Sunday, 25 May 2014

What Is a Racing Game? On Wave Race 64

When I stream my emulated ROM of Wave Race 64, I always take a moment to state that I think Wave Race is a “beautiful game.” I say this seriously, not only because I think Wave Race is beautiful, but because Wave Race is a game that is concerned with the notion of beauty and the sublime. In this sense, the game is very romantic, but not hopelessly so. Instead, Wave Race's sense of beauty is displayed though a fascination and curiosity to its own settings. There’s a sense of wonder from the game itself as the camera makes slow, careful pans and tilts across its own lakes and beaches. 

These sorts of moments will happen in the intro sections of a race, where the game is foreshadowing the setting to us, and where we get to develop an idea of what kind of track we’ll be racing in.  Many racing games use these sections to flip through glamorous track shots before locking the camera to the player-character, but Wave Race takes a lot of time here, more than actually needed to communicate the basic nature of the track. So we can argue that Wave Race's intro section is somewhat 'useless'. In the sense of Polansky's understanding of the useless, it extends, perhaps even rejects intrinsic functionality, and instead takes the time to display beauty for its own sake.  Wave Race gains character, and consequently becomes 'alive' when it shows self-interest, when it inquires into concerns that extend beyond the needs of the player-audience. 

Weight of the Pan

Wave Race 64 uncovers a simple and poignant relationship within time, weight, and the image. We can make the simple observation that the longer an image is shown to us, the deeper our capacity to appreciate its 'beauty', which would be whatever appealing intricacies within the image that we can find when engaging with it. Videogames often create opportunities within the space for this kind of engagement. AAA games with notable vistas for example, like Bioshock Infinite or Mass Effect 2 or DmC will have ledges and balconies where we can stare into the outer borders of the world area, free from the high-stress play we're forced to work through when we move back into their core sections. By allowing me to engage with the beauty of these vistas for as long as I want without interruption, this spaces stretch the game’s sense of time to an infinite length.

Another example of this I think is very important is during Wave Race's play sections, specifically what happens when we make sharp turns. Along with the game's introductions, I'd say this is also a pillar and crucial part of Wave Race. When we make a rotating turn, we see the camera make a gradual pan, slowly increasing in speed during until we make a corner, at which the camera beings to slow down. This gradual, linear (or possibly exponential) increase of speed is different from the consistent, static relationship between the camera speed and the movement on our joystick, where the speed goes to 0 to X in ~0s. This use of the camera is closer to something like Flower than a competitive racing game. And yet, this small device gives Wave Race an immense sense of weight. The act of moving itself feels powerful and physically affecting. Wave Race creates a moment of sublime in the very act of turning, where our attention becomes suspended, or what Kilhefer would probably note as a "combination of attention, orientation and balance". Here, in this tiny slit of time we would call the "sublime", time becomes stretched to infinite planes, our sense of the temporal and the structural dissolves, and we are once again opened full-heartedly to the image that we are engaged with. We are now in the moment to engage with beauty uninterrupted. 

 Rhythm in Structure in Racing

What is a racing game? Or rather, what do we do in racing games? These are important questions to ask, I think, if we want to get at the core of the experience of Wave Race 64

While searching for writing on similar topics, I found a post written several years ago by Justin Bailey, who was discussing Out Run, the arcade racing game. In the piece, they argue that OutRun isn't actually a racing game at all, because it spends more energy on its settings than it does on its racing physics, and appears more concerned with depicting a general experience of driving than it is with any competitive progression or strategy. Here is what Bailey says:

"Out Run is about driving, not racing. It is not about tense competition or white-knuckle action, though it does demand skill and precision. It is not about compiling good lap times or practicing the best line on a sequence of curves. What it is about, as the Wikipedia article so deftly puts it, is "luxury and relaxation.""


"part of Out Run's appeal is that as you play the game, you continually open up new areas, you see new, novel things on your way to your ultimate destination--and reaching that destination is your main objective, more so than achieving a high score."

And lastly:

"You're racing against a clock, and the game is pretty challenging, but from the start the clear implication is that you're doing this for the enjoyment of it all, the simple thrill of speed and the open highway."

Out Run was part of a series of racing games designed by Yu Suzuki in the late 80s that fit into a style that's being discussed here: racing games that seem more concerned with stylizing and depicting the experience of driving more than designing competitive systems. One of these games is Hang-On for the Sega Master System, a game that I'm particularly a fan of, and one that I've streamed in the past. Now, Hang-On still has you avoiding other cycles and racing against the clock using a three-gear motorcycle, so it's not entirely devoid of a competitive and progressionist impulse; it's obvious that the act of racing in this context is going to involve some level of this intuition. But these conditions act mostly as a surrounding supportive structure. Hang-On pushes us towards this kind of thinking in moderation, as a means to reach a more meaningful kind of racing experience. It's thrilling not only to jolt into high speeds at a gear switch, but also to make semi-sharp turns that scratch the edge of the road, to barely make it through a group of surrounding cycles with swift turns and changes of the gear. It's staring into the soothing stretches of road that expand swiftly and sharply, interrupted with sudden calls of intense and intimate precision, that permeated my experience with Hang-On. This revolving cycle.  

Here, we see that Hang-On, like Wave Race 64, is also concerned with a sublime that we can find within this kind of play. So when we come back to Bailey, who claims that these aspects of OutRun demote its status as a racing game, I think it's safe for us to say this is a misguided claim, probably false, and one that isn't as useful to us. Rather the opposite would seem more fruitful, that this idea of racing for the feeling of racing itself is the core of what we call a "racing game, that racing games are concerned with depicting a peculiar kind of physical experience that we find when games like Hang-On reach their peak. 

