Never Break the Flow: Interface Design in ‘Driver: San Francisco’

Again I write about Driver: San Francisco and again it’s at PopMatters. Instead of going the more esoteric route with the game, this time I went for straight design analysis simplicity. It only occurred to me afterwords that I probably should have started from this angle and worked my way up.

I’m actually a little disheartened that nobody else has taken up the torch for this game and got to writing. It was largely forgotten once it was released and didn’t have that much hype industry wide, despite IGN’s best efforts to pump people up for it. Driving games generally get left by the wayside in general criticism and mainstream press, but there have been other breakout hits that have lasted for years. Burnout Paradise, Mario Kart series and Grand Turismo all have done so (even if only two of them deserve it). Also releasing it September right before the glut of highly anticipated sequels arrived wasn’t such a good idea. The marketing of this game was all in all awful all around. At E3 the touted the highly entertaining shift mechanic and balls to the wall crazy premise of the game. They gave no context and showed none of the more dramatic turns or the fluid dynamics and had the game come off as stupid. I wrote this off halfway through the developer interview as I generally do when it is only sounds bytes and/or sounds like its trying to insult my intelligence.

In fact maybe showing it on the E3 show floor was a mistake unto itself. There you have to be loud and instant with your gratification. Driver: San Francisco is not something you can get in 30 second sound bytes. It takes a while, a few hours before the game’s brilliance sinks in. But you know what you don’t have to show off brilliance to market a game, but the promise of a good time and you can get that in 10 minutes, which is about how long it takes to fall into the coma because the first mission after doing so hooks you. The more I think about it the more brilliant the placement of missions is. As soon as you learn how to drive in the intro and then you fall into the coma your mission is to take over the ambulance driver and get yourself to the hospital before you die. It’s bizarre, it’s weird, but it also makes a certain amount of sense on conceptual level if not a logical one. Your will is what lets you survive to get proper treatment in the real world and in your head.

The races are only fun after you understand the ground rules of the game and the difference it makes having that stay in the back of your mind during them. Otherwise they are just standard races with some rubber banding.

I say in the piece there are too many small moments that I love to list and there are for that article to keep it flowing. So here they are in no particular order. (*Spoilers*)

-Taking over the ambulance driver and driving yourself to the hospital

-The recurring characters of the street racers and Tanner’s ever escalating exasperation

-Keeping a rapper alive by destroying all the sidewalk board advertisements and Tanner doing so with glee

-Stalking myself in one car while trying to lead that car I’m in into a trap remotely (it makes more sense to do it than explain it)

-Tailgating an ambulance in order to regain health and escape purgatory

-The mid-chapter recap montages straight out of a serialized TV cop show

-The music track list

-One of the stunt challenges to drift in an 18 wheeler X distance

-Stopping evil 18 wheelers with good garbage trucks

-A mission where you have to drive insane to keep a passenger from dying to snake venom

-Shifting into a car driven by a little old lady and her son and then freaking the son out with jumps

-The biting satire on reality TV shows with the caught on camera missions

-Running away with your possessed man’s fugitive wife only to learn she did do it and Tanner just shrugs

-The so deadly serious police dialogue about the culprits stealing from churches its hilarious

-Not the recurring mad bomber character, but the mission where you have to disarm a bomb by driving up a 18-wheeler in a sports car

-Highway car fu

-The later chases are downright tense as new baddies keep appearing

-Ripping off gangsters after shifting into the middle of a deal for an antique car

-The dozens of different conversations you shift into the middle of are hilarious and some downright WTF

-The subtleties of the sound when in high altitude shifting

-The mission that actively uses high altitude shifting to solve it

-The story arc of the cops turned vigilantes taking out drug stashes like it was a rally car race

-This moment this gameranx post talks about

(Too awesome an image not to include. Props to Ian.)

There is so many moment and details that just improve the impression the game leaves you with. Each of which is just more reinforcement and their own little subtleties about the driving conflict, premise and themes of the game. (Pun not intended, but appreciated.) I could write about each individual moment¬† I listed above and plenty more and how it all works into the main themes, but what would be the point. I’ve stated my position and everything leads to it. All those potential posts would sound the same anyway.

And with that I think I’ve said all I can about the game. After about half a dozen posts plus their associated add on posts I think I am finally out of words about this game. Looks like I’ll have to find another game to talk to death.

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