The Leaderboard: Runnin’ Down A Dream With Driver: San Francisco

Games Features San Francisco

Robert Zacny looks at how dreams, reality and muscle cars merge in last year’s overlooked driving game.

It’s surprising how grounded most videogames are. Maybe earthbound is a better word for it, because I don’t even realize how much they constrain themselves until I play a game like Driver: San Francisco and feel the ground falling away beneath my feet. This is what it is like to play a game unburdened by any obligation to reality. Driver SF is the dream of a comatose police officer whose subconscious creates a series of adventures to live out while his body lies immobile in intensive care. Like the best dream I’ve ever had, his is one where everyday limitations and consequences give way to the pure joy of wishes fulfilled.

Driver SF is in love with the idea of being a great driver in a world built for muscle cars. The soul-inflected pseudo-’70s soundtrack hearkens back to the idealized Motown that gave us Driver SF’s list of cars. Dodge’s Charger and Challenger are back on the streets, along with Chevy’s Camaro and Ford’s old-school Mustang GT. There are a handful of European exotics and a shocking number of European sedans, but Driver SF is as American as a straight-six and poor handling. Being an ace behind the wheel means wrestling with enough torque to change the axis of the earth.

But what makes Driver SF take flight, literally, is the “shifting” mechanic that lets you jump from one car into another at any time, in any place. With the press of a button you are whipped into a bird’s-eye view of the city as time slows down and the traffic crawls by beneath you. Then you can simply soar across the city and jump into another car, any car you like. It’s a mechanic that, at the most basic level, is designed to remove any obstacles between you and whatever driving fantasy catches your attention.

Stuck in a boring part of town? There’s probably something fast and dangerous driving along the Embarcadero right now. Maybe you want to see if anything cool is just about to get on the highway, just so you can push the pedal to the floor and start cutting through traffic at the speed of thought. Anywhere you go, your map will show that there’s a race nearby, or a car chase, or a location for some stunt-driving.

The same mechanic also eliminates most of the sting of failure. Failure is a fleeting, momentary condition that flows almost seamlessly into yet another opportunity to get it right. If you weren’t the best wheelman in the world one minute ago, just hop into another car and give it another shot. While some of the multi-lap races and mandatory challenges do have more traditional fail-states (racing has to follow some rules, after all), Driver SF mostly tries to do everything it can to lower your inhibitions behind the wheel.

In more serious driving games, the irony is that the more powerful and capable the car, the more careful you have to be. Racing sims and sim-lites like Codemasters’ GRID are about finding the outer limits of performance through repetition and practice. The hundredth time you take a corner in a favorite car, you finally have a good sense of how fast you can go before you lose traction, and the exact line you need to take on the entry and exit. It’s an exhilarating feeling, but one that is earned through lots of hard work and frustrating failure. Codemasters have tried to encourage risk-taking and reduce the penalties for failure by including the flashback mechanic, which lets you rewind time and undo mistakes. It’s a good solution for the more authentic pleasures that Codemasters are trying to give their players.

But that still leaves a long, hard road to greatness. Serious sim racing can feel more like a job than a hobby, as you spend entire afternoon doing laps around an empty track, memorizing braking points and racing lines. It takes time and discipline that can keep most of us from ever reaching racing Valhalla. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is totally clueless.

Driver SF never lets you feel that way, but neither can it completely cast aside authenticity. This is perhaps the greatest challenge it sets for itself: most arcade racers have discarded realism so completely that they lose any feel for the road. One car seems the same as the next, barely connected to the road. Need for Speed: The Run tried to give players a similar fantasy of hyper-competence, but its solution was to strip driving of all its sensations, and script every race.

Driver SF, on the other hand, is neither realistic nor fake. Its cars do not handle like real-life cars, but they handle like our idea of what those cars would be like in the hands of a great driver. They fishtail menacingly, forcing you to feather the throttle and fight the wheel a little bit until they “lock-in” and surge forward. They lean and slip through corners, always a hair’s breadth from spinning out, but usually manage to hold the turn. They are cars designed to bring us to the ragged edge without all the hard work of being good enough to live there. It’s just a dream, after all.

Most games are, to some extent, a dream or a power fantasy. Despite that, they cling to reality. They don’t call attention to their own artifice during gameplay, resolutely insisting that your fellow squad members just need a helping hand to recover from being riddled with bullets, or that you just need to have a snack to feel better after being severely wounded. Characters don’t even run or jump like they used to, jogging and mantling over walls when we can all remember watching levels fly past as our characters vaulted over walls or plummeted thirty feet without breaking stride. So many of the game worlds where I spend time have one foot in imagination, and the other in reality.

Driver SF cuts ties with reality in its opening scene, and never really evinces a desire to return. I understand why. To play around in Driver SF is to be intoxicated by its freedom and indifferent to consequences. What, it seems to ask, are you so afraid of?

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