There’s a list. Some of you are on it. You do not want to be on the list. The list includes heinous men of evil with names like ThinJ, MrGreen, ZeroKFE, SkeletonFrames and Edgar Newt.
Let it be known right from the top: They started it.
It would happen, as it so often does, on the tight corners of Circuit De Catalunya, the iconic corkscrew turn of Laguna Seca. Sometimes, as if just out of spite, it would happen on the long straightaway of the Brickyard. I would, as innocent as a newborn lamb, yet careful and precise as a watchmaker, be navigating my Subaru Impreza or Lexus LFA through the winding circuit in the spirit of friendly competition and fair play, and what would happen? One of these villains would come along and simply ram me for no reason at all.
No reason at all!
"Consarn it," I mutter at the screen as I hit the Y button to attempt to rewind this injustice from the world. Cars spin backward through time, the crumpled mass of digital metal that had twisted and contorted in the hairpin turn now back to an aggressive conga line of unimaginable momentum, inevitably careening to the same fate. Time restarts, and I adjust my angle, my speed; I try to come into the cacophony of jockeying AI a little cleaner and then — BAM! — there’s the front of Edgar Newt’s Beemer inside my passenger-side door. Again.
That was how it all started, how I taught my naive and young Drivatar that the only way to succeed in this world was to strike before struck. That was how I decided that watching Swat or Zero scream out of the race and spin into the dirt after what I like to call a “pre-emptive” pit maneuver was not only desirable, but justified. In my head, my Drivatar is watching in the shadows as I show him the dark arts, and he will go out and seek my vengence.
This is what makes Forza 5 possibly the best entry in one of my favorite series of all time. Also, probably the most infuriating.
When I first heard the word "Drivatar" said aloud, I was skeptical of both the name and the idea. While I’m now totally sold on the idea — and think it may be one of the best gaming innovations to come along in a while — I still can only manage at best to ignore the ridiculous name. Granted, if Turn 10 were really committed to the portmanteau, there aren't many better options. Ava-car? rAIcer? No, the only winning move to that marketing cul-de-sac was not to play.
But back to the concept, because it really is brilliant. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also pretty well implemented. Certainly if the Drivatar idea had just looked like any other standard AI, it would be largely forgotten, but it doesn’t. It really does feel like there is an element of the recklessness and fallibility of the human mind and spirit.
“Ah,” I can say to myself with smug satisfaction. “Of course Certis spun out into the grass coming into the Hammerhead turn. He totally would do that.” It brings a leaping of joy to my heart just to think about those moments when your formerly close friends and now mortal enemies make a meaningful and believable mistake as you drift cleanly by.
By "mistake," I mean I may have shoved him a little bit into the grass, but let’s not get distracted by details.
As we accelerate out of the long, bending turn of the console-generation's launch, there are glimmers here and there of what the next generation may hold in store. Moments where, in Dead Rising 3, you have a screen full of hundreds of shambling zombies. Twitch.tv integration on the PS4. The TV and Snap functionality of the Xbox One. And, to me, you can add to that list Forza’s simulation of the people you know and love to ram with the hood of your Dodge Charger.
This isn’t just reckless Forza love — I’d need a whole other article to encapsulate all of that. I’m thinking of the ways the Drivatar concept can hopefully inspire other game makers. I’m imagining a Battlefield where my friend Julian from the podcast spawns helplessly, runs around briefly aiming at nothing in particular, and then wanders headlong into my crosshairs. I’m imagining a poker game where some Julian analog goes all-in on the turn with a king-high straight against my flush.
What I’m saying is that Julian is bad at games.
There is a heightened experience of feeling like you're playing against your friends. Or at least this version of them where the system has learned their skills and their foibles. I can’t always have access to a game of Madden with a friend, but if the AI I were playing against played specifically like them, then I’m honestly more likely to feel engaged in and connected to the game. Unless it’s Certis — I don’t play Madden against him.
What I’m saying is that I’m also bad at video games.
It’s far from a flawless system, and there’s much room for improvement. I’m imagining, for example, a race where someday there isn’t a sixteen-car pile-up coming into the first turn. I’m imagining feeling a greater differentiation between the AI that sometimes still seems a little homogeneous, like a regular AI with a friend’s name stuck to it. I’m imagining the AI returning to its master saying, “Hey, here’s where everyone keeps beating me; could you maybe tighten this part of your game so I don’t look like an idiot, you jerk?”
But, as a proof of concept, the Drivatar is a triumph. Now, if only I could actually see the looks on people’s faces when my Drivatar is closing hard on the sweeping final corner of Atlanta like a scene from the Stephen King movie Christine. I imagine it as look of horror and hatred.
Xbox, record that!