Story mode in games and the removal of choice

I recently bought the latest instalment in the Madden series. This, of course, was my first mistake. Madden—and sports games in general—have been diminishing in quality over the last few years. In the very best of situations, each new release amounts to little more than a roster upgrade, or tweaking the stats of whichever player is on the cover for that year to make him look like a bonafide superstar, before he inevitably tears his ACL in training and never plays again. At the very worst, the developers overwrite the entire game engine and mechanics in an attempt to bring more ‘realism’ to the game, creating a bug-filled mass of code that translates to a player tripping over his own shadow when another mass of code circles around nearby.

The biggest issue with sports games is, naturally, the single-player mode. Outside of becoming a Twitch streamer and shouting at my webcam every five seconds to impress a sad state of supporters whom I would quite rightly spit on if I passed them in the street, there is very little to do. Head-to-head with the AI gets very old, very fast; besides, it is often the case that the AI is so unbalanced (thanks to that engine overhaul) that players act either like they’ve sustained one too many head injuries or they represent the next stage in human evolution, making twenty-foot high leaps from a standing start.

To remedy this and to keep interested those who have no wish to throw away their dignity by shouting at a camera, game developers over the past few years have seemingly gone down the cinematic route with the introduction of Story Mode, a game-cum-interactive movie where the player follows the career of a player from youth to Big Breakthrough and beyond. As an added incentive to play this mode, the game locks certain rewards behind each chapter: complete chapter 2 and you can wear the Manchester United kit famously worn in the 1899/1900 season, sit through chapter 3 and you can add half a point to the skill tree of your created player, those kinds of things.

What the developers forgot to add, though, is the gameplay. What you get instead is a story several hours long where you get to watch bad actors deliver bad dialogue while occasionally there is a cameo from whichever ‘star’ was hanging around the studio on that particular day. At some point in between the ‘story’ there will be some gameplay, which tends to amount to a training session or a substitute appearance in some big match, before the next thirty minutes returns to the norm of sitting through tripe while these actors contemplate what their acting careers could have been. 

Worse than that, the stories often make no sense: it is as if there is a need for a dramatic hook at the end of each chapter to entice the player to carry on with the terrible plot; and, in my opinion, the biggest offender for the most illogical plot is Fifa ’17’s The Journey. In The Journey, you, the player, follow the story of Alex Hunter, a third-generation footballer who wins a contract with a team (you pick the team but the team itself is irrelevant to the plot) as he tries to make a name for himself in the footballing world. In a mirror journey, Gareth Walker, Alex Hunter’s best friend since childhood, is also signed by that same club, making them rivals for playing time

It is a basic story in many senses, friends become enemies as envy and competition takes over, and is one that should be almost impossible to get wrong. Yet somehow the writers manage to do it. Throughout the story, or at least the early stages, it is Walker, not Hunter, who is considered the superior talent and the superior prospect. It is Walker who ‘gets the nod’ to start the first game of the season; and it is Walker’s performances which ultimately lead to Hunter being sent out on loan. In a logical scenario, one in which the writers were paying attention to what they were writing, this would cause Hunter to either feel resentment towards his childhood friend for outshining him. Instead, it is Walker who begins to despite Hunter. There is no reason given for this and, as this information is given almost entirely to the player via the Social Media tab of your menu, which itself is filled with all manner of information, it is easy to miss if you are simply going from game to game without scanning each message. Even when you do pay attention, the building resentment is done via such innocuous snipes as ‘I could do better than Hunter’; it’s not exactly trying to break your teammate’s leg in training. Eventually, Hunter is recalled from his loan, after Walker, now in contention for an England call-up due to his form, forces through a move to a bigger club. Again, logic leaves the room. Walker seemingly forgets that the reason he is leaving the club is because he has demanded it and instead goes on to berate Hunter over his role in ‘forcing’ Walker out of the club. After yet more social media barbs, the writers decide that the two should be friends again so Walker apologises, making the whole thing rather pointless. It’s all the more pointless as it is a conflict in why you cannot get directly involved. The player can shape Hunter’s personality, but this is limited to giving ‘cocky’, ‘cool’ or ‘balanced’ answers in interviews, which only effect Hunter’s reputation with social media and the manager, neither of which amount to anything more than whether or not you unlock a new reward slightly earlier in the story. As said, the snipes are given out of story, mostly in the social media tab, to which you cannot reply in any case probably because EA doesn’t want to implement player’s getting fined for historical homophobic or racist comments.

To give The Journey some credit, allowing the player to dictate whether Hunter is a cocky prick or an aloof prick is more of an involvement in the story than is offered by Madden’s Longshot or NBA’s Livin’ Da Dream, the latter of which goes out of its way to mock you with its lack of choice. In Livin’ Da Dream, a story conceived by Spike Lee, in which you follow Zero Frequency, a BB phenom from the streets of Harlem, you are apparently living out Lee’s fantasy rather than trying to incorporate your own. Zero is given the option of nine (there are over 350 college teams in Division I alone) colleges to join. Each offer comes with a recruitment spiel from the college about its history, the alumni, the style of play and so on. After listening to them all I chose UCLA, for the chance to join the winningest (‘successful’ died in the voyage to the New World apparently) franchise in college history and to wear the same jersey as legendary commercial airline pilot Roger Murdock. On choosing this team, I was placed into a cutscene where Zero announces his reason for joining UCLA as wanting to sunbathe on Californian beaches. That was not my reason. At no point did virtually sunbathing on a virtual beach ever enter my mind for wanting to play for UCLA. I don’t know what happened in the story after that because I refused to play any further. If Spike Lee wanted to make a movie where a young him goes to UCLA and lies on a beach, then he should have made that movie. Don’t write a script for a game offering the player a choice to do something only to ignore that decision in favour of your own.

Poor writing and terrible acting aside, these story-centric modes have had the knock-on effect of diminishing the career modes that were already pre-existing within the games. I can recall wasting hundreds of hours in my teenage years sat in a friend’s bedroom playing the latest instalment of Madden Superstar mode, crafting our very own superstar. We would decide if he was a media darling or a TO-type diva, his appearance, did he have tattoos or not, how many endorsements he had, if he was loyal to those who helped him from day one or if he was always in search of bigger and better, whether he would spend his off-season acting or training.

Each option brought us deeper into the game, thinking hard about the decision we were about to make, going so far as to think of the player’s history to justify why we were making the choice we were making, and each additional option made us want to carry on playing over and over, creating new characters and making the opposite choices. With the new story modes I cannot do that. Alex Hunter and Zero Frequency already have their backstories established. All my involvement amounts to is to decide on what number they wear on their jersey. It’s hard to care about that.

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