Gaming Made Me: Carmageddon

By Andrew Smee on November 1st, 2011 at 10:17 am.

This was a really disconcerting face to look at during a loading screen, you know

I was nine years old, visiting far-flung relatives in Malaysia. Back then, piracy was huge over there, with entire shops in respectable shopping malls dedicated purely to the sale of pirated software of all stripes. To a young kid with no real concept of money and ownership, all I saw was shelves of games in poorly-photocopied plastic wallets that my well-meaning relatives happily bought for me, armfuls at a time. Though their behaviour was confusing, I wasn’t about to stop them and I hurried along, pulling game after ill-gotten game into a small pile of treasure. Then, on one rack near the back, a single image stood out: a bald man daubed in blood with eyes like the devil clutching a steering wheel, and stamped with a big, fat, deliciously intoxicating 18 Certificate.

I knew it must have been a racing game, that much was obvious. As a child, racing games weren’t just my favourite genre, they were the only type of game I ever played. The concept of one that was 18 rated didn’t make any sense – how could that work? Flipping the case over, I was confronted with a series of screenshots showing dark cities, burning cars and the bloody mess of the pedestrians in their way. What looked like monster trucks, dragsters and sports cars affixed with spikes and ramrods all racing at once, seemingly with the intent of total destruction. I immediately know that I had to have it. I snuck it into the pile of games already chosen, and hoped that my smiling relatives wouldn’t see.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I was a completely innocent child, but I was definitely unprepared for what came next. After flying back home to England, I guiltily loaded it up on the wheezing family Gateway P166 when my parents were out and was confronted with this:

I’m pretty sure I suffered from nightmares because of that. For a kid whose entire music experience so far was listening to The Beach Boys and The Beatles in his Dad’s car, the devil drums of an instrumental Fear Factory song coupled with the seemingly wanton murder of an innocent flag man was too much to bear. Still, it didn’t exactly dissuade me from playing. Like an addict, once exposed to the carnage I kept on returning again and again.

And it’s here where Carmageddon began to have its effect on me. I started to realise that it wasn’t an excruciating horror game designed to terrify me, but instead was it meant to be a joke. Having never been exposed to any kind of black humour before, playing Carmageddon was a concentrated exposure to a very adult sense of cynicism and bad taste. Coupled with a child’s sense of obsession, I quickly started having my own private education by playing it after coming home from a day of Key Stage 2 at the local primary school.

I began seeing the humour in the writing and character design, but much of it still was flying stratospherically over my head (only getting a Cunning Stunt bonus in later teenage years). Nevertheless, I took the game extremely seriously, playing it with the solemnity usually reserved for studying high works of literature. I agonised over every detail about the world before me, as almost every idea was new to me. The fact of a near-future urban dystopia, for instance – that was something I had simply never encountered before. The races set in and around the MagnaChem Acid Ocean Reprocessor especially electrified my imagination: a huge industrial structure surrounded by an endless acid yellow ocean. Was this the blue sea I swam in? How did it become like this? What on earth had happened to this world?

People in the world of Carmageddon seemed to be made of eyeballs.

Previous racing games I had played around with existed only in the current world of rally cars and Ferraris, or if set in the future, they only showed the clean neon dreams of Wipeout or the fluffy chaos of Rollcage. Carmageddon’s future was bleak and dismal, the primitive draw distance giving a constant atmosphere of polluted depression simply by fogging up the road ahead. It got me interested in environmental awareness, encouraged me to start reading science fiction and propelled me into overly dramatic teenage years mired in cyberpunk and metal culture, all because of how seriously I was taking an immature racing game designed to make tabloid headlines.

Of course I was quickly found out by my parents, who surprisingly enough only reinforced the “no games until you finish your homework” rule. I began showing it to my friends from school, and the gratuitous violence and lurid depravity captivated our impressionable minds, bringing forth hurried lunchtime sessions of drawing the cars exploding out of our imaginations onto the 1cm squared graph paper.

Playing it now reveals a somewhat muted experience, a combination of sluggish steering and lethargic gravity conditions resulting in a staid, almost conservative time at the race track. The feel of the game is stilted. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that developers Stainless Games achieved something special with the encapsulating technology and world design, letting you loose in giant maps to make your own free-roaming fun. What other racing game has taken such a care-free approach to victory conditions? This was a game that counted laps and rank positions, yet didn’t care if you turned right around and didn’t drive near a single checkpoint. Victory came through destroying the competition as often as coming first.

