(I don’t know if any of you play Madden, but if you do, this piece contains spoilers for the story mode, Longshot, particularly the ending. You’ve been warned!)
Madden is not a video game that is supposed to make you cry.
To be fair, there are some who would probably say that no video game should make you cry. But those people have probably never hit the road as Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead, or shouted for their lost child in the middle of a shopping mall in Heavy Rain, or ridden through the old west as John Marston, desperately trying to get back to his family, in Red Dead Redemption.
A well-constructed video game narrative, in the best case, transports the player into the world of the game, creating a level of immersion where the choices the characters are making aren’t just part of a dialogue tree: they represent who you are, or perhaps, who you want to be. And there are times when those choices are truly awful. When you have to choose between two characters you love, knowing that the one you don’t choose will die. Even in a virtual world, those choices can be deeply personal, and deeply affecting.
This brings me back to Madden, which this year includes a story mode titled Longshot, where you play as Devin Wade, a small town Texas kid and one-time top football prospect who, after a personal tragedy led him to walk away from the game, gets one last chance at making it to the NFL.
(Yes, that was Mahershala Ali playing your father, and Scott Porter playing your best friend.)
The story is vintage sports movie (and TV) stuff: fathers and sons, the bonds of friendship on and off the field, improbable last-minute comebacks, and that naïve, childlike pursuit of a nearly impossible dream: to get a chance to do what you love for a living, alongside the best in the world. If you’ve seen Friday Night Lights or Pitch or any number of other sports movies or shows, you’ve seen versions of this story. The difference here, of course, is that it’s a game, and you’re the one making choices that eventually affect the outcome.
The central relationship in Longshot is the one between the players, Devin Wade, and his childhood best friend, Colt Cruise. The two grew up together, played football together all the way through high school (with Wade as the star quarterback, Cruise as his trusty wide receiver) and up to their freshman year at Texas, which is when Wade walks away from football. Although we learn (and play through) these memories over the course of the game, most of the story is set in the present, as Wade and Cruise prepare for the NFL Draft.
Cruise is the wisecracking sidekick, the best friend who is there to give advice and prop up the hero of the story. You know the type. But he has his own dreams of making it in the NFL, even though he’s too short and too slow and is just as much of a longshot as our hero. Playing as Wade, it’s obvious that the “right” way to play, from a video game standpoint, is to be humble, strong, and make smart decisions in the game.
The problem with this approach is that the smart decisions often come at the expense of Cruise.
Throughout the story, Cruise proves time and again that he’ll do anything for his best friend, even when they’re personally detrimental, like skipping his combine (i.e. bailing on his own tryout for NFL scouts and coaches) to help Wade as he tries to work his way toward being drafted. And within a number of the scenarios the player is forced to confront, there are times where the correct decision in-game, the one that proves Wade is a good quarterback, don’t necessarily help Cruise.
The end result of making the “right” choices is that Wade gets drafted, and fulfills his dream… but Cruise doesn’t. This was surprising and heartbreaking, knowing that I did everything right, everything that the game expected of me, and yet, it ultimately didn’t lead to the happy ending.
Like other narrative-driven games, this one has alternate endings, and so I started over, in search of a more satisfying outcome. The second time through, I made sure that Wade made Cruise look good at every opportunity. But in doing this, Cruise ends up as the one who gets drafted by an NFL team, not Wade. And as happy a moment this is for Cruise, Wade is just as devastated.
As the player controlling Devin Wade, I have failed him. As Devin Wade, I have failed myself.
But then the phone rings. Wade is given the opportunity to sign as an undrafted free agent (while this is narratively convenient, it does happen a fair amount in real life). What’s more, the offer is coming from the same team that drafted Cruise - meaning that he can go into the NFL and compete for a job alongside his best friend.
When I got this outcome, I was floored. Because this, the most emotionally satisfying ending, the one that gets both Wade and Cruise to the NFL, wasn’t the one where I excelled the most on the field. It wasn’t the one where I did everything I was supposed to as a football player.
It was the one where I took care of the guy who took care of me. Where I also looked out for my best friend, instead of just looking out for myself.
Video games teach us to win. To get to the other side of the map, to kill all the bad guys, to save the world. It’s easy to understand, it’s black and white, and it’s a natural way to play.
But every once in a while, a game comes along that’s built on shades of gray, that suggests you play the game a particular way, but to test you, to see how you’ll respond. Longshot is one of those games, and in doing this, provides a rare moment in gaming, one that suggests that doing the right thing is more important than doing things the right way.
Not bad, for a video game about football.