Driving adver-games, now and then

night_driver.pngRecently playing the really crappy, Toyota-branded freeware video game didn't make me go buy a Yaris, but when I saw that one was available in my local Zipcar fleet when I needed to go grocery shopping the other day, I immediately gravitated to it. Make of that what you will.

(Real-life Yaris Review: While I couldn't find the button that makes the gun pop out of the hood, I did find the controls much nicer than those in the XBox version, and suffered no frustrating camera issues.)

This got me thinking of the history of melding digital games with car advertisements. Since one of the oldest video game genres is driving games, the potential at marketing crossover certainly does seem rather obvious.

However, it's a relationship fraught with peril, because cars in video games tend to be treated rather... let's say light-heartedly. No car manufacturer would wish to suggest that their products explode colorfully into slow-motion clouds of flame and shattered glass at the merest brush with an on-road obstacle, for example. Nor would they likely approve the depiction of the vehicle's utility as a weapon against soft targets (such as pedestrians). While these restrictions put a serious damper on most any attempt at cross-marketing, the medium is not without examples of attempts to overcome it.

When I was in college, among the games you could find drifting around the campus Macintosh network was some luxury car manufacturer's attempt to produce an "at-home test drive" for one of its models, resulting in a game that was supposed to simulate the experience of being behind the wheel - by way of a classic Mac's 9-inch, one-color display. While an interesting novelty, it was clunky and boring as a game. Its oversensitive mouse input let the player interact with the game world mainly through drunken swerving. I don't remember if it had any game objectives, other than the challenge of staying in the right lane for more than a second. (I cannot recall the actual car involved, and Google is giving me no love; would love to know what this was.)

Accolade's Test Drive, which simulates a variety of real-life high-priced sports cars, was a rather more successful offering. Intriguingly, the game encourages you to abuse the law, giving you a radar detector and making an explicit goal of driving as fast as you can without getting pulled over. Then again, the suggestion that their cars go very fast and let you avoid police detection with practice might not necessarily be a negative message, for a sports car company!

By my lights, the most successful melding of real-life car brands and playable games has been the Gran Turismo series of console racing games, which stress ultra-realism of automotive physics - with the exception of inertia, which vehicles can discard at will. This allows them to collide at full speed into walls and each another while suffering no damage other than the inconvenience of lost time. Other than that, though, the manufacturers are apparently happy to lend their name to a simulation of driving in circles, well away from traffic and serious consequences.

Have you spotted any other clever (or not-so-clever) insertions of real cars into game worlds?

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2 Responses to Driving adver-games, now and then

  1. Jimmy Maher says:

    I've generally preferred to play IF, graphical adventures, and cRPGs, in roughly that order, but like all long-time gamers I've occasionally dabbled in other genres. I spent lots of time with Test Drive on my Commodore 64 and later Amiga -- the Amiga version was much prettier!

    One of my best gaming experiences of, well, ever, was the time I spent with Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. It's truly a great game. Virtually every Porsche ever made from ~1950 to ~2000 is in there, and there are three modes of play: sandbox, in which you just choose a car, a track, and some opponents and have at it; a series of challenges based on the premise that you are auditioning to become a test driver for Porsche and must show your stuff by accomplishing various feats on various courses driving various models; and a factory racing mode in which you participate in a sort of racing league that begins in the 1950's and must win races to advance the clock and gain access to later Porsche models. These two latter modes undoubtedly helped make the game attractive to me, as I need stories in my games, no matter what their ostensible genre.

    Most car racing games tend for me to be either so realistic they lose the fun factor, as in the Papyrus series of NASCAR and Indy Car racing games; or so unrealistic that they don't feel like driving at all, as in, well, Test Drive among many others. Porsche Unleashed somehow got it just right, though. It feels like driving, and each car handles very differently, but -- especially thanks to the Test Driver mode, which serves as a sort of extended tutorial -- it's possible to have fun right from the beginning. No other game has ever captured the sensation of really driving so well for me. The early 911's are downright terrifying in their tendency to spin, but oh, so fun once you figure out where the limits are; later models are faster but less dangerous and also somehow less fun; etc.

    Oh, and the scenery you get to drive through is so gorgeous and evocative and very European: a winding road through the French countryside, a cliff-hugging road along the Pyrenees shoreline, a track through the Black Forest, the famous course at Monte Carlo, etc. Add in the ability to drive all these courses in any time, season, and weather, and it just gets better.

    But anyway, enough of my gushing. I think you can still find the game in budget bins for $5 or $10, and it's a steal at that price even if you don't love Porsches like I do.

  2. David Swift says:

    The Need for Speed (NFS) series is really the arcade counterpart to Gran Tourismo, with Project Gotham Racing (PGR) somewhere in the middle. I was a fan of NFS: Most Wanted, basically an updated Test Drive where you'd drive around a circuit on realistic-looking roads trying to outrun cops. Most Wanted 2 added a free-roaming map where you zoom around crashing into minivans and trying to get clocked at unfeasibly high speeds by the speed cameras. Despite more or less encouraging you to fling yourself at high speed into traffic, the cars are still perfectly rigid--the only concession to reality being that I think the headlights can break and maybe you can scratch the paint job up. I guess those are after-market parts so it's OK to mess them up a bit.

    Personally I was more of a fan of the open-top Ferrari Testarossa in Sega's classic OutRun and its magnificent sequel. You could drive that thing at 295kph straight into some gigantic pixely rocks and it'd stay in one piece, after unceremoniously dropping you and your hot blonde girlfriend into the grass by the track. Now that's solid engineering.

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