The Bizarre Neoliberalism of NFS Unbound
Arcade racing games have a natural tension with reality: you hurl down streets in a tricked out Mazda drifting through traffic, police sirens blaring behind you, demanding you pull over. You’ll hurt somebody, damn you, they shout. And doing 200 kilometers per hour, engaging a tank of NOS: are they right?
Need For Speed Unbound is a compelling arcade racer in the lineage of Underground: you are a plucky upstart, working for scraps at Rydell’s Rides. You begin racing with your mechanic Yaz. Together, you rebuild one of Rydell’s old junkers into an absolute weapon of a street racer. One night, mid-job, Yaz rips off the garage, taking all of Ridell’s tricked out rides, along with your car.
2 years later, Yaz is back on the scene, driving your car. She’s running a huge invitational with big stakes and even bigger rewards: now it’s on. You need to build up your rides, make a ton of cash, and show Yaz you’re the better driver to win your car back.
There’s nothing particularly unique about the story and there needn’t be: the voice actors are warm and fun, and excellent pacing keeps things tense and interesting. While the world is rendered in sharp, realistic visuals, cars and characters are stylised in a beautiful two-tone artstyle that pops off the screen. There is no other word for Unbound than charming.
Unbound is set in a fictional city called Lakeshore: it’s kind of Chicago, sort of. While the plot of the game is delivered by phone calls while driving or conversations in the garage, every now and then a news broadcast or episode of a podcast plays in the car. The game begins with some general background flavour: the mayor is corrupt and nepotistic, there’s an election coming up.
By mid-way through the game the mayor is cracking down on street racing, increasing police coverage. This is realised by the game literally as more cop cars fill the streets. Mechanically, you gain heat which causes more and more cops to want to take you out. This leads to some nail-biting chases through Lakeshore where you’ll do all kinds of reckless things to avoid being busted and losing that sweet, sweet cash.
None of this is new for Need For Speed. But something odd begins to happen as the game goes on. While you lay out larger and larger chunks of cash, race increasingly juiced up super cars and spend hours tweaking wraps and engine configurations, the in-game podcasts begin to lament the mayor’s focus on street racing.
The mayor’s crack down is unnecessary, they claim. These are just kids finding a way to express themselves, who are they really hurting? Street racing is incredibly dangerous for the participants, bystanders and communities where it necessarily occurs. In Unbound you can total your ride in spectacular fashion. You can slam into traffic and send them flying. You can demolish cops. But you can’t actually hurt anyone. There are pedestrians, yes. But they fling themselves out of the way as you approach, or they simply bounce off your ride without any physics. By the mid-point of the game there are eight to ten meetups every morning and evening, meaning it’s likely if you lived in Lakeshore you would see or hear a race almost every day, and you’d be lucky to avoid the wreckage or splash zone.
But you can’t actually hurt anyone, not really, so street racing isn’t dangerous. The podcast argues the racers are performing self-expression: this is sort of true. I’ve spent hours tweaking a paint job just so, fulfilling the fantasy of the Need For Speed series to craft vehicles that could never exist in reality. But the podcast insists the racing is self-expression, not the cars themselves. This subject positioning is not in opposition to anything.
Normally when making a political argument like this you’d place the subject in opposition to something else: the mayor is cracking down on street racing when he should be focused on healthcare or climate change. But the game is about racing sweet ass cars. The audience skews largely male and the sort of males who think tricking out dope ass whips are in natural tension with the list of policies usually placed in opposition to this kind of supposed fascistic control.
A mayor legislating against self-expression is inherently fascistic, yes, and mechanically you can’t hurt anyone, so the mayor is, in the universe of the game, wrong to crack down on racing. The necessity of the medium and the game hedging on the oppositional policies result in an argument for deregulation and recentralisation. Not of the police, however. The argument is not that the police should be reduced, that police as an idea might be bad. No, they are just being deployed wrong. They ought to get back to focusing on things that matter.
By raising the subject of these politics and failing to commit to anything, the story accidentally uses the aesthetics of street wear and hip hop to reinforce a confusing individual, conversative imagining of politics. It’s okay to street race because it’s self-expression. As long as you feel you are doing right, you are. Look after your house and the world will work itself out. This inherently neoliberal worldview is mirrored by the in-game economy, where you make unregulated wagers on street racing. There isn’t any way to make cash legally.
The natural tension between the core audience and the politics raised in the story result in this strange double-think, where you have to accept that street racing isn’t dangerous while simultaneously pancaking yet another cop-car. But it’s okay, it’s self-expression. They ought to get back to focusing on what cops should be doing, right?
The irony of course is that conservatives have claimed the game is too left. That the game is obviously propaganda, while failing to realise the story accidentally supports the status quo and can’t quite say anything of substance about its own politics. By not committing to an argument, the passion and excitement of the game dissolves into nothing but flashy graphics and stylish smoke trails in service of the pundits who use hip hop and urban culture as straw men to lobby for increasingly unsustainable corporatism and privatization.