My name is Tom and I am the idiot who sees a Reddit thread titled “what is the creepiest unexplained thing that’s ever happened to you” at 1 AM, home alone, and thinks that yes, that seems like a good thing to click on. These places are mostly repositories for repurposed urban legends, and the occasional half-baked creepypasta, but nonetheless: some of these stories stick with me. One that continues to trouble my memory centres at inopportune moments goes something like this. A man (I think he might have been an ex-marine) was driving on some rural highway late at night. He turns a corner and sees a car, stationary, in the middle of the road, with two people lying on the ground outside of it. It doesn’t look like an accident. It looks staged. He trusts his instincts and guns it past the bizarre scene and then, when he checks it out in his rearview, the two people stand up, and are joined by another dozen or so individuals who emerge from the bushes either side of the road. Fuck every single part of this story, and David Lynch and Mark Frost for reminding me of it.
What that brings me onto, though, is one of my most-anticipated games of the year. I have no idea what it’s called, when it’s out, or what it will actually consist of. I just know that a TIGForums thread full of gifs, discussion, and process videos have absolutely sold me on whatever “Soul Challenger” is putting together. This morning a new YouTube clip appeared in my subscriptions: an “ambient sound test” of drones, some kind of metallic breathing, and then some first-person driving in a car whose suspension and handling are far from the smooth supercars of Forza. The car slips and slides across the rain-slicked streets of a town in perpetual midnight, the surroundings sickly and suitably apocalyptic from the streetlights offering the only illumination. At least, the only illumination before you spot, in the rearview at the top of the screen, the headlights of the car in hot pursuit.
The project doesn’t appear to have a title, but the forum thread/devblog title calls it a “Driving Survival game.” One of the key things Soul Challenger appears to be trying to crack are those pursuing headlights. “One of my priorities was to achieve a believable, human-like behavior of the NPC drivers,” they write in discussing the game’s AI. “For me and other gamers with whom I’ve discussed this, one thing that is disappointing and immersion-braking [sic] in open-world driving games is bad AI. It’s either too dumb or strongly cheating on the physics, or both. Take Driver:SF or the GTA series for example. You can drive like a god but the cop cars chasing you will have extraterrestrial acceleration capabilities, coupled with a car mass of a locomotive and tires covered with suction cups. It just feels too unfair, and although a subjective notion: not fun. It has taken a considerable amount of development time to come up with a system which allows the NPC cars to drive in a way that is fully natural, with no ‘cheat’ abilities, while still being good enough to keep up with a player.” In the demo videos released so far, what that amounts to is a realistic-but-relentless chase akin to something like that old Spielberg movie Duel, only instead of an unseen truck driver on your tail it’s an beat-up, rusty European sedan being piloted by a group of thugs wearing bunny masks who will pull you out of your vehicle and pummel you with baseball bats if they catch you.
Driving sims as a genre don’t do a whole lot for me, as discussed on the E3 podcast when we got to Microsoft’s Forza announcement. Thanks to pop culture, I have enough ingrained affection for American muscle cars and cool stunts to make sure I enjoy Baby Driver, but in reality, there is little draw for me tinkering with the weight and tyre materials of a supercar I will never own and then endlessly guide it slowly around a test track in Gran Turismo, shaving seconds off my lap times. It’s a level of fetishistic obsession that just doesn’t do much for me. But I do love driving in games. I mean, I love arcade racers like Mario Kart, Rage Racer and (especially) Crash Team Racing, but there’s also a reason I have spent hours of my childhood playing as a taxi driver in Vice City, or explored the highways of Los Santos, or the streets of New Bordeaux, or whatever. There’s a reason I bought Jalopy on Early Access. The mythic appeal of exploring a wide-open frontier in a vehicle which lets you see more of it faster than by foot is obvious even if, growing up in a country which you can cross in maybe four hours on a high-speed train, that isn’t as primal (or necessary, for kids getting their permits young so they can leave their podunk towns) as it is in the States.
In England, my experiences of driving — as a passenger — are much more fraught. Everyone’s fighting for space. Road rage is a given. Traffic jams, people cutting one another off. Most time in cars in the UK is not spent cruising along a freeway, it’s idling in a queue. It means there’s a special kind of eeriness about when you drive late at night, especially in rural areas, and there’s nobody else on the road. It doesn’t seem right. It feels like you shouldn’t be there. It feels like night time is somebody else’s time. This game feels like the summation of that kind of fear, of the sort conjured by that Reddit story and by films like In Fear or the YouTube found footage short “No Through Road” (but not its increasingly dissatisfying sequels, natch). So dark that the only thing you can see are your headlights illuminating the tarmac in front of you. Windows fogged so you can’t see what’s around you. Occasionally you get a glimpse at your surroundings by the sparsely-placed lamps along the side of the road. The idea of some terrifying car full of lunatics emerging from that abyss to fuck with you strikes all those worst fears when you’re out at night.
Soul Challenger offers two different views in the test footage shared so far. In first person, you can glimpse upwards to see your rearview mirror, where the pursuant headlights swerve in and out of sight. In third person, a box in the top right-hand corner gives a similar look behind you. A lot of horror is in the things you see out the corner of your eye, in the things your mind fills the blanks of darkness and things unseen with. Usually it’s bad things, because your lizard brain hates you and wants to get that adrenaline pumping, even if you’re just on a twenty minute jolly to the 24 hour Tesco.
Besides fitting driving mechanics into a setting more befitting of a survival horror — something which, so far as I can tell, has not really been exploited by the genre — both the aesthetic and the general vibe feel very Silent Hill. Everything’s rusty, dilapidated and potentially tetanus-inducing, but there’s also a sense of being constantly under threat, and being powerless to do anything at all but flee. As with all good horror games, what is currently named “Driving Survival” strips away the power fantasy which is standard for most other titles, a move which appears completely antithetical to the macho conception of the driving game. And as a 26-year-old who still hasn’t had a lesson, never mind passed his test, I love it.