I crave narrative. Almost all the games I love have strong storylines, wordy dialogue, and detailed characters. RPGs and adventures—those are my favourite games. I rarely have a “quick game” of something. Immersion, writing, and atmosphere are key. Yet the game I played more than any other last year has none of these things. It has no plot, no dialogue, no characters, and no themes. The writing within the game is minimal, functional at best, and it doesn’t even pretend to have a storyline. Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 is a football game through and through. It is almost a guilty pleasure.
Its Master League is a mode of deceptively simple genius. It is a custom league where you can choose any existing team or edit your own, and place them amongst 20 other teams from around the world. This way you can have a league with the best of the Italian, Spanish, English, and French divisions. Naturally I put my hometown team of Aberdeen FC in the division below, with the intent to work to the top. It was tough going at first. Aberdeen are a mediocre team at best and the game allocates a realistically miserly transfer budget to them. My young players were clumsy and weak, while my older players were slow and unfit. I played casually to start with, perhaps one 15 minute game a day, not really thinking about it as more than a timewaster while waiting for food to cook or winding down from work.
Then it clicked. I began to see the progress bars of my young players rise. I won more matches and acquired more money. My perception of the game changed and I began to see dramas in the mindless action, and patterns in the statistics. The squad members were now individuals beyond the differentiation in their stats. Miller and Aluko formed a near game breaking partnership of crosser and finisher. Some players were loyal, they’d do anything for the team; others were spoilt opportunists, cynically cashing in on their salaries while rotting on the bench or losing me games on the pitch. I took a particular dislike to N’Zonzi, who I imagined was a charismatic dressing room leader, but an awful player. I put him up for sale and no one bought him, so I fired him. The other players were upset with me and we suffered a few thrashings in the following games.
I was hooked. The element of progression in the game had snared me. Somehow, the game was telling me a story—or at least facilitating me to tell a story—and I played whenever I could. Each 15 minute game offered a sliver of developing narrative, and the cumulative effect was powerful: I had a history with this team. Without intent, I made up scenarios for my players as I played, investing their actions with greater meaning than simple goals and assists. Last minute equalizers and tense penalty shootouts had my heart racing almost as much as watching a real game might. I imagined an elaborate rags-to-riches tale for the club: a humble team with young players taking the fight to the billionaire-owned behemoths of football. Their victories were triumphs against corporate evil.
The continual improvement of my team was RPG-like. Grinding up the levels, they graduated from feeble gnats to globetrotting purveyors of liquid football. My early signings were a collection of unwanted misfits; later I prided myself on snatching young stars from under the noses of the big clubs. The teams that thrashed me in the early stages became victims of vengeful gubbings and outrageous showboating.
The game became too easy. An emergent narrative has ebbs and flows that can represent beginnings and cut-off points, and I realized that the decadence of the 2018 Aberdeen FC represented an end. Technically the game could go on forever, yet it was time to bring things to a conclusion. I won another treble, closed the game, then opened it again and started a new campaign with AEK Athens. Hundreds of matches lie ahead, with more outcomes to be interpreted and dramas to unfold, none of them written into the game. I would not have it any other way.