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The secret sauce of Pacific Drive's spooky vibes: maintaining your car

Ironwood Studios creative director Alex Dracott discusses the origins of first-person spooky survival car game Pacific Drive.

While God of War: Ragnarok was the star of the show at the last PlayStation State of Play event, another spooky game with an evocative art style caught our attention. That game was Pacific Drive, a first-person run-based driving survival game where players drive through an otherwordly section of the Pacific Northwest, going on runs for supplies and answers to a mystery teased out in the wild.

Pacific Drive just looked like one of those games where you could say "I haven't seen anything like that before." And yet by, contrast, the art direction and gameplay made very clear what the game was all about: creepy arboreal vibes (a la Twin Peaks), unusual supernatural forces, and driving/repairing a car while scavenging for supplies.

So many games have a tough time balancing uniqueness with familiarity, and Pacific Drive struck an exact chord with developers watching the stream. Ironwood Studios still has a long way to go before the game's 2023 launch, but company founder and creative director Alex Dracott still took time to talk with Game Developer about the origins of Pacific Drive.

In our chat, he explained how our relationship to technology matters as much for the game as the weird spooky vibes of the Pacific Northwest. The already-creepy backwoods of Oregon and Washington may have been the fuel for Pacific Drive's fire, but it's the beat-up station wagon that provided the sparks. Here's why:

Pacific Drive's personal origins

I was surprised to learn that Pacific Drive's origins run parallel to the birth of Ironwood Studios. The company is the first one Dracott has run himself—he got started in video games at Daybreak Games (then Sony Online Entertainment), and climbed the ranks as a tech artist at companies like Sucker Punch and Oculus. At the latter company, he had to learn how to render particles in VR without making players vomit.

"I was the frontline of defense for so many failed experiments," he groaned. He described his time at the company as "a blast," but said he wanted to go out and make his own "interesting and surreal worlds."

Dracott grew up in Portland, Oregon; during his time in Boy Scouts, he spent weekend after weekend camping out in the backwoods, driving back-and-forth in an old beat-up station wagon.

When he moved to Seattle, he found himself recreating those drives, deliberately heading out into places like the forests outside the city to stare at the abandoned train yards out in the woods. "I like the juxtaposition between industrialism, brutalism, and organic nature," he said. 

He was driving out on the Olympic Peninsula one day when the pieces began to click. "The Northwest...it can be very sullen and rainy. And when that hits on a lonely road, where you're on your own, and the radio is playing a certain tune, it can be really memorable."

A screenshot from Pacific Drive.

Returning to the Northwest made Dracott think about his trips when he was younger. He began to dream up a game where the player didn't control a car in third-or-first person, but a game where they could get in and out of the vehicle, control it, drive it, and maintain it.

The player's relationship with the car would become incredibly important as development on Pacific Drive went forward, but Dracott also drew on other influences as he and his colleagues started prototyping. He described himself as a huge fan of "zone stories," like Jeff Vandemeer's book Annihilation and the STALKER series, where characters are tasked with navigating "zones" of supernatural or otherworldly activity.

The Pacific Northwest is filled with plenty of urban legends and ghost stories already, so Dracott said he took more inspiration from "weird fiction" than Bigfoot or the spiritual horrors of Twin Peaks. He said that what makes "zone stories" so compelling is that they're not stories where the reader gets all of the details.

"There's not a literal history where we uncover every single detail about why this world is the way it is," he pointed out. "It's much more about the individual micro-stories...the story of a person, the story of a single weird anomaly. And there's some really clear alignment there between [that] and the kind of tales we have in the Northwest and the general mood of being out in the woods."

That's why players will be dodging unknown storms and listening to weird tunes on the radio—but what's up with the car? Dracott says he's not a "car guy" (he's not at home refurbishing a Volvo P1800), but Ironwood Studios is still putting the car at the center of its design strategy.

"Don't drive like my brother."

Dracott threw out two quick references about the level of "car knowledge" that Ironwood Studios wants to operate at with Pacific Drive: BBC show Top Gear and longtime public radio mainstay Car Talk.

Here's the context: Dracott said that as someone who isn't a gearhead, he loved watching Top Gear because it made car culture approachable to viewers not invested in cars. And WBUR's beloved show Car Talk was about the real, everyday relationships people have with their cars. "We do think of the car as a character," Dracott explained. He talked about how players forming habits and rituals with in-game characters is actually a behavior that mirrors our real-life relationship with automobiles.

"It's fascinating because [when you own a car], there are habitual patterns that you get into when you're doing a repeated action. And when you start to pair that with a player's ability to personify or get attached to...a game character...those are the things that build that relationship [with the in-game car] up."

At the surface level, it's led to some fascinating results in playtesting. Dracott talked about how while redesigning the interior of the players' car, Ironwood Studios has accidentally turned itself into automotive engineers—moving pieces of equipment around the cabin crashes right into players' muscle memories, just like it is in real life when you hop into a car that's not the one you normally drive.

A screenshot of Pacific Drive. The player's car wanders through a foggy arboreal landscape.

"We were presented with this challenge of 'we need to make things that are entertaining to interact with from the driver's seat,'" Dracott said. He reflected on the fact that lots of driving games actually don't rely on these mechanics. Even first-person driving games or racing games automate plenty of everyday car interactions through the controller, with little need to look around the car's interior. 

That lack of familiar mechanics to fall back on sometimes drives Ironwood's design team to focus on the supernatural anomalies of the outside world. In a very function-first process, Dracott explained that the team has found itself in this loop of needing to make fun (and fair) enemies that can interact with the car, which can in turn shape how the car's mechanics manifest.

This process also helped the team's art direction, making it easier to create a unique look for Pacific Drive. Instead of starting with the Pacific Northwest's existing mythology, the Ironwood art team would often build a theme for an in-game anomaly after its behaviors had already been largely determined." That's led to eerie influences that aren't fully removed from regional inspiration, but aren't bound to the Bigfoot-adjacent tropes that might have limited the team otherwise.

But what might be Dracott's most exciting design direction with Pacific Drive's car (and sense of character) is its connection to the real-life quirks that all machines present over time. He grew visibly excited when describing a "giant [Microsoft] Excel list" full of people's personal anecdotes about the weird shit their cars would do.

What kinds of anecdotes? He rattled off some highlights: one driver described how whenever his car crossed 40 miles an hour on a gravel road, the headlights would automatically turn on. Another driver's window would get stuck in an exact spot unless it was raining. For a moment, we gushed again about WBUR's Car Talk, and how many drivers would call in with stories that fit this exact feel.

One challenge with trying to replicate this (very true to life!) sensation is that these are essentially the bugs of real-world cars, and now they need to clearly be identifiable as features in a game about a spooky car drive.

"I don't think I've ever thought about something like that before—of intentionally creating weird unique behaviors and putting that out towards the player in a way that's compelling," he observed. "It's interesting because that drives our pillars of the game forward...building that sense of bonding between you and the car."

Obviously, all of these weird behaviors manifest because cars are complex machines with interacting electrical and mechanical systems, which all can behave differently under different temperatures, velocities, and atmospheric conditions. This is where the "Top Gear approach" to car design made its return. "We're making a game that's accessible to people and [it's] not hard to swap out core parts of the car," he explained. Top Gear's popularity manifested in part because viewers weren't "blocked by" technical knowledge of working on cars. 

Ironwood Studios doesn't want to judge players for not knowing what ratchet to use; it wants them to hop along for the ride as a beat-up old station wagon starts to make weird noises that might have something to do with the odd lights out in the woods.

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