It’s interesting to examine how video games, like other narrative or interactive mediums, have a good deal of variety in the nature of the escape they offer. It seems to say something about the maturation of the medium. For years, nobody would have argued that Pac-Man or Pong or Donkey Kong had any but the most rudimentary elements of realism. But as technology, narrative techniques, and the games themselves evolved, so came those that strived to be simulation, historical fiction, pure fantasy, or any of a number of other genres.
I was having a conversation the other day with a friend about comic books, and how it seems so odd to me that, by and large, that medium is defined in the popular lexicon by superheroes. Those are the sorts of characters most people think of when confronted with the word “comics”, particularly with the glut of superhero movies coming out of Hollywood these days. When you say you like music, nobody instantly assumes you mean rock, for example. For a long time, video gaming suffered a similar perception. There was sort of a stereotypical view of both gamers and what video games were, primarily due to lack of variety. But nowadays, if I want to play a particular genre of game, I typically have multiple subgenres from which to choose.
Racing games are among the most diverse example of this variety. You have games with over the top, arcadey physics, like San Francisco Rush and Ridge Racer, Kart racers like Mario Kart and its infinite clones, futuristic, speedy racers like Wipeout and F-Zero, and a number of other styles of race games. Perhaps the most intimidating are the hardcore simulations. This is probably true of any genre of games, really. As it gets ever closer to reality, the Madden series progressively loses my interest, while I tend to have a good time playing Blitz, or my old standby, Tecmo Bowl. But perhaps that’s because I know next to nothing about football. What I’m trying to imply here is that maybe arcade-style games are more interesting for people with a passing interest in the source material, but wield nothing resembling real knowledge. This isn’t a novel argument. In fact, it seems to be the “embracing of casual gamers” concept that’s driving Nintendo’s string of current successes.
The reason that Forza Motorport 2 succeeds on all levels is that it is the racing game you choose to make of it. If figuring out the appropriate drive lines through trial and error or sheer know-how is too difficult, drive assists exist that essentially make turning a minigame. Slow down and follow the line, accelerating or decelerating appropriately to the presented color. While stock settings for most cars are fine, you can spend time upgrading and tweaking them. Upgrading is a fairly simple endeavor, where post-upgrade performance is shown and explained to you before the purchase is made. Should you want to get your hands dirty, though, the cars are nearly infinitely tweakable. You can view real-time data about your car as you drive. You can turn the driving assists completely off and make this as simulation as simulation gets.
Ooooh, a cross-platform paintjob! (Source: the Forza Motorsport forums)
The other remarkable thing about Forza Motorsport 2 is the painting engine. I don’t know if Microsoft Game Studios realized when they put the vinyl system in place that it could be used to such stunning effect, but they must have figured it out in short order. I’ve spent nearly as much time poring over the lovingly crafted paint creations displayed online as I have trying (and failing) to make my own masterpiece. When I tried to find something that interested me to plaster on my car that wasn’t already out there, I struggled (I’ve found not one, but two incredible cars dedicated to “A Clockwork Orange”, for example). Customization isn’t really anything new in these sorts of games. In fact, it’s actually somewhat surprising that you can’t import graphics or stills from the Live Vision Camera. Regardless, what this palette of skinning tools gives you is another angle with which to make this game distinctly yours. The level of customization on display here goes far beyond the few difficulty settings and extra costumes other sorts of games might offer, even within the confines of a limited number of tracks. Again, though, you don’t have to pay attention to any of this if you don’t want to, and it’s still an incredibly fun game to play.
While it’s not abnormal for a game to appeal to both the hardcore gamer and the more casual one, I think this might be one of the few efforts that has done so not by having mass appeal for its core mechanic or style, but rather because it can be approached a variety of different ways. It’s interesting to imagine where games might go from here, with respect to having that universal appeal. It can be done. A lot of people look to film as having already forged the path that games are on. Limited understanding of the medium and its technologies led to tentative first steps, experimental phases, alternative production schemes that allowed for independent development, and the recognition of the medium as art. To take the analogy a little further, today there are certainly both summer blockbusters and art house movies. But there are also those films that seem to be embraced by fans of both types. That splintering is beginning to exist in the game world, and Forza Motorsport 2 represents an example of a game that hits both sides.