Why do humans enjoy moving at high speeds? Apparently it is because the speed triggers a neurological response to danger, and the brain releases a mixture of adrenaline and endorphins to help cope with the perceived threat. This mixture is responsible for the “rush” that many people find so pleasurable. The problem with this is that moving at high speeds is, in fact, dangerous, which is why we’ve developed ways to simulate the same feelings while minimizing risk. Riding a rollercoaster, skiing down a mountain, and more mundane activities like going down a playground slide or swinging on a swing set are all ways to mimic the feeling of moving fast while staying relatively safe. But the only way to be completely safe while feeling like you’re moving at high velocity is to not move at all, and mimic the feeling in some other way. Like in a game, perhaps.
There are many games that involve moving really fast, but few of them are as pure as Race the Sun. It’s a game about steering a solar-powered craft as it chases the sunset, dodging obstacles and trying to keep moving for as long as possible. Because when the sun goes down, your ride is over.
The visual aesthetic is striking. A stark, grey landscape hurtles past beneath the levitating craft, the bright sun overhead casting shadows from the stone spires, boulders, and artificial structures strewn about. The sun lends a warm, peaceful cast to the world, but this soon changes as it begins to set. The sky becomes redder, the shadows grow longer and more ominous, and indeed become obstacles of their own since staying in shadow for too long will drain the craft’s power. When sunset is near, there is more shadow than light, and the orb of the sun obscures upcoming objects. These moments are a frantic search for the telltale yellow pillar of a speed booster, which will grant the craft enough velocity to catch up to the retreating sun, raising it a little higher in the sky and buying a few more seconds of time. When the sun finally goes down, all contrast in the landscape is lost, and the craft is left sitting, powerless, in a featureless grey expanse. The sun is light, it is color, it is life.
Race the Sun manages a strange blend of high speed intensity and a feeling of calm. The grey landscape contributes to the peaceful feeling, especially when the sun is high in the sky and everything is aglow, but the audio also plays a crucial role. The music fits the stressful-yet-relaxing tone perfectly, with serene string melodies flowing above faster, upbeat rhythms. Sound effects are more subtle but still appropriate: the gentle hum of the craft’s engine and the quiet roar of a speed booster contribute to the calm overtones, while the thrum of an obstacle hurtling past at close proximity or the sharp crash of a grazing collision keep the intensity level high. The smash that accompanies a head-on collision has a suitable air of finality about it.
Crashing into an obstacle is a far more common end to a run than running out of sunlight, especially when attempting daring maneuvers to grab a speed booster or the more common Tris. Tris are simply worth points, but also act as guides for possible routes through the landscape, often tempting players into the more dangerous ones. Collecting enough Tris without crashing into anything will increase a player’s score multiplier, making all Tris provide more points when collected. The multiplier can go quite high, if players can manage to dodge obstacles well enough. But the biggest temptations for me were the speed boosters, which promise an extension of the daylight and are worth taking serious risks to grab. Unlike Tris, the speed boosters cast pillars of light into the sky, easily visible from afar, and can be collected at any elevation. In fact, collecting speed boosters was my primary use for the jump powerups, which are single-use and can be triggered to launch the craft into the air and over most obstacles. Often, when a speed booster is spied off to one side, the only way to reach it without crashing is to leap into the air over the various boulders and spires and make a rapid lateral move to grab the booster in mid-air.
There are other powerups available as well, but in an odd design decision, they’re not all available from the start. In fact, none of them are, not even the speed boosters. That means that the first few runs have an inherent time limit, as there is no way to catch up to the sun. However, completing various secondary objectives will raise the player’s level, slowly unlocking new features of the game, including the speed boosters and other powerups. At first I did not approve of this design, as I felt these secondary objectives detracted from the simple goal of getting as far as possible. But later I began to appreciate the alternate objectives, as they add some welcome variety to the proceedings and steer players towards things they might not discover unaided. There are always three of these objectives available, each contributing different amounts towards increasing one’s level. Each objective can be cleared (and replaced with a new objective) separately, so a particularly tough or annoying objective can simply be ignored. I also found that all three objectives would be replaced with new ones when starting a new session, which was nice. But I do feel there are too many levels on the ladder, and some of the rewards I found essential for making a serious run for high scores, which means new players won’t be competitive until they level up. It’s also annoying that one’s level does not transfer between devices (running on two separate computers, for example), although the developers hope to add this feature through Steam’s cloud service if the game makes it through Steam Greenlight and onto Steam. Sadly, this feature would require the Steam cloud and would not be available on the DRM-free version sold directly by the developer, FlippFly. It is possible to transfer progress manually, however, but on Windows this would require copying a registry key which is not trivial (although it did work for me).
Given how little is available to the player when first starting the game, it’s easy to think that Race the Sun is much simpler than it is. A new world is built procedurally each day from pre-made pieces, and players will soon be seeing the same pieces many times over in the game’s comparatively sedate first region. After learning to last longer and to reach later regions, however, it becomes clear that there’s much more variety to the game. The boulder fields and rocky spires of the early regions give way to masses of skyscrapers with other vehicles moving between them. Structures collapse to form new obstacles. Bombs fall from the sky and blind the player for a short time if the craft enters their blasts. Ramps launch the craft into the air and onto elevated roadways that assemble themselves as the player watches. After gaining a few levels, portals to other worlds appear, which not only offer a chance to collect a whole lot of Tris but also re-set the sun when the craft reappears in the regular world. At high levels, a super-hard mode called Apocalypse is unlocked, featuring even faster speeds and its own set of suitably apocalyptic obstacles to avoid.
These other worlds are created using the Simplex World Creator, a level editor included with the game. I have not tried it myself, but FlippFly claim it is simple to use and does not require any programming knowledge. There are many user-made worlds available, and FlippFly just finished a world creation contest. While few of the player-created worlds can compare to the official ones, they are a nice diversion, and the option to build one’s own worlds will be exciting to some players. I believe there may be plans to have the portals in the standard game lead to player-created worlds as well as FlippFly’s own, but as far as I can determine there is only one official portal world (made by FlippFly) available at the moment. Race the Sun also features an interesting asynchronous multiplayer relay mode, where one player makes a run as far as possible and then hands the reins to a friend to pick up where the first run ended. Up to four players can participate in a relay and then compare their final score to other relay teams. I haven’t tried the relay mode myself because I don’t know anyone else who owns the game, but it’s a cool idea.
Race the Sun was funded via Kickstarter, so the original crop of players came from the pool of backers. Now that the game is finished and for sale, I hope to see more people pick it up. Relay games sound like a lot of fun, and a bigger pool of user-made content can only benefit the experience. FlippFly still have improvements in the works, including a playable credits level and a system that spotlights user worlds to help user-created content get better exposure. Even in its current state, however, Race the Sun is compelling. The arrow keys are all that’s needed to play (although there are alternate keys, and all keys are re-mappable), and the simple joy of cruising through the landscape very, very quickly is undeniable. Where I thought it would get old, I was surprised to find a significant amount of depth that’s kept me coming back for more, even after I’ve unlocked everything. It’s an ideal game to play in short spurts, when you just feel like going really, really fast.
From the safety of your chair, of course.