Home > Writing Portfolio >
Car Fantasia

Posted by: Em | OCT-31-2020

Technologies emerge as a kind of magic, representing in one the actual novel capabilities they offer, and the additional capabilities implied by a fantasy of what kind of social life and experience their broad adoption could bring about. Fusing the two is usually the job of marketing and industry, but can also be put into practice by a whole range of users and enthusiasts. Claims about the commercial opportunities and convenience the internet offered were simultaneous to early adopters of internet connections staking out cyberspace as a site of limitless potential, where any information could be accessed and the users could take on new identities and roles. In practice, as the internet became banal and ubiquitous, it made a lot of things more expensive and less convenient, and became a site where the free flows of information and individual experimentation are increasingly locked down and scrutinized. I can see this process clearly because it mostly happened over the course of my life, from the weird and wonderful information and spaces I could access (after my dad faxed in the Neopets parental permission form, of course), to the grim top-down uniformity and mismanagement of social media platforms and the struggle of finding a word processor or photo editing program I don't have to pay a monthly subscription for.

A fantasy turned banality that has been thoroughly naturalized before I was even born is the car.

When cars emerged they were seen as an oddity that was impinging on public space; reality, in many places, had to re-orient itself around cars. But early car culture also demonstrates the powerful fantasy of car ownership and car use, the rhetoric which necessitated this shift. Cars were streamlined, sexy and powerful, shiny against a dull cityscape, a coveted site to express personality and power, and a literal extension of physical privacy, protection, wealth and speed. Muscle car enthusiasts' activities are based around heightening and almost cartoonishly emphasizing this capability in a way that crosses over into cringeworthy; contemporary car ads still cling to vestiges of this glamor, but have also become distinctly corny. The idea that anyone is purchasing these increasingly inelegant agglomerations of plastic, metal, and metallic paint because of this fantasy seems more and more ridiculous; cars are now an annoying and frustrating obligation for many.

Road accident deaths, a phenomenon once so new and terrifying it was conceptualized as akin to sacrificing children to Moloch has now become practically invisible as a routine facet of everyday life across countries specifically afflicted with the material outcomes of being overrun by car culture, hollowed out public transit, sprawling suburbs and asphalt parking lots, economies reliant on fossil fuels and making up an embarrassing proportion of the world's carbon emissions. But aside from these obvious drawbacks of cars, there's also hundreds of tiny ways their ubiquity just makes life worse. The noise, the expense, the hassle, living places where there's basically nothing to do, the petty road rages of drivers who act put upon for having to respect the one crossing area per block... It's not just the road deaths and pollution that makes cars bad, but the very way life shapes around them. The idea that, just making cars a bit safer (or, replacing them with a fleet of theoretically infallible automated cars), or that they could be phased out and replaced by cars running on a less destructive form of power doesn't address this dissatisfaction, and is the sort of limited, FALC-y aspiration; an analogy would be treating “cultural access” as something like everyone getting a state-subsidized D*sney+ account. Which is to say, there is so much more to gain by considering cars (irl at least) a failed project than trying to salvage them.

In real life the fantasy represented by the car has waned. But there's a very similar imagined capability that videogames indulge. Or, maybe it's better to say that videogames literalize the implied affordances the car is fantasized to have. Cars are smoothed out, speedy movement that extends subtle gestures into a new way of perceiving your surroundings, scrolling by in panorama and stretching into the distance, while also increasing the area you can personally traverse. The incorporation of music players, and comforts like heating and cooling systems, leather seats, and other designed touches are oriented towards enhancing your comfort and evaluation of the whole process as a multisensory aesthetic experience. Beyond videogames where you are specifically driving a car (even the horses, essentially, act like cars) cars appear in many games and serve almost magical functions.

