In his chapter on Habituation in How to Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that making a game familiar is more important than making it learnable – he specifically claims that games are most easily learnable if we’ve become habituated to their conventions. According to Bogost, successful casual or coin-op games aren’t “easy to learn, hard to master,” but rather culturally familiar and easy to habituate to.
Playing Race the Sun kind of makes me wonder if the developers read Bogost. Well, some of Bogost, at any rate.
Starting a game of Race the Sun most immediately evokes classic racing games, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the title. We take control of a fast-moving vehicle after a rolling start. The camera is placed in the traditional racing position, over and behind the craft (though it can be changed to the front, as in most racing games) and we navigate the gameplay space as though it were a racetrack, rather than moving through a side scrolling level. So we head into a run with the habituated context of a racing game, and we already know what our objectives are – move as quickly as possible through the track and don’t hit anything, because you’ll crash and burn.
A crossover between racing game and endless runner is not exactly a new idea – most endless runners give you something that you need to race against or escape so that you don’t go through the courses too slowly. In Race the Sun it’s, well, the sun, but in Temple Run (an earlier and more well-known endless runner) your character is fleeing from a group of mysterious temple guardians that you foolishly awakened, and in Canabalt your character is fleeing the destruction of his city. Race the Sun, however, borrows the most explicitly from the genre, with regular trick jumps and obstacles forming safe tracks that require careful maneuvering. These combine with item collecting and high scores from endless running games to create an experience that is surprisingly intuitive, for a game about a completely nonsensical scenario.
Bogost seems to think that the best “habitual” games on the market build on previously established ideas. Tetris, he claims, succeeded because it combined several successful elements from old-school domino games – tiling and assembly, to be precise. In this regard, Race the Sun succeeds admirably – the fusion of two popular genres creates a gameplay experience no other game can replicate exactly, and ties into our own cultural knowledge of driving cars. So how come the game hasn’t been successful?
Race the Sun doesn’t carry the name recognition of Tetris or even Temple Run despite occupying similar genre with a unique style of gameplay. Perhaps it’s just that the game was simply published too late. Or perhaps it costs too much – Race the Sun costs under $5 on iphone, but given the trend that mobile games are heading in, any cost may be too much to ask. Temple Run is free, as are some versions of Tetris, and in a world where a free game can deliver a habitable experience as well as Tetris does, it takes something truly extraordinary to succeed as a paid product. Race the Sun might simply not have what it takes to do so.