Alex Hunter is just one man, but his story splits into thousands of paths. This year, FIFA 17 players the world over will get to determine—through on-field performances and off-pitch narrative decisions—how this up-and-coming footballer's dreams are either made magnificently real or, potentially, crushed forever. Whether or not there's always a happy ending to the game's new "The Journey" mode, I can't say—I've only played for a couple of hours so far. But even through exit trials, pre-season training and friendlies, and the first few games of a nascent Premiership campaign, it's already been quite the proverbial rollercoaster of unprecedented highs and anxiety inducing lows for this ambitious young athlete.
But Alex Hunter isn't a real man, obviously. He's an avatar, a vessel for the player's own story to be carried in. He's no expressionless personality vacuum, though—comparing "The Journey" to a traditional role-playing game, Hunter is more your Witcher 3's Geralt of Rivia type, broadly drawn with flexibility for player refinement, than a create-your-own-adventurer character, as seen in the Fallouts of this mercifully pre-apocalyptic world. And he's played, vocally and in motion capture, by a very real actor: the Lagos-born, RADA-trained Adetomiwa Edun, whose credits prior to working with EA Sports on its FIFA series' boldest new direction since ditching isometric play for a side-on perspective include BBC TV's Merlin and The Hour. He's also been cast as both Romeo and Macbeth on London stages, only the second black actor to ever play the former.
"Twenty years ago, I was reading the Fighting Fantasy adventure books… and that's what we've brought to FIFA this year." – 'Tomiwa Edun
"Video games are definitely a cool thing to be involved in," 'Tomiwa tells me on a rare day off—or, as he calls it, a "guilt-free" day, at the very least. It can't quite be a day off, after all, since he's doing interviews. "The way that video gaming technology has come along, it's now a mash up of genres. 'The Journey' is designed to give a filmic experience to players. In movies, we're drawn in because we empathize with the characters; and here, you're the lead character, but you also have control not only over the path he walks, but also determining your own story via the dialogue choices you make.
"Twenty years ago, I was reading the Fighting Fantasy adventure books—you know, where you roll a dice, and make your own way through the story. That's what we've brought to FIFA this year, and I think this is a really interesting new space that we've arrived in."
"The Journey" is far and away the most interesting thing about FIFA 17. The game itself, its core football simulation element, isn't up to the standard that Pro Evolution Soccer has set this year, and switching from Konami's game to EA's just for the sake of Hunter's story is pretty jarring when it comes to the physical stuff. But it's worth sticking with—you can change the control scheme, which helps, but the input lag and weird floppiness of the player models might well stick around until next year's game—because as I detailed here, "The Journey" is set up to be a fantastically moreish soap opera of an underdog tale.
It's not all boyhood fantasies processed through powerful game engines, though—"The Journey" has advisers from the professional game, including one of its stars, Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane, who (spoiler?) joins the team you've selected for Hunter in the summer transfer window. (All teams are available, though performance demands and pay packets vary depending on the size and profile of the club. Naturally, I choose to sign with the team I support, Southampton.) Also lending his expertise to the experience is Manchester United frontman Marcus Rashford who, as an 18-year-old who's only relatively recently broken into both the top flight and England's international squad, is effectively a real-life version of the Hunter character.
"Marcus said that 'The Journey' has pretty much been his life," says 'Tomiwa. "So I think we're approximating this experience that so few of us will ever have ourselves pretty well. Not that I got to meet many of the players. I did meet (Manchester United manager) José Mourinho, though. As a United fan, I tried to get a few sneaky titbits out of him, but he keeps his cards close to his chest. He's really charismatic—you can just feel his personality when you're in the same room. He stands on his own two feet, definitely."
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It's only through the magic of video games, then, that Hunter—that 'Tomiwa—ever meets the likes of Kane, Serbian maestro Duśan Tadić and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus, FIFA 17's cover star. And his on-the-ball skills are largely crafted by designers rather than captured in practice, due to the risks posed by having size-fives bouncing around a motion-capture studio.
"In one of the early scenes, you see me doing like keepie-uppies. But I kicked the ball away at the end, when were filming, and almost took out twenty grand's worth of cameras. So actual footballs were very quickly banned from the set. Most of the gameplay stuff is shot very differently, because we're in this warehouse with a hundred, finely tuned cameras—it takes weeks to set it all up, for recording, meaning that in practice it's not actually useful to have a ball around. So my football skills weren't taxed too highly, because I wasn't allowed to do most of it."
