Fuel, A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

Fuel is an open-world driving game that takes place in an unimaginative post-apocalyptic future where gasoline is a form of currency. For a title ostensibly about the employ of vehicles to cover distance, the handling and the physics are unaccountably poor (in fact, driving in Fuel feels more like the requisite on-wheels interlude in a major action game than something actually meant to be about driving). But for a few days I was strangely fascinated by Asobo Studios’ deeply flawed attempt at a new racing franchise, solely because of the game’s free driving mode, in which one can explore what its developers claim to be the largest contiguous playable landmass ever created: over five thousand square miles, an incredible scale considering The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion successfully brought to life an epic, free-roaming fantasy in an imaginary space said to measure a tiny-by-comparison sixteen square miles.

Unfortunately, if Oblivion’s defining, revelatory experience was spotting the ruins of an ancient castle perched on a distant hillside and realizing you could wander there if you wanted to, then Fuel’s defining experience was realizing that its world was vast on a soul-deadening, terrible scale. After downloading the demo, I began free drive mode and picked a direction and took off– and drove and drove, through the scrub and the dirt. The sun began to set; my bike’s headlight came on automatically. I drove. Suddenly wondering what the hell I was doing, I quit and deleted the demo, intending never to return to it, but later that evening I was seized by the idea that perhaps Fuel had unintentionally created the first game that dove into the depths of existential absurdity, a disguised meditation on the ultimate pointlessness of everything. Might Fuel actually be a game that explores the place of mankind in the cosmos by placing him in this ludicrously illogical, staggeringly gigantic world for no apparent reason? Was Fuel the secret Waiting for Godot of video games?

The demo included only one area, though, and for my budding thesis I needed to see it all. I rented the Xbox 360 version only to find that one had to unlock cars and fast-travel heliport locations by actually winning races, something I very much did not want to do. So I returned the Xbox 360 version in exchange for the PlayStation 3 one– Sony’s platform for some reason being much more amenable to trading of save files. I found one on GameFaqs and, after some gentle persuasion to convince the system to accept the save as one I had created myself (and forty two suddenly-awarded trophies later), was soon exploring the full breadth of Fuel’s world.

I spent an eternity rocketing over nondescript plains, nondescript forests, and nondescript rocky hills. One area was supposed to be a salt flat, where a plane of white void stretched before me resembling nothing so much as a developer-only debug level. The world defied interpretation and understanding not in a profound way but in a way that irritates. The landscape was a nonsensical mishmash of geological formations and climates; the roads were incoherent cobwebs that only ever led to other roads. Trucks without payloads wandered aimlessly, failing to react even if you drove towards them head-on. Post-apocalyptic brigands apparently stored their most precious resource, the fuel of the title, in barrels randomly strewn about in the middle of nowhere. The coming of night was heralded by everything around me suddenly turning dark purple.

I’d been in a production of Waiting for Godot in my senior year of high school (the surrounding circumstances of which are too unbelievable to get into here), which we chose in part because of the ease with which it could be produced; as far as a set went, one really needed only a moon and a tree, and the more crude they were the more they could be said to hammer the point home. The entire play is spent waiting– waiting for something to happen that never does but that we always hope will, perhaps tomorrow. Fuel, I thought, might have transposed the waiting in Godot into the traversal of space, in that one can continue to traverse and traverse, always hoping something interesting will appear over the horizon, always thinking maybe, this time, I will actually get somewhere, a dream routinely dashed but never extinguished. I hopped around to different heliports in pursuit of points of interest (the game helpfully designates scenic lookouts for you). That the endless vistas and dramatic bridges and destroyed architecture I did see was only ever mildly impressive sewed up the whole disappointing package for me: racing endlessly through an indifferent world to see things that don’t even look that good.

In situations like this, one’s thoughts naturally turn to suicide, but perversely, the game does its best to prevent you from that escape, the one thing that would actually be fun in free-drive mode: careening off a cliff results in an immediate respawn, before your car can fall very far. Your car also cannot be flipped. It never takes visible damage. Like Sisyphus, your vehicle will always come back, new, and you will always be driving. Shadow of the Colossus– the game for which this blog is named and which I do intend, one day, to write about– gives us a wasteland that crackles with magical energy, where potential seethes in the air. Fuel is the opposite, massive and dead, a world from which all possibility has been drained.

The game, the play: we visit their worlds and then we are done with them. We, unlike the fiction upon which we spy, move on. I returned the game; the audience leaves the theatre. But somewhere out there, Vladimir and Estragon are still waiting.