This isn’t a review at all. If anything, it’s probably a long explanation of why reviewing Gran Tursimo games separate from my own history might just be impossible. Not that a review necessarily shouldn’t be written from such a personal perspective, but this isn’t a review. Except it might be a review of Gran Turismo 5, as an explanation of my feelings for that game.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early November of 1999. I am a college freshman, sitting in my dorm room at the University of Dayton, by myself, killing time before going to drawing class. I hate it in Dayton. I hate the campus full of white upper middle class Catholic kids. I hate the sense of isolation on this campus, with no car and a shitty public transportation system. Even if I wasn’t so cut off, what the hell is there to do in Dayton anyhow? And most of all, I hate myself for feeling like I did something to ruin the second relationship of my life, because only a few days ago, I got dumped.
We had started dating right at the end of high school. My first date with her was a day at Cedar Point with her friend. Our third date was my prom. She went to college at Ohio State in Columbus, and I used to spend pretty much any money I had riding the bus across the flatlands of central Ohio to visit her. She met some guy when I wasn’t there and made out with him, and she dumped me. And I went from feeling like the loneliest-guy-in-Dayton-who-could-at-least-see-his-girlfriend-on-the-weekend to feeling like The Loneliest Guy. This is all very serious, of course.
To kill time before class, and to hopefully distract myself from all the essential teenage angst, I pop in Gran Turismo and start running laps. I bought the game used earlier that summer, the same day I bought Soul Reaver. I didn’t really “get” GT then, but something about being here, alone, with nothing but my shitty feelings of depression and self-hatred storming around in my brain, this game makes sense.
Driving a car makes sense. It’s what I need. It’s about moving forward, going somewhere, getting something done, if only in a video game. I want to get away from everything I possibly can, and in this silly “simulation”, I almost can, or at least just enough to pretend for a bit. Then I have to go to class and try to not let these feelings show.
It’s late on Christmas Eve, 1999, my first collegiate Christmas break and I am sitting in the living room of Dad’s house. We’d just gotten back from my stepmom Andrea’s parents’ house, and as was tradition, we opened our presents to each other then. My dad bought me a copy of Gran Turismo 2, and right now I am popping it into the PlayStation I bought myself earlier that year, and the two of us are playing it. We take turns on the license tests, and eventually earn our first license, and go buy a silver Volkswagen New Beetle, to match his actual car.
That car is his second mid-life crisis car. The first was the dark green Camaro Z28 he leased when I was in high school, shortly after he divorced my mom, and right before he married Andrea. I accidentally (or not (OK,it was accidental, honest)) ripped the passenger side mirror and a chunk of the front fender off of that Camaro while parking it in his garage once. The silver Beetle is a replacement for the Z28 once its lease ran out and he finished paying for the repairs.
The Beetle is also his second VW. The first VW he owned was a 1989 VW Fox, bought to replace the Yugo that he had smashed head on into an oncoming F150 going about 40 mph in the rain in 1988. He survived with only some bruises from the seatbelt, but the Yugo had to be replaced. So he bought the VW and drove that to work. And when I ripped the mirror off the Camaro, he decided it was time to get the VW fixed, and let me drive it.
Less than a year after giving me the VW, he and I got into one of our loud and horrible fights over something stupid and pointless. Only this time, he kicked me out (and I gladly left), and he kept the Fox; I walked to a payphone to call my mom for a ride to her house. A few months after that, having been living with my mom full time and awkwardly visiting him every one or two weeks, I saw him selling the Fox for scrap while I was secretly “borrowing” my mom’s car to go try to convince my first “actual” girlfriend not to dump me. High school was a very dense time.
But late on Christmas Eve, 1999, we are buying an in-game New Beetle to imitate his actual New Beetle, and we drive the hell out of it. My dad starts telling me what different adjustments will do, what the best line for this turn is, and we are testing laps and races over and over again, all in this silly in-game version of his silly in-life car. He’s my coach and sometimes co-driver, and I am “the kid” actually learning something from his father, without actually fighting with him.
My dad, being a racing fanatic, is excited to see GT2’s version of Laguna Seca. We attack it, and he tries to warn me about the corkscrew, which I ignore entirely, and I fly over the car in front of me, barely maintaining control of the Beetle at all. He laughs at me, and I think we are relating to each other a bit. Neither of us will say anything about this, of course, but it hasn’t happened in a long time.
