Last year, I watched John Frankenheimer's 1967 racing epic Grand Prix. It's a remarkable movie that both romanticizes and documents an era of racing that was unconscionably dangerous to drivers and spectators, but was also beautiful and exciting in a way that is very different from modern racing. The movie certainly finds something ghoulish about the culture surrounding racing at the time, and posits that drivers of the era must have been raging narcissists who would rather die trapped in a burning race car than go to therapy. But it also shows how different the race courses were, how each one had a distinct identity, and how drivers had to pilot crude, dangerous machines through these labyrinths with almost no margin for error. It was incredible stuff, and the very features that made it remarkable were also the ones that helped make it so deadly.
And yet it still exerts a hold on the imagination, and you can watch Grand Prix or old racing footage and find yourself wishing that you could have the good without the bad. That you could have the overpowered cars, the slippery handling, and the narrow, twisting roads lined with spectators, cutting through dense forest and small villages, but without the crashes, the fires, and the funerals.
Art of Rally is an interesting approach to the problem of nostalgia for a dangerous, troubled sport. It's a beautiful, dream-like tribute to rally racing's Group B specification, a tier of the sport that combined incredible power with wild, untamed tracks and a fandom to match. Rally racing is an odd discipline of motorsport, the motorsports equivalent to mountain biking: lone cars try to set fast times across point-to-point stages, and the car with the lowest overall time wins. The catch is that rally racing is almost never happening on the types of high-quality roads you find at racing circuits. It's happening on gravel, dirt, through deserted stretches of backcountry road where there's almost never any run-off area. You screw up, you're going into a tree or a ditch or a crash barrier, and you're done. It's white-knuckle stuff, and an oddity in the motorsports world, but people who develop the taste for it tend to be fanatics. Group B took all this and added lethal amounts of speed.
In the opening moments of the game, you are introduced to a giant Rally Buddha-like figure who explains that Group B was, in fact, awesome and awesomely dangerous and was ultimately banned for that exact reason. However, Art of Rally takes place in a kind of rally Valhalla where Group B was never banned, and the sport continues to exist in a pure and harmless form.
This makes Art of Rally, which came out last fall, a really interesting game in the racing space. It has a somewhat high-angle, almost top-down camera that makes it look a lot like old arcade racing games, and it couples that camera with striking low-poly models that evoke more than they detail. But every scene is beautifully lit, causing icy Scandinavian highways and miles of dirt-track roads to absolutely glow as your car slices into shadowed valleys and weaves through sun-dappled forest. Every moment is accompanied by a terrific synthwave soundtrack, and taken together the game has the feel of a false memory. It's not really like anything from the past, but it feels like the past. Both of rally, and of video games.
It's all very much in keeping with developer Funselektor's previous take on drift racing, Absolute Drift, but Art of Rally's approach is richer in style and substance. Still, I think if you just looked at it as a racing game, where you're putting it up against the likes of Dirt 5 and the WRC series, it's probably "just" a fun arcade take on rally racing. It's satisfying learning how to make the various cars enter a perfect skid through a long turn, and it's actually surprisingly hard to come and stay to grips with (as a rally game ought to be). But it's not trying to put you in the driver's seat, visually or just metaphorically, and I probably would forget about it pretty quickly in favor of more sim-like games except for one key thing: the vibe.
Sports sims, and I include racing games in this, tend to be about the entertainment products that are beamed into our homes each season. They are about the details of the TV broadcast and its live graphics, they're about the stars of the moment, and they're about the brands that surround the sport. But none of this is how we end up remembering sports. The razor sharp, HD broadcast quickly turns into an Impressionist gallery of moments and images. It's why even when games make a point of including past greats in some form or fashion, it never quite resonates as anything more than a cameo.
Across most of gaming, "photorealism" has receded as as goal and more games play with degrees of abstraction to arrive at the essence of an idea, or to let us see it in a new light. Sports games and racing games largely remain an exception, where fidelity is the order of the day, especially whenever official licenses come into play. But Art of Rally shows how much more interesting sports and racing could be as themes and genres if more were willing to step out of "realism mode" and explore the feeling of sport.
Art of Rally is a bit like leafing through a coffee-table book, or going to a museum exhibition about Group B rally. Its gentle mockery of a subculture it clearly loves as it tells you its version of history is a celebration of the past without implicating itself or the player in its excesses. "This was reckless and probably completely unsustainable," it says as clouds of oily blue smoke belch out the back of your car and spectators scatter to avoid being run down, "but wasn't it beautiful?" It's an insight a lot of sports games could draw from.