There are lots of benefits to this view! One of them is that it expands the horizon of what we can consider a racing game. From this perspective, games like Mirror's Edge or Sonic The Hedgehog can also be considered racing games. Is Tony Hawk: Pro Skater a racing game, or GiDon Donut? What about Audiosurf or Nights into Dreams? What this does is it complicates how we conceptualize the act of racing itself. The possibilities of what racing can mean starts to open up, and then becomes more interesting than 'get-in-first' and 'finish-the-laps'. Expanding in this way is how we can open our minds to the possibilities of experimentation in the 'genre', which may be needed; I've had conversations with critics about whether racing games as a formal genre are stagnant in design and concept (a conversation for another time). 

So what is this elusive "experience of racing" ? I try to avoid making big theory statements as much as I can and stick to textual analysis, but I will say that racing is about moving and it's about being close to things. What this means is that moving is an act that matters; there's intricacy and depth in moving. And moving exists for more than just getting from one point to the other, rather moving is an act we perform onto itself. So in a racing game, we move for the sake of moving. We move because it feels good to move, because it's exciting and interesting to move, and of course therefore we tend to want to keep moving. This is what I'm getting at when I talk about the "sublime." Just as Wave Race 64 displays beauty for the sake of beauty, we see how the racing game at its core is also interested in this self-necessitating act, that's arguably useless, but ironically, most pleasurable when existing for itself. This is a good parallel to Polansky's assertion of the useless as erotic and sensual. Racing seems to aspire towards the sublime through focusing onto this "useless" act. 

Racing games are the only games I can think of where moving in a straight-ish line for a long period of time isn't necessarily bad. The straight line is usually the place where the racing game attempts to reach the sublime, of movement for movement's sake.  But of course, there are limits to how long I can do this before the game starts to feel mundane. Racing games are interested in this pleasurable act but they also interrupt the process constantly, through the turn of the track and the danger of borders (proximity). So there's a push and pull here, between the freedom of moving, and its sudden interruption by the call for precision and concentration. There's a crucial musicality to this performance. This is a rhythmic performance, a rhythmic back and forth between these two processes that we can then call the "experience of racing."

On Wave Race 64

What is it like to move in Wave Race 64? In the game, you race three laps against three computers through red and yellow buoys that signal directions. A red buoy is for right and a yellow buoy is for left, and you must go right or left of the matching buoy, or you lose all your speedpower. Every buoy you go through correctly gives you one speedpower point out of five. So Wave Race imposes what Matsunaga notes as "norms." The Buoy imposes ways of moving that our "permissable," with consequences for going beyond those norms. The challenge of Wave Race, then, arises from easy but pointed turns coupled with the impulse to go through the right buoys. 

Wave Race 64 uses the buoys, a soft restriction, to create a sense of rhythym to its movement, in areas that would normally be straight lines. There's a rhythym to the cycle of swerving between buoys, catching strings of waves, and racing on flat water to the lap. The waves themselves are also very rhythmic, more traditionally so as they come in patterns and jump us into the air for consistent lengths. But there's also a gradualism similar to how I described the camera pan. When we're launched into the air, we slow down as we reach our height, at which point we feel suspended for a fraction of a second. It's hard to explain, it's as if you're on the top of a rollercoaster about to go down. And somewhat like a rollercoaster, there's an incredible sense of weight that pushes on us, albeit one that's more subtle. 

With that, I think it's worth talking some of Wave Race's little qualities. I love the click that pervades the game's interface, and the soothing tune of its options menu. I also like the background cutscene of its main menu, and the announcer voice, who approaches players with a striking gentleness, and with an encouraging diction:

"Sorry, you didn't get enough points to move on to the next round."

"Aww, nice try!"

"Come back! Try again!"

Every part of Wave Race 64 is stylized into a romantic framing. It's what I think makes the game so appealing to look at and listen to. For a 18-year old low-polygon title filled with 2D textures and low anti-aliasing, Wave Race 64 is still a game I can confidently say is beautiful. Watching the sun set while you make a sharp turn in restless waters, or seeing a seagull flush past you as you race through dense fog are moments that are still striking and awe-inducing. Perhaps its style and form create something that surpasses age.

Wave Race 64 was also one of the first games I ever played as a kid. You have the option to name the racers and back when I owned an N64 (my first console), I named one after myself and another after my older brother, Edmund. In all my copies of the game, my Wii VC version and my PC version, the names are still there. 

In conclusion, Wave Race 64 is a good game! I highly recommend it. It's also game I have a long emotional history with. And it's a game that I think, along with Sega's Hang-On, powerfully encapsulates what lies at the heart of racing and moving.

1 comment:

  1. This is a lot to munch on! A lot of the ideas here feel right, especially regarding your discussion of OutRun. I'm going to have to let some things digest.

    However, your citations of fleeting beauty in Wave Race 64 contradict a competitive player's desires. When you make a turn, the camera lags--this might be satisfying to watch, but when I want to make good time, I want the camera dead-on so that I can spot the next buoy. When you leap off of a wave, you slow in mid-air--this also has a sense of majesty to it, but I don't want to go slow, I want to make good time. So, I hold the B button to hit the water faster. I want my jumps to be as short as possible or avoid them altogether if I can.

    On the other hand, a competitive OutRun player will still have plenty of room to enjoy its beautiful scenery and chill music.