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Where Are The Road Games?

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And I don’t mean games of The Road – that’s an entirely different kettle of misplaced licensing. I mean this: the road movie is a fruitful, interesting genre for film, and even TV, but what is it’s equivalent in gaming? Could it have one? Or are all linear games basically just that classic story-as-journey? Are shooters our road movies? Maybe, but perhaps there’s something in the nature of travel in videogames that makes it difficult to execute something authentically “road”. More essentially redundant thoughts below.

I started pondering this back in 2004, when I was the first person outside Valve to play through Half-Life 2 (just thought I’d drop that in there). The highlight of the game, for me, was the Highway 17 section, which saw Ol’ CrowbarBoy driving along the coast in a ramshackle buggy, clambering out along the way to deal with obstacles or occasionally explore the roadside shacks. Years on, I’m aware that whole bunch of people found that section a little contrived, with the vehicle acting more like a burden to be carried, than as a fun and useful new tool, but it remains in my imagination. For me it was a taste of something unusual: a road game. Not a racing game, nor simply a vehicular sequence. It was the point at which the game broke out of simply being a route through arenas of action, as shooters have been for countless years, and become more like a journey. Of course the route might have been entirely linear, but there was still the option to stop and explore, which I like a great deal. Sure, I didn’t have to get out and explore that seaside shack, but the minor battle that happened inside it was worth experiencing. It was a kind of optional adventure by the roadside. As such, the real action that happened when I got out of the car… but I’d have to go back to my ride, because we had to go forward. Classic road movie material.

I came away from Half-Life 2 hoping to see loads more of Freeman-on-the-road. Indeed, that was the best part of the episodes too, in, er, Episode Two. But I was also expecting other developers to rip off Half-Life 2 a lot more than they actually did. Surely, I thought, there will be a bunch of physics-puzzle FPS games… Surely, I thought, there will be a bunch of shooters that also give you a car… Not so much.


Anyway, when I was racing around FUEL last year – in a buggy not unlike that of Half-Life 2 – I had flashbacks to these previous musings. In the intervening years I had accepted that the real challenge for a road game would be creating ten or more hours of road. That was going to be tricky, not least because the player would have the option to speed through it. But perhaps that’s no longer a problem. It took me the best part of eight hours simply to do a loop around FUEL’s Wales-sized micro-America. When development houses are clearly able to produce such staggering amounts of terrain, why /isn’t/ there a road game of some kind? Can it really be the content problem?

Perhaps it can. The proof would be in the getting-out-and-exploring, which is far harder to do procedurally. To really create enough material could well be out of bounds for any but the biggest studios, and most of those have their budgets firmly inserted in well established genres. To create something of a length of time that gamers have come to expect, and still make it vehicular, means making it back and forth. (GTA, Borderlands, etc.)

If there is an option for the road game, then, perhaps it lies with something quite unlike traditional mainstream game models. Perhaps it could be something like Tale Of Tales’ The Path, where everything is in the brief journey, or a Roguelike, where the fixed randomness mixes up the experience for each playthrough. It could still be linear, still have the “road-trip” essence of Highway 17, still be a one-way journey, but it could deliver something which was never the same each time. A highway through the desert on which events could be different enough time for us to play through again and again. Perhaps the journey is no more than an hour or two, but within a game set of game mechanics that could generate vastly different stories: hitch-hikers, car-crashes, bandits, UFOs…

“You’ll never guess what happened to me on the road!”

It’s not like there isn’t plenty of material to rip off work with.

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Jim Rossignol

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