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?”
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.