I hated fairgrounds, growing up. I really hated fairgrounds. Have you ever been to a Scottish fairground? Pity me: they’re the only kind I know. Noisy, rusty, rainy, beery, leery shite, and staffed by men who look like wolves stuffed into human form. Children crying (from sheer bewilderment, really), seagulls diving for their chips; middle-aged men, sweating and slow, openly eyeing up the pre-pubescent meat; toddlers screaming, vomit-drunk, to the beat of pounding techno. At my local fair, I saw a homeless woman (whose habitual patch was now home to a street stall) quietly asking if she could have a free sample of chocolate to give her son. She was told no – and I quote – she "should have fucking worked for it".
It’s a show of opulence so hateful, it’s like church propaganda against the very idea of pleasure. It’s like our architecture got drunk, went on a nihilistic bender as a cry for help, as a howl against all the overripe fruits of modernity. Wondering if by the end of this you will still have your face, you pay – pay! – for a machine arm to throw you, queasily high, up into a skyline of neon and noise. You go on these rides – in all their hyper-modern gaudiness, their spiritual ugliness – without any fear of death, because you know in your heart that you’re already in hell.
All this, of course, is by way of talking about Wipeout: Omega Collection for the Playstation 4.
I've bounced off of the Wipeout series several times before. This is not just because its tracks are so narrow that you find yourself repeatedly "bouncing off the fucking walls". It’s because the series is – aesthetically, conceptually, spiritually – ugly as sin.
Wipeout’s futuristic cityscapes are a multisensory overload. The player is met with a bombardment of clashing typographies and droning noise: advertising junk and corporate kitsch, all fighting for attention among a fug of billowing exhaust fumes. In this future, our machines have conspired to colonise the earth. Everything is metal, synthetic, sculpted glossy and smooth. Our cars are stretched tight into insect skin: jarring colours, yellows and blacks as angry as wasps. Crowds of spectators are dotted around the tracks, but they are occupying a hostile architecture. Like present-day retail parks (stranded miles deep in suburbia, accessible only by motorway) these cities are to be reached and traversed only by vehicle, not by foot. The citizens are subordinated to the machinery they built.
I’ve heard Wipeout described as a “pure” racing game, what with its single-minded focus on precise turns, rote memorisation, raw muscle memory. “Uncompromising” is the word I would use, for good and for ill. Wipeout is so committed to being what it is – pinched, narrow, demanding of its players only the very best – that it leaves no room to accommodate anyone not totally on board. The game glares at you like it’s royalty, like it’s your boss, furious that they’ve been burdened with an employee that needs to shit and to eat and whose bones can break. To the overheated screeching of its techno soundtrack, the mechanical precision of its time-stretched breakbeats, Wipeout flings you headlong into spaces of metal, courses and landscapes carved inhumanly smooth, and all of it careening towards you at five hundred miles an hour.
I find racing games in general to be difficult to love. Repetitive structures, one-and-done affairs: they can be coldly mechanical things. Wipeout takes this cold mechanical nature and foregrounds it in its aesthetics and tone. It's a masochistic game, in the broadest possible sense. You have to hate your own humanity in order to adjust, see all your frailty and imperfection as a skin which needs to be shed, so as to better fit with Wipeout’s ruthless logic. You curse your thoughts for drifting elsewhere as you attempt a time-trial for the seventeenth time. You curse the contender you’ve just killed for letting his corpse get in your way.
It’s a nihilistic pleasuredome: a spectacle as ugly as a bellowing fairground ride. The game’s sleekness, its technical prowess, makes its gaudiness all the uglier – the games industry’s wealth is put on full and jangling display.
Upsettingly, I’ve started to develop a taste for it.
I’ve spent the last year listening obsessively to the music which gives Wipeout its identity. Throughout its twenty-year run, the series has stayed doggedly loyal to the 90’s club scene which birthed it. Techno, Jungle, Drum & Bass: I love the ragged hostility of it all. These latter two genres – and their break-neck rhythms – were made possible by the innovations of time-stretching: computerised drumbeats accelerated to a speed beyond raw human capacity. Rufige Kru’s ‘Manslaughter’ and ‘Ghosts of My Life’ both make me think of Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill hellscapes. Here, though, Yamaoka’s dread is spliced with hyperactive drums to produce a perversely excited kind of apprehension.
Jeremy Gilbert claims (somewhere, forgive me – I can’t remember the source) that Jungle grew up as a response to the new conditions of the early 1990’s: widespread unemployment, the broiling tensions and pressures of inner-city life, the collapse of trade unions as a site of defence. The basic pace of people’s lives had changed, as whole swathes of industry and public services were exposed to the forces of the market. The Thatcher/Major governments were unleashing a newly untethered form of capitalism; Jungle registered and reproduced the rhythms of this accelerated exploitation.
The breakbeats of Jungle and Drum & Bass find an obvious analogue in Wipeout’s apocalyptic speed. Both Wipeout and its soundtrack are feeding on the same currents, both acting out a fever-dream panic in response to an emerging modernity.
