A man in front of shot looking away from a woman looking at him, both in black, yellow and purple covered overalls.
Image credit: Codemasters / EA Sports

Story Modes In Racing Games – Why They Do Not Work

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.

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.

Story Modes In Racing Games. Three men in racing overalls holding up oversized champagne bottles and clanking them together.
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!

Biggest esports racing fan in the world.