Why I Drive Trucks in VR

I play a good variety of video games. As a long-time lover of games, I’ve had plenty of years to branch out and try what the world has to offer (despite some gaping holes in my list). However, of all the games I never thought I’d pick up, Euro Truck Simulator 2 has to be pretty high on the list.

ETS2 came out in 2012, and has been continually supported by the devs since that time, receiving regular updates and new content in the form of DLC, substantially expanding the map, cargo, and truck options available. Suffice it to say, I had only ever seen this game mentioned in passing and had zero interest in playing it, as it seemed like kind of a niche simulator game and outside the realm of my normal competitive multiplayer happy-space.

However, earlier this year, I found out that I may have reason to help some family out by driving them from Paris to London for a move, which would necessitate driving in the UK where everything is fucking backwards. I thought it might be good to get a little practice training my brain for driving on the left-hand side of the road, so I did a little bit of research into games that would involve left-hand driving and would include some semblance of regular traffic laws (sorry, Forza Horizon). It turns out that ETS2 was just about the only option I could track down.

I fired up the game and, shortly after, installed a mod that would allow me to drive a car instead of a big bulky 18-wheeler. It was totally fine — my xbox controller was a serviceable controller and my monitor showed me most everything I needed to see. However, after a few hours of this, I began to wonder if the game supported VR — it would be much more immersive, and would serve as a better indicator for how overseas driving would really feel. Turns out, ETS2 has longtime beta support for VR through Oculus and OpenVR/SteamVR as part of a pet project of one of the developers. Just right-click the game in steam and hit “Properties>Betas” and find the latest Oculus branch.

The change was immediate. It was no longer silly driving practice — it was an immersive and enrapturing simulation of what roads, signage, landscapes, buildings, cities, borders, and life look like in places I have never been. I really value knowing a little bit about what we take for granted that is different around the world, so the attention to detail in everything from how stoplights work to the color and shape of road lines in different countries was really interesting to me. Did you know that the white dotted lines we use to separate lanes in the US are used to separate you from oncoming traffic in many parts of Europe? Glad I found that out in VR rather than in a head-on collision.

Beyond that, I mentioned the shenanigans to some friends in the discord server who immediately were interested in joining — this was completely unexpected. It turns out, there’s something fun and meditative about just driving around an unfamiliar place, and I wasn’t the only one who felt drawn to the opportunity to just chill out for a few hours in the evening.

The Gear

Before long, I was getting hooked up with gear. First, I ordered a steering wheel (the entry-level Logitech G923 plus shifter). Soon after, I ordered a mod for the shifter which provides the switches required for a 12/18-speed manual transmission. It replaces the top of the stock shifter and has a separate USB cable running to the computer which I kept out of the way with a microphone cable clip around the base of the shifter. After that, I picked up a button box, which is the term-of-art for the simulated dashboard containing controls for all the extended functions of the truck, like differential braking, axle controls, engine brakes, retarders, and (most importantly) the radio.

Tired of using the paddles on the Logitech wheel for turn signals, I ordered this incredible and fairly niche turn signal/wiper stem mod from Chinese designer Nerzhul, which installed with only about half an hour of fuss onto my wheel and provides the familiar stems for turn signals and wipers as well as an additional smaller stem intended for brake retarders and cruise control along the bottom left, and a push-button ignition. It required no special software or fuss and, once physically installed onto the wheel, was plug-and-play in the game.

Finally, for the fully authentic truck experience, I picked up a ButtKicker, which is a product that provides seat rumble. By default, the ButtKicker just grabs game audio through a splitter cable and rumbles a small subwoofer encased in the metal, but since I play in-game music with some volume, that wasn’t going to realistically capture the truck experience the way I wanted. Instead, I grabbed Sim Commander 4 (also called SimVibe) from the folks at SimXperience. The program has a plugin which hooks into the ETS2 telemetry server (this also works for American Truck Simulator, from the same developer) and grabs in-game data about the speed, gear, engine load, terrain, and crashes in order to not just rumble the device but do so at frequencies that really feel like an engine.

The result, in VR with a real wheel and equipment, is just phenomenal. Friends joke that at this point, the only logical next step is to quit my job and buy a truck, but I can’t run cops off the road in real life so I think I’ll stick to VR.

But Why Tho?

Honestly, I never had any interest in trucks or driving them before, but the game provides a unique opportunity to perform a task I already pretty much know how to do (drive), pick up some interesting new skills and experiences (backing up comes to mind), learn some new things about the world abroad and scout out places I’d be most interested to prioritize visiting in real life (looking at you, Iceland) and just enjoy the scenery. There’s no competition, there’s no real win-or-lose (unless you play so poorly that you run out of money, but you can just cheat if you really just want to drive). It’s just a relaxing opportunity to do something satisfying in solitude.

I imagine I’ll keep playing this game on-and-off for quite a while.