Going out for a long drive in the country back roads, music seeping pleasantly from radio speakers, wind whistling past the open windows, is a favored pastime in my part of the country. It is something inherent to the quiet midwestern culture, something inherent to me.
I found that particular joy after enrolling in kickboxing during college. I took a laid back approach to it, enjoying the cardio, but also the self-defense skills that came along with it. I have fond memories of long drives to the university gym where I could meet a few friends and we could practice. Driving and casual sparring, two real world activities I still enjoy.
However, driving and contact fighting are two in-game activities I do not enjoy. I skew heavily in favor of RPGs, shooters, exploration games, and puzzles, and while I’ll tolerate small doses of driving in games, arcade-style fighting is an almost guaranteed nix-worthy element.
Lately, though, two games are forcing me to reassess my perspective: Driver: San Francisco and Persona 4, a driving game and a fighting game, respectively.
Driver: San Francisco is a fast-paced driving game with a police procedural at its heart, and a wacky sense of humor to boot. Implementing a bizarre and unique ‘Shift’ mechanic wherein the main character can leap from car to car by inhabiting its driver’s body, the game is all about exploration, gathering details and evidence about the main plot (a terrorist is planning something and only a comatose-dreaming cop can stop him), and learning to appreciate the modern vehicular engineering.
Driver: San Francisco shines is in its unique approach to interacting with cars – the body-jumping Shift – and its use of driving to further the plot. The more missions and tasks that are accomplished through driving, the more the story unfolds. The driving mechanic and the story elements complement one another so well that I stopped thinking about the game like a driving game after awhile. Instead of Burnout or Need For Speed comparisons ripping through my head, I thought of Driver: San Francisco as its own unique spin on a genre: its fresh approach to the simple interaction with in-game vehicles makes it feel like no other kind of driving game.
I don’t like driving games, and yet I adore Driver: San Francisco. From its surprisingly tight, if silly and fantastical, story, to the various vehicle models and lovely recreation of the city, Driver: San Francisco is pure escapism. There is also the aspect of feeling as though you are playing through some of your favorite film car chases, and it’s hard not to feel giddy when you’ve played a game that allows you to drive full-tilt down one of San Francisco’s famously steep streets only to watch the car leap into the air as it clears a hill.
Because the game doesn’t feel like a driving game, I am able to approach it from a different angle. I can see it as a police procedural action game, or I can look at is as a mystery set within an exploration game. That driving is the method of exploration is simply that: a method. As such, I stop thinking of the game in simple terms of ‘driving’ or ‘racing’, and can appreciate it for what it is: a unique, fresh take on a familiar formula.
When it comes to fighting games, I have a few fond memories of playing SoulCalibur 2 on an old GameCube years ago, but few games since. The new Mortal Kombat game did not cross my screen, and while I played some of BlazBlue Calamity Trigger, I appreciated its art style more than its fighting mechanic. It was pretty to look at, and that was it.
Persona 4: Arena made me rethink fighting games.
Its predecessor, the RPG game Persona 4, is one of my favorite games from the Playstation 2 era, with its eerie murder mystery story, bizarre and macabre alternate world within a television, complex themes of alienation, genuine teenage angst in the form of everything from the inferiority complex of teenager to sexual identities, and the importance of the bonds people forge between their friends and family. The game is still near and dear to my heart, and I’ve recommended it more than once to those who still own PS2s, or are lucky enough to have backwards-compatible Playstation 3s.
The fighting game, Persona 4: Arena, is a direct sequel to the PlayStation 2 game, and still features the same themes of friendship and identity. It also stresses the emotional entanglements involved in literally having to fight one’s friends, while also showing that people don’t simply get over their anxieties as time goes on. This is a fighting game with a deeply involved story, and for this reason, it feels more like the RPG that preceded it (sans RPG elements), as opposed to a pure fighting game.
Driver and Persona 4: Arena are not what I expected from their respective genres. I was almost ready to bypass them entirely, strictly based on what their surface appearance.
Usually, I find driving in games to be either poorly programmed (the right trigger is reverse, the left trigger is accelerate, or, worse, those commands are assigned to the left and right bumpers), or oddly designed in an effort to convey realism, like in Grand Theft Auto IV, where car weights and models determined how the car handled. From a physics stance, this was innovative; from a gameplay standpoint, it was a clunky interface, slow and dull.
Driver does not have this experience; it is smoothly controlled, with a wry sense of humor, and is casually welcoming of anyone who picks it up.
Fighting games favor an elaborate yoga-like-finger-contortion approach to their command functions, guaranteeing frustration if you’ve ever hurt your hands in any significant way. The genre’s presentation irks me on an aesthetic level – colors clash, art lines are not clean, and female characters possess physics-defying breasts, while male characters sport hairstyles that would raise eyebrows in most college towns. The first time I saw Super Street Fighter IV, I wondered if the designers had taken notes by studying Rob Liefield’s early work.
Persona 4: Arena favors bright colors and distinctive looks for each character, none too exaggerated or absurd. Control wise, it’s easy to grasp but still a challenge, one that even my none-too-limber fingers can manage.
When games like Driver: San Francisco and Persona 4: Arena come along and mix and match styles in their respective manners, the games feel fresh, unique, and original. They open the eyes of a gamer like me. Considering that two genres I still don’t care for are now two of my new favorite titles to play, I think I have to be even more open-minded about the types of games I play.
Learning to open up, explore new genres, tackle new challenges – that’s partially what gaming’s about. So consider me a fan of these two titles in particular, and, at least a more open-minded person when it comes to driving games and fighting games in general. I’ll still maintain my attachment to my usual genres, but until the next big thing comes our way, I’ll be fighting my way through a crazy television world, and driving and solving mysteries in the beautifully rendered San Francisco.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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