Everyone always has the story of that one game that was “there for them”. You were dealing with a difficult breakup and that fantasy game let you go to another world. School was getting tough and your only way to see your friends is some late night shooter matches. Your boss was being a jerk to you and the fighting game gave you the retribution you craved. Depression set in and you didn’t know what to do but you were super engrossed in story of the latest JRPG. Games can mean a lot to you when they’re your only escape. It just so happens that on more than one occasion, racing games have defined my life, possibly even saved it.
Okay, saving my life is a bit of an exaggeration. But change it, these games did. I was a weird kid, especially as a teenager, and my Xbox helped me through a lot of things. Did you know as a teenager I wasn’t really all that into music? I don’t think I ever bought a CD until I was in high school. For you Gen Z readers, a CD is this round disc thing that has music on it and you buy it in a store. I know, right? Well, a couple of friends showed me a few bands and eventually I chose your average teenager stuff like Green Day and blink-182. But then I got home and realized, I didn’t even own anything to really listen to a CD with. My family had an old “portable” CD player that could not actually be moved while listening to it, and the other choice was to play/rip the CD on my Xbox and watch the cool visualizer (remember those?) as my shiny new Linkin Park CD played on loop. Then racing games came in and made things more interesting.
Project Gotham Racing, long considered a precursor to the Forza series, was a racing series that took place on map-realistic chunks of famous cities. You could race on the actual times square in New York, the actual wharf in LA, past the actual White House in DC. More importantly, this game let you play the music you put on the console instead of the game soundtrack. I don’t even remember the what was on the soundtrack at this point because I was too busy racing for hours and hours, listening to albums front to back over and over again. It became my default way of listening to new albums for a long time. But really good racing games weren’t the only thing that changed things for me. Shitty ones did too!
There was a launch game for the Xbox called Mad Dash Racing. Imagine Mario Kart but on foot. And not very good. But it was also the only game my sister liked playing, so when it came to playing together, it was the game we reached for. The game featured an electronic music soundtrack, which was new to me. I really liked it but, as a teenager I feared I’d be deemed uncool if I were to listen to more of it, you know, because electronic music “is stupid and repetitive”. But playing that game so many times, I couldn’t let that be my only electronic music fix. Turned onto the genre by this game, I bought my first electronic record (by The Crystal Method) and the rest is history. Electronic is 90% of what I listen to now, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for this gem of a shit racing game. You better believe I started listening to all these new electronic albums while playing Project Gotham Racing.
Now onto the life saving part. I had the misfortune of being diagnosed with this thing called attention-deficit disorder when I was a kid. For my Gen Z readers, this is a made up disease children had in the 90s that causes children to not read books or something (#onlythefacts). The remedy for this was doses of actual amphetamines, and it turns out if you take amphetamines for a long time you start to develop withdrawal symptoms when the medication wears off, and boy did it hit hard. There was a specific 2 to 3 hour period every day on the dot that would be an instant “panic button” for me. Everything freaked me out, everything made me nervous, simple things that had nothing to do with my own well being would send my brain into a frenzy. While I got this sorted out, I needed something to occupy my head. Need For Speed: Most Wanted ’05 was the perfect solution and became a ritualistic after-school requirement for me to clear my mind. There was no drama in this game, you race, you escape the cops, you go fast, you race some more. I didn’t have to think about consequences of mundane tasks, just race and race. Every day it was the same, I’d play the game, hear the whole soundtrack front to back in order and I could feel the uneasiness in my mind wash away as the last song in the lineup dropped 2.5hrs in. I cleared the game 100%, and kept playing after that. Eventually I got the help I needed to recover from panic symptoms, but when nobody else could help me, Need for Speed did.
So, to this day, racing games just work for me. They clear my head and have a great soundtracks. That alone is enough to keep me playing. I played Burnout Paradise on more than 4 different platforms and still play Forza Horizon 2 between other games on my console, because I love that series so much. There you have it, the reason racing games mean so much to me. Is there a specific game or set of games that helped you through life?