[Private Wheels] The Need for Speed (1994)

A car. A private vehicle. I personally don’t drive, preferring public transportation so far as there is still a choice. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the concept. A personal vehicle is a wholesome embodiment of our society’s focus on the atomized individual. You, a driver of your own private vehicle, are a master of your own fate—you drive wherever you want whenever you want. That is, of course, if nobody else drives this way at the same time. Because no matter how hard we try to make cities designated to cars by narrowing sidewalks and multiplying lanes, everyone is a proud individual, everyone is proudly atomized and self-sufficient, and everyone is proudly stuck in the same traffic jams.

But, of course, a private vehicle is not merely a means of transportation. It is, first and foremost, a mark of one’s status. Driving a car is not a cheap deal. A driver, like any individual, is a natural victim of various capitalistic parasites—sellers of insurance, petrol, parking, maintenance, and the most predatory of them all, marketeers of luxury. Comfort is a commodity—it ultimately matters whether you’re stuck in a jam melting from the summer heat inside an old rusty bucket or chilling in the comfort of a brand-new luxe car, which seats massage your buttocks on demand.

The hierarchal society of atomized individuals is inherently fueled by competition. You must constantly measure your success and compare it to everybody around you. By default, the person driving Ferrari 458 is far more successful than the person driving Kia Rio. Yes, both are moving at turtle speed due to the busy traffic, but both know that Kia Rio would be eating Ferrari’s dust if the road was clear (I don’t even mention the ethereal ‘prestige’). Vehicle racing sports are a social sublimation of such fantasies. Racing drivers are successful competitive individuals who compete to decide who is the most successful of them all. While they are often organized in teams, public emphasis is always on the individual.

Racing is also an embodiment of an individualistic dream—in order to be the best, you only have to dare and then stick to it. It’s almost Darwinian—if you have it in yourself—you’re the winner, splashing champagne all over. Lose focus for a second, find yourself lacking guts, or attract a bit of bad luck—and here you are, rolling off the road in flames, impersonating the tragedy of Icarus.

And like Icarus, a competitive individual is also a rebel. Everyone hopes that THEIR wings won’t burn. If you can succeed by breaking some rules here and there, so be it; winners aren’t judged, as one Russian proverb states. Go through a red light, park in the middle of a sidewalk, and make a turn where it’s forbidden—if not caught, you’re a winner, a master of your own destiny. Of course, this is not a noble rebellion that shakes and changes the status quo. It’s an individual rebellion, a rebellion of a petite bourgeoisie—petty, somewhat juvenile, potentially locally dangerous, and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Atomized individualism, hierarchal status, Darwinian competition, and petty rebellion—the symbolic realm of a private vehicle, a direct metaphor for neoliberalism. And like neoliberalism, a car is also a prison. It’s one of the basic screenwriting exercises—if you want to engage two characters in an uncomfortable personal conversation, make them do it in a moving car: an enclosed space that you can’t simply leave provokes characters to continue engaging with each other, and also there’s plenty of room to play with the balance of power—who’s behind the wheel and who’s really in control. Outside of movies, in real-life, a practical necessity to own a car is undoubtedly a limitation of one’s freedom. But I’m straying away—a car as a prison is less relevant for this text because believe it or not, this article is about videogames.

Like most mainstream entertainment media, mainstream videogames are conventional a priori. Therefore, the symbolic realm of things is rarely challenged here. More often than not, videogames conform to the status quo and confirm cemented assumptions of reality. My arbitrary interest is to see how everything stated above gets gamified. I picked one of the most long-lasting racing game series and will play it chronologically, analyzing how each game deals with a representation of the private vehicle’s concept.

I don’t expect too much of a difference between the games in this franchise, but small nuances and minor focus shifts may be much more interesting to contextualize overall. I’ve picked the Need for Speed series, and here are several reasons why:
1) The series is 20 years old. There have to be lots of thematic nuances to dig into.
2) The series is not about professional motorsport. Therefore, it’s not limited in its context.
3) I played games in this series much more than any other racing game ever. So, it’s also a matter of personal preference.
4) There are lots of games in this series, which means more content for me!
4) The sheer success of the series probably means that this specific type of power fantasy is pretty popular. What tells about us more than our desires and dreams (or how they are advertised)?

Buckle up! We’re going back to 1994!