"I went on YouTube, and you know you get the trending videos? There I was. There was my sweaty face. It's surreal. – 'Tomiwa Edun
FIFA 16 was the biggest-selling game in the UK last year, and globally the series has shifted over 100 million units. Suffice to say, a lot of people are going to be seeing 'Tomiwa for the first time through his involvement with the game. "I went on YouTube the other day," he says, "and you know you get the trending videos? There I was. There was my sweaty face. Hello. It's surreal. One of my buddies sent me a screenshot the other day, from the game, that had me done up as a Chelsea player, knowing that I'm a United fan. That is a strange thing to see.
"But I'm definitely going to play through the game myself, as myself. I've got a projector set up, some nice speakers ready—I'm just waiting for the game to land. I saw (French international striker) Antoine Griezmann post that he got his copy the other day, and I'm like, what? But I'm working on it. We have tournaments ready to go here—we just need it to drop."
Video games aren't a new thing for high-profile actors—the likes of Patrick Stewart, Christopher Walken, Ellen Page, and Elijah Wood have all leant their voices or likenesses, or both, to the interactive medium. (And the complete list of well-knowns from TV and film who've got involved in gaming would run the length of Lionel Messi's tax bill.) But I wonder if, still, gaming carries a stigma amongst actors of being a thing for kids, a toy, not to be taken all that seriously against television and theater.
"I can only speak about my own experience," says 'Tomiwa, "but I think it's a really exciting world for actors to get into. One of the great joys of this job is the variety of things you get to do, but it's all about, ultimately, trying to get people to connect with what you're doing, for them to feel something. In every movie, that's always there. We have different tools at our disposal in gaming, but fundamentally it's about how do I get my friends, and all these people, to connect with this stuff.
"This new mode is interesting, because it's giving you, the player, the empathy you see in a regular linear narrative, and adding into it the self-deterministic aspect of Alex Hunter. You're an author in your own story, right? And as a storyteller, that's a really interesting opportunity that's been afforded us. And that's why I'm so excited to play the game—to see how that blends. How well it does, where it works, and where it doesn't so well. You're asked to participate, and how well you do affects where you start in the next game. But then, maybe you do everything that's asked of you, and you still don't get your reward. I think this is playing with the basic nature of telling stories in a fascinating way."
"It's really not as simple as there being three different Alex Hunters—there's a lot of nuance in there." – 'Tomiwa Edun
The way your story, your version of Hunter, progresses is in your hands alone, but the foundations of "The Journey" are the same for everyone. Hunter is of mixed-race background, grew up in south London (you'll get an interactive flashback to an under-11s match), and his grandfather Jim was quite the player back in his day. Alex dreams of emulating his achievements, and joins the club you choose for him alongside a school friend, Gareth Walker—and you can bet that those two will turn from colleagues to rivals over the course of the season. But once the (Mass Effect-ish) dialogue wheel begins to turn—it always provides three potential actions or reactions—so "The Journey" begins to become tailored, unique to the audience of one. My Alex Hunter isn't the same as your Alex Hunter, or his or her Alex Hunter, just as soon as he's on the plane to the pre-season tour. The only person that's seen them all, that will probably ever see them all, is 'Tomiwa himself.
"It's really not as simple as there being three different Alex Hunters, for the three different paths, set by the three different dialogue options," he tells me. "It's a lot more modular than that, and there's an accumulative effect that your choices have. It's not a case of being fiery or passive—there's a lot of nuance in there. Which really does means that you're going to have a totally different game experience to your mate, because your individual choices will add up to different paths.
"For me, doing 'The Journey' allowed me to explore a 'what if' aspect of my own life. What if I'd been born at a slightly different time, and my own life had taken a different trajectory, and this opportunity had come my way? Because who doesn't want to make it in the Premier League? So many of us have had that dream. So I got to sort of live out that fantasy. The player gets to explore the path of being more of a Ryan Giggs character, quite chilled of demeanor, or enjoying being a more 'swagalicious' Zlatan Ibrahimović type. The challenge for me was to maintain a sense of one character, no matter the individual choices that the game players make along the way. And out of that came different traits that become heightened, depending on the path that you take."
"The Journey" is FIFA 17's best feature—and yes, it might essentially be the NBA 2K series' "MyCareer" mode, but association football > basketball (pipe down, America). The game's not lacking in competition options and means of multiplayer engagement—I hear you, Ultimate Teamers, I just don't understand you—and it again includes a handful of international women's teams, although they're hidden away in sub-menus. But with PES 2017 established as my go-to for fantasy football where I'm the god-like overseer of everything Southampton FC does, it's only Alex Hunter and his quest for glory that's going to keep me interested in EA's alternative kicker. The free-time-smashing upshot of which is, for the first time in forever, I'm going to be playing both major soccer sims this season. I suspect I won't be alone.
FIFA 17 is released in the UK on September 29, and is available in the US now. 'Tomiwa Edun also stars in the film What Happened to Monday?, in UK cinemas at the end of the year.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.