Opinion: Story Modes In Racing Games – Why They Do Not Work

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After we broached the subject of story modes in racing games, our editor Luca felt compelled to talk about why he believes they do not work in the racing genre.

Image credit: Codemasters/EA Sports

I know I am in the minority here but I was actually looking forward to Braking Point 2 on F1 23. I played both iterations of the story mode, which was promised to be the equivalent of FIFA‘s ‘The Journey’.

However, the core F1 game playerbase has no interest in playing it. Most players get racing games to race. Shocker, I know. But that is the issue with story modes in any sporting game.


Racing in Visual Media​

First and foremost, we are not saying great racing stories cannot be told. There is already proof of that with the likes of 1966’s Grand Prix, Le Mans with Steve McQueen, Ron Howard’s Rush and last but not least, Ford v Ferrari/Le Mans 66 that Matt Damon and Christian Bale starred in.

Sim racing even got the Hollywood big budget love in the form of the Neill Blomkamp-directed Gran Turismo movie. Orlando Bloom and David Harbour starred in it, and it depicted the true story of Jann Mardenborough’s journey from gamer to racer.


Plus there is no shortage of racing-based visual media on the horizon. Adam Driver is portraying Enzo Ferrari in a movie directed by Michael Mann of Heat fame, there will be a Netflix mini series about Ayrton Senna and who can forget Brad Pitt sharing the track with the actual F1 drivers for the upcoming Apple movie directed by Top Gun Maverick‘s Joseph Kosinski?

In short, if there is a time to be a fan of motorsport and movies/TV shows, it is now. Therefore, Braking Point should in theory be at home amongst them, right? Well, not exactly. All of those aforementioned pieces of visual media are not video games, they serve a different purpose. It is probably why video game based movies have rarely worked.

Video Game Adaptations​

Remember how not that long ago, movies based on a video game IP were seemingly cursed? Mortal Kombat, Hitman, Resident Evil, all of which at best got mixed receptions but mostly were panned. For us car racing game fans, there was a Need for Speed movie, which was not critically received that brilliantly, to put it lightly.

The curse seems to have been broken lately, with TV adaptations of The Last of Us and The Witcher, and movies based on Pokémon, Sonic the Hedgehog and this year’s Super Mario Bros. movie. All of which were well received. But why was there even an issue with adapting video games for cinema/TV at all?

Surely with how well fleshed out the lore is of many of these games, or how interesting the stories have been in the game, there was every reason all of them should have turned out well. But some just lend themselves better to movies or TV adaptations than others.

Grand Theft Auto speedrunner DarkViperAU made a very good point about stories told through video games in a clip where he talks about the failure of Telltale Games.


The Telltale Approach​

Telltale were a studio responsible forThe Wolf Among Us and games of The Walking Dead, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, Game of Thrones and were going to do a Stranger Things title before they went under. All games were essentially just story modes and had no real gameplay besides pressing buttons to change outcomes.

Therein lies the issue; stories in video games should be a basis to prompt decent gameplay. That is the whole point of a game after all. Otherwise you end up with a movie just in video game form, i.e. a virtual novel.

In theory, if The Wolf Among Us was optioned for a movie/series adaptation, it could work since it is essentially already a movie. But as for games that have gameplay along with a narrative, the stories have to facilitate the gameplay. That is where some fall short.

Narrative Before Gameplay​

Going back to F1 23 Braking Point, one of many criticisms I had of it was the very far apart story points in the first few chapters. It just feels like filler. Then the gameplay scenarios themselves were just so … easy? Almost immersion-breaking levels.

In F1 23‘s Braking Point, the team is fictional. So we cannot exactly use their real life results as a reference. But in F1 2021 Braking Point, you were given objectives to finish on the podium, and you could realistically achieve them despite driving a Williams or Haas.

Plus even if you were to miraculously win in the Konnersport car, all you got from the commentators was acknowledgement of the bare minimum objective.