In fact, the game all but compelled you to drive off-course, the official race layout each time a mere suggestion. Stainless seemed to be perfectly happy fostering a rich sense of exploration, creating entire cities and coastal towns before sprinkling a handful of directions as a casual afterthought. Even progression through the race championship was non-linear, letting you choose which tracks to race with many of them optional, dependent on your whims. Carmageddon was a game designed with every aspect on an eye to empower the player, all the usual restrictions gone. Getting lost was all part of the ride.

Remember, Z is wheelspin

Ludicrous events could happen as a result. Though the steering might have been spongy, the cars had no such problems with straights, and were in fact probably more overpowered than the design merited. The sportier ones felt as if they reached almost supersonic speeds down the longer stretches of highway, inevitably hitting a yellow and black barrier placed square in the middle of the road and being catapulted so high into the air that the draw distance would erase the tops of the skyscrapers below you, leaving you momentarily floating in the ether, trapped in one of those existential grey nightmares peculiar to late-90s 3D action games.

Carmageddon had an innate surrealism that fascinated me, featuring powerups like the Instant Hand Brake which would immediately stop you cold and worked even in mid air, or the Wall Climbing Ability that let you effortlessly scale cliff walls. They all instilled a madcap atmosphere that is still at odds with many of today’s po-faced racers. The madness would only deepen in the later Splat Pack expansion, which drove even further off track and offered twisted worlds comprised of eerie broken bridges connecting unreal floating islands. Not to mention a final level that featured a race through a fiery burning Hell, complete with miniature disco and a giant Satan playing Carmageddon on a huge beige desktop PC. It’s places like this that filled my daydreams and doodles at school above any other fictional playground.

The damage model of the cars was likewise twisted. Fully destroyable cars with detachable parts were torn apart with glee in the later sequel Carpocalypse Now, but Carmageddon had no such luxuries. Instead, damage was shown by warping the very vehicle models themselves, and taking a drive through one of the many minefields reduced your car into what looked like a stuttering graphical error, a jagged mess of warped polygons and stretched textures hobbling around on a fractured wheelbase. It makes the destruction seen in modern racing games seem twee in comparison – really, what are Burnout’s engine blocks made from that they can withstand that kind of punishment as the chassis shreds like tin foil? I used to bend and twist the Carmageddon garage into unrecognisable shapes with glee; the canned destruction seen these days is toothless for all its sound and fury.

Beef Curtains.

Embarrassingly enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve stood up and tried to explain why I loved this game so much to an audience. One week in primary school, we had a class project on how to give presentations. We could choose our topic, and had to spend five minutes in front of the class attempting to sound professional. Inevitably, I chose Carmageddon, and after a couple of evenings of tense preparation, I stood up in front of my childhood peers and stammered my way through the appeal of an 18 rated videogame. It was my first foray into games journalism, and it didn’t exactly go well. I can see a lot of myself today in that kid, forever trying to make people understand his passion about a topic that frequently resembles the very depths of unsophisticated puerile entertainment, only to have blank stares of silent pity reflected back at him.

Stainless recently made some noise with their reacquiring of the Carmageddon license, announcing a downloadable sequel dubbed Reincarnation, slated for a 2012 release. There’s precious little information available at the moment, save for this interview by Alec, the official website containing community-made papercraft cars and a smattering of concept art (which admittedly all makes me preposterously excited). I’m comically eager to find out any new information, though I have reservations over the base humour on display and what that means for the eventual game. I’ve long since realised that being offensive for the sake of being offensive isn’t exactly something to be celebrated.

Carmageddon’s presentation was unashamedly crass and unsophisticated, admired by me only as a child because I’d never experienced bad taste humour before. However, playing it also filtered my perception of the world as I was growing up, helped foster young friendships that continue to reward to this day, and cemented strong feelings about the role of games as cultural and social tools that are the reasons I’m compelled to write today.

Carmageddon was by no means a perfect game. It just happened to be the perfect game for me.

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49 Comments »

  1. applecado says:

    I spent years playing these games, making new car models and what-not for them. People still chat in #carmageddon on IRC. Fantastic.

    =)

    • Donjo says:

      I seriously hope so, just popped over to see. I’ll be sorely disappointed if no one replies.

    • Dhatz says:

      That would be such a major disadter if the reincarnation gonna have GTA five-ish lack of innovation.

  2. RaytraceRat says:

    this game was awesome, I spent so much time playing it as teenager. Now when I got driving licence I try to drive a bit more careful.

  3. Monchberter says:

    Aside from Lucasarts Dark Forces (another Gaming Made Me worthy game), Carmageddon is the game that solidified my life-long love of the PC. I think up until about 2002 i was making sure I played it at least annually.

