One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
Every now and then, I will play a horror game. Not often, since I don’t regularly feel the need to be scared, and because so many horror games will mainly run on atmosphere and jump scares, the latter of which I’m not particularly interested in, regardless of the medium. Still, every now and then, I want to be scared. I want to feel dread at being in a place that clearly doesn’t want me there. That is vast and uncaring, and if it is out to get me, that’s just because I am so small and insignificant, yet foolhardy enough to venture there and therefore it’s all my fault. The danger to me is incidental. I went to the dark place, so anything that happens to me while I’m there is entirely on me.
And when I’m there, I suspect that the words I will hear are “Turn, one left, don’t cut.”
Dirt Rally 2.0 may seem like an odd choice to write about in this increasingly infrequent feature. Rally tracks in games aren’t worlds, I hear you say, they’re more like levels. They’re self-contained. They serve one single purpose: to provide an A and a B and a way to get from the former to the latter. Yet, playing Dirt Rally 2.0 makes me feel these tracks. The game is tactile in ways that few other games are, doubly so with a rumbling gamepad (I am fighting with myself over whether I should get a steering wheel for this game), and triply so in Virtual Reality. These places feel entirely real as I throw myself down them in a metal box with wheels. And doing a stage set at night in VR? It’s horrifying.
Actually, it’s even more horrifying than it already sounds, because often those stages come at a point when my driving has already resulted in extensive damage to the car I’m racing in. Cracked windshields, dented bodywork, and that engine doesn’t exactly sound very good anymore, does it? Though none of these are frightening, just annoying. What is truly frightening: damage to my lights. Knowing that one bump may result in me seeing pretty much nothing. Just the other day, I drove a race on the Monte Carlo track – a name that would usually make me think of Mediterranean luxury, casinos, men in tuxedos and women in dresses that cost more than I make in several months, most likely. But the Monte Carlo track in this game is set high up in the Alpes Maritimes. It’s cold, it’s icy, the road barely offers any traction. There are occasional piles of snow alongside the road, but on one side there’s a rockface and on the other there’s usually a steep drop to the valley below, and when I’m anywhere above 30 km/h, I doubt that the flimsy little railings will hold the car I’m sitting in that weighs more than one ton.
Except snow has one handy characteristic: it’s visible even during the night, as long as there’s just a bit of moonlight. Well, I say visible… I was about to start my fourth stage or so, unable to repair the damage to my car in between stages, it was nighttime, and my lights were gone. I could have thrown the race at little cost to anything other than my gamer ego (a fickle, vulnerable creature that should never have been allowed to live), but I thought, “Hey, I can just about make out the snow along the edges of the road. I can make this!” The snow I’m talking about? A dark blue against a pitch-black background, added to which it’s only visible a few metres ahead, and whenever the road would go down in front of me, I wouldn’t see anything other than darkness until I got far enough to be facing downwards myself. Also, remember that this is supposed to be a race. Sure, it’s a computer game, and nothing bad can happen to me, but in VR it is pretty stressful to throw yourself over the edge of the road into the abyss, even if it’s at night and you can barely see anything other than the patches of dark blue rapidly growing in front of you as you hurtle towards the snowy valley a hundred metres below.
The funny thing is, I don’t drive in real life. I’ve never had a single driving lesson. I don’t much like cars, I’m very much a public transport guy myself. I don’t even play many racing games. And yet, Dirt Rally 2.0 (as did its predecessor, a few years ago) well and truly has its hooks in me. It calls out for me at night. It wants to drive me mad and then kill me. Virtually, admittedly, but that’s little consolation when I’m wearing a headset and seeing little other than the lights inside the car and the darkness outside.
Reader, I made it to the end of that ‘race’. I just about kept my speed above 20 km/h, which was already quite foolhardy, but I was slower than every one of my competitors, except the ones that crashed out and had to give up. And that night I went to bed, closed my eyes, and saw dark blue patches whooshing past me in the inky black. Anyone who says that virtual rally driving in VR can’t rightly be called a horror game better get out of the path of my Peugeot 205 GTI, because I will run them down. If any games will give me nightmares, it’s this one.
P.S.: This video isn’t of me racing, but it’ll give you an idea of what it’s like with your car – and its lights – intact. Now imagine this with much, much less in the way of lights. Even Cthulhu would nope out of this, if he could fit in a rally car.