The fuel crisis has brought the rigours of one particular profession into sharp focus this month. Petrol station managers throughout Britain have had to cope with snaking queues, angry customers and even forecourt fist fights, as the shortage of HGV drivers took its toll. It’s a career many of us probably hadn’t thought much about before this troubling new subplot in the ongoing Brexit/Covid drama, but has now become a countrywide concern. For those who want to know more, there’s a game for that.
Fortuitously released just a few weeks before the crisis, and currently one of the most streamed games on Twitch, Gas Station Simulator has you taking over a dilapidated fuel stop just off Route 66 in the middle of the desert. OK, so it’s hardly a BP garage on the North Circular, but the basics are similar. First you need to clear the place up – unboard the windows, fix the electrics and throw away a lot of junk (which is extremely satisfying) – but then you’re down to the real business: filling tanks, serving customers at the till and ordering in petrol and snack deliveries.
You can expand the station by opening a workshop and a car wash and extending your range of retail goods, but this all adds to the stress. It’s a nightmare trying to fix someone’s carburettor when there is a queue of people in the store waiting to purchase bottles of something called Aunt Betty’s tonic, which is inexplicably popular with the locals. (I think it is moonshine.)
Customers want the place to be tidy, so you have to sweep the floors and pick up rubbish, but then they don’t like to be kept waiting at the pumps, and become enraged when you make an error ringing their food purchases through. (You do, though, get to control the speed of the conveyor belt, as crisps and cans of fizzy pop trundle along.) Before you know it, there are horns sounding everywhere and people walking out in a rage because you didn’t adequately stock up on Aunt Betty’s.
The regulars who come into the station are weird-looking and sinister, like extras from a rural horror film. They have scraggy beards and strange tattoos and T-shirts with assault rifles on. One even looks like Elon Musk. It’s terrifying. Sometimes cops drop by, too, and they wander about the place in mirror shades looking intimidating – to my considerable shock, they are terrible litter louts, dropping their drinks cans on the floor as they leave. I tried to get in with one by “accidentally” not charging him for a tin of Pringles and he was furious.
There is also a teenage boy who occasionally sneaks up and tries to spray graffiti on your beautifully painted walls. The game advised me to throw something at him to scare him off. I think it meant a newspaper or wastepaper bin but in a panic I lobbed the first thing that came to hand: a large section of rusted corrugated roofing. He did not come back for several days.
As with a lot of job simulator games, the charm is in the slight bugs and eccentricities of the code. When you’re tidying up you have to throw big bits of rubbish such as old furniture and wooden pallets into a skip, but when I was trying to lob in an old mattress I found behind my warehouse, something went wrong with the physics and I ended up yeeting it 50 feet across the forecourt.
What have I learned about running a petrol station? You have to order petrol early and often: it’s so easy to overlook the major infrastructural elements when you have angry locals queuing up to buy cigarettes and novelty hats. Also, never leave your storeroom door open because people will steal snacks given half a chance. Oh, and once you’ve closed up, you’ve got to clean the toilets and you will invariably find that they look like the aftermath of a hurricane over a sewage plant. Finally, don’t go into this business with a relative. In Gas Station Simulator you receive regular phone calls from your uncle, who starts out giving you advice and generous loans but then sends round his heavies to punch your lights out when you don’t pay up on time.
Like Britain’s own petrol station employees over the past fortnight, I never expected to encounter so much violence and hostility. Sometimes, its more Agincourt than forecourt. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on the frontline of fuel retail, but I will be relieved to get back to the comparative peace and calm of Call of Duty Warzone.