Racing games are perfect for the classic rags-to-riches story. Whether it’s an underrated driver finally getting their chance in the spotlight, or a team fighting their way to glory, there’s always a story to be told.
Some racing games are starting to explore this further, with GRID Legends, F1 2021 and the Forza Horizon series bringing story elements into the gameplay. But is it time more developers brought a story to the grid? Or does the story detract from the actual racing?
Once upon a time
Let’s start off by looking at the games that get it right. GRID Legends flew off the starting line this year with Driven to Glory, featuring live action cutscenes and starring actors like the future Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa.
Driven to Glory combines high-octane racing with the same state-of-the-art technology used in The Mandalorian to produce a well-crafted story mode. Drivers are interviewed in documentary-style live-action cut scenes. It's just a shame that your actions on the track don't drive the story, so there's potential for this to be expanded on.
This isn’t the first time Codemasters has brought a story to their racing games, either. F1 2019 introduced the Feeder Series, seeing the player taking on the role of an F2 driver looking to step up to F1. This formula was carried on further with F1 2021’s Braking Point, with Aiden Jackson taking on the rest of the F1 grid, especially his own teammate Casper Akkerman and Devon Butler - the man we’d love to punch.
Both Driven to Glory and Braking Point prove you can take a more traditional racing series and add a story mode. Drive to Survive’s overhyped action and perhaps slightly misleading narratives have ignited an interest in the stories behind racing, opening the door for Codemasters to bring these elements into their games. Braking Point was missing in F1 22, but will likely return in F1 23.
Storylines aren’t just restricted to specific game modes though. The Forza Horizon series shows that a story can work across an entire game. Sure, the narrative is stretched thinner than a slick tyre tread, but considering the game spans hundreds of hours, Playground Games and Turn 10 have done a good job of building a narrative around a fictional racing festival.
Then there’s the Need for Speed series. Most entries have a protagonist and antagonist. There’s always a driver you desperately want to beat, a car you just have to drive, and a reason your character starts the game with nothing. The game evolves as the story progresses.
Need For Speed Most Wanted sees the player work their way up the Blacklist before finally taking on Razor, acting as the game’s final boss. Need For Speed goes a different route to the Codemasters games and even Forza Horizon in that the narrative is more linear. You have to beat the first member of the Blacklist before you can take on the second, and so on right to the top.
Players can experience genuine progression in Most Wanted with the linear story, with both the player’s ability and garage growing as the game progresses. This shows that a linear story can work as well as a more open narrative, but then you get to the point of asking: is this taking away from the actual racing?
Stick to the track
Yes, these games have fun stories to play through, but what is the point of a racing game? Is it to develop characters with a rich backstory and a rags to riches or redemption arc, or is it to fire up a Ferrari F40 to go for a few laps of Monza? Braking Point is a fun game mode to play, but F1’s My Team does the rags-to-riches formula far better.
A similar argument can be made with GRID Legends. Driven to Glory was the series’ first foray into a full-on narrative, whereas the previous games in the franchise stuck mostly to the racing.
The TOCA Race Driver series dabbled with storylines (there’s a nice nod to TOCA Race Driver at the end of GRID Legends.) Just try explaining Forza Horizon 5’s story to a non-gamer where you enter a racing festival and drive a Ford Bronco down the side of a volcano in the first five minutes for seemingly no reason.
Gran Turismo 7, on the other hand, is a good mix of racing with a hint of story adding context. GT7 is a love letter to automotive history - the opening cutscene does more for motoring than most racing games have ever accomplished. Then you have games like Assetto Corsa, iRacing and rFactor 2 that focus solely on the on-track action.
These are all considered true sim racing games, with all resources dedicated towards making the most realistic racing experience available. If you need to squint to determine whether what you’re seeing is real or in a video game, then chances are there’s no antagonist chewing the scenery in the background of a cutscene. These games are definitely more niche than a series like Need For Speed, negating the need for a storyline.
Should racing games tell stories?
Yes, a storyline can detract from the racing action. But adding a storyline to a racing game attracts mass audiences. If Need for Speed was developed to be more like Assetto Corsa, it just wouldn’t sell as well. There wouldn’t be a substandard film based on the games either.
However, adding a superfluous narrative can detract from the racing. Codemasters have done a good job with Braking Point, but F1 2021 wouldn’t have suffered if it wasn’t included. The F1 games are about F1. It’s the action on the track is that keeps people coming back, as they try to recreate their favourite F1 moments or just experience what it’s like to be an F1 driver.
GRID Legends is different as the GRID World Series is fictional, so adding fictional characters to a fictional racing series builds lore.
Adding a story to a game can also help the player with progression. Forza Horizon 5’s story is incredibly confusing at times, but it does act as a tutorial during key moments. Players learn how to race, how to drift, and even how to set up their vehicles. Other games may do it better, like Gran Turismo 7’s GT Café for example, but you can’t fault the developers for at least trying.
So, should racing games have storylines? When done well, a storyline with compelling characters and plots can make the experience more engaging and give the AI drivers a personality. On the other hand, a storyline in a serious racing simulator like rFactor or Assetto Corsa would detract from the core driving experience.
But we'd argue storylines have their place in racing games and would rather see more of them than play through another dull career mode with a checklist of objectives to complete and nameless drivers to race against.