‘Mexico is ridiculously beautiful’: how Forza Horizon 5 drove fresh sights into living rooms | Games

There is a moment all Forza Horizon 5 players will experience when they first venture off road into rural Mexico. They will bust through a wall, or reach the summit of a steep hillside, and then, spread out before them as far as the eye can see, will be fields of the most glorious orange flowers. These are Mexican marigolds, or cempasúchil, which are closely associated with the country’s Día de los Muertos festival. It is believed their vibrant colour and heady scent help to guide the spirits of the dead back to their graves and altars.

“When you look at the flowers you can see the individual petals,” laughs the game’s art director Don Arceta. “We love doing farmland – it’s a real opportunity to show the native agriculture that makes each landscape unique. This is the first Horizon game in a while that doesn’t have canola growing everywhere. That was really nice.”

Developer Playground Games refers to Horizon as a driving game, not a racing game, and with reason. Like the other titles in the series, this game is filled with cultural, geographic and botanical discoveries, should you care to look for them. The decision to set this game in Mexico came just after the completion of Forza Horizon 4 in 2018, which was set in an idealised UK, from the Highlands to the Cotswolds. The team knew the map would be much larger this time, and this placed new pressures on the selection process.

Forza Horizon 5
Digital holiday … Forza Horizon 5. Photograph: Microsoft

“We needed a country with incredible natural diversity,” says creative director Mike Brown. “We discovered while researching that Mexico is almost the whole world in one country – it has canyons, beautiful coastlines, about four different types of desert, ancient beautiful cities, volcanoes and mountains, ski resorts. On top of that, Mexico has a culture that’s known and loved all over the world. Wherever you go, people recognise Mexican music and artwork, it has a rich history – it was a really exciting proposition.”

The English studio was determined to create an authentic representation. An art team captured photography and film footage and mapped the skies, working alongside locals who knew each area. “We had to go different times of the year to get the different seasons,” says Arceta. “When we first went it was the dry season, so we did the living desert with all the cacti, but it wasn’t as lush as we had seen in all our reference photography so we had to go back and recapture it.” TV monitors in the studio continuously ran research footage from a shared server, so that the dev team could look up and see a new town or forest glade.

The team also worked with the Mexican culture ministry to ensure historic monuments were correctly replicated. They employed political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz as a cultural consultant and provided early code to the Latinx group at Xbox for their feedback. “We’re borrowing someone else’s culture, we’re showing their country to the world – and we went into that with as much humility as possible,” says Brown. “We asked questions every step of the way, and we sought people who could help us to tell stories in a way that feels authentic. There’s a thin line between celebrating a country and its culture, and appropriating or even misappropriating that culture. The goal was, when a Mexican player picks up the controller, we want them to feel proud, not like they’ve walked into a cheesy Mexican restaurant in London.”

Playground also wanted to move away from US TV and movie representations of Mexico – mostly based on the northern tip of the country – as somewhere gritty, crime-ridden and dangerous – the Mexico of Breaking Bad and Sicario. Alcaraz, who previously worked with Pixar on the animated movie Coco, is also bored with the way US films colour-code Mexican scenes with a sickly yellow tinge – a convention so familiar that it’s become a meme. “We can watch Narcos if we want violence and stereotypes. When I go to the cinema and watch a movie that’s Latinx-themed and see something inauthentic or weird, I just clock out,” he says. “In the US, depictions of Mexico are not tailored to us, so it’s nice to work on a project which has us in mind. People who know Mexico feel like they’re driving around Mexico.”

The art team took thousands of images of Mexican scenery, focusing on elements such as geology, foliage and agriculture
The art team took thousands of images of Mexican scenery, focusing on elements such as geology, foliage and agriculture. Photograph: Nicole Holmes/Playground Games/Microsoft

Alcaraz contributed to the scripting and narrative, helping the team to keep up with trends in local vernacular. “I added Spanish and spanglish phrases – I was bugging my nephew, who lives in Western Mexico, on Facebook, asking: ‘Dude, do you know another word for driver?’ Because I’d used the three I could think of. With Mexican Spanish, every other word feels like it’s slang, it’s hard to keep up.”