    Stainless – fix the network mode for internet play (cough hello Worms / Team17), stick it on Steam for £5 and watch your bank balance suddenly get very healthy as myself and my fellow turbonitrousbastards get a nostalgia kick.

    • UnravThreads says:

      Steam? Nah, it’d have to be on GOG.

    • Screwie says:

      I would buy that the instant it happened. And I would badger my friends to do the same. I never experienced the game’s multiplayer as a kid and would love to try it now.

    • dontnormally says:

      ^ all of this

    • Bobby Oxygen says:

      I love Carmageddon, but let’s be honest; The multiplayer sucked. The guy who got the dump truck would ALWAYS win.

  4. Magus44 says:

    Haha Ohhh Carmageddon. Never played the full version, but I can remember getting a demo with a magazine. PC Zone or something.
    Me and my friend played the hell out of it on a lazy Sunday. The freeroaming was incredible. We were comparing awesome jump spots, where good bonuses were, cool things that we found. It was mental. I loved the exploration more than the driving. Was also my first introduction to violence in the media when my dad came in and said, “That looks like that silly violent driving game, wasn’t it banned?”
    Good times.

  5. Anders Wrist says:

    Loved this game when I was younger! (Part of me still does!)

  6. Matt says:

    Ahh, Fear Factory, the band whose album my father once angrily turned off the stereo while exclaiming “this isn’t music, it’s entertainment!”

    As for Carmageddon, well, it simply hasn’t been equaled.

    • Toberoth says:

      Brilliant!

    • Spacewalk says:

      Carmageddon got me into Fear Factory as well but I gave up on them after hearing their album Obsolete. I’ve still got the first two and the remix album which I quite liked contrary to what others thought.

      Carmageddon is one of those games I always seem to get the itch for once every few months. I actually just removed it from my HDD because I got my fix but now I’m going to have to reinstall it after reading this damn you Andrew Smee. Maybe I should just leave it alone so I won’t have to constantly reinstall it. Or maybe just the Splat Pack Christmas demo with the Quake marine frozen in ice, I should still have that PC Zone coverdisc somewhere.

  7. AmateurScience says:

    We used to play the demo (shareware?) of this every lunchtime at school – a friend lived convieniently close by. Eventually we saved up and got my big brother to buy us the full game.

    It was the version that had zombies (same models, green blood) instead of humans though. I *still* can’t stomach playing the ‘red blood’ version – I am a wus.

  8. Oozo says:

    Very nice write-up – a “Gaming Made Me” in the purest sense of the words.

    As for your remarks re: crass base humour – it’s true that I would have a hard time being taken by it, sporting a shit-eating grin all along the race track. However, I guess it’s a bit like Duke Nukem 3D: Those two games were not only jokes and puerile imagery – they were pretty damn out-there on a technological and/or mechanical level as well. It’s what was completely forgotten with Duke Nukem Forever: There was a damn fun game under the puerile hood, so to speak in mixed metaphors.

    Let’s hope then that Stainless does remember what made the games great – I certainly could do with a round of freeroaming, surreal racing.

  9. MiniMatt says:

    This is going to end up sounding somewhat patronising if I’m not careful, but I love this article as much for the generation it demonstrates as for the love of the game in question. Andrew being, by my rough calculations, being about ten years younger than me (the bastard) and as such represents the generational turning point from which every generation that follows will have a childhood continually drenched in some epic games, often epic games that the preceeding generation will say are “too old” for them, attitudes which 20 years later always, without fail, end up looking a little silly.

    As a kid I had Horace Goes Skiing, Jet Set Willy, and in the later stages, Elite, games which were fantastic in their day but which still couldn’t quite keep a ten year old entertained for too long before the need to go outside and chase a squirrel kicked in.

    Like most adults today are now aware that there is an entire generation of children (and indeed young adults) who will never know life before widespread adoption of the web, that it will be an inate part of their lives; I’m quite relieved to know that we’ve past the point where any generations that follow will be inately aware of truly epic and absorbing computer games.

    It just means that in 50 years time The Daily Mailotron will be reminicing about a simpler time, where family values mattered and respectful children would sit quietly in the corner, playing a nice game of Carmageddon. Not like these kids today, on their infernal hover boards.

  10. ix says:

    PEDESTRIANS WITH GIANT HEADS AND COWS THAT GO SPLAT

    That is all.

