My car went in for its MOT test this week, and while I sat at home waiting for the dreaded call from the mechanic, I sat and played Need for Speed: Prostreet. While it’s not the best game in the world, I felt like playing something that took my mind off the unpleasant reality of driving, with its test certificates and scary repair bills, and concentrate on zooming around a track and winning races instead.
Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that NFS: Prostreet contains some of the most detailed damage effects I’ve yet seen; light side-on collisions result in the loss of wing mirrors or a bit of paint, while more serious impacts result in wonky bumpers and crumpled metalwork. While crashing looks impressive, you have to pay to get your car repaired – and repair bills was just the topic I was trying not to think about.
Still, I played on regardless, and it occurred to me, as the car I was controlling entered a bend too fast and rolled onto its roof, that driving games are still pretty far from the realm of absolute realism. Sure, the forthcoming Gran Turismo 5 Prologue’s vehicles will be rendered in more pornographic detail than ever, and the latest Project Gotham depicts real-world phenomena such as lateral G so perfectly it almost gives you motion sickness, but still, there’s a big gap in the market for a driving game that depicts the gloomy, everyday reality of car ownership.
Two or three games have come close – though possibly more by accident than design. Durell Software’s largely forgotten 1986 masterpiece Turbo Esprit was one of the earliest driving games to feature a free-roaming environment, hapless pedestrians and cars with working indicators. Most significantly of all, Turbo Esprit introduced the three-point-turn to videogaming; turning a corner into a blind alley wasn’t an unusual occurrence, leaving you with no choice but to perform the manoeuvre (which was even harder to carry out with a keyboard than it is with a steering wheel) and head back the way you came.
Team SOHO took things a stage further in 2002 with The Getaway, which entailed driving around London in a stolen car and completing missions against the clock. This sounds like fun, but here’s the rub: the traffic in The Getaway was nearly as gridlocked as it is in real life, and a few light collisions with other vehicles left you at the wheel of a smoking wreck. Narrow alleys, dead-ends and one-way streets added to the frustration – all that was missing was the congestion charge.
The spectre of reality made an unwelcome appearance in EA’s Burnout Paradise last year – in a franchise previously renowned for its arcade joie de vivre, Paradise, to the horror and frustration of gamers everywhere, required you to stop at traffic lights.
These titles may have introduced a few life-like elements into the genre, but they still haven’t quite captured the draining authenticity of day-to-day driving. They haven’t replicated the feeling of being chased to work by an over-enthusiastic teenager in a Ford Fiesta, the horror as somebody pulls out in front of you at a roundabout, or even the seemingly insignificant things like a flat battery in the middle of nowhere or an unexpected and eye-watering repair bill.
If a game presented car ownership as it really is, it’d be called something like “E Reg Vauxhall Nova Simulator”, and would feature speed cameras, traffic jams, painfully low speeds and random mechanical failures. The player would purchase the titular Nova at the start of the game for a couple of grand, and would, at the end (after constant expenditure for repairs, speeding tickets, tax, fuel and parking fines), sell it again for about fifty pounds.
Of course, Vauxhall Nova Simulator probably wouldn’t sell very many copies, because driving games are about the fantasy of cars rather than the reality; in the same way that adverts always show shiny new cars hurtling down deserted mountain roads, driving games sell us the dream of cruising around a tropical island in a Ferrari or winning the World Rally Championships in a Subaru. We want to believe that cars are exciting, empowering and sexy, even though 90 per cent of the time they’re anything but.
So while it’s great that driving games now look and handle better than ever before, developers should be wary about which elements they borrow from everyday life.
I mean, traffic lights in Burnout? Surely, car games should be about the thrill of driving, not the drudgery.
Ryan will be back this time next Thursday with another column; meanwhile, read his last one here.