[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]
When searching for strong narrative, the last place that any gamer would look is in a racing game. The player’s many laps around a track leave little place for the development of a story, characters, or personal experiences. Though you, as a racer, might gain a fortune, purchase new cars, and eventually win the most prestigious race out there, the stories that you tell about your experiences will likely be identical to those told by thousands of other players.
It all began in the winter of 2000. I had just received a PlayStation 2 as a Christmas gift, and along with it came Midnight Club: Street Racing. A strange breed of racing game to me, as it essentially threw me into a car, dropped me in New York City, and let me drive around like an asshole. And boy did I ever. Rather than enter into races around the city, I chose to drive as fast as possible into buildings. Instead of rising in the ranks of the game’s underground car club, I rose to the top of the highest building only to see my car fly over the cityscape.
Sure, I played the game the right way for a while. I found as many races as possible, if only to try to unlock faster, more insane cars. But I quickly grew bored with the core game. Racing around New York was OK, sure, but I wasn’t going to allow the game to tell me where to go anymore. Controller in hand, I abandoned what the game wanted me to do and instead created my own game.
And my game was awesome.
It started in split-screen multiplayer with a friend. Rather than race, my buddy just wanted to drive. So, fuck it, we drove. We would find the longest stretch of road, start at opposite ends, and drive headfirst into one another. The sheer number of times that we repeated this action is quite frankly astonishing, as the result was never very interesting -- after all, this wasn’t Burnout. Still, we sought out longer and longer stretches of road, hoping to set up the most incredible crash the world had ever seen.
In our travels throughout this pixilated New York, we began to find more and more to do. Ridiculous building designs allowed us to climb to the top of even the highest structure and simply launch ourselves off. And climb we did, hoping each time to get that extra mile per hour that would give us an even more amazing flight. We would set up car targets, hoping that player 1 might be able to land right on top of player 2. Some days, we’d just drive through buildings. Others, we’d just tear ass around the city with no goal in mind whatsoever.
Then, there was the aircraft carrier, and it changed everything.
“What’s up with that aircraft carrier?” I asked at one point. My buddy had no answer. It was just there, floating at the edge of the game world, seemingly with no function at all. Yet if my time with the game had taught me one thing, it was the fact that everything had its role. I quickly began to believe that this aircraft carrier wasn’t just scenery. It was reachable. It was conquerable. And I would conquer it.
This proved to be incredibly difficult. For one, the aircraft carrier had a fairly small opening onto its lower deck. To make matters worse, the access point to the aircraft carrier, which in this case happened to be a narrow ramp, gave you a very small chance of actually landing where you wanted to go. But most troubling of all was the fact that I drove like an armless monkey, smashing into walls on my way to the ramp, and hurtling into the side of the aircraft carrier time and time again.
But despite the utter inanity of my repeated attempts, I couldn’t stop. It became an obsession. It became the entirety of the game. Racing just wasn’t the point anymore: all that mattered was the aircraft carrier. I returned to the main game, winning races and unlocking new cars for the sole purpose of finding the beast that would allow me access to that god-forsaken aircraft carrier.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the last memory that I have of that game was the moment in which I finally achieved what I had begun to view as impossible. I chose the fastest car that I owned. The approach was straight. My speed was as high as it could possibly be. My takeoff was right on the money. At long last, I watched my car touch down on the surface of that dammed aircraft carrier. I’m a little fuzzy on the details at this point, but I’m pretty sure that balloons and streamers fell from the ceiling, and a stripper jumped out of a cake.
It was an achievement unlike any other that I had previously experienced in a videogame. On one hand, it was entirely hollow: there was no good reason for me to visit this location, as the game’s programming hadn’t asked me to. At the same time, it was my own personal achievement: something that I had resolved in my mind to do, and that felt damn good once I finally did it.
Though I may be using narrative in the loosest sense possible, a story definitely emerged from my time with this open-world racing game. In many ways, it’s a classic quest story. The aircraft carrier became the object of my desire, and I went through hell to get to it. My friend and I became the sole characters in this narrative (unless the aircraft carrier itself is counted). If you really want to stretch it, there’s even rising and falling action, a climax, and all of the requisite elements of a story.
Compared to the richly developed characterization of Grand Theft Auto IV or the epic journey of Mass Effect, the story of my quest to launch a car onto an aircraft carrier seems silly. However, in the realm of memorable experiences, this ranks surprisingly highly, and certainly speaks to the power of the narratives that we, the players, create ourselves, especially when we’ve given very little groundwork to start with.