Why FIFA'S “The Journey” Mode is going to be such a big deal
For the last seven years, the FIFA series has been one of the most consistent things in my life.
That, as a sentence, is a ridiculous one. But one I suspect may be sneakily true for a lot of people reading this.
Take the last seven of your life. You’ve possibly moved house once, maybe for University. You’ve made some friends, you’ve lost some friends. You probably either drink a lot more, or a lot less than you used to. Your hobbies have changed.
*You* have changed. There’s a common notion that all the cells in your body replenish and regenerate themselves, so every seven years you’re essentially a different person.
It’s not entirely scientifically accurate, but the idea is something I enjoy a lot. You in 2016 is very much a different person compared to you in 2009. You have different interests, you (hopefully) should be more articulate and able to convey your thoughts and feelings better. You’re more confident. If you’re reading this and you’re in your mid twenties, then the part of your brain that’s responsible for decision making is finally properly developed, so you should be able to make better decisions.
But in the same round about way, so has the FIFA series, and that’s probably why, year in, year out I invest so much time into it.
FIFA 09 is very much a different game to the upcoming FIFA 17. It’s on a different console. The animations are different and more fluid. The goals and tricks I used to use to get on top in FIFA 09 won’t come off in the new game. Like me, it’s older, (hopefully) wiser and (hopefully) a lot more enjoyable to be around once the beer wears off.
By now, most of us would have played FIFA 17 thanks to the new demo and got to grips with its new features. For the most part, it looks like the folks at EA Sports Canada have delivered on their promise to reinvent and refresh the franchise. The Frostbite engine gives the game an amazing new polish, the amount of new animations and revised ball physics mean I’m now pulling off things that weren’t possible in FIFA 16.
There’s still an over reliance on pacey players, and crossing is a little bit overpowered, but on the whole, FIFA 17 is a different game, well worth the £45-£100 they’re charging for it.
The big thing for FIFA 17 though is “The Journey”: the new single player story mode where you take Alex Hunter from rags to riches in the Premier League. FIFA have been hyping the mode up. There’s a slice of the mode in the new demo where you have to beat Chelsea with the scores locked at 1-1. JOE writer, Kevin Beirne has had more time with it and written in depth about it here.
FIFA 17 is going to be a big deal this year because of The Journey Mode. And the Journey Mode means a big deal to me because the main character Alex Hunter is a black kid.
In FIFA 17, you are Marcus Rashford Alex Hunter.
Whether through accident or design, by copying Marcus Rashford’s United career and calling it a fresh new mode, EA Sports have accidentally made one of the most progressive games out there.
Now there are a few things one can change about Alex Hunter in The Journey. He can play for any Premier League club you desire. He can be a cool, calm collected tactician, or a fiery, take-no-prisoners loudmouth.
But there are a few things you can’t change about Hunter. You (annoyingly) have to be a striker. You have to (I’m predicting) get stabbed in the back by your best mate Gareth Walker to set up the game’s driving narrative.
And your Alex Hunter has to be black.
He even has the young boy trim.
FIFA is a big deal to me. It was over games of FIFA I forged some of my greatest friendships. The conversations I’ve had while playing FIFA have helped me learn loads about love, life, triumph and disaster. For the last decade, every week before a new FIFA arrives, I meet up with one of my best mates and play a "best of seven" tournament. I've only won one tournament, but I don't care, we talk about everything and go away feeling like better men.
It was after getting the "50 hours played" achievement when playing FIFA 09, alone at 3am in my lucky pants and about to go to University, that I realised I needed to develop a semblance of a personality before I left London. It was over FIFA 10 that my friend told me he fancied a girl and over FIFA 12 he told me he was thinking about proposing to her. It was only after plugging my height and weight details into FIFA 11 that I realised I’d be a lot better off playing as a box to box midfielder rather than as an increasingly clumsy winger. FIFA told me how to play football better in real life. Another friend told me that if I hadn’t knocked on his door and offered him a game of FIFA 13, he might have given into depressive thoughts and done something that doesn’t bear thinking of.
Now, and I feel this needs to be capped up and put in bold so you understand what I am saying, I AM NOT SAYING PLAYING AS A BLACK PLAYER IS BETTER THAN PLAYING AS A WHITE ONE.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have played if Alex Hunter was white. I’m not really making any comment on white players.
Alex with his best mate/soon to be rival Gareth Walker. I'd have been happy playing as both men. I'd like to see a Lethal Weapon reboot with them both too.
What I am saying is, in making Alex Hunter a black kid from Hackney, EA Sports are lowkey getting a generation of football fans to broaden their horizons. To get better in touch with their empathy. To attempt, if only for a few hours, what it just might be like, to be someone who looks like me.
Who was designed to look like me as well. As I have explored for other websites, videogames have had a so-so past of design black characters. Not only are there a dearth of black heroes in games, but in the games where you can make your character black, we come out weird. Light bounces off us oddly. There are nowhere near enough hairstyles.
In building Hunter from the ground up as a black man, FIFA is showing us a character who is meant to be there. You may scoff at my surprise that a black person can be centre stage in world football in 2016, especially after the Pogba deal, but the act of making it very clear that a BME can be the protagonist, in football, where certain fans don’t mind flinging bananas, shouting abuse or setting up offensive Twitter accounts - the act of going "this kid belongs here and you will deal with that" - that is a very very big deal.
FIFA matters. Big time. Smarter men than me have written about how FIFA seems to tap into the calming part of men’s brains which allows them to share their feelings. Which is rather ironic considering how much FIFA makes our blood boil when playing.
People will always understand and defend their interests before they would do their rights. With something a person likes on the line and a more palpable sense of right and wrong, most people can get their heads around a tricky subject. In my experience it’s a lot easier to explain racism to my friends as "monkey chanting is bad", rather than "my surname makes it harder for me to get job interviews". Making things immediate and known is often the best way to teach people difficult things.
So I’m hoping FIFA 17 fans may come away from The Journey with a greater understanding of why calling black players "lazy" and "sulky" is a little bit… off. Especially when their controlling Hunter and they know they're trying as best as they can.
In making it so you cannot change the race of Alex Hunter (and believe me, I checked - one JOE reader commented on a previous piece about whether we could change it and I did my research), FIFA 17 players are going to have to see themselves as a black man. They’re going to gain a little bit of understanding of how black people are just… people.
Now it might not all come off. The Journey looks to be hitting a lot of “black boy come good cliches” - there’s already hints of a sneaky agent who tries to be a father figure. When fans hurl abuse, it doesn't go past "Who are ya?", but the point is, there’s something different.
There’s a multi million pound franchise about to be released this month and the hero is a black boy. That is amazing.
The FIFA series has been the most consistent thing in the last seven years of my life. So I’m really excited that for one year, the FIFA series has put someone who looks like me front and centre.