Race The Sun: Inevitable, Yet Unexpected

Well, hello there! I’ve been writing fairly esoteric pieces lately, so they haven’t seen the light of day, except for a weird parable post. Today, though, I’m reviewing Race The Sun, so that’ll see some light. Even if it does sink beyond the horizon, dooming us to a dark oblivion.

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Race The Sun isn’t a particularly long game. You play it in 30 second to 20 minute increments, depending on your skill level, and you’ve got only one goal: keep up with the setting sun. So far, so good. Your craft requires you to maintain line-of-sight with the sun, because it’s a light-weight solar-powered craft, and batteries are heavy. If the sun can’t see you, you’ve only got a few moments of precious manoeuvring time before you’re doneskies. Some pick-ups give you a boost for a short period of time. Others provide you with a shield. The green one lets you jump once. And, as you level up, you can customize your ship to let you carry more items.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is an infinite runner game; you don’t want to have to make too many decisions at once. Because, you’re going to have to be making them really, really quickly for as long as you can. The core engagement of the game is the tension between the setting sun and the barely-glimpsed obstacles on the horizon. You need the creed of speed to lead, but you can’t end up flat as a bat under a very fat rat. And the faster you go, the more likely you are to end up in the latter predicament.

Designing games like this seem like an interesting challenge. You’ve got to ensure a level of variation in the procedurally-generated levels, but you can’t have utter chaos. Part of what lets people play this game is the pattern-recognition. We have a calculable reaction time, but it depends on the stimuli. You react faster to things that you don’t have to think about how to react to. And things become thoughtless reactions when they become entrained physical movements or response patterns. So, they solved this problem by making small, copy-pastable challenge zones. Those challenge zones are mixed throughout the Regions.

A Region is just a stretch of arbitrarily marked terrain, but, as you progress between them, your challenge becomes more difficult to surmount, until you’re trying desperately to flit between two giant blocks that are setting down for tea. There’s a bird or a bug-thing that comes and drops things for you between regions, but I don’t trust it. You shouldn’t either. Unless you’re running on normal mode.

Because, there’s a challenge mode called Apocalypse. And a Workshop full of user-made goodies. On those maps, you can never quite be sure what’s going to happen with the bird-thing, but you can be sure that the ride will be a trip. Obviously, not every map has the carefully adjusted challenge-curves that the main maps do. Some of them are totally unforgiving, and others are just blocks in space. They keep things fresh and clever, and some of them are more elaborate than the base game ever attempts to be. Never too elaborate, though; that’s what makes this game so interesting to me: the psychological aspect.

Were you really expecting another answer? The perceptual experience of dodging blocks is fun, but you might ask yourself, “Why blocks?” In a world of insane graphics technology, why are we dodging cuddle-puddles of unmarked squares? I’m sure part of it is that the game started out as a flash-game indie-project, but there’s another, even more practical, reason: details slow reaction time. Most of your reaction movements are guided by the movement portion of your visual system. The rods in our eyes are good at detecting quick movements, and they’re more sensitive to light than our cones. But, rods don’t see much colour. They’re concerned with contours and lines. Your cones, which are concentrated in the middle of your fovea, handle all the colour. This is why we react quickly, but sometimes without thought, to things in our peripheral vision.

It’s also why your eyes unfocus when you’re “in the zone.” Focusing is for depth, detail and distraction. If you want to react with the best of them, then you’re going to be reacting to vague shapes and contours, a’la TF2 characters and giant, unfriendly blocks. Of course, there’s way more to this story, but this is the gateway, and it illustrates how this game has to communicate. It can’t direct you; it can’t talk to you beyond an opening text-scrawl. All it can do is play on your perceptual experience.

And they take the opportunity to do so. Flashes of light, shaking and sound stand-in for explosions that you passed 3 seconds ago. There are no armies, just the suggestion of lines and ranks, planes and tanks. Invasions by aliens. And all of it fits into the gameplay, even the explosions are blinding obstacles that give you half a moment of vision during which to make all of your driving decisions for the next 5 seconds. For a game that’s so bare-bones, it’s remarkably good at telling a story. In fact, every piece of it is so important to the narrative that I had fun replacing the soundtrack on different gameplay sessions to see what kind of videos I’d create. These are my favourite ones, uploaded in shiny 1080P: Slow BurnPenumbra and Night of Chaos.

So, before we wrap up, what story am I talking about? Well, it’s pretty hard to say, because it’s like an odd Rorschach test, but here’s what shook out of it for me. The ship is one of us, and the pathing we choose is life. In order to ensure that we get to keep living in the light for a while, we need to do things; we need to take chances. We need to get jobs or meet people, have kids or drink sodas, we need to do the things that make up life. Some of those things are tricky, others are dangerous. But, there’s no reward without a little risk. That’s why the power-ups are peppered throughout the challenges.

But any challenge might overcome you; any turn might be your last. And every life ends in death. No matter how good you are, the sun always sets. It always, really does. So, what’s the point?

To chase the sun. To do a little better each time. To see what’s on the other side.

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