Forza Motorsport 7: The Latest Pong
I mean no disrespect to people who play Forza Motorsport games. Pong was a revolution and a valid gaming experience: I’m not using it to denote low quality. But as early as 1978 with the release of Space Invaders, video games made a conceptual leap forward to create their worlds, rather than replicate them. Tic-Tac-Toe made way for Pac-Man. A race of intelligent computers might never have made this leap, continuing to imitate life with increasing degrees of graphical prowess and control sensitivity. They could have only viewed video games as technology analogous to real life. They couldn’t have conceived the interaction with fantasy that is the essential video game art.
So I’m not denoting low quality. But by implication I’m classifying Forza games and car simulators on that end of the realism spectrum (north of Need for Speed and Burnout, which to varying degrees have their own definition of fantasy) as outmoded. We should no longer be impressed by the finite sensitivities, the minutiae of realism that comprise these simulators, as we would no longer be impressed by a modern update of that fifty-second silent film of a train pulling into a station (or a new version of Tic-Tac-Toe). The games industry has outgrown what is impressive about simulations, which require less imagination than the worst game that portrays the fantastical. I’ve heard that the Forza games are so consistent with reality that real NASCAR drivers use them to practice.
Apparently, this is some kind of selling point to all the people who have already pre-ordered Forza Motorsport 7, set to release next week. But I don’t share the fascination with simulators, any more than I would join in with a room full of people salivating with anticipation over the theatrical release of a McDonald’s employee training video.
Rather than simply say that realistic racing simulators are “wrong” or “invalid” games, which isn’t true, I want to explore my personal relationship with the concept of them, why I believe they are inherently appealing to some people, and why I personally don’t play them.
In order to do so, I’m going to tell a little story.
I used to work at Disney’s Epcot. I was always fascinated by the popularity of the simulator ride “Soarin’,” in which you were lifted above the ground in front of a screen and given an approximate experience of the sensation of flying. Imagine, I would think to myself, all these people flying in a plane from their home state or country, to come to a place themed around dreams and imagination, to ride something that is an approximation of flying in a plane.
My conclusion about that ride is the same one I have for the Forza series. It amounts to control. Have you ever been told to do something, and been less likely to do it because you were told to? Or how about school recess, where you were told to play by someone else’s rules, compared to sneaking out of the house and running into the woods for your own grand adventures? The Forza games aren’t the equivalent of driving to work or school because you decide when it happens. It may be a cold replication of a real task, but you are in control of the reality. I think the experience is liberating for the people who play these games, as the people at Disney revel in choosing when to experience something that was totally not fun when they had to do it earlier that day.
The left brain is pulling all the weight here, telling us to get excited over detail and control, informing us that the experience is valid because it approximates a real task without all the uncertainty, danger, and responsibility. The same could be said of a poker game where the money’s not real.
I believe the intention is to remove the stakes from the reality the simulator is approximating. The empowering weightlessness of imitation is the appeal. It’s also the reason why it’s not only less enjoyable to me, but less believable even than the most ridiculous fantasies.
Let me explain a limitation of the video game medium, maybe the limitation. The more explicitly a video game tries to replicate reality, the more specifically it has to stipulate its own limitations. For example, the Doom games (with the exception of Doom 3) have only a passing relationship with the real notion of gunplay. The absence of vertical aiming creates a very selective y-axis. The inability to reload creates an unrealistic expression of speed and variability. The lack of a jump function results in very loose notions of relative space, distance, and inertia.
Doom doesn’t really have to stipulate on all these things because they are not particularly analogous to the real world. Its freer form permits it to breathe in its own space and create an experience that settles into its own design, rather than into an approximation of a real one.
Compare this to the Modern Warfare games, which have a much more structured relationship with the real world they imitate. And the more realistic they want to seem, they paradoxically have to stipulate on more and more. This is a road marred by an overly oppressive design, in which the developers have to offer as little freedom to the player as possible in order to remain consistent with the established norm of “realism-lite.” They allow themselves to upgrade the aesthetics with each entry but are very careful not to challenge the limits of their reality, to become something more like Just Cause or Far Cry. To their credit, multiplayer deathmatch is a perfect use of this scheme because it offers replayability without the cost of new ideas, which would threaten to challenge the bubble of its imitations.
So I understand Call of Duty, up to but not including the much-touted zombie modes. I can’t understand why players of a series established on approximations would want to play something fantastical, rather than just playing Doom. It would be like revealing a new Forza game where you have the ability to throw blue shells. Even Infinite Warfare fits into my scheme of opinions, because the vast majority of its audience felt cheated into buying it to get the COD 4 remaster bundled with it. That describes the series’ appeal perfectly. It’s also my image for the people updating their driving simulators every year for improvements so subtle they can be described by a number.
Ultimately, there will always be better grass textures, more accurate facial animations, more precise clutch mechanics, more realistic braking speeds. There will always be games confronting the main limitation of the medium, not with their own rules, but with more and more stipulation. The believability of these games will always be challenged by our preconceived notions and will never match up to the next iteration or to the reality on which the game is based. This is the scheme from a business standpoint: Forza Motorsport 7 is as valid and as invalid a gaming experience as any of its predecessors, made yearly with the same intentions and for the same people. It will still be bought as feverishly, passed as nonchalantly through the critical system, and forgotten as quickly as any other.
By trying and failing for perfect realism (for simulations will always fail that goal) I can’t be absorbed into their worlds the same way I can into Hyrule, Pandora, or Skyrim. As a partial failure of realism they are less believable than a complete fantasy, the limitations of which we are willing to accept as readily as we would forgive The Lord of the Rings for not being a technical manual. This is the difference between us and our computers. As Pong never invited its players to conceive of anything more diverse or interesting than the table tennis it approximated, Forza will never be a failure, but it will also never be more than its inspiration.
And I spend a lot of time driving on I4. When I get home, I want to spend my downtime in Lordran.