There are pockets (or is it packets?) of the internet which are real places you can visit. I don’t mean real as in there’s a real server, or an app frontend hooking into a real database. Real as in they possess real cultural geography, slowly built up by successive residents. They are real spaces, because people have inadvertently left the mark of civilization upon them by sheer virtue of having occupied them.
Trackmania 2: Stadium is a real place you can visit. I’d recommend the trip.
The gamey part of the game is fairly straightforward. You have a car. The car has only 4 controls – forward, brake/reverse, left and right. Handling is of the drifty, arcade racer variety. You run through a series of bastard-hard user-created tracks, all loops and wall runs and impossible looking jumps. You try for the best time, or at the very least you try to finish. You can restart at any moment, and although you can see every other racer (usually up to 100) on the server, they’re there for show only. Try to collide with them and you’ll phase right through, ghost-like. You’re still competing, but the time from when you start to when you finish is all that matters.
Maybe it’s this simple purity, or maybe it’s the fact that users can generate their own courses, but the core game only constitutes a small part of what’s on offer here. Indeed hundreds of users have popped the hood, tinkered, and made years’ worth of additions to Trackmania 2: Stadium. A lot of this stuff is infrastructural – leader-boards, voting systems, track ratings, server info, stats, stats, stats. Some of it is more expressive – a server-wide jukebox pumping out novelty dubstep (or, in the case of the official server for the venerable Giantbomb.com, ‘Believe’ by Cher) and an assortment of optimistic Paypal buttons. But it’s all lovingly gaffer-taped together into a glorious mess of windows and infodump readouts spreading out across the screen. Some servers even display rankings from multiple, seemingly competing third-party services. It’s never immediately clear why. Maybe that’s the way they’ve always done things round these here parts.
Submerge yourself in Trackmania 2, and you always come out with a story to tell. Wandering through the servers feels like navigating some wild, overgrown shanty town populated by a variety of landmarks, each with the kind of strong character that stems from being lovingly crafted by amateur hands. These shacks were clearly built by the people who inhabited them, and even if some of these denizens are long gone, their ghosts linger on within the machine. As for conversation, it seems that most people are content to loop wordlessly around the labyrinthine tracks, but some chatter does burble up from these renegade racers. Mostly they will laud old and forgotten racetracks (there are hundreds of these user-generated courses in rotation), but sometimes a complaint will be voiced about a particular track being too hard, or too stupid, the latter of which the community have affectionately dubbed ‘LOL’ tracks. Special shoutout to ‘Star Wars Metallica’, a track I played which was made more difficult due to the fact that the words ‘Star Wars Metallica’ would scroll across the screen in a big white font, the camera would shake violently, and most notably, the whole screen would fade to black as you approached the end, over which the word ‘cool’ was superimposed. The track reared its head more than once – each time, the server’s netizens, even if they professed a vocal, passionate hatred for it, appeared to accept the fact that, well, it’s part of the neighborhood.
Or there’s the fact that, on most servers, when the overall time-limit ticks down so low that it’d be impossible to complete a lap any more, the unspoken ritual occurs where people, in their dozens, drive continuous donuts while incessantly honking their horns. Oh, the horns – there are loads, and they’re all stupid. They range from your classic ‘La Cucaracha’ through to ‘Chopsticks’. You no-clip through other racers – remember, you’re competing with them, but only for the best time, so they are only really present on the track because it looks fantastic – but you still hear their horns as they zoom past.
Oh! And people occasionally bring custom 3D models into the game to replace the stock Formula 1 racer. They do this seemingly from anywhere, and with gleeful, reckless abandon. I have seen clapped-out late-‘80s Honda Civics drift round corners at hundreds of miles per hour. Once, I stopped and stared as a badly animated Sonic the Hedgehog chased Dr Robotnik in tight circles around the finish line. Something was rigged up wrong in the animation, and his legs would spasm violently as he ran. My current ride is Santa and his sleigh. The sleigh makes the sound of screeching tires as it turns corners. The reindeer are motionless statues, they don’t animate. The texture of Santa, the sleigh, and the reindeer is a single shiny chrome of varying hues. Ambient light reflects harshly from Santa’s metal robot skin. I guess the author of the ‘ride’ didn’t know how to change the material to something else. It’s fine. It’s all fine.
Trackmania 2: Stadium, in its many venerable years of service, has often been either completely free or sold at a heavy discount. It has a richness – totally separate from the mechanics of the game itself – that can only come from years of occupation by a coalition of the skeezy, the cheapskates, and the computer literate. It’s the kind of place where you can go in and take your shoes and socks off, and nobody will mind the smell.
Quasi-sequel Trackmania Turbo came out a couple of weeks ago, but something fundamental has shifted. Nadeo, the game’s developers, have gone legit. The community can no longer upload their own songs. No veering away from Trackmania’s newly established brand identity. Same goes for models – bye bye Sonic, bye bye Santa. Where once there was a smattering of hacked-together server readouts, there now resides a slick and focused interface.
In fact, the whole thing has an incredibly sharp, coordinated aesthetic. Cars drift past arrestingly beautiful signposts and landmarks. It’s all heavy curation, custom typefaces and sharply delineated neon signs, exuding a slick ‘80s-arcade-cabinet-inspired sort of cool. The cars are fun to drive. The music, a mix of punchy European house and dubstep, fits to a tee, even if it makes you feel like you’re imminently going to need to refuse the offer of cocaine from a shaven-headed German in a fishnet tank-top who just wants to “vatch you dance, mein”.
The game costs £30, and I’m not sure I have anything else to say about it. It’s a fun product.
The space has changed, fundamentally, and the gentrification process inevitably means the riff-raff have been turfed out. Unfortunately, it turns out the riff-raff were the only thing that kept me coming back to Trackmania 2: Stadium. Playing Trackmania 2 is like sitting in a squat, or borderline illegal warehouse rave, drinking homemade gin with a guy dressed like he might be from the circus, whose only current priority is for me to get as drunk as he already is. Playing Trackmania Turbo is like feeling self-conscious in a trendy Shoreditch bar where nobody’s drunk because it costs £6 for a single shot of gin claiming to be both ‘artisanal’ and ‘bespoke’.
I’ll say one thing about Turbo, though. There’s a button on the controller that serves no other purpose than upping the bass and drums on the soundtrack, thereby making the music a little bit too loud. You can toggle it on and off at will. It’s a mad and wonderful reminder of what Trackmania used to be all about: eccentricity. Despite this magic button, I just can’t seem to hang. If you need me, I’ll be in my sleigh, a place where the music is never too loud, but is also mostly Cher.