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No point winning races in ‘Braking Point’, it does not change the outcome. Image credit: Codemasters / EA Sports

In theory, you can crash into your teammate and win the race, and there is no acknowledgement of either in the following cutscene. Instead, it is merely just “Hey, nice work scoring two points!”. There are hardly any alternative outcomes no matter what you do.

A storymode in a video game needs to be the pre-cursor to great gameplay. It can still have an amazing narrative without the gameplay; but first and foremost, the narrative has to not be priority. But with Braking Point, the narrative does not serve the gameplay, the gameplay serves the narrative.

As a result, these fixed outcomes with no variables becomes the bigger problem.

Sport over Entertainment​

Have you been watching F1 for the last couple of seasons? Then you have probably heard the media and people in power trying to push this notion that F1 is not a sport but “entertainment”. This in spite of the fact that a lot of viewers claimed the dominance of one particular driver was dull but are suddenly now okay with a certain other driver doing it on a more dominant scale. But that is besides the point.

The question you need to ask is this. Why do we love sport? Because of the epic moments we can witness in all sports. And we love them even more due to the fact that we know that their occurrence was not pre-determined. Anything could have in fact happened, so for something as bizarre for those to have occurred naturally makes them all the more special.

Fundamentally, is that not the major reason we like sport? That nothing is scripted and, theoretically, anything can happen? Essentially, a story with a pre-determined outcome completely misses the point of sport. The unpredictability of sport makes it entertaining.


Unpredictability over Pre-Determination​

Of course, movies always have their outcomes pre-determined. But you are not actively partaking in the movie, you are consuming it. These sporting-based video games are meant to replicate these sports so why remove the unpredictability? Scripting it like the WWE, robs people of what makes sport truly special.

So unless Codemasters and EA Sports plan on making a hugely varied Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style story mode for the third instalment of Braking Point, it will never work. Even then, with over 17,000 possible endings like Baldur’s Gate 3, there are still set outcomes. Although a load of different endings would increase re-playability.

In conclusion, story modes in racing games really have no value. Instead you may as well play your own driver career mode and forge your own story. Yes, there will not be any pretty cutscenes and forced drama. But you are doing your utmost to make something happen all on your own – without outside forces influencing where you end up. You make it all on your own and it feels truly earned.

That is what makes it special, and is the point of racing games.

What do you think of story modes in racing games? Tell us on Twitter at @OverTake_gg or in the comments down below!
About author
Luca [OT]
Biggest sim racing esports fan in the world.

Comments

“Dudes and dudettes like to drive fast.” What is there to story about?

Some games have a bunch of challenges, though, which are essentially similar in spirit to what NFS and such do. These are cool, though I don't really play them for the plot.

However: there was this game called Pursuit Force, which is essentially an 80s police action movie, but in the form of a game with driving cars. Maybe let's have this, but with physics too.
 
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Cutscenes and forced narratives might not work, but that's not to say that a career mode can't work. Isn't that what drew many people to the original Gran Turismo? Or why people play Football Manager over many seasons?

There can be a story and a career mode in racing games - it's just that we must create it as we go along rather than race through a story.
 
Overtake: "So as long as the majority of their budget and resources is spent on cars, tracks and “the physics”, for me there is no sim racing game with an exciting, story-driven, multi-faceted single player career mode in sight. Video games such as Red Dead Redemption,The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, or The Last Of Us, on the other hand, have proven that it is possible to create a complex, yet captivating “blend” of mechanical progression and emotional involvement. Sim racing games still have that ahead of them."

Also Overtake: "They dont work in racing games"

Gotcha
 
Premium
Overtake: "So as long as the majority of their budget and resources is spent on cars, tracks and “the physics”, for me there is no sim racing game with an exciting, story-driven, multi-faceted single player career mode in sight. Video games such as Red Dead Redemption,The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, or The Last Of Us, on the other hand, have proven that it is possible to create a complex, yet captivating “blend” of mechanical progression and emotional involvement. Sim racing games still have that ahead of them."

