At first we thought the city in Quicklime’s 2010 MMO Need For Speed World [official site] didn’t have a name. The world map definitely didn’t show one. There were no opening cutscenes to introduce us nicely, no “welcome to the mean streets of x.” After a while, though, a name kept coming up again and again on overhead signs beside exits to dreary suburbs, and it was Rockport. Rockport Entry. Rockport North. We learned the city’s name slowly, faded sign by faded sign. And then we learned that there was something horribly, horribly wrong with it.
Let me tell you what this game actually is. It was 2010. Things were relatively similar to how they are now. EA hired Quicklime Games, a studio that doesn’t exist any more, to create a sort of hybrid of Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed; an open world racing game that players could tear around, dropping in and out of events and races and smashing billboards and finding shortcuts and saying “let’s race to the airport!” and screeching off and laughing and realising that, all things considered, they were happy. Oh, and it had to be free-to-play. The word “gritty” was probably mentioned a couple of times.
It took us a while to work out that there was something wrong with the game’s setting. It was two o’clock in the morning. My friend and I had decided that what we wanted, what we really wanted, was to drive around together in an open world and look at the scenery. We were probably imagining cruising down golden-hour lit streets, parking cars beside pastoral scenery, talking about the day we’d spent. After half an hour’s searching online, we couldn’t find any games that ticked those collective boxes, so we lowered our expectations to:
We wanted to drive together,
Frankly pretty slowly,
In an open world,
With things to look at.
Somewhere in a corner of the internet, Need For Speed World beckoned. “It’s free,” said my friend. The file size was small. I think at this stage we were still pretty hopeful that we’d end up on some sunny streets. Perhaps we could put on a playlist or something. It’d be fun. Neither of us had seen any screenshots or videos.
I suppose it had what we were looking for. All the components were there. But, like the best, most expensive cars, there was something other than the fine leather and metal and carbon fibre. Something ineffable, some spirit.
And in this case, it was probably something evil.
We’d finished the tutorial race the game drops you into, inexpertly drifted around corners, destroyed a statue of a dinosaur that was inexplicably in the middle of a city street and set off out into the open world. Things seemed okay. The city was lit by street lamps and headlights and felt a little cold and industrial but nothing too different from standard Racing Game Car Land. The tutorial was instanced, so my friend and I found our way to each other and compared cars. She was driving a lime green Dodge Charger (“because that’s what Dom Toretto drives in Fast and Furious”) and I had chosen a bright red Pontiac that was so overzealously reflective it was as though I was driving a small, warping version of the streets themselves.
We found out pretty quickly that we didn’t have any control over the camera. It sat flatly behind the cars, which probably wouldn’t have mattered if we’d been interested in racing the prescribed corners and straight roads. As it stood, though, it meant that in order to look around us, we had to turn the cars themselves. We performed elaborate u-turns to take a look at the bridge where we’d met. Frequently we’d end up driving in a line and, robbed of the ability to turn the camera around, would completely lose track of each other. “Wait,” we’d say. “Where did you go?” and the other person would say “It’s okay, I’m right behind you, keep going.” After a short time, this became a real cause for anxiety.
The art probably didn’t help. The longer we played, the stranger and stranger it became. The developers seemed to be shooting for a game that’d work on low spec hardware, and it manifested itself in murky, blurred textures and jagged edges and washed out, foamy fire effects. Seen at speed, it probably looked okay, but as we slowed down for intersections and peered up at street signs the buildings took on uncomfortable shapes. Just like a coat thrown over a chair transforms in the dark into a crouched figure, we wondered if it was mould creeping up the walls of the factories, then why all the windows were darkened, and then what exactly the factory was for.
(Minutes earlier, we’d passed one of those stacks of cardboard boxes that exist for players to crash dramatically into. I’d slowed down to a halt, and, through careful wrangling of my car, had managed to push the camera in really close. Scrawled on the boxes, and I promise that this is true, was the word “EATS”, and then some scribbled tally marks, and then the words “COLEEN OR CINDY”.)
