“In the blink of an eye, everything can be lost.”
~The trailer for Burnout.
From its inception, Burnout has been a series sold on the inevitability of your demise. Such fragile creatures are we, so easily can our lights be snuffed out, that wouldn’t you like to see how far you can push your luck? You careen through the streets, only barely avoiding crashing into the hatchback on your left, so you may be rewarded with the ability to go even faster. The game makes you keenly aware that you are living on borrowed time, every second of boost bringing you closer to the inevitable little slip, to the moment your wheel starts to spin out as you scrape the wall, setting you on a fixed course to crash right into the back of that flatbed. And on some level, don’t you want to? The crashes are so lovingly rendered, so glorious and exuberant to behold, aren’t they just a little of the reason you’re here? Besides, avoiding the constant obstacles is so draining that it’s almost worth it to let go.
The objective of Burnout, however, is not to survive, but to win. Burnout’s life and death game is not the game at all, merely the pitch upon which the game is played. You’re pitted against both the clock and three other racers, and it is here where the game’s darker side is revealed: by making the player so fragile yet empowered, the most satisfying moment is not when you narrowly cheat death, but when one of your opponents does not. There is no mechanical reward for your rival’s failure, save for the assumption that their death in some way adds value to your survival. It shouldn’t feel good. But it does.
Divorced from the images of violence and death that make up a large portion of its gaming contemporaries, Burnout became poised to be a more base exploration of aggression through mechanics. The first game was a straight arcade racer, the core identity of the game was on the survival aspect, but as the series grew, the focus began to shift.
The second game introduced Crash Mode, the series’ first foray into mechanically incentivising the player’s aggression. Crash Mode existed separately from the main racing game; whilst the player’s goal was usually to survive and win races, here it was to cause as many cars to crash as possible on a single junction. Burnout attempted to capitalise on the merely implied violence of the first game, but by turning violence into a puzzle. The mode was clinical, distancing the player’s thoughts and removing them from the moment, antithetical to Burnout’s complete and utter devotion to the moment. To play Burnout is to desperately struggle to hold on to life, to play Crash Mode is to carefully plan your meaningless death.
It was not until the third entry when Critereon would make a change that fundamentally upended everything about Burnout, in the additions of Takedowns. Not only were you able to ram other cars into walls and traffic, causing them to crash, you were rewarded with a larger boost metre for doing so. The soundtrack now featured power chords over which angry vocalists sang or shouted. Road Rage was added, a gameplay mode in which takedowns were the only goal. If you crashed, you could control your wreck to enact revenge on some other car in the race. Surviving in Burnout 3 is almost incidental, what solely mattered now was instead the power to take from others what you did not wish to be taken from you.
The series had reached a plateau. Burnout’s systems had been finalised, the subtextual potential of the first made text at last. Burnout 3’s mechanics were in some way complete, you were fragile but now empowered to take out any of your rivals, which rewarded you with boost, thus increasing your speed and fragility. Nothing could be added without upsetting the balance. What new ground could possibly be covered?
Burnout: Revenge proceeded in perhaps the only way it could have: it got angrier, perhaps uncomfortably so. Burnout 3 was an angry game, but this was complemented bright aesthetics and the player’s relative fragility. Revenge sought to fix these shortcomings. Its aesthetic was dark, grungy, industrial streets and sunsets tinged brown. Traffic Check allowed you to crash into the rear of any car, slamming it out of the way, rewarding you with yet more boost. Other cars were no longer reminders of your mortality, they were now weapons to turn on your rivals.
With every succeeding entry, Burnout had pushed further into its indulgent elements (as most long running series do), no longer focusing on the player’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of death, but instead on the player’s ultimate empowerment. In the blink of an eye, everything can be gained.
You exit the junkyard, and the city sprawls out ahead, asking nothing of you for the first time. No rivals to beat, no targets to reach, just a space to explore at your discretion. As you slam down on the accelerator, you blast off, barely avoiding the traffic that seems to clog every lane. The handling is lighter, no longer are you forced onto the road’s surface like a toy car, but every bump nudges you off course, forcing you to stay on your toes to keep yourself under control. You realise that once again, you’re in danger: it’s just you, the road, and every obstacle on it. It’s exciting. You drift around the corner, kicking in the boost at just the right moment. This isn’t in service of winning a race, or taking down a rival, or any progress whatsoever. You drive because it feels good to drive. And suddenly Burnout isn’t a game of aggression anymore. Burnout Paradise is like letting go.
Of course, you crash. But it matters less. Just as the sun shines, sometimes it has to rain. It’s just a part of the cycle, an inevitability that comes from driving so recklessly. It is simply the price you pay.
The game still has a structure, it still has races, it still has takedowns. It doesn’t change what Burnout is, or walk back from what Burnout had become, it recontextualises the entire franchise. Outside of the momentary loss of control when you crash, Burnout Paradise is devoid of a failure state. It places the action in an open city, in which every event can be tackled in any order, and in the event you do not succeed, then you move onto a different one.
The effect is astounding. The main arc of Burnout Paradise becomes not one of skill increasing to account for more difficult obstacles, but a more honest one of discovery. You learn the streets of Paradise City, you learn where the shortcuts are, you learn which cars you enjoy driving and why that is. By removing all but the bare minimum of explicit competition, by removing the need to win, the relationship between the game and its player is made more complex. It isn’t a game to be beaten, it’s simply an ongoing conversation with the player, one that can be returned to anytime. No longer is Burnout a game of win or lose. No longer is Burnout a game live or die. It’s a game of both.
Burnout Paradise is a true maturation. It takes a series that had pushed further and further into indulgence, and without pulling a Spec Ops or Bioshock style middle finger on the player, rearranges the series elements in a way that subconsciously changes the way you think about the game. Burnout, built on the player’s fear of ‘death,’ finally allows the player accept it.
And if we truly never do get another Burnout game, as is likely, then that’s alright. I can’t think of a better note to go out on.