Love them or loathe them, racing games offer us all the chance to get behind the wheel of an expensive motor and rev it to the limit. No speed restrictions. No zebra crossings. Just you, the track and a few plucky competitors. But what is it about this tarmacked carousel that keeps us coming back for more – apart from the grunt beneath the bonnet and the absence of faux opulence inside? I believe the answer lies in our desire for perfection. Or, more likely, our reluctance to admit just how imperfect we are.
You see, racing games are very much ‘carrot and stick’ scenarios. Do well and you get a nice shiny trophy. But put a wheel outside of that white line and the stewards will slap you with a penalty. Embarrassingly, you might have to crawl through the pit lane while the eyes of the world are on you. Or stop in your pit box, for what seems like an eternity, like a child on a naughty step.
Having served your penalty, you rejoin at the back of the pack and vow to never put a wishbone wrong again. And you race forth with your visor down in pursuit of a points finish. It’s the best you can do for now – a recovery drive, of sorts – but in the future you don’t want to be fighting to scrape a point or two. You want to be scrapping over the steps on the podium.
But that doesn’t happen if you bring anything less than your A game.
Next time out, you hustle the car through the corners – fighting for every thousandth of a second. You compare sector times with your rivals – working out where they’ve got the upper hand. And you tinker with your set up – adapting the car to the track and conditions at hand. Sometimes you gain, other times you lose. But every lap completed is another lesson learnt.
With time the braking points become second nature. Gear shifts, fluent. And racing lines engrained in your mind. You know every twist, turn and dimple of Silverstone / Spa / The Nurburgring – now you just need it all to come together for that one perfect lap. And so we return to the ‘p’ word.
Ask yourself, ‘is there really such?’
It’s hard to say, isn’t it?
Especially as the greats still nitpick their performance once the engines are off, even if it is a personal best. So I’m inclined to say that perfection is a time critical concept, which can be there on the day – at a certain time, in a certain place, on a certain date. Whereby that’s the best you could do and you have nothing more to give. But ultimate perfection – that one, immortal perfect lap – is nothing but a fantasy.
Yes, we look back at races of old and recount legendary duels between team X and Y. Or watch in awe as another lap record is broken. But ultimately, those great moments and great snippets of racing are nothing more than mere fabrications of their place in time. Crafted by the cast of drivers on duty that day. And influenced by their bested imperfect laps. Had the names been different, or the car number inflated, perhaps the leaderboards would read differently. Just like the leaderboards in our beloved racing games.
I believe it is this feature that fuels our drive for perfection the most. For it highlights our differences and publishes them for the world and its co driver to see. The minute time we’ve found. The seconds we’ve lost. The racing line we’ve shadowed. And the track limits we’ve exploited. It’s all there, in black and white. Or, more appropriately, green and ridiculing red. And there’s no getting away from it.
So what do we do?
The only thing you can do when you’re not the pacesetter – go back out, eat up the miles and get our lap time down.
In other words, we chase down that perfect lap.
Now, ultimately, you might (smartly) concede that a top ten time on a leaderboard of thousands may be out of your reach. But even then, you don’t give up on perfecting your drive. You still leave the garage in an attempt to shave off 0.0001 seconds off your PB because it’s out there somewhere. After all, someone else found 5+ more seconds around those same twists and turns, so there must be more to come from you. Not much, but something. Surely.
And maybe there is. But guess what happens when you do find that extra sliver of performance? You go looking for some more. And some more after that. Because it’s a vicious cycle that never ends; it just transfers between cars and circuits.
And all of the above equally applies to actual races as well as time trial events.
You see, if you qualify anywhere but first, you’re determined to finish in a higher place – or at least no lower – than that in which you started. If you start on the front row, there are only two acceptable outcomes. And if you start on pole, it’s first come or first swerved. The latter delivering a bitter blow. But how do you think any of this becomes possible? Only by delivering a perfect race, of course – your perfect race – which sees you fighting for places, holding position and actually seeing the chequered flag. Because anything less than that will see you spinning into the gravel or limping back to the pits. And then the only thing you’ll perfect is the walk of shame.
That is exactly why I love racing games. There’s just nowhere to hide. You can’t simply run and gun, expecting to be victorious. Instead you’re forced to consider every action, weigh up your reactions and adapt to the conditions around you.
Engine overheating? Get out of the tow. Locking up the fronts? Move the brake bias backwards. Used a little too much fuel? Better turn the engine mode down.
The best part, however, is in just how repeatable the whole exercise is. That’s because, without fiddling with the size of the field, discipline type or climatic conditions, it’s all the same. Every corner exactly where you left it. The only difference is in how well it is driven. And that shows in the lap time you achieve.
It really is just you, the car and the track. And when the three are in harmony, that perfect lap may just be one more lap away.
But, remember, looks can be deceiving. As can your optimism.
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Living life one Batmobile chase at a time. When she’s not writing about video games, she’s writing terrible jokes that even a Christmas cracker would be embarrassed to share.