  11. Carra says:

    I still remember buying this together with a friend, we split the costs. What great fun I had playing Carmageddon. Full gas moving through civilians, levels that linked skyscrapers, killing other cars…

    Sure it was controversial but it’s also a brilliant game.

  12. Drake Sigar says:

    I honestly thought the only reason the game enticed me so was due to the exploding pedestrians, but on reflection it seems to have a lot more going for it.

  13. Skeletor68 says:

    Otis P. Jivefunk. and Ivan the Bastard. Two of the greatest character names in gaming history.

  14. AlonePlusEasyTarget says:

    Was? Sadly, it still is!

  15. djbriandamage says:

    aaaAAAaaah! aaaAAAAAaah! God damn mutha!

  16. int says:

    Loved the demo way back in 1997.

    Still the best driving game ever.

  17. WhatKateDoes says:

    Carmageddon. Discovered. Aged. 9….

    FEEL
    SO
    OLD!

    lol – Aged 10 I think I *may* have been playing Chuckie Egg on the BBC Micro.. but also more appropriately to the topic “REVS” – which had some memorable character names too… Max Throttle, he was my arch nemesis, faceless yet sinister terrorizer of the diminutive me back in the day XD

    • The Tupper says:

      I think I was still pushing 10p pieces into ‘Asteroids’ at that age.

  18. evilhayama says:

    This game was amazing, being a teen at the time I ate up the violence and general naughtiness, but wouldn’t have kept playing if the base game wasn’t such good fun. I think it was the open-world aspect to it, you could spend all day trying to run over every pedestrian, or destroy all the cars, or just try to climb the highest building.

    Did anyone play the multiplayer? We had some great moments in either the first or second game at LAN parties back in the day.

  19. Cerzi says:

    I remember a violence overload, I was 11 and absolutely loving Carmageddon, along with the original GTA and that ridiculous game Postal. On closer inspection, it seems that indeed all 3 of these games were released in the same year (1997). Postal was definitely the least fun game, but I remember there being a lot of controversy about it. Either way, that’s a lot of violent video games for one year. These days most overty violent games hide the fact under some vaguely humanistic story. Not back then.

  20. mutopia says:

    I’ve always found to it annoying to have to defend Carmageddon (not to mono-culturalists/videogame haters because well, what’d be the point?) from gamers saying it’s just a videogame nostalgia thing coupled with “controversy marketing”. This article perfectly sums up some of the reasons it was such a success. For me, it was not only a technological milestone, as much as the first taste of an open-world game, seemingly stretching on forever (no really, the ‘levels’ were huge, even on a scale rarely seen today outside of GTA… and this was 1997). Have a look at some of these vids and you’ll get a feel for it if you’ve not had the pleasure of playing it:

    Also immediately you’ll note the surreal and demented humour, which extends into most of the game- and world-design. You might take Andrew’s mentioning of environmentalism lightly, but for him as for me it was probably the first contact I ever had with a fictional post-apocalyptic world (gone bonkers x1000). It’s crass but it’s also clever, sometimes ludicrously so, and it actually ventures into satirism quite a lot (odd but worth mentioning, when watching Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” I couldn’t help but think of Carmageddon).

    The driving mechanics were actually superb for the time, and once you’ve gotten used to them (as with any racing game) the things you can do are spectacular (and frequently end up in the stratosphere). When you’ve memorised most of the tracks (no mean feat but it’s telling of how many millions of kid-hours went into this) the result is pure unadulterated chaos. Also, did I mention multiplayer? I guarantee you’ll never have more fun playing Mario Kart with friends than you’ll do this, the intra-vehicular hijinks are inexhaustively funny. Anyone tempted to give it a go get the “Special Edition” mod which makes it play nice with, and look surprisingly good on modern hardware (vids included): http://carmageddon.forumfree.it/?t=49158792

  21. JackDandy says:

    Carmageddon 2 was a real blast for me. Also introduced me to Iron Maiden

    Good times, good times- looking forward to what the Stainless boys have in store for the next game.

  22. Quine says:

    This turned up in the office one day and we all got involved. It had proper 3d back when this was rare on the PC, and more importantly it had *physics*. Cars kept going upward when you caned it off a ramp, and even if the inertia was slightly off it still opened up possibilities that hadn’t really existed in PC games before then. Add the enormous maps and loose gameplay restrictions and you had a mighty game.

    Plus, Pedestrian Harvest!

  23. Fumarole says:

    I still have the CDs. So many pedestrians, so little time.

  24. I_have_no_nose_but_I_must_sneeze says:

    I spent many happy hours with both Carmageddon games as a teenager. I loved the way each driver had their own personality reflected in their names and vehicular instruments of carnage, which made it easy to make up personal histories and bitter rivalries along the way. I also remember the second one being tough as nails.

