A Reaction To FIFA 17’s Story Mode, or “Why I Miss Ace Combat, Damn It”

aaaThis year, FIFA has a story mode. It’s fine. The story is incredibly basic, the presentation is overwrought and draws on all of my least favourite trends in modern filmmaking, but it’s mostly competent and provides a nice structure to the game of Playing The Football for those of us unwilling to sell off our belongings and invest heavily in virtual trading cards. Fans of the genre. 7/10.

It’s nothing to write home about, much less an article about, but the entire time I played I couldn’t shake the feeling that this mode could be a lot better in the future, if only they’d learn some storytelling lessons from Ace Combat.

Ace Combat 6 is a masterclass in how to draw a narrative throughline through a game that has very little explicit narrative in its mission design. There are big moments that occur in missions (re-taking Gracemeria, the night-time stealth run, the final boss), but for the most part the missions involve loading a map and taking out the required number of targets until the bar fills and you can fly on home. The bulk of the narrative is delivered through cutscenes which follow civilian characters, placing your war into a wider human context, and in-mission dialogue, which place your individual actions within a single battle into a wider military context. You – Garuda 1 – are never given a name or voice, and your actions are rarely commented on beyond which army is winning the battle. The guiding principle of each and every narrative element is to make you feel as if you are part of something bigger.

FIFA 17: The Journey (yes, it’s really called that) is the exact opposite, in every single way. Major beats are delivered within cutscenes, but narrative texture is built through the commentary team within the match. If you play badly, the commentary team say you have been playing badly. If you have a fight with your friend, the commentary film say you have had a fight with your friend. If a team-mate scores, the commentary team… say the exact stock thing they say when anyone else scores. It belies an incredibly myopic worldview, prevalent within western AAA game design, where narrative is little more than a way to re-enforce the fact that the player has absoloute agency over the world. You do a thing, the game says “wow, they did a thing,” and this is known as immersion.

It’s a real shame, because the approach ultimately feels dishonest not just to the story but the concept of the game as a whole. Football is a team sport, and tying this to a narrative in which The Player rules supreme and their every action has consequence, makes about as much sense as West Brom beating Real Madrid. (Which they did. In their third game. In a packed stadium in Seattle.)

All that said, I’m glad that Sports Games are beginning to experiment with narrative. I’d play them a heck of a lot more if they just shoved a well written visual novel in there a la Dancing All Night. But given that they by far represent the most successful genre of game that isn’t centred around a combination of violence and individual acquisition, it would be a shame for their storytelling to fall into all the same, sad traps.

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