The RPG Scrollbars: A Questline Of Sport

God, I hate sport. In other news, let’s talk sport! The fate of any successful game or genre is to be picked apart for reusable pieces, until it’s hard to remember a time when they owned it. Adventure games for instance began as one of the few genres with interesting stories and conversations and characters, before slowly being absorbed into RPGs, which now routinely offer much of the same experience minus the puzzles but with the option to shoot people in the face if they annoy you. In turn, sports games – FIFA 17 most recently – are increasingly turning their attention to RPGs to see what they might be able to add. Sadly, no sign of frost mages and dragon-based pitch invasions. Yet.

Before anyone says it, yes, even I know that sports games have long had an RPG element, ranging from the basic nature of the characters with their conveniently numbered statistics to dedicated career modes, to the early games that tried to put you into the mindset of a manager or player by giving you a skeuomorphic desk with a phone to chat to people with and your own cup of coffee for elevenses, to more modern games like New Star Soccer letting you guide a player from lower leagues to the top of the pack and then blow your money on booze and gambling.

What’s different about a few recent mainstream games is how much that side has been cranked up. It started with 2K’s NBA series and its MyCAREER mode, which reached new heights in NBA 2k16 by being directed by David Cage. No, wait. Spike Lee. Yes, that Spike Lee. I don’t know why I thought of David Cage. It probably has something to do with an opening featuring Lee pretending to direct a goofed scene, only to yell ‘SHAZAM!’, be turned into a dodgy looking 3D version of himself, and introduce the Virtual You – a new NBA phenomenon called ‘Freq’. As in ‘Frequency Vibrations’. As in ‘Oh dear…’

“This is Living Da Dream,” he promises, ushering in a well-meaning but distinctly awkward two or so hour movie in which Freq spends a lot of time gurning at people. It’s your average rags to riches tale of someone finding success and losing what got them there in the first place, only most of the characters are awful leeches upon Freq’s wallet, not to mention prone to delivering toe-curling lines like “I don’t know what you call dis lil’tirade. It spreads like some Welch’s grape jelly. Are you jealous?”

Oooooh, burn.

This wasn’t really an RPG though, in that the story just played out regardless of how you played the game. It’s broken up, it’s scattered throughout the game, but ultimately you may as well just watch the video. It’s not your call whether or not Freq finally buys his parents a house to get them out of the Projects, or whether you eject toxic best friend Vic from your social circle. He deserves it, purely for his ‘FOF’ baseball cap – FOF standing for Friend Of Freq. Oh, to throw it out of the car window.

It’s not even a particularly interesting movie. “It was all ’bout livin the dream, not knowin’ there would be some nightmares,” Freq finally decides, while the player looks for any particular directorial quality from having Lee’s name on the project.

But of course, most genre mash-ups start pretty basic, with the exception of Quest for Glory. This year both NBA and FIFA 17 have their own story modes, with NBA’s MyCareer being a much more general ascent to greatness rather than a chance to have a bit part in Spike Lee’s dullest Joint. This time around you’re “Prez”, a hot pick college player looking to make it big, with the action broken up between on-court stuff and handling business off-court, like attending launches and events, and getting disappointed messages from your mother for poor performance. And possibly happy ones for good performance. For various reasons, I wouldn’t know.

Though, really – Pres? Sure he’s not just Veep?

It’s a cool use of a mobile phone as a way of interacting with the rest of the world though, with texts allowing a natural reason to restrict options to just a couple of options, and I like the goofy little interactions between Prez and his best friend, like wagering a bottle of the product placement… sorry, of Gatorade… on the outcome of playing a computer game. Probably not Fifa 17. Just a hunch.

Fifa 17 meanwhile follows more of an NBA 2K16 type story, where EA’s long-standing motto “It’s In The Game” is upgraded with “Specifically, Mass Effect”. Its story is called The Journey, and it is… waaaaaaaaaaait for it… the rags to riches tale of a young footballer hoping to make it big in the world of professional things with balls. Once again, it’s a pretty linear affair, with cut-scenes showing up after big matches as main character Alex Hunter advances, and with the Mass Effect dialogue wheel to pick what you say at various points and boost stats. Are you going to go for personal glory, or be a team player? Honestly it doesn’t matter that much, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to decide, right?

The first time I had a press interview, I looked to see if there was a Renegade interrupt that would let me headbutt the interviewer.

There was not.

I confess to being Disappointed. Almost as disappointed as I was aamused that the pre-recorded barks in both games continued to talk about my character as a high flier, even when they were just standing on their own at the wrong end of the court, because that seemed the best way to avoid being thrown the ball and risk losing the game for the team. This incidentally is the only thing I ever learned about any sport back in school, but I’d point out that it served me very well when avoiding playing rugby.

Simple as these modes are mechanically, they are an interesting attempt to go beyond boring sport and offer something more interesting. The catch is that I’m not sure how interesting a story a licensed product is realistically likely to be able to offer. I’d personally love it for instance if Prez’ rise to power ended up with him not as a great basketball player, but the Scarface of black market Gatorade suppliers. Certainly I don’t imagine Fifa 18: The Journey spending much time poking into the dark side of the FIFA organisation, or being the story of one man’s descent into drugs and floozies, as much fun as that could be. The only real story to be told is the rags to riches story of someone maybe with a few dodgy friends or who makes some poor decisions.

Conceptually though, they’re still interesting additions, and a cool example of familiar mechanics fitting nicely into another genre. Even when it’s just basic conversation, that degree of power over how you interact with characters and steer your path adds so much to the experience. In a year or two, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these modes go all the way to be actual sports RPGs. They’re already built with the fidelity that we’d expect from a AAA outing. All that’s needed is the breadth, the choice, and a story worth telling. Even without that though, the sheer personality of a team on the road to glory could be enough – much as Wing Commander used these basic mechanics to build connections between pilots back in the early 90s. Sometimes an over-wrought story really is too much. Case in point, every bloody fighting game that wants to be a war for the future of the world rather than enjoying the potential of a tournament.

