Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Driver San Francisco's Silliness Works

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 20 Sep 2011 12:00
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It really did take me completely by surprise that I enjoyed Driver San Francisco so much. It just goes to confirm my oft-repeated philosophy that you should give everything a chance to surprise you. Within reason, I mean. As long as you get all your games for free like I do. What it should be applauded for if nothing else is that it took a risk, which is very sadly rare in a big-money industry. A risk on a slightly weird gameplay gimmick with the quantum-leap body-hopping that paid off quite handsomely. It's not like the destructible terrain in Red Faction Armageddon, a gimmick that's just kind of there, but a gimmick that enhances the core mechanics, driving games being all about speed and a fast flowing pace.

But before any of you capitalist bean-counters out there start thinking about ripping off D:SF's gimmick to spice up your own future driving game properties, you should be aware that it's not just that aspect that makes the game good. It could very easily have been mishandled, but what carries it over the finish line is that it's also a very strongly written game.

Yes, it's silly. Very silly. As I said there's a very Starsky and Hutch "cop show for all the family" feel to the action, characters and dialogue, right down to the split screens, weird camera angles, elaborate superimposed credits and funky soundtrack. The element of magical realism with the quantum leaping makes it double goofy in the vein of that very unique experimental aspect of American television that produces things like Baywatch Nights or My Mother The Car. Or indeed Quantum Leap.

But while it's silly, what's important is that it stays consistently silly. It maintains the same tone from start to finish. It never becomes morbid or juvenile, like it could very easily have been if it were possible to fatally run over pedestrians. There is nothing about the goofy daytime TV vibe or the perceived personalities of the characters that didn't come across as completely intentional on the part of the writers. They set out to make a game with the feel of a fun, light-hearted action-adventure show and that's exactly what it has. The important word to pick out there is "fun." It is very fun. And surely, for a game, that's all you need to say.

What makes it a well-written game rather than merely a well-written story or well-directed movie is that it's not afraid to draw attention to its gameplay mechanics. Tanner is justifiably thrown when he first acquires the ability to leap into someone's body, and we get to see him gradually learn to understand his power and realize the potential. It's an arc very similar to one we see in Bill Murray's character in the first half of Groundhog Day. At the same time, in gameplay, the body-hopping mechanics gradually expand and gain new features until you can astrally project high above the city and possess any vehicle. So the player gets to have an arc of their own. What makes a protagonist engaging is when his reactions reflect the player's, and after the initial confusion Tanner's clearly having as much fun as we are. It's a stark contrast to games like Darksiders where the main character has the same permanent angry grimace whether he's pirouetting around the battlefield or being informed of his mother's breast cancer.

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