My Alex Hunter plays for Crystal Palace and is locked in a fearsome anti-banter contest with the club's latest signing, Harry Kane. Your Alex Hunter is almost certainly different. Such is the nature of Alex Hunter. Alex Hunter is all things to all people. Alex Hunter catches and refracts light in a thousand different ways.
Sample: perhaps your Alex Hunter scored on his debut for Manchester United, earned a gruff but appreciative nod from Anthony Martial about it, saw José Mourinho once in a corridor. Or: perhaps your Alex Hunter is at Everton, struggling to jack his plane seat backwards while Ross Barkley, behind him, stares blankly out of a Jetstream window. Alex Hunter is out there, currently, multiplied a hundred times, a million times, living a hundred thousand unique little lives. My Alex Hunter is trapped with Alan Pardew and Harry "perhaps his mo-cap performances could've been better if his jaw wasn't wired on upside-down" Kane. Such is life.
And so we unfold the odd-shaped crevices and ravine-like depths of FIFA's latest play mode, "The Journey".
The Journey begins with Hunter as a tiny child on a football pitch, doing tricks, and then he gets fouled so hard his father immediately leaves him. This is not even hyperbole on my part: he gets dispossessed, falls to the mud, and then his dad gets so mad that he leaves him forever. The Journey is built around two core concepts – daddy issues, and the complete fucked upness of the new FIFA penalty system – and both of these are evident within its first three minutes. Alex Hunter's father leaves, and that leaves Alex with me. He is the son I never thought I'd have.
It is important in The Journey to divide Alex Hunter from you, because you are not Alex Hunter (you are, as we have discussed, his emotionless and distant father, a god with cracks in his façade, manipulating his fate from afar). Alex Hunter is a gifted footballer who does not know whether he is mad at everything or very cool about everything. You are a fool with a controller. Alex Hunter is CAM with incredible growth potential and a Hovis advert for a grandfather. You are a gamer who cannot quite master free kicks. Alex Hunter isn't real, he is just the illusion of reality. You are the person trying to escape yours by diving into his.
My Alex Hunter is currently on loan at Newcastle and is too afraid to make a tackle in case he mistimes it and it affects his overall match rating. Your Alex Hunter could be different. Your Alex Hunter could be heaving Norwich up the league with a series of braces and cold, distant post-match interviews. Your Alex Hunter could be living in a hotel in Birmingham, trying to restore Aston Villa to its former glories. Every Alex Hunter that is born and dies within the FIFA multiverse is bound by the same struggles: form, game time, and the fact that he only has a choice of two best friends, a white guy with brown hair who is a dickhead and a white guy with brown hair who is ever so slightly less of a dickhead. Alex Hunter is cursed to spit "Yeah? Well let's see how you talk ON THE PITCH!" over and over and over, forever.
The confines of The Journey allow for this to feel important, because The Journey is essentially a quite bad episode of Hollyoaks mixed with literally every boy's fantasy, ever, and then played out with 20-minute game appearances and tedious training montages in between. You score on your debut then go and practise through balls in weird silence. You have a snarling match in the dressing room with another youngster then go and do dribbles. You play a game and you are told to look out for your match rating in the corner, don't fuck it up, don't misplace passes, and then you realise: who's really being trained, here? Alex Hunter or you? You pull out of a tackle you weren't 100 percent sure you were going to make, you contort an entire team's attacking move so the apex of it is Hunter: you are bending the will of the universe to make your tiny boy look better in front of Sean Dyche. You are playing FIFA, but you are also playing against FIFA. The Journey teaches you to play a form of the game that is technically useless.
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The point of The Journey, of course, is for FIFA to assert dominance over PES, make a land grab on the football franchise battlefield, and to that end it is entirely pointless. You are either FIFA or you are PES in the same way your eyes are green, or you are left-handed, or you like rock music: it's not a choice, it's a hardwired preference, which you can try and explain away with logic but ultimately you know deep down it's completely based on fortune. I was PES through university and then somewhere around 2010 I switched to FIFA and that is me now, locked in. I do not think it is possible to be clear-minded and fair about this. You can have reasoned debates about it in the pub or on the sofa, but the point of it is: you can explain your preference for FIFA or PES the same way you can explain why you love a country just because you were born it in. There's no logic behind the connection, but the connection is strong enough for you to defend until you die.
My Alex Hunter is Özilesque – although first-season-at-Arsenal Özil, before they'd figured him out, roving eyes over the entire field, making passes to nobody because there wasn't anyone on the pitch on his level, nobody making runs only he saw. My Alex Hunter has assisted all five of Adam Armstrong's goals this season and he hasn't once run over to celebrate with him. My Alex Hunter is leaning closer towards being friends with the dickhead who legitimately says "BOOM!" instead of the dickhead who tweets him now and again with some lifeless banter. My Alex Hunter misses his father but doesn't realise his father is me, in another world, holding a PlayStation controller. My Alex Hunter stays cool in interviews throughout, and Puma won't give him a sponsorship deal because of it.
I suppose I am trying to find the point of The Journey, and there isn't one. It's sort of corny and shit and slow: FIFA is at its most frustrating when it is actively stopping you from playing FIFA, rolling you through layer upon layer of menus, making you do a training drill while the game loads, playing its infernal music, and The Journey is a lot of Not Playing FIFA occasionally intersected with A Bit Of Playing FIFA. It is telling me that playing FIFA the way I have always played FIFA isn't good enough, and that the realisation of every boy's dream of being a footballer is actually shit: picking a team, making allegiances on and off the pitch, endless training, the persistent need to acquire Twitter followers, the admin of being a superstar.
Where game modes like FIFA Ultimate Team – and you have to assume whoever invented FIFA Ultimate Team was given whatever the closest thing they have to a knighthood is at EA, essentially inventing a way to make FIFA players invest more money in a game they only play for a year anyway, somehow making a facet of the game that KSI can do videos of, yelling endlessly on YouTube while opening pack after pack after pack and saying "SWEATY BEAST" a lot – actively improved the franchise, The Journey doesn't. It's an odd, stilted game mode where you spend a lot of it being gently chided by a not-real French full back and getting supportive messages from your not-real mum.
But did I cheer like I'd hewn him out of clay myself when my Alex Hunter scored his first Newcastle goal? Yes. Do I hold my breath when he is in front of goal because it matters more, because he has a star over his head, because he's mine? Also yes. You are my son, Alex Hunter, and your intensely supportive mum my sexless bride. You are my son, Alex Hunter, and your success means everything to me.