Going off the road: how racing games are changing

A writing mentor once told me that bad fiction is like a car accident: sudden, violent, and disastrous. While I’ve repeated the axiom many times myself, reading over it now I realize how odd it is.  It suggests that accidents are somehow dull, even pedestrian, far below the station of us wizards of the written word.

Maybe this is why my mentor is still grading papers while Dan Brown buys his fifth yacht. As anybody who’s ever been stuck behind a legion of rubberneckers slow-rolling past a five-car pileup knows, automobile accidents remain bafflingly popular. The mavens behind the Fast and Furious franchise figured this out long ago; in a world where people watch professional racing “for the crashes,” that film series can get away with making every car Chekhov’s own ride, sure to careen into a nearby streetlamp by the scene’s end. But still, no medium besides perhaps film embodies this better than video games; after all, there the only one that lets you get behind the wheel.

Such is the promise of the traditional racing game: drifting just inside the wake, adrenaline coursing through your veins as you outmaneuver, outgun, and out-shell your rivals on your way to that checkered flag. The open road suffers no fools, and though the specifics can vary, the logic is as simple and straightforward as the lines on the asphalt. Always be first; take everyone else out; never settle for second-best. It’s what makes games like Mario Kart so compulsively playable, no matter the circumstance. Plenty goes on under the hood, but anybody who can press A to accelerate can scoot along just fine.

When I was younger, this is why would always secretly groan when somebody would whip out any racing game, from Gran Turismo to Diddy Kong Racing. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy the act of simulated driving – who knows how many hours I spent jetting around in Crash Team Racing – but that something in the naked competition of the race would scorch my nerves, making me unable to delight in the same thrills my friends did. Even today, thanks to this latent anxiety, I tend to avoid the overtly competitive games in favor of more casual experiences, such as the (in)famously chaotic Road Rash series. Judge if you like, but I’m far more comfortable slamming my friend’s avatar in the head with a tire iron than trying to jockey with her for position as we drift around the final corner.

Even as my ardor  for the racing genre intensified, I noticed that my playstyle contrasted sharply with my friends’. While they preferred to compete against ever-more-skillful hordes of computer opponents, I myself stuck to the time trial modes, focusing more on learning and enjoying the feel of each track than shaving seconds off of my best times. Eventually, I realized that while my friends played these games for the love of the race, I myself loved the act of driving alone. Still, all these racing games assumed a passion for competition that I just didn’t have, locking racers, cars, and the all-important tracks behind mandatory single-player race modes. Clearly, I – and others like me – needed an alternative.

It was roughly around this time that I first discovered Out Run, Yu Suzuki’s sun-soaked love letter to the American highway. Best-described as the quintessential “driving game,” Out Run and its sequels task the player with taking a souped-up Ferrari on a makeshift road trip across a swath of disparate locales, from Niagara Falls to the Golden Gate Bridge, with only the ticking of a clock threatening to cut the merriment short.And while that timer can offer more than its fair share of resistance, especially on the harder routes, it never feels quite as burdensome as the rumble of twelve fellow racers zooming past you in unison.

It didn’t take long for Outrun 2006 to become my most-played racing game, to the point that I considered investing in one of those ludicrously expensive PC racing wheels to heighten the experience. But shortly after conquering its most demanding course, I came to an unpleasant realization: I didn’t have anything else to play. There just weren’t that many alternatives to the traditional racing paradigm. Even the F-Zeros and Wipeouts of the world assumed the same love for intense mano-a-mano showdowns that Mario Kart and Gran Turismo had before it. Gradually, my appetite for the genre faded.

However, in the years since, a funny thing started to happen. Slowly but surely, gaming democratized. Now almost anybody with an idea and two nickels to rub together can take a crack at feeding their own unreasonable tastes, especially if they can find somebody else to share in the feast. As it turns out, there’s a market for alternative driving games, albeit a rather small and diverse one, and there’s a handful of unique titles making waves on it.

Perhaps the flashiest of these new alt drivers is Distance, a sci-fi-tinged trial-‘em-up that looks and plays a bit like a hypothetical Outrun 2084 as directed by Ridley Scott. However, unlike Outrun, where the timer is presumably the patience of the player character and his girlfriend, the futuristic neo-vehicles of Distance simply blink out of existence once their clocks elapse. The result is a vicious struggle through gauntlet after gauntlet of obstacles, including jumps, lasers, and the classic loop-de-loops, all for a precious few seconds each checkpoint. Distance takes the car-against-the-world aesthetic of checkpoint-based racing games to its logical extreme, and though the ride can be rough, it engages so readily that making it to that final stop seems emphatically worth it. Still, since the game is still in Early Access, it’s fair to say that destination remains to be seen. 

SCS Software’s perplexingly popular Truck Simulator series is certainly the forty-ton behemoth in the room, boasting perhaps the most “alternative” experience to that of the traditional racer: trading in your Viper for an eighteen-wheeler as you haul load after load of miscellaneous garbage across mostly featureless highways at a maximum of 55 miles per hour, slowly building your trucking business in the process. But while this might sound more like your strung-out uncle’s Linkedin profile than a successful game, you may very well find that the strange cocktail of CB radios and the slow creep of capitalism goes down much sweeter than you would have ever anticipated. More than once I found myself clocking off work around 5 PM, driving home, and simulating this other job for several hours, stopping only when I realized the absurdity of the situation. 

Thanks to the surge in independent games production, small teams are able to develop games based on odd mechanics that traditional studio-driven productions tend to shy away from, taking existing one-off ideas and building upon them until the foundation starts to bend. The recently-released Krautscape is hardly the first game to feature cars with wings – perhaps you may recall the blocky retro-future of Midway’s Rush 2049 – but it very well may be the first to take the concept seriously, allowing the player to extend the wings of their aquiline vehicle at a moment’s notice with a surprising degree of control. And while the procedurally-generated tracks can sometimes underwhelm, the game modes on offer can be delightfully experimental, with one allowing the player in first to create the track as they go. It might not cause you to cancel plans or ignore life events like American Truck Simulator, but for eight dollars, you can do a lot worse. Good luck finding someone to play with online, though; if you want to play multiplayer, you should probably bring a friend.

Most racing games posit a world with only one rule: speed is king. Burnout thwarts the laws of mortality, with even the gnarliest wreck brought back to pristine factory conditions a matter of seconds. Not even the otherwise draconian police forces of the Grand Theft Auto series concern themselves with speed limits or red lights, usually pursuing only in the event of a hit-and-run against a squad car itself. SCS Software’s games take the opposite tack, holding the player to the same standards that a real trucker would be subject to, including speeding tickets, delivery deadlines, and docked pay for property damage. Much like the timer in Out Run, you feel that the world is against you, rather than a mass of competitors. It gives each delivery real stakes, yet I never found myself growing anxious, even when I knew I was about to lose my shirt from another botched delivery. After all, there’s always another tub of acid that needs hauling.

As Steam storefront continues to crowd with new titles, it seems inevitable that this trend will outstay its welcome – already the “racing” category is filled to the brim with me-toos and also-rans that make it that much harder for the truly unique titles to find an audience. Still, I’m be happy to know that there are options out there for people who like to play things just a little differently. And even if it drops out entirely and racing games are over forever, I’ll at least still have gently curving beaches of Outrun 2006.