When Bart came to Australia during season six of The Simpsons, the country I call home lost its mind. For weeks our magazine covers, our television ads, and our conversations were dominated by Bart and his family's upcoming 22 minutes of misadventure. The episode was so popular after it aired that a trading-card series was released, mostly depicting screenshots and quotes from the Simpsons' trip. On reflection, "Bart vs. Australia" was a mid-tier episode at best, but it continues to resonate with us—not just because the royal family of modern pop culture recognized us, but because its exaggerated depictions of unreasonable laws, national hysteria, and a beer-swilling, inner-tube floating idiot prime minister continue to feel relevant.
Australians don't quite lose their minds over media representation the way they used to, but Forza Horizon 3 is still likely to make a splash. Most racing games that depict Australia relegate our country to a single track. The Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, set around the Albert Park Lake, features in many F1 games (the Adelaide track having sadly been forgotten to time), Project Gotham Racing 2 memorably sectioned off a particularly tourist-friendly section of Sydney for one course, and the Melbourne-developed Real Racing 3 featured an excellent, appropriately realistic race based in its home city.
Outside of racing games, depictions of Australia have largely come from Australian developers and have aimed themselves at international markets that can't move past Crocodile Dundee's depiction of the country. Krome Studios' Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series, for instance, always wrapped its enjoyable platforming up with cultural stereotypes and "ocker"-isms, but the character is still considered something of a national icon.
To my mind the most accurate video game representation of Australia, as it stands right now, is 2004's Escape from Woomera. It's a game that was made partly with funding from the Australia Council (for the Arts), and it's meant as an indictment on our treatment of refugees. It was released in an unfinished form and proved hugely controversial, attracting criticism from politicians and human rights organizations.
Forza Horizon 3, developed by UK-based Playground Games, understandably features a very different depiction of our country. The game nails the version of Australia that we try to sell on our tourism posters. It's all gorgeous rainforests, stunning beaches lit by clear skies, quirky country towns, and wide-open spaces. But Horizon 3 goes much deeper than this to feel authentically Australian. The traffic and distance signs look just like the ones on our roads. The trash cans out in the front of houses look like the trash cans we have here, with red lids for garbage and yellow for recycling. The "barn finds" are no longer busted-up cars in traditional wooden buildings, but in rickety, shitty old iron sheds. The most impressively realistic touch, though, is the way streets outside the game's one major suburb are incredibly poorly lit at night. It means that they're a pain to drive on, but this makes the game feel authentic. The developers very clearly understand the aesthetics of Australia.
This has produced some feelings I did not expect to experience. Forza Horizon 3 is an inherently celebratory game, coming from an overseas developer wary of being respectful. The Australia of Playground Games is so lush and beautiful, so exciting, so fun and inviting and varied, that at times I started to feel something close to patriotism. I know that this isn't even the real geography of Australia—roads have been greatly condensed, distances cut drastically, and a few things have been moved out of one state and into another. But still, there were moments where I became genuinely emotional at the beauty of my country, so lovingly rendered here. I experienced something that felt an awful lot like pride.
This is not a feeling I'm entirely comfortable with. On the same day my review code for Forza Horizon 3 appeared in my inbox, our current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull—who unseated previous gargoyle prime minister Tony Abbott during a now-traditional vicious leadership spill in September 2015—introduced a much-maligned same-sex marriage plebiscite legislation in the parliament. This plebiscite, proposed by a prime minister who has openly stated that he supports same-sex marriage, will let the public vote on whether they think same-sex marriage should be allowed or not. Every existing poll indicating that Australians are ready and willing to accept it; yet apparently this is still a matter for debate. Funding will be given to parties on either side of the debate, meaning that we're likely to be bombarded soon with government-funded campaigns opposing the rights of same-sex couples. Bigots will be given a large forum, and funding, to voice their hate. Despite arguments that this will be a costly course of action, one that could potentially endanger the lives of vulnerable queer Australians and ultimately slow the process, our government is stubbornly insisting upon it.
Australia is, to be blunt, a hateful country in a lot of ways right now. In the last federal election, Pauline Hanson's exceptionally right-wing One Nation party—located in Albion, a suburb of Brisbane, which is 55 miles northwest of Surfers Paradise, and thus not far outside Horizon's map—gained three seats, four including Hanson herself, in the Senate. She has been the center of ridicule for her horrifyingly racist views for years and was once sentenced to three years in prison for electoral fraud (she ultimately served 11 weeks, as an appeal overturned the conviction), has become a major political figure once more. She was a laughing stock when she campaigned on the argument that our country is "swamped with Asians" and asked that policies of multiculturalism be abolished. Now, she's demanding in the senate that Muslims should "go back to where they came from" unless they can assimilate, and people are listening. A recent poll from Essential Research found that 49 percent of Australians supported halting Muslim immigration into the country.
Our own personal politics can't always simply be switched off, and I feel Forza Horizon 3 is showing a better Australia than what we deserve.
That's not even getting into the fact that Australia currently operates offshore detention centers, the conditions of which are too depressing and shameful to dig into properly here. The truth is, if you live in Australia and generally identify with left-wing political policies, and care about the well being of people from all different backgrounds, with different races, sexualities, genders, and beliefs, then seeing Australia depicted as a beautiful, welcoming paradise can be confronting.
To be clear: Forza Horizon 3 does not need to depict any of the things I've just listed, and going down the road the developers did—creating a hopeful and beautiful version of Australia for their extremely fun racing game—was, from a commercial standpoint at the very least, the absolute right thing to do. Whenever I've traveled, I've found that people love the idea of Australia, and believe our people to be good and kind. Forza Horizon 3 is selling that idea, and there's a certain beauty in that. The developers are in no way responsible for that making me feel uncomfortable. There are plenty of people who argue that you should leave politics out of games that aren't explicitly political, and the developers have done that, which is perfectly reasonable. But our own personal politics can't always simply be switched off, and I feel like Forza Horizon 3 is showing a better Australia than what we deserve.
There is, however, one mission in the game that tapped into something deeper for me. It's a Bucket List challenge, which gives you a specific car, outlines the conditions for you, and then asks you to complete a certain task. In this particular one, you're given a 2017 Nissan GT-R, popped into a Surfers Paradise parking lot at night, and asked to rack up 25 different drift skills. This is the most quintessentially Australian driving task imaginable—doing donuts in an empty parking lot at night as a youth is as Australian as a kookaburra eating Vegemite out of a gumboot, although traditionally most kids who do this sort of thing aren't going to be doing it in such a nice car.
I tried the mission a few times, sliding and spinning around in this parking lot, but failed twice despite the mission being marked as "Easy." It wasn't until my third attempt that I realized what the key was—I had to leave the parking lot. I had been so locked into my old ways of thinking that I hadn't stopped to consider the wider world, how big the game's map of Australia was, how easily I could move past this challenge if I left behind my childish desire to scuff up the parking lot.
I don't know if Playground Games intended this to feel like so potent a metaphor, but playing in a country where so much policy is dictated by wealthy baby boomers whose views have not changed a jot since they were young, who are so wrapped up in wealth and privilege that they refuse to consider the wider world around them, realizing that the only way to succeed was to leave the parking lot behind felt profound. May we someday leave that parking lot, so that I and many others can feel proud to call the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 home.
Forza Horizon 3 is out now for Xbox One and PC.
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