When I was in my late teens, I was given a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by my dad. There was something important in it, he said – he was never the sort to press things, instead opting to float them my way and let me drift towards them. I couldn’t quite make head nor tail of the thing.
From what I could tell it was using the word ‘philosophy’ pretty generously: the crux of it seemed to be ‘it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’, and this left me unsatisfied. Not that I expended much effort analysing it back then. I tuned out in summers of driving aimlessly with friends, drinking and listening to music on car radios.
Until recently, I’d forgotten about Zen and the Art completely. A few months ago, years down the line from when I first read it, it came back to me. Its meaning had formed clear in my mind like a perfect diamond. This wasn’t the result of a re-read. It was a result of playing Jalopy. And it all came down to two moments.
The first came as I was driving on the rain-slicked road to Dresden. I could feel the engine in my Laika 601 Deluxe growing sluggish, and as glanced from my dash up to the windscreen, I could see the ominous curlicues of smoke spiralling from the bonnet. The frustration prickled away as usual, as I wondered whether or not I had the necessary tool kit in my boot, as I pondered indicating and pulling off to the side of the motorway in the rain – but then… calm. A feeling of relief washed over me. I put my emergency lights on, pulled the car over, turned off the radio, and sat listening to the downpour drumming on the car like white noise.
The second moment came when I was pulled in at a petrol station, staring at the expressionless face of the cashier behind the desk. She seemed to stare back at me, her face a mirror. She said nothing. I stopped and considered the quality of the car. I decided to buy oil in advance in case the engine acted up; I bought some water, too, anticipating the dirt roads and their stain on the windscreen; finally, I replaced the older items in my boot for the new purchases, and methodically walked in to sell on the old, battered goods for a small, comforting sum – benediction.
A gameplay loop is a lot like a drinking straw. The little crinkled bellows that rest on the rim of your glass are the areas that so many games look to circumnavigate or cut out completely, hoping you’ll thirstily glug down whatever gratification they have lined up for you. Fast travel, minute-to-minute checkpoints, vehicle spawns: these are all ways of lubricating your ceaseless onward surge.
What Jalopy does is pull on the straw and decompress those bellows, elongating and revelling in these little moments. At first, you might think this a way of slowing you down, but as you settle into the rhythm, you find a new momentum, one that’s just as ceaseless but more rewarding. You find joy in these little moments, the destination tidally erased and replaced with the journey.
The moment the anger at my overheating engine dissipated, and the soft click of understanding as I stared at the faceless cashier: these were the small moments where the bellows on the straw were decompressed, and I knew at last what was behind the philosophy of quality. The author of Zen and the Art, Robert M. Pirsig, hit upon the idea by contrasting two schools of traditional philosophical thought: Classical understanding and Romantic understanding.
You know the romantics – you will either have met them, or are one yourself. They couldn’t care less about the mechanics and minutiae behind a sunset; they would rather bask in its beauty and tranquilize themselves with sentiment. The classical understanding entails a more holistic approach – knowing what the sun is, why it’s setting, the chemicals in our brains that make it pleasing. Zen (the Romantic) was being in the moment, living for now; motorcycle maintenance (the Classical) was finding joy in the tinkering, the understanding, and the anticipation. A combination of both viewpoints is Pirsig’s recipe for contentment, and this is where Jalopy steered me.
Wondering if this was merely in my own obsessive head, I tracked down Jalopy’s creator, Greg Pryjmachuk, and picked his brain about his approach to developing the game. When I asked if he’d read the book he said he had, “several times”, and that it had informed his process when developing the game.
How I wondered? Where were these imprints?
“Well, with the uncle character, he was originally going to join you on the journey.” Pryjmachuk says. “I was a bit worried he’d come across as the narrator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, because he’d be talking to you about quality and how important how you measure quality is.”
Understanding the philosophy of quality to which Pryjmachuk refers is appreciating the push-and-pull between order and chaos, the subtle fulcrum between two teetering forces. When I’m playing Jalopy I flit between these two states: from being lost in the moment to having my focus drawn towards anticipation, reasoning, and planning.
Exploring this idea is something that Pryjmachuk visualised unfurling with the now distant uncle character. There is a mystique of suggestion shrouding him. His presence in Jalopy has been scaled back by patch – he was causing glitches, so Minskworks restricted his role – but there remains an air of passive wisdom about him.
“He would talk about two types of mechanic: there’s a messy mechanic and a clean mechanic. Both know where their tools are in a situation, but if you swap them round they wouldn’t know where any of their tools are,” Pryjmachuk explains.
In an exchange like this, you can see how the Uncle would have driven the point home. These two garage mechanics are both bannermen for the two approaches; neither is better or worse than the other, and neither is comfortable outside of their own trappings. It’s an impasse. Yin and Yang.
Instead of being explicit in this way, Pryjmachuk opted for subtlety: consider the sensible elegance of Jalopy’s art. The clean, simple lines and washed colours lend themselves to the meticulous and the mechanical, but there’s beauty in its utility. The thick, chalky fog of the countryside hangs low above chocolate roads; white skies cast white light on autumn mornings. It brings to mind that Frank O’Hara poem, Mayakovsky: “The country is grey and brown and white in trees.”
Even something as romantic and evocative as colour carries complex underpinnings. This autumnal palette suits the subject matter. The period in which the game is set, during the revolutions of 1989, is often called the Autumn of Nations (a play on the ‘Spring of Nations’, which was what people called the revolutions of 1848). It was a period of political rapture, defined by the sensible elegance of progress. The game has the simplified essence of a propaganda poster, one you’d likely find torn down and littering its very roads. There’s romance in this.
The potential frustration of the Laika’s perishable nature and the distinctive visual flavour are like raging Yang and sobering Yin, tempting you away from your immediate vehicular predicament and drawing your eyes to a cooling canvas. The songs on the radio – a dreamy synth composition by Jeremy Warmsley populated with gems like the looping rush of ‘Dresdner Automobilclub’ and the infectiously uplifting ‘Anthem zu Lieben’ – hold the power to sway you from where you’re going to where you are. Or, crucially, to allow you to vacate completely, and just drive.
So what prompted Pryjmachuk to quit the disquisitions? Why did the uncle character take a soft backwards step?
“The biggest problem was, though, you’d have all these narrative elements in it, he’d be talking about stuff – people just weren’t interested because they were too busy worrying about the car, so one of the mechanics you had was you turn the radio on and he’d stop talking.”
In this regard, the uncle in Jalopy reminds me of my dad: no lectures, just a steadying presence content to let me turn on the radio and lose myself to the adventure. He was right, just as Pryjmachuk was right. Through play, just as in life, the answers came softly back to me.