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The Rat in the Engine: On FIFA 12

“The goal stands!” exclaims Martin Tyler as the crowd at the Santiago Bernabéu rains exaltations of joy over the pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo shakes his head in frustration; the keeper retrieves the ball, and sets up for a goal kick.

The above sequence has never happened in an actual soccer match, but it happens too often in EA Sports’s latest approximation of actual soccer, FIFA 12. Which is to say it happens at all.

The glitchy sound design in the most recent installment of FIFA is a nuisance. It’s not broken so much as temperamental. Two or three times per match, the AI that selects lines of commentary misreads a play and provides the wrong cue to the recorded voices of Martin Tyler and Alan Smith. This means, when set up for a corner kick, one might hear Tyler mutter “Not a good corner!” before the kick-taker has even struck the ball. Or a defender will intercept a pass, scuff the ball some four yards upfield, and right as the ball is settling onto an attacker’s foot, the commentators will praise the fullback’s clearance.

These moments are both silly and frustrating—chunks of absurdity spliced into a world that has a Pinocchio-like desire to be real. The game designers at EA Canada, like ambitious cartographers, want to recreate professional soccer down to the flecks of mud that fly up on a slide tackle in the rain. Minutiae, really. Minutiae is sometimes just the yellow hue beneath the rim of a fingernail, but it’s also something with which one becomes concerned when one discovers that realism isn’t composed solely of ball physics and player models. Or weather effects, or referee tendencies, or crowd chants, or any of the other features FIFA has added over the years. Trying to recreate soccer—not something very similar to soccer, but the game itself—is like attempting to photorealistically map an ever-expanding mole colony. As soon as one has ostensibly sketched out every tunnel, eight more have been constructed. This type of cartography is the hobby of self-flagellators.

Designing a sports title might not be a fool’s errand, but it’s impossible to do perfectly. The goal of sports videogames is literally unachievable: they seek to replicate reality. In no other game genre do developers toil to create what already exists. Even games allegedly based on actual events (say, Call of Duty: Black Ops) use fact as a spool around which they weave fictions. I’m sure the developers of Black Ops labored to ensure that the correct bullet-y whizzes and pangs rattle through a gamer’s television speakers as they work their way through a corridor, but the faces and tendencies of one’s fellow soldiers are not the faces and tendencies of Cold War Era special ops agents. Even if they were, practically no one would know, since military conflict is not a spectator sport broadcast to millions the world over.

The EA employees who develop the FIFA series intermittently brush up against the edges of reality. There are moments within matches in which, as with every great videogame, the gamer is pulled through the television screen and walks among the little character models darting around the game world. In FIFA’s case, Old Trafford is subdued as Swansea are holding the scoreline, admirably, at 1-1 in the 81st minute. The ball is being knocked around midfield as Chicharito starts a diagonal run, and, before the Swansea midfield can close down Tom Cleverley, he chips the ball about five yards beyond the speedy Mexican, who catches up to it and slots a low drive into the corner of the net. The gamer, in concert with his team of overmatched footballers, frowns dejectedly.

The feeling of helplessness that frequently accompanies competing against superior talent is palpable in FIFA 12. Fixtures against juggernauts are nerve-racking and often dispiriting, just as they are in real life. Even if some god-hand could control the movements of the Swansea back line, Chicharito would probably still run through it like a child through a cloud of bubbles. FIFA gets a number of other things right, like Nani’s tendency to take on defenders with audacious dribble moves and the way Cristiano Ronaldo huffs like an irritated thoroughbred as he stands over a free kick. Italian referees officiate the game more strictly than English ones, and Barcelona play a possession game full of quick, short passes and perpetual movement.

Earlier this year on RoP, Supriya Nair, while discussing the possibility of understanding Xavi through playing FIFA, sort of whimsically imagined a universe in which sports videogames, like an exponential function finally hitting infinity, become so lifelike that the difference between representation and object becomes superfine. One imagines tawdry Friday SportsCenter segments wherein Cyborg John Buccigross narrates highlights from a Madden showdown between the Steelers and Ravens, the camera intermittently cutting to reaction shots of both teams huddled around a flatscreen, perspiration collecting on their furrowed brows as the polygonal showdown predicts with 94% accuracy who will win the actual game in two days’ time. In this fantastic future, living room footy stars would, in theory, have a firm understanding of what it’s like to be Cyborg Xavi or whomever.

