2 Slow 2 Curious: What It’s Like To Visit The Ghostly, Decrepit Streets Of Need For Speed World

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.

52 Comments

  1. Immobile Piper says:

    Ooh, interesting. It was like reading through a less than mainstream film.

    Thumbs up, Jack.

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    Dorga says:

    Liked this very much. For an incredibly eerie experience try The Forest by Tale of Tales. It’s not a stupid game by any means, but it’s very disconcerting in some way.

  3. Awesomeclaw says:

    I actually got The Crew almost specifically as an explore-o-drive rather than as an actual racing game, which is convenient because the actual racing mechanics in that game are absolutely terrible. However, it’s really satisfying to drive around, see the various sites, find nice look out spots, do some of the little challenge things etc. It’s just a shame that the fancier cars seem to be locked behind the obnoxious racing events and terrible storyline.

  4. IonTichy says:

    Umm…is it just me or did RPS’ css just break down?

    • IonTichy says:

      meh…disregard that, everythign is fine again now

    • mike2R says:

      Think it is a caching issue. I wondered why I had these big text links to Twitter etc. and had a look at the source and the stylesheet – they’re in a ul with class=”social-buttons” and the first time I looked at the stylesheet (no doubt just the one in my browser cache) there was no style for them. After a reload the ugly links disappeared, and looking again at the stylesheet there are ul.social-buttons styles.

      I tend to rename my stylesheets after a big update to avoid this. You can add a query string to the stylesheet link, generated by the last modified date of the stylesheet, to always force a reload when its changed, but I think this tends to break caching when it should happen sometimes as well. Handy for development though. The best way is to dynamically change the actual name of the stylesheet based on its modified date, or a hash of it, but that requires url rewriting that I never did get my head around, so manual renames do it for me.

      Yes I have just done a big website update, since you ask.

  5. The First Door says:

    Isn’t it called Rockport, because that was the city the nicked from the first NFS: Most Wanted? I seem to remember the only time I tried NFS: Online, it was exactly the same city, but less fun!

    • James says:

      I can confirm that it is the same city from 2005”s (I think) NFS:Most Wanted, only in somehow lower resolution. Rockport was fun to drive around, it was littered with traffic and streets and shortcuts and conveniently placed boxes. Also a lot of stuff to knock over so the cops would get destroyed in your wake. For some reason they kept repairing that stuff. I remember I always (for some unknown reason) escaped intot he golf course. I think it was becasue the reception area could be smashed through. From Jack’s description it would now be boarded up, the weeds would be growing on the course. The sand pits would have grass growing through it. More like a scene from the Walking Dead than my favorite racing game as a kid.

      • Monggerel says:

        The sun is always setting in Rockport. The sun never sets in Rockport.
        Some things are timeless; others are simply outside of time.
        One’s precious. The other, pointless.

      • Not Quite Real says:

        The golf course is still there! My friend yelped when she discovered it, because the road ended so abruptly, segueing into an enormous open space.

        I can’t speak as to whether weeds were growing in the sand traps, but it definitely, definitely felt weird. It was really nearby to the barn, in fact.

  6. Ejia says:

    There might actually be something to making a survival horror driving simulator.

    • dsch says:

      There is that one upcoming game whose name escapes me. It’s like Audiosurf but with pulsing, menacing music. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

    • salattu says:

      Auto Assault was an MMORPG post-apoc driving game. As far as I can remember, the driving wasn’t markedly different from running with any bipedal avatar, but did drive a car in a wasteland.

    • Neurotic says:

      Zombie Driver is not too bad. More Carmageddon than Walking Dead, but still quite tense in places.

      link to store.steampowered.com

  7. dsch says:

    Jack de Quidt is the name of an aristocratic scion who has turned to piracy after falling on hard times.

  8. Flank Sinatra says:

    That’s actually a green Dodge Challenger, not a Charger. I drive a Challenger in real life and people are always calling it a Charger.