My earliest and most obsessive experience with videogame cars was the lesser-known Maxis game Streets of Sim City. This 1997 title was an early foray into 3D “open world” spaces, and it presents a comprehensive fantasy of the car through videogaming. Your car glides zippily along perfectly smooth roads, and also rumbles well enough over non-roads too. It can clip through or bump over pretty much any object it encounters besides buildings, and even if you run directly into a building, the car merely takes a degree of armor damage for you, that is tracked with a handy diagram on the dashboard. All this without even getting into the upgrades, which of course include better armor, better engines, better tires, but also weapons, and the ability to leap into the air with the “hopper” and float with the “airfoil.” These are bizarre features for a game ostensibly about driving cars, marketed to people who enjoy the idea of driving recreationally, who find it exciting, especially when examined from a simulation-oriented perspective. The car-that-can-jump, a common feature across many videogames featuring vehicular transport, is a capsule example of the weirdness of the form. If the game is about traversal, and one of the main game-y actions of traversal is to leap, then a car must also leap, as it is something you don as armor, as an upgrade in speed and stamina, of course, why wouldn't a car jump?

How attainable these upgrades are while playing the game properly, I don't know. Like all other Maxis games of my youth I just input scads of cheat codes to unlock everything and give me infinite money, but apparently “gameplay” involved delivery and battle missions in a variety of cities. The ability to import your own maps from Sim City 2000 games, to use them as backdrops for these missions, but, more consequently, to see and move about them in a different way, was also a unique feature for the time. To me, these features were irrelevant, I only enjoyed the sensation and exploration that came from zooming, leaping, floating, tumbling, crashing into and clipping through the default cities. Streets of Sim City and Sim Copter left such an impression on me, because, when I didn't have a home console and shooters were beyond my skill level and often beyond the acceptable content ratings I could ask for at the time, they were the first experiences of free-form movement and aesthetically interesting 3D space in videogames I had. Aesthetically interesting may now seem a bit generous for these drab and chunky buildings, hills and roads, but they offered surprising alleys to explore, peaks to scale and glitches to get trapped in when drained of their typical game-oriented content, a mode which was of course called “Sunday Driver.”

This was in the late 90s, when even a simulation-oriented car game was still treated with a fair bit of experimentation and fantasy. Videogames increasingly have many of the same problems as cars at scale, they need more and more energy, they're expensive, they simultaneously need to be surer bets and go out of date even more rapidly, all while producing bulky waste; exploitation, hassle and pollution are built into almost every level, but so little of this is strictly necessary. Richly compelling and embodied car fantasies have been a constant through the entire history of videogames, at least from Night Driver (1976) onwards. The most prototypical image of videogame embodiment is leaning back and forth to clear tight turns in Mario Kart, not anything requiring VR peripherals or 4k resolution. Like the in-game car to the in-game character, even the most simple or “outdated” videogame is an extension and alteration of our existing capabilities that we experience through an interface and audiovisual changes. This is not to fantasize nostalgically about a “pure” or “golden age” of videogames that was not compromised by entanglement with the military industrial complex and capitalist imperatives; such a videogame has maybe never existed. Still, I think it is important to identify as something videogames have consistently done, and, unlike cars, can be rehabilitated to continue to provide this experience without the necessity of exploitation, disruption, paving through communities.

Brendan Keogh has drawn on David Sudnow's 1983 memoir, Pilgrim in the Microworld, which describes his experience as a jazz pianist who becomes obsessed with clearing the screen in the Atari home console version of Breakout to explore the embodied audiovisual interaction enabled by videogames. This is an element of gameplay that early perspectives on videogames, focused on systems, simulation, narrative or representation, cannot quite capture. Keogh describes this as “the particular pleasures of becoming incorporated or ‘interpictured’ with the videogame;” making videogames “an audiovisual-haptic medium, where what is done with the hands, what is looked at on the screen and what is heard from the speakers, in concert, constitute the embodied expressions that the videogame provides.” Subtle learned and expressive gestures allow the (mostly) still player to manipulate the environment and spectacle they see through a screen, creating a “double embodiment” that “extends, restricts, and ultimately incorporates the player’s embodied experience.” Replace “screen” with “windscreen” and the aesthetic experience promised by recreational driving seems the same.

