Alt+Home: Driving Forces

Games can be more than mere entertainment. In our column Alt+Home, intermedia artist Kent Sheely explores the ways independent developers are challenging the status quo, creating brand new experiences, and making a difference in the world.

I don’t do a lot of driving. I’ve lived in New York City for the past six years, relying mostly on public transit, and haven’t spent a lot of time behind the wheel. However, I just finished moving all the way across the country to Los Angeles, a road trip that more than made up for that gap.

On long stretches of American highway I had a lot of time to reflect, and I thought quite a lot about games that simulate the experience of driving. There’s certainly no shortage of these, but most treat the vehicle and its occupant(s) as a single entity, as if the player were controlling an autonomous machine. In my own experience, it’s easy to focus my attention entirely on guiding a 7,500-pound vessel between the endless white lines, but simple actions like reaching for a strip of beef jerky or changing the radio make me acutely aware that in those moments I am effectively two entities.

A handful of games in recent years have explored this duality, challenging the player to consider both the vehicle and the driver within as individual elements.

Enviro-Bear 2000 by Captain Games

Before 2013’s Surgeon Simulator popularized the idea of absurdly complicated simulation games, there was Enviro-Bear. As a bear behind the wheel of a car with just a few minutes to spare before the first snows of winter begin to fall, you’ve got to drive through the forest and knock enough fish and berries into the cab to fatten yourself up for hibernation. The trouble is, all you’ve got is one paw with which to steer, press the pedals, scoop food into your hungry jaws, and eject the rocks, bees, and debris that come flying into your lap along with the precious foodstuffs.

The controls for the car soon begin to blend with everything else that’s happening inside, and in the chaos, at times you’ll forget entirely that you’re supposed to be steering a vehicle at all until you smash into a boulder and go spinning end-over-end into a pond. Driving is an important task, but it’s a job you’ll have to balance equally with every other challenge that comes sailing in through the sunroof. While you’re cruising the forest for provisions, you’ll notice other vehicles darting around between the trees and splashing through the same ponds; presumably there are other bears just like you behind the wheel of each, scrambling to prepare for the harsh winter ahead.

Glitchhikers by Silverstring Media Inc.

You’re cruising down a moonlit country road in the middle of the night, a brooding instrumental melody droning in the background. “Let’s go on a journey together,” the radio DJ offers in between tracks. A hitchhiker on the side of the road passes into the cone of your headlights, but you notice too late to stop. As you glance to your right, you’re startled to discover that the person you passed has somehow ended up in the passenger seat of your car. “Thanks for the pick-up,” their dialogue appears as text on the screen. Thus begins your first interaction with the mysterious strangers who wait patiently beside the road to accompany you for a short time.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the driving controls are totally inconsequential. You can change lanes, speed up and slow down, but these don’t really affect your progress. There’s no way to bring the car to a stop, no way to accidentally drive off the road or steer into any other vehicles on the road. It’s just you, the painted lines, and your fleeting connections with the strangers you pick up (or rather, the ones who choose to be picked up by you), who all have different philosophies about the nature of life and the universe itself. The vehicle is the passage of time as you negotiate all of the turns and dark stretches of life, guiding you to new relationships with people who will sit beside you for a while.

Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around by Pixels & Poutine

In Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around, you play as an exhausted parent taking three troublesome kids on a late-night drive home. Besides keeping the car moving and on the road, you’ll also have to deal with placating the three whining and contentious children in the backseat.

Multitasking is the primary skill required to succeed; in addition to operating the steering wheel and pressing the gas to guide the car down the winding street, you’re handing snacks and drinks behind you to satisfy the needs of your small passengers, and spinning around to admonish them when they get unruly and begin to bicker among themselves. If you fail to respond in a timely manner, your ability to cope begins to rapidly diminish and you slip a little bit closer to a complete meltdown, which ends the game. You will also fail if you drive off the road or run out of gas before you reach home.

Despite the humor inherent in the concept and presentation, the game’s tone begins to take on a darker hue the longer you play. Your reprimands toward the children become increasingly aggressive and less nurturing as your coping ability slips away and failure begins to loom, the desperation in the parent character’s tone apparent even in the textual dialogue that pops up during each interaction.

Sex Drive by Royal Papaya!

While Sex Drive is also about balancing your attention between driving a vehicle and performing other tasks, it takes a much more surreal and deceptively simple approach to the concept. You play as an anthropomorphic piece of fruit whose car is powered by “Juice,” a resource you can only replenish by looking at, and successfully replying to, scandalous pun-filled text messages and “sexy” photos sent to you by other fruits and vegetables. While you’re looking at your phone, you can’t pay attention to the road, and if you hit an obstacle or a pedestrian (all of whom are, of course, also produce), you’ll lose a significant amount of your Juice.

Besides the comical and stress-inducing concept, there’s an obvious tongue-in-cheek warning about distracted driving present in Sex Drive (which seems to be intentional, considering one of the splash screens features the message “Winners Don’t Sext and Drive,” a parody of the anti-drug message that showed up on arcade machines in the ‘90s). Trying to balance driving with composing clever texts is hilarious when the victims are cartoon apples and stalks of broccoli, but it’s a really bad idea when you’re piloting a two-ton vehicle at high speed, no matter how sexy that banana looks without a peel.

Three Fourths Home by Bracket Games

Three Fourths Home does feature a car, and while you as the player are in control of said car, but its presence is merely a setpiece, albeit the most important one. Throughout the entire game you have a side view of the aforementioned vehicle, driven by the protagonist, a girl named Kelly, who has gone out for a drive in the rain. The story begins with a phone call she receives from her worried mother, and focuses on conversations she has with various members of the family as she makes her way home through two increasingly tempestuous situations: the one driving rain into the windshield her her car, and the one she’s talking her way through with her family on the other end of the phone.

Your most important task as the player is to guide the conversation forward, but you also must continuously hold down the “gas pedal” key on your keyboard. Other than toggling the headlights & fiddling with the radio, this is your only means of control over the vehicle. Releasing the gas button will bring the car to a stop and halt the passage of time within the game itself; the story doesn’t move forward unless Kelly does. As the conversation thunders forward and grows more intense, so does the weather outside, but all you can do is keep pressing the gas, watching endless stalks of corn hurtle past and disappear behind you. This minor task connects the player with Kelly as the driver of the vehicle, and provides a constant reminder that you can’t just get up and walk away; you’re in this for the long haul, to guide Kelly through the storm and toward some kind of resolution in the trauma she’s navigating in her personal life.

Vehicles in games are capable of being more than just a means of getting the player from one end of the road to the other. In some cases designers have approached this idea literally, tasking you with managing physical objects within the cabin of a moving car while struggling to stay on the road. Others have taken a more conceptual route, treating the motorized vehicle as a vessel and a conduit through which the player begins to identify with the driver or makes contact with other passengers and steers the narrative of the story forward. Each case is a refreshing new perspective on the automobile’s role in video game narrative.

Having recently moved to LA from New York City, Kent Sheely is an intermedia artist operating at the intersection of video games, art, and pop culture. His work is an eclectic blend that includes game modifications, machinima, interactive works, glitch art, and live performance.



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