The illusion of racing
I really enjoy racing games. Racing has a built in drama and tension that requires nothing more than increasing speed and an opponent. The opponent is optional. Foot racing is likely the original "game", and endures, undiluted, based on that drama alone. Given a free moment, people will race anything. The feeling of mounting velocity, driving headlong toward the finish. Toward the goal, the next corner, the next target. It's a rush of energy and excitement that builds in the center of your chest and radiates outward. Racing is a feeling that is universally human.
Artificial human characters, created to look and act realistically, are almost always hideous, dead eyed, monstrosities. What humans look like and how we move are so fundamental to us that any deviation from the norm is instantly noticeable. In a bad way. There is something in us that can identify any imperfection in human morphology and movement. Instantly. Most animated characters avoid the uncanny valley by simply sidestepping it. Animated characters do not look or move like real people. This is something that 1930's Disney animators called the illusion of life. The goal of the Disney animators was not to mimic reality, but to create something convincing. Attempting to recreate reality left characters feeling cold and lifeless. Oddly enough, they didn't seem real.
Racing, and the physics of movement at increasing rates of speed, are similarly fundamental to us. Racing is susceptible to the uncanny valley. Most racing games avoid the uncanny valley by simply making the racing unrealistic. Mario Kart is fun, and it feels sort of like racing, because it is nothing at all like really racing. Mario Kart is more like the board game Sorry played at high speed. We can call it the illusion of racing. It's not real, but it feels convincing.
Of course, there are simulations that attempt to model the real world as accurately as they possibly can. Tire compounds, road surface, engine torque over the entire power band. All of that is in there, but they model the physics of the world, not the racing. The best simulations put you up against real people operating their own fake vehicles. When they try to model the racing by fudging the rules for the AI, or even for you when you play against an AI opponent, it all falls apart. The rubber banding is apparent. The whole experience goes tumbling into the uncanny valley.
Just as a man with a limp still registers as human, a race where one competitor outclasses the others, but competes within the same rules, plays out as real race. Adjusting the experience to try to make races close, or placing the player at a disadvantage off the starting line so they have to fight through the pack doesn’t increase drama or tension. It feels wrong. Uncanny.
Racing works as it is. It is built into us. There is no need to “tune” it to make the experience more exciting or dramatic. Put that work into the race courses, the setting of the competition, or improving the feeling of the simulation. Trust that simply racing will be, as it always has been, fun.
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