In game development realism is a dangerous line to traverse, and there is no endgame.
A few weeks before its release on current gen consoles (EA calls it 'gen 3') we were invited, alongside a group of other journalists, to play FIFA 14. But before being handed controllers: an extensive PowerPoint presentation. At one point I heard the words "moving onto slide 44". The first 43 slides I could stomach. Slide 44? That might have been the breaking point.
Now a couple of months later it's time to play the next generation FIFA 14 on Xbox One but first, of course, another slide show. Death by powerpoint. During one particular slide a 30 second video clip is played. The clip shows a football player changing direction in extreme slow motion. A video designed to illustrate a breakthough in some sort of technology that "could only be done on Gen 4 consoles", but I can't remember what the technology was and I can't remember the buzz word that represented it.
There's a lot to be said for presenting things in the correct context. Clearly EA is afraid of thrusting its baby upon a group of journalists who lack that context. Afraid we'll play the game for 10 minutes, mutter something banal like, 'it's the same as last year' and walk away none the wiser. I understand that informing potential players of the new details we're supposed to be noticing makes us far more likely to notice them. I get that.
But if you have to explain the joke, there's a very good chance that joke is not funny.
If I hadn't watched the slideshow before playing I would most likely be writing the sentence, "FIFA 14 feels more sluggish and less responsive than previous games". Now I'm writing the sentence, "FIFA 14 uses the horsepower of next generation consoles to render sublime, realistic shifts in player momentum".
So which is it? Well, it's both really. FIFA 14 does feel more sluggish than before. It does feel less responsive than, say FIFA 12, but that is the direct result of EA's attempt to use next-gen horsepower to create a more 'realistic' game of football.
And that's what the majority of these slides are about. 'When Ronaldo strikes the ball it wobbles around a bit in mid-air (which it totally does because of weird physics) so we decided to rewrite our ball physics to make that happen in game'. Or, 'now when you hit a shot the player makes the correct physical adjustments to make that shot'. I'm paraphrasing, but this is literally what these slides are trying to impress upon us: that these minimal upgrades are significant. That we should be aware of them and notice whilst playing, that it actually makes a difference to the average layperson when it really, really doesn't.
FIFA now embodies the fruitless pursuit of an otherworldly perfect realism, centred on a fallacy: that a video game representation of football could somehow replicate the experience actually playing football, or accurately recreate the imagined experience of controlling an idealised match as presented on television. At the root of it, that's what's being attempted here.
Every slide has the same narrative: 'in previous FIFA games this thing happened, but that doesn't happen in real football, so we made this thing happen instead'. The attitude seems to be, 'good news, we've solved all the problems. Now play this perfectly crystallised replication of virtual football until next year, when we'll present another slide show dedicated to a new set of niggling problems'. This is the endless cycle of the sports game in action.
But there is no endgame, and this cycle is affecting the quality of the FIFA franchise as a whole. The bigger picture is being ignored. Video games should have their own internal sense of logic, their own ruleset. The constant chase for fabricated realism is a shimmering mirage in the desert. It simply does not exist and EA will continue to walk itself in parched concentric circles in pursuit of it.
At one point, whilst playing, I shouted at the screen. I am playing a sports game so this is normal. I was playing as Man City. FIFA's new momentum had me — frustratingly — one step ahead of my onscreen player. Once upon a time, circa FIFA 10, it felt like I was in control of the players onscreen, but that was years ago. I wrestled with the controller in an attempt to make my player do precisely what I wanted him to do. I held up the ball. I waited for the Man City striker to run ahead into the gaping hole in Real Madrid's defensive line. Any high level striker would have made that run, but the player hung tight on the shoulder of his marker, he would not move. Not in 2014 at least.
Maybe next year slide 44 will address that problem.