I enjoy me a good racing game on occasion. I even have a steering wheel and pedals to play F1 2010 on my PC, headphones blaring to get a better feeling of immersion and so forth. But why is it that in the 25(?) years I've been playing video games, I have yet to see a good racing game designed to include some semblance of life outside the driver's seat?
Sure, there are some racing games with something of a story built loosely around the gameplay, generally serving as a means to explain why you're racing a car through an avalanche or some other absurd setup that would probably be better served to simply drop the player into the action and shout "GO!" Some of the more recent Need For Speed games come to mind: Undercover, where the player takes on the role of an undercover cop to "foil an international crime syndicate in Tri-City" (lolwut? Racing cars can do that?); Split/Second is based on the premise of a weekly TV racing/game show (end credits after races and everything).
Some racing games do okay by such standards of story, but most falter, if they've even tried. Need For Speed: Most Wanted was the last NFS game I really sat down and played, and a story was there and just enough to explain why the player needed to perform the stunts and races that he did. That's all well and good, but personally I want more from a racing game. That is to say, if you're going to try to draw the player into the world of the game through a story, you should truly draw them in. Like F1 2010!
Where the Need For Speed games have stories worthy of a network TV action show or Fast and Furious movie, the gameplay rarely reflects the story in any meaningful way other than backdrop for the level at hand. In Codemasters' F1 2010, however, there is literally no drama beyond "You're a rookie driver, work your way up the ranks and handle the press between races." Such simplicity, though, affects everything from the path you take in your driving career, to your relationship with your team and other drivers, and even to what upgrades you may get through R&D. It's a really compelling way to get the player immersed in the world around the game and take that world seriously.
But I'd like to see something more-- I feel like there is a good balance between the dramatic stories that you might see in a game like The Run, and the discernible consequences of choice found in F1 2010. I was listening to Cake's The Distance the other day and thought, "what if there was a racing game in which the player had to balance his racing life and his social/family life?" So The Distance: The Racing: The Game would see players take control of the Driver, who gets lost in the world of racing only to neglect his wife and family. The point of the game might not only be to win the race championship, but also to be the best husband/father/boyfriend/whatever to those that support him. Should the players neglect that social side of the equation, they might find dialog options limited and thus be unable to communicate well not only with family and friends but also the team, thus losing sponsorship, losing pit performance, etc. Perhaps not meeting your wife for dinner meant you missed out on happening upon a rival team's owner, who might have offered you a job on the winning team, had you only gone out to dinner with your wife. Or perhaps drinking too much the night before a race means you lose reaction times the next day, as you try to drive with a hangover.
So in my dream racing game, you'd have the requisite driving physics model, the speed, the cars, tracks, etc, but instead of only ever playing a game from behind a windshield, there would be aspects in which the player must navigate his or her character through social or-- were it a Need For Speed game-- dramatic challenges that would affect the driver's performance next time he or she sits behind the wheel again. Imagine, for instance, if F1 not only had driver rivalries, but those same rivalries might adversely affect your driving ability next time you are in a race. Perhaps in the paddock, you're Ayrton Senna arguing with Alain Prost, and the choices you as a player make in that conversation/argument influence Senna's ability to drive well-- get too hot-headed and your reaction times drop in the corners, or the camera's vision might blur a little more than normal as your driver has a difficult time concentrating after a heated argument in the pits.
Imagine the personal dramas, dialog and consequences of the conversations in the Mass Effect series, but in the setting of F1. Games with such a rich backstory and worlds in which they take place are the perfect settings to allow the players to take part not only in the races but in the worlds themselves. How awesome would it be to have nearly complete control not only over the car you race, but over the life of your driver as well?
Of course, not everyone would want a racing game with drama, so there'd have to be a vanilla version which contains only the races without any of the drama. But damn! Just to have that option in a racing game, especially those that are leaning more toward cinematic effects such as Need For Speed Shift and The Run, or Codemasters' Dirt3, Grid, and even F1 2010-- I would love to immerse myself into any of those worlds beyond the wheel. And those worlds are there-- developers only need to find the proper balance that would make such a venture not only profitable but, just as importantly, if not more so, fun. Who knows? Perhaps I'll be the designer that does it. I'd certainly love to try!