Most of Driver takes place in a dream, so there's almost nothing at stake in this story. Yet it still works.
Driver: San Francisco has a story that shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t be interesting. It shouldn’t be compelling. It shouldn’t be as intriguing as it is. It should be boring. That’s because the game sets up a world in which our actions don’t matter.
The game takes place in the mind of John Tanner. While chasing Jericho, an escaped convict, he gets in a car accident that leaves him comatose. As he lies in the hospital, a nearby television reports the news, and that information seeps into his mind where we get to play as a kind of ghost-detective-driver. Tanner then tries to solve game’s big crime mystery, but there’s no escaping the fact that nothing he does really matters. He uses his ghost power to jump into the bodies of various citizens, helping them with their car related problems, but these people don’t actually exist. Nothing exists. Driver is a story without stakes, yet it still works.
It works because it’s a video game, which means there’s an extra layer of narrative on top of the basic plot. There’s the player’s story, the emergent story we create when we interact with the systems of the game, and Driver uses a very structured system of interaction that naturally lends itself to exciting stories: racing.
On a plot level, these races also have no real stakes, but on a gameplay level, my progress is at stake. If I win, I get to continue to the next challenge. If I lose, I remain stuck at this point in the game. They’re simple stakes, but they’re also extremely personal, which makes them worth fighting over and worth worrying over. As I progress further and the challenges become harder, the stakes therefore become higher. It’s this challenge that pushes me through the game, not the plot. I play because I want to test my skills against tougher and tougher challenges. The plot is just a tangential thing, as it is in many games, but unlike many games, Driver recognizes this fact and crafts a plot that works within that minor tangential role rather than against that role.
This drive in me only exists because of the driving physics. As Eric Swain describes in one of his many articles about this game, “Despite taking place in the modern day, Driver’s style is all 70s. It’s basically Starsky and Hutch the video game” ("It’s all in the presentation: Why I let Driver: San Francisco get away with poor driving", Nightmare Mode, 12 January 2012). Which is to say, the cars slip and spin a lot. Taking a corner well means applying the brakes and swerving at just the right moment. It’s tricky at first, but that just means that there’s a genuine learning curve in Driver, and it’s this learning curve that gives the narrative more depth.
While the plot is irrelevant, the character arc of Tanner matters a great deal. To paraphrase Swain, each new area and challenge that we unlock reflects Tanner’s growing acceptance of his situation. Street races and car chases are his ways of making sense of this world. Therefore his character arc mirrors our own skill progression. As we come to better understand the driving physics, Tanner comes to better understand his situation. We’re both learning about this world in our own way, and while our motivations for continuing stem from very different origins, the results are the same. We keep driving, we keep helping people, and just when we become comfortable, the game expands its scope to challenge us some more. The coma conceit means that there’s very little at stake plot-wise, but the game allows us to tangibly experience one man’s self-actualization by mirroring his arc to our own experience of the gameplay.
All this is not to say that the plot is worthless, but rather that the plot knows how to not interfere with the general gameplay. Context for our actions does matter a great deal, a fact that Driver exemplifies during the final mission. When Tanner wakes up and begins the final chase in the real world, the chase achieves an intensity that’s only possible thanks to the long build up beforehand. Now, for the first time in the game, the stakes are real. This simple knowledge makes the final chase more dramatic even though its spectacle is actually a step down from the car-chucking coma-climax. That mission concerns important game stakes, introducing a new mechanic and forcing the player to master it within a short span of time. The final car chase is the only time that we encounter narrative stakes, when the character is actually in danger. Tanner may fail several times at a race, but that happens within the context of a coma. However, the integrity of his real world isn’t diminished by the typical game-like suspensions of disbelief. When Tanner plays chicken with Jericho at the very end, I’m on the edge of my seat because I know this is real, and part of me is unsure what will happen if I fail.
Writing for a game is tricky since the player can always find ways of undercutting the pace and dramatic tension. Driver finds a perfect balance, using gameplay to make the character’s arc more tangible, while crafting a plot that allows us to be as reckless as we want with no repercussions to the narrative.