The internet is full of so many gems of random information, but one particular nugget recently came across my Twitter feed and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head: At one point, someone made an ill-advised video game adaptation of the 1976 neo-noir film Taxi Driver. For a second, I thought it was just a shitpost or a farce, but a quick search showed me that while it was never released, the game had, in fact, been in the works. Announced in May 2005, the Taxi Driver game was set to be published by Majesco Entertainment (a somewhat distinguished distributor) and Papaya Studio (a small, unknown production company).
For context, 2005 and 2006 were turning points in the gaming world. These were the last days of relevancy for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and video game publishers decided the best way to keep the public’s attention was by adapting a slew of violent retro films and gangster fare our dads loved. The most likely cause of this trend was the influence of the cinematic gangster crime games of the Grand Theft Auto series, with GTA: San Andreas being among the highest-selling games of 2004, as well as the most critically acclaimed. Within those two years, there were video game adaptations of The Godfather, Scarface, The Warriors and The Sopranos. But no film could be more poorly matched for the gleeful chaos of the violent shoot ‘em up action game than Taxi Driver, and no protagonist more ill-suited for a video game than Travis Bickle.
Travis (played by Robert De Niro in the film) is a disturbed young man who feels isolated, paranoid and at odds with the vice and excess that surrounds him in New York. A traumatized veteran dealing with insomnia since coming back from Vietnam, he takes a job as a cabbie to make some money and keep himself busy. It’s a meditative film that spends the bulk of its runtime exploring the fractured mind of someone who fell through the cracks, and while his story eventually explodes into violence, all evidence shows that would’ve been the entirety of the game.
Rather than reliving the long, delirious days in which Travis journals his unhinged thoughts, hangs out in porno theaters and talks to his mirror, the Taxi Driver game (which director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader both hoped would never see the light of day) was set up as a direct sequel to the film. The story would’ve picked up two months after the film’s climactic shootout, with Betsy (the young woman Travis is obsessed with, played by Cybill Shepherd) being brutally gunned down by a group of thugs for reasons undetermined and Travis essentially becoming the Punisher in response to the tragedy.
“Through a combination of driving and on-foot combat missions, you must rid the streets of devious characters and put an end to their shady activities throughout the city,” the game’s official press sheet reads. “Are you talkin’ to me?” This doesn’t differ too greatly from your typical GTA formula, but with the character of Travis, there’s an insidious layer of someone masking their prejudices in morality and justifying their violence as an act of good.
It’s a blessing that this game didn’t come into the world. From the trailers I’ve seen of it, the game’s developers fundamentally misunderstood Taxi Driver as a story and what the figure of Travis Bickle represents, which is a confused, fragile masculinity that festers into madness and rage without help. Travis’ interactions with women are awkward and disconcerting, with him always going a bit past what’s comfortable. His interactions with Black men are always tinged with a paranoid fear. As a work of art, Taxi Driver isn’t a power fantasy film, but a film about someone trying to live out their power fantasy to mixed results.
Travis’ mentality isn’t too different from incels, MRAs and other men bemoaning their feelings of displacement from society today. Scorsese and Schrader make it very clear that Travis isn’t concerned about doing what’s right for everyone, but what will allow him to live out his fantasies of maintaining traditional values instead. He veritably describes the denizens of New York as “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal” and “a scum that needs to be washed off the streets.” The only way you could see Travis as worth admiring in any way is if you share all his prejudices and delusions. It’s not that no violent film with a complicated protagonist could work as a video game, it’s just that Taxi Driver, with its themes of delusion, withering masculinity, and pinpoint, hateful male rage would be little more than John Hinckley Jr. roleplaying. (If you didn’t know, Hinckley tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan after seeing Taxi Driver. He will soon be released from prison.)
I tried a bit of sleuthing to better understand what the game was going to be and why it was cancelled, but aside from a playthrough, a few trailers and the announcement of its development and cancellation, there was very little information on the aborted game.
The consensus seems to be that publisher Majesco simply ran into financial difficulties, and while they continued to publish games after Taxi Driver, from there on, they focused only on lower-budget, handheld titles like Cooking Mama, Cooking Mama 2: Dinner With Friends, Gardening Mama and Hulk Hogan: Main Event before eventually leaving game publishing for good.
As for Papaya Studio, they dissolved in 2013 and though I tried to get in touch, I ended up much like Travis, frustrated and left to come to my own conclusions about what kind of sick world would allow something like to happen.