Games like Gran Turismo and Forza and Assetto Corza are partially fantasy games at heart. They are built for you to be able to get off on cars and car culture and shiny paints and lifestyle that you are likely never going to have. My Summer Car is not like those games. This game is about realism. You don’t get off to this car because that’s sick.
That’s how developer Johannes Rojola described his design vision for My Summer Car in an April 2015 video on YouTube. He wasn’t talking about the driving model, as believable as it is. Neither was he describing the intricately designed systems that control your car’s performance. No, he was talking about the “shit music” playing on the radio and the fact that when you drink a beer while driving, your vision is obscured by the bottle in your face.
By his philosophy, “realism” isn’t in shiny sports cars that accelerate differently and slip on wet tarmac. No. Realism is trying to get the heap of junk to start in the first place.
My Summer Car is a lot of things and nothing at the same time. The title of the game refers to the Satsuma AMP, a rusty coupe that you find in pieces in your driveway. Part of the game involves putting it together, piece by painful piece, but that’s neither where it begins nor ends.
You’re some worthless youth in the middle of rural nowhere Finland. Your parents are off on vacation, leaving you to your own devices. Try not to burn the house down. I’m serious. That can happen.
It’s easily a 5-minute drive to the nearest (and only) town, and your only means of getting there is on a moped, in a tractor, or with a boat. When My Summer Car first appeared on Early Access, you had a van and a septic truck that you could drive, but now the van doesn’t turn up until you’ve assembled enough of the Satsuma and your uncle arrives to lend you the keys. The truck comes later.
It leaves you with plenty of time to work on the Satsuma. You know how to assemble a car, right? An engine? Don’t look for a manual; there isn’t one. A tutorial? None in sight. You might try looking up a guide online. Or, do what I did: try rubbing together things that look like they fit until you see a checkmark that signifies that you can snap it into place. Slowly but surely, a car takes form.
That car of yours ruins my driveway
I remember when I first got the Satsuma running. I just wanted to test my work, so I hadn’t assembled the body yet. Just wheels, a seat, an engine, and a steering wheel. I drove down the road before I hit a bump and became acutely aware that I had forgotten to bolt in the seat. I rolled out the car door just to watch the Satsuma coast down a hill and into a tree. Something important dropped out of the engine compartment. I believe it was the drive gear.
I’ve been playing My Summer Car since its launch into Early Access in 2016. I can essentially speedrun assembling the Satsuma by now. That leaves me with a lot of time to think while I wait for my uncle to show up. Maybe I’ll drive the tractor into town for groceries and car supplies. Listening to that diesel engine redline at top speed while I wind across the treacherous gravel roads is a comfortable Hell. Maybe I’ll put some shit music on the radio, rolling the dice on whether I get something awkwardly enjoyable or completely unlistenable.
There’s nothing on the TV. I already made a trip to the cottage on the island. Maybe I should go visit grandma. I suppose I could pick strawberries.
In a way, My Summer Car is about the Scandinavian concept of “hygge.” However, that word suggests coziness and comfort, but what is depicted in My Summer Car is an extremely bizarre version of that. You manage stress by drinking heavily, chopping firewood, or sitting in a sauna. There’s a lot of boredom and annoyances, large and small. There’s a lot of ennui.
Looking like Hell and smelling like a brewery
There’s a strange, monolithic tower of interconnected systems that help and complement each other. Death is central to them all. Rural Finland is a dangerous place. Your character is allergic to bee stings, can die in a car accident, or fall into a sewage well. I once made the mistake of answering the phone during a thunderstorm. A shock killed me immediately. I thought this was ridiculous until I looked it up and found that this was something that has actually killed people.
Death isn’t even the danger that may end your game. You can even turn permanent death off, but it isn’t the only way to lose. It’s possible to be sent to jail, where you have to wait out your sentence in a cell. Your home could burn to the ground, or you can lose it and the Satsuma in a high-stakes card game. You could run out of fuel or crash and become stranded. Then you’re either walking, catching a bus, or hitchhiking a ride with your drunk cousin. That’s a white-knuckled drive you’ll never forget.
