The relatively short history of the automobile as a cultural object is varied and complex enough that it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when cars and sex amalgamated into the mechanopheliac freakshow on display in the opening video for Forza Horizon 2.
A twinkling electric piano melody swells over a twitchy beat as the camera slides in languorous swoops over the long curves of low-slung European concept cars, lingering at low angles to catch upskirt glimpses of shadowy wheel wells and purring undercarriages. The cars glisten, almost uniformly, with a patina of contextless moisture. Maybe dew, maybe rainfall. Each is placed in the midst of a stylish, softly-lit European city center or manicured ruin. Screen flares abound. The video progresses and the beat grows into the breathy, throbbing pulse of Nero’s “Satisfy,” we see Scissor Doors ease open suggestively on either side of a Ferrari. The tone of the display is so bizarre that it would provoke ripples of nervous laughter if it weren’t accompanied by Nero’s lyrics: “I can feel it tonight / I know I’ll catch your eye / Touching you feels so right / Let me satisfyyy.” The effect of this video on the viewer is not, “I’m now prepared to play this racing videogame,” it is, “I, uh, I’m now prepared to sit sobbing in the shower.”
The tone of this video is a marker in the unique history of cars, a history in which Forza Horizon 2 is entirely and intentionally steeped, but we have to start way back to understand why. Karl Benz invented the patent-motorwagen in 1886 as a conveyance meant to replace the horse-drawn carriage. Anything that costs money is a status symbol; and so the car, from its inception, was an economic signifier. But as early as the 1920s hot rod culture complicated the image of cars as utilitarian objects at all. Hot rods—with their power and forward thrust —bound the combustion engine irrevocably with the bluntest concepts of traditional masculinity. In 1949 the first widely recognized muscle car, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, hit the streets, one year after the launch of Hot Rod magazine whose mission seems to have been to confuse generations of young men about which of the objects on their cover, the woman or the car, they were supposed to desire more.
Over the next half century the sweaty, roaring melange of cars and sexuality became more confused and heightened as street racing evolved from greaser peripheralism to mainstream urban culture rite of passage. So it wasn’t a total non sequitur when, in 2008, a dude named Edward Smith reported to The Daily Telegraph that he’d had sex with as many as 1,000 different cars and introduced the world to his girlfriend, a white Volkswagen Beetle named Vanilla. And that pretty much brings us up to date. But Edward and Vanilla are only one part of the cars/sex amalgam; the flip side of this coin is the profound and nuanced impact that cars have on inter-human sexual relationships. The oversimplified summary of this impact is: cars get you laid, it is generally assumed. And while Horizon 2’s opening video is too-real evidence of the visceral creepiness of car fetishism, the actual game is bogged down in the distinct but related concept of cars-as-consumerist-aphrodisiac. This latter concept, it turns out, when translated from street to screen, is pretty awkward too. Which brings us to digital virility.
We all use videogames to meet cultural needs that we used to satisfy through face-to-face human interaction. The practice of replacing the interpersonal developmental building blocks of Maslow’s pyramid of human need with ersatz digital ones is so common as to become cliche. We accept this without blinking when the need being digitally fulfilled is need for a sense of community, or friendship, or achievement, but what about sex? When it comes to sex—very much a building block of Maslow’s pyramid—and its intersection with videogames, things get notoriously weird. Horizon has been criticized elsewhere for failing to create a tangible sense of progress despite its multiple credit accumulation systems and the dizzying amounts of upgradeability of the cars. But all the XP meters and upgrades don’t truly indicate what’s being measured here. The unspoken theme of Horizon 2 is that the game’s metric of progress is a certain type of status, and, because it is set in the world of sports cars and raves, that status is synonymous with sexual potency.
For example, the titular Horizon Festival—the backdrop for all the game’s action—is clearly modeled on real-world ostensible music events like the Electric Daisy Carnival, an EDM festival infamous for its orgiastic music, drugs, and, um, orgies. What does it mean to buy, own, and drive around this festival in a $1.1 million Mclaren P1? What does it mean that I’m racing for wristbands that provide me access to increasingly select “VIP areas” of this festival? What does the game imply my reward should be for gaining these wristbands? What’s going on in those shadowy VIP cloisters? What am I racing for? What am I racing toward?