Why ‘Driver: San Francisco' Is Gaming's Most Fabulous Joyride

Ubisoft's race-around-an-open-world game of 2011 was so much more fun than its stuffier series predecessors.
May 6, 2016, 5:10pm

All screenshots via Steam

"Driver." Is there a more generic title? It's not just a plain word. In the spirit of bland, entertainment marketing, it tells you precisely what kind of game you're about to buy. Shooter. Platformer. Driver. This must be a game with a singular purpose—the car chases might be fun, but car chases, presumably, are all you'll get.

But then, there's the other half: "San Francisco." If writer Walt Williams chose Dubai to represent Spec Ops: The Line's grander themes—if the city's fullness and grandeur, violently eroded by a sandstorm, reflected the mental deterioration of Captain Martin Walker—I'd like to think San Francisco says something of Driver's variety and color, its heterogeneity. Throughout the 20th century, San Francisco became synonymous with cultural experimentation and alternative thinking. Recalling the city in its 1960s heyday, Hunter Thompson wrote "there was madness in any direction… you could strike sparks anywhere." If not for its famously bumpy roads, or its association with the film Bullit, San Francisco, a widely accepted center of creative freedom, is the perfect setting for 2011's Driver—despite flaunting an adherence to genre, this is an unorthodox game, replete with variety.

"Variety," to some game makers, can mean ugly and unfortunate things. Assassin's Creed's idea of "variety" is endless side missions and collectibles. In Saints Row and Just Cause, "variety" means idiocy: big weapons, slapstick physics engines, and myriad useless ways for players to "express themselves." It's a shame that today, when I'm told a game is "original", "madcap," or "varied," I'm immediately suspicious. Driver: San Francisco is all of these things, but certainly not in the bastardized, dragged-through-the-mud sense that I've come to associate with video games. There are lots of things to do and see in Driver, and all of them are interesting.

If you aren't familiar with the game's narrative set-up, it's one of the smartest in mainstream gaming. You, as the eponymous driver, Tanner, are stuck in a coma following a car crash. By hitting a single button, at any time, you can float out of your body and into other people—perhaps you see a kid struggling with his driving test, so you leap into him and suddenly wow his instructor with expert cornering and precision 180 spins. Sometimes, you're a college student trying to win street races to pay for tuition. Other times, you're a hapless beat cop thrust into a high-speed chase. Using his superpower, Tanner briefly enjoys life as hundreds of different San Franciscans. What could be a straight up driving game, fixated on the rote world of cops and robbers, becomes a soap opera, a melodrama, a comedy.

'Driver: San Francisco,' gameplay trailer

And it's lovingly written, too. It takes one, maybe two missions for Tanner to become accustomed to his ability, and the fact he's in a coma, and from thereon he's absolutely up for anything. Like Deadly Premonition's Francis York Morgan, one of my favorite video game characters, who when confronted my monsters and ghosts simply shrugs and gets on with it, Tanner doesn't fret or navel gaze—as much as I am, he's enjoying the ride. And that's what gives Driver its energy. Hopping between characters is one thing, but the way Driver's writers at Ubisoft Reflections (Ian Mayor, James Worrall, and David Midgley) never get bogged down in "what it all means"—the way they cleanly and crisply set up each vignette, and then let them roll with absolute willing—represents confidence of a kind game makers, all too often, seem to lack.


Openness to experimentation, and a creative attitude perhaps best surmised as "sure, why not?," are two things I respect hugely. Video games, beneath those two rubrics, regularly peddle the stupidest and basest entertainment. Driver: San Francisco is the rare example of a game boldly willing to different, to challenge the accepted standards both of its genre and the franchise that gives it its name, without degenerating into idiocy. Its body-swapping mechanic, which opens Driver up to many new characters and contexts for missions, is original and weird in the noblest sense. Strapping your character to a flying gas tank, or beating pedestrians to death with a gigantic flopping dildo, are not.

Article continues after the video below

And yet Driver: San Francisco, for all its intelligence and sophistication, is never pretentious. Its chases are fast, dangerous, and require a great deal of skill—it's still, at times, a prohibitively designed driving simulation. But Driver is saved by its only passing interest in cars. Where Forza Motorsport, Gran Turismo, and Driveclub fawn over the cold, aerodynamic details of their vehicles, Driver: San Francisco, by its body-swapping central conceit, belies fetishization.

From vehicle to vehicle, you are thrown. Rather than grow attached to a single car, pouring over its specifications and contours, the point of Driver: San Francisco, as its name absolutely implies, is to drive. And it allows the thrill of driving to speak for itself. Best exemplified by this sickly cutscene from Ride, racing games insist there is something more to driving, something edifying or ethereal—almost religious. Maybe it's badly worded enthusiasm, and appealing to a presumed audience of gearheads, but it slows driving games down, makes them stuffy, turgid.

Driving, in the raw, experiential sense, is about movement. Where racers today often feel like car commercials, masturbating over the grandiloquent details of machines, Driver: San Francisco is constantly in motion, thrusting the player—like the audience to a great Hollywood car chase—from vehicle to vehicle, corner to corner. Its body-swapping mechanic is the essence of driving. Like Tanner, hurtling across the streets of San Francisco, uncertain of what the next alley or the next hairpin might hold, the player, by moving between different cars and different bodies, is subject to a perpetual sense of motion and surprise. They are not just driving a car. They are driving the camera, the character and their own perspective—rather than locked, unerringly, on the rear of a McClaren as it eases around a course, in Driver: San Francisco, you "drive" out of your body, into the sky, along the highway, and through the bonnet of a new vehicle, before driving, literally, some more.

If the game's variety is true to the name "San Francisco," its framing of almost every single act during play as movement, as a race, as transportation, is true to the name "Driver."

Follow Ed Smith on Twitter.