One look at Art of Rally, and you would be forgiven for thinking it a light work. But the developer, Funselektor Labs Inc., is hoping that one look will not be enough. Indeed, I can scarcely pull my eyes away. The art style is minimal: a catalogue of crisp, unbroken colours and sparing polygons, with the texture pressure-washed from every surface. It is a curious choice, given that most rally games, from WRC 9 to Dirt 5, would rather keep faith with the beautifully rendered deluge. But Funselektor has made a game for the rally-addled, and it’s betting on the dirty minds of its audience to fill in the detail. Note the absence of capital letters in the menus and in the title (stylised as “art of rally”), as though sentences were tight corners. For the devoted drifter, there is no such thing as a full stop.
In fact, I would argue that Art of Rally isn’t so much about rally as it is about what we might call rallyism: the religious pursuit of inner peace through a refusal to stray from the spiritual track. This point is driven home at the beginning, when a golden buddha statue rises from the dust and decrees, “To do something dangerous with style is art” (a compact but surprisingly useful definition), before giving us some indispensable advice: “Go forth and remember: trees are not your friends.” If all deities so blended the profound with the bluntly practical, the major religions would need to whip up more places of worship in a hurry. The camera, meanwhile, is fixed at an isometric vantage, as though God were watching over the sport—and He saw that it was good.
Focussing on the latter half of the twentieth century, the career mode, too, has a biblical flavour. In the beginning, there was Group 2, starting in 1967 and running through to 1971. On the race select screen, we get little potted histories of the league; we are informed, for instance, that “as rally was growing in popularity, regulations were needed to better organise the events.” Thus, we get the romantic impression of a sport that ran on the horsepower of raw passion, as governing bodies gave chase. No sooner had it sprang from the wet mud than it was churning it into the faces of spectators and spilling outwards, hemmed in by rules and hastily strewn fences. As you slide through time, in race after race, you also hop between countries. There are circuits in Japan, lined with pink blossoms and vaulted with light-blue sky; Norway, with its frosted landscape of lickable white; and—my favourite—Kenya, grazed by giraffes and drizzled with roseate sunlight.
The charm of Art of Rally is that we are offered not just the chance to do something we may love, but the chance to be beckoned through the loops of someone else’s love: namely, the developers at Funselektor, for whom heaven means racing over rough terrain for the sheer hell of it. Not to suggest that the developers at Playground Games, say, or Codemasters feel nothing less than fully revved devotion when it comes to machines of speed, but there is something to be said for a game that forgoes licensed vehicles in favour of nicknames, and instantly knowable outlines. Witness the 1967 Porsche 911, that callipygian melding of glass and metal, rebadged as the “das 119i”; the 1965 Austin Mini Cooper S, dubbed “the meanie,” in bright red, with a gleaming roof, as if topped with a squirt of toothpaste; and the 1993 Ford Escort RS Cosworth, “the cozzie 90,” with its beloved rear spoiler (the “whale tail”), and a cloudburst of yellow streaming over the bonnet.
Then, of course, we have the driving itself. the hand-brake turn is, as it bloody well should be, a cruel and risky pleasure. the joy of being locked into a gluey judder, as you slip athwart the track and sail blissfully round the bend, should always be equal to the despair of a door-denting crunch, or of unmooring yourself completely and swaying into the rough. getting the perfect powerslide isn’t achieved with concentration or skill alone. my best drifting is done when I, myself, start to drift. replaying conversations in my head, thinking about the past, the future, about people. all of a sudden, I realise that I have nailed the last few corners. only, the realisation pulls me back into the present moment, and I usually crash. So much for Buddha.
Art of Rally is that rarest of things: the video game as essay. Now and then, the medium throws up chewy cogitations on the nature of choice and of play—usually so inward-gazing as to cause neck ache—and you feel like saying, “Would you kindly shut up, and let me get back to it.” But the developers have instead filed a report on something they love, taking the delicious murk of their favoured sport, scouring it clean, and schooling us lightly in its history. The danger of doing that, of course, is in boring us, but Art of Rally, while a glittering reflection, is anything but dull. To do something dangerous with style may be art, but Funselektor has done something dangerous with art, and arrived at pure style.
Developer: Funselektor Labs Inc.
Publisher: Funselektor Labs Inc.
Available on: Nintendo Switch [reviewed on], Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: August 12, 2021
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