  25. oceanclub says:

    “Back then, piracy was huge over there, with entire shops in respectable shopping malls dedicated purely to the sale of pirated software of all stripes.”

    While it’s been cut back on, piracy is still huge there. You don’t get dozens of peddlars openly selling stacks of pirated PC software/games on Petaling St anymore, but the computer malls still mainly sell pirated (console) games, with a few legit copies on display to add a a fairly risible air of legality. As a good uncle, I’ve set up my nephews with Steam accounts and but one is stick addicted to his console, alas. (My niece however is a Minecraft fan and even has added Notch on her Facebook page – WIN.)

    P.

  26. ZillaRacing says:

    Loved this game! i even had the splat pack!

  27. MichaelPalin says:

    I’m pretty sure I never won a race by…, racing. No exaggerations.

    • skyturnedred says:

      Me neither. Carmageddon was about exploration and mayhem, not checkpoint chasing.

  28. Lagwolf says:

    All racing are judged via this game. I played this with my friends on a LAN i set up in my own flat. We played Marathon as well. I remember the joy of using a hack to get the Splat Pack working on the Mac. It was so much fun. Carma II was great, especially with the Iron Maiden soundtrack, but the first is still the best. I think it was the first computer game I played that didn’t take itself too seriously. The entire game reminded me of the “Tennis Sketch” (mocking Sam Penkipah) in the Monty Python TV series.

    I can remember friends with serious jobs coming over after the pub for a few more beers and some LAN Carma (loser gives up his seat if there were more than two people).

    A revised version on Steam would sell like hot-cakes.

  29. Dogsbody says:

    Carmageddon, Carmageddon 2 and… was it TDR? The third one? Likewise defined much of my early-PC years. Can’t say enough about how awesome and over the top these were for the time, I truly can’t think of any modern equivalent. Pedestrian Repulsificator FTW!

  30. LazyGit says:

    Good god, you played this when you were in primary school?

    Also, no story about Carmageddon is complete without reference to Stainless’ victory over the BBFC to have the game released as it was meant to be instead of with zombies. It felt like a victory for us. I remember my friends and I messing with the files and folders from the PC Zone uncut demo version so that we could get the humans into the full game.

    The funny thing is I imagine if the game were made today they would intentionally put zombies in it.

    Anyway, hands up everyone who beat a level by killing every citizen/zombie. Just me then?

  31. mpk says:

    The Zombie Electro-Bastard Ray remains the pinnacle of power ups.

    I spent so long exploring the limits of the game world in Carmageddon, climbing hills and buildings to find extra powerups, trying to wipe out all the pedestrians on each level. This, probably just as much as Doom on the PC and Streetfighter II on the SNES, is a Game That Made Me.

  32. wererogue says:

    I remember playing Carmageddon for months, and then being completely bemused by the GTA controversy.

  33. DrSlek says:

    I always preferred Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now

  34. Jake says:

    Loved Carma and Carma 2, played them both to death. My favourite tactic was to start each race at the front of the pack but in reverse and get a couple of kills from the massive pile up that would result, especially when I finally bought the enormous dump truck thing. I remember when Twisted Metal basically added guns to the Carma recipe and was fun, but not anything like as good. It’s a shame that most car combat games (not that there are very many) seem to have copied the Twisted Metal style. Guns are boring.

  35. JagRoss says:

    By saying piracy “was” a huge issue in Malaysia, you imply that it’s no longer a huge problem.

  36. ChainSOV says:

    Great Article, It also was the game that provided the biggest WOW factor after getting a 3dfx voodoo. 640*480 resolution and filtered textures …. yummy ;)

  37. Atrak says:

    Ahh memories of 5 of us huddled around a PC taking turns playing this game will stay with me forever. The screams of ‘Cunning Stunt!’ (well maybe the alternative) and the moans as you totalled your car and had to give up the wheel to the next person mere seconds after taking the drivers seat. Those were indeed the days.

  38. mbourgon says:

    I remember almost entering orbit after coming out of a tunnel ultra-fast, I remember thinking initially that the demo was almost better, due to the intensity of trying to do as much as possible in 3 (5?) minutes.
    I remember being horrified then amused in C2 when I first ran over a nun,
    … and I remember gloriously splitting my car in half in C2, where half the car would stay at the corner, and the other half fly off into space.

    Oh, and I definitely remember buying a steering wheel just for Carmageddon. I didn’t do racers, just C/C2.

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