Writing on Jungle, Kodwo Eshun wants to emphasize that the genre is not simply a form of protest, or even an expression of discontent. It’s more complicated than that. Jungle, for him, is “a libidinalisation of anxiety itself: a transformation of fight or flight impulses into [a source of] enjoyment”. The genre does tap into the anxiety and precarity of the 1990’s, but it does this with the aim of mining it for pleasure. The accelerated pace of life and work is treated as exhausting, yes, but also as exhilarating. Jungle allied itself with the fictions of Terminator, with cyberpunk and horror, anticipating an imagined dog-eat-dog future with both dread and awe. If Jungle is about exploitation, then it is also (in Gilbert’s words) about “sort of getting off on it”.
We can see this tendency at work in Wipeout. The game seems remarkably cheery at the prospect of its cyberpunk dystopia. All of its skies are blue, the cities lit up like Christmas. Wipeout’s aesthetic gaudiness is often ugly, but its willingness to be ugly is something quite powerful: it’s a crudely effective way of accentuating the game’s brute intensity. The sheer speed at which you travel reduces everything to a smear, barely legible anyway: your brain focussed, empty, registering little more than the blurry essentials of Light and Noise. Your need to focus is so pressing that you almost stop noticing the cruelty of it all, the brutality of its combat, as you swerve to dodge the burning rubble of the many fallen ships.
It is aggressively hard work. But if Wipeout and Jungle are both enjoyable, it is because of this fact. They both evoke hard work.
I’ve been working as a Deliveroo rider for much of this pandemic. For those outside of the UK, Deliveroo is a takeaway delivery service; their bicycle couriers are paid by the order, with no guarantee of any orders, and no guaranteed minimum wage. During my shifts I have made as much as £130, and as little as £3.50.
It’s a business model carved out of a skeezy legal loophole, one which seeks to bypass the sedimented layers and layers of British employment regulation. Relying on this work is a highly precarious position to be in, and I should feel resentful. Most often I don’t, to be perfectly honest. The precarity has stopped feeling terrifying, and more like a kind of rush.
Roo has a faster pace of work than any other job I've had. Partly, this is because all the riders suspect that whoever completes their orders the quickest is most likely to be assigned more work. We can’t know this for sure: the factors that determine which riders are assigned which orders are all opaque, buried inside the algorithm. This mystery engenders a frenzied paranoia, a determination to be as fast as possible at all times. We fear that a moment of slacking will lose you favour with the computer.
There is something exhilarating in the desperation of it: the risk, and the focus that this grants you. The aggressive work patterns are addictive, alternately rewarding and punishing. You cycle alone with a single-minded drive – head empty, visibility low, the outside world reduced to a snaking blur of lights, a dreamy cacophony of raw sensory stimuli. The focus of it is freeing, your whole life given purpose. You are carried along by the ever-pressing urgency to always earn more, always earn more. You maximise the time you spend out on the roads, because you don’t know if/when your income will dry up. Faster – again; Faster – again.
Your colleagues are not colleagues: they exist as your rivals. You feel keenly aware that any orders they get are at the expense of you – and vice-versa. It becomes increasingly hard to make friendly conversation, because all human contact comes to seem like a burden, something slowing you down. You resent your friends for trying to reach you, their texts cluttering up your phone screen, drowning out any notifications for new work. You focus all your energy into pushing through exhaustion, eliminating imperfection, aspiring towards some kind of haughty, machinic efficiency.
Unlike the many poor and migrant workers that Deliveroo employs, I am not simply here out of financial necessity. I somehow want to be here. Work, the hell of work, the strain of feeling my lower back scream: I'm young enough, new enough to the labour market that this does not just register as pain, but as a thrilling intensity. I seem to feed on the chaos of almost falling to pieces: a cycle of overwork, burnout and crash, on infinite repeat.
My grandmother was on her death bed two months ago. I spent the day frantically calling round the family: trying to reach the hospital to pass on messages to her, making plans, connecting with old family friends I hadn’t spoken to in years. At the end of the day, I felt terrible. I felt deeply ashamed for being so unproductive with my day.
Gilbert and Eshun’s argument – that the music that birthed Wipeout is enamoured with the frenzy of the market – is one I find convincing, if only for this reason: I have noticed that of all the music I like to listen to while working, Jungle is by far the best music for working quickly to.
Unlike the cartoon fantasies of games like F Zero, Wipeout works hard to sell you on the believability of its future. This is especially true in VR, where the primary reward of completing each race is sitting back (steering on autopilot) as you take in all the spectacle and detail of the world. Maybe this future would not be so bad. You admire these cities, if only for their brash, techno-utopian bombast. The architecture and tracks all trace clean arcing lines, everything striving to weave seamlessly together. The materials are glossy and rich and lusciously smooth, as though carved out of thick sheets of ice.
Also unlike F Zero, and its earnest exuberance, Wipeout as a series is knowingly cool. This goes beyond surface level aesthetics. Wipeout’s emphasis on air-brakes changes the rhythm of your movements; twitchy, jolting turns are replaced by smooth gliding arcs. This makes it possible for you to feel somehow suave as you're racing: unfazed, coldly confident, focussed solely on your task. You forget you’re only one small mistake from disaster.
The very medium of VR, and its impossible wonder, stresses to you that This Future Is Coming. It is rocketing towards you, unstoppably fast. You speed along through the cities of 2097, excitedly dizzy and borderline drunk, savouring the last moments before a beautiful crash.