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Changing Videogame's Sport Storytelling

Sports in videogames are represented either through simulators or as management games. We explore an alternative "anthropological" path using narrative and strategy to represent football's universe and its paradoxical epic.

Boris, Calchester's president

Sports in videogames are represented either through simulators or as management games. In what follows I explore an alternative "anthropological" path using narrative and strategy to represent football's universe and its paradoxical epic.

This content has been / will be presented in various forms at Internet Festival (Pisa), Indiecade Europe (Paris), Game Happens (Genoa).

Football in videogames

Football is currently represented in very successful videogames, in ways that seem to be “standard” but actually are just accepted and quite bizarre practices.

EA’s Fifa models playing matches by setting you as a sort of god that manipulates players.
SEGA’s Football Manager defines you as being a union of owner and manager of the club.
The first is a kind of sport simulator, the second can be seen as a derived accounting application. These games are great in what they do and control most of the “videogame on football” market.

There has been an attempt to “stick a narrative” on top of Fifa, with so-so results.

Fifa's the journey

Then there is a host of little games that usually take some simple football mechanics (like “shoot a penalty”) and model just that.

A clever classical game Flick Kick Football did a real attempt at creating a narrative, but its (great) card and "finger" mechanics are overwhelming and the narrative aspect just seems a bit to  “get in the way”.

Why all this passion for football?

Cover of Les Sport Et les Hommes

I’ve never been a particular fan of football, though I always appreciated the beauty of the game. Now the start of my interest as a subject for study and writing comes from finding out that there is some really good literature on football.

There is a rich literature on sport as an interesting subject for anthropological, sociological and economical analysis. These studies present sport and football in particular as a rich expressive domain, as a sometimes dignified and always complex cultural expression.

Roland Barthes and Pier Paolo Pasolini (both football lovers) are the main classical references in finding value in “low” popular expression and were the starting point of my research. In particular Barthes’ work “Les sport et les hommes”, as text for the corresponding movie.

Books on football

A dimension that has quality, depth and breadth is football literature: starting from South America with the delightful works on football by Osvaldo Soriano (Argentinian), e.g. Fútbol, and by Eduardo Galeano (Uruguayan) e.g. Su majestad el fútbol. Then one can move through countries: Uk has an extended and growing literature, e.g. this collection curated by Hornby My Favourite Year: A Collection of Football Writing; Italy has classic authors as Umberto Saba and Pasolini writing poems and essays; this list could go on and on.

Il Mundial Dimenticato

There are also many quality movies and documentaries on football, of particular relevance for our aims the “documentary” Il Mundial Dimenticato. And as a brand new example, see Netflix’ Sunderland 'Til I Die.

It is to be noted that football is a divisive topic among intellectuals, see these remarks by Galeano:

The scorn of many conservative intellectuals comes from their belief that soccer-worship is exactly the religion people deserve. Possessed by soccer, the proles think with their feet...

Galeano on soccer and politics.

Football gets so much attention and study also because it is so hard to define, and to define its sense. Realizing this, I asked myself: why not use videogames for presenting and investigating football as it's done in other media? But can videogames represent complex themes? Aren’t they just for “pure entertainment”?

New narrative games

There are many recent examples of indie games capable of telling stories about deep themes in interesting, new ways:

New narrative games

These games have shown that you can create a good narrative game on a variety of topics.

Also, each of these games breaks the canon of how to entertain with stories in videogames; and that is the path I wanted to take in building a game on football.
In what follows I use the term “videogame” in a specific sense, as a fully expressive media apt for mature themes and transformative storytelling.

All this encouraged me to start a heretical project joining videogames, football, literature and anthropology. So yes, let's try this: a narrative anthropological game on football… .

Football Drama’s Sport Storytelling

The approach to sports storytelling I experimented with in Football Drama consists of making stylistic choices and dealing with problems due to the specifics of the matter at hand.

I proceeded with (1) experimenting on the dialogues' design, and (2) representing football matches in an original, evocative and feasible way.

Having worked for seven years in applied games, sometimes dealing with really difficult topics, I learned to model as closely as possible the matter at hand using all the elements available in the game production process (I call this diegetic connectivity).
So if the topic is football and its universe, this must be represented in every component of the game’s experience: writing, illustration, animation, mechanics, inventory, cards… .

Football Drama tries to generate the player experience with (narrative with choices) + (integrated simple strategy game) + (cards & comics & humour). More details below.

Writing Football Drama

Football Cliches Cover

Every football nation has its own “bewildering dialect”. There can be no better proof than the book Football Clichés, a hilarious catalogue of the English language as used in and around football.
I had to study the specific features of the language, relatively to the various situations: exchanges between manager and the club owners, match log, press meeting declarations, supporters’ chants.

I then added Nadsat references, some French, quotes from the I Ching, and obtained Football Drama’s resulting language.

Among the most wonderful learning experiences in creating Football Drama is that I got to write the lyrics for the ending: one of the characters of the story sings it, and yes, its inspired by Portal’s endings.
I had to learn to follow a metric somehow and provide several versions and in-line variations for the singer (all this working with Ascari, composer and performer).

You can play an ending gameplay video here - *warning*: this is a huge spoiler, watch at your own risk.

If you are wondering about why the I Ching, I used it as a way to give the player a pause, and a space where the chaotic nature of football could be somehow celebrated and ritually tamed. One thing I understood of football is its cathartic role for dispelling war.
Also I wanted to homage Philip K. Dick somehow somewhere and there was no way to link him directly with soccer.