To counter this, it’s better to take things slow. Even then, you might find yourself killed in unexpected ways. There’s a lot to learn, and almost none of it is explained. While a lot of it relates to real-world knowledge – like connecting the positive bolt before the negative on a car battery – it’s not always common knowledge.
Beyond that, there’s frequent punishment for trying to take the quick and easy route. I thought I had it made when I discovered that coffee reduces your stress, fatigue, thirst, and hunger. I stocked up on a half dozen boxes and kept a pot on at all times. That was until I discovered I had become addicted to caffeine. Fatigue would rise so quickly that I could barely manage a drive to town and back. I had to quit cold turkey. What a bizarre feature. This is realism.
Just go for it and shatter your life
My Summer Car isn’t the only ennui simulator. I recently looked at the Early Access of The Coin Game, and found it to be a similar concept. They’re games where you immerse yourself in boredom, and the challenge is to escape it. Or embrace it.
My Summer Car is just extremely meanspirited about the whole thing. On top of its excruciating intent on wasting your time and its relentless challenge, it also is full of glitches that Rojola probably has no intent on ever addressing. You eventually just get used to the persistent jankiness. It becomes part of the experience. You can even harness the buggy physiques to your advantage, flipping your car over with what the community refers to as a “Finnish headbutt.”
Likewise, the game is butt ugly and performs horribly. Largely, the performance woes seem to be a challenge with the physics. Players have asked for additional parts to be implemented, but the engine seems to be at its breaking point in terms of persistent objects. The game world is extremely blocky, with its paper trees and ghastly denizens. It’s not even trying to be intentionally lo-fi. I think graphics just weren’t ever a priority. Or perhaps Rojola just prefers it this way. It can be hard to read his intent.
There are some parts of the game that I just don’t enjoy, even if I’ve bought into the concept wholesale. The Satsuma, in particular, feels like it’s constructed of rusted metal, glue, and gossamer. Even if you have it perfectly tuned and drive it carefully, its parts wear down way too fast. Replacing them requires you to disassemble the engine and pay a high price.
Money can be difficult to get in My Summer Car, which appears to be a design choice. The idea seems to be that there’s a lack of work to be had in general, so you rely on odd jobs like chopping and delivering firewood, sucking sewage wells, and selling homemade alcohol. The variety of tasks is pretty great, but they require a lot of repetition to be able to afford some of the high-end upgrades.
Many fans wind up relying on various ways of cheating, such as a common savegame editor, to get around the parts they find too unreasonably onerous. You need to develop your own moral compass just to establish what you consider cheating.
There’s also a heavy reliance on outside information. What might be considered the game’s true ending requires taking a character out on a date that can only be achieved by accomplishing some extremely obscure goals. Simple explanations about some of the game’s systems, as well as ways around its various eccentricities, might require you to visit its robust wiki. It works, but it’s not ideal.
Hey to the dishes and dishes to the dishwasher!
I feel that some consider My Summer Car to be a bit of a joke. Like it’s something that you buy a friend to clutter up their Steam library and listen to their cries of anguish. If that’s true, then the 94% positive reviews on Steam suggest that a lot of people are in on the joke.
However, I think the case is just that Johannes Rojola, in all their tinkering, just found an unexplored niche. It’s a spot where comfortable boredom gives purpose to aimless tasks. The whole experience is challenging without featuring a single boss or enemy. It’s an inescapable yet weirdly enjoyable Limbo. It’s weird, silly, and slapdash while also being an impressive work of design.
While My Summer Car is not yet out of Early Access, that seems to be a matter of hesitation from Rojola. He has said that the only thing left to do on it is various tweaks and bug fixes. However, he’s already started on a follow-up called My Winter Car. As its name implies, it takes place in the same area of Finland but at a different time and in a different season. He speaks of it often, addressing feedback and answering questions, but hasn’t fully committed to releasing it into Early Access.
It’s an exciting prospect, though. Already, he has said that while it’s still a driving game, the focus is completely different. He suggests you might be punching a clock and toiling away in a steady job. The harsh Finnish winter will bring its own challenges, and your character will be less carefree. That sounds like exactly what I want. I want to be immersed in soul-crushing boredom. The Ennui. The Realism.