EA Sports has been lying to us. So has Sports Interactive. Although the Fifa and Football Manager titles are excellent games, they’re selling us a skewed vision of the authentic football experience. For them, sport is about mechanical detail, about authentic animation, licensed team names and accurate formations and tactics. But there is so much they don’t capture. And interestingly, that slack is now being taken up in the indie sector.
Look at New Star Soccer, the incredibly successful football game coded by just one programmer, Simon Read, and graphically, as basic as an old 8bit footie sim. What this ridiculously addictive game captures is the fantasy of the professional football experience – the girls, the vices, the fears and travails that orbit the sport itself. It is essentially a football RPG, like Inazuma Eleven before it, but with a level of graphical extraction that allows much of the action to take place within the imagination of the user.
And this is, in fact, much closer to the authentic experience of spectating sport. No fan simply watches a game of football; they live it and think it. Beyond the actions of 22 men on a patch of grass, kicking a ball around, there are sub-plots and stories; there are tribal affiliations, there are imagined slights and personal prejudices – the on pitch action is merely the manifestation of something much more profound and atavistic; it is about belonging and about the thrill of competition, and about the deep need to narrativise life. To make sense of everything. I don’t think Read necessarily went out to achieve this, but NSS, understands all that – it knows that the sport itself is secondary to the stuff going on around it – and in our heads.
This is the thing: football itself is simulation. Sport began thousands of years ago, when the domestication of farm animals and the urbanisation of major societies meant that primal skills such as hunting and raiding became obsolete – yet the instincts we needed to excel at those activities didn’t just go away. In Desmond Morris’ fascinating study of football, The Soccer Tribe, he talks about the roots of the sport – the football match as a ritual hunt, a status display, a stylised battle. The action on the pitch is representative, not enclosed; the emergence of football hooliganism and of sectarian violence surrounding age-old derbies is tragic testament to this – but then, on the positive side, so is the mass jubilation and the parading of victorious teams that follows a major cup or league victory.
Fifa creates an isolated, insular universe in which the pitch is everything and the supporters are there merely to provide background noise. In Football Manager, the sport becomes a series of rational decisions based on data and analysis. But as New Star Soccer shows, football is chaotic and irrational; the stats have to measure up against the psychological and even sexual demands of the players. Football Manager hints at this, but in the end the stats there always win. In New Star Soccer, a glamour model girlfriend can be as important to success as a finely threaded through-ball.
Meanwhile, Chromativity’s brilliant Fluid Football turns the sport into a real-time strategy game, isolating the key components of passing and shooting into a considered battle of wits. It’s ingenious because, like New Star Soccer, it taps into our experience of football as spectators rather than participants. Fluid Football represents and channels the televised sport with its post-match analysis and computerised reproductions of key moments; it’s about our need to rationalise and explore the game – and again, it does’t need amazing visuals to draw us into the excitement. It’s working on a deeper level.
New Star Soccer and Fluid Football are games of the imagination, like the old text-based adventures. But more than that, they understand how we think and talk about football. I’ve never heard games journalists TALK as much about a single football game as I have about New Star Soccer, and this is because it allows us to live out fantasies of professional play, and it invites communication. Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright, used to say that he wanted the atmosphere in the theatre to be like that of a sports stadium: interactive, noisy, argumentative – he understood that spectacle was only part of the experience, and that interactivity and conversation were vital. Fifa is getting more social, with its Ultimate Team and EA Sports Football Club initiatives, but these systems work within the formal infrastructure of the game. In New Star Soccer, the infrastructure is twisted and subjective; our conversation with the game is personal.
A few years ago, I interviewed Earthworm Jim creator and general gaming visionary Dave Perry and we got to talking about football simulations. He told me he wouldn’t be interested in the genre until someone wrote a game in which he could, at any moment, just leave the pitch, wander into the changing room, get dressed and escape from the stadium. I nodded and laughed, but I thought, okay, Dave Perry is nuts. But now he has just sold his company to Sony for $380m so I’m thinking he may have had a point. And looking at New Star Soccer, some kind of open-world footie game may well be where indie development takes the sport next.
More recently, I was chatting with Mike Bithell, the creator of abstract platforming gem, Thomas Was Alone, and he was talking about the dangers of deifying the indie sector – innovation can come from mainstream games he said. And he was right. But neither New Star Soccer or Fluid Football could have come from a major studio: these unique and fascinating games could only have emerged from small teams on limited budgets. Fifa and Football Manager can give us part of the experience of sport (a really exciting and fulfilling part), but strange and expressionistic titles can tell us the other stuff, the stuff that lurks beneath the surface for all fans – whether they know it or not. These games may not give us realism, but they give us meaning.