Gran Turismo and the Impact of Games On Our Lives
Almost a month ago, a Japanese engineer named Shinichiro Sakurai passed away. About a week later, he was eulogized in one of the largest Japanese daily newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun, and remembered as a passionate legend in his field. A couple days later a friend tweeted that article; I read it and sat awestruck. This was partially due to the man's accomplishments, but after a few minutes of contemplation, I came to realize how many different points in my life met at Sakurai-san and his work.
Why the hell am I writing about this on a web site that is ostensively, about video games? Because for me, it all starts and begins with a video game: Gran Turismo.
Sakurai-san became famous as one of the leading engineers of the Nissan Skyline car series. As mentioned in the Asahi Shimbun article, Sakurai helped turn the Skyline coupe and sedan model series into a Japanese automotive legend — and turning its performance variant, the GT-R, into the Corvette of the Land of the Rising Sun, a true symbol of the Japanese auto industry. Packed full of cutting-edge technology — including a powerful turbocharged engine and fancy all-wheel drive system — the GT-R was the ultimate representation of Japan in its late-1980s pomp. But until the mid 1990s, few people outside of Japan knew about the GT-R. If you were lucky, you'd catch an American auto magazine like Car and Driver or Road & Track running a feature on "forbidden fruit" vehicles only available overseas. To car geeks, it was like hunting our eponymous sasquatch — a much-rumored, rarely seen mythical creature.
This is where Polyphony Digital's groundbreaking racing game comes in. Polyphony never expected it to become a worldwide sensation; director Kazunori Yamauchi has admitted he expected Gran Turismo to be "a niche title," as nobody had done a more serious racing simulator on consoles beforehand. The first GT title leaned heavily on Japanese cars (there are only a handful of American and British cars in the game) and while many were average cars like the Honda Civic and Accord, some of these were the best cars you could buy in the game. Cars like the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Acura NSX were joined in the top tier by the American Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette...and Sakurai-san's Skyline GT-R. Sure, there were other Japan-only cars in the game — like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and FTO, Subaru Impreza WRX and Toyota Chaser — but the GT-R was the boss. Tuned all the way up, it was the most powerful car in the game, but that all-wheel drive system and the GT-R's racing heritage meant it was GT's win button; fitting, considering the real-life GT-Rs were just as devastating in racing series.
I was in love. I fell for Gran Turismo, for its tuning and racing, for its wide collection of cars, and for these crazy Japanese cars I'd never heard of before. I fell for the GT-R too -- it was my idol. I dreamed of someday owning an R33-generation GT-R, the one featured in the first GT game. Hell, I still do. For the longest time, an Electronic Gaming Monthly pack-in poster of Gran Turismo hung in my room, and it's absolutely no surprise that the car featured was a GT-R with the [R] package.
My love of Gran Turismo would eventually lead me to join an Internet forum dedicated to the game — granturismo.com. The community that sprang up was vibrant, full of people who were passionate about cars, auto racing, and video games. Our group from gt.com has moved around to different sites (the politics and history behind that are a story for another day), but it's a community I've been a part of for almost 10 years. I've met members of the board in person a number of times, and if I ever travel to any number of places — England, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway — my second step after booking flights and hotels would be to check in with forum members who live there. When a community member passed away two weeks ago, the news made its way back and others in the area attended the funeral. It's a testament to the connective powers of the Internet that such bonds can be formed. I know others have stories about online communities springing up around video games, but this is mine — and the community still rotates around the axis of cars, racing, and video games that was so perfectly captured by Gran Turismo.
The popularity of the Gran Turismo series, and the prominent position it gave to cars like the GT-R, WRX and Lancer Evolution, had more than a minor repercussion in the United States. GT went from being imagined as a "niche product" to the progenitor of one of Sony's biggest series — a series that has sold more than 61 million copies worldwide. Subaru began importing the WRX into the United States in 2001, Mitsubishi followed with the Lancer Evolution VII in 2003, and Nissan finally officially brought the GT-R to the U.S. in 2008. GT helped popularize these cars, and the sales totals for the GT games proved that there was a market of car enthusiasts in this country. Previous special editions of GT have showcased cars unveiled at auto shows, and that's come back full circle — even at the lowly Portland Auto Show, multiple manufacturers used GT to showcase their wares. Mazda had signs near its booth advertising the chance to drive Mazda cars in the game, and Volkswagen had this setup promoting its Jetta Cup racer using the game. PlayStation and Gran Turismo have also become auto racing sponsors, both of racing teams and of racing series — including Japan's Super GT series, where Nissan races the GT-R.
Moreover, GT represents the evolutionary step Sony's PlayStation made in gaming: as a more serious game about real-life cars and auto racing, it helped attract an older generation, including many people who were more interested in the cars and tracks than something like Crash Bandicoot or Final Fantasy VII. As a game, too, GT has helped to push realism to the forefront; not just realism in the driving physics, but accuracy in the cars chosen for the game and the environments crafted for them to race around. As I've learned more about the Japanese tuner car and racing scenes, I've come to see the direct inspirations for some of the fictional tracks in Gran Turismo. Even in GT1, each of the tracks had billboards and advertisement signs that appeared with real licensed brands just like they would at a real race track. That attention to detail can now be seen not just in sports games and racers, but also many action and adventure games set in contemporary times. Polyphony may not have directly inspired Rockstar to make Liberty City so detailed, but perhaps they showed that there's a market for realistic games.
I probably wouldn't be the same person without Gran Turismo — the game, the community it spawned and the Japanese sports cars it helped popularize in the West. I've always loved cars, but I may not care as much about the GT-R if I hadn't played GT. I may not have met some great people or had fun playing games online if I hadn't signed up on gt.com back in the day, either. I'm sad that Gran Turismo 5 makes me feel so apathetic, because the series has meant so much to me; I bought a PlayStation 2 specifically for GT4, after all. It feels like meeting an old friend and seeing they haven't changed at all...but in a bad way. I'm still spending time tuning and racing cars, and though Forza 3 is really cool, a part of me misses a lot of the GT aesthetic — confusing menus, sprightly Japanese jazz, license tests, Moon Over the Castle, and the polish and sense of style that Yamauchi-san pours into the series.
Yamauchi-san and Sakurai-san share the same kind of passion, really — to dedicate body and soul to making something great in the automotive realm. Each man's work has, clearly, had an impact on me and on the rest of the world. This is the power a game can wield. ありがとうございました。