The B[ack]log: Coming clean (about Dirt)

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|10.17.07

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Ludwig Kietzmann
October 17th, 2007
In this article: Backlog, Dirt, PC, PS3, Rally, Xbox-360
The B[ack]log: Coming clean (about Dirt)

[The B[ack]log now returns from hiatus which, given the subject matter, is probably a bad thing.]

A few weeks ago, I experienced my first proper gaming injury... and it wasn't at all how I imagined it would be. My fantasies of physical folly usually involve a mangled foot on a Dance Dance Revolution machine or a Wii remote lodged in an eye socket, bodily damage incurred from activities that largely require, you know, activity. I considered it a dubious achievement to have unlocked pain in a part of my body simply by sitting on a couch and fervently pushing buttons. How fragile my body is!

Though the process of waking up is generally one I try to avoid -- it feels too much like being dragged through the dangling rubber strips at the top of an airport baggage claim -- I immediately knew that Monday morning was off to an even worse start than usual. The immobilizing lower back pain was the obvious clue, its origin being quite the mystery at first. Was I picking up refrigerators in my sleep? Did someone replace my mattress with a pile of rakes? Or did I really manage to hurt myself by playing Dirt non-stop for a weekend?

Here's what I think happened (the comments section is where you tell me if this sounds farfetched): Through the course of an entire weekend I was planted firmly on a couch, legs crossed, lurching and leaning back and forth and side to side with every motion of my rapidly moving car. I obviously wasn't doing it intentionally, but as anyone who's ever recoiled from a monster or ducked beneath a missile can attest to, sometimes a game can momentarily fool you into thinking you're somewhere -- or someone -- else. As a result of me subconsciously and vicariously becoming a rally car driver (or the car itself, apparently), I must have pinched a nerve or sprained a muscle or something. Dr. Google's diagnosis wasn't very specific.

I'm not sure I'd classify Dirt as a particularly "realistic" game. That isn't to say it's an arcade racer on the level of Burnout, but there are some elements to it that extend beyond the "simulation" demarcation. You'll find the handling on many of the cars can be quite forgiving, a warranted compromise that sees frustration exchanged for fun. The in-game speedometer tends to overtake the vehicle itself and the exaggerated lighting, while gorgeous, seems to imply that the reason you're driving so quickly is to escape a nuclear explosion. But despite all that, Dirt's palpable physics engine, detailed environments and its almost tangible conveyance of tires carving through the road pulls you right into reality -- though it's not quite your reality.

It really does look like this, you know.

Dirt might not be entirely realistic, but it is entirely believable. When I'm playing it, I feel like I'm in a car, hurtling through a narrow track at obscene velocities. I'm clinching my teeth because that tree over there looks like it's coming by awfully close. I know how my car will react if I so much as scrape against that protruding plant, and I can predict how I'll need to respond at the wheel if I do. Tension gives way to panic when unexpected bumps toss my view up and down or when the game's glaring hyper-sun makes it hard to see where the bloody hell I'm going. These feelings come from inhabiting the space inside the developer's transparent box, a place with demonstrable rules and consequences. I am there, regardless of where and what "there" is.

It's interesting then, that I've never felt this way about the so-called "driving simulator," Gran Turismo. Polyphony Digital's highly regarded series goes to extreme measures to recreate reality (this one) and put you inside the car of your dreams. And yet, I always feel like I'm just staring at these vehicles as they gather dust... in a museum. Both games attempt to convey the thrill of driving and both games attempt, at least from the outset, to mimic reality. Why then is the less realistic game the more believable one?

As viewpoints go, the closer to the interior of the car you are, the better.

Oh, you wanted me to answer the question.

I suspect the answer will vary between racing fans, but mine suggests that it doesn't matter how close Codemasters came to recreating a real-life rally experience. What matters is that the developers harnessed their technology well enough to create a world that follows its own rules and reacts the way you'd expect it to. Building a world like that isn't easy -- it requires graphics, sound, physics and other forms of feedback to work as cohesive whole -- but you'll recognize one when it's in front of you almost immediately. You'll spot a glaring inconsistency just as quickly in Gran Turismo's lack of damage modeling and somewhat sluggish sense of speed. In a grander sense, Gran Turismo breaks the rules of the world it's gone to such lengths to create. I don't mean to discount Kazunori Yamauchi's series as a whole, but these shortcomings tell me that burdening a game with simulation elements can sometimes detract from a self-contained world. You see, reality is important to maintain, as long as it's the particular reality encapsulated by the game.

Good heavens! I could have chosen an easier game to make this point with (hello, Half-Life 2!), but this entry in the racing genre at least makes it clear how much technology and presentation can improve gameplay that's remained largely the same. After all, Dirt's own little reality can be matched to just about every genre you can think of, and I honestly look forward to suffering further injury at the hands of an illusion.

Now, just wait until I tell you about the time I broke my leg whilst playing Civilization...

The B[ack]log chronicles Ludwig Kietzmann's fight against that seemingly insurmountable and entirely self-inflicted obstacle, the ever-sprawling backlog of games that are either unfinished, unplayed or unloved. Every week, Ludwig hopes to subtract at least one and ramble on about it for a few paragraphs... if you don't mind.
If you do, let him know:
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