At The Mountains Of ‘Madden’: Inside Gaming’s Modern Relic Of A Franchise

EA’s Madden NFL franchise is a curiosity in gaming. It’s one of the few sports games that has endured, selling millions of copies every year. And, having not played it seriously since the Super Nintendo days, I decided to plunk down my $60 for Madden NFL 15, really play the game, and see how things had changed, and it was surprising just how much it hadn’t.

Lost In A Foreign Land

I should clarify that I’m not a football guy or even much of a sports guy. It helps that I was born in DC, and if it weren’t for the controversy over the name, there would be no reason whatsoever to notice the Redskins. As a result, I have no background in football, and I quickly discovered Madden NFL hates me for it. It demands, at every turn, that you take it seriously.

Right off the bat, you boot the game and it’s almost comically self-serious. You can’t just go to the menu and play the game, you have to watch an unskippable cutscene and be introduced to the game by Cam Newton, whoever he is. He wasn’t excited to be there and I wasn’t excited to see him; the effect was not unlike running into a Facebook “friend” you’ve never met in person and trying to make small talk.

All of this is set to music better suited to a war movie than grown men smashing into each other to get their hands on a leather egg, and the effect is faintly ridiculous. It would only get worse from there.

Are You Ready For Some Football?!

Most games cram a tutorial into a level; start the player off easy, play through and get the hang of the mechanics. Or perhaps there’s a practice room where you can adjust conditions and try out controls. Not with Madden.

No, Madden requires you to play through the whole game broken down into little pieces. The tutorials are aggressive to a hilarious degree: You have to earn medals by completing attempts. And if you don’t medal, and keep in mind this is about practicing the mechanics of the game so you can actually play it, you have to go back and do all of it again.

Furthermore, these tutorials are blatantly engineered to be frustrating to new players, at odds with the simple and well-refined mechanics. For example, I did everything the game told me to do when delivering a kick, a simple task. But where a kick that came up short hit the turf and tumbled maybe a foot away from where it landed, well away from my goal, a kick into the zone it wanted me to get to caromed off the turf like it was made of rubber and rocketed away into space.

The whole thing is like that, and it lines up a little too well with the NFL’s message about how seriously we’re supposed to take football to be chalked up to incompetence. It’s not that I believe playing professional sports is easy. It’s simply that they can make this as hard or as easy as they want to, and it’s telling they’ve chosen to make it difficult, and how perfectly that lines up with the marketing message of how tough professional football is and how seriously we should take it. It is, in game form, about a large corporation’s need for validation, and it’s weird.

Fail To The Redskins

After a few hours in the tutorials, I skipped the rest once I realized, all at once, that the “Oklahoma Offense” was best summed up by Better Off Dead. With that chore done, I settled in to try and lead the Redskins to a facsimile of their last season, which, when I looked it up, meant I just had to win three games. Here’s a Vine detailing just how that went:

After the tutorials, I was a little surprised at how forgiving the AI was in the actual game; I was occasionally allowed to make a touchdown or land a field goal so my team could have a wisp of dignity. It’s playable, but only just, unless you know precisely what you’re doing.

What was so fascinating to me was how much love and care has been lavished on, essentially, shaming you for sucking. Announcers have recorded lines of mock concern. Players in anguish at my failure have been lovingly animated in their sadness and fits of rage. And there are so many ways you can fail!

For example, I pretty much consistently used the Aggressive Tackle, for the strategic reason that the animations were really funny. I started getting punished for this because apparently I wasn’t slamming dudes into the ground the right way. Don’t you know to be conservative in your tackles? Can’t you appreciate the nuance of the game?

Well, no, actually. I can’t. And the entire problem is that the game doesn’t care to show it to me.

A Modern Relic

One thing that struck me, again and again, was how utterly old-fashioned and even outdated this game was, in the nitty-gritty of it. Punting and kicking requires filling a meter and hitting a button at the exact right time, for God’s sake. You’d think game mechanics haven’t advanced since Milli Vanilli topped the charts.

But more than that, it’s not interested in teaching me how to play better or even in modern game design. In the PowerPoints thrown up on the screen while the game loads, there are brief explanations of strategy and technique that the game itself never really discusses in any detail and barely even applies to gameplay. It was enough that I was genuinely curious, that I wanted to sit down and have these concepts laid out for me. And yet, there it is again, the attitude of “You should know all this already, why are you even here if you don’t?”

Which is, in its own way, a shame. A well-done video game can make you interested in subjects you’d never think about otherwise and allow you to learn by doing in an environment where it’s OK to fail. And admittedly, that approach is a bit crunchy-hippie for the NFL, especially for a game where the real appeal is playing against your friends. But it strikes me that sooner or later, things will have to change, or Madden will finally be forced to retire.