Taking a night drive down the Columbia Gorge in Washington is an often mystical experience, the ambiance of cruising through heavy rain or passing moonlit pines propels you to another world. Games are no stranger to driving sequences, but developers are starting to use this as a vehicle for narrative instead of a simple gameplay set-piece.
Silverstring Media‘s Glitchhikers was a pleasantly cozy segue into night driving games. It’s a simple setup where you switch between lanes instead of focusing on the throttle, and this decision to make driving a more passive experience opens you up to explore the car as an environment of it’s own. It’s no longer a second-skin for your protagonist to get from one segment to another, but now a true space of its own.
Venturing further down the game’s enchanted interstate your vision becomes glitchy, alerting you to the arrival of a stowaway. These passengers materialize in and out of the seat whilst imparting unsolicited observations and philosophical conundrums to your weary ears. It’s a wonderful magical-realism piece that captures the essence of roadway meditation on life’s biggest questions. I grew rather fond of the dialogue system and often even goaded my friends into playing it in front of me as a makeshift Rorschach inkblot test.
A few years later, Arbitrary Metric‘s Paratopic decided to make heavy use of its own dry dusk-and-evening driving sequences peppered throughout the game. A synthesizer arrangement drifting from the radio offers up a Wendy Carlos homage and a moment of reflective respite between the game’s jump-cuts to break up the pacing. Similarly to Glitchhikers, a glance to the side would offer you a puzzling shift in the contents of your passenger seat. This visual trick helped to further the feel of a disjointed narrative delivered non-linearly from a potentially unreliable narrator, creating a sense of unease that makes you question the story’s already erratic jumps even more.
(Disclosure: Arbitrary Metric’s Jessica Harvey is a contributor for Rebind but was not involved with this piece)
But not every game has to or will utilize driving the same way; Sea Green Games‘ upcoming TRANSMISSION seems like it will offer a pure low key cruising experience. Across moonlit nights and rain-slicked roads, synthesizers illuminate your ears as the neon lights do the same for your eyes. And as Glitchhikers proved, there’s plenty of room for Proteus style experiences. If we drive to relax in real life, why not in a game?
Even without true driving sequences, Kentucky Route Zero gives the player a similar experience of a waking dream while exploring uncharted territory on forgotten maps. It’s enough to pull you into the same feeling you get chasing ghosts down haunted highways and old service roads. And at the next turnoff, you’ll never know what you might discover about yourself.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice