Driving towards new memories in Forza

Just a ride.

There's this moment in the first (Tobey Maguire) Spider-Man film that my brother and I have turned into one of our in-jokes. Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, played by Regis Philbin, insists on driving him to wherever he needs to go at one point, using the excuse that he "needs the exercise". To drive a car. Which, you know, involves the core of the human body staying put.

Yet here I am, exhorting an even lazier form of exercise. But driving through the different realities of the Forza racing games is so much more relaxing than staring through endless TV episodes or using a meditation app. And it's transporting in a couple of ways.

You might have those specific games to wind back with your favourite songs and podcasts. I do. And for me, the alchemy of it all rests with my generic "liked" playlist being listened to at night as the worlds of Forza glide past. So many songs keep contrasting and complementing the feelings I have with whatever seems to be happening on screen. Sometimes these games collide with the music to bend space and time, and I find myself recalling all sorts of minute details from the past, even as I drive through locations I wish I could instantly visit.

Last night, while playing the rigid track-based seventh game, I kept tapping on the gamepad, increasing the number of laps I wanted to hypnotise myself with. The tactile nature of the controller is nowhere near as satisfying as the dexterous click of a key being turned in the ignition.

I begin with a sunny loop through Rio. As the pop-rock of Owsley bleeds from my phone, I realise just how much of a happy song Zavelow House really is, reminding me of childhood Saturday mornings. Brazil is one of the places that my uncle, a history and travel buff, keeps suggesting as his next destination. I'm always asked if I'd tag along. We're always looking at travel deals but I know full well I don't have the courage that he and others I constantly see on social media have. I'm too afraid of the explosive Islamophobia and global fascism that's trendy right now. Instead, I like to play out how the sunlight would feel on my skin, thinking about the version of myself that would go to such places.

In fact, the more I play the more I realise I didn't think I'd be where I'm currently at in my life right now. That's not a diss against myself or the concept of life. The blurring lights of speeding through tunnels make me think of all of the decisions I've made to get here. It doesn't help that One Direction's Change Your Ticket is up next (gross, I know). It's similar to another song, both reminding me when I've been in difficult positions having to amend my journeys, for myself or others. Once, I had to travel away from home during Ramadan for some uni exams. Takeout pizza wasn't as helpful as I thought it'd be that evening. All of this leaps to the front of my mind whenever I think about working abroad, unsure about what we leave behind for the ones we love. Carly Rae doesn't help subdue these feelings.

Dubai's track feels magical. The texture of the sand and rocks around you are just majestic, and the moulded polygons that create this Acura I'm driving are also hard to digest. It looks stunning. The first thing my mind drifts towards are the messages I sent to a social media friend from the UAE, who cherished them by saying it was a form of modern pen-pal communication.

Again, I'm unsure if I'd ever visit the country. But the sight of planes and helicopters, along with obscure K-pop and J-pop, reminds me of a time I went to drop my dad off at the airport once. All of this is floating in circular irony, as that moment when I was standing in the airport with him made me recall an old Celine Dion song. The way these virtual driving sessions trigger strangely precise yet mundane images is something I'm not sure I'll ever be able to understand. The numerous confetti cannons jubilantly exploding as I approach the hotel fail to change my mood.

I'm aware none of this matches reality. I rewatched the sweeping images of man and nature through the complementing documentaries Baraka and Samsara. The Iguazu Falls in Argentina are something that has to be seen to be believed, and makes me question why those screensaver-like photo frames were ever a thing. I'm aware the drive-through nature of these games won't ever hold up to something like Microsoft's old Encarta software, where those interactive 360-degree photos were unlike anything else available at the time. They were so much more immersive than games, creating the illusion that you were inside one of those image-stitched photospheric projection domes.

I plunged into emotional depths during a particular drive in Forza Horizon 4, near the church of the made-up town. For some bizarre reason, it took me back to a time as a university student, where the local church was across the road from the edge of campus. My grandmother was alive at the time, and I called to check up on her. She told me she was fine, and that we should end the call so I could go ahead to study and be happy, the way any Asian parent or grandparent thinks all free time should be spent studying. I understood her, as she wanted what was best for me, knowing those gates are opened through education.

There's a moment in the TV series Ramy where the main character's father talks about the responsibilities he has to the rest of the family. He says his job is to worry, and that "I cannot live in the now, I have to live in the future". It's similar to the things my own father has said in the past too. It made me realise the exact value these driving games have. They're magical experiences, because this white rectangle of an Xbox becomes an interactive art gallery of memories I can visit regularly in the safety of my own home. And although the real world isn't as safe and carefree as driving a car that doesn't ever have to stop, I have to visit new places in order to create new memories. I still have my father to help me navigate through this life. But soon, I'll have to begin living in the future too.

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About the author

Emad Ahmed

Emad Ahmed

Contributor

Emad Ahmed is a freelance writer covering games (among other things) and what they say about our world. His desk usually has one stack of unplayed games and another of unread books.

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