C’était un rendez-vous, a 1976 short by French director Claude Lelouch, features what’s arguably the most intense driving sequence ever captured on film — one that purportedly led to his arrest. A mesmerizing eight-minute dash shot in a single, uninterrupted take from the underside of the director’s own Mercedes 450SEL as the summer dawn breaks on a still sleepy French capital, it remains as striking as ever for two reasons.
First is the illusion of breakneck speed generated by the driver (allegedly, Lelouch himself) averaging an already unsafe 50mph through cramped back alleys and past red lights, then enhanced by the tires’ high-pitched screech and an angle so low the affixed camera might be scraping the Parisian asphalt, a vérité aesthetic bristling with real danger. Second is its apparent lack of motivation. Neither a traditional chase, nor a competition, there are no police cars to lose, no checkered flag to mark journey’s end, no timer to measure the speed of the extraordinary performance. Even when the final, smile-inducing seconds of the film offer a glimpse at a possible rationale, the scene’s air of affable nonchalance renders all explanations moot.
Here’s a telling paradox on the fundamental differences between cinema and video games: There have been numerous racing titles giving you the same first-person perspective while allowing for even higher speeds under even more claustrophobic traffic conditions, yet none has managed to replicate the thrill of Lelouch’s vehicle tottering on the edge of control in one of the world’s most breathtaking urban environments. Ironically, the only game that comes close is, strictly speaking, not a driving simulator. On discovering Grand Theft Auto V featured a so-called “cinematic” option, I forgot all about the criminal lives and fluctuating fortunes of its three protagonists and reverted to aimlessly roaming the fictional megacity of Los Santos.
Performing automated editing duties, the mode regularly cuts between camera views, from precarious under-the-bumper angles to majestically ascending crane shots, radically altering the driving experience. Whereas even the fastest racing game reassures you with a modicum of stability, here the sudden shifts of perspective demand total concentration and constant adjustments, even at slower speeds. Accelerating becomes something of a personal dare, not to beat the clock and earn a prize, but to see if your chassis can make it past the next corner unscathed.
More than automotive peril, however, GTA’s cinematic mode endows your journeys with beauty, effortlessly foregrounding the spectacle in its glorious setting — the Pacific’s vast blue expanse off Magellan Avenue, the neon-glowing facades of Downtown Vinewood’s casinos and theatres, the glittering urban sprawl stretching beneath its surrounding hills. Similar to C’était un rendez-vous, danger and wonder fuse into a single, undivided sensory stream, one you need no extrinsic excuse to pursue. You just pick an appropriate soundtrack and go where the road takes you.
I wasn’t alone in repurposing the 2013 blockbuster this way. A member of the popular r/patientgamers subreddit who had done their fair share of aimless driving in Los Santos sought similar experiences, once they felt that “after 100 hours it’s losing it’s [sic] edge.” The outpouring of mostly uninspired recommendations revolved around well-known AAA racers, games afficionados only deign to approach with a gaming wheel and a 4K screen: Test Drive Unlimited, Burnout Paradise, Forza Horizon, bloated open worlds bursting with “content” in the form of side-missions, trials, and collectibles crowding the map, screaming for your attention like famished hatchlings. Needless to say that, other than a robust selection of radio stations and some pretty scenery, these games provided little in common with the directionless cruising that inspired the thread.
The road becomes an excuse to contemplate one’s place in the universe, to explore labyrinthine cities in ultra-realistic 3D and isometric coastlines composed in broad strokes of dazzling color, to engage with alternative viewpoints in politics and philosophy, to encounter history.
In yet another GTA-related irony, demand for the type of meandering experience popularized by the most expensive video game ever produced would eventually be met by a bunch of quasi-obscure indie titles. Aimlessness, of course, is a misnomer. Driving games might shed their dependence on external validation but players still need a reason to care. Since low-budget efforts could never match the visual delights of Los Santos, indie developers had to look elsewhere. For Glitchhikers (PC, Mac), a work that harkens back to the iconic opening scene from Lost Highway, the answer lay in reproducing the unnerving, liminal state of driving alone on a dark country road.
Ominously, the first control prompt the game teaches you, after basic steering, is turning to look sideways, towards an empty passenger seat. Embarking on your journey, accompanied by the universally recognizable croon of the nighttime DJ, you pass signs pointing to doubtful places with names like Entropy City and Purpose Peak. The voice from the radio keeps expounding on subjects like the average colour of the universe and 15th century Chinese isolationism, while a soundtrack of downtempo jazz and glitchy electronica, low-frequency hums rising into the audible range like cetacean mating calls, draws you further inward. The first tail lights on the horizon register like an invasion of personal space but, by the time you catch glimpse of them, there’s more pressing business to your right. The ghosts are here.
