The first video game my son ever played – I mean really played, rather than toyed with – was Burnout Paradise. We played together, but he took control; he decided what he wanted to do and he did it. The 2008 open-world driving title from Criterion, which is being released in a remastered edition on PS4, was a formative entry in the emerging universe of free-roaming multiplayer racers, leading us to the likes of Forza Horizon and The Crew. It gave you a city and a car, and it just said ‘drive’. That’s exactly what my son did.
He was only four at the time, so of course, the structural formalities of most games – the rules, the obstacles, the control systems – were a frustrating mystery to him. He loved the look of LittleBigPlanet, he adored the way Sackboy moved his head around in response to the Sixaxis controller (the first time he saw that he literally laughed until he was sick – on the controller), but that game’s labyrinthine menu systems and unforgiving physics meant he was all but excluded from the meat of it. Obviously most console games aren’t aimed at four-year-olds, but this suddenly made me realise how game developers and experienced game players often completely overlook the essential gate-keeping weirdness of the controller, and of most design conventions. When you play games with your kids for the first time, it hits you like a thunderbolt – so much is taken for granted. So many experiences are buried beneath layers of esoteric user lore. Being a ‘gamer’ is like being a freemason or a scientologist except there are fewer meetings in luxury hotels and no hidden societal power.
But Burnout Paradise removes many of the abstractions we’re so used to. Everything from vehicle repair to selecting and taking part in races is initiated within the game world rather than being drawn out to separate menus. You’re not guided at all – you’re just there. This frustrated the hell out of ‘gamers’ at the time, because we’re used to familiar design ‘on ramps’ where the structure is unfolded before us, goading us in. Burnout Paradise only reveals its many events and modes as you drive, and you can totally ignore them, which my son did because he was four and didn’t know what a Showtime Mode was and simply didn’t care.