What do you do when your brain feels broken? Some may recommend mindfulness exercises, others might suggest breathing techniques, one person might think alcohol (fun but not really wise). I found an unlikely hero in Forza Horizon 5. While taking breaks from being mindful and breathing in a more appropriate way (nothing is a miracle cure), hooning around Mexico was my dopamine fix. Just at a time when my body was struggling to reproduce its own supply.
See, I’ve had some serious health problems throughout 2021. This led to being on a high dosage of steroids for a long time. Steroids that happen to affect your adrenal gland amongst other things. The start was brilliant. My physical symptoms vanquished overnight, I was full of energy after a year of struggling to get out of bed every day. I felt positively euphoric and everything felt amazing even when I kind of knew it wasn’t. That’s the problem, you see. Steroids lie to you in a wonderfully positive way, doing strange things to your adrenal gland that I don’t fully understand. That also means that the comedown is the exact opposite. Many of my physical symptoms didn’t return but I was exhausted and my brain…My brain was awful.
Combined with less energy, I ended up in some very dark mental places, constantly catastrophising and expecting the worst of everything. It was exhausting. My brain couldn’t settle on a thing. It would just leap from worst case scenario to worst case scenario, expecting everything to come crashing down, from reliable friendships, steady work to, well, the entire world caving in. Work was hard to focus on but anything fun like a film or a game felt even harder.
That was until Forza Horizon 5 came along. Okay, it didn’t solve everything. The thoughts were still there. Hanging around in the background waiting for me to pause the game, but if I stuck with it, I could forget for a little while. When your brain is constantly racing with horror, you’ll take any respite you can get and a different form of racing was the partial solution. Weirdly, for a game so focused on driving fast, it’s curiously laid back.
The trick to losing yourself to Forza Horizon 5 is to follow two specific rules. The first key thing is to stick Radio Eterna on. Radio Eterna is the classical music radio station. It’s brilliant. So utterly soothing and far calmer than anything else, even if you’re listening to something like Holst’s The Planets with Mars crashing through your sound system. Maybe it’s the lack of words, but whatever it is keeps your brain on track and focusing on what you’re actually doing rather than thoughts of what terrors could await you in the future.
Once you’ve done that, don’t stick to a plan. See all those races and events? Don’t do them. Don’t pursue the linear side of Forza Horizon 5. Just drive. Pick a car. It doesn’t have to be fast, it just needs to be your kind of fun. Then? Drive. XP board nearby? Might as well hit it. Undiscovered road to travel along? Could be interesting. Random danger sign to drive over? Go for it! The point is that you’re not thinking. Not thinking is the answer.
I pride myself on thinking a lot but, honestly, it’s my biggest enemy. While my brain was utterly broken and my adrenal gland was refusing to top up my dopamine, serotonin and whatever else it needed (again, not a doctor. Don’t email me the explanation. I’m fine), my thought process was in overdrive. It was pointless and mostly just made living and working 100 times harder than it already was.
But Forza Horizon 5 proved liberating. It kept my brain occupied just enough to be able to see things in more of a straight line. All while driving in anything but a straight line because I was too busy acting like a magpie pursuing shiny things if shiny things were Forza Horizon 5 objectives.
While it felt extremely freeing driving around, somewhere along the lines, it was chipping away at all those statistics that grabbed me most. Forza Horizon 5 loves to throw info at you. Found a new road? It’ll tell you how close you are to beating a friend’s road total. It’s a similar story for XP and fast travel boards, along with skill chains. Essentially, it’s a steady set of high score leaderboards to pursue.
The satisfaction is weirdly immense. It’s distracting, of course, which is why I first ended up here but it’s also a lot of fun. You end up creating your own targets. Let’s beat soandso’s road total before logging off for the night. Sure, it really doesn’t matter but it’s an achievement. A far easier to gain achievement than most other in-game achievements and, crucially, a tiny dopamine kick just when you need it most.
I’m no stranger to knowing that I unlock the most achievements on my Xbox when I’m stressed or feel like I need a ‘win’ amongst personal issues that feel anything like a success. This was effectively a twist on that familiar format but one that felt more freeing.
And that’s the beauty behind Forza Horizon 5. Sure, it’s a racing game but it’s also whatever you want it to be. Want to race around like a nutter and flip your car at every opportunity? Go for it. Alternatively, have a laser focus on gaining every XP board and road unlock, and stick with that. And, of course, you could always work your way through the races on offer if you did genuinely want a ‘regular’ racing game.
Ultimately, if your brain isn’t ravaged by a lack of some medication, you’ll probably end up doing all of those. If you don’t, it’s fine. It might seem focused on high-speed pursuits but, really, Forza Horizon 5 is all about exploration and messing around. It’s the kind of relaxing game we could do with more of.