Video games and youth have always had a peculiar relationship. I’m not referring to youth markets being the primary demographic for video games for decades, although that’s certainly related to what I want to discuss. Rather, I’m referring to a specific ethos of positivity, edginess, and youthful rebellion that video games so often rely on. One needn’t look far to find examples, as plenty of high profile releases base themselves around this attitude: Sonic the Hedgehog, Jet Grind Radio, Persona 5, etc. The image of youths rising up to overthrow authority has proven so appealing that those who once enjoyed it have gone on to recreate it in their own projects, if games like Freedom Planet and to a lesser extent VA-11 Hall-A offer any indication.
As easy as spotting the trend is, figuring out what it means may prove more difficult. On the one hand, it’s clear why the youthful rebellion motif is as popular as it is. In a world where adults have all the power and youth is equivalent to powerlessness, it’s reassuring to see pop media turn youth itself into a form of power that, by definition, adults can never claim for themselves. There’s even the rare possibility that that media can become a symbol for political organization and for clarifying the youth’s relationship with the world. Sonic the Hedgehog being recast as a symbol of anti-fascism can testify to that.
On the other hand, this trope isn’t a naturally existing part of reality, but an image constructed not only by adults, but more specifically by the major corporate powers behind this pop media. Moreover, the image was constructed to sell products to a market with a lot of disposable income and a need to define its own image. We find ourselves forced to turn our previous understanding on its head. Games like the ones cited before become a key part in ensuring the status quo, ironically by rebranding the act of upholding it as rebellious. Youthful energy ends up sublimated into buying consumer goods, and any real power it had vanishes in the process.
It’s because of these two threads that Crazy Taxi 2, Sega’s follow-up to their popular taxi arcade game, is as difficult to pin down critically as it is. Their presence in and importance to the game is undeniable. As straightforward as Crazy Taxi 2 may appear, it walks a razor thin edge in trying to balance these two forces. I’m not entirely sure if it successfully balances them. All I know is that despite how endearing the game’s character is (and it is endearing), I struggle to reconcile that charm with my recognition of the consequences it entails.
Granted, that character is just as much a product of the industry Crazy Taxi 2 was situated in at the time as much as it was a product of youth culture or Sega’s creative decisions. Released in 2001 by a company with years of experience working in arcades, Crazy Taxi 2 is representative of classical game design ethos. Objects are divorced from the reality they would otherwise represent and made into pieces for the player (maybe the designer) to play around with.
However, we never experience that ethos in isolation, even during pure gameplay challenges like those in the Crazy Pyramid (the closest thing Crazy Taxi 2 has to a single player campaign). Always lurking in the back, always supplementing play is the youthful posturing that forms Crazy Taxi 2’s backbone. Where the former is the result of arcade design philosophies, the latter is the product of the many trends that defined late 90s/early 00s youth culture. This attitude’s utmost concern is preserving the spirit of youth in the face of adult responsibilities, and to that end, the game is constantly in your face. It demands that its voice be heard, but that doesn’t mean it wants to say anything specific with that voice. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s not the content we listen to, but the energy with which it’s being delivered. Crazy Taxi 2 is nothing if not a reckless celebration, either of its own youthful energies or the boundless possibilities open to somebody not yet an adult.
We must admit that this is all a highly stereotyped view of youth. You’re unlikely to find in reality a counterpart to anything the game describes, and further inquiry will no doubt complicate any examples you do happen to find. Crazy Taxi 2’s response is that it makes absolutely no claim to reality. In fact, it establishes its vision by breaking away from reality to instead embrace the celebration of ideas: the idea of youth, the idea of a taxi business, etc. We can’t even call this a fantasy, as that may imply some wish to turn the game’s vision into reality. Crazy Taxi 2 harbors no such desires. For Crazy Taxi 2, there is no authentic reality to be found; just a series of performances grounded in a compelling fiction.
Regardless of whatever problems such an approach opens up (problems that I will detail later), I have to admit there’s something admirable in that approach. The game’s brazen attitude results in a certain degree of honesty regarding its relationship with reality, but more to the point, there’s something transformative about Crazy Taxi 2’s ethos. If the world truly is just images, then any reason for tolerating a broken system vanishes. One can always impose their own images, their own reality, on the world, and so long as one believes in the performance strongly enough (evinced in this case by the game’s emotional strength), then that reality is perfectly valid. This is the essence of Crazy Taxi 2’s rebellious attitude: the power to change the world regardless of one’s personal circumstances.
Moreover, it’s an attitude the game is more than thorough in representing. It’s there in the Rob Zombie-esque logo you see before the title screen even loads. It’s there in the alternative rock soundtrack courtesy of The Offsprings. It’s there in the Big Apple and its anticipation of Burnout Paradise’s Paradise City: less an accurate depiction of something existing in reality and more a symbol of “the city.” It’s there in the Crazy Pyramid challenges, whose aesthetic – sports generally but track and field especially – feel perfectly suited toward situating the player as a high school senior or college freshman.
