This story is told in vignettes.
One day, when I was in middle school, I stepped off the bus and walked into my house to hear my mom on the phone, saying something to the effect of "Yes, he's a very sensitive boy, very prone to crying." Things like this weren't that unusual to hear around my house. My mom was a teacher, and often gave out our home number to parents if they were concerned about a student in her class. The thing was, this time, she wasn't talking about one of her students, this time she was talking about me to one of my teachers. I had done something that day that had offended, worried, or otherwise bothered the new band teacher - this would later become a pattern - to the point that she actually called my mom to talk about it, and then obviously I got in trouble. I can't even remember what I said or did now, and I couldn't even remember that day, but I do remember overhearing that conversation because for me, it was a watershed. In that moment, I learned the difference between real and performative emotions.
I first heard Porter Robinson's song Language, in some bar or club and I remember that the music video was playing alongside it. It's an EDM song, which is a genre I listen to from time to time, typically while reading or studying. But something about Language struck me from that first listen, and it became one of my favorite songs. I connected with the song, and it's very short, simple lyrics because they made me feel something:
Give me release
Let the waves of time and space surround me, yeah
'Cause I need room to breathe
Let me float back to the place you found me
I'll be okay
Tristan and I roomed together in college. Our last year, we had an apartment off campus, and we both brought our motorcycles: him, his Triumph Bonneville, and me my Ninja 250. We used to ride together on nights and weekends, just ride to nowhere in particular except back home. We rode to the Wisconsin River flowage, we raced down county highways, we road down the back roads of the back roads until we hit gravel, we rode out to where there were no street lights and looked at the stars, we rode past the little radar sign in town and tried to perfectly match our speeds as we went past (successfully, I might add), we got trapped in a freak rainstorm and I nearly died, we rode out to Wausau for pizza and ended up riding back in temperatures so cold my ass was cold to the touch for three full days. Those moments were some of the best of my life. Just peace, serenity, and the sensory pleasures of fall. To me, all of those rides in the golden autumnal sunshine became exactly that: Gold.
I think racing games are mostly...fine. While there are games that are exceptions, my issue with racing games is that I get bored of racing; bored of driving the same track set over and over, with the only variation being the braking points. I want a little narrative behind my racing game, a little bit of pizzaz. The Forza Horizon games have both of those things as the centerpiece, and I still can't believe it took me so long to fall into them. I only jumped on the bandwagon when the original Horizon was offered in the Games with Gold program in September of 2016, as part of publisher Turn 10's lead-up to Forza Horizon 3. Seeing the yellow Viper cover art, I grabbed Horizon it off the Xbox store, installed the game, and actually sat there and watched the download complete. When I started the game up, Porter Robinson's Language was the main theme. A good sign! As for the game itself, it's perfect. When you start a new game, you're put into a red VW Corrado and thrown into this autumnal automotive wonderland. Set in a fictionalized Colorado, Forza Horizon tells the loose story of a Coachella-like racing event called the Horizon Festival that has taken over a part of the state. Every road is open to you, every mountain pass and sweeping highway begs you to race down it as fast as you can, and every event shows you how your friends did at that same event. Finish a race? Here's where you rank. Blow through a speed trap? Here's how much faster your friends are. The map encourages exploration, yet the events are all marked with these cool roadside stands, so you never quite feel lost. And of course the game is set in the fall, and the sunlight is always golden. Everybody who loves cars has their perfect car heaven somewhere in their mind. For some it's a racetrack, or a section of road, or maybe it's even a specific event, like the Daytona 500 or Moab. Not me. My car heaven looks exactly like Forza Horizon.
I very clearly remember the phone call I got from my Dad the day my Grandma died. He called to tell me that he was on the phone with the nursing home, and that Grandma had just been taken into the hospital with low blood sugar. I started to ask if he was going to go see her after work, and ask if I could go along with him, but he told me to hold on and clicked over to the other call. He came back in a few seconds. "She's gone." In the time it took for the news of my Grandma's hospital admission to go from the Nurse to my Dad to me, my Grandma's heart had just...stopped. That was it. My last grandparent was gone.
