Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Gran Turismo 5. It's only a game...

The Driving Seat

I think of myself as a fairly moderate driver. Most of the time, on the commute to and fro of work every bloody day I like to relax and listen to some music. In that horrible neverworld between bed and work, I don’t mind forgetting that I’m even in a car at all. As far as I’m concerned, at eight o’clock in the morning my car is just a comfy, warm room I sit in for half an hour, and then magically find myself twenty five miles down the road next time I open the door.

On the way home, after all the attendant stresses and ever-increasing list of responsibilities that come bundled with my job, I like to let my hair down a little. Nothing crazy, maybe I’ll attack some of the flowing bends on the B1414 with a little more gusto, maybe hear that turbocharger spool up a couple of times. As a car enthusiast, I love driving in any of its many forms, whether aiming to just get from point a to point b in speed, safety and comfort, or picking a direct line between the apexes on my favourite country road.

I am by no means a speed merchant, though. I’m not all about maintaining the highest possible speed, throwing my passengers and possessions around the interior, carving through traffic and treating every short-cut as a rally stage. Most of the time, that is, anyway. Sometimes my engine speaks to me and the sinewy ribbon of black-top stretched ahead of me calls out, asking me, daring me to conquer it. At which point the gauntlet is thrown down and I take no prisoners. Maybe it lasts 15 minutes, pure highway escapism at extra-legal speeds with adrenaline pumping and sweat through every pore. And then I get home, hang my keys up, have a beer and relax, having exorcised my tarmac demons.

The Box I Should Never Have Opened

So why in the name of balls would I want touse a machine, at home, in comfort, to try and recreate this foolishness? About a quarter of an hour of ill-advised full-on reckless back-road shenanigans is enough to satisfy me for a week, the remainder of my driving is done at between four and eight tenths. It’s like a drug. Smoke too much weed and it becomes a chore. You need harder, more expensive hits and before you know it you’re on crack, your face a Dali-esque shadow of what it once was, and no food or clothes. I cherish those fifteen insane minutes, why would I want to dilute their meaning?

Since its launch three years ago I had been putting off my purchase of a Playstation 3. I’ve never been what you’d call a devoted player of computer games, my old Playstation 2 serves a purpose in my bedroom as a dedicated DVD player, I don’t even have the controller attached any more. However, the one game I always had time for was the Gran Turismo series. I have seen this game develop since I was at college. My appetite was first whetted when I was seventeen, my friends used to cluster around a single copy of a Gran Turismo demo, with one track and two cars. We were hooked.

I went on to buy the first Gran Turismo at launch, then GT2, then I went to university where my housemate had a Playstation 2, so he bought Gran Turismo 3 and I didn’t have to. Graduating meant I would have to buy my own console and at that time Gran Turismo 4 was on release. It became one of only two games I would ever own for that platform. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was the only other title I had any time for. Of course, playing computer games is inherently a solitary experience, I actually preferred spending time with my girlfriend over sitting in front of a television entertaining myself.

I hope this can remain the case, because I’ve just bought a Playstation 3 with a copy of Gran Turismo 5, Collectors Edition. I admit to being weak, the game was released in November and I did all I could to ignore its powerful spell over me, but I failed, buckling under the pressure of Amazon’s alluringly priced package deal.

Gran Turismo 5 is phenomenal, this can not be denied. You will have read about the myriad superbly modelled cars and circuits held therein, the compellingly realistic handling characteristics, the well-observed scenery and mostly convincing sounds and physics. This is not a review of the game; I don’t feel qualified to pass judgement on how it stack up against the plethora of other driving titles out there. This is an observation on the effect it has on people.

I hadn’t held a joypad in anger for several months, and initially I was alarmed how crap I was at driving. Electronically, that is, I like to think that I’m the handy side of average behind an actual, non vector-based wheel. But after a few hours play (that’ll be two o’clock in the morning, then) it had all started to flood back. Gradually my driving developed so I was actually steering my virtual car around the corners, rather than ricocheting off the barriers and conducting every race in a series of very fast straight lines.

One thing that concerns me is the online play element of games like this, notably the fact that everyone in the universe is likely to be better than me, and that’s the slightly weird reality of games in comparison to real life. I spend a goodly proportion of my day behind the wheel, to work, from work, during work and after work. In a given year I will cover twenty thousand miles in my own car, and probably another thirty thousand in company vehicles. In total contrast to this, if I go online to race cars around the Nurburgring tonight, the odds are that I’ll be comprehensively thrashed by some ten-year-old in North Dakota.

With all its polished visuals and incredible quest for realism, through the eyes of the majority Gran Turismo is the most realistic driving game ever released. It’s only a game, I keep telling myself. But in the same way as the airliner being landed by a passenger who purportedly used to play with Microsoft Flight Simulator, are the ten-year-old Masters Of The Nordschleife I could battle with tonight teaching themselves an innate understanding of car handling and driving instincts? Probably not. Because it’s only a game.

With Microsoft Flight Simulator, much attention is paid to the more tedious aspects of flying. With pre-flight checks, air traffic control clearance, activation of transponders, calibration of altimeters, most sane people would find a seven-hour real-time simulation of a flight from Heathrow to JFK inconceivably tedious. When my dad got his first edition of the simulator, running on his 286 through MS-DOS, first thing I did with my Lear Jet was try and do a loop and then forcibly fly it as fast as I could into a Chicago skyscraper. That was all I could really find to do for fun. As time passed the features became more advanced, these days the scenery is magnificent with many recognisable landmarks. But most people would still find the actual flight simulation rather dull, kids especially. And children certainly wouldn’t have the staying power to learn any of the routines of flight to be able to put them into action as acquired skills. An adult, though, probably could.

Must not let this take over my life.

With Gran Turismo, although you might well be controlling that Lamborghinis speed and direction, you’re not getting involved in any real process. As far as a child is concerned, there are buttons to press and the car goes left and right and fast and slow. This isn’t driving; this is entertainment. Last night, before going to bed at Christ-o’clock in the morning, I hadn’t become addicted to driving; I had become addicted to competition and I wanted to win. The actual driving experience, accurately depicted as it was, is only a very small part of the package. We play to win, we lose and get unhappy and therefore we practice to improve. Those 10 Year Olds aren’t actually good at driving at all, they’re good at playing Gran Turismo.

Since typing my previous paragraph I have driven home from work. A truly accurate driving simulator would need to portray firstly the misery of crawling past that busy branch of Sainsbury’s, the optimism as you launch full-pelt into the outside lane only to come to a grinding and inexplicable halt half a mile later, as well as the unbridled joy when you escape the traffic and have every crest and undulation to yourself and your high-beam lights.

With regards to virtual reality versus real reality, one thing Gran Turismo does have in its favour is that it’s quite easy to drive an Audi whilst eating pizza.


  1. Y'all don't have pizzaholders in the UK? Them there are standard equipment in the US nowadays.

    This made for an interesting read, and an angle of thought to which I have given little thought until now. I'm still playing Forza3, but I'm sure that I will pick up GT5 after the holidays.

  2. It's hard enough to find a car here with a toast rack, let alone a pizzaholder!