The Beauty of Speed:

Utopian Futurism in Wip3out

Milan, February 1909: the founding of a new artistic movement was announced by the publication of the Futurist Manifesto. Futurism was intended as a violent revolt against political, social, and artistic tradition. The manifesto praised the vigour of youth and glorified war. Founder of the movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti declared: “…we want no part of it, the past”. (1) The automobile, the locomotive, and the aeroplane were to be revered as icons of modernity and celebrated in paint, poetry and prose. “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.” (2)

In the medium of video games, the Wipeout series is perhaps the purest expression of the Futurist Manifesto. Racing games have celebrated the speed machine at its most outré, and the shoot-’em-up genre features enough dizzying motion and ultraviolence to lay claim to the Futurist legacy, but the Wipeout series has prominently combined breakneck speed and martial fervour with a technophilic delight in the vehicles that lance around its racetracks. Gameplay is defined by a combination of hi-tech ship-to-ship combat and a race to the finish line, with the player piloting an anti-gravity racecraft that hovers above the track surface: a convergence of the automobile and aeroplane that would surely have been adored by the Futurists.

Among the series, Wip3out (3) is unrivalled in its commitment to creating a plausible and coherent fictional world as the proscenium for its gameplay. In pursuit of this objective it dares to do something radical within the medium; Wip3out is seemingly so bold as to propose its own manifesto. The most conspicuous evidence of this manifesto is found in the accompanying printed manual, wherein we can read a selection of quotes given by the fictitious spokespeople of the F7200 Race League. Compare a statement from Amara Beshir, President of racing team Assegai Developments, with one from Marinetti in the Futurist Manifesto:

“You may think it is beyond you. To rip through the heavens, to master the air, to defy the laws of physics, to mock gravity. Be told. Nothing is beyond your reach. The air is our friend, the wind our wings, the ground our springboard.” (4)
“We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” (5)

Though the game text never states its manifesto outright, I believe we can establish the philosophical pillars of the gameworld. Wip3out embraces the Futurist love of motive technology, but it rejects the Futurist zeal for patriotism and warfare, instead grafting onto Futurism a utopian worldview that presumes Western democracy and free-market capitalism as the end state of civilisation. Francis Fukuyama, one of the best known contemporary proponents of this theory, advised national leaders to “tear down the old state structures of regulation and bureaucracy, undermine the wealth, privileges, and status of the old social classes by exposing them to international competition, and free the creative energies of one’s own civil society” in order to bestow eternal happiness upon all global citizens by the creation of “a universal consumer culture based on liberal economic principles”. (6)

Utopian Futurism in Wip3out does away with the ardour for violence, replacing it with faith in technological advancement as the key to societal transformation. The logic of this techno-utopian thinking is exemplified by Fukuyama: “Technology makes possible the limitless accumulation of wealth, and thus the satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires.” (7) The F7200 Race League teams are the ambassadors for this bright future. Senior Systems Technician of team Icaras, Gianpietro Tassotti, implies a journey of spiritual destiny: “The technology is within all of us. It always has been.” (8) Research and development in the bid for competitive advantage on the racetrack is posited as the fulcrum for the ascent of all humankind.

In sympathy with these lofty ideals, the game does not dwell upon its martial aspects. Violence in Wip3out is never encouraged nor glorified, though plainly it is required for success. The player’s onboard tactical computer announces each incoming threat with a laconic female voice that is devoid of praise or scorn, and the elimination of a rival contender is reported as a matter of fact. The use of weaponry is a simple mechanical necessity for removing a barrier to progress; the state of being in motion, the faster the better, is valued above all.

In the game’s environs, the spirit of Utopian Futurism is visible foremost as an aversion to cyberpunk dystopia. William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (9) is the source material for a common aesthetic trope in the medium of video games and one that Wipeout and Wipeout 2097 (10) mine with enthusiasm. In these earlier games the player commonly flies beneath acid skies on racetracks that squirm around the gargantuan architecture of some faceless megalopolis. But Wip3out does that much rarer thing: “we tried to make it look like a believable future instead of… the world gone mad” (11) says lead artist, Nicky Westcott. Each lap is accompanied by sights and sounds of the commonplace; cherry blossoms drift across the track, ornamental fountains flow, industrial railcars clatter, and dockside seagulls scatter at your approach. Mega Mall is rendered intimate because we see it from the inside. Conversely the race at Manor Top is situated above the city so that instead of being crushed by the inhuman scale of this faux-Manhattan, we flit across the rooftops. Because the environs are made humane we mentally invest in the gameworld to a degree far greater than had it tried to elicit constant awe.

With its reveries on the minutiae of an imagined future, Wip3out feels much closer in tone to that of Gibson’s Bridge trilogy. (12) The sledgehammer narrative so common in video games is shunned in favour of a gameworld constructed entirely at the level of implication and inference. Reading this world requires that the player be curious and brave enough to glance from the track ahead to the periphery, in order to observe and tease meaning from the environs. There are plentiful signs of consumerism (Mega Mall) and international commerce (Porto Kora). There is heavy industry (Hi-Fumii) but also expansive parkland (P-Mar Project) and no evidence whatsoever of urban squalor or post-industrial decay. It is hinted that a single administrative territory encompasses all the game’s race venues, but this distinction is largely irrelevant given that Wip3out imagines a homogenised culture in which national boundaries are of little significance.

“All countries undergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble one another” (13) claims Fukuyama, and in line with this thinking the pan-global roster of teams is skewed towards federalism, featuring contenders from United Europe, United African Nations, and the Russian Union. National symbols are nowhere to be seen and whilst each team is attributed a home territory, this does not factor into any of their brand identities. There is a noticeable tension between the pastiche of aloof mega-corp branding and the idealised vision of the teams as inspirational and progressive global citizens. As would be expected of a game whose visual identity was developed by The Designers Republic, détournement (14) is not absent (AG-System International’s corporate slogan: “Let’s be friends!”) but overall the branding appears to be sincerely invested in Utopian Futurist philosophy.

The most enduring utopias contain a kernel of hopeful exuberance that remains alluring no matter how quaint and misguided their worldview turns out to be. Wip3out’s Utopian Futurism has proven typically unattainable, based on a defunct theory that all the world’s nations would inexorably convert to peaceful liberal democracy, capitalist doctrine, and tranquil federalism. Yet there remains the allure of a world in which the manic pursuit of speed and violence is virtuous and perhaps even spiritual, in which our indulgence in these things and our ingenuity for designing machines that enable them in ever greater abundance is inspirational rather than reprehensible.