Also Overtake: "They dont work in racing games"

Gotcha
Yeah Timo said the first one, I said the last one. We are two different people. Just because we work for the same company does not mean we are completely alike in opinions.
 
I've never done the story mode in either F1 21 or 23, and to that end I've never even done a career mode in any sim. I have, however, done championships and enjoyed them very much

I just simply don't see where a story or a career mode belongs in this genre of gaming.
 
I've never done the story mode in either F1 21 or 23, and to that end I've never even done a career mode in any sim. I have, however, done championships and enjoyed them very much

I just simply don't see where a story or a career mode belongs in this genre of gaming.
Building out a team, winning sponsorship for wins and getting engineers to develop upgrades and the feeling of accomplishment is surely very valuable and relevant?
 
I've never done the story mode in either F1 21 or 23, and to that end I've never even done a career mode in any sim. I have, however, done championships and enjoyed them very much

I just simply don't see where a story or a career mode belongs in this genre of gaming.
An actual career mode is just like championship mode, just stretched over a longer peroid of time.
In a championship mode, you have several races tied together, so that each race bears consequences going forward, and your final result is a combined outcome of all the races you had, not just the last one.
In a career mode, it's the same, but instead of races, you have championships, and instead of a championship result, your outcome is where you stand for the next season. You get good results, you get a contract in a better team (or have more money, better facilities, equipment, etc.). You get bad results, you're bearing consequences of your bad season forward and you're relegated to worse team, slower class, or simply stay put where you used to be at the start of the season, instead of advancing.
 
I don't know if this fits exactly as a "story mode" in a racing game, but here is an idea of something where racing titles could borrow a page from other games.

Usually, what attracts fans are rivalries. No matter how friendly or bitter it may be, if it is between teams, drivers, engineers or whatever, but it is what usually creates the bigger storylines in motorsports. The games that have tried to incorporate something of the sorts, they did it via linear stories. But I believe there is another way...

Have you ever played Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and its sequel, Shadow of War? Not the most stellar of games, but they are best known for two things: being a GPU punisher and a good benchmark for hardware testing at max settings, and its nemesis system. Of course, I am focusing on the latter.

The whole point of the nemesis system was that, as the game progressed, you developed rivalries with different orcs based on your encounters against them. They had special abilities, developed traits, carried scars from previous defeats, and if they could assert dominance on you, they both scaled the ranks through their hierarchy system, and had special advantages over you. At the same time, their structure shifted and changed based on inner fights they had that you were not partaking. This was a great way to develop side stories naturally based dynamically on how your gameplay experience went, and it could throw several surprises.

I think it was the creators of Falcon 4.0 (one of the most revered simulations ever of any kind) that stated something along the lines of: simulating something in a game is not just about precise mechanics of whatever you are handling, but also creating a dynamic, alive world that moves along, affected or not by what you do and what you don't, your successes and your failures, and that it never stops evolving. Which was one of its biggest strengths at its release, its dynamic war campaign.

AFAIK, there is no racing game (management games do not count for this) that has even tried to recreate something along these lines; they are just a fixed path, and if you are stuck at one point, the whole world stops as you try and try again to get past it. But my belief is that we need to be thrown into a moving world of motorsports where your rivals, no matter if just virtual bots, are also in the same fight, with the same objectives, and beating them or getting beaten affects everybody, both in their abilities and their progression in the virtual world, with them also winning or losing contracts, promotions, prizes, morale affecting their stats, and a very big etc. It would make for a more believable environment to be sucked into, and would increase, in a different way from what is usually considered, one factor that is repeated ad nauseam at simracing discussions: INMERSION.
 
