an option to look before you leap. Sometimes you just have to leap and hope something will be there to land on, which—depending on how many hundreds of flipped coins land on ‘tails’—might not be the case. Worse still, in some levels it’s entirely within the realm of possibility for the traffic to turn into a gargantuan pile-up, thanks to a combination of disruptive traps and poor fortune, at which point your only recourse is to either wait and hope that it clears up, or simply start over.
And yet, in spite of enormous red flags like that, Clustertruck still works with the right mindset. It’s a game about pushing your luck, making ambitious canyon-spanning leaps, going faster and faster, not because of the piddling speed bonus that’ll get tacked onto your score, but because it’s just inherently satisfying to recklessly sail hundreds of meters through the air and plant your feet squarely on the only vehicle still resolutely trundling towards the goal. If there’s any skin on your teeth, it’ll be soon sheared off by the close calls that Clustertruck has an almost uncanny ability to generate; having your truck smashed out from under you only to barely claw your way onto the one in front, or making a desperate suicidal dive for the finish line rather than waiting to get driven across it. Yes, the physics engine means that you’ll kiss the tarmac through no fault of your own once in a while, but it also means that you never know when you’ll suddenly be able to springboard off a truck mid-air, flung carelessly into your path by the winds of fate.
Why is failure not an issue, though? In any other game, losing thanks to nothing more than the roll of the dice would be a cardinal sin, and yet Clustertruck manages to present it in such a way that you’re more interested in hitting ‘restart’ than questioning the outcome. It’s reminiscent of Hotline Miami in a lot of ways; a game with such a rapid try-fail-restart cycle that niggling thoughts like “that was kind of unfair”, “I’m not sure why I died” or “a plague of locusts upon you, Sir Isaac Newton” are immediately swept away in the rapids by the beginning of a new attempt. Each level takes a few seconds, maybe a minute at most, and restarting is virtually instantaneous, so usually easy to slip into a comfortable loop, developing the closest thing possible to a consistent approach and hoping it eventually pays off.
Another thing that I can really appreciate about Clustertruck, oddly enough, is that it feels exploitable. When it comes to first-person movement, the overwhelming majority of fun techniques—bunnyhopping, strafejumping, rocket-jumping, surfing, that sort of thing—came about not due to explicitly designed mechanics, but because early FPS engines were held together with masking tape and had gaping loopholes in their physics code that enterprising souls could prise wide open. As a child of the Unity generation, Clustertruck is a little bit harder to crack, but it’ll still bend if you push it in the right places. It’s possible to slam into the back of a truck inches from the tarmac and, rather than falling to your death, slide your way up the surface and catapult yourself over the lip by holding ‘jump’ and pressing against it in the right manner. The same technique, if you can successfully position yourself for it, can be used to deftly skim along the side or even the bottom of a truck, giving you an inexplicably ludicrous speed boost. Being squished between two parallel vehicles ought to mean ending up in an early, shallow, very flat grave, but in Clustertruck they’re more likely to spit you out like a bar of soap from betwixt a bodybuilder’s thighs, with suitably erratic results. It all comes together to make the game feel deeper, or at least, more rewarding to those who can wrangle the floaty jumping physics.
For everyone else, there are the abilities. With the points earned from completed stages, Clustertruck will let you buy and equip powers to make yourself a little bit more mobile, and to the game’s credit, most of them are fairly tempting propositions on the store screen. There’s a double-jump, a dash, a jetpack, a grappling hook (gasp!) and even a few silly exotic abilities, like being able to kickflip a truck. It provides a nice incentive to perform well in stages, since you get bonus points for being especially swift or stylish, but once you have the double-jump and the slow-motion abilities they might as well just close the shop because nothing else will afford you the same level of control and sense of freedom. Yes, there are things that will slow your descent and yes, there are things that let you rapidly reposition yourself, but neither are as universally applicable and easy to use as just being able to jump in mid-air anywhere, anytime. The only real reason to purchase any other ability is sheer curiosity, but in the game’s defense, several of them are clearly supposed to just mutate the core gameplay enough to keep it interesting, rather than provide any clear advantage.
And it’s in Clustertruck’s best interests to come up with new ways to experience the same levels again, because even when you completely abandon all pretences of seriousness, there’s only so far you can stretch the concept of ‘jump across the tops of trucks while traps try to stop you’. The game runs to about two or three hours, depending on how fumble-fingered you are, and frankly that’s a fine length; it stops when it runs out of ideas. There’s a level editor and a pretty extensive selection of levels on the Steam Workshop, so if you’ve yet to tire of the gimmick then there’s certainly more to be found, but think about the kind of person who’d make a custom level for a physics platformer that’s already exhausted all reasonable avenues and you’ll understand why it’s not so much a goldmine of user-generated content as a barren salt quarry. Worth a look, but expect some exceedingly rude design choices.
The thing about Clustertruck is that it is, above all, a game designed to be silly. It’s been specifically engineered to be wacky and chaotic above all else—presumably to get the loudest reactions out of the facecam jockeys it counts on for marketing—and complaining about things like balance or polish in the face of that gives the distinct impression of one who has thoroughly missed the point. If the whole purpose of a game is to confound and vex and surprise, can you really be upset when a tiny physics fluctuation causes a semi-trailer to unexpectedly smack you in the face? Should you really care that the movement mechanics are floaty, saddled with odd inertia and easily abused? Such things are a matter of personal philosophy more than anything else, but for what it’s worth, I rather liked Clustertruck. It takes a patently absurd premise—one so strangely specific that one wonders if they came up with the name first and worked backwards from there—and expands it out into an exhilarating, goofy little experience, served in bite-sized courses. It’s not the start of something special, but nobody could possibly say it’s not special enough in its own right.