Slow Times at Paradise City

I arrived late to the party on this game. I’m not normally a racing gamer, I have trouble with the controls and it puts me off the genre. But the Burnout series is one where I’ve always been able to get into and so many of my online friends have gone on about it or so long I finally decided to step in and give it a go. Sufficed to say I am really digging this game.

Burnout: Paradise has an odd cycle to it. Starting the game up (after the 6 hours of patches) you are introduced to the title screen with Guns n’ Roses Paradise City blasting away. You are shoved into a car and told to do whatever you want. So with the music blasting you punch it and zoom around. You’ll pick up a few races, road rage and marked man events. You’ll unlock cars, events and licenses. For the first few hours you will have blast. This game will pump you up. After winning a tight race by smashing a couple of your opponents into a parking barricade right before you lose control and flip out end over end you will want to throw down the controller, wrestle an ocelot, air guitar Eruption (or play it on real guitar if that’s your proclivity) and hopefully not get into a real car to burn rubber. The thing is the human psyche can handle only so much of this before you feel full and have to stop. One cannot gorge oneself on adrenaline forever. Your rush will waned and, no pun intended, you will burnout. It’s further exacerbated in the early stages of the game where achievement comes a lot quicker and the single activity trophies pile up and the unlocks flow. You unlock a speedier car that burns around the city faster than you can recognize what street you’ve past and you smashed through every obvious billboard around right before leaping off dead man’s drop to land safely on the other side. Then it all slows down and you need to rest. The tension has to abate. If you keep going you’ll have to push through that to get more content and you will hate the game for it. Especially with everything telling you to keep running at that high-octane rate.

This is where not having a deadline comes in handy. You don’t have to push yourself. You get to slow down and just cruse. Once you do that, you suddenly realize the game wasn’t telling you to push yourself faster and faster and keep up the pace. Because now you are driving the speed limit and not crashing and not doing events everything in the game seems to be telling you to do just that. The music is no longer an action movie backdrop; it’s your car radio filling in the silence for a weekend drive. The lack of traffic or pedestrians are no longer an invitation to tear up the asphalt, it’s clearing he view so you can admire the scenery. Anything that says otherwise now comes off as a suggestion if you might feel like getting around to it, maybe. You can look around for parking lots and jump off of them. You can look for Burnout billboards to jump through. You can look for breakaway gates to see where the short cuts lead. You can do any of that, but you’re not obligated to. The game tells you they are there and steps back. The game is okay with you taking it slow. Burnout: Paradise even recommends you do so.

It recommends as DJ Atomica, who doesn’t get annoying like I feared he would, to just drive around and learn the city. It lets you cool your jets, see some new sites you might have missed barreling ahead at full speed. Pausing in the evening you notice and get to admire the Paradise City sign on the mountainside. In the middle of the day you see the wide-open freeway in front of you and the track that never runs out. Whenever you find them, the playgrounds of the quarry and the airfield are waiting for a visitor to spin around in circles like an idiot. And when you set the controller down for a minute the camera leaves you be to go fly around the city to the tune of classical music. You can’t help but admire the sunny utopia. And throughout all this you learn the city. You remember the streets, their nuances, their shortcuts and their layout and consequently become better at the racing by not having to look at the mini map or open the full thing. Doing so will also allow you test out these new cars that you’ve earned and figure out which one suits your driving style the best.

Burnout: Paradise presents a fantasy, but not a fantasy of street racing. It presents a fantasy in the existence of a city where such street racing is possible. Traffic is low, there are no pedestrians, no police, the geography perfectly sculpted for excitement and to pull of jumps that are “totally freaking sweet.” But most off all, everything there seems happy, like those commercials you see advertising California. Paradise city itself is an analog for Los Angles. The Los Angeles that appears in movies in all it’s sun drenched glory, where the people always smile; the fictional one that ignores the existence of Compton and MacArthur Park. The one that every naïve person believes is out west and itself is a paradise. The one the Guns n Roses song was written about in the first place. The song wasn’t about the fame or the money. It wasn’t about the big things; it was about the small things in times of desperation being enough. Like crashing through a digital billboard because it’s there, or whatever else the large open map has to offer.

Sandbox games are a tough nut to crack. You need both a varied world populated with enough different activities spread over the whole map and a fast, easy way to travel around. That is where most designers stop. Those are the focal points in creating a sandbox game. Burnout: Paradise introduced a third that only the best open world games achieve. The world itself needs to be enjoyable to exist in, even if you aren’t doing anything. Goals and pressure aren’t as necessary in a sandbox game. I’ve been asked what is the goal of the game when I told friends I was playing it. I had to tell them it doesn’t have one. They ask what’s the point of it then. I said, “to play.” Paradise City is enjoyable by simply being there. The game is enjoyable by simply doing nothing.

That’s what the game is about, joy. The joy in driving as fast as you possibly can. The joy in destroying as much private and public property as you can. The joy in performing death defying stunts and breaking every traffic law conceived by man. The joy in stopping at red lights, listening to the radio on beautiful sunny day. Nothing in the game is framed as a mood killer, not even failure as coming in last place for missing a crucial turn or as a total wreck which is presented as, again, “totally freaking sweet.”

While the game doesn’t make me think or express an understanding of complex emotions it does something I think in the present day an age is so much harder. It presents the opportunity to experience a simple emotion, one that has all but been lost in modern times. Pure, unadulterated joy. Other games offer satisfaction to varying degrees, but not many or really any that comes to mind offer happiness as an end unto itself. Developers, gamers and others within the medium talk about games needing to be fun. But that’s just wrong, because fun means nothing. Fun is not an emotion, fun is not a thought. A game being fun means nothing, a game that only offers fun means nothing. A game that offers joy is to be put on a pedestal. Non-manipulative joy at that, the game isn’t manipulative because it’s so hands off. It is a big playground and you decide what to do in it. Nothing is planned, everything is permitted.

There’s not a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into as I normally would. There’s no story of triumph against long odds other than what you make yourself. There’s no conspiracy by the man to keep the racers down. There’s no need for niggling micromanagement. There’s no complex rule system where the mechanics interaction present some truth about the subject matter. It’s a simple game with a simple theme. It presents us a world of joy and excitement. We don’t have to live there and the game doesn’t expect us to, but it’s always ready for you to sit down and have a good time even if it’s just for an hour. Burnout: Paradise is still happy and wants to spread it. I don’t know what they put in the coffee at Criterion games, but we all could use some.