Hollow souls: why today’s football games can’t simulate the spirit of the beautiful game

World Cup 2014

EA Sports’ official World Cup 2014 game is released later this week. But where is the current generation’s Sensible Soccer?

While the crazy money at the top tiers of professional football can make a man weep, there’s no doubting what comprises the enduring appeal of the world’s most popular sport, followed by an estimated 3.5 billion people. Or: half the globe’s population.

It’s not the glamour or the sports cars, or even the montage of wonder strikes rounding off any given tournament. It’s that anyone can enjoy it. Anyone can play, however impoverished or affluent they might be. Get together with friends, grab something spherical to kick, and you’ve got football.

Its essence is something that can be appreciated for its purity. You look, you shoot, you score – a chain of events set within a miniscule time frame and connected by symbiotic motions, a flick of the eyes to assess the position of the keeper coinciding with the drawing back of a boot, strike direction determined by neuronal feedback travelling at 100 metres a second. This isn’t chess, where forethought and an appreciation of the long game inform every equation. It’s pure instinct.

Just before Christmas 2013, I found myself in possession of the two biggest football games on the console market: Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 and EA’s FIFA 14. I played them both, at length. But as great as they were, neither left me feeling particularly close to the sport they simulate.

These are amazingly comprehensive titles offering fans of ephemeral features – season-specific statistical accuracies and flawless stutter-step animations – depth enough to spend a full 12 months luxuriating in, until the next iteration of their chosen series rolls around. Each new release is an interactive parallel to a perception of football realism framed by contemporary television presentation: intimidatingly loud, incredibly analytical, and probably featuring a spinning graphic or seven. They deliver Super Sunday any day of the week.

PES and FIFA’s yearly updates have smoothed out their rough edges, but have they lost their character, too?

I enjoyed both games. As Southampton on PES, I beat Valencia on their own turf, the kind of fantasy scenario that only videogames can realise. But I really felt a barrier between my seat and the on-screen action, as the controls (beyond the absolute basics) are just so unwieldy. The effort it takes to learn every input to get the very most out of your FIFA 14 experience, to crack just a couple of its better skill moves, is immense. It makes studying for the toughest degree seem like a cakewalk.

Playing football as a child, you’ll try new things, unpressured and able to make mistakes. It’s fun to mess around, to come up short but keep on going. Attempting flair in FIFA, and failing, leads to concession of possession, a frantic chase back to defensive positions, and outright embarrassment before opponents cackling to themselves on the opposite end of a broadband line. There’s a massive disconnect: the instinctive has become the studied. To win at FIFA, in style, you really do need to play it several seconds ahead of yourself.

Like high-end competitors in the fighting game community – who see their favourite face-offs as a form of 2D chess, albeit with more fireballs – the best FIFA players can read rival intentions and counter with special moves. Pulling off a sombrero flick to steal the ball away from a defender is the analogue of a perfectly timed Street Fighter IV counter hit, nullifying threat and transitioning play into a new phase of offense. But having recently attended a FGC event where organisers replaced the usual Capcom titles with Messhof’s ostensibly simplistic Nidhogg, and seeing the great reception it received, I began to wonder: what’s the sports scene’s own Nidhogg, right now?

Modern football games’ complexity and online modes make them daunting for those just looking for knockabout fun.

I’m not sure there is one, of note (please do tell me otherwise). Previous generations saw addictive sports games bearing instant-click control schemes: think of NBA Jam, the isometric FIFAs, Virtua Tennis. The pleasure the player receives from these titles doesn’t derive from encyclopaedic knowledge of RSI-encouraging digit gymnastics. These games operate on more primal connections – they are closer to the spirit of the sports they represent than the mazy menu trees of today’s models. 1985’s Tennis, a launch game for the NES, was just Pong with crude animations – but play at its faster levels and it’s as thrilling today as Top Spin 4. Even its 1989 Game Boy port can have a man breaking into a sweat over its monochrome action.

And isn’t that another of sport’s purest joys, that it’s capable of making you feel more alive than you did moments ago? It’s great that we can be our favourite athletes in greater detail than ever before – they stumble and fall, tackle and score, just like the real thing. But in 1992, and without wanting to sound like a grumpy old man, I could be myself in Sensible Soccer with just the single trigger of a Kempston joystick. That uncluttered interface allowed for a kind of individual expression that 2014’s breed does much to suffocate by minutiae.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that Sensi was the last great top-down football game, as that’s how it felt: tops down. Kids in the park, muddying hoodies for the pleasure of a kick-about, unburdened by complications and there exclusively for the love of the game. Today’s FIFA and PES releases represent astonishing works of refined design, glorious in motion. But few could convincingly argue that they come close to simulating the soul of football.