Vrrrrrrrmmmm, vrrrrmm, VREEEEKSSH
“And then he woke up and it was all a dream.”
NO. Bad. Bad, bad, bad writing. The ‘it was all in his head’ schtick means that everything that just happened was irrelevant. You’ve just outdone my twelve-hour marathon of Dane Cook shorts and won at Wasting People’s Time. If the plot and character development was all nonsense, then I may as well have just spent the time knitting my own tampons (I am male, thus accentuating the pointlessness of this activity). This isn’t a writer’s crutch, it’s a writer’s $20000 robotic wheelchair.
So why, oh why, does Driver: San Francisco not piss me right off? Let me answer that question with a question: how long has it been since you made explosion sound effects with your mouth? Since you made a ‘ka-ba-booosh’ noise, loudly, in front of other people, without any shame at all? My answer is “maybe ten minutes ago”. Because of Driver: San Francisco.
Maybe I should take a deep breath, replace the filter between my brain and the keyboard, and explain.
Driver: San Francisco is (surprise!) a driving game set in San Francisco. You play John Tanner, a detective whose job description seems to be ‘test the city’s lamp post durability with your front bumper.’ And you get put in a coma within ten minutes of the game’s storyline. The rest of the game is explicitly a dream you have in a coma. 99% of the game is inside your head. It Was All a Dream. Bullshit Plot Point #001.
So why did I really enjoy this game?
As I alluded to above, it’s not for any higher, plot-based reasons. The writer thought that a ‘theme’ is one of the noises a turbocharger can make. There fewer plot twists than twisters, and the game does not feature tornadoes. And let me summarize the named characters: there’s White Guy, Black Guy, Scowling Guy and Hot Chick.
So no, it’s not any transcendent writer’s genius that lets me forgive the bullshit coma-dream business. It’s the raw, primal, animal satisfaction of the gameplay.
You see, with the justification that Everything Is a Dream, John Tanner (White Guy) gains the ability to body-hop into almost any car on the road. You don’t do Grand Theft Auto-style carjacking or walking around when you need a new ride. You float right on up out of your body and possess the crap out of the nearest soccer mum. And this poorly-justified little superpower instantly makes Driver the best driving game I’ve ever played.
With the ability to flick between cars at will, an entire new paradigm of movement is opened up. You’re not just another chump behind the wheel, you are any chump behind any wheel. In a street race? Park a semi trailer across the road and trap the other racers in a dead end. Chasing down a perp? Shift back and forth between the various police cars – every time you spin out or crash, you grab the nearest vehicle and keep driving. Trying to crash an enemy? Don’t nuzzle them tenderly with your bumper like you’re a dog meeting new dogs’ assholes – shift into that gas tanker in the oncoming lane and ram that enemy head-on.
Body-hopping opens up an incredible range of possible strategies, but I always seem to come back to ‘grab an oncoming truck and initiate an 8-lane pileup’.
And it is incredibly, cathartically, cartoonishly awesome.
Cars spin out and flip like drunken ballerinas. Shattered glass, sheets of metal and loose tires fly across the road. When you drive a car off a ramp truck – and you will, at least twice a minute – it slams down onto the ground like your shits shouldn’t.
Everything about Driver cultivates an atmosphere of innocent, happy, gut-level satisfaction. Pedestrians duck out of your way with Jedi reflexes, and seatbelts may as well be the protective arms of an angel, because nobody ever dies in the game. The streets of San Fran are sunny, bright and full to bursting with gleaming metal speed machines, just waiting for you to hijack and destroy them. The graphics are wonderful (for a console game, anyway). Even the writing gets in on the fun –while the main plot is, as hinted above, almost worthless, John Tanner is actually a pretty likeable guy. He’s a bit of an irresponsible dick, just like most video gamers when there’s a controller in their hands, and he causes all this mayhem with an unstoppable sense of humour. To give you some idea, the first thing he does when he discovers his body-hopping power is to shift into the body of a learner driver, before trying to give the instructor a heart attack by ramping off everything in sight. He’s a pretty cool guy.
Much like in real life, smashing into smart cars head-on helps me forget a lot of other problems. The physics are a little wonky, there are a lot of invisible walls, and again, the main plot is fucking stupid. But when it comes down to it, I love flinging school buses into the oncoming lane like I’m playing darts. And so long as the state government keeps rejecting my bus driver application, Driver will always have a place in my heart.