Warning: This post features spoilers for NBA 2K16’s story mode