Story-telling in Games

This blog post would probably be out of the norm for the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages blog, because this is about soccer games, not fantasy RPGs. However, this blog post is not completely out of the line, as far as I’d think blog posts go. Sure, it’s not about a Bethesda game or a game review, but it does offer forward insight into the roleplaying aspect of a game, I’d say.
Why am I making a blog post about Football Manager, then? How many gamer geeks like me who can tell more about Tamrielic history than our world’s care about a niche soccer game where you look at spreadsheets and budgets? Probably not a lot, but humor me and stick around to the end, because I want to challenge the notion that there are some games that don’t offer forward any value as far as story telling and emotionally driven narration go. With the right creative mindset, anything can tell a story if you want it to and slow down to truly enjoy the experience.

For instance, people say to me that there’s nothing enjoyable about Football Manager, because it’s about numbers and administration. To be fair, the game can look like nothing but numbers and an email window. On the surface, it doesn’t exactly the most deep game as far as games go, but that’s part of what makes it so enjoyable!
In a very strange sense, it is actually one of the most open games you can play. The lack of story means that you’ll subconsciously create your own. It’s not a game of static events like Skyrim that can be pushed out in a specific way, despite the appearance of choice by being able to do the choices in random orders. Between moving between jobs, watching what the press and management does, player movements, team promotions and so forth, the game can be completely unpredictable. It’s very fluid in what happens and how the AI acts, like in real life, is unpredictable and things can change suddenly. For instance, I can see Arsenal go from a half-decade at top of the table to struggling to stay afloat in the Premier League with Stoke, a historically lower-table side in my favorite save, suddenly climbing to claim the spot relinquished by Arsenal.You can (and will) reload the same game and replay the exact same match for five different results, and with the game generating new players at random, the experience will always be different between players of the game. As soon as you hit “Continue” on the first day, even when it only jumps forward an hour to the first press conference, the world has instantly shifted into fiction as the AI starts to process all the world football teams handling their own business going into the future.I say with certainty that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for FM. I will also speak for everyone when I say that just like with a smoking habit, we’re committed, not addicted.
There are people who are so into it they’ll suit up for cup matches, I saw a story about a guy who lit his garbage on fire to simulate an away game in Turkey, a comedian ditched his friend’s wedding after a short while to go play the game because he was bored. Chris Darwen is a creative story-teller wrote two books based on his old Championship Manager save, as told from the perspective of his player “Johnny Cooper”. As for me, I’ve got a training sweatshirt for my favorite team, and I stood my camera on its tripod and stood behind a bunch of boxes that I set up as a podium to simulate the press conference for my first cup win as a Football Manager player.
If you watch the excellent documentary Football Manager: An Alternate Reality, you’ll see that the game has been very influential to the fans and the footballing world as a whole, and everyone has a story to tell about the game and a memorable moment or season that defined their experience as a player of the game.My favorite story is that of Ivica Strok, a Croatian striker who became Celtic’s finest and a club legend with a real life Twitter account and a life outside the game, which the creator, Johnny Sharples uses to promote and raise awareness for suicide prevention following his brother’s suicide, since FM was what brought them close together and FM and Ivica’s career was what he used to deal with the loss and pass time waiting on his brother’s funeral. And, this hasn’t gone unnoted to the world.Despite being a “regen” —  a player generated completely at random to add to the game because real players are retiring — who is unique to Sharples’ game alone, he is recognised by the diehard fans of the game as a legend to the game. Or, maybe like I do, we just envy Sharples’ story telling ability and we all seek the same engagement in the game. In any case,  due to Strok’s renown in the world of Football Manager and Sharples’ charity work in Strok’s name, a display of a Celtic kit with Strok’s name and number, as well as a testimonial program from the 2030s to recognise Strok’s worldwide influence and commitment to Celtic, to the ficticious football world of Sharples’ FM save now sits in the National Football Museum in Manchester.I think escapism is what allows one to find the story they seek to find in a game. Everyone has the want to live outside of themselves and be more, and I think the open nature of Football Manager is the perfect vessel for that. Some people just care about how quickly they can get to the Champions League, how quickly and for what price they can sign the next Messi, but it’s hard to not spend days or weeks playing into this game and not become attached to the club and want to establish a long-lasting legacy comparable to Sir Alex’s, or maybe become committed to one particular player as a project to focus on.Or, maybe you’re like me, filled with wanderlust. In Mourinho’s fashion, I’ll show up to a club for 2-3 seasons or so, have some successes, then leave for a new club, a new country, a new challenge. That’s my story, anyway. Damon McKnight is the young 23 year old American who wanted to travel the world and who relishes the opportunity to, if not succeed, at least get engrossed in a country’s footballing system, starting at the bottom in each year of Football Manager and working towards getting the Chelsea job… Which hasn’t happened yet, unfortunately.In the highs and lows of running a season, from poor press conferences to winning a major cup for your team, to losing your star player to a stagnated career with another team, the game can be filled with emotion. One minute you can be jumping up and down excited (as I did when Oxford United took the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2014 as my first earned trophy) to throwing your notes on the squad depth across the room in frustration at a goal scoring mistake in the next game, it’s easy to get carried away. And, that’s what the game allows.As I have hopefully shown, the story-telling aspect can arguably be the strongest feature of the game, despite the advances in technology and realism. The strongest feature for me is not that the animations are better, the match engine is more realistic, or that press conferences are more immersive and detailed. By allowing you to move freely in the footballing world in this one save, employed or unemployed, you can watch the world evolve and you know your narrative is unique to your own save.

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