PC Release Date: August 19, 2013
There is something alluring about the simplicity of racing video games. They are perhaps unique in that they are immediately accessible, yet endlessly engrossing. Drop a person with no video game experience into a racing game and, regardless of their ultimate success, they’ll quickly get the gist. Dive the car down the road, just like real life.
One of the reasons I love playing video games, however, is because they let me do things that I would not otherwise get the opportunity to do. Whether it’s living out my sports fantasies, visiting strange new worlds, or challenging my wits against simulated civilizations, I find that the most successful games are able to exploit my curiosity so that the world they present seems an extension of my own imagination. The rules and physics are discernible and yield a system that I want to explore. Most racing games are fairly constrained systems exploration-wise, owing to the fact that the player is confined to a “track” of some sort. Even if that track is a web of city streets, the player is rarely given the freedom to go off roaming wherever they desire. Thus, they explore within the bounds they’ve been given.
Where racing games do allow exploration, however, is with the sensation of speed. Speeds I would never approach in the real world thanks to my innate sense of caution and self-preservation. Some games manage the illusion of speed better than others. One of the best recent examples is Race the Sun from Flippfly.
In the game, players steer a solar powered flying ship toward the sun and around semi-procedurally-generated obstacles. Your ship is flying alarmingly fast. So much so that on your first couple of plays, you’re liable to smash into things pretty quickly. Eventually, you’ll make it through the first stage and feel pretty proud of yourself. But that pride will dissipate once you hit stage two, and the difficulty escalates. Race the Sun reaches the finish line in one of two ways: the player either 1) hits an obstacle, destroying the ship, or 2) the sun sets and the ship coasts to a stop (remember–it’s solar powered). Sounds like a simple end-game binary, doesn’t it?
To stave off the inevitable end, there are some things to do along the way. Players can collect powerups that appear throughout the world: ones that allow the ship to jump high into the sky, sailing over obstacles; ones that act as a one-time shield that protect the ship from collision; and ones that act as a speed-boost, accelerating the ship and delaying the sun’s setting. These last powerups are especially important. Without them, the player can make it through about two stages before the sun sets. If enough are strung together, a run could go on indefinitely (assuming the player was skillful enough not to hit anything). Along with powerups, there are also score-multiplying “tris” to collect–every five and your score multiplier increases (your score is tied to the distance you fly).
Perhaps, at this point, I should clarify that, despite having the word “race” in its title, and despite my racing game tangent at the beginning, Race the Sun is not a traditional racing video game. There are no ships you’re competing against (though there is a global score leaderboard that is reset every 24 hours)–it’s just you on the course. And to call it a course is perhaps a misnomer–you are not boxed-in and are allowed to avoid obstacles by charting whatever path you so choose. When it comes to charting that path, you are always being propelled forward–the only control you have is banking left or right. Obstacles are a variety of geometric shapes, some static, some moving. From play to play you’ll recognize course elements being recombined in different ways and will start to learn the best paths through the dangerous world. The color pallette is one of muted grays and a sky shifting to red, the closer the sun is to setting. Combine that with a propulsive soundtrack, and you have the recipe for undivided attention.
Racing simulators incorporate braking and reversing because they are real-world facsimiles. Race the Sun eliminates these distractions, focusing you on the sun’s descent toward the horizon. I’ve found the game to be so focusing that it becomes a completely instinctive experience. While I’m careening across the geometric landscape, I find a strange kind of tranquility. There aren’t many games that reliably let me experience this feeling, but Race the Sun is one. And for that, I will keep coming back.