Game of the Year awards nominations are being discussed throughout the games writing community right now, and the same handful of titles keep popping up over and over. It’s probably fair to assume that Skyrim is going to take home a whole heap of them, alongside the likes of Portal 2, Zelda, and Arkham City. These are all, in their own ways, fairly inventive games – games that push genre, narrative and general gameplay concepts in some interesting directions, and are all deserving of accolades.
But when I think back on the year, my mind keeps returning to the latest Driver game – a game that might crack my Top 15 for the year, but which certainly wouldn’t make it to the top. As much as I’ve enjoyed plenty of other games more though, Driver: San Francisco might be my most talked-about game of the year.
Driver: San Francisco has been praised for being fun and unique, with a hilariously goofy plot and well-designed missions. It’s a blast to play, and that’s great. But for me, Driver: San Francisco sticks out from all the other 2011 releases because I cannot conceive of any piece of paper on which the basic concept could have possibly looked good. If you haven’t played it, it’s a driving game in which you play a man in a coma, jumping back and forth between cars at will. You’re always playing the same character, but he can possess other people who are driving around San Francisco and help them out with whatever they’re doing, usually by hooning around like a lunatic.
Before release, I wondered how on earth these gameplay mechanics could that possibly lend themselves to solid mission design. How was a series that used to play things so straight going to pull this off? Wasn’t the ‘the whole thing is a dream!’ concept just a bit bloody ridiculous? It seemed like the series was struggling really hard to stay relevant, and had dedicated itself to a stupid gimmick. I was far from alone in these sentiments; there was a whole lot of ‘WTF?’-ing going on.
And yet, the team at Ubisoft Reflections somehow realised that their seemingly ludicrous idea was actually kind of brilliant. We ended up with one of the most inventive driving games in years, one that allowed players to get creative in ways that no driving games ever have before, simply because they refused to listen when everyone said ‘come on guys, this is kind of stupid’. In an era of gaming when developers are all too frequently accused of aiming their games at idiots, rehashing the same ideas over and over and forsaking innovation in favour of broad appeal, this team took a high-concept, completely off-the-wall idea, grafted it onto a well-selling franchise that has been down on its luck, and ended up with a critical and commercial success.
Driver: San Francisco is original in the gutsiest way possible. It’s perhaps not the most innovative game of the year in terms of straight mechanics, what with Portal 2’s propulsion gels and DS gem Ghost Trick’s whole spectral occupation thing, but it’s one of the very few critically acclaimed unique games of the year that didn’t sound absolutely awesome from its original concept phase onwards. Driver: San Francisco looked rubbish (even the demo sucked), but turned out to be anything but. It makes you wonder about other games that have been changed before release due to fan pressure. Obviously fan feedback is important – look to Blizzard for a model example of how a company should go about incorporating it – but Driver: San Francisco is proof that sometimes, perhaps, it’s best if the developers ignore us when we try to tell them that their ideas are shit.
Right now, for instance, I’m sincerely hoping that the phenomenal team at Platinum Games haven’t checked out the internet’s reaction to Metal Gear Rising Revengeance…
James O'Connor is a PhD candidate who specialises video games and mediocre facial hair. In his spare time he writes for Hyper and Pixel Hunt. You can follow him on Twitter here.