The game tells stories about the local car culture in a few of its quests. In one sequence, you have to track down an old Volkswagen Beetle owned by a relative – a reference to the car’s iconic status in the country. “It was the hero car for 40 years and we wanted to reflect that in the game,” says Brown. “They were still making the original Beetle until 2003. We had this idea of having a Horizon story based on the versatility of the car, the different things you could do with it. I told Lalo and he pulls out this photo of him standing next to a cherry-red Beetle, his first car. Now there are bits of his own life story woven into that narrative.”

One vital aspect of capturing an authentic Mexico was the lighting. “The skies you get over there are amazing,” says technical art director Gareth Harwood. “I think because there’s so much more humidity: you get a lot more of that red-orangey sky in the mornings and evenings.”

But there were challenges, too. “The sun arc is totally different,” he says. “If you think about when you’re driving in the evening in the UK and you get those nice long shadows, there’s less of that in Mexico because the sun is so high. It can be very hard to light a game with a high sun because it’s very harsh.”

Shadows became doubly important as a way of adding subtleties, so for the Xbox Series S/X and PC versions, the team employed a new system to simulate a realistic penumbra effect, so you get diffused rather than sharp black shadows when the source of the shade is further away.

The visual quality of the landscapes is a key component of the Horizon experience, particularly for one demographic of the game’s audience. “There are people who never, ever race,” says Brown. “It’s a surprisingly large group – they will play for hundreds of hours, taking photos of their cars, trying out new cars, adding upgrades, exploring the world at different times, through different seasons – they don’t get bored or drop off, they just do what they want.

The lighting conditions were studied throughout Mexico during different times and seasons
Lighting conditions were studied throughout Mexico during different times and seasons. Photograph: Nicole Holmes/Playground Games/Microsoft

“That is something that has really informed our design on this one. There are more things to discover, there are challenges that encourage you to find things … each week there’ll be discovery challenges or extra things we’ve added to the world for players who just like to cruise around and explore. The world changes so much there’s always something new to see. I think the digital holiday that Horizon provides is something that people respond to.”

It’s lucky that Playground started development on the game in 2018. It meant the 150-strong team in Leamington Spa had a year to do its research, visit Mexico, tweak ideas and design concepts before the world changed. In the opening weeks of 2020, it became apparent that Covid was coming to the UK.

“As the story started to break, I think most people were in a bit of denial,” recalls Brown. “Fortunately for us, some people on our team were not – and very, very quickly they began to prepare. They bought hundreds of laptops before it became impossible to buy laptops. They bought hundreds of web cameras. In one room, we had the whole IT team just setting up laptops, so that when lockdown started they handed everyone a home working set-up that was fully kitted out. The next day they could be at home on a laptop, remote desking to their office PC and able to do their jobs.

“It was a rapid switch and there were changes to our workflows – some people’s jobs were harder to do. The larger Xbox group was really helpful … we were able to upload our dev build to Microsoft’s Insider Hub app and play it on retail Xboxes so people didn’t have to take the expensive dev kits home. That was an interesting and quite useful set up for the designers – sitting in your living room playing the game is very different from being at your desk with your PC and a dev kit. There’s a different feel to the game when you play it that way.”

But it was tough going. “During development, networking is one of those areas that will go wrong a lot and it’s really useful to be able to see multiple screens,” says game designer Anna Poliakova. “You can tell if one player is seeing something completely different from the other three. At home, you’re having to describe it to each other, like: ‘What can you see? Hold on, what colour is my car on your screen?!’”

Forza Horizon 5 had the biggest launch week in Xbox history earlier this month, with 10 million players. International travel is opening up again, but it’s probable that a lot of people are playing because they want to experience that feeling of a new country and new landscapes. Alcaraz likes to imagine that people will see Mexico differently as a result of playing Horizon. “Mexico has its challenges, but anything that’s positive will have a good effect,” he says.

“Coco helped expand Mexican and Day of the Dead culture, recognising its beauty. Horizon 5 will do that for gamers. Mexico is ridiculously beautiful – and Mexicans are warm, family-oriented, helpful, which is reflected in the characters. I think it can only move the dial toward the positive.”

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