Window Dressing

Taxis are in a rush. That’s a known fact (that I thought as I did my usual ritual of staring down a cab driver today). It’s also a vital part of the game Crazy Taxi. The arcade-style driving game has you speeding around a time, picking up customers and dropping them off as quick as you can. It’s fun, and an excellent time and/or quarter sink.

But how vital is the taxi part of Crazy Taxi? Sure, speeding around an ersatz San Francisco and dodging trucks is great, but does it need that taxi-ness — that surrounding narrative — to work? Strip away all the window dressing and the game’s mechanics are quite simple: the player drives around an area getting objectives which, when completed well, nets the player more points and time. Could be in space, could be blocks moving around, you could throw Mario on it and call it a day. Instead, you play as a crazy taxi driver dodging traffic.

So what does the narrative window dressing of a cab driver bring to the story? Why is setting it in contemporary (ca. 1999) America better than setting it in space? Because then it’d be a different thing. I mean, obviously. It’s why The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai can tell a similar story and yet still be completely different movies. Look at The LEGO Movie and The Matrix. Both adhere to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with a religious ferocity: a nobody turns out to be really special, goes into a different world, acquires new skills, and saves the day. One’s plastic toys and the other’s a cyberpunk dystopia. They have what’s essentially the same mechanics with different window dressing and thus gives them each different narratives.

Look at The Matrix: it filters the Hero’s Journey through a cyberpunk aesthetic and a decidedly blatant Messiah analogy. All these details — the window dressing — lets The Matrix mix in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave and a critique of consumeristic culture. George Lucas’ rendition of the Hero’s Journey (Star Wars, duh) doesn’t lend itself to that commentary — The Matrix’s aesthetic is incredibly important to its narrative.

Because The LEGO Movie is about, er, LEGO, it can play fast and loose with its setting and characters (Batman leaves a pirate ship to join Han and Lando in the Millennium Falcon? Awesome!). It also means the film can tap into the general collective consciousness concerning that plastic toy and what it has to do with being a kid. Imagination is a big part of playing with toys, especially LEGO ‘cuz, y’know, you build stuff. Mix that in with the child-like love of storytelling that lends the film’s live action segment its earnest seriousness and you have a wonderful movie that’s simultaneously similar to The Matrix and yet nothing like it. All because the same structure got given a different coating.

This is, in part, why Crazy Taxi works so well. We know that cabbies are in a rush. That’s a given. So it makes sense that if we’re gonna get to play as a cabbie, we’re gonna be rushing about the place. It’s what gives it an urgency that dressing the mechanics up as, say, a postman or a waiter wouldn’t. It’s because of the whole narrative surrounding speeding cabs that makes the game work.

That and, y’know, it’s just a whole lot of fun.

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