Pacific Drive is what you could get if Nicolas Winding Refn stepped in to direct an episode of Stranger Things. The atmospheric, run-based survival adventure hinges on the bond between players and their car, but instead of escaping their past, they must dodge supernatural anomalies while launching expeditions into the Olympic Exclusion Zone to understand and save the surreal tragedy escape reshape the world.
Between outings as players hunt for resources and learn about the experimental remains scattered by the mysterious ARDA organization, you’re likely to find them tinkering with their trusty station wagon in the safety of an oil-smeared garage. It was here that our most recent Gamescom 2023 demo began, and I immediately set about customizing my four-wheeled companion, manually slicing off the fairing and swapping out the tires, in preparation for the next death-defying crusade.
What struck me about this part of the demo was how developer Ironwood Studios fully committed to this part. To save resources, some studios may have asked players to update and customize their ride in the menu, but not here. Working on your car is a tactile, intentional experience that’s surprisingly therapeutic, and a welcome contrast to the sizzling tension that underscores every drive.
Drive to survive
During our demo, Game Director Seth Rosen said that when they joined the project, leveling up and restocking the car was a menu-driven experience, but the team quickly set out to change that to create a relationship between players and their vehicle to promote.
“The car is like a protective shield. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship. You take care of the car and it will take care of you,” said Rosen, who added that he wanted the upgrade system to feel sensory but “snappy.” Out in the wilderness, the car becomes the driver’s first line of defense player and absorbs damage above a certain threshold to keep them alive, meaning that keeping the engine in tip-top shape is of paramount importance.
Ironwood also tried to give the truck a sense of individuality by introducing a quirky system that allows it to develop something of a personality over time. “We want the relationship between the players and their car to be really strong at the end of the game, so we have a quirky system,” Rosen continued. “Some of these quirks are neutral and harmless, some of them are actually pretty bad, and some of them can actually be helpful. And we have a keyword diagnostics UI similar to Return of the Obra Dinnwhere you need to find out what’s wrong with your car if you want to fix it.”
Almost every interaction has a physicality and weight Pacific Drive Rosen said that this was driven by a desire to make the in-game UI as diegetic as possible. “We tried to get as much of the world into the physical as possible because that helps sell the relationship with the car, but also gives a sense that this is a real place that’s menacing,” he added .
It’s the design decision that places a real burden of responsibility on players. During my first run, I accidentally ran into a tornado-like anomaly that essentially set off a vehicle body slam on my beloved engine, which hit the ground with a tremendous crunch. Ironwood’s decision to focus on tangible impacts means these bugs will leave their mark and sometimes require unconventional solutions to fix them.
“To make all of these location-based damage features work on the car, we have an immersive sim-style damage system. That system, and all the things that make it possible, lurked under the skin of the game for a long time.” “Our in-game tools were limited by certain parameters,” he said. “For example, players might only have been able to use the Scrapper [used to break down resources] on specific items. We recently opened this up to allow players everywhere to use tools that allow for really imaginative problem solving and shenanigans.”
The resulting systems allow for moments that feel both more intuitive and emergent, and hopefully reduce the number of times players ask themselves, “Why can’t I?” – which, in Rosen’s own words, would be “bad”.
Rosen said it also solved some of the resource management issues Ironwood encountered by allowing players to improvise and overcome. “There’s a tool called the Scrapper that’s the best way to get at the base materials, but if the Scrapper runs out of juice and you still have a hammer handy, you can use that to break open and gather materials in an emergency.” He explained, pointing out that survival sometimes requires players to take an “any solution will do” approach.
At the moment, Pacific Drive seems to have all the ingredients for success. Over the course of our 30-minute demo, Ironwood’s commitment to creating a deep, systems-rich experience was evident, but beyond that, it’s just plain damn good vibes. It will be interesting to see how it fares when it rolls out of the showroom in 2024.