About a week later, after we have spent hours and hours driving laps, my Dad and I pack basically everything I own into his actual New Beetle, and he drives me to Ohio State to move into a dorm at my new school, where I meet up with the girlfriend who I have since patched things up with. He drives home alone, and GT2 doesn’t get played much for the next few weeks.
It’s a Wednesday in early April, 2003, and I am walking back from Ohio State’s campus to the house me and that girlfriend share. In my bag is a used Greatest Hits copy of Gran Turismo 3. I picked it up cheap at a used record store. It has no instruction manual, but I know I won’t need it.
The only reason I have a PS2 to play this game on is Dad. While I have to take out loans for tuition, he gives me a chunk of money each quarter to pay for housing/food in college, based on what living in the dorms would cost, and I live cheap enough to have a chunk of this to buy a PS2 with. I know he will kill me if he figures this out, but I also know he probably knows as well. I take the game back home, and sit in the room that is all mine, because she and I have separate bedrooms (this should’ve been a hint), and play it a bit. OK, more than a bit. For a few weeks it is just “what I do” and then I stop, moving on to some other game.
That summer, I move back up to the Cleveland area. The first month there I spend helping my mom clean out her house, the house I grew up in, so that she can move into an apartment. Of course there are huge mixed emotions about this, but it is necessary for both Mom and me. She doesn’t have the finances or the physical ability to keep the place up anymore by herself, and I know this. So she is moving into a one bedroom apartment on her own, and I am cleaning out my childhood. I don’t even live there any more, but there was something romantic about knowing it is still there; not so much, any more.
The next two months, I live with my dad in Medina, a small but growing suburb about 45 minutes outside of Cleveland. He is opening up a hobby shop, a dream of his ever since he got laid off from his job as a consultant a few years before, and I am helping him physically set it up. He’s paying me for the job, which is nice, and letting me stay with him, which is nice too, but will be difficult. Though our relationship has gotten a lot better after high school, part of what has made it work is that we haven’t lived together.
In the room I am staying in is my dad’s office, where there is a tiny little TV and a fold-out futon. I hook my PS2 up to it, and most nights after work I can be found up here playing games or dicking around on my dad’s computer. I don’t have a car, and most of my friends don’t live close, so I am back to being isolated from the world. My friend Ryan lives over in Akron, and I spend a lot of time with him. I’m the best man in his wedding, so I help him with that stuff, and eventually end up breaking up with the girlfriend in Columbus to date one of his fiancee’s friends. This brief fling ends shortly after I return to Columbus and the house with the ex. Isolation makes me do silly things, obviously.
Isolation also makes me return to Gran Turismo; isolation with my dad makes this even more natural. Though we spend eight hours together everyday working on the shop, my father and I are sometimes not too tired of each other’s company at night to play Gran Turismo 3. Andrea can’t stand the sound of the squealing tires, so we often play with the sound turned down really low, sitting only a few feet away from the tiny TV. When I am over at Ryan’s, my dad plays it without me, and I come home to him bragging about lap times and wanting me to test tunings pretty regularly. He once accidentally deletes my entire save when trying to save a replay of a really good lap at Seca, but I can’t even really get mad at him for it, dammit.
When I return to Columbus at the end of the summer, I can’t play GT3. It doesn’t feel right without him.
It’s February of 2005, and although I graduated from Ohio State in June of 2004, I am still living in that house in Columbus. I work at an Ear, Nose, and Throat office in OSU Hospital as a general office assistant, and I still live with that girlfriend, though our relationship is most of the time barely there, but I hold on to it desperately. She’s trying to get into medical school, and I am trying to get into grad school, and we are spending a year working and somewhat being functional adults, if in a dysfunctional relationship.
I borrow her car to drive to a GameStop away form campus with my friend Pat, who I’ve known since high school, where I will buy Gran Tursimo 4 and preorder Devil May Cry 3. We drive into one of the north side’s more dodgy neighborhoods, because for some reason I have noticed that GameStops in not-so-great neighborhoods (especially when compared to the ones closest to colleges) tend to be the easiest to deal with. The guys behind the counter don’t try to sell as many pre-orders or strategy guides, and seem more than happy to just have a job and maybe shoot the shit if I want, or not if I don’t.
So I buy the game and I take it home, and of course I play a ton of it. With the growing rift in my relationship, and the feeling of being an adult and that “the rest of your life is going to be 8 hour workdays and being too tired to do much afterwards”, I’ve got more than enough need for the isolation. I spend my last 6 months in Columbus alternating between GT4 and DMC3.
