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Gas Station Simulator is stressful and janky and I can’t stop playing it

Someone help me budget this

A rickety looking gas station named Dust Bowl, in the evening light Image: Drago Entertainment
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I love games that give me stress dreams. Something about being on the precipice of dying or just getting punched in the face — I find it all very motivating, in a Marie Kondo “I love mess” sort of way. When the table stakes feel high I get to reward my lizard brain with each newly completed task. Gridlock me in an unforgiving wave of these little to-do items, and I will sit glued to the computer for hours and hours, like the time I played Frostpunk until 3 a.m.

Gas Station Simulator is a fever dream that mixes these stressful management elements with retro graphics and an arcade minigame feel. Its look and animation are pretty hideous, and the individual elements of gameplay don’t necessarily make for a fun game on their own. There are also just a handful of NPC types that begin recycling early in my playthrough. But I have sunk hours into Gas Station Simulator regardless, practically glued to my computer chair in the desire to do “just one more task.”

The game is, in most ways, about running a gas station. But it’s also so much more.

Gas Station Simulator opens with a “gift” from your uncle — a decrepit gas station named Dust Bowl (yay you!) on the side of the road off Route 66. It comes complete with rotting boards, fly-infested trash cans, and no electricity. But wait! There’s also no gas, no shelves, and the bathroom doesn’t have a working toilet. Also, the floor is covered in dirt and your customers will constantly track it all over your convenience shop during their visits.

A gas station convenience shop floor covered in trash and litter Image: Drago Entertainment

From there, it’s your job to revamp and manage this fixer-upper. You’ll start by clearing out the trash and adding a fresh coat of paint. You’ll order gas, pump said gas, stock your shelves, scan the items at the checkout line, and take out the trash. The game ramps up its intensity quickly, and you’re soon faced with questions of expansion. Eventually, you can purchase new areas, like a repair garage, which increase profits but add more work.

All in all, each of these little tasks in Gas Station Simulator is a vaguely stressful minigame that feels like it might create a repetition injury. Selling store items requires playing a minigame where you move a conveyor belt, grab an item, swipe it across the scanner, then drop it into a basket. Scan flawlessly and you’ll get a tip — mess up and you lose money. Every cent counts, thanks to the game’s out-of-pocket, darker subplot — let’s just say your uncle’s “gift” came with some strings attached.

It’s a lot to keep track of. Pump, scan, sweep, paint. Answer the mysterious calls from the payphone on the corner. Revitalize the gas station, or else. Every so often the contractor’s menacing child, Dennis, shows up to fuck up your plans by spray painting “Dennis RuleZ” and “you suck” and the occasional penis with angel wings on the side of your gas station. People throw trash on the floor. Who is that stranger approaching you with a baseball bat?

A man at the cashier counter in a gas station convenience shop Image: Drago Entertainment

There comes a point where it’s too much for one person, but you can’t hire any employees yet. And you only have 12 hours left to pay back that loan! Luckily, paying customers are rolling in and lines are getting longer. On one hand, these customers don’t seem to mind waiting as you scramble to get it all done? On the other hand, if someone does get mad waiting, I’ve found a useful hack that involves raising someone’s car on the lift in the repair garage to prevent them from driving away. Take that how you will.

I’m still in the early days of gameplay, but from what I’ve seen from on YouTube, it only gets more chaotic. Why do I keep playing? Short answer: I have to keep expanding my gas station. Long answer: I’m hooked by the game’s unpredictable, seedy narrative twists and the need to beat all of my minigame high scores while keeping my customers (somewhat) happy.

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