    • April March says:

      It’s a challenging car to recognize.

    • CutieKnucklePie says:

      Same here. I drive a Challenger myself too and have heard it called “Charger” so many times it’s not funny.. lol.

  9. ffordesoon says:

    Is… Is the game supposed to be perpetually twilit in that surreal way you only see in day-for-night shots in old movies?

    This piece makes me really want to play a sort of System Shock 2-meets-.hack horror game, where you’re cast as one of a few friends who decide one night to play around in some outdated, forgotten ghost-town WOWalike, and as you explore, you slowly realize that something is Not Quite Right. There’s a field with a single Level 1 creature in the middle of it, encircled by unlootable corpses which don’t seem to disappear. You feel like you may be the only people on the server, even though there are other names in the list of players which never seem to go away. NPCs in the starting city give you quests, but all the quest text seems to be missing or cut off halfway through, and you can never complete the quests. A chunk of the world seems to be missing.

    And then your friends start logging out without saying goodbye. Or, really, anything to indicate that they’re about to log out.

    And then eerily malevolent glitches begin to occur.

    Man. Properly executed, that could be a hell of a thing.

    • Fishpig says:

      The question marks above the NPCs flickering like ancient neon tubes, their form beneath it changing in subtle but disturbing ways.
      Multiple crossover instancing (patent pending!), with group comms cutting in and out. AI taking over other PCs’ avatars for some time in your experience of the game, and your avatar in theirs.
      Please make this game, I will buy it, and play it…for 15 minutes till I quietly cack myself and leave, but I would be very happy to know it existed.

    • April March says:

      That would just be Creepypasta: The Game.

      • ffordesoon says:

        I hear this term a lot, but I confess I have no idea what it means. Something relating to Slender, I think?

        In which case, um, no, I wasn’t talking about anything remotely resembling Slender. I’ve never played it, and know nothing of Slenderman beyond the name and a couple of pictures. The game itself sounds tremendously dull to me.

        My idea was simply to take this article’s tone and premise and do it on purpose. There wouldn’t necessarily even have to be an explicit narrative or whatever, just a bunch of unsettling environmental storytelling wrapped around WOW’s basic mechanical framework.

        • drewski says:

          Creepypasta is any short form horror story. So called because they are written to facilitate copy and pasting (copy-paste becomes copypasta becomes creepypasta).

          The Slender stories are examples of the form, but any short horror story (such as one about driving in an abandoned world) would also fit.

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            Harlander says:

            And yet, despite knowing this, my first thought is always “Haunted ravioli?”

        • Not Quite Real says:

          I thought about stuff like this a lot while I was writing the piece, and came to the conclusion that this only really works (in this way, at least) if it’s genuinely an accident.

          Or, perhaps more specifically, I guess, if it definitely isn’t the focus of the game. It becomes a strange sort of design constraint, then, if you want to do it on purpose, where you have to design in your (and the players’) peripheral vision. It should creep up on them, but, crucially, it should never creep up on the core game design itself.

          What amazes me about this game is that if we’d wanted to, we could have played it as a perfectly effective open world racing game.

    • kaisergav says:

      That sounds fantastic.
      I still feel that the only way we could make a truly effective horror game, would be if the marketing gave absolutely no indication that it was such, and the first five hours were totally normal.
      Anyway, RPS talked before about Memory of A Broken Dimension which sounds like it might be the closest thing to a something-wrong-with-the-internet game?

      • Kamalen says:

        Should someone do that, I will quit video games for ever. I so much HATE creepypastas.

      • death_au says:

        Sort of like a horror version of Frog Fractions. A perfectly ordinary game with a terrible secret hidden in the odd bugs that only happen if you play a certain way, or randomly after a number of playthroughs

    • LogicalDash says:

      This is largely the premise of The Nameless Game, a Nintendo DS exclusive that never even got translated to English.

      • Wedge says:

        The first one did get a fan translation. Although instead of an MMO it was more like a glitched out NES Dragon Quest world. The problem was that was only half the game, and the other half was a horrible controlling ugly 3d game where you had to awkwardly stumble away from japanese ghosts that instantly killed you if they touched you.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      This honestly sounds like exactly what I WANTED .hack to be.

  10. Ham Solo says:

    That is a Dodge Challenger, not a Charger.

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    teije says:

    Interesting – I’d like to see more explorations of abandoned MMOs – something creepy about them, the rusting underbelly of the gaming internet.

    • SlimShanks says:

      I don’t meant to be pedantic, but isn’t an abandoned MMO just a single player game with a nonsense game structure?

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        teije says:

        What’s interesting to me is that it becomes a single player experience by accident – working against (perhaps subverting) the original MMO design. How can someone craft a meaningful SP experience out of something explicitly made to only make sense with lots of players interacting. Does it then become a new game entirely?

    • dskzero says:

      I’ve been looking for info on these for months and there is very little. I used to play RF Online when it was well on its way out and there were these miles and miles of barren wasteland, only populated by these critters that maybe ignored me, maybe not, but not another player in sight. Same with Requiem: Bloodymare. It was creepy, but in hindsight it was not all that different of the SP campaign of Neverwinter Nights.

  12. cylentstorm says:

    Good stuff. My friends and I have also played several games “the wrong way” and usually had a blast–but not always.

    The MMO wasteland phenomenon isn’t limited to NFSW or action/shooters, but the effect is far more obvious and palpable, I think. The worlds of most MMORPGs suffer from this sense of emptiness or feel shallow or incomplete to varying degrees–especially around the “borders.” Look long or closely enough at many of the cookie-cutter fantasy types and you’ll notice lifeless NPCs, static environments, and the places where the seams don’t quite meet. Try playing solo on an empty server (or one with low player population) to get the full effect.

    Unfortunately, this also extends to worlds that I would otherwise love–such as EVE. Yes, yes–I know: “it’s a player-driven game.” What MMO isn’t? I like playing in sandboxes, and theme parks are fun to visit, but when I stop to let the sheer phony nature of a virtual world have time to sink in, it can either be strangely compelling, or extremely off-putting.

  13. RARARA says:

    Good read. RPS should do more features on abandoned MMOs.

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    heretic says:

    very cool piece!

  15. Mctittles says:

    Thank you so much for this post! After reading I got to wondering about my favorite “just drive around” game ever; Test Drive Unlimited 1 and wondered if anyone had gotten around to getting an unofficial server running since they shut them down.
    And….they have! (link to forum.turboduck.net). I’m so happy and would have never thought of that without this post :).

  16. kevmscotland says:

    Really wish Test Drive Unlimited 2 hadn’t been such a disappointment. TDU 1 showed fantastic potential.

    • Cederic says:

      I really enjoyed TDU2. Driving around the two islands, exploring. Although the offroad elements were better than the tarmac, and the built up areas mostly throwaway filler.

  17. Bimble says:

    I will never play this game but I really enjoyed reading that. Ta.

  18. Karlix says:

    If I am not massively mistaken it is indeed not quite the Rockport from the first NFS: Most Wanted. Granted, I did try the game a short time after it came out and dropped it after about an hour (since it wasn’t anywhere near as entertaining as the SP NFS games) so my memory might be a bit muddled, however I think it is in fact a bizarre mash up of Rockport from NFS: Most Wanted and the city (which’s name escapes me) NFS: Carbon (bits like the casino district I suppose). It really unnerved me in a weird way when I tried playing the game so I reckon that the Frankenstein-ing of the world has helped to create this ghostly feel.

  19. CutieKnucklePie says:

    It’s a Challenger.

  20. rekedens says:

    For what it’s worth, I loved this game back in the day when it came out. I bought the 240z Fairlady as soon as it came out. The graphics are pretty low end but I enjoyed many good times in this game, as glitchy as it was.