No air con, duct tape, and a run-in with the cops: Making an authentic car in Pacific Drive

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Three guys are sitting inside a Buick estate in rural America, being escorted out of town by local cops, hoping they can bring some normalcy back to their small town. This Buick is special. It’s got ten mics strapped to it: three on the outside and seven on the inside. Gaps near the windows are duct taped shut to lessen unwanted noise on the sweltering summer day, and the car has no air conditioning.

This is a story from the development of a neat little game called Pacific Drive, which we previewed on the site last week. During said preview, away from the gameplay demonstration, stray anecdotes detailing the team’s work with real American station wagons creeped out. It turns out the team went above and beyond to replicate the feel of a well-loved car.

Check out the trailer for Pacific Drive here!

“My parents, in an effort to get the safest car for their teenage son to drive, had a Volvo station wagon. That ended up being the car I drove around from the second I could drive until way way later,” Alex Dracott reminisces in our follow-up interview. “I have a lot of fond memories with it growing up in Portland, going to the beach, going out to tonnes of awesome places in the Pacific NorthWest area, it was a big deal.”

Lead game designer Seth Rosen had a similar experience, albeit one from a totally different part of the country. In California there is less of a road trip culture, but the pair both have fond memories of listening to an old radio show called Car Talk, hosted by the Magliozzi brothers who would humorously talk about cars and answer call-in questions.

Later on in life, slightly before development started, Alex would buy himself another Station Wagon – this time for exploration, personal photography, and reconnecting with that nostalgic feeling. This Station Wagon, the Buick Estate, would go on to be the primary reference car for Pacific Drive’s early development.

Here it is, the day Alex bought it.

Dracott explains: “We wanted to actually make use of the fact we had a Station Wagon, so we took buckets of reference [photos] for Jacob, our foreground artist. When you look at a car visually, it’s very complicated. It’s not like a barrel or a box, or other basic objects you find in video games. With the level of interaction in our game, it required a level of authenticity to the car as a piece of geometry in the game that you can visually see at all these weird angles.”

This hands-on approach was applied to audio, too. Dracott and two sound designers jumped into the Buick for an hours-long road trip out into the middle of nowhere. While out there, they captured as much audio as they could.

“From my understanding for bigger car games they’ll take cars up to dynamometer and record them there. We didn’t have that, so we were out driving on dirt roads in Eastern Washington, in really really hot weather. We had tried to soundproof the seal, since it’s an old car and very noisy. So we put gaffa tape and duct tape on the window linings around the car.”

Just guys being dudes, jumping around on their Buick.

“The day peaked with us stopping the driving side of things and switching over to impacts. We were outside like ‘look I found this stick, lets hit the car with the stick’. We’d found a big branch with some leaves and tried wiggling it along the side of the car.”

Then, of course, there’s the run in with the cops. Pulling into a small town parking lot for a bit of lunch, the gang caught the attention of a police officer working a shift at a four-way intersection. Strapped with mics and packed with dudes and audio equipment, people were paying more attention to the car and not on the road.

Pacific Drive devs eating lunch on hood of car
A bit of grub on the road, you love to see it.

“We told them we were recording audio for a video game, and were told they were causing a distraction. People weren’t watching the road. So they were given an escort out of town. The car has a distinct look. It already turns heads, so when you strap a bunch of stuff on it starts to look a bit closer to what you can make in game.”

This sweaty foundation of research was enhanced by a Subaru Outback called Bilba Waggins. According to Rosen, it turned out the team needed authentic-sounds for when you jump on top of your car and start walking around. The result is this harrowing video of an audio designer carefully vaulting her own car, getting a good few stomps and steps in, then sliding down the side with gritted teeth.

You can see the Bilba Waggins recording yourself in this nail-biting video. You’ve really got to see it.

So why does all this matter? Why is any of this interesting or important, aside from getting funny videos and brilliant petrol-head pictures. There’s a lot to say about creating an “authentic experience” in video games. Whether it’s replicating a Japanese city brilliantly in Yakuza, making a gun sound and handle just like the real thing, and yes, making an old American car feel well-loved and just as reliable as an actual car.

A lot of work goes into that, way more than you would assume. Pacific Drive is about more than the car you’re in, obviously. There’s a whole narrative built around the supernatural Pacific North West, a lot of love poured into the world around you and the gameplay that should make the experience enjoyable to actually play. But if you’re going to spend hours inside your own trusty station wagon, the doors have to look right. The paint neds to flake off like it would in real life. When you flip the wipers on, it has to sound like plastic on glass and not some generic car sound.mp3.

So kudos to the team at Ironwood Studios for pissing off a cop and putting their own rides on the line. Who doesn’t love an indie story of devs climbing on their own cars, picking up branches and banging them against stuff, and duct taping mics to stuff? It’s a great inisght into the things people will do to make cars feel like cars.

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