Race the Sun: How to Write a Game without Writing

I apologize to my absolutely zero readers for not posting in the past two weeks.  I would say I had finals, but this is probably what the intervals will be like.  Not that you care, you lovely nonexistent people, you.  I also apologize for the fact that probably my first several posts will be video game-related.  I play a lot of games over breaks, but I promise variety will come.

But for today, I’m writing on one of the great little games I found this year (though it’s actually over two years old): Race the Sun by Flippfly.  It’s not expansive, nor filled with features; rather it’s a Cubefield-esque endless racer with a slight twist—you fly your solar-powered aircraft through a field of slate-gray obstacles as the sun sets in the distance, and once the sun is gone, you explode.

It’s an exceptionally simple mechanic, but the entirety of the game’s thematics expands from it.  Because now the endless racer isn’t actually endless: either you die by crash, or you die by time.

Now, do you really think an indie developer would let that existential smorgasbord go to waste?  Hell no.  And thus, I present to you Race the Sun, the little game that spends every possible second reminding you that you are going to die.

And I don’t mean “in-game” (though you will, every time), I mean in reality.  Race the Sun is filled with hidden text and snarky messages that pop up with each new run and with each subsequent death.  In the third world (of the technically infinite number you can race through, though I’ve never made it past six), giant obstacles spell out, “Life Has No Meaning” as you race against the sun.  If you crash into one of the non-moving obstacles (because did you really think there wouldn’t be moving ones?), the text that appears reads, “Cause of Death: Inevitable, but Unexpected.”  Each time you level up (exactly twenty-five), you’ll unlock various upgrades or sprays for your ship, and all are accompanied by blurbs lamenting just how useless each upgrade is in the face of encroaching death.

Even some of the quotes that appear when you begin levels, all selected by Kickstarter backers, somehow manage to play into this cycle of reminders.  Take, for example, this gem: “One out of every one persons will die. —Unknown.”  Or, perhaps this: “How noiseless falls the foot of time. —A. Hamilton.”  Or, this beauty I’m sure a bunch of you are familiar with: “I am a leaf on the wind—watch how I soar. —Hoban “Wash” Washburne.”

This is how you write a game that has, by all reasonable counts, almost no writing.

How?  The inevitability of death and time is one of the most common themes in any kind of literature, and Race the Sun not only used it well with minimal writing, but when combined with the genre and endlessly fun spirit of the game, turned it into the perfect darkly endearing comedy that indie games always seem to attempt.  I’ve played maybe seven or eight hours of this game since August (when it was free on Steam for one day—talk about opportunities), and it’s made me laugh more than most of the comedies I’ve seen in that time combined.  Even if you take my kind of dark sense of humor into account, it’s a certifiably enjoyable experience.

But beyond its effectiveness, Race the Sun is a perfect stripped-down example for how video games have to be written.  If a video game works just as well as a film as it does a game, then it’s not a well-written game (it probably just has a great plot).  The best-written games interlink their central mechanics with their themes, the way Undertale emphasizes player choice, or the way Majora’s Mask combines time travel and altruism.  Or even the way BioShock Infinite provides the illusion of choice to address metaphysics and fatalism.  Race the Sun’s central mechanic is incredibly simple: race until the sun sets, then die.  But it’s developers ran with that theme and, with minimal writing, turned it into an endearing and entertaining experience.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a blanket commentary on all games—just the ones without much real writing.  Games with actual scripts like Deus Ex or Half-Life or Mass Effect (or all three that I mentioned before) naturally require a different approach.  Hopefully I’ll write on that at some point, because while I have none of the programming knowledge necessary to make a game, I love examining how they’re written.  But for now, here’s my case study on how to write without writing, and one final starting quote.

“Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore. —Thomas Campbell.”

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