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The Intersection of Mechanics and Aesthetics in 'Driver: San Francisco'

Driver: San Francisco creates a feedback loop between the mechanical and aesthetic notions of the game and creates a synthetic meaning between them.

Eric Swain, Blogger

February 8, 2013

6 Min Read

Many years ago there was a contentious debate concerning where video games got their meaning from. The debate was broken up into two camps: the narratologists, those that believed that a game’s meaning came from its story, and the ludologists, those that believed that a game’s meaning came from its mechanics. Then, it was thought to be somewhere in the middle. Now most agree that a game’s meaning comes not from a single element but from all of its elements interacting with one another. These are called a game’s dynamics.

I talked about the meaning in Driver: San Francisco before as emphasized by the games narrative elements and worked to establish a deeper meaning derived from the synthesis of those elements with the game’s mechanics. This worked when “reading” the game in hindsight, but in looking at Driver: San Francisco during play, we see a different process at work.

As I wrote about before, the dynamics of the interaction between mechanics and the narrative offer up a deeper subtextual meaning of many of the game’s actions. I have also written about the general success of the game’s aesthetic qualities with regards to the nature of the actual driving. These two elements are not at odds with one another, but rather have nothing to do with one another in the conceptual sense. The psychological healing narrative of John Turner has little thematic crossover with the 1970s Starsky and Hutch-vibe that the aesthetic qualities of the game are paying homage to. The thing that they do have in common is that they exist in the same game and as a consequence become a kind of feedback for the player.

The player is offered both sets of elements at the same time and has to make sense of them not just as individual elements, but also in conjunction with one another. We have the familiar trope of cops playing fast and loose with the rules in high-speed pursuits mixing with game mechanics that favor crashing into innocent bystanders and driving into oncoming traffic. Thanks to the magical realism of the world that the game is taking place in, the player is offered more freedom, guilt free, to explore these dynamics. Also, the 1970s aesthetics reinforce the player’s behavior by representing a looseness in terms of personal ethics in a search for justice that other eras of cop drama might not afford. It allows more freedom, but the aesthetics by themselves don’t give the player uninhibited license to cause mayhem, nor do the artistic merits of the game suffer when it does not offer reasonable consequences to your actions as a police officer. By allowing the game to take place in the mind, it offers up a hyperreal world where cop shows are the norm and what is off camera doesn’t exist.

The player and Tanner are on two different ends of the spectrum in regards to that element’s dynamics, though. The player is made aware fairly early on of the nature of Tanner’s situation and that this situation is all a dream. They are liberated from the problems of reckless driving and of the endangerment of civilians. Tanner, meanwhile, is coming to terms with his new ability to shift into other people’s bodies. We use this ability as a tool to complete missions on the map, but Tanner uses it because he has a feeling that he must help people around the city in order to proceed with the capture of Jericho. It would be a weak explanation were this not a dream. Likewise, the fast and loose nature of the 70s cop show is understood from the player perspective, but from Tanner’s perspective, it is simply life. However, a life that abides by genre and style conventions is only possible in a hyperreal existence, similar to such as a dream. So, the 70s aesthetic is not so much a fact of the world, but a result of Tanner’s own perception. This is how he views himself, as a TV cop. It’s a fantasy that defies normal logic but is perfectly applicable in dream logic, especially one’s own dream in which you are the hero.

This relates to the experience of the player.  As the hero in a 1970s hyper real San Francisco, solving problems and chasing down bad guys, the player now has an added, unexplained mystical ability to aid in the cause of justice. The player exists in a world with a well understood aesthetic because that aesthetic abides by genre logic. Additionally, the player is given a power that those dynamics encourage, to behave like one would in an exaggerated 1970s cop show. This isn’t the behavior that existed in that era, it’s the implied memories that that era imbued on culture in our collective memory, a cultural meme that exists in both the real-life player’s mind and evidentially in the mind of the fictional John Tanner.

There is a mission early on the in the game in which you have to convince your partner that you have this ability to shift, and you do so by taking control of a reckless driver and making him do outrageous stunts and driving. However, not before predicting it to your partner. Neither he, nor Tanner, nor the player for that manner, thinks this is overly outrageous or downright wrong behavior. It fits into the mold of what the game is telling us is appropriate in this world. The world is not the real world, we know that and accept that and that knowledge frees us. Tanner does not know it is a dream, but he is focused enough on Jericho that his mind presents the idea as acceptable. Dreams don’t have to make logical or moral sense, just a sense within its own mental constructs. Tobias Jones doesn’t go along with this initially because he doesn’t believe Tanner, but once he does, it still isn’t a problem for him because he is only a construct of Tanner’s dream.

Tanner’s mind is issuing itself a feedback of aesthetic qualities and encouragement as a consequence for his behavior. In this regard, he does not recognize any of his actions are wrong or that the world is somehow off. The player knows that the world is off but accepts it because the video game is offering us a feedback of aesthetic qualities and encouragement as a consequence for our behavior. The game starts the player and Tanner at different ends of the spectrum in terms of what each knows and understands about the world. As the game progresses, it brings the player and Tanner closer together by having that feedback bounce between the two until Tanner learns what we know and comes back to reality by conquering his inner demons. Once that happens, the player loses the shift ability and that player is now finally on the same page as Tanner.

This discordant reality allows for a separation in player and character that does not break the game’s aesthetics. Instead the subtly of the nature of the world that we play in allows for a smoother experience of teh strange behaviors that we are asked to perform. We can behave how the game wants and needs us to in the name of progression. The game’s mystical mechanics and its ‘70s aesthetic inform one another in order to deliver a presentation that allows the player to be situated in the correct mental space to play.

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