I have an early copy of Burnout Paradise Remastered, and I cannot enjoy it. Yes, I have, as EA suggests, sent my car “launching, spinning, and scraping through the city.” I have followed instructions to “smash” through traffic and leave a “very expensive trail of wreckage” in my rearview. And I am playing it on a 4K television at 60 FPS, with each and every pixel on my car’s paint job rendered with delicate care. The problem, reader, is not the game. It’s that I own a car.
The Burnout franchise fantasy is one of property destruction. It’s about the screech of dangling car metal against pavement and those explosive, car-totaling slow-mo recaps. It’s a fantasy that I, as a teenager, relished in 2005’s Burnout Revenge on my family PlayStation 2. For hours, my brother and I would sit on opposite ends of an L-shaped couch and drive each other into (and up) walls. Crashing was a science. We studied crash angles and surfaces. Explosions were always cause for laughing and gloating. The moments up until then were for building anticipation: scraping a side-view mirror, lacerating a bumper, sending sparks flying with a clawed-up paint job.
Property destruction was so integral to my Burnout experience that I once yanked our PlayStation 2 console from its shelf and onto the ground after throwing my wired controller in a fit. It never turned on again.
I did not know responsibility. At 14, I did not know car ownership. A typical Friday night in the suburbs was spent throwing Red Bull cans at passing vehicles on the main street, or climbing into some dinged-up Corolla with muddy boots. Burnout was the natural conclusion of the car-dishonouring impulses I already had. The only car I’d driven was a child-sized plastic one that the neighbour girls’ parents purchased from Toys “R” Us. Car insurance was just a letter my parents got in the mail.
It’s been 12 years since I picked up a Burnout game. Since then, I have learned the heart-clenching feeling of arriving home after curfew with a dinged-up family car. I have learned the shame of calling AAA from some backroad after—again, I was young—failing to remember how to replace a tire. I have learned the Please, not today horror of a car slamming into mine, and afterward, the Oh god of checking my bank account balance at the mechanic’s. Automotive damage and the fear of God now light up neurons in the same sector of my brain. Over time, my love of vehicular destruction must have been driven out of me.
In August, I purchased my childhood car from my parents (also, car insurance). Janet the Jetta now sits safely in a parking garage in Brooklyn. This past weekend, I fired up Burnout Paradise Remastered on my Xbox One, full of happy memories of the Burnout franchise. I had no idea these two facts had any connection.
At the start of Burnout Paradise Remastered, Guns N’ Roses blared. I quickly claimed my new Hunter Cavalry at the junkyard. Driving it, it felt like a rocket ship slicing through space. This was exciting. Then, a parade of black cars closed in on me. One collided with my Hunter Cavalry, leaning into my right rear door. I sped up. Another put pressure on my rear bumper, guiding me into a highway guard rail. I cringed involuntarily as I heard Burnout Paradise Remastered’s realistic sound of scraping metal. My desire not to ding up my brand new car had me pushing on the accelerator, evading my opponents, until I won second place in my first drag race.
Before my next race, I paused at a stoplight. What was wrong with me? Surely I could total a car in Burnout Paradise Remastered. Veering all the way to the left, I tested out the crash angle I’d honed on Burnout Revenge twelve years ago. Moments before striking my opponent, I let up on the joystick. I couldn’t do it.
If I couldn’t inflict damage on another car, maybe I could on my own. It was time for stunts, the game informed me. Okay. I revved up again and jet onto a middle-lane jumping pad. My car went flying, in high resolution. Attempting to do a trick, I accidentally hit the “First Person” view button. When my car smashed onto the ground, I gasped. It’s fine. It’s just a game. Then, I crashed into a bridge. Sparks scattered and the doors blew open. The hood lurched. The game reset me.
Nothing in me wanted to total my Hunter Cavalry or any other car in Burnout Paradise Remastered. I thought about Janet the Jetta and how, when she was towed last year, I called a half dozen private towing companies before finally reuniting with her somewhere in Brownsville, Brooklyn. That was expensive and time-consuming. Wreaking havoc on well-rendered images of cars is not an escapist fantasy I have anymore as an adult. Sure, I take down giant mechs in Nier: Automata, but I’ve never owned anything resembling a mech, and I’ve never paid mech insurance.
Kotaku’s car friends at Jalopnik were torn on the issue. After I’d confided in writer Kristen Lee, who also owns a car, she told me, “Honestly, I don’t have those fantasies either! I, like, don’t like the idea of wrecking perfectly good cars.”
Other Jalopniks felt differently. “I heart destruction,” said the site’s chief test driver Andrew Collins, a little disconcertingly. “Car crash games are the best.” Senior editor Jason Torchinsky agreed: “Owning a car and wrecking virtual cars is a good combination.”
Firing up Burnout Paradise Remastered again, I decided to avoid the crashy stuff and just go for a long, scenic drive along the coast. The water looked beautiful. The sky, endless. It was pleasant. Tonight, I will download American Truck Simulator and do that there.