The Need for Speed, the first of its name, was released in 1994 for the 3DO console and was ported to MS-DOS a year later. The game is a pretty barebones NFS experience—there are a bunch of racing cars, a bunch of racing courses, and a couple of racing game modes. Combining these components brews you some racing gameplay. Everything is pretty basic, but the primary NFS shticks are already noticeable.

The most obvious one is the luxury fixation. The game roster presents only the luxe sports cars of the time—Lamborghini Diablo VT, Ferrari 512TR, Mazda RX-7, Porsche 911 Carrera, etc. Due to the game being a collaboration between EA and Road & Track magazine, every drivable vehicle is fetishized in a usual automotive magazine sense—historical info, mechanical specs, performance rating, and full-motion videos presenting each car in its most shiny, sexy, and irresistible state.

The fetishization of luxe cars is probably the highest priority for the game’s simulation than the driving itself: everything—from the dashboard design to the sounds of gear control levers—was meant to be as close to reality as possible. Or at least stated to be this way—the point is to make the player feel that they sit behind the wheel of their dream car. This is already the power fantasy by itself, even before the competitive gameplay element.

Competition comes in similar on the face of it, but inherently different types. Single Race and Tournament are means to kick up to seven other drivers’ asses, with the only difference in rules’ flexibility. While Single Race offers more options, Tournament is strictly limited—the car roster is sorted into three performance tiers, and the competition itself is more massive, encompassing all available racing courses. Time Trial is the player’s battle with oneself—beat the timer to beat the enemy within.

The main challenge and The Need for Speed’s unique competitive gameplay mode is Head to Head. Basically, it’s the duel between two drivers, and if a circuit course is chosen, there is virtually no difference between this mode and the Single Race with a sole adversary. But on an open course, it becomes a completely different game, featuring ‘civilian’ traffic and police.

This game mode spices up the competition with a rebellion element—you and your adversary are rogue drivers, creatures of freedom, who abide by no rules and laws and will stop at nothing to become the ultimate and the only winner. The competition here is not merely between the two drivers but also against the order of things itself. Traffic laws, police pigs, and the rest of the ‘sheeple’ are nothing but barriers to the true spirit of freedom that the player embodies.

It’s a reckless asocial sort of rebellion that endangers the rebel’s surroundings while not bringing any change to the status quo in the slightest—a purely egotistical performance. You and your adversary are inherently better than all these law-abiding citizens—it’s evident by just looking at their cars—Isuzu Rodeo, Ford Probe, old Volkswagen Jetta, and the other compact and subcompact vehicles that by definition lesser than you because they can’t achieve such SPEED. They are the losers and prisoners of the mundane, while you are the natural-born winner, and it’s in your blood to leave them behind while satisfying your NEED FOR SPEED. Roll credits.

Interestingly enough, while the computer opponent also can lose time due to a crash, the police ignore him completely, chasing only the player. If they catch you—they give you a speeding ticket and fine you for your most precious resource in the game—time. Three fines within the same race, and it’s over—you’re under arrest, as shown by the most 90s FMV ever. As opposed to the normal loss—the result of being slower than an opponent—this sequence feels somewhat rewarding. Like unlocking a secret ending—you’ve shown a special video: how cool is that!?

The music amplifies this rebel coolness—The Need for Speed’s menus rock you with tasty guitar solos and radio-friendly shredding riffs. There was no better music in the 90s to showcase the performative rebellion—a wholly conforming music with just enough marketing-friendly wildness.

The Need for Speed: Special Edition, released in 1996, along with a couple of additional courses and a couple of QoL improvements (a mini-map, for example), expanded the music’s presence to the racing itself. It elevated the importance of performative rebellion to the level of fetishized simulation—the music and the engine roar are equal.

As the bareboned foundation of the series, The Need for Speed prepares the thematic basis for things to come. It succeeds in capturing with the utmost perfection the symbolic realm of the private vehicle as it is meant to be perceived by the advertisement. Collaborating with the automotive magazine is probably one of the main contributive factors to this, but later games in the series followed this path even without such a partnership. They went bigger, cooperating with automobile manufacturers themselves. Some additional aspects of the game align with an overall theme of atomized individualism. But I prefer to leave them for later, for they merely hint at the series’ future development and become more meaningful in the later games.

Private Wheels posts:

  1. The Need for Speed (1994) <- you are here
  2. Need for Speed II (1997)

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