Even in the cyborg-less present, playing FIFA, for many of us, offers a clearer insight into what it’s like to be Xavi than participating in an actual soccer match. Like a rat squeezing its body under a car’s hood, FIFA gets into the machinery of Plato’s Theory of Forms and leaves it a smoking mess. When you play FIFA, you’re playing a flawed-but-eerily-accurate representation of association football, one that’s significantly more similar to association soccer than the kind you might play in a park. If we’re operating under the assumption that Xavi’s skill is so immense that he flirts with the metaphysical idea of a central midfielder, then it’s strange that a mere representation of soccer (FIFA) might better help us understand what it’s like to be Xavi than lacing up a pair of cleats and playing midfield in a neighborhood pickup game. But it’s true. Because most of us, when on a soccer pitch, are nothing like Xavi; a game that brushes up against reality as often as FIFA can perhaps teach us what it’s sort of like to be Xavi. At the very least, it endows us with his ability and precise estimations of his teammates and opponents, if not his thought processes or his vision. Maybe if we jog a few miles on the treadmill, place the player lock on the diminutive Catalan, switch the camera angle to field level, turn the sound all the way up, and have a few friends yell obscenities at us in Spanish as we (as Xavi) move around the virtual pitch, we might learn a bit about what it’s like to participate in a Clásico at the Bernabéu.

Though I’m not sure that’s why we’re playing in the first place. FIFA is probably somewhat edifying, but that’s not its main draw. I’ve never thought I better understood why José Antonio Reyes plays the way he does because I’ve scored a few hat tricks using his virtual avatar, nor have any of the hours I’ve spent twirling analog sticks and mashing buttons been an attempt to find out. And realism? It’s important, but not paramount. One doesn’t sink an afternoon or eight into a soccer videogame because it mirrors reality, just as someone doesn’t buy a painting to marvel at the lifelikeness of its subjects. If you wanted to stare at something that looked a lot like a bowl of fruit, you would just go to the supermarket. The realism for which titles like FIFA strive is a window into something nearly all games want to establish: an intimate relationship with the gamer.

Because the purest reality is a knife with innumerable serrated kinks running down its blade. Reality is where Villareal and Valencia sell off their best players each summer due to financial hardship, and if we know what it’s like to be Marcelo or Yaya Touré, we know what it’s like to be racially defamed. Instead, we want a sandbox that feels real. We want agency where we would normally have none. We want the serrations of reality rendered smooth. We want losing 4-0 against a rival to sting, not scar. The ideal sports title provides the gamer with a world that’s deceptively realistic, but then it gives them the privilege of manipulating that world. Being a sports fan is an exercise in anxiousness, because a fan can’t actually do anything to affect what he or she is watching. The ideal title expunges that anxiousness and replaces it, ostensibly, with a sense of responsibility. It asks questions of the gamer. If you had Xavi’s passing ability or Drogba’s aerial prowess, how would you use them? And the gamer discovers that this responsibility is simply a different strain of anxiousness. The game wraps itself around the gamer, and the gamer flexes their elbows a little uncomfortably.

So when Alan Smith praises a striker’s poise after the ball has flown over crossbar, he shouts You’re playing a videogame! at the gamer, which is jarring and irksome when one is ensconced in the pseudo-reality a close FIFA match creates. These infrequent glitches in sound design are emblematic of the futility of the task at hand. No matter how stellar a sports title is, it can never be correct. Portions of the map will always be blurry. The team at EA Canada gathers its instruments each year and sharpens a few of these blurry patches, knowing they will fail to sharpen others. This variety of cartography is for self-flagellators, after all. And meanwhile, bathed in cheers so genuine they sound sarcastic, the gamer is forced to shake the disillusionment from his or her joints. The crowd at the Almost Santiago Bernabéu grows restless.

Colin McGowan is a writer and comedian living in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @cs_mcgowan.

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The Rat in the Engine: On FIFA 12

by Colin McGowan · November 18, 2011

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