Time Extend: Gran Turismo
Licence won, what comes next seems equally mundane. Armed with a modest 10,000 credits, you have to buy a car before you can race it, limiting yourself to scouring the used car lists for a humble family saloon or ageing sports coupé. This, however, is a stroke of genius, a much more inspired and inspiring dose of the humdrum. Poring over the listings and picking a vehicle from the bafflingly large range on offer may seem like a chore, but it’s the very foundation of strong sense of identification and ownership the game fosters between player and machine. And while the cars are drab and slow, that you might very well have driven (or at least been driven in) something similar in real life is crucial. Any last vestige of the fantasy world of videogames (even the real-world fantasy of, say, Formula One) is stripped away, the ultra-realistic aesthetic is doubly reinforced, and you get to judge the accuracy of the simulation from personal experience. The decision to start the game at this low level is just as responsible as the draughtsmanlike graphics or credible handling for making Gran Turismo feel more real than the rest.
Authenticity is everything in this game. It’s what it sells, far over and above its actual entertainment value. Gran Turismo is a monument to the art of modelling, and though the huge range of cars is certainly there to impress and to stir up collector mania, you sense that for Yamauchi it is also an end in itself. GT was certainly born of a love of cars rather than a love of games, and to this day the series’ presentation fetishises their recreation in meticulous, pristine detail. But the equal attention granted to machines ordinary and extraordinary, obscure and famous, from either showroom or pit-lane is what gives it the neutral authority of a work of reference. You may have no interest in three-quarters of the cars on offer, but their very existence validates the authenticity of the ones you do drive, and strengthens your sense of individual choice (a sense then multiplied by the tuning element, as favoured vehicles become pet projects that stay with you the entire length of the game.) This is the videogame as empty vessel, as a vehicle for player self-expression; a bold concept, and a hugely influential one.
While you can extrapolate Gran Turismo’s unusual design forward into the beginnings of customisable, sandbox gaming, you can also trace it back to a much more traditional source. It so drastically expanded the scale and lifespan of the racing game by following a path parallel to that of Japan’s dominant game form, the RPG epic. The arc is the same: from humble beginnings, you incrementally acquire greater power, in order to best new opponents, in order to earn more currency and in order to acquire greater power still. Buying parts and tuning settings to develop car performance is a close analogue of levelling RPG characters, increasing and tweaking their stats by buying them new abilities and equipment. The experience of playing the game is characterised as much by acres of menu downtime, browsing, comparing, fiddling and planning, as by the action itself.
But Gran Turismo takes this genre-clash further than many of its imitators would dare: too far in fact, to the point of self-contradiction. There’s almost no limit to which some cars can be modified – basic models reaching absurd heights of nearly 1,000hp when maxed out – and the power ceilings placed on race events are either generous or non-existent. This means that, oddly for a game which places such sober emphasis on pure racing technique up front, improving your skill is only one way to outperform your opponents and move on. Exactly like an RPG, you can succeed in Gran Turismo through simple attrition, a willingness to repeatedly ‘grind’ through easy battles/races to earn excess XP/cash and eventually amass so much firepower that what was difficult before presents no challenge and requires no effort. Furthermore, GT doesn’t pace that progression as well as the best RPGs do, and players looking to hone their skills in close racing are left guessing how much modding is too much. It absolutely undermines the game’s authoritative premise – winning a race by smashing a howling, overpowered monster into the barriers at every corner is in no sense ‘real driving’. But it also makes the game’s further reaches accessible to players lacking the patience or dedication to truly master it, and that’s democracy, of a sort. Where one contradiction rises – between skill-based racing and stat-based progress – another is laid to rest – the friction between the game’s hardcore simulation credentials and its strong casual appeal.
No wonder Gran Turismo was unimaginable in 1996, at least to anyone but Kazunori Yamauchi. Faced with its dazzling technical accomplishments and coolly glossy presentation, it’s easy to overlook just how strange a prospect it is: an extravagant hybrid of involved styles, a labour of love quite unrelated to the creation of a good videogame. In a way, it’s the unlikeliest of massmarket blockbusters, but it’s certainly one of the most important. Whatever you think of that ten.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in E164.