When I have to move back to Cleveland for school, and she stays in Columbus for her school, GT4 (and Tourist Trophy when it get released) is yet again the “Tool to Deal with My Loneliness”. Sitting in my tiny apartment, with my shitty old television (the same one I took with me to college in 1999 and spent hours and hours in GT1 on), I run laps and laps. I come home from grad school classes and drive laps, and I try to deal with living alone for the first time in my life.
It’s early December of 2010. I am living in a shitty apartment in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood with my fiancee, Sarah, who I met in 2008, after spending a few years alone after the college relationship went the way it should have. I still have to write my thesis for grad school, but I finished all the classes and got a decent job. I have a nice HD television now, which feels slightly wrong to play Gran Turismo on. When I pop the Gran Tursimo 5 disc I just bought, nothing feels right.
Gran Turismo 5 wants me to play it like I played the other games in the series. It really wants to convince me that this is more than just a game about driving some cars around in circles. It wants to be my life, even more than the way that GT games in the past have largely been my life. The real-world tie-ins, the constantly updating list of challenges, the in-game competition to become a real-world driver, the camera mode to take pictures of each of your lovingly recreated cars (or at least the 200 or so that actually got finished in time for the game to come out), all of it aimed at making GT5 more than a game about driving a simulated car, more than a Tool to Deal with My Loneliness.
Part of the problem here is me. My relationship with Sarah has its rough spots, but we work them out. We are getting married, and both of us are really happy about this. My relationship with my father has become what most adult father/son relationships should, and we have mostly moved on from neither of us knowing how to handle adolescence (mine or his). Shit has, in some temporary way, worked itself out. And so I am not really alone right now.
So when I play video games now, I just want to play a game I can be involved in. I’m not trying to escape my life. Yet, GT5 is so determined to be more than a video game, to be some bizarre idea of a “way of life”, to be an escape, that it misses out on actually involving me. Instead, it becomes a menu simulator, so determined to let me do whatever I want that it takes me far too long to get to doing what I want.
Those menus sure are pretty, even if they are confusing to navigate and rather obtuse in what they do. Yet, for all their overly complicated design, they never feel like they are anything other than menus, like if the pause screen menus of Metal Gear Solid 3 were the main portion of the game, and you were required to navigate numerous layers of them to get to actually playing Metal Gear, and somehow this added a lot more load times in. For a game that takes up a big chunk of my hard drive, GT5 sure has a lot of loading, staring at screens, waiting for the game to catch up to me. The menus and the loading never let me forget that this is a video game, and that makes me feel lonelier than my life does.
At its heart, “being a video game” seems to be all that Gran Turismo 5 is even “about”. What a dumb as shit thing to think about, though. What is this racing game about? But I find myself asking it whenever I play the game. What is its reason for being here? Why am I playing it? Is this even worth doing?
This sort of basic dumbed down existential dread isn’t what games are supposed to fill me with. Ostensibly, GT5 is supposed to be about driving, feeling the joy of driving different cars, maybe even racing them, though if we are being honest, Gran Turismo has never been about racing, really, but it had to be a video game, so there had to be something to do, and racing is probably the easiest thing to do with cars in a video game.
In previous GT games, it still felt like my goal was to experience a somewhat accurate simulation of driving a car. In GT5, it feels like my goal is playing a video game. It’s a video game with numbers that go up, with lots of little numbers to play with in any number of scenarios, but it never feels like I am doing much more than playing with those numbers. Just toiling away with them, trying to configure them through the proper spreadsheet and following the exact right course of actions for the game to give me a little reward, another car to make my number of cars go up or another little bit more money to make my fake bank account go up. Maybe my A-Spec (or B-Spec if I don’t feel like actually driving) level goes up too, but all that really seems to indicate is how long I have been playing and how efficiently I have used that time. Again, spreadsheets, which at this point feel like a pure fuel driving loneliness, not something to help with it.
I just don’t want to play Gran Turismo 5. It’s a poor tool for dealing with a problem I don’t have right now. I’m not entirely happy, and I think given my general mentality, that I’ll never be “entirely happy”, but at the same time, I’m not alone. I don’t have that feeling of isolation and the need to curl into myself that has fueled so much of my time in these games in the past. Whereas I could use previous iterations of the series to get through shitty feelings, I don’t have those feelings as much any more, and this version only injects those feelings into me.
Learning to give up on a game like this is probably an important step, but it doesn’t feel right. Leaving Gran Turismo behind feels a little like leaving part of myself behind, but that part of me isn’t right any more, and that is for the better. I’m still not sure I will buy Gran Turismo 6 when it is “finished” ten years from now.