Papaya Studios

Taxi Driver: The Video Game [Cancelled – XBOX / PS2]

Taxi Driver was to be a video game adaptation of the 1976 movie of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Paul Schrader. With a release planned for 2006, Taxi Driver was being developed by Papaya Studio for the Xbox and the Playstation 2 and would receive a fair amount of attention in 2005, attention it found itself sharing with the tidal wave of video game adaptations of classic movies that swept the industry around that time. Its brethren carried such names as The Godfather, Scarface, Dirty Harry, Jaws, The Warriors and From Russia With Love and, surprisingly, most of them would actually come out to positive critical and fan reception, something almost unheard of in the movie tie-in side of the video game industry.

Some, however, would be quietly abandoned shortly after their announcement, leaving gamers to wonder years later if these had simply been figments of their imagination from a time when the news of video games based on beloved movies was so common that any title could have been a reality. Something akin to the Mandela Effect. This would be the fate of Taxi Driver, and its cancellation would be significantly more mysterious than any other.

We reached out to Dan Kitchen, the executive producer of Taxi Driver during his time at Majesco, the game’s publisher. He kindly agreed to talk to us about what went on behind the scenes and how the idea for the adaptation came about. As he put it:

“The game was brought to us in 2005 by Papaya Studios, an external developer.  Majesco picked up the game and invested approximately $2.5 MM in the title. Once the game was signed, I immediately reached out to Mark Caplan (Sony Pictures), to secure the rights to the film license. I negotiated a deal and Majesco signed the licensing, making the game an officially licensed Taxi Driver game.”

In a move that would somewhat resemble the video game adaptation of Scarface, the main story of Taxi Driver would pick up after the ending of the film. However, while Scarface presented a “what if” scenario for its narrative that left the source material largely undisturbed, Taxi Driver would effectively be a direct sequel to the film.

For the uninitiated, in it we follow Travis Bickle: a disturbed and antisocial Vietnam War veteran, played by Robert De Niro, who works nights as a cab driver in New York City.  Throughout the movie, Travis’ sanity erodes as he not only deals with his own personal demons and frustrations, but with what he perceives to be the moral decay of society around him. This downward spiral culminates in a shootout, after which Travis seems to be hailed as a vigilante-like hero by the media and manages to avoid prosecution for his actions.

It is from this point that we would begin the second part of Travis’ story as told in the game. Although not many plot details were made public, we know that it was to revolve around Betsy, a woman that Travis becomes infatuated with and fails to court in the events of the movie. When she is murdered by the mob, Travis is driven to go on another vengeful rampage across New York City, which the player would be able to freely explore when not in story missions.

As a matter of fact, Papaya Studio’s vision for the game was one that very much resembled the formula popularized by Grand Theft Auto a few years before, with an open world and the ability to engage in side content. Travis’ cab driving job was an activity available to the player, which we could speculate would resemble what had been done previously in Mafia in 2002, or possibly a much less over-the-top take on Crazy Taxi.

Gamestop was able to play an early demo of Taxi Driver at E3 2005, and described the experience as resembling “Grand Theft Auto 3 without any police chases“. It seems that instead of the “wanted” system commonly seen in games of the type, Papaya had Taxi Driver simply trigger a game over if the player was to bring a certain, or possibly any, number of innocents to harm.

From the footage of the game that was made available in 2005, we could also see a significant focus on the third-person shooting aspect of the game. Although many of the animations still appeared to display the roughness of an early alpha build, Travis seemed to be able to wield weapons in each hand, use the physics system to his advantage, and even dispatch enemies with long, violent executions that required the input of button combinations on the player’s part to perform. These scenes bear some resemblance to the infamous interrogation/execution feature in The Punisher, a video game that would also come out that year and would have received an extremely rare Adults Only rating from the ESRB had Volition not censored its scenes of violence.

Taxi Driver would no doubt be a dark final product, and Gamestop would also compliment Papaya on this, adding that the developer had “done a good job capturing the gritty, violent tone of the film”.

After the title was made official by Majesco, Dan even managed to cut one more deal in order to add another element of faithfulness to the fledgling title, news which ended up going surprisingly under the radar. According to him:

“After the game was signed with Sony, I reach out to my friend Seamus Blackley at CAA in hopes of getting Mr. De Niro signed to voice Travis Bickle. Through CAA I was able to meet in NYC with Jane Rosenthal, Mr. De Niro’s partner at Tribeca Productions. After six months of negotiations, Mr. De Niro finally agreed to provide limited VO for the character.”

Everything seemed in place for Taxi Driver, yet the news that a video game adaptation of such a classic and serious cinematic work was moving forward would not be received with a lot of excitement by certain parties. And, unfortunately, for Papaya and Majesco, some of these parties had quite a bit of influence.

It seems that both Martin Scorcese and Paul Schrader had now caught wind that their movie had become part of a deal for a “total entertainment experience”, as Sony described it, and for whatever reason, the two were on the move to stop it from becoming a reality. However, they soon found out that thirty years before, in order to get Taxi Driver made, they had signed away their rights to “all media, known and unknown, now and in the future” based on the property. This meant that officially, Scorcese and Schrader were powerless to stop the project. Unofficially, however, there was one card yet to play.

Dan Kitchen tells us about a call he got several months into the game’s development, shortly after Robert De Niro had been signed to provide voice work:

“I received a call from Mark (Caplan) stating that (…): “We received a call from Marty (Martin, Scorcese) today. He’s very unhappy with the licensing deal for Taxi Driver. He doesn’t want the film to be made into a video game. If you continue with the game he’ll make sure you never license another title in Hollywood.” I hung up the phone and went straight into the office of Jesse Sutton, Majesco’s President, and said (…) “Marty doesn’t want us to release Taxi Driver.  We have to cancel it today.””

And so, the death knell for the project had been rung. Majesco’s business model had a strong focus on big name licenses at the time, and it’s highly likely that they were not looking forward to angering someone that could make the task of acquiring them much harder, if not impossible, for the company.

In 2005, Robert De Niro had revealed in an interview that there had been talks of a Taxi Driver sequel with Scorcese attached to direct once more, and this could very well have been one of the reasons why he had gone to such lengths to stop a continuation of the story in video game form from happening. This is speculation, however.

Majesco would end up facing major financial trouble towards the end of 2005. Their two big releases for the summer of that year, Advent Rising and Psychonauts, had failed commercially, and this situation alone might have seen Taxi Driver cancelled as well, even if Scorcese’s interference had not been successful. Development on Demonik, another upcoming title in the Majesco catalog to be released in 2006, was also stopped and the company would soon announce their plans to shift towards a budget and handheld game focus going forward. It still exists today as an entertainment company, even after several structural changes including a merger with a biotech firm at one point.

Papaya Studio would sue Majesco for breach of contract in late 2005, likely over the sudden cancellation of Taxi Driver, and the latter would settle in 2007 for a sum of money and the transfer of video game assets developed under their contract over to Papaya. They would go on to release several titles based on licenses aimed toward children over the next few years before closing doors in 2013, never getting another shot at releasing what would have likely been their biggest game.

Article by thecursebearer

Thanks to Blue for the contribution!