Codemaster’s DiRT 4 is remarkably realistic—winning a stage at its highest difficulty level requires immaculate precision—knowing when to expect understeer and oversteer, when to brake in preparation of narrow gates and turns, when to punch it through a crest and when to hold back. More than any racing game I have played, DiRT 4 captures the essence of rally, pushing the limits of human control and blurring the line between responsibility and incredulity.
The thrill of the rally is rooted in our mortality. If you don’t believe me, watch one of Mr. M’s This is Rally videos.
While driving a car into another human being is something that most of us would never consider and will never experience, it happens in rally. Sometimes, the show goes on and racers are even allowed to finish the stage. At the 2014 Jim Clark Rally in Scotland, a car struck 5 spectators, leaving one of them in critical condition. After assessing the accident, organizers decided to continue the race. Two hours later the race abruptly ended as another car struck and killed three spectators.
Rally racing encourages drivers to push the limits—to drive ever faster through tighter turns thereby moving marvelous machines ever closer to the possibility of striking human bodies. To be fair it also happens because rally fans seem to be nearly as addicted as the drivers to capturing moments where human lives are teetering on the brink of expiration. Watch any number of rally highlights and you will see a common thread—fans running off the road just in time after attempting to capture one such brush with mortality. To embrace the rally is to embrace the possibility of death.
Rally racing has a violent past that is connected to its glory. Group B, a set of regulations established in 1982, is widely known as the golden age of rally. It produced the fastest, most powerful cars in the history of the sport due to greatly reduced restrictions on the horsepower and weight of its cars. It is also the most violent era. Group B was shut down by the International Automobile Federation in 1986 after a series of major accidents, some of them fatal, were blamed on the lack of restrictions on its cars and a lack of crowd control.
With this history in mind DiRT 4, arguably the most realistic racing game on the market, probably sounds impossibly harrowing. It is, at times, or at least it provides moments where the thrill of teetering on the brink of losing control is palpable. However, in DiRT 4, you cannot strike spectators. The game’s tracks are generously littered with fans and yet if your car comes close to hitting any of them it is immediately reset onto the track and you are assessed a 15 second time penalty. There are no investigations by the Motor Sports Association, no suspensions or tournament bans, no lingering psychological trauma from causing catastrophic damage to other bodies or your own. 15 seconds.
Don’t get me wrong, I love DiRT 4, I haven’t had this much fun playing a rally game since Rally Cross for the original playstation. DiRT 4 is thrilling but calculatedly so.
The absence of death in DiRT 4 is representative of its genre and I don’t pretend to know how to make such games more honest about the human capital wagered in rally. In many ways, I am glad that it does not allow me to plow into spectators, but knowing the history of the sport has reshaped my experience.
Before educating myself on rally’s past, the races I was most enjoying were historic 1980s Group B events. Now when I play those races, I can’t crash without thinking of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto whose deaths marked the end of that era. After my last 15 second penalty, I called it a night. As I laid in bed, I thanked God for the gift of life—and asked for the wisdom and strength to respect it.