Most important of all, though, it’s there in the game’s main appeal: driving a taxi through the city and stringing together fares. Truth be told, Crazy Taxi 2 never wanders far from the foundations its predecessor laid for it. Physics may change and fares might work a little differently, but the fundamentals remain unchanged: you pick one of four cabbies (as young as 18 and as old as 80) and then pilot them around the Big Apple, quickly darting from fare to fare to earn as much money as you possibly can. The fares themselves function like a cross between skateboarding and riding a roller coaster: in addition to ferrying people to and fro as quickly as possible, patrons will award you more money for successfully stringing together tricks: weaving in and out of traffic, jumping from shortcut to shortcut, etc.
Crazy Taxi 2 would appear ridiculous if any of this was intended to be an accurate depiction of what driving a taxi is like. At the same time, what the game ends up describing is downright Utopian. Its Big Apple is one in which:
- Everybody has enough disposable income to tip you for dangerous and unnecessary stunts.
- Everybody has disposable income at all.
- Cabbies have taken ownership of what is essentially low wage, high stress labor by turning the occupation’s faults into strengths.
In short, Crazy Taxi 2 imagines a radically different social order based solely around living in the moment and enjoying one’s self. It’s a very alluring fantasy (for lack of a better word), and one that, at least for a little while, the game lets us enjoy as though it were real, all the while acknowledging that it isn’t.
There may be something nihilistic at the core of all this; claiming that there is no authentic reality is an effective way to avoid doing the work of searching for such a reality. But given that this hypothetical nihilism isn’t a direct feature of the game experience, I find it hard to worry about that. What worries me more is the ambiguity the game’s straightforward nature ironically opens up. If abandoning any pretense of reality allows Crazy Taxi 2 to touch the pure essence of youth/excitement/etc., it also prevents the game from grounding that essence in anything. The result is almost paradoxical: performances powerful enough to leave a strong impression, but also hollow, devoid of real substance. Cabbies dance, but to nothing in particular, as if they were animatronic actors greeting you at an amusement park.
How do such contradictions arise? In answering that, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the game’s general vision – that of conquering reality through fantasy – remains sound. It’s in the specifics that cracks begin to form; especially due to historical context. Its argument that we can make the world a better place by turning work into leisure appears quaint to us because we stand at the other end of history, in the shadow of so many trends that undermine that goal. Gamification condescends to us by trying to convince us that compulsory systems are voluntary. Open world games systematize our every impulse until we can no longer feel anything. The distinction between work and leisure becomes meaningless because it can no longer deliver us to its intended ends.
In this light, the game’s limitations, previously reasonable, become harder to overlook. Speaking past the issue instead of confronting it directly is no longer enough. Are these systems actually voluntary? How do we go about making a city like the Big Apple a reality? Without answering these questions, Crazy Taxi 2 risks upholding the very world it wishes to transform. Not only would it place the burden of finding fulfillment in one’s job on those least able to bear it, but it would pretend that such a burden doesn’t exist by masking it behind youthful posturing.
One may argue that it’s unfair to impose historical conditions on a game that has nothing to do with them. To this, I say the worries those conditions reveal were always latent in the game itself. The level of product placement in Crazy Taxi 2, for example, indicate that the game’s rebellious persona is at least somewhat compatible with corporatism designed to sell you products. However, I believe that the strong emphasis on skill (a result of the game’s arcade habitat) is a better thread to explore. Whether during the Crazy Pyramid challenges or just driving around the Big Apple, Crazy Taxi 2 demands a lot from its player. It demands that you know every little shortcut, every precise trick, and that you execute every last one within the very strict boundaries each challenge draws for itself.
In my experience, the emotional arc to this was much like what it would be for any other game of this difficulty. Tension and frustration mounted as I repeatedly failed a task, followed by a cathartic relief once I finally completed it. It’s a process that plays out both within an individual challenge and across the game as a whole. But shortly after completing the final challenge, a new phase emerged: I realized just how close all of this is to work. Somehow, Crazy Taxi 2 had pulled me away from the freeform performance that had always defined it and toward meeting demands it had imposed on me from without. My mood regarding the game after this point was a defeated one. It felt as though the game had similarly resigned itself by admitting that its fantasy can only ever remain a fantasy.
Still, I’m reluctant to abandon the very real feelings I had in seeing and experiencing Crazy Taxi 2’s vision. We must distinguish this game from anything like the previous two games I’ve covered. Crazy Taxi 2 sees its role as something above mere passive entertainment. It speaks to something in the world and challenges our acceptance of it. Regardless of its success or failure in attempting that, it’s worth congratulating a game for making an effort like this at all. Maybe the dream has to be enough. Maybe the fact that the game can dream at all has to be enough.