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I was desperately hoping for Braking Point to essentially be a scenario mode with story cutscenes that transitions into a standard career mode after finishing the story. Especially since the stakes for both seasons of Braking point are so low. Sure there are some fun scenarios here and there, but more often than not the goal boils down to "finish in the points." I don't want to experience the story of an average F1 driver scrapping for points, I want to be fighting for wins and the championship. It's almost impossible to be invested in all the drama going on when all that's at stake is the opportunity to MAYBE drive for a competitive team in the future. What's worse is you finish the story and there's ZERO post-game. Like take the end of Braking Point part 1 when Aiden scores the podium and it seems like he's guaranteed a spot at a top team, or at the end of Part 2 when Konnersport scrapes by and survives to race another season. Codies could have easily transitioned those saves into a Driver/My team career where we can continue the story and make it our own. Instead the stories just kind of end with no real reason to want to go back and experience them again. If they're going to give us 2 separate story modes where both involve driving for a midfield/backmarker team, they should at least allow us to try to fight for championships as these characters after they've finished telling us the story they wanted to tell
 
Well, what to say?

I like the story of Richie Axelson's struggle through the golden years being told through Jake's stimulating passionate voice :)

Apart from that - the imagination of the story has since as a boy been told behind my eyes and between my ears. By playing with toys or reading a comic book before it comes to the movies/series.

I know there are some generations who skipped the comic books and jumped straight into the living pictures versions. It leaves the imagination required in your brain more "dead", though - and I don't know if that's what's at stake, since some publishers are obviously finding a market here. If I have to be a little clear in my opinion.

But your own imaginary universe as a child and young teenager was always so much bigger that cinematic versions could only disappoint.
And same as an adult with reading thick books. Unless some interesting docu-editions appear. Such as e.g. Nate Adam's "Shelby American" or "The 24 Hour War" which both are better versions than the blockbuster semi-fiction editions, or "Fangio: El hombre que domaba las máquinas" by Francisco Macri. They all achieve greater clarification and at the same time send you on a dream journey where only the sky is the limit.

Storytelling through sim racing is new and maybe room for improvements.
However, to me it always only gets worse when it leaves your dreams and imaginations in your head to become factual action stories instead.
IMO, a large amount of soul is lost on that account.
That is, ofcource, unless you have a great storyteller like Jake, but I'll let over the full script to him ;)
 
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Premium
The "stories" are cringe. Every Single Time. ..and the creepy graphics of the "realistic" people that are supposed to represent the player? No thanks. It's weird.

Would rather the studio spends the time and resources to make the car physics and the race tracks as best as they can. Make the AI drivers names and skill/talent as editable as possible with ease.

Let us make up our own stories with custom races, championships, things like that, without it being scripted by some intern at the studio working on a degree in "creative writing". Please.
 
My opinion - i'd rather have interactive economy simulation with stuff like - you are selling the car someone might buy it and drive it against you, drivers and teams like in F1, dynamic calendars, dynamic new teams, managing own team and/or academy while driving for main team, posibility of that academy drivers going against you in races if other team snatched your drivers. Stuff like that, im talking in general not only in terms of F1 games. Nobody wants to do it, while i agree that it is a huge amount of work it has a potential for $$$ as market is literally starved for any career mode in racing games. A lot of people was playing F1 for my team mode (including me), and it died a bit because they didnt do basically anything in 2 years.
 
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Agree to disagree...there can be great story for racing/driving games but is it worth it? Hmmm...give me few years, team and a few million dollars and we shall see...
 
The issue with a plot line in any game is that it eventually devolves to "been there, done that". In a race sim every single race or championship season is a plot in itself, thus it never becomes stale (I still enjoy GPL, now 25 years old). In a flight sim every flight is it's own plot. You do not tire of the sim, but a story, as opposed to a plot, gets old.

Years ago I became thoroughly immersed in Morrowind, between the game and the construction set I probably averaged at least an hour a day for several years; but even with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mods and a dozen or more races to play, eventually it was "been there, done that". Nothing new, in spite of all the additions it was the same story.

The best aerial combat sims have random mission generators so you do not fly the same missions repeatedly, and remain popular until replaced by something newer; but "Wings of Glory", a WWI game/sim, is forgotten today because players couldn't decide if it was a combat sim with a story or an rpg with combat flying scenes.
 

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