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Yes I Will Press All The Buttons, Thank You

In-world buttons are the best part of games

10:22 AM EST on February 12, 2024

A screenshot from "Pacific Drive:" the interior of a car, with a steering wheel and glowing screens and gauges. An empty landscape is visible through the windshield.
Ironwood Studios

I positively suck at driving games; there’s something about having to imagine my body inside a car, and then that car on a road, that throws my spatial awareness out the window. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying them, and it didn’t stop me from playing a couple driving-focused Steam demos this weekend that don’t just let you drive, but let you click so many in-game buttons in the process.  

Star Trucker is basically if Elite Dangerous were also Euro Truck Simulator: you drive a space truck from station to station, hauling cargo and talking with other truckers. It’s got a fun tongue-in-cheek tone, but more importantly, it is full of buttons. You click a button to open your airlock to leave your truck, and then you click another button to close the airlock once you’re inside. You click your CB radio to bring it into your hand. You click the buttons on a parking camera to dock your truck at stations. You flick a lever to release your trailer. All of this clicking made me feel like I really was a trucker, some road-hardened professional who knows what all these buttons in the cockpit do, instead of what I actually was, a driving game idiot who kept smashing my truck into guardrails and getting fines.

Another driving game I checked out, Pacific Drive, is also a cornucopia of buttons. Pacific Drive has you using a car to explore a creepy, sci-fi Pacific Northwest. At one point, I got out of my car, only to be confronted with the glowing lights and terrifying sound of whatever its enemies are. I rushed to get back into my car and drive away, only to flail with the abundance of buttons: I had to click to open the car door, click again to turn the key, click again to put the car in drive, and then finally escape. It felt ridiculous and pulse-pounding. The little ritual of leaving the car–push the parking brake, turn the key–is just the right amount of repetitive to make the car feel comforting and safe, unlike the world outside. Having to manually turn the wipers and headlights on when darkness or rain falls was a nice change of pace from my careening around the game’s scary roads, also smashing into guardrails. The gameplay itself features a lot of a different kind of clicking–you do a lot of scavenging crafting materials, clicking on things in the world to pick them up–that I grew a little tired of, but I never got sick of playing with my headlights and switching the car from park to drive.

I love this kind of thing. A few weeks ago, I wrote about in-development Half-Life-alike Abiotic Factor and its similar good use of in-world buttons, where office features like computers, elevators, and snack machines all have chunky, clicky buttons to mess with. In-game buttons slow me down and make me aware of the world. Here is where I feel like I’m supposed to say they make a game more “immersive,” but 1. We’ve had enough video game buzzword discourse for the week, and 2. I think I like them because they actually do the opposite. They put a bit of friction between me and the world of the game that reminds me that I’m basically playing with a toy. 

Video game interactions are so often strangely seamless–think about what 2013 indie game Receiver did for the click-to-shoot power fantasy of video game guns–that I love when I can’t get in an elevator because I didn’t call it first, or when I can’t drive my car because I forgot to turn the key. Alongside the sense of mastery Star Trucker gives me for clicking its buttons, there’s a slight sense of hostility too– a reminder that I’m not bigger than the game’s whole world. Pacific Drive might cast me as some unlikely hero, but I’m not such a hero that I can turn my headlights on with my mind. 

Pacific Drive comes out on February 22, and Star Trucker is due out some time this year; you can play them for a few more hours as part of Steam Next Fest if you would also like to click the buttons. Another game stuffed with buttons, and which I am determined to write about on Aftermath soon, is early access detective sim Shadows of Doubt. More buttons in games, more games with buttons, I will click them all, thank you. 

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