At the centre of sports games is a contradiction. They have top athletes on their covers and reverence for the sport they’re recreating, and generally insist that whatever we’re doing in-game isn’t something we could ever do in real-life. But they also, like almost every videogame, want us to win and to feel good, so helpfully paraphrase athletic movement and ability into simple button presses and encourage us – with crowd noise, with graphics and with inputs that can be easily learned and eventually mastered – to feel like we are actually there, and actually these sports stars.
Sports games by their nature, by them even existing, tell us the F1 driver, the tennis player and the footballer are significant and impressive figures; by the same virtue, they sublimate these figures’ athleticism so far that the on-screen recreation affords no understanding. It might be painstakingly animated, but when Mike Tyson’s absolutely malefic right hook is performed by only nudging a joystick, as it is in Fight Night Round 4, it’s near-impossible to appreciate the athlete’s ability, let alone the deleterious personal sacrifices made to acquire it – Mike Tyson (or at least the mid-nineties version of Mike Tyson who appears in the game) is a world-class boxer, but we embody him so simply that his prowess, precisely what makes him and his sport fascinating in the first place, isn’t communicated.
DiRT 4 is totally preoccupied by the details, demands and fine points of the sport of rally driving. It’s nevertheless more compelling than any sports game I’ve played. This is almost inexplicable. If there’s usually a push and pull, between a veracious depiction of athleticism and making something fantastic for players, DiRT 4 doesn’t even attempt to meet in the middle: it wrenches so decisively for the former that it drags with it the latter. I’m compelled by DiRT 4 not because I feel like I am actually there and actually one of these drivers, and actually able to do as they do, but because I’m awed by the monstrousness of its particular sport.
It’s a brutally difficult game, which characterises rally not only as demanding a practically thaumaturgical driving ability but being subject to awful and unfair luck. On terrain geologically hostile toward very fast driving, I have to drive very fast. Enduring engine misfires, broken windshields, slipped transmissions and punctured tyres, each victory is eked out like passing a kidney stone. I’m thrilled and terrified that people actually drive this way. Every race, in combination with the game’s forensic detail, leaves behind a few realisations: this sport is ineffably difficult, but absolutely real, but feasible only for a few, exceptional humans. The thought of what they must abdicate – the self-destruction, that naturally attends dedicating yourself to a single thing – is vivid. I appreciate what they do. I’m intimidated by it. I feel vaguely sorry for them.
By that measure I’d say DiRT 4 has a grasp on human ardor. It’s not “humanist,” or anything so platitudinous. But capricious, hard and almost documentarian, it convincingly argues that struggle is foundational to success, which is close to saying what we sustain as people might have meaning.