The Ryan Lambie Column: The game that could have saved the world

Ryan laments Codemasters' Fuel, and wonders if it really missed a trick...

Fuel

If there’s one pervading emotion that video game fans regularly endure – perhaps on a weekly basis – it’s disappointment. As inevitable as death, taxes and verdigris on copper pipes, high hopes are always followed by crushing disappointment.

It’s all in the marketing. From the moment a game is announced, we’re drawn in by teaser trailers, intrigued by press releases, tantalised by posters and seduced by preview footage. Developer interviews, showy presentations at expos in Los Angeles and stunning pre-rendered preview shots all appear to suggest the same thing: forget all those other games you’ve ever played – the other games that promised so much but delivered so little – this one’s ‘the real deal’.

It’s the Holy Grail, the Golden Fleece, the Ark of the Covenant. The game to blow all the others away, the one you’ll play until your eyes fall out and your thumbs drop off. In short, the next game around the corner is the best one ever.

But like all fantasies, reality quickly washes hope away like a bucket of cold water, and inevitably you’ll be left with that old friend, disappointment.

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Codemasters’ Fuel is the latest game to leave me in a such a disillusioned state. I’ll admit I was sucked in: the trailers looked promising, depicting a post-apocalyptic world where the last dregs of humanity race one another beneath a blackened sky. The suggestion was of a gritty, gut-wrenching driving game full of shattered windscreens, diesel fumes and twisted metal.

The reality? Disappointing, of course. Not just because there are no spectacular crashes, blown out tyres or crimson explosions, or because the modifications to your vehicles are purely cosmetic, or because the gigantic open-world map is almost entirely empty, or because the race courses themselves (when you eventually find them) are so poorly delineated that you find yourself perpetually lost unless you keep a constant eye on your GPS (which means you’ll almost certainly collide with a tree), or even because of the lack of melee attacks, special techniques, speed-boosts, red shells or anything that would make the arcade-style racing as interesting as, say, Super Mario Kart or even the ancient Road Rash.

(I suppose I should have spotted the warning signs when the title was announced. The Codemasters of the 80s would have called the game something like ‘Advanced Post Apocalyptic Racing Simulator’, and the back of the box would have spurious ‘recommendations’ plastered over the back of it such as ‘The best racing game ever!’ or ‘Absolutely brilliant!’. Instead, the decision was made to call the game Fuel, a title that evokes precisely nothing. Fuel‘s just brown stuff sloshing about in a barrel.)

All these things are, as you’ll have gathered by now, rather disappointing. But the most desperately, crushingly disappointing thing about Fuel is that it represents such a missed opportunity. Asobo Studios had a stunning concept and let it go to waste: the first environmentally aware driving game.

Here’s a concept that shows humanity at its most pitiable. Years of industrialisation, greed, material obsession and, of course, driving have left the planet an uninhabitable desert, where the few survivors cling to life as storms rage all around them. And like a terminally ill cancer suffererer addicted to his cigarettes, these last humans just can’t stop driving, unable to kick the habit that brought the environment to its knees.

They ferret around among the rusting petrol pumps and tankers for the last drops of remaining fuel, and spend their terminal hours not in the pursuit of food or water, but in a final, joyless, futile race for a victory with no prize, hurtling endlessly through dirt and mud and rain until the end inevitably comes, and they die there, those final humans, strapped into their 4x4s and buggies and quad bikes while the engines splutter their last too, the final drops of fuel all gone.

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The last lingering shot, of skeletons slumped over the controls of cars they couldn’t bear to give up, is the real Inconvenient Truth.

But Asobo Studios blew it. They missed the chance to create something quite new in the medium. They had the concept all laid out before them – the ramshackle vehicles, the ruined, dustbowl environment with thunder rumbling overhead, the bleak and meaningless races – but failed to see the kernel of truth that lay at the core of it. The car, while only a small part of the environmental catastrophe we’ve created for ourselves, is a symbol of our unquenchable desire for speed, power, and the acquisition of stuff – new, bleepy, ego-boosting, pulse-quickening yet ultimately useless stuff. It is a symbol of a lifestyle we’re seemingly unable to give up, and one that could ultimately prove to be a threat to our very existence.

It wouldn’t have taken much to make Fuel into a genuinely thought-provoking, ominous and unique piece of entertainment. All it needed was a plot, perhaps, or a hint of backstory, maybe a character or two. With the addition of these (and maybe some vehicle damage and explosions), Fuel could have been the driving game to end all driving games, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with wheels, perhaps, instead of the competent but mostly forgettable experience we’ve ended up with.

And while there’s always the risk that a game about climate change could descend into a finger-wagging exercise in didacticism, games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call Of Duty have proved that weighty issues such as drug trafficking, prostitution and the horrors of war can be integrated into an exciting, immersive experience.

So I’m still waiting for the game that could save the world, the one that, between the rushes of adrenaline, gives us a moment’s pause – that makes us think about the future, if only for a second.

As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey.” A game that effectively reinforces this message couldn’t come soon enough.

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Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.