Once again, Alex Hunter nervously chuckles and looks up at the character in front of him, with his shy puppy eyes. I softly scoff at his mild mannered demeanour and push down the thumb stick on my Xbox controller, hoping in vain I’d able to just walk away from the scene. But Alex can’t be controlled off the pitch apart from choosing answers in the dialogue wheel. Young master Hunter is a trendy boy: tight shirt, dog tags around his neck, woollen beanie. Alex is a typical 2016 teenager and millennial in some ways, but way too tight lipped and moderate in most instances. Most of all though he is a seventeen year old Londoner, thrown into a crazy world of media, money and fierce competition.
FIFA 17’s story mode “The Journey” is EA’s first attempt at adding a narrative to FIFA and it doesn’t do a half bad job at showing the life behind the limelight of top tier football.
“Alex Hunter is just a kid like you!”, is what they are trying to convey. And in some ways that’s true. His sense of wonder, naivety and sincere amazement at things like a new apartment or a cool sponsorship deal. Except, he is such extremely boring kid and virtually has no personality. Most telling is the way he seamlessly adjusts to the stereotypical image of football players that have absolutely nothing to say during press interviews. Apart from the derivative clichés they blurt out in front of the camera.
“It was a team effort, we just do what the coach says, we are glad to grab three points, you have to be focused every match… bla bla bla bla bla…”
EA Canada deserves a thumbs up though, for implementing a story mode in their legendary football game series. They certainly didn’t do a bad job. The acting, cinematography and plot are decent enough. Bursting at the seams with tropes and clichés, but okay, that has its charm. Football with all its international allure, clash of cultures and high society living is very suitable for a drama filled story, so in a way it’s surprising FIFA hadn’t done it before. The Journey, flawed as it is, hopefully is a kick-off to more of such modes in the future.
Idiots, Drunks and Showboats
My biggest complaint about The Journey is that it is so damn conservative. The story always plays it safe; Alex Hunter is a sweet innocent cinnamon roll. He is impressionable and insecure, good natured and hard working. He gets into arguments with his friends, has a granddad who doesn’t get all the hype and commercialism of modern football, a loving mother and (as every proper trope-ridden sports story needs) an estranged father. Alex never acts out, gets offensive or destructive. You can pick “fiery” answers in the dialogue-wheel that make him a little cocky, but it never gets out of hand.
The problem with Alex Hunter is, that he is forgettable. Nobody will care about him in the long run. He is not going to be nominated for any greatest characters in videogames competitions. And that ultimately makes “The Journey” a slightly boring, forgettable story with nothing unexpected happening. What the game needs is a truly memorable character. A weird bag, a truly unique, goofy dude with his own style and sense of humour. The Journey tries to build an interesting story around a sport from which we usually only see the polished, marketing heavy and television friendly front-end. Then why the hell go with an overly good and gallant boy that does exactly what the PR manager wants?
Who are some of the most memorable footballers in the English Premier League? Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, George Best, Vinnie Jones. We remember the idiots, the media clowns and showboats. Those guys, the dated celebrities, said brilliant, unique things in front of the camera and offended some people because they didn’t give a fuck. People loved them and remembered them because they didn’t stick to the rules. Guys that were brash, awkward or out of control. And it’s not like videogames have a problem or lack of experience with memorable, over the top and peculiar story telling.
Power Fantasies, Romance and Scandals
It started with a comment from my wife who was looking over my shoulder as I played the game. She often scoffed and sarcastically quipped at the media-training-laden answers that Hunter can give during interviews.
“Too bad you can’t just completely fly off the handle, y’know? Go completely mad and insult everyone. Just speak your mind.”
I agreed, and together we fantasised how much more fun it would be if, in true Mass Effect style (also an EA game, after all) you could be a complete jerk and give the most rude, crass and wacky responses.
“And it’s so boring that it’s only about football”, my wife added. “Why can’t he discover some corruption plot or something? Dirty politics, match fixing, gambling scandals?”
She is right, of course. We play videogames because we want to escape the daily grind and the conformist world we function in all the time. We want dirt, romance and adventure. Maybe some people from BioWare should get get their hands on The Journey. Maybe apart from just another training session, they’d give Alex Hunter actual romance options. I say at least five: your coach, that handsome teammate, the sexy reporter, the chairwoman or that photo-model always hanging out at the skybox seats.
Make Alex Hunter 27 instead of 17. Not an innocent, unspoilt boy but a experienced, slightly jaded but nevertheless likeable guy. Right now you can choose between “cold”, “fiery” or “balanced” answers during dialogue. Why not let us choose between “Kind”, “Rude” or “Wacky” instead? Let the madness roll!
“You scored the winning goal today. What’s going through your head?”
- “It was a beauty, right?! I feel great!”
- “Jaysus, is that the best you can come up with? Ask me normal question or fuck off!”
- “Oh, there’s is so much going on in my head! It’s probably not all PG though!”
Choice and Consequence
As said before; The Journey is not bad. It’s a decent effort for a first try and it has potential, especially with the new generation of consoles, to become a solid cinematic experience. It needs more meaningful choices and ways to truly shape your character though. For example the game shows your earnings after every match, but you can’t do anything with it. You can’t buy a house or a car, get a haircut or order an escort girl. You can’t send it to your poor family or invest in a project for inner city youth or waste it all on booze and cocaine.
A colleague reminded me of New Star Soccer. An old game about the life and career of a football star. It included the options to gamble, drink and buy sport cars. It sounds wacky and more like a comedy segment. But in all honesty; isn’t that what a big part of this lifestyle of professional football is all about? Young people with way too much money and their responsibility of spending it? I would like to decide if Alex Hunter buys three Ferraris and goes clubbing in London or gives all his money to charity. And how will this influence and his achievements? Apart from a skill-tree we probably would need stats for happiness and popularity too. Go out late drinking will crash your stamina and focus bar, but increase your happy meter. Fans will love you if you say crazy things on TV, meaning you get more sponsorship deals, hear your name being chanted and get more attention in the media. But other players might hate you and the club will prefer you to be more of an example to youngsters.
The Journey is a fun, interesting new addition to the FIFA games. But, c’mon EA. Try to be a bit more adventurous with it, will ya?