I played a lot of Forza Horizon between my grandma's death and her funeral. That was the game I happened to be playing most at the time I got that call, and it also served as a marvelous distraction. Yes, there's racing in the game, but it's street racing, so the "tracks" are more varied. Not only that, but some races in the game are just straight up duels: You and one other driver, as fast as you can, all out to the finish. There are also some other events where you race a helicopter or a previous generation of your car, and as I mentioned earlier there are also side challenges like the speed traps scattered all around the map. Of course, if you don't feel like doing any of those things, you can just cruise around and look. Even though is years and now two console generations old, the game still looks excellent with boosted Bloom Post-Processing helping to hide some of those nasty jagged edges. That scenic vista at the top is from the game, a location called Finley Dam, and it is quite pretty when you drive across that bridge span. The game sounds very good too, the car sounds are realistic, and there are several radio stations you can listen to with various kinds of music, each suited to different kinds of driving. The car selection isn't bad. It's a little bit scattered and eclectic, but with 50+ manufactures represented, how much can anyone complain? There's something for all tastes, and if a car doesn't match your taste, there's always mods, both performance and visual. Forza Horizon was a world I could lose myself in, and I did so gladly.
I can only remember three times I've witnessed my Dad cry: Once, when we were burying a stillborn puppy from an otherwise perfect litter, once on the first night in his new apartment after my parents divorced, and once at grandma's funeral. Stoic Germanic emotion is the best way to describe him, though most people go with emotionally detached. Grandma was a Lutheran, a Missouri (or misery) Synod Lutheran to be specific, a synod that is notoriously dour on the best days. I'm a Roman Catholic and even I was sitting in the uncushioned pews during the homily thinking "Hey man, why don't you lighten up a bit, it's only a funeral."
Grandma's funeral was very sad in a way that went beyond a singe death. That funeral was a generational change, the end of an era. Suddenly, my Dad was the oldest male in his own family line. At the burial, my Dad passed out white roses to everyone in attendance, and after the prayers we each walked up in our own time and put them on the coffin. It was an extraordinarily sensitive gesture from an otherwise remarkably withdrawn man. There are moments in life where you see your parents as something other than their familial position, glimpses behind the curtain of the parent-child dynamic, where you see laid bare that the person who biologically created you and then raised you is themselves afraid and alone and desperately sad. Real emotion, not performative.
I went home after the funeral. It was raining. I changed out of my funeral clothes and into something more comfortable. I started playing Horizon. Not long after that, my fiancee (now wife) came home from work. We had dinner. Then I played more. I was nearing the end of the main story. It was the final race. I had just unlocked the Lexus LFA, a truly beautiful car. In the game, it's a little hard to control, a little squirrely. My typical reaction to this behavior in a Forza game is to just slap AWD on the thing and be done with it, but this time, I wanted the challenge. For some reason I felt like I needed to beat the game in that car just as it was. In Horizon, the last race takes place in a small town well outside of the main fairgrounds. Players race for the King Of Horizon title against a field of the best drivers at the event.
I don't know if it was coincidence or good programming, but during the final laps of the final race, the song Language started to play. One possibility is that it would make sense for the developers to use the game's theme song on the final laps of the final race. Another is that the radio stations in Horizon have a limited amount of songs which all play more or less on a continuous loop, and that the soundtrack just so happened to be at the part of the loop that contained Language. What mattered to me is that Language was playing as I beat the game on the day of my last Grandparent's funeral. A wave function collapsed. And it made me cry. I cried as as an oversensitive boy, as a person who finds emotional satisfaction in cars and in driving, as a man who learned that it was better to hide emotions than show them and had suffered as a result, as a gamer who found a new world they loved wanted to use it forget a sad day and just deal with it all later. All of those things were true, all at the same time, and all of it expressed in a single lyric of a song I like found in the soundtrack of a game that still feels like it might have been made specifically for me alone: I'll be okay.
I'll be okay.