WHY I LOVE
The MassEffectification of FIFA worked better than I could have ever hoped.
When FIFA 17’ s story mode was announced, the response was mostly mockery. Will there be Renegade and Paragon options for post-match interviews? (Yes). Will it end with a ‘suicide match’ with the characters you’ve met? (No). Yet when I actually gave it a try, it ended up being one of the most unusual and innovative stories I’ve ever played.
Let’s set the tone: The game begins with you, Alex Hunter, as a ten-yearold boy playing soccer in the park. After winning or losing the match, Alex goes back to his tiny, pokey house, and distracts himself playing keepie ups while his parents argue downstairs. This is not the kind of scene I’ve ever encountered in a videogame before. It’s more akin to Eastenders than Mass Effect.
There’s a reason for this: The story is set across a full season of Premier League soccer, and Alex can sign for any team in the division. Because of this, there’s no way FIFA can tell a traditional underdog sports story, after all I might be playing for an awful team and lose a lot. Instead, they’re forced to make a story about human drama. Mostly about Alex’s relationship with his best friend Gareth. They both sign for the same team (whichever one you choose), but Gareth is initially more successful, and the fame and media adulation slowly go to his head, leading him to demand a transfer (and also subtweet Alex on the in-game Twitter).
Gareth isn’t the only NPC injected into a real soccer roster, there’s also two veterans, Gallo and Bernard, who mentor you in whatever team you sign up for. Then there’s Danny, a fellow youngster playing for whichever lower league team Alex gets loaned out to. When you first encounter him at your tryout session, he’s a swaggering prick who is convinced he’s headed for the big time. He pops up again once Alex gets loaned out, but not making it to the top level has humbled Danny, and he slowly comes to replace the distant Gareth as Alex’s new closest friend. He’s still self aggrandising, but now it feels like a joke you’re in on, rather than a one-dimensional cocksure swagger. It’s not easy to create a likeable character with these traits, and yet somehow Danny became a personal favorite of mine.
At other times the cracks in the real-world/fiction artifice show. Since none of FIFA’s recreations of real-life coaches are voiced, you only talk to their assistant, while a silent Arsene Wenger looks on in the background. At a certain point, your team will make a big money transfer for a player, which can result in the spectacle of James Rodriguez moving from Real Madrid to Middlesbrough.
There’s also little nuggets of procedural narrative lurking around. When I was near the top of the table, players suddenly started talking about a title challenge. Picking a team that had qualified for the Champions League got me a talk from the Assistant Coach about how different European soccer is. If I’d done poorly, would that story have instead pivoted to a desperate relegation battle?
My season ended perfectly, with Alex playing in the final of the FA Cup against Gareth. This finale is semi-planned, Gareth’s team will always make it to the final, and Alex doesn’t play in the first few rounds, so his team can progress. Yet there was still the possibility I could’ve lost the whole thing, ruining the fairytale.
Next year’s FIFA is confirmed to carry on Alex’s story, and I hope they continue this weird experiment. Perhaps they could lean even more on the fictional side, I would honestly be happy if Alex played for a team staffed entirely by NPCs. Yet regardless of which direction they go in, it’s worth going back to FIFA 17 and sampling his first story. Yes, for the first time ever, an out-of-date FIFA game is worth buying.
LEFT: Games are interspersed with training. Perform well to increase Alex’s stats and impress the coach.