When Ray Tracers was initially released, critics were less than excited with what the game had to offer. Jeff Gerstmann, writing for GameSpot, said of it, “While Ray Tracers is a pretty neat game, it’s way too easy and far too short to purchase. Rent this one, finish it, and forget it ever existed.” I’m inclined to believe other reviews at the time read similarly. Yet given how mainstream game criticism at the time treated games as products to be tested and reported on rather than as artistic statements to be interpreted and evaluated, I’m reluctant to accept whatever conclusions critics at the time came to.
And upon reevaluating the game, I find something whose talents went unappreciated in its time. This isn’t to say Ray Tracers is this great hidden gem. At best, it’s average. Be that as it may, there’s a lot more thought and purpose behind the game’s actions than anybody at the time was willing to admit. It’s a game that demonstrates a firm understanding of the language of video games. It both cleverly mixes elements from both racing games and shooters and cuts away elements you might not have realized were frivolous to the experience. The product of this odd design approach is a minimalist racer that taps into the purest spirit of the genre.
Of course, it helps to understand how the genre works before understanding what exactly its spirit is. Despite the sheer variety present among racing games, there’s a common theme uniting all of these games: their interest in the player’s relationship with the car and the environment around them. This is a broad conceptualization of the genre, though, and what exactly that interest means varies from game to game. Simulation games, for example, see these relationships as worth pursuing in their own right and often want to make them as widely accessible as they can, leading to their fixation with representing both in a high level of detail they believe is as true to life as possible. It’s why the weight of your car is so palpable in DIRT 3, or why you can so easily feel the crunch of the dirt beneath your tires. Arcade racers tend to either look at such details in isolation or see them as a means toward some other end altogether, so there tends to be a greater deal of variety in these games. You have games like Outrun and Kat’s Run, where the car melts away as you take in the breathtaking sights around you; Burnout, where the car itself takes center stage as a tool for wanton destruction; and Mario Kart, which largely eschews both focuses in favor of theatrical racing events.
So where does Ray Tracers fit into this equation? A brief glimpse at the game’s air-hockey-like physics and its outlandish scenarios is enough to tell the game’s firmly situated in arcade tradition. Accurate this view may be, I fear it risks overlooking the core of the Ray Tracers experience, since rather than choosing to focus on either car or environment like many other racing games might, this game instead chooses to cut both factors out of the equation (or at least heavily de-emphasize their importance). The car, for example, has absolutely no presence. It glides across surfaces, almost as though it’s floating just above them, and turning the car felt funny in a way I have trouble explaining. As I was driving it, I felt less like I was piloting a controlling a physical object and more like I was managing a constantly fluctuating balance between several forces. The only reminder I had that this wasn’t the case was when my car forcibly collided with another object on the screen, but even these collisions lacked forced behind them. It was more like my car was being magnetically repulsed, or like it was being forcibly jerked back into bounds.
In other words, your vehicle is a non-object. It only exists as a mediating force between the player and the worlds around them. Yet even this reading is insufficient, given how little power these environments have to signify the things they claim to represent. You drive across city highways with some regularity, but where’s the hustle and bustle of the city? Where are the people? Where’s the nightlife? Where’s the frigid temperature in the snowy mountains, or the added resistance to my car’s forward momentum as I drive through the water? Not once did I feel anything like this as I was playing Ray Tracers, no doubt because of the game’s refusal to develop any of these sensations during play.
What I did feel, though, was speed. It was an immediate, ever-present force that the game was eager to develop in any way it could. To return to the environments for a bit, the reason they feel so removed from reality is because the game’s more concerned with communicating a sense of movement than it is with communicating a sense of place. This isn’t to say that the latter would interfere with the former; games like Kat’s Run and Outrun disprove that. Yet Ray Tracers is pursuing the feeling of movement itself, not any one mood that feeling might create. So to that end, the game populates itself with nondescript backdrops that do as little as they can to communicate a real sense of place. Every other creative decision in the game also works in service of this one idea. The camera pulls in close to your car and frames that vehicle front and center, giving you a stable point of reference against which you can perceive movement. Then it ensures every object you see in the game zips past you at breakneck speed, pavement especially.
And in a strange way, the Burnout-esque emphasis on knocking other cars off the road works toward this end, as well. I say “strange” because despite the comparison to Burnout, the language the game uses is more reminiscent of shooters than it is of racing games. Some of this is because of the aforementioned lack of physicality (especially the magnetic repulsion) applying equally well to these encounters. Some of it’s because the other cars come out in waves, with very deliberate, shmup-like pacing. When considered alongside the otherwise barren world, these events help accentuate your own movement, much like the enemies do in Accele Brid’s better moments.
But more broadly speaking, I see Ray Tracers evoking this language so it can play around with our conceptualization of space. Because conflicts in shooters are often meant to be resolved at a distance, space becomes an invaluable commodity; something you’re tasked with protecting at all costs. Ray Tracers inverts this language. Conflicts in this game are resolved by closing that distance as quickly as possible. There’s now a tension that needs to be resolved; one that’s just as immediate and ever-present as the speed you’re already feeling. After all, the conflict a ticking clock presents might not feel as tangible as that car approaching you. Given how every action you can possibly take in the game relates back to movement (accelerating, braking, nitro, etc.), these vehicular bouts only further strengthen that omnipresent sense of speed. This is especially the case where the end-level boss battles are concerned. They plant themselves firmly just outside your reach and continually challenge the idea that your movement means anything (how can it when this object feels fixed in place?). You wage battle, then, to re-establish your speed by closing the distance and eliminating this mysterious threat.
Of course, it’s also possible that Ray Tracers has a sense of humor. I feel like this, too, was misunderstood when the game was initially released. Gamers at the time were inundated with hammy, over-the-top action games on all fronts. The worse of these games were often dismissed as products of poor direction, budgetary problems, or, in the case of Japanese games, a difficult to cross cultural barrier. Yet these dismissals may have been hasty. Not only was this an era when action movies were ripe for parody (see: The Simpsons), but action movies themselves had become a thing of self-parody. Japanese game developers, already aware of that over-the-top nature after years of watching American action movies, would often instill their own games with a similarly zany nature on purpose. Some would even use these trappings to make an artistic statement, Hideo Kojima being the go-to example.
While Ray Tracers also purposefully harnesses these tropes, how it does so isn’t exactly atypical for its time. Nor is it the best example of this trend (Carmageddon comes to mind). Still, I think the game remains an interesting case study in how racing games handled these conventions. There’s the melodramatic narrative, for one. Characters deliver their lines with far more energy than the situation demands, and somehow, all four of the main characters are able to fulfill their motivations by beating the Kaizer, a mysterious street racer you only learn about shortly before the final level. It’s never explained how taking her down achieves their goals; just that it does. Obviously, a story like this is going to be irrelevant for most of the game and anything that can be said about it probably already has been.
What I’m more interested in is the satire that’s delivered through play. In theory, Ray Tracers should be a bit more dismal than its peppy tone would imply. There aren’t any humans in this world, and the only other actors in this world are vehicles dead set on driving you off the road. You can never figure out why they’re trying to run you down. In fact, all you can do is hope you come out on top in these frequent struggles for survival. This isn’t even getting into the tanks you encounter later on. It should add up to a cutthroat experience, but there are a lot of factors working to subvert that intention. For one, there’s no narrative context, so foes who might otherwise feel intimidating instead feel outlandish and nonsensical. Then there’s the way in which you resolve these conflicts. What mighty weapon do you use to take down these foes? Nothing more than a light tap on the nose. It’s the One Punch Man of racing games: the game sets up these powerful encounters and immediately undermines them with mundane solutions. Put another way, you’re constantly thrust into conflicts you’re ill equipped to solve, and the game derives humor from the ease with which you solve them.
At this point, you may still suspect that Ray Tracers is an awkward bungling mess from the Playstation’s heyday. Assuming this is true for the sake of argument, I’m not sure that’s reason to let the game be forgotten in the pages of history. As I argued back in my Decap Attack piece, sometimes it’s the unrefined games we don’t know about that prove more interesting or have something more to say than the refined ones we’re already familiar with. That’s certainly the case here: it’s in Ray Tracers’ weird little folds and in its haphazard construction that the game is able to achieve its idealized form of movement. That movement may not be accurate to reality, but the game was never that concerned with simulating reality in the first place. All it wants to do is let its players drive as quickly as possible, with as few obstructions between them and that goal as it can manage.