Let the driving tell the story: an open letter to developers

by on January 5, 2016

Developers, this is an intervention. I know you like games to be more than “throwaway pieces of entertainment” these days. I get that. I respect that. Games can be, and so often are, works of art, blending fun gameplay and wonderful stories together in ways thought impossible until now. But not in racing games. Never in racing games.

In many ways, racers should be the purest form of videogame: a vehicle, some form of course, come first and you win. That’s all they need. Sure they can have gamey quirks, but the pinnacles of the genre, the Wipeouts, Mario Karts and Burnout Paradises of this world are confident enough in themselves that they could provide almost limitless fun without the need for an external driving force (aha).

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reviewing The Crew: Wild Run and the new Need for Speed. Both are competent enough racers, but they enforce some absolute drivel upon you. There are clichés galore in The Crew. After being framed for his brother’s murder, the protagonist Alex must earn his way to the top of the 5-10 gang, bringing them down from within with the help of an FBI agent. It plays like the plot of a Fast and Furious movie, albeit with poorer acting.

The Crew beta

Having such a plot completely ruins the open-world nature of the game, because the amount of side missions and extra stuff to do removes any sense of urgency. This is a man bent on avenging his brother’s death, yet he can find time to enter a monster truck stunt competition? Right. The gameplay and story are constantly at odds with one another, shattering the enjoyment of both – even if neither was particularly good in the first place.

Need for Speed at least tries something different with its FMV sections, but insipid characters mean you actively won’t want to continue the story (if you can call it that). We don’t need a reason to go and race: we’ve bought a game about racing, the joy of playing it should be enough, perhaps sprinkled with the promise of a new car.

Then there’s the open-world multiplayer both titles share. I’m not against this per-say, but again it is completely at odds with the narratives. The Crew encourages you to team up with other players in crews, earning more bucks and experience for doing so. All of you are playing as Alex, though, and you all know the others are getting the same spiel off the FBI agent as you play. Any sense that this is your story, any resonance you’ve built up with your Alex, is shattered.

Need for Speed is the same, though to a lesser degree. Nameless, your character is you, but the constant phonecalls from the characters mid-race pull you out of things. Again, you know other players are being treated to the same invitations, Spike fist-bumping them behind your back. It gives you a story, insists that you’re the focal point of the action, and then gives you plenty of reminders that you’re not.

The best story-driven games do one of two things. Either they give you an excellently fleshed out protagonist from the off, ala Uncharted and Tomb Raider, or they let you build and develop your own, such as in Fallout or The Witcher. It is nigh-on impossible for a racer to compete with such titles, and I can’t see any benefit for them to try. The best racers, be they sims like Project CARS or arcadey titles like Forza Horizon, give minimal reason for why you’re racing, instead focusing on the on track action, trusting that people playing a racing game will have enough incentive anyway. So devs, please, stick to building the best racing game that you can, leave out all the other guff, and we will come. I promise.