A venerable smoker starts recounting how, in her childhood years, she named every star in the sky and imagined grand wars and alliances between them. You have little choice but to listen. As the night wears on, hikers materialize in your passenger seat and engage you in increasingly idiosyncratic conversations before vanishing to leave room for another: the extraterrestrial visiting their pregnant spouse in a nearby hospital; a masked physics student pondering the nature of infinity and the aftermath of a six-month relationship; a translucent girl who seems to have misplaced her parents. Despite their superficial disjointedness there’s a common thread running through these exchanges before your brief journey comes to an end, a search for unseen, benevolent connections between different orders of scale, from the atom to the universe.
Wheels of Aurelia (available on most major platforms, including mobile) also finds meaning in discussions with strangers chanced upon the way, but is, in almost every other sense, the polar opposite of Glitchhikers. Santa Ragione’s charming postcard of a game is vivacious rather than introverted and its interlocutors fleshy, frequently exasperating humans instead of half-real projections. More importantly, its seaside road trip is not unmoored in spacetime but immersed in the specifics of its actual place (the Italian west coast) and historical moment (spring of 1978).
In the game, Lella, the rebellious scion of a wealthy family, and Olga, the troubled ingénue she meets at a discotheque, take the scenic route from Rome to the French border, the former to confront her kidnapper, the latter to have an abortion. It turns out to be as eventful a saga for the two protagonists as it is illuminating for the player who, somewhere in its branching paths, might participate in lively debates about soccer fandom geopolitics with a Juventus supporter or the kidnapping of Aldo Moro with a foreign journalist. There’s even a rudimentary race in it, set against the background of clashing ideologies (a decidedly left-leaning heroine versus the smarmy neo-fascist issuing the challenge), which almost excludes it from consideration.
“Picturesque” or “bright” are not adjectives one would use to describe Jalopy (PC, Xbox One), though its trips across a rapidly collapsing Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s are no less fascinating for it. Inheriting a misleadingly designated Laika 601 Deluxe (some assembly needed) you accompany your uncle Lütfi on a journey across the Balkans to fulfill a promise made decades ago. Sleeping at austere motels, scooping up crates of cheap wine abandoned by the roadside, and fiddling with a radio that seems infatuated with perestroika’s answer to Kraftwerk, the mood is light years away from Wheels of Aurelia’s reckless exuberance. No cool Mediterranean breeze to play with your hair is suggested here, only the smog from the industrial district near Dresden to settle on it.
Despite a narrative-focused premise and your elderly relative’s occasional reminiscence, Jalopy is more concerned with the physicality of the experience, displaying an almost obsessive attention to the minutiae of the drive, demanding you manually tighten the wheel nuts in order to change a tire and use that sponge and bucket to remove persistent bird droppings from your windscreen. Developer Minskworks is equally fixated on a particular tone, of drab-coloured buildings and generalized cheerlessness, though it’s hard to say whether the purpose is to interrogate history or dissolve it into vaporous aesthetic, mining second-hand nostalgia for places the relentless advance of capital has rendered as fantastical as Arrakis or Narnia.
If the question remains open, and in this mercurial subgenre they often do, the template still offers a more thoughtful alternative to blindly rushing for the finish line, an outdated approach that even established franchises had to embellish in order to stay relevant. Forza Horizon is currently the benchmark for visual excellence in the medium, and Gran Turismo remains the highest selling Sony-exclusive franchise of all time. But their transformation into what I’ve elsewhere called “lifestyle racers” has come at a cost. When winning a race is merely a step in the neverending grind to unlock more content, when every choice of decal becomes a shrill declaration of “personality”, something of the genre’s soul has been lost.
Perhaps it’s this void that aimless driving games have emerged to fill, a tranquil alternative to all that meaningless motion and insufferable noise. For games like the ones discussed here, the road becomes an excuse to contemplate one’s place in the universe, to explore labyrinthine cities in ultra-realistic 3D and isometric coastlines composed in broad strokes of dazzling color, to engage with alternative viewpoints in politics and philosophy, to encounter history. With other recent releases like Bird of Passage (a series of taxi rides across nighttime Tokyo) and In Search of Paradise (an existential journey through the American desert), as well as the upcoming Transmission (parcel deliveries on a rainy night in 1986), the full range of the driving experience continues to be explored anew, no gaming wheel required.