Gran Turismo 7 arrives next month on PS4 and PS5 in the series’ 25th anniversary year, with the same tagline it’s worn since the very first game: ‘the real driving simulator’. Increasingly, though, that slogan does the series a disservice. It’s evocative of the slavish reproduction of powertrain figures and drag coefficients rather than what Gran Turismo actually is: a surprisingly personal, constantly evolving interrogation of the relationship between humans and the metal boxes they careen around in.
It’s a common misconception in gaming that simulation and artistic expression are mutually exclusive. Until we have the sort of galactic computational power required to launch The Matrix – and no, the Metaverse absolutely does not count – developers will always be faced with the choice of what to simulate and what not to. And there has never been a racing game auteur more influential or pleasingly idiosyncratic than Kazunori Yamauchi, head of Gran Turismo developer Polyphony Digital.
Often the headline features of a new Gran Turismo are a direct reflection of whatever Yamauchi’s mercurial interest has alighted upon in the years since the last one. For instance, a significant proportion of 2017’s Gran Turismo Sport’s reveal was given over to Scapes mode, a lavish virtual photography suite that, ironically, mostly featured cars not moving at all. The game prior to that, Gran Turismo 6, clearly coincided with an interest in astronomy: the game accurately charted the heavens, ensuring that the night sky you saw at Le Mans, France differed from that in Bathurst, Australia. As if that wasn’t enough, valuable development time was committed to allowing you to joyride Nasa’s moon rover on a limited slice of low-gravity, lunar terrain.
Yamauchi’s stated intention for Gran Turismo 7 is to arrest declining interest in car culture by introducing new people to the joy of interacting with automobiles, regardless of their previous experience. GT’s longstanding Xbox rival Forza Motorsport found its own solution to that problem, undergoing a moment of mitosis a decade ago. The result was the exotic, knockabout playgrounds of the Forza Horizon spin-off series, in which you drive beautifully simulated cars with wild abandon across Mexican deserts or British countryside. They quickly eclipsed the original series: while the core Forza Motorsport titles have dwindled in popularity, the most recent Horizon game has been played by 18 million people via Game Pass.
Gran Turismo 7’s immediate problem is that it’s still very much shackled to the formalised circuit racing that has formed the core of the series since the beginning, and as such there’s no equivalent to simply cruising aimlessly around Horizon’s open world. Yamauchi’s solutions to this challenge are typically eccentric. A new mode called Music Rally aims to offer a less pressured and competitive driving experience on the game’s existing tracks. Instead of wheel-to-wheel racing, you’ll be scything effortlessly past slower-moving traffic while listening to a tune from GT7’s expansive music library and attempting to hit enough checkpoints to make it to the end of the song. This is Yamauchi interpreting the undeniable connection between music and driving in his unique style.
In the real world, events such as Cars and Coffee and physical locations such as Caffeine and Machine have become the modern hubs for car culture, so your objectives in GT7’s campaign are now dished out via literal menus in a meticulously rendered coffee shop called the GT Cafe. Admittedly, the entire place is apocalyptically devoid of life, but it’s a nod to the fact that not every car enthusiast spends their time hanging around in a pit garage.
These attempts by Yamauchi to attract new players and sculpt them into car enthusiasts feel inherently compromised by the series’ enduring focus on relatively hardcore circuit-based competition and may or may not be successful, but it’s important to remember that Gran Turismo remains phenomenally popular as it is. GT Sport, a mostly multiplayer racer, attracted almost 10 million players.
It’s sensible, then, that there’s also the promise of new features designed to satisfy the Gran Turismo heartlands, some of which might actually do a better job of converting people to the church of the automobile. After GT Sport, the return of a proper single-player campaign mode is hugely anticipated. The traditional Gran Turismo journey – beginning with scouring the classifieds for a cheap used car – creates a sense of connection to, and ownership of, each vehicle you collect that few games have been able to match. Nearly a decade after GT6, there will surely be plenty of people experiencing that magic for the first time with GT7.
Among the many other expressions of his infatuation with cars, Yamauchi is a professional racing driver who has competed multiple times in the top class at the world’s toughest endurance race, the Nurburgring 24 Hours. Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of new tuning options for the more mechanically minded to delve into, and dynamic changes in weather are also handled with Yamauchi’s trademark obsessive attention to detail. A full atmospheric simulation generates convincing clouds and, on larger circuits, the sort of localised showers that real racing drivers have to negotiate.
To those unfamiliar with the series, Gran Turismo 7 might look like any other realistic racing game, but this culmination of 25 years of work is actually an almost-autobiographical passion piece, rich with personality. Every aspect of it is shot through with Kazunori Yamauchi’s boundless enthusiasm for cars and their impact on every aspect of our world. What’s more, with automotive technology changing rapidly and legitimate questions posed over the car’s place in our society, this playable museum and its expert curator have never felt more vital. That’s the reality of “the real driving simulator”.