Buckle up: Absolute Drift is bending the built environment to a car’s will

Your car is not supposed to go sideways. If it has, you’re in trouble. This is but one of the reasons the expression “going sideways” refers to a breakdown. But in the grand tradition of things being so wrong that they are right, there’s drifting. It’s a motorsport practice that embraces oversteer to such an extent that a car’s front and rear wheels often point in different directions while drifting. When done right, a drifting car slides through corners, slicing up the pavement as if it was soft butter. Absolute Drift, which will be released for Mac, PC, and Linux on July 29th, is a game about getting drifting right.

Absolute Drift is not a wonky game. It is not interested in the finer points of automotive design. There is no discussion of brake calipers and suspension of adjustments to be found here. The game simply challenges you to drift around a series of cubist environments, hitting a variety of targets that help direct your drifts and leaving burnt rubber traces on the ground. For all this abstraction, however, Absolute Drift still has something to say about automotive mechanics. Whereas drifting normally subverts a car’s natural predisposition to move in a straight line, Absolute Drift makes sideways drifts the car’s natural state. Indeed, as Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman wrote when previewing the game, “Straight lines are one of the game’s biggest challenges.”

Insofar as it alters the normal functioning of a car, Absolute Drift also encourages the subversion of urban geography. Streets, with their lights, turning lines, and lines, are designed to accommodate the broadly linear and foreseeable movements of cars. Drifting dispenses of this predictability and therefore does away with much of the logic of the city street. A city designed for drifting would therefore not look anything like the car-tropolis that is Los Angeles. Indeed, the ratio of buildings to asphalt in Absolute Drift is roughly the inverse of what it would be in real life. Abstract buildings dot large open expanses; their only function is to give you something to drift around. In that sense, Absolute Drift is a bit like Monument Valley for cars.

Absolute Drift is a bit like Monument Valley for cars. 

Absolute Drift is a world built for the needs of a drifting car, which is not all that dissimilar from what engineers are currently trying to do in Michigan. As Bloomberg recently reported, automakers have banded together to build M City, “a 32-acre (13-hectare) mini-metropolis, [that] seeks to replicate modern urban chaos with traffic jams and unpredictable pedestrians, alongside suburban streetscapes, superhighways and rural roads.” M City exists to serve as a testing ground for driverless vehicles. Better to experiment there than on real streets with real cars and real pedestrians. (More on that in a moment.) Which is not to say that driverless cars really care about cities or geography or physical realities. As Geoff Manaugh put it when writing about Google’s autonomous car program:

The software knows what to expect because the vehicle, in a sense, is not really driving on the streets outside Google’s Mountain View campus; it is driving in a seamlessly parallel simulation of those streets, never leaving the world of the map so precisely programmed into its software.” 

To the driverless car, M City is just as much of an abstraction as any other city. This sort of test-track does, however, serve a use. Consider, for a moment, WIRED’s recent story, “Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway—With Me in It.” The title pretty much tells the entire story. As part of a security experiment, WIRED’s Andy Greenberg drove a Jeep in public as security researchers basically carjacked it. This is an interesting and important experiment, but the fact that it was conducted on a public road with real lives at stake is, to put it nicely, ethically dubious. As Fusion’s Kashmir Hill notes, “If the Jeep hack demonstration requires a car going 70 miles per hour, it should be on a deserted race course, not on a public highway.”  

The digital component of the Jeep that WIRED hacked exists in a similar parallel universe to the one Manaugh described. It makes no real difference to the car’s computer systems if it is on a test track or a highway. That’s why developments like M City matter. So long as the computerized automobile brains are indifferent to physical realities, we have to build environments where they can safely act out their impulses. Absolute Drift’s environment looks to take this logic one step further. Its open expanses aren’t merely safe constraints for the drifting car but the physical manifestation of its whims, a place it can live out everything it was made—and therefore wants—to do.

Find out more about Absolute Drift on its website.