“This isn’t right, is it?” said my friend, with a sort of laughing nervousness. We saw a sign to “Neon Mile” and turned left towards it, at which point things became a whole new breed of strange. We passed a blurred, shuttered shop called “MANgo Empire”. We stopped at an intersection next to a clothes shop called Kleim, the interior of which was a genuinely uncanny parallax semi-circle containing mannequins and painted on lights. And then we turned a corner and saw an enormous – absurdly large – replica of an Ancient Greek temple. We’d found the casino district and it was peculiar. None of the washed out, abandoned look of the rest of Rockport had been gotten rid of. It had just been painted over with fake volcanoes and Easter Island heads and Mayan step pyramids and Eiffel Towers and it was sort of horrifying. My friend drove at high speed into a large round sign advertising “Montezuma’s” and it collapsed slowly on top of her like something out of a Buster Keaton movie. Casinos aren’t always happy places, but they’re definitely lively ones. Here there was nothing and nobody and the water in the fountain outside the Greek temple was dark grey. We hit the pedals – “Are you behind me?” “Yep.” – and aimed for the countryside.
This seemed like a good idea at first. We crossed a metal bridge and into a rocky canyon. Scrubby trees clung to the cliffsides, and even though the green wasn’t quite green per se, it felt like a breath of fresh air. For about fifteen minutes, we tore around wide corners and overtook each other down long country roads and the weird miasma of the game began to dissipate. As soon as we slowed down again though, we started noticing things. The university that was contained entirely within what seemed to be an enormous roundabout. The long, Dark Souls-esque corridor of trees. The aeroplane that I could see moving inexorably towards us that my friend swore wasn’t there.
We found a lake but it was surrounded by what were probably supposed to be mansions but looked more like mausoleums. We drove on quickly, and then we found the barn.
The barn (pictured above) sat on the very edge of the map. Behind it, the skybox rose dramatically and disconcertingly; an attempt to render distant mountains that was very obviously the equivalent of a much closer piece of stage set design. It was flanked by two fields of cows, the only living things we’d seen in the whole city, in the whole universe, which were standing stock-still with their heads down. We parked next to them and watched them for a bit.
The barn had recently been on fire. That much was certain. Why exactly a lonely barn had caught fire in the middle of an open world racing game wasn’t clear. An enormous gouge had been taken out of it, the sort-of-red paint flaking and blotchy. The barn door, which we could see right through, was exactly the width of a car. We hadn’t seen anything like it yet and it terrified us. “Look at this barn” we said, and then we burst out laughing because we weren’t sure what else to do.
My friends have tried driving slowly in racing games before, and it’s almost always been fascinating. Austin Walker and Janine Hawkins livestreamed their tourist trip around the world of The Crew, driving carefully and taking in the sights. [Jim did the same with FUEL over here. -Pageviews Ed] There’s something incredibly compelling about the idea of playing a game in the exact opposite way you’re supposed to, pausing to look into the windows of shops, and open world racing games allow this perhaps more than other genres. In driving slowly we get to experience the distinct unreality of these worlds, experience quite how fake these settings are. At the same time, though, a peculiar new brand of environmental storytelling takes the fore, whether or not it was intended by the designers. Our minds draw the lines between the scrawled labels on boxes, the factories, the barns, the rolling “Montezuma’s” sign and Rockport takes on a whole new character.
We set ourselves a goal. We’d drive back along the coast, re-enter Rockport from the South and end the game parked outside the Greek temple casino. Rediscovering the landmarks we’d seen earlier felt great. We’d call out “it’s the entirely empty car showroom!” or “it’s that place you wanted to open a restaurant!” or “it’s the sign that lets you buy what looks like rugby tickets by dialing 1-800-555-CORN!”. The towers of the temple loomed over the horizon and we parked up.
Somebody else had beaten us there, driving a lurid pink and purple car. Their username, hanging above the vehicle, was “DAAAAAMNNNN”.
We logged out.