The Last Car (2020) is a game by Zoë and Lily which synthesizes all of these underlying themes into a specifically post-car aspiration. As the title says, you are the last car in whatever world the game takes place in (though it does share certain qualities with our own), and you must bumble through a world no longer optimized for the related car fantasy of smooth, powerful traversal. The only real bit of highway remains between two temple-like structures and is prowled by a mysterious and spherical creature. Motoring along in my plastic Cozy Coupe, which releases a fog of jumbled and increasingly anxious-sounding smog bubbles as it goes, a visual trail of where you've been, my initial instinct was, despite the strange landscape of lumpy islands and rocks separated by winding rivers and bits of ocean, to try and drive normally. This is an urge the game foils almost immediately.

The way your car, the Last Car, is fundamentally ill-equipped to handle any sorts of bumps or unevenness, caused me to helplessly spin off, swerve, roll or get stuck on bits of ground videogames have trained me to see as easily traversable. Instead of a typical driving mindset, a sort of loose, playful approach to movement becomes necessary to navigate the world. While not necessarily by the player's ideal terms, it makes the car's floaty spinning, exploding, and yes, jumping, into a completely alternative form of aesthetic play. It is a slippery world that cars no longer have a grip on, but the Last Car still gets to glimpse and enjoy some of what comes after it. Despite the rest of the cars in this world presumably being long gone, traces of their presence still exist and are mused about by the characters that you encounter. The gutted skeleton of a gas station exists on one island, and, happily for you, jugs of gasoline are still possible to come by. The best thing about the post-car world depicted in this game is how the world has become so rich and strange in its hostility to the flat, straight planes the car moves best across. It is the antithesis of the modular suburbia to Wal-Mart parking lot circuit all too many cars run on today.

In this way, The Last Car holds what is so good about videogame cars next to what we lose through the ubiquitous real-life car. Cars in videogames are less simulations of the vehicles that also appear in real life, but are moreso a power-up, an additional feature that offers you new sensations of embodiment, new ways of framing the virtual space, additional power and speed to traverse it. Ideally, we'd also want cars to do this, but because of their material limits in the real world (including the inability to jump) they instead flatten out, create monocultures, become a bore. A videogame car placed in a world without cars is at a disadvantage in the traditional sense; getting from one place to another is far from predictable or relaxing. But it epitomizes the opportunity for new forms of sensory extension, distributed embodiment and aesthetic experience that the videogame format opens up. The world of The Last Car is bursting with these possibilities, and based on a comprehensive grid of items you can equip or attach to your car, further increasing the strange things you can do with it, I have barely scratched the surface. You have to learn to drive in a new way to play The Last Car, a way which involves exploding, jumping, skimming across water, spinning out and dropping slippery clumps of meat. This is necessarily a bit of a steep learning curve, but the new ways to move and new spaces the game offers for you to move through on the way there demonstrate a bit of what could be exchanged by challenging cars' present ownership of too many of our spaces and landscapes: a stranger world, and a world which could contain more creatures and more ways of life.

Discussions of the fantasies indulged by videogames (and possibilities of broadening the selection) tend to focus on literal representation, the act of driving, or aiming and shooting, or, idk, jumping connected to depictions of hegemonic masculine violence, either explicit or metaphorical taking of what's yours. One angle you can attack this fantasy from is to say, ok, what are the fantasies that represent differently, like, alternately, a kind of stereotyped idea of how women want to see themselves, maybe beautiful and hyper-competent, or a fantasy of perfect collaboration rather than individualism or competition. But I think beginning and ending with these sort of literal counter-fantasies can cause our imaginations and sense of the aesthetic pleasure of videogames to atrophy; we lose this skill at our peril. There is a pleasure to videogames (and to trying on alternate ways of enmeshing capabilities of movement with perception in general) that is a fantasy it can fulfil without necessarily situating this experience in a sensible narrative. Hitting the road for no reason, to feel how you speed along as a result of subtle gestures meaningless in other contexts which now do something totally new, creating a new view and means of traversing familiar sights, isn't that what videogames also offer an outlet for?


(audio source)