IT’S NOT JUST THE CARS THAT HAVE SPOILERS HERE
The first comparison my mind reaches for when I’m playing Trackmania games is the Bobsleigh race in the Olympics. Specifically the scene in the film Cool Runnings where Derice is sitting in the bath to practice memorising the turns. At the start of any of the tracks wherein mania is about to ensue, this is what I think about. I think about weird things when I play games.
The particular version I’m playing is Trackmania2, or Trackmania Squared, if you’re a smartarse. Specifically, the Stadium component. Trackmania2 has a few other car modes, and with them come other styles of driving, like drifting cars, but I only have Stadium – and Stadium is by far the most popular mode of the game.
The very first step for any track in Trackmania is to make it all the way to the end of said track in one piece. Most of the user-made tracks you’ll face initially look like a Formula 1 fever-dream as painted by a cubist artist significantly over their recommended caffeine intake. Like the movie Speed Racer but without all the car ballet. It’s the sort of thing that I secretly wish real racing on the telly was like – ramps and loops, crazy jumps and wall mounting sections, speed boosts panels and track obstacles. However, when faced with it yourself, it’s a little daunting. So, yeah, I don’t even think about times for the first run, I just want to live. I just want to make it to that red finish track, even if the car is skidding through on its back, which is often then case when I’m driving it.
People often equate Trackmania with a puzzle game. I think this comparison is drawn as a clever comparison and to highlight that the game is less about racing and more about solving the pieces laid in front of you. I don’t think that’s quite a fair assessment though. It would be like a puzzle if the puzzle had a condition that every time you positioned a piece in the wrong place the whole thing exploded and you had to start again from scratch. And you only have ten minutes to complete the puzzle. And around you everyone else is completing it much more quickly than you. Basically the puzzle hates you.
Generally speaking, puzzle games are slightly more thoughtful affairs, focusing on the logic taken, mostly at your own pace. The puzzle element in Trackmania is something that is happening at 100 miles per hour, and the solution reached by your reading of the situation in front of you and your ability to react to it. Once you’ve got that down, it then becomes about refining that process. Repeating it over and over again to shave more and more seconds off that time. Traditional puzzles have a solution, usually one solution, or an optimum one. If that were the case in Trackmania, every top player would have the same time.
In this game, the solutions vary and must be found quickly, and at risk. Do you push a higher speed through a turn, risking your control of the car? How best to hit that jump so you land on the right curve to keep your momentum into the next checkpoint? These are skill-based decisions, made in fractions of a second. Muscle memory and driving lines are important. You might be able to luck your way through the course once. Can you do it well enough to do it repeatedly?
There are frustrations that come with this. Too often the skill element I mention above factors in late. Initially, a new course can simply be trial and error, and user made courses often don’t reveal the path to their checkpoints clearly. In some ways, this is part of the fun, but it can also be seen as unfair, and leave you with the impression is that the designers intent is not to provide an exciting racing challenge but a series of gates intentionally obfuscated to fuck you over and have a laugh at your expense. Even in the less mean-spirited tracks, the speed of the course and their natural tendency to twist and turn like they’re auditioning for a part in Inception, make it hard to make judgements on the road.
In the end, a race can be down to butting your head against the route until you’ve got it memorized. Like Derice Bannock in the Bathtub. The ghosts of your opponents drive alongside you, giving you hints about the potential method to approach a route. But they only provide so much intel, and more often you end up just watching them fly off while you spin upside down inertly, having not known you needed to be at a certain speed to be able to make that one jump. This is why people talk about the puzzle aspect of the game. I get it, but again, if this were the method utilised in a puzzle game, it would be an unfair one. I feel it comes more down to endurance and persistence over any intellect on the fly.
So to win, you have to learn to fail, many times over. In online races you typically get about ten minutes to get through as many runs as you can. I’m far, far from being an expert, and I can often spend at least two thirds of that time struggling to get the track completed even once. That’s where the community aspect of the game both provides is greatest strength and weaknesses. Without all these dedicated players creating fiendish courses you would immediately lose the variety and clever courses the game provides a platform for.
Designing tracks takes serious time and dedication, even the ones which are brutally horrid. I had a bit of a go, and it is so easy to create an extremely bad track that isn’t just rubbish because the designer is screwing with you, but just because the road doesn’t feel right. Even the mean courses have had love and attention poured over them. They really wanted to ruin your day, and it shows.
Games like Trackmania, Trials and Mario Maker rely on this community of builders for longevity – it’s needed. In the day to day though, this can be a tough ride for less experienced players. I would get runs of the game where I’d play track after track which I just couldn’t handle, which starts to frustrate a little. Sometimes this pushes you to do better, to understand that if you can make it, the reward will be worth it. Other times it can just feel like your torturing yourself.
But when you get it – man, it’s a buzz. Hurtling along the track on the brink of collapse, pushing faster and faster; holding on just one second more. Getting just that little bit further each time. The frustrations of the learning process and the repeated crashes (into that one same sodding post the create put in the middle of the road to ruin your day) all melt away and you get it. When you shoot up a vertical wall and position your car just right to launch into the sky. When you twist mid-air and land smoothly onto the next obstacle it never stops feeling awesome. If you do it all and make it into the top 12, racing against up to 100 other real people. The top 3. First place?
It’s magic that only happens when you accept that in order to feel success, you must understand failure. That’s there is no good without bad, no pride without pain. This is a race. The game, like the people playing it, fosters this same philosophy. It pushes the limit of what is acceptable – on some runs it doesn’t get it right, and other times it just clicks. Sometimes it makes you feel like you just can win, and sometimes it makes you feel like a winner.
Well, not usually for me. Like I say, I’m normally upside down near the first sharp turn, or propped up against a pillar. But most days, I’ll hit the delete key and start it all over again.
Trackmania2 is not a puzzle game. It’s a race. A race against the clock in a high speed stunt car operating on a knifes edge. It’s a struggle against adversity to a position of competitive enlightenment. It’s a way of life, maaan.