-Dan Fogelman, John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin and Jorgen Klubien
“The following is a contributor post by the Purple Prose Mage.“
It is the 14th July 2006. “Smile” by Lily Allen is the UK No. 1 single. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, continues its second week at the top of the Northern American box office. THQ publish Disney · Pixar Cars in Europe for most platforms.
It’s a shame what happened to the Cars franchise. The initial film is a beautiful tale of yearning and realisation: yearning for the good old days when things were less uncertain; realisation that where you most want to be is often not the place you’re meant to be. It’s the story of discovering new friends, in a place you didn’t expect, who provide the kind of emotional fulfilment you didn’t know you needed. It’s the story of going with the flow, of life’s unexpected twists often proving better in the long term than the plan you’d intended. It’s something I can relate to as someone who’s never been happier than when being able to write for this website and thinking about all the friends I’ve made here. That was never part of my plan, but I embraced that opportunity because it eventually proved better. The film Disney · Pixar Cars (2006) presented this with a perfect metaphor of Radiator Springs having been bypassed by the Interstate just to save ten minutes of driving by people who no longer knew what they were missing. It’s about the journey, not the destination. This is something I never realised about it until rewatching it recently, when I saw the depth to it that I couldn’t understand before. I love when that happens.
That’s why it’s a shame that the sequel, Cars 2 (2011), decided to shift the focus onto being a spy comedy that resulted in Pixar’s only critical failure. Cars 3 (2017) was something of a reactionary tonal reset that did at least succeed in restoring the Cars title, but the single unique shortcoming of that middle instalment remains a permanent blot, and exacerbates a lot of faults for which the original is often, wrongly, criticised. It’s a much better film than its contemporary reputation will have you believe, but at this point, I’ve just had to accept that I’m in the minority when I say that.
And yet… there was always the feeling that a video game is what Cars was meant to be. After all, if the story is about cars, then what better way to tell that story than through a medium that allows the audience to actually drive the cars? Because the video game isn’t the best medium for storytelling. The Cars video game couldn’t possibly tell the kind of story that we get in the film, nor should we expect it to be able to. Similarly, the film can’t truly capitalise on its central concept by putting the car characters in the player’s control like the video game can. The game takes place after the film, so you’re being given access to a sandbox of characters that the film established. Both provide something different but equal, in ways that only their mediums can do. They both complete each other, yet remain separated. That’s what makes this game so fascinating to study within the racing genre.
By far the biggest advantage the game has is its non-linearity. Pretty much every character from the film is playable, if not in the story mode then in the arcade mode. The world of Cars is so densely-populated that telling a linear story within it inevitably constricts. In a film, this is a good thing, because the story remains focused. So the game provides the complimentary flipside to that. By being open season, it isn’t required to limit itself in that way. It becomes an ensemble piece that can celebrate its entire cast. That means you can choose what kind of game you want it to be: you can focus on the narrative aspect of the Radiator Springs residents, or you can jump straight into the arcade and play as the professional racers, like Chick Hicks and Strip “The King” Weathers, on the circuits. Other characters have mini-games appropriate to their character – for example, Sheriff’s mini-game is a car chase mode about apprehending speeders. It really is amazing how many different game types have been included here, given that the game is a movie tie-in product, and how none of them feel forced or as if they’re just pandering.
The contrast between those two gameplay modes is what splits the game into being essentially two different games entirely.
On the one hand, there’s the progression-based open-world of Radiator Springs. One of the greatest successes of the film is that location, an old ’50s desert highway village filled with nostalgia for the New Frontier and classic Americania. Watching it always makes me wish I could be there. Equally, one of the game’s greatest successes is the way that it brings Radiator Springs to life as an open world, placing the player at its heart, free for them to explore. It was the obvious thing to do for a Cars game, because Radiator Springs is at the core of the story – it represents the spirit of the open road and adventure across the wide valleys of the continental United States. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even bother with the story – I’d be too busy driving around the Radiator Springs world, taking in the very fact that there even is such a game in which I can do that, and listening to the soundtrack. It represents pure freedom, independence, blue skies, green grass and the sun just beneath the horizon. It’s blissful. It’s the kind of track that can always perk my chin up, like a best friend that never fails to reassure me; it’s one of my all-time favourite video game tracks and should be far more popular than it is. As a piece of music, it completely represents how the world of Radiator Springs makes me feel, and how it feels to be given the freedom to drive around it, freely. I feel like I could keep driving forever, out on the open plains. And when it lights up at night, in classic neon beneath the stars… it’s truly beautiful. It gives me wanderlust for the real towns that inspired it.
Of course, there are still races around Radiator Springs, which mostly resemble kart racing games. Characters have stock phrases for when they’re overtaken, win or lose. It made sense to do it like a karting game because that’s been proven by various frachises to be one of the best ways to make a tie-in game without screwing it up. With Cars, the characters are already vehicles. The original film must have been received as no less than a gift by interested developers. The only thing missing is power ups, because the races are pretty easy. You’ll probably spend most of your time in first, which can get boring after a while. Around Radiator Springs, there are collectables, like lightning bolt insignia, which all reward points when collected. Points can also be earned in races for succeeding at various principles, such as driving safely or drifting. There are 250 trophy points in total, and unlocking all of them will eventually unlock everything in the game, like playable characters and paint jobs.
If this game were only set in an open world of Radiator Springs, that would’ve been enough, for all of these reasons. That’s why it’s amazing that the other game mode is available: the Piston Cup races themselves, which are inspired heavily by the Daytona games. A NASCAR-themed, Daytona-style Cars game is something that I’m still surprised really exists in any form beyond being “a cool idea”. What’s even more surprising is that it isn’t half-hearted. It’s a legitimate game, all on its own. There’s real tyre wear physics and pit-stops as mini-games. It can be taken seriously, compared to its more casual, laid-back story mode counterpart. My only complaint is that the races are too short. It’s a stock car race! Is 200 laps too much to ask for?
Even now, I still find it remarkable that there exists such a game as this. One which throws so many things in, yet yields a result from all of them. A game that never needed to provide so much, yet did so anyway, and did it well. There are some games that just don’t achieve the full potential they have, and end up disappointing. What I love about this game is that, rather than being cheap and disposable, it’s been made by people who clearly see the same in it that I do. I feel a kinship with them, whoever they are. They took the basics of the original film, and blew it up to become the best game that it can be. This game is a masterclass on how you get video game adaptations of movies right. Usually, a game like this only exists in my head, as random thoughts scattered about. Somehow, they found the creative gravity to pull it all together. And I couldn’t be happier for that.
The Purple Prose Mage is the author of the Racing Game of the Week column and is currently working on a documentary about the Driver series for its 20th anniversary on 25th June. He also likes reviewing the latest book he’s read on his own blog, covering the World Rally Championship and generally posting about what he’s been playing, at alexsigsworth.wordpress.com. Buy his stuff on eBay!
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Categories: Racing Column