We’re at midcourt, the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Get your week started here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to basketball video games.
If you’ve tuned in to Episode #130 of the NLSC Podcast, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of the story in this year’s MyCAREER. If you’ve been listening to the NLSC Podcast for a while now, you’ll know that that’s been a recurring complaint of mine since MyCAREER adopted the story-driven approach beginning with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version of NBA 2K14. Reading some of the posts that have been made about MyCAREER since the release of NBA 2K16, it seems I’m not alone in my criticism.
Specific criticisms of the writing aside, my discontent with MyCAREER can be summed up as such: a story that’s too linear without branching options, choices that are largely cosmetic and inconsequential, and in NBA 2K16 in particular, a protagonist that’s intended to have very specific characteristics, which conflict with the RPG elements and “put yourself in the game” aspect of the mode. To that end, the tagline of “Be The Story” becomes a little ironic.
However, since I’m often advocating for constructive criticism – fans not fanboys, critics not haters, and all that – it seems only appropriate that I put my money where my mouth is, and offer up some suggestions as to how the mode could be improved. The story-driven approach to MyCAREER probably isn’t going anywhere, so how do I think Visual Concepts can best put it to use? Well, let’s take a look at how I feel that we can better “Be The Story” in NBA 2K17 and beyond.
First of all, I would suggest that they avoid working with Spike Lee, or for that matter, any filmmakers in future games. While it sounds like a good idea on paper, and I think it’s an idea that can definitely work in other genres of video games, it has some distinct drawbacks for a sports title like NBA 2K. Namely, it locks us into a linear narrative that the filmmaker has already planned out. When we’re plodding through such a heavily scripted plot, it’s hard for us to be the story, to truly role play as the mode seemingly invites us to do.
In NBA 2K16’s MyCAREER mode, it’s quite obvious that Spike Lee wrote the story with a specific character in mind as the protagonist: a young black man from Harlem, with a twin sister and a somewhat obnoxious friend, on a journey to the NBA. And that’s perfectly fine. Like all filmmakers, Lee has his own style, with its own recurring tropes and characters, and obviously, a lot of NBA players can relate to that story. The problem is, MyCAREER invites us to put ourselves in the game, to become Frequency Vibrations in NBA 2K16. And when we do that, the conflict with the story is plain to see.
To use myself as an example: I’m a white Australian, of English and Irish descent. I haven’t actually tried scanning my face into NBA 2K16 yet – I couldn’t get it to work at all in NBA 2K15, and gave up after much frustration – so I’m currently using a very badly sculpted placeholder face, which has turned out slightly Neanderthal. Or perhaps I have severe self-esteem issues, and that’s what I think I look like, deep down. In all seriousness though, while I don’t expect to have an Aussie accent in the game, my pasty virtual self sticks out like a sore thumb next to my “twin” sister, and black parents. Not only does my non-scanned face look a bit gross, I also look grossly miscast for the role I’m playing.
There are a couple of solutions I’d suggest here. The first would be more flexibility in the story and the characters; not to the point of being too generic or one-dimensional, but ones that allow for a little wiggle room in the protagonists’ background and characteristics. Second, I’d suggest changing character models based on your created MyPLAYER. Fallout 3 – a game released in 2008 – achieved this with James, father of the protagonist, The Lone Wanderer. The default options for both the player character and James are white, but as you customise your race and even your facial features, James’ race and facial features also change to reflect a family resemblance. That kind of detail would go a long way in seamlessly immersing your MyPLAYER into the story, especially if your family members are a part of it.
The second major problem with a storyline-heavy MyCAREER mode is the linear narrative. Everyone is basically playing through the same storyline, which frankly is a little boring. Even games in other genres that have fairly linear storylines offer up some twists and turns, alternate endings, and actions that affect the game world and just how the story plays out. With a tagline like “Be The Story”, there should be some storyline branching in MyCAREER, giving the user opportunities to make decisions that have significant ramifications, and change the course of the plot as a result.
To that end, perhaps Visual Concepts needs to bring in some people with experience in creating RPGs, particularly titles that allow users to take different paths and experience alternate endings on subsequent playthroughs. If they are going to work with filmmakers to develop future storylines for MyCAREER, those filmmakers should help develop a few different narrative threads that can be woven together, according to the user’s choices. Again, there’s where experienced RPG developers could lend a hand. The choices we make should matter.
My final suggestion, which addresses both issues, might seem a bit radical, but I think it’s essential to truly put the story in our hands, to let us be the story in MyCAREER: take a similar approach to what’s been done with MyLEAGUE and MyGM. Let us bypass the cutscene-heavy story if we want, and just play a more straightforward MyCAREER game, as NBA 2K16 does from the second season onwards. Let us create the story in our minds, let us truly role play as the MyPLAYER we create. Let us express ourselves and be our character through interviews and interactions, not scripted dialogue in cutscenes. This would also offer much better replay value, since you wouldn’t have to slog through the story again upon starting a new MyCAREER game.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s also the option of presenting us with a pre-made, un-editable character for MyCAREER mode, one that properly fits into the narrative that’s been crafted. I don’t think that’s an ideal solution, however. A big part of MyCAREER’s appeal is that it’s “my career”; the player you create, which is most likely going to be your avatar, given the presence of the face scanning functionality. While it would alleviate some of the aforementioned problems, I don’t think it would be the best move.
Here’s the thing about MyCAREER in NBA 2K16: it has some really good features, starting in the second year. And as far as the first year is concerned, I actually like the idea of starting in high school, playing a few college games, and then finally making the NBA. Whether there’s a cutscene-driven narrative, or the story is all in our minds, there are some really good ideas there. However, the weak link in MyCAREER right now is the story. The best thing I can say about NBA 2K16’s story is that it’s fairly short, so you can get to the more fully-featured RPG elements reasonably quickly. But if there’s going to be a story in MyCAREER, it needs to be one of the mode’s strengths, not one of its weaknesses.
So, the best way to truly let us “Be The Story” in NBA 2K’s MyCAREER? Let us guide the tale with our choices and our actions, with multiple paths and storyline branching. Better yet, allow us to tell the story ourselves, with an option to forego the scripted narrative, and role play as we used to. I’d much prefer that the story shape itself to the way I play the game, or let me truly be virtual me – only much better at basketball, obviously – in a story that I write from scratch. MyCAREER has so many great features, so many good things going for it. It’s absolutely essential that they not be dragged down by the story. And if we’re to be the story in MyCAREER, it’s also essential that it’s not only a story worth telling, but truly our story to tell.