Project Gotham Racing, Or How to Make Driving Confusing

You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 5 Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. 7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

2 Timothy 2

The Bible makes intuitive sense. Perhaps not always at first glance, but reading and re-reading parts, over a long period of time, allows ideas and concepts to gestate. Performing the act of Bible reading with regularity keeps Scripture in your mind, and that’s how we meditate on it day and night. It’s good practice, and I’d recommend it. Still, no one says it will be easy; there’s no magical way to “simplify” the Trinity, for example, and so we settle for knowing, if not understanding, everything in Scripture. That’s partly what faith constitutes: willingness to not know it all, and to run the race according to the rules that we know, not the ones we make up or change.

In that sense, I just don’t get how to play Project Gotham Racing.

Project Gotham Racing 4 PGR4

A few seconds before ramming into a wall at top speed in Tokyo.

Maybe I’m spoiled on the unrealistic handling of Ridge Racer, or the simulation feel of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, or even the unbridled craziness of Mario Kart and Excite Truck. Still, Project Gotham Racing does not present what I’d call a “pure” racing experience. As nearly every other review on the planet tells me, Project Gotham Racing tries to straddle the line between arcade physics and a simulation-style control scheme. Unfortunately, I find this leaves me in a state of total and utter confusion.

Like Ridge Racer, PGR relies on the concept of drifting, the idea that you oversteer intentionally into a turn in order to lose traction. At the same time, you’re steering the car into the curve, and hopefully you’ll skid right into the corner without ramming into the wall. Most video games intentionally emphasize this as a mechanic for racing (unrealistically) around tight 90 degree corners and sharp U-turns. In Ridge Racer, getting into a drift’s as easy as letting go of the gas, oversteering into the corner, then flooring it and leading yourself through the turn. Due to the way Ridge Racer works and designs its courses around this, it works rather well!

However, I’m not sure what, exactly, happens in PGR. What kind of driving skill does it want to engender? The game provides zero feedback in the same way that an older video game might rely on its manual to convey the basics. Unfortunately, the manual provided little help at all, instead focusing on the “Kudos” system which rewards you for stylish things like drifting and burnouts. Great, guys, love this scoring system – now tell me how to take corners at high speeds without bashing into the wall!

Do I pull the handbrake, or just tap it while accelerating? Can I really take a corner at full speed, or am I bound to smack right into the wall? Although the manual does list the various kinds of drifts (why do I need more than one? I’m not a car experts, guys!), the act of performing them remains completely unexplained. I am left to figure it out on my own with no tutorial. While that fits right into my wheelhouse in most cases, the lack of intuitive design really hampers the learning process, making it more frustrating and tedious than enjoyable. I crash into walls far too many times doing the drift wrong than right, and even now I do not know the precise timing. I will not give up, but the game’s not making it easy, either from intuitive design or an AI seemingly designed for those who played previous iterations of the series (read: if you make a mistake, prepare to lose immediately).

Certainly, it does highlight a huge gulf between the way Western and Eastern developers take the game design approach. For Ridge Racer, a product of Japanese culture, the game eases you into the difficulty curve with the AI. Sometimes it will try to take the top spot, but a genuinely competent racer, over time, will win more often than not. You race the same fifteen or so courses in just about every conceivable combination, and the game continually stacks the challenge in just the right way to progress the player from beginner to expert. Given enough time, experience, and dedication, simple mechanics reveal loads of depth as the kinesthetics embed themselves into your brain and you find yourself with a definite feel for the game’s movement. I like this approach, even as others call it “boring”. They really beat the track designs into your muscle memory, both to teach you the game and, later, to throw horrible odds your way after you know the layout. It makes you feel like you’re slowly accomplishing a task, a much appreciated sense in any game. Heck, even Gran Turismo does this with its license tests, and rarely do people complain about those!

On the other hand, Western developers focus on the “experience” of driving as opposed to the mechanics. This makes sense in terms of simulation games (which, let’s be honest, looks designed with an actual steering wheel setup in mind), but sometimes it opposes the player in having a good time. That is, unless they’re already familiar with the genre, which PGR definitely assumes and requires. There’s definitely too many things and too little natural explanation happening, and it does not help me any in playing the game. I don’t care whether a game contains a vast quantity of complex mechanics with huge depth; just give me the tools to learn them over time and I will like you. A lot. But forcing me to race over and over again to understand a basic mechanic does not strike me as good game design. Nor does letting a player shift the difficulty level (which PGR does allow, but I keep my pride even when it hurts).

Developers, hear me out: you need to design the game. I am the player; all I do is play your game, assuming that the millions (assuming a big budget title) of dollars that go into the product do, in fact, somehow produce a great game design. Giving me, the player, the option to switch these at will, without concequence, constitutes the highest degree of laziness. I don’t just want to beat the challenge, I want to learn how to finish it and win within predetermined constraints and my developing skill set. The progressive curve should allow me to see my progress, not just bounce around the challenge when I do not “feel” particularly good on one day. The race exists on a predetermined length, and to change that at the last second or the drivers against me (maybe a good caning or something) would look like blasphemy in the real racing world; why should I expect any different in a game? You might strive for realism in graphics, but a lack of intuitive driving also creates a strange disconnect.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m against multiple difficulties levels, unintuitive (and simply inconceivable) game design and a game design eschewing their duties for “feelings”. None of these reflect real life, and the bridge between “sim” and “arcade” means Project Gotham Racing sits in a strange, and not at all pleasant, middle ground. Perhaps I will get better, and perhaps my initial assumptions will prove wrong, but for right now the game makes no sense to me.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.