Driver: San Francisco is a fun game. Fun should always be qualified, but I stand by this. Driver: San Francisco is an exhilarating, enjoyable, fluid experience that doesn’t compromise on its intelligence. I’ve gone on at length in multiple places on the various aspects underpinning the game on a textual and subtextual level that for me make it stand out as one of the best games of last year and the best game that no one seemed to champion. In light of all that and in my delight to dig deep on this racing game, I have skimped on detailing all of the surface level aspects of the game that make Driver worth one’s attention in the first place.
The driving featured in the game is arcade racing at its highest level with the right level of bombast to still feel grounded in the game world. The entire design of the game exists to facilitate the player’s flow. The choice of presenting the player an open world to drive in means that you are never “out of the game” and are always present doing something. The shift ability that allows you to jump from car to car is not only there to help should you crash and wreck a car, but it also exists as a means to get around breaking the flow of the game with time spent in menus. See a car that you want to drive? It is a button press away. Do you need a different car for a challenge or simply want something tighter or faster to suit your style? Go ahead and grab it. Even if you are looking for something specific and it isn’t in the immediate vicinity, the act of flying around the streets checking out each car as you pass it has its own visceral thrill to it.
That is important to the game. You are never out of the action and yet not tied to it. Within races and missions there is an impending urgency, but otherwise, you can exist and do nothing and it would still be an appropriate way to play. You don’t need to pause, just shift out of the car and fly high above. You are still in the game, and the world is waiting for you when you decide to return. Pacing is self dictated. Need a breather from the high action races and chases? If you need a more controlled and location-centered beat, you could dedicate yourself to taking on one of the many challenges with such determination that the rest of the world seems to bleed away. (In the case of time challenges, literally.). Or should you just need a pressure valve, you could simply cruise around as you jump briefly into people’s lives to be entertained by their conversation or through the act of ruining their day. Or maybe you need a time of reflection and calming, the quiet before the storm? Just shift out and fly high above the city. Look down and quietly contemplate your options or leave the game like that to go have dinner.
In its quest to never break the flow, the game has to turn the pacing over to the player. Games give us choices and control over many things, but few have managed to do this. The swiftness and fluidity with which the player can switch from high octane 70s driving action to serene “leaf on the wind” Zen-like travel to existential goal-oriented, laser-guided focus and back again (in any order and in any amount of time) speaks to a game dedicated to a user interface that not only facilitates play but creates a quality experience in its own right. So many games will offer many different choices, but getting to all of those different choices requires futzing with menus, wasted time traveling, or any number of hindrances created by packing in so many choices that get in the way of what the player wants at that moment.
It helps that so many of the activities are entertaining on their own that shifting into them is having fun made to order. So many side and story missions have so many moments that are entertaining and memorable that I don’t have the space to list them all. This is a game that can touch several different emotional centers of the brain in succession due to the different content featured and the ability to traverse that content quickly.
It is this deceptively simple design that the deep complexities attach themselves to and organically grow from. Once the developers had decided on new mechanics that enable such fluidity, they actually went to the lengths to figure out what they meant for the game. Driver could have simply presented a simple means of travel between open world objectives and that alone would have been a great addition, but in opening up their minds to the implications of this kind of traversal, the player is offered so many great one-off missions based on the extrapolating what could be done with such mechanisms. From this we get the game’s inclusion of magical realism. From this we get the game’s interest in mental introspection. From this we get a wild ride with just the right tone to be awesome. Without this design choice providing this base for the game, having this story, these details, and this tone wouldn’t have been worth the effort, both to make the game or to put in the time to play it.
When critics go on about narrative or story respectively in games, we are not doing it to the detriment of the game elements or the interactive elements. What we are exploring is what the medium is doing after the baseline mechanics have been been established and considering what it means when the rest grows from those mechanics. Games can entertain in the moment, but they can also stay with the player after finishing. They can engage your a drive to win, but also the player’s mind. Driver: San Francisco would make a bad movie and a poor television show because so much of the story is derived from the interactive elements of doing things and by existing within the game world. It needs to be a game to work. By the same token, none of that would have mattered if the execution failed to engage the player in the first place. At its core, Driver is a good game, not because of all the stuff that elevates it as a game, but because all of those details were built on a firm foundation.