Magical realism becomes a means of deepening an otherwise standard crime story.
This discussion contains spoilers for Driver: San Francisco.
The shift ability incorporated into Driver: San Francisco is something that I wish games did more often. I don’t mean what the mechanic does physically in the game, but allowing the main activity of the player to correspond directly to the central core of both play and narrative. In the game, magical realism becomes a means of deepening an otherwise standard crime story, allowing it to plumb psychological depths through the game’s dynamics that it otherwise could not.
Detective John Tanner is in a coma and the element in the game that is suggestive of magical realism is the frantic effort of his mind to make sense of his trauma. We see messages telling Tanner to “Wake Up” from time to time, characters talking both in his dream and out of it simultaneously, and, of course, the central mechanic of the game allows him to shift into any driver’s body and possess it. We understand pretty quickly that the accident caused Tanner to fall into a coma and that none of the game’s main plot is real. Everything is a manifestation of Tanner’s subconscious. Some of the best moments in the game occur when the developers just up and run with the concept. For instance, there is a certain "meta-thrill" that one experiences by directing Tanner to possess an ambulance driver and drive himself to the hospital, while he is also being driven in a real-world ambulance. This early mission establishes that real-world happenings are mirrored by what is also happening in his subconscious, mostly by hearing the news reports on the TV in his hospital room.
Shifting isn’t just some magical ability for the player to use but is central to the plot. The characters realize that Tanner has these abilities and part of the plot is his him coming to terms with them. He has to convince his partner Tobias Jones that he has this ability so that they can take advantage of it during their investigation. He uses it in order to get information that the police otherwise couldn’t. He even comes face to face with mental barriers that he cannot cross until his mind is ready to open up more of the map. It isn’t a mere plot point, but a driving force of the narrative of the investigation and Tanner’s own character arc.
Tanner continues his search for the escaped convict Jericho and investigates the criminal's plans in his dreams, but the results of his actions and the reports on the news can’t add up. Tanner is affecting events in ways that the real world cannot account for. Why would Jericho still be able to threaten the city, if he doesn’t have any of the ingredients for his bomb? This criminal plot moves forward because of the continued reporting of the crisis on the news. Tanner wasn’t there in the real world to stop it, so now his dream is to follow a path that shouldn’t exist from Tanner’s point of view. Or it would be, if we didn’t understand the premise. We know very early on that Tanner is in a coma and that all we are playing is just a dream. The game’s story is not about our realizing Tanner is in a coma, but watching Tanner figure it out for himself.
The conflict between himself and the imaginary Jericho becomes the manifestation of the battle raging within his own injured body to survive. The stress of not understanding the dissonance that his own police work has caused with the events of the real world causes Tanner to go into cardiac arrest and to appear in a ghost world version of the city, all the while chasing an ambulance in an attempt to heal himself. Tanner’s mind being confronted with things that don’t make sense begins to allow him to fill in the gaps. This growing comprehension of his situation begins with a genuinely frightening moment in which you take over Ordell Williams (the driver of a hitwoman who is central to the plot) and find out that you are the woman's target. Tanner’s brain stretches for a reason that might provide an explanation for how this confrontation will work, how the situation will resolve itself. In only the second most batshit existential moment of the game, we find that Tanner’s brain’s solution is to recognize that Jericho also has the shifting ability and has decided to shift into Tanner’s body while Tanner is tailing him in Ordell’s body. A battle of wills and "shifting" occurs as you try to keep the hitwoman close for capture and you try to keep Jericho from killing your body while you are away from it. Interestingly enough this turn of events was probably inspired by one of the few plot holes that the game has in it. During the opening cutscene, Jericho has just broken free of his chains in the back of an armored car and we then see him driving it, despite the fact that there are two armed officers in the back with him, the driver and the driver’s partner. A comatose mind might conclude from this memory that Jericho can indeed shift into other drivers just as Tanner has been doing the whole time.
Giving Tanner’s nemesis the same powers is the twist that the game needs to dig into the full psychological ramifications of Tanner's circumstances. Tanner was in a highly traumatic collision that sent him into a coma caused by Jericho, Tanner’s nemesis. Tanner not realizing his predicament has spent all his energy trying to capture him. Now Jericho has become representative of not only the terror that the figure inspires in Tanner, not helped at all by the TV news, but also Tanner’s own feeling of helplessness. Throughout the whole game, Tanner has been a disconnected spirit, his body an empty shell that he comes back to. However, really it’s like possessing any other driver to him. Up to this point in the story he has been invincible. Car wrecks mean nothing as he simply dispossess the driver and enters another. If he fails a mission, he simply has to try again until he gets it right like a man going over a plan in his head until he is satisfied with the imagined outcome. In the mission where he becomes the driver to his own hit, he comes face to face with his own vulnerability and helplessness at the hands of his mortal enemy. In a literal, figurative, and metaphysical sense, Jericho has gotten inside Tanner’s head.
From being just another gangster, Jericho has instead become a boogieman representing the insecurity and desperation of Tanner’s mind. All the pain, doubts, and weakness that he feels are manifested through the projected entity of the man who put him in the coma. As Tanner’s real-life body fights for survival in the hospital, Jericho has become death. Still ignorant of his real world situation, Tanner becomes more desperate and confused, while Jericho becomes all the more powerful, outstripping even Tanner’s own shifting capabilities. It is only when things click into place in his head that Tanner can finally understand where he is -- that he is in a coma and consequently is able to fight back once and for all. In the most batshit existential moment of the game, he interrogates Jericho in a white mind space, which interrupts the "final battle car chase" to allow Tanner to try to put the last pieces of the case together, even with Jericho still egging him on all the while. The spell having been broken, Jericho changes from representing Tanner’s near fatal injuries into a representation of his mental block in solving the case. Tanner takes control of his own mind, defeats Jericho, and pulls through. This allows him to finally wake up.
All the trials, the missions, and the challenges in the game have been the work of his mind, as a way of keeping focus on survival. It’s Tanner’s own drive and determination that allows him to pull through. Save for the very beginning and very end, the entire game is Tanner’s battle with himself. In a perfect cap to the story, the actual boss fight takes place in the real world, not the dreamscape. That Jericho was nothing, only the manifestation of Tanner’s own fears that he had to conquer before he could face the real Jericho, the man who inspired the boogieman. The final challenge, which makes this a fitting boss fight, quite unlike the previous battle with him, is that it must be done using Tanner's driving skill alone. No shifting, no boosting, no throwing cars. But after all the preparations that Tanner has gone through, he and the player are ready for it. Tanner has gotten past seeing Jericho as an almighty figure that is always a step ahead of the law; he’s defeated the impossible specter, so now he can deal with the real person.
In a fit of karmic justice, the game concludes with Jericho getting T-boned in the same manner that Tanner did at the beginning of the game. When the credits finish and the game dumps you back into the coma-world for sandbox cleanup duty, you aren’t playing Tanner anymore, but Jericho. Only Jericho has no way out. He doesn’t have any unresolved business that his mind can work with. He has no missions to focus on that could allow his escape. He’s been caught and his plans foiled. All he has is a fake city to dick around in for the rest of his days.
Driver: San Francisco mixes a primary game mechanic into the very core of what the game is about. It makes the play of the game not only narratively and thematically relevant in parallel to the story, but becomes central to what the story is about. Tanner’s shifting becomes the cornerstone of the whole experience.