For reasons unbeknownst to man, I picked up The Crew on Black Friday, and dedicated far too much of my weekend to playing it. I'm ten hours in, an amount better referred to as two and a half Tomb Raider Legends, and my completion percentage rests gently on 5%. The map remains grey and unknown, lit only with the tracks of those small journeys I've made before.
There's something so incredibly powerful about those tracks. With your very presence, you make real what once was once just an idea, turning those black and white lines into roads soaked with rainfall and lined with trees. You do not explore The Crew's America, nor do you discover it. You conquer it, claiming the frontier for your very own.
Austin Walker's review talked about The Crew as a Postcard America, this hollow game designed in such a way to rob itself of a poignancy which so easily could be within its grasp:
The Crew is a prime example of the new power fantasy. If, as Rowan Kaiser has argued, the old fantasy was about having power, the new fantasy is about accumulating power. The old power fantasy was invincibility codes and infinite ammo. The new power fantasy is the feeling that you’ve earned your success by your hard work alone. This is the fantasy behind the guitar-riff that signifies that you’ve leveled up in Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s the fireworks and orchestral bombast of Peggle. It’s the steady return on investment in Fantasy Life. It is a power fantasy that reflects our time. We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own. I’ve never seen this fantasy executed as perfectly, so seamlessly as in The Crew. This is Postcard America.
It's an incredibly incisive description of the engine that powers not just The Crew but the most prevalent design trends in popular and big budget games. And I'd read the review upon the game's release, so I knew what I was getting into with The Crew, but what surprised me was how thoroughly it failed at executing on that fantasy, and how deliberate that failure was.
For example: the game doesn't value winning. To win is to pass, to exceed the barest minimum of expectations. The missions allow no nuance in your character's story, no brutal struggle coming in sixth, fifth, fourth, making your way up the ranks until you finally bust into the racing scene and make a name for yourself. No, winning is something that is just done, and to somehow not do it would be unacceptable.
What The Crew values instead is a dull and worthless dominance. Your medal for a race depends not on your position, the percentage of the race for which you were out front. There is no room for redemption within this system, no space for the beautiful catharsis of a last minute victory. Instead there is only this persistent anxiety that anything less than total superiority is tantamount to failure.
You improve your abilities by acquiring and upgrading your vehicles, but the prices are so ludicrously expensive that it never seems worth it to buy anything new. After all, you'd have to start the upgrade path again and you just don't have the time. All the while, right next to the in-game price sits a lower price of Crew Credits, a microtransaction currency in which you could never partake, because for chrissakes it works out to more than the price of the game to buy a damn Ferrari.
But someone must, right? Someone must have that access that you never will, someone must be driving away in their brand new fake Ferrari right now. Man, how the other half lives.
And it's gotten worse. With every update, the game's design changes, the goalposts shift further and further away from you, ensuring you're always just far enough from comfortable that you never stop running towards it, knowing it can always move it back even more.
Far from being a new power fantasy, The Crew is a game that understands completely the social desire and need within its audience for that kind of fantasy, and undercuts it at every turn. It instead targets the very fears that drive those desires - with its percentages it tells you that enough is never enough, with its visible dual currency it shows you how your social mobility is defined by your class - in order to get what it wants from you, your money or your time.
None of this makes The Crew special, that's almost the entire market of Free-To-Play/Microtransactions right there. Going further back it's the whole point of advertising: to show you it understands your needs, then cruelly deny them, then offer a barb. What makes The Crew special is the way it combines this exploitation with that beautiful, unknown world and the portrait of America such a combination paints.
And that portrait is so stark, so damning and so pointed that I can't help but find it beautiful. To play The Crew is to innately understand the feeling of being trapped inside America's late capitalism, a surface-level wish fulfillment that ends up more and more feeling like an extended game of Cart Life. So of course when it isn't there, when I turn off the UI, when I remove every indication of this exploitative system from my vision, no other game hits that same calm that comes with just going for a drive.