Creating the experience - compiling the story in the game

There are very specific problems that the writer and game designer has to deal with in a game with both a championship, a setting within a real sport, and a branching narrative, e.g.

  • Momentum and championship
  • Cyclic dialogues
  • A believable underdog
  • Game over?

Let’s explore all these.

Momentum and championship

Jon Ingold Sparkling Dialogue talk

Narrative games, actually any game that has dialogues and story can have a problem with “momentum”; this problem has been wonderfully presented by Jon Ingold in both a Youtube video (Sparkling Dialogue: A Masterclass) and in a book (Designing for Narrative Momentum, Procedural Storytelling in Game Design, CRC Press) so I won’t get into that.

What is to be noted in the case of narrative within a championship is that the weekly matches provide you with the needed “gripping tension”. In our case, the tension comes not only from the match’s result but also from the ever-present possibility of being fired. This possibility grows during the championship, as we modelled in this table:

Expectations grow the fewer matches remain to somehow get to the desired result.

The intrinsic linearity of the championship and the binary nature of the “axing the manager” event needs to be merged with the non-linear progress of the story.

Just trying to combine all the story outcomes with the championship phases and possible results immediately creates an unmanageable combinatorial space. I dealt with this problem by (1) normalizing the story effects to two dimensions relevant for the team and the championship, “karma” and “kaos”, that are involved in every game event, and (2) making the stories generate “special cards” in function of the life choices, that can be used as “orders from the bench” during matches - which of course your team may ignore if they wish so.

In the schema below I tried to represent how the different timelines interact: the relentless linear timeline of the championship, the sort-of branching narrative and your evolving inventory (cards and special items). All this generates different endings.

(See the image in full size.)

Cyclic dialogues

Championships are generated by loops, and there are precise rituals that are to be followed. The weekly matches, managers' handshake (or its absence), press meetings, avoiding the axe (or not). Fortunately, I had Daniele Giardini’s narrative tool (Outspoken, built in Unity) that allowed me to define dialogues with press, colleagues and president as generated by template with a host of global and local variables, taking into account results, championship positions, relationships and previous encounters.

(Generative) Narrative is often analyzed as a problematic element in games, but consider also how as in this case it solves a host of situations just thanks to parametric dialogues.

(A press conference portrait by Football Drama's illustrator Demigiant.)

A believable underdog

One of the reasons for football fascination is that the underdog always has a chance.

Now how could I model that in an algorithm without recurring to randomness? I used wave functions of different widths (corresponding to the differences between the two teams), that oscillate with different periods.

(Graph from Wikipedia.)

This models the fact that in no football match the stronger team dominates *all the time*. There are two waves that are composed with basic powers to give current strength. So if the underdog strikes when his wave is high and the opponent’s low… .

 In-match narrative

Football Drama provides football matches as fast but turn-based games, where sport emulation is in narrative form, using:

  • Detailed commentator’s log
  • Field reduced to 12 areas
  • A very complex invisible model of the teams’ features
  • Manager’s interaction is “shouting orders (cards) from the bench”
  • Evocative symbolic attack action emulator

So the match’s narrative is very detailed, and the emulation part is simplified and anti-realistic.

Game over? Well, Football Drama Is Not Perfect

Obviously your ambition outweighed your talent

Casey Stoner to Valentino Rossi, 2011

Football Drama’s intended narrative was way, way more extensive and interconnected than it ended being. Many interesting characters were excluded, all direct interactions with your football players, most of the story with Monica.
Writing the code for the matches, its commentary and the mechanics of the card actually took most of the development time, and as the only coder I never had time to focus and evolve the narrative beyond the basics. But all the mechanics above are in place and you can see them in action.

And maybe that I was forced to cut it short is what makes it work - who knows!

So why all this passion for football?

Football is the last sacred representation of our time. Its rite in its core, even if it is entertainment.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Trying to explain all the passion for football is the quest that led this whole research. My nonanswer is Football Drama’s gameplay experience.

Addenda: Finishing a commercial game

Once one has story, writing (dialogues), mechanics, design in place and it all works together, your beautiful narrative game is done, right? No, it isn’t.

Following this link you can play a Football Drama prototype in the browser (only on desktops):

This is a working prototype with all the things above, about a year before release. Well, it is hugely different from the released game (that still has many limitations), and where has most of the work in finishing gone? In working on the “game feel” and from player’s feedback (mostly watching them). It is a huge part of game development, and I’m pointing it out because particularly in story intense games this may be overlooked.

For example:

- For the game effects and animation quality, the difference from the final should be self-evident. Goals give little feedback, the opponents are not smart enough, the animations minimal.
- For the feedback to the player from the gameplay: in the prototype, there is no information about cards effects and team states; no way for a more technical player to gather more information, there is no progress in learning about symbols, card powers and effects in-game. The flow of card played / card success/card failure is practically impossible to understand. There is no hint from the tutorial about when and where to play the cards.
- Many areas of the match panel are not clickable (bad UI).

So transforming the prototype by adding game feel while preserving “diegetic integration” - it’s a lot of effort!

N.B. The fact that some masks do not work is a bizzarry of the WebGL version only.

Thank you for reading about the creation of Football Drama, the game is available here for PC / Mac and mobile. I am on Twitter.




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