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Sports Gaming And the Art of Storytelling

Sports Gaming And the Art of Storytelling

Video games didn't begin as a medium for narratives. Within the last decade, you would be hard pressed to find games without a story or character arc.

Even sports games, which long neglected story telling before the likes of Fight Night, have come around. NBA 2K16 boasted one of the most discussed narratives in all of video games just last year. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that EA is testing the waters with its most popular franchise, FIFA.

As video games are presented with a wider variety of options, due to upgraded technology and platforms, game modes are beginning to expand in ways we haven't seen before. When a game takes advantage of it, we wind up with complex game modes like NBA 2K's "MyLeague" or MLB: The Show's franchise mode, which includes a hoard of statistics, scouting and league-wide updates. What if that same kind of effort went into a narrative?

NBA 2K16's MyCAREER mode.

With games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 selling millions of units a piece, and each attached with strong storytelling and role-playing elements, it's not a coincidence that both EA and 2K are dabbling in narrative-focused modes. They certainly possess the power to do so without sacrificing attention in other modes, as shown in NBA 2K16, but watching the response from fans continues to be interesting.

Most who played through the story mode, which was designed by acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee, wound up feeling indifferent about it. Whether or not 2K will take a shot at creating another narrative experience when such apathy has already taken a hold remains to be seen, but FIFA 2017 seems to be the next sports game ready to take on the challenge.

We didn't get a lot of information out of EA's E3 trailer for FIFA's story mode, but the mode seems flush with cinematic cutscenes, professional acting and narrative juice. It's easy to believe they're putting a lot of effort into it, but what would it take for the mode to really appeal to its players?

Fight Night Champion

One thing that sports stories continue to ignore is the rising popularity of role-playing narratives along the lines of Telltale's slew of narrative-focused games. Gamers want to have influence. Without influence, we're watching a film or a show, and given that budgets are often a lot tighter, acting is less profound, and the overall direction and storytelling isn't quite as tight as any other storytelling mediums, it's imperative that developers catch on.

So is that where FIFA is headed? It's not likely, at least not yet. Most of the scenes looked canned and there was no real talk of player choice or influence at the conference. Though EA has promised (in its description of the mode) that your decisions and performance matter, we'll have to see it before we believe it. A lack of consequence for poor play would certainly mitigate the immersion of role playing as Alex Hunter (the game's protagonist). This doesn't mean that a narrative can't be well crafted, but can it find a way to engage its player in the experience?

Giving the player autonomy over a narrative experience is certainly an interesting way to tell a story, but it can't be done at half-measure. For story modes similar to FIFA's, developers have to give the players true influence. Performance and perhaps even narrative decisions, need to matter. If not, the fall of storytelling in sports gaming may be just as quick as its rise.

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