Craig Cliff finds the narrative elements within the latest installment of the popular 2K franchise don’t work, unless you resort to a radical reading of DJ’s story.
I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons or Zelda or anything normally associated with role-playing or fantasy. Y’know, things you might expect a novelist-in-training might wallow in while waiting for the Dalicin T to clear his zits.
Instead, I got my narrative thrills pretending to be a rookie phenom while shooting hoops on my driveway and — with the arrival of EA Sports’ NBA Live in 1994 — in video game simulations.
This was before the advent of career modes, where you work to upgrade one player and impress a series of scouts, agents and coaches until you hit the big time. Back in my day, I had to concoct all the backstories and subplots myself. It made me who I am today (which is to say: hit or miss in the company of others).
Virtual Concept’s NBA 2K franchise long ago unseated NBA Live as the best basketball gaming experience and its MyCareer mode has been a mainstay since 2010. Two years ago, Spike fricken Lee directed the story elements that were interwoven into each player’s quest for stardom.
But I want to talk about this year’s edition, NBA 2K18, which dropped last month.
Now, it’s impossible to criticise NBA 2K18 without coming off like a spoiled brat, a fusty dinosaur or some impossible combination of the two. The modes on offer are almost limitless, the gameplay is unparalleled, and it gives many TV broadcasts a run for their money in the looks department.
Nonetheless, here’s my beef with the best basketball video game ever: MyCareer keeps stepping on its own dick.
It takes what could be the ultimate immersive experience, a seamless blend of carefully crafted narrative and genuine on-court achievement, and turns it into a nightmare of microtransactions, product placement and inane set pieces.
As I played through the career of my 6’1” sharpshooter, Chip Pnini (a homage to Tom Sainsbury’s Paula Bennett) my desire to inhabit another hero’s quest was continually undercut by the game’s mechanics.
From the first stream of unskippable cut-scenes, all of my character- and world-building seemed for naught: I was not humble and undersized Chip Pnini, but “DJ”, a former college hoops star who pursued his music career instead of entering the NBA draft. An odd set-up for a character in a BASKETBALL game, for sure. And the more I got to see of DJ, the more my first impressions of an entitled jerk were cemented.
When I finally got control of my player, I had to impress on the streetball court in the hopes of… well, I didn’t yet know. Forgetting Chip’s shitty DJ-ing career, perhaps? I was a little rusty and hardly the best player on court. Yet, Chip/DJ somehow caught the attention of a scout from the Sacramento Kings, the team I’d selected as my favourite when creating Chip (I should have been less honest!). After a series of scrappy scrimmages in the Kings’ practice facility, Chip/DJ was offered a roster spot, and soon enough he was getting minutes in the NBA.
This progress from streetball tourney walk-on to NBA rookie took one afternoon. If the cut-scenes were skippable, it would have taken a whole lot less.
There’s no peril in these first few hours of gameplay as DJ, and therefore no sense of accomplishment. You suck, but people say you rock. But it’s all very deliberate on the part of the developers. They want to funnel all players through these initial stages as quickly as possible so they land in “The Neighbourhood”, which is basically a main menu with MMORPG pretensions. Want to go to the gym? Run twenty metres to your left. Want a haircut? Doc’s Barber Shop (and the inevitable, unskippable banter) is down the first street on your right.
Sound like a grind? We’ve only just begun.
A generous interpretation of this rush to get players to The Neighbourhood is that not everyone wants to guide their created player through another NBA season. Been there, done that since 2010, right? The Neighbourhood set-up allows gamers to pit their creations against friends and strangers in a range of game modes (streetball, pro-am, and one-offs like the recent Ruffles™ 4-pointer challenge).
But the real reason to skimp on the preliminaries is to get people purchasing in-game Virtual Currency (VC) as quickly as possible. Because it takes an inhuman amount of grinding to move from a 60-rated player to anything that might resemble a dominant force. And the spending doesn’t end there.
Once I got to know DJ, I decided he needed a more douchey haircut. 100 VC later (double if you want to pick the colour) he had his man-bun. A new outfit? It all costs VC (and the best duds require your player is rated at least 75 overall).
The prevalence of microtransactions and the dilemma of mindlessly grinding for upgrades or reaching for your credit card reduces the MyCareer experience into little more than a very pretty free-to-play mobile game.
Again, there are more generous ways of looking at this, like how this additional income stream allows for the breadth of content (like the in-game TV show for which 2K produces new episodes throughout the season) and maintaining the server farms that underpin all this interactivity.
But it’s not that interactive. The Neighbourhood is populated by created players from gamers on the same server, but you can’t interact with them, not least because they are all living within the delusion that they are “DJ”, too. Most of The Neighbourhood is deserted, but for the constant horde of zombies milling about the town square, surrounded by Gatorade billboards, while their human puppeteers take a leak or, one can only presume, pop down the dairy to top up their electrolytes.
The Neighbourhood is Ayn Rand meets George C Romero, as told by one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s repressed narrators. In other words: if this is what passes for entertainment in the waning days of capitalism, excuse me while I go off-grid.
Except… I kept on playing. At first because I wanted see if Under Armor beefed up their shoe endorsement deal. Then I became intrigued by the way young NBA stars were texting Chip, asking to come to his pad (admittedly, it’s pretty sweet), or offering to take him on fishing trips.
Back at the beginning, when designing my player, I choose Chip’s wingspan, eye colour, skin tone and a thousand other variables, but not gender. As a result, My Neighbourhood is a total sausage fest. There have been girlfriends in previous MyCareer modes, but 2K18 effectively neuters all of these male athletes. They’re there to mine VC and throw down sick dunks. They have no time for romance.
Still, I wondered, is it possible the DJ story is coded in more than one sense of the word? Is this actually a story of a closeted athlete finding community within the NBA?
Of course not. But it’s the kind of meta-narrative I constructed in the days before MyCareer modes and it allows Chip Pnini’s so-so NBA career, his brash DJ persona, the sweetly awkward interactions with fellow athletes to all hang together.
So that’s the way I’m going to play MyCareer this year; as a sweet coming of age romance.
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