Who knows, in a few years perhaps we’ll even see one of these modes get so advanced that it can stand alone as an RPG. I’d like that, if only as a symbol of how much more RPGs can be than monster killing and loot finding. Even relatively small diversions from the norm like a Planescape (without much combat) or an Alpha Protocol (playing in spy-world instead of a dungeon) can be a great palette cleanser. The idea of a truly good, flexible story built around something like football or basketball instead of bloody Blitzball… it could have merits, as well as providing enough ideas of its own to bleed back and make the more conventional RPGs more interesting. A new focus on the party as teammates for instance, or simply extrapolating into a Blood Bowl type situation where the real-world limitations don’t have to be so oppressive. A chance to prove that what the beautiful game really needs is dragons in the goal and a striker with an axe. The RPG equivalent of those Harry Potter books with adult covers so that even the most devout warlock playing wouldn’t feel like a genre traitor at knowing that there’s more than one Michael Jordan and only one of them appeared in Space Jam.

Maybe I’d even play that. Maybe…

But only if it really, really didn’t feel too much like sports.

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8 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    The first RPG sport game i think i ever played was ‘On The Ball’ a World Cup Footie Management game on the Amiga. Although you picked the team on the field, you had to continually deal with all the issues of the players off the field, they were a mixed bag of party animals, people who just wanted to be picked for a match and others who got dumped by their girlfriends and were depressed.

    The thing that amazes me, is that even games like Blood Bowl don’t have an RPG side to the team management either, just a bunch of stats off the pitch.

    I hear Motorsport Manager has more of those elements coming up, and the recent F1 games have a career mode, but again, it’s really not about different situations to deal with, just a bunch of specific goals to achieve.

  2. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Fourth pic from the bottom looks like an awkward conversation at the urinals.

    I think we’ve seen the RPG become increasingly divorced from monsters, loot, and even combat altogether (although here we enter that grey and hazy territory of “what is an RPG”). As someone who considers stats completely inconsequential to the genre, I’d say that Life is Strange, with its emphasis on choice and consequence and heavy use of interactive dialogue, is more RPG than adventure game. Undertale is another recent example that can be played without fighting anything, and you could probably also add Sometimes Always Monsters and Stardew Valley to that list. I think it’s safe to say that RPGs haven’t relied on combat to define them
    for some time.

    What’s interesting about games like FIFA 17 isn’t so much that they don’t use the same settings and tropes that we’ve come to expect, but that they apply familiar mechanics to a game aimed at an entirely different audience entirely (or perhaps the devs think that the story mode will somehow attract RPG fans to their sports title, which is just sad). It feels like a symptom of the wider acceptance and occasional fetishization of the geek subculture rather than any sort of real growth for the genre.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Used entirely twice in the same sentence. Angry face.

      Why hasn’t “No edit button” ascended to meme status yet?

      Time for coffee.

    • Sizeable Dirk says:

      I think that defining RPG thing has been a lost cause for a while, and about as useful as “shooter”.

      In the early days when the computer geeks who played DnD in their AFK-time naturally started emulating the same abstract PnP rules in software, games that were significantly different from the space shooters, arcade games etc back then.

      The PnP rules are simulating a world by imagining things and rolling some dice for probability but computer games are broadly doing the same thing in real-time.
      With powerful hardware and more sophisticated simulation and everything becomes an “RPG” when you allow some player agency, even without the overt RPG tropes.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      ‘What’s interesting about games like FIFA 17 isn’t so much that they don’t use the same settings and tropes that we’ve come to expect, but that they apply familiar mechanics to a game aimed at an entirely different audience entirely (or perhaps the devs think that the story mode will somehow attract RPG fans to their sports title, which is just sad). It feels like a symptom of the wider acceptance and occasional fetishization of the geek subculture rather than any sort of real growth for the genre.’

      Good point. It also feels like a bit of an attempt to appeal to a less imaginative audience.

      Story-telling in games has always been best when it’s maintained a balance between the story the developers want to tell and the story the players want to create for themselves.

      Since The Walking Dead (or maybe Mass Effect) we’ve seen a lot more developers eschewing this in order to try to push set choice-based decisions as a creative story-telling device.

      I think it’s a way of making games more like TV shows and ergo more dramatic but it can feel really weak with a poor plot.

  3. aircool says:

    I’m having fun with ‘The Journey’. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it is fun and for once, your destiny isn’t totally in your hands. It also serves as a good tutorial for the game. I just wish that for the trials, you could just play as Alex rather than the whole team, mostly because I never play as the whole team.

    If you don’t like sport, there’s always games like Rocket League, which is still a sports game, but nothing like you had to suffer at school or annoy you in pubs on a saturday afternoon.

    I like FIFA 17, but then again, I’m a huge fan of football and sport in general. More RPG elements are welcome, and I guess you could have the option to headbutt the interviewer, but you’d just end up getting sacked and sent to jail, so what would be the point?

    Although I do like the idea of being able to headbutt journalists without any consequences.

  4. SWOne says:

    I would love to see an RPG version of the Bloodbowl novels, which followed a journeyman team going to various places to play Bloodbowl against big name teams, but of course having to deal with a bunch of fantasy adventures on the way. Maybe an Oregon Trail style of game where you have to get your team and their support staff through the wilds of the Old World, with Big Games in the cities along the way giving you new recruits, supplies to bolster your team and fans to support you on your way…

  5. -Spooky- says:

    I miss Madden and NHL puns on PC :/