Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A few days ago, I had a half-hour to fill and decided to revisit Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, a 2012 kart racer in the vein of Mario Kart, but with characters from Sega's various intellectual properties--Sonic the Hedgehog, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio and so on. Much as I like the more recent Mario Kart games, Transformed stands as my favorite kart racer, largely due to its superb course design. The ostensible key selling point for Transformed's tracks is that most of them change with each lap. Instead of driving around the same course three times, the game has you drive on essentially two or three distinct tracks over the course of each race (though some courses change less per lap than others do). When you factor in the solid system mechanics and the generally good base-level track design, the shifting courses put Transformed head-and-shoulders above most other kart racers.
It was while replaying a few of my favorite tracks, though, that I noticed something more foundational about the game's course design: the reason why the courses change with each lap.
The concept of race tracks that change--transform, if you will--with each lap is a strong gimmick with obvious ties to the game's title and concept. This makes it easy to overlook the actual purpose behind these transformations. Each course in Transformed is telling a story. The Mario Kart games have plenty of fun locations with neat concepts and art, but the tracks are, generally speaking, stagnant. They're locations to drive through, with no temporal or narrative component. Transformed, by contrast, sets up each of its courses as a sort of visual short story. The courses are generally based on Sega's various games, but even if you haven't played the games--many of them are old and now fairly obscure titles--the story of the course presents itself quite clearly.
The most obvious example is the "Rogue's Landing" course. This course is modeled after a town from the RPG Skies of Arcadia, one of a number of one-off Sega games from the Dreamcast era that were received very well but never developed into full franchises. The first lap of the course is fairly simple, a drive around a floating island town. With the second lap, however, massive flying pirate ships approach from the distance and start firing on the town, breaking the course in places and forcing players to take alternate routes. By the third lap, the entire island is breaking apart, and the racers fly between airships and chunks of rock, trying to avoid obstacles on the way to the goal. This narrative isn't complex--it's surface level and readily apparent--but when you consider that this is a single 5-minute race in a kart racer, the fact that there's any storytelling at all is highly unusual and quite impressive. This base-line story creates a heightened sense of stakes beyond "I want to win the race," and it also makes the environment much more interesting to look at. The course becomes not just a loop of roadway, but rather a setpiece for a sort of short film the player experiences while driving.
It reminds me in some ways of the dark rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which take various movie storylines and compress them into 5-minute rides. The experience and the concept are similar--the rides take you through elaborate setpieces filled with animatronics, telling a story primarily using time, space, and motion rather than words. Transformed's courses are like a history of Sega presented as a series of thrilling dark rides. The racing itself is almost secondary to the visual narrative that surrounds the tracks, especially on stages like "Rogue's Landing."
My favorite courses are not the ones with the most interesting pathways and the most fun racing, but rather the ones with the most entertaining narratives. The House of the Dead course, "Graveyard Gig," is a race through a haunted house during a zombie wedding. It's a massive set piece with a plethora of different rooms, each filled with horror-game-esque monsters dancing, reveling, and generally enjoying themselves. It culminates in a drive through the mansion's chapel, passing by the bride and groom right as they exchange vows. Tonally, it might as well be Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride in race form. My second-favorite course, "Burning Depths," is similarly silly, casting the racers as space firefighters tasked with rescuing people from a burning aquarium. This contrast of seemingly incompatible concepts is overlaid with a spy-movie-style navigator voice and a groovy background track that's an updated version of one of the main themes from the obscure 1998 Sega Saturn game Burning Rangers. The first lap of the course is quite long, but the second and third laps get progressively shorter as more and more of the futuristic aquarium catches fire and other paths are blocked off. Both "Graveyard Gig" and "Burning Depths" have a wonderful sense of whimsy throughout their loose narrative structures utilizing not only space but also time in their course designs.
What's most striking to me about all this, though, is that, again, this is a racing game. This is a genre that is, generally, almost exclusively gameplay-focused, and even examples of racing games with storylines--Diddy Kong Racing, for example--tell them through brief scenes between races. Transformed took the conventionally static sets that make up typical race tracks and used them as a medium to tell stories--meaningless ones, perhaps, but stories nonetheless. The game's course design is only strengthened by this. Even setting aside the fact that the courses change from lap to lap, the conceptual strength afforded by basing each course around a narrative and having the players progress forward in time as they race makes the game a joy to play, in a way that more standard kart racers (like Mario Kart) will struggle to achieve so long as they continue to design their courses statically.
It is pivotally important, I think, that games look for opportunities to tell stories, especially in genres that don't normally lend themselves toward this. Even if you look at other genres that focus heavily on competitive multiplayer styles of gameplay, which does not lend itself in obvious ways to narrative storytelling--fighting games, shooters, et cetera--the most successful ones, especially in recent years, have been the ones that build storytelling into the overall experience whenever possible. Arc System Works is a consistently successful developer of fighting games, and while some of that success is certainly due to their technical expertise, a lot of it is, I believe, a result of the way they work to make sure their characters' personalities and stories are told with each fight, in fitting musical themes, in pre- and post-battle dialogue, and in animations and attack styles that represent story threads. Similarly, with Epic Games's Fortnite has been successful for a complex array of reasons, it also stands out as a game that incorporates consistent storytelling into a genre of game that generally avoids ongoing narratives. In Fortnite's case, this comes through gradual changes to the game's world, which are intriguing enough that I occasionally find myself reading about them despite not playing the game.
Video games have extraordinary flexibility, and there are, of course, genres of games that are particularly well-suited to storytelling. Most of my favorite games are RPGs and visual novels for this reason--the genres lend themselves to sort of thought-provoking, storytelling-focused design philosophy I tend to espouse. That said, I believe that having a narrative basis--no matter how simple--makes a game or a level stronger. It can turn something static and forgettable to something dynamic and incredibly memorable. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed is a top-notch example of this idea, and I expect it will be the metric against which I judge other racing games for a long time to come.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition