FIFA 17’s The Journey: Imperfect, but EA could be onto something really special if they stick with it
With the news that FIFA 18 will see the return of The Journey, it seemed like a good time to revisit my experience with Season One. Sadly the next season will continue Alex Hunter’s story – which is fine, but betrays a certain lack of creative thinking. Here’s my view on what they did right, and what they should have done with FIFA 18:
Before I was employed full-time to write words publically, the majority of my words weren’t intended for public consumption. Those words were written for artists and coders as a games producer: my twenties included five years working on Flash games.
Although a million miles away from the hothouse production of AAA console game production (games were typically made by 1-3 people, and average costs were in the low thousands of pounds), it did mean that for a while, I couldn’t look at a game without puzzling on the myriad moving parts that made it possible. I played all the way through Duke Nukem Forever, not out of any kind of enthusiasm for the gameplay, but pure curiosity as to how a game with such a troubled development history could possibly hold together.
I hadn’t thought about game production in quite a while, but these thoughts have unexpectedly resurfaced thanks to FIFA 17. Specifically, its story mode: The Journey. I see in that little gem the same limitations I was working against for years, and it’s pleasing to see that publishers with seven-figure development budgets bump their heads against the same ceilings as those of us who were under pressure never to break five figures.
“It’s pleasing to see that publishers with seven-figure development budgets bump their heads against the same ceilings as those of us who were under pressure never to break five figures”
Let me step back a little. I was the games producer on a website called Mousebreaker, that specialised in Flash football games. One of our biggest hits was a game called Jumpers for Goalposts (JFGP), a game where you take on the role of a footballer, trying to get to bigger and better clubs over the span of your ten-season career. I took on production duties for the third, fourth and fifth games in the series, as well as the nostalgia-tinged nineties spin-off (in-game news came via Teletext). I oversaw the introduction of foreign leagues (via a micro-transaction, natch), training, dealing with agents, international call-ups, random events, and a whole bunch of footballing puns every time you visited the in-game cinema (“Three Men and a Little Bebé” was a particular highlight).
Which all sounds remarkably similar to FIFA 17’s The Journey, albeit without the limitations of being a free Flash game stuck in a web browser, and with a fully realised football engine built around it. Hats off to EA for adding this mode, when they could have stuck to their tried-and-tested regular money-making formula, but I can tell you from the consistent enthusiasm of JFGPs’ fans (“when is JFGP 4 coming out?” every week) that such a dose of escapism was a guaranteed home run – at the risk of mixing my sporting metaphors (we had a baseball series too, but it was never quite as popular).
“The mode, ultimately, was awkwardly held between the tension of being your story to make while rigidly forcing you to stay on rails until you reached the ending it had planned for you all along”
I completed The Journey this weekend, and enjoyed it for the most part. It was fairly bluntly written at times (the storyline was signposted so clearly that any upcoming twists were visible from space), but my main bugbear was that the mode was so obsessed with getting you to its pre-scripted final chapter, it wouldn’t let you create your own fairy-tale moments. It had low points, sure, but they were only low points in the same way that Disney films warn of “mild peril” in the ratings box: mild turbulence on the way to the guaranteed happy ending payout. The mode, ultimately, was awkwardly held between the tension of being your story to make while rigidly forcing you to stay on rails until you reached the ending it had planned for you all along.
[Spoilers follow here on in. If you’re still playing FIFA 17: The Journey, it’s probably best to come back later.]
In a nutshell, this is the storyline. You play Alex Hunter, a skillful young footballer with a famous footballing grandfather (who says nepotism isn’t helpful?) who makes his way into the Premiership alongside his lifelong friend, Gareth Walker. You end up at the same club as him, at which point he supercedes you and grows increasingly distant and arrogant, while Harry Kane is heavy-handedly drafted in to phone in about 15 words of monotone dialogue. After limited substitute appearances, you’re farmed out on loan to a top Championship club and find your feet, becoming besties with your former arch-enemy in the process. You’re recalled when Gareth quits the club and joins your arch-rivals. You start playing really well, and eventually end up facing him in the FA Cup final while he constantly badmouths you. The story mode abruptly ends with you getting an England call-up.
Here’s the thing: MY Alex Hunter wouldn’t have gone back to Watford after his loan period. He was loving life in Newcastle and wanted to make the move permanent. MY Alex Hunter also ended up on the losing side of the FA Cup Semi Final, but the game didn’t like that, essentially giving me a “Game Over, try again” message. MY Alex Hunter was left baffled when Gareth called him a bottler for not guiding Watford to the Premiership title (!), even though his Arsenal team finished just one place above us in fifth. In short, realism be damned – the game wants to tell a feelgood “against all odds” story, when the real magic of football is how these moments aren’t scripted: they just happen naturally over the 38 matches of a season. And sometimes the best moments aren’t winning: they’re when you narrowly lose, but pick yourself up to try again next time. The Journey doesn’t like those kind of life lessons. From reading a little more about it, it seems that the story is so rigid that you’ll be farmed out on loan even if you’re scoring bucketloads of goals each game.
But in my complaints, I can hear the same echos of what I used to hear from fans of JFGP. Always wanting more, not quite realising the sheer scale of what was achieved and how much of a technical marvel it was considering the limitations involved. In this instance, you imagine, the limitations aren’t technical, but political: a company reluctant to spend too much on an expensive new mode when the tried-and-tested formula sold perfectly well the first time.
“The limitations aren’t technical, but political: a company reluctant to spend too much on an expensive new mode when the tried-and-tested formula sold perfectly well the first time”
To allow that little fanboy inside me free reign for a moment, I dearly hope this isn’t a one-off, and they build on this: even if it’s as a future DLC. There are a million potential stories of footballers to tell, from the journeyman bouncing from club to club, to the faded pro getting his last outing before hanging up his boots. From workhorse centre-halfs to pacey supersub wingers. I want EA to tell all these stories, but – and it’s a big but – I want them to simply build the framework and leave the finer detail to the fans. They know the story they want to see, and the one-size-fits-all approach to titles and glories isn’t for everyone. Trust me, I know of what I speak: I say that as a die-hard Derby County fan.
With Jumpers for Goalposts, this kind of “make your own story” was what we ended up doing, and it worked well. People have the imagination to fill in the gaps themselves. Of course, we’d pretty much hit the limits of Flash by the last game I worked on in any case, and adding in the level of story scripting seen within FIFA would just be impossible. In fact, we needed to use some clever tricks to keep saved-game file sizes down, because the game was doing too damned much for the browser to cope with.
On console, however, football games have been treading water for years. Once you’ve simulated the pitch and the rules of the game, what else is there left to do that isn’t a new layer of window dressing? A genuinely open story mode is the next frontier, but the writers need to let go. I just hope that those with their hands on the purse strings choose to give them the chance, knowing full well that the series will continue to print money either way.