October 20, 2012 by jesseal
The concept of the “race against the clock” is tailor-made for exploration through video games. As THE defining aspect of modern life, it doesn’t require any explanation for the prospective player to understand – when we see a clock ticking downward, we at least understand that SOMETHING needs to be done before we see the zeroes. As a complement to the accumulation of capital, the machinations of time offer an alternative, inverted driving force for life, placing our lust for wealth in conflict with our inevitable march toward death – yet again, shades of Eros and Thanatos. This is commonly mediated through video games by requiring the gamer to balance their desire for a high point total with the necessity to finish before time runs out. Their interrelatedness is established by their consolidation with one another; in many platformers, your excess time at the end of each level is converted back into points. The inverse conversion features prominently in racing games, where failure to follow the rules of the course can lead to time penalties.
In fact, racing games offer a fascinating laboratory for examining this relationship, due to their traditional division between arcade- and simulation-style gameplay. Archetypal games exist in each style; for example, Space Race (1972), the second game created by Atari after Pong, doesn’t include a clock, with points gained for beating your opponent to the top of the screen while avoiding asteroids, while Pole Position (1982), from Namco, the most popular coin-op arcade game of 1983, requires the player to establish a qualifying lap time before they even have the opportunity to race. There are certainly other differences between the genres; they tend to push toward different edges of the spectrum in realism, and feature primarily multi- or single-player modes of gameplay for arcade- and simulation-style games, respectively. There also tends to be a difference in the investment of time and energy required on the part of the player, often in the form of skill – the average person with a rudimentary knowledge of video games can play the Mario Kart games, while the barrier-of-entry for the Gran Turismo series, particularly with the difficulty set to “simulation,” is daunting even for racing sim enthusiasts.
As the computational capabilities of video game consoles have increased exponentially, simulation elements have become more nuanced in both subgenres. On the side of simulation, the Forza Motorsport series for the Xbox and Xbox 360 features an ever-expanding library of real-life track locations and cars, as well as the ability to tweak and customize everything down to tire pressure and gear ratios. Peripherals allowing for control using a racing wheel and pedals are available, and the latest addition to the series, Forza Motorsport 4, features multiple-monitor support and surround sound, allowing for the construction of rigs simulating the appearance and control interface of actual driving, all using the Xbox 360 as a base – alternatively, a Kinect can be used to track a player’s head movements, changing the picture on-screen accordingly. More interesting is the change this has fostered on the arcade side; Bizarre Creations, beginning with Metropolis Street Racer (MSR) for Dreamcast and continuing with the Project Gothic Racing (PGR) series for Xbox and Xbox 360, uses a Kudos system in their games, a point system where points are allocated both for skill (completing the challenges, avoiding collisions) and style (drifting, drafting); however, the driving physics are relatively realistic, featuring real cars and tracks constructed within real cities.
That isn’t to say that simulation is taking over; in fact, I think this is an exciting time to be a fan of racing games. The computational freedom that allows games to be ultrarealistic isn’t at all prescriptive – a graphics processor chomps through bits of data at the same rate regardless of the picture being rendered. Hierarchical structures in media are always at risk of deconstruction; novels invaded by poetry in literature, realism by cubism in painting, live action by animation in film, and simulation by play in video games. In this way, racing games are emblematic of the medium-at-large, featuring games all over the spectrum between arcade and simulation, while also appearing remarkably meta-cognizant of this divide. In a manner not commonly found in other genres, they are increasingly willing to show off their artifice; several racing sims feature a garage feature, encouraging the gamer to stare at their cars, revel in their fake-ness – not a car, but a Car, without a speck of dust on the paint or a single ding in the door. Forza Motorsport 4 even has an “Autovista” mode, where the virtuality of the world is celebrated; interior components of these Cars can be examined in ways impossible in real life, things like the color can be instantly altered, and bits of data about the car are featured, even stories from Jeremy Clarkson from TV’s Top Gear. Another example of playing with this virtuality exists in the Burnout series, combining racing with vehicular combat and crashes. In Burnout Revenge, this impulse is taken to the extreme in a “Crash” mode, encouraging the player to launch their vehicles off of ramps into rush hour traffic, realistically depicting the flight of the car in midair and the destruction caused by crashing into other vehicles, racking up a dollar total for the damage caused. The best part of this mode is the Crashbreaker feature; when a certain level of damage is reached, the game counts down from 5, encouraging you to tap a button as an invisible crowd chants – “Crashbreaker! Crashbreaker!” – until your car explodes, allowing you to watch the devastation in ultra-slow-mo from multiple camera angles while you (unrealistically) affect your car’s movement in midair, directing it toward new victims. This de(con)struction, articulated both physically and visually, as well as other combinations of simulation and play generally evident in racing games, is beautiful evidence of what video games can do – and how ripe the medium is for subversion.