Forget Deathloop or Call of Duty: Warzone, the most stressed you'll be while gaming in 2021 is trying to manage a cash register, a garage, a fuel pump, and a warehouse delivery all at the same time in Gas Station Simulator. Oh, and there's that guy who keeps painting giant dicks on the walls but isn't getting the mental health intervention he so obviously needs. Oh, and the NPCs are weird Unity assets Frankenstein monster versions of humans, so everything has a low-key horror vibe that will make your brain want to hide in a closet.
Gas Station Simulator is what it says on the label, you end up in charge of the Dustbowl gas station in a desolate part of Butthole, USA, and need to keep profits coming in and customers happy. That means repainting the walls, building and stocking shelves, taking payments, and pumping gas. As you make more money and tick off objectives you can expand, getting a warehouse for your stock - snacks, booze, cigarettes - and a garage where you can earn extra cash swapping out mangled tires and smashed wing mirrors. The simple life right? Oh, my sweet summer child.
Having a gas
When it started popping up on Steam I was all in, sucker as I am for weird, often slightly clunky sim games that take something that sounds stupefyingly boring and then trying to make you pay $20 to do it. I'm rarely more serene than when playing PowerWash Simulator or Barn Finder or Train Station Renovation, those games are my version of the Calm app that your mom keeps trying to get you to use. Gas Station Simulator starts out that way too, with just a small little store and one gas pump to worry about. Things quickly spiral out of control, you need to expand, stock more types of soda, get a magazine rack or two, starting - in an ethically questionable move - stocking high return items like tobacco and liquor, and soon you're dashing between your newly painted store and the warehouse, trying to ignore the overflowing dumpster (must call for a trash pick up) on the way.
I could close the gas station down, give myself a chance to refresh the paint, clean the bathrooms, restock the shelves and order more fuel, but that means the money stops coming in, and there's a small timer ticking down to let me know I only have a limited time to pay my loan from my shady uncle back before he sends a threatening biker round. It's not that Gas Station Simulator is designed to be stressful, the mechanics to deal with anything from scanning ice cream purchases to fixing up a car are all laughably simple, it's just that it's not built to create a zen-like flow either. You can hire staff to help you, but are they going to do anything else with the methamphetamine-type mania I seem to need to find to keep everything running? They are not.
Back to basics
It's funny that in a world where we'll all lose our minds at cinematic trailers and photorealistic landscapes, games like Gas Station Simulator can go viral with cut and paste textures and enough bugs to choke an anteater. Trash bags will float in midair, NPCs will robot walk their way through walls, and items seem to disappear and reappear as if the whole place is under the control of a vindictive poltergeist. And yet here me and thousands of other people are, tutting as a cop stocks up on whisky on his shift and leaves dirty footprints all over the floor I just swept.
It's a comfort to know I'm not alone in my sick obsession with what I think of as the "dad sim" genre, hours of mundane but ultimately satisfying tasks repeated again and again, finding the right tool for the right job, occasionally standing up, putting your hands to your lower back, and saying "oof." Gas Station Simulator starts out that way too, it just quickly descends into a brutal and unexpected insight into the demands of capitalism on small fuel suppliers in middle America, without even really meaning to. I'm not sure how long my blood pressure can take the demands of modern gas station management, but a quick glance at Steam shows Road Diner Simulator, Treasure Hunter Simulator, and the especially exciting Airport Contraband - where you work in that ninth circle of hell, airport security - are all on their way from the same developer. What a time to be alive.
Gas Station Simulator is out now on PC and will be coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next year. You can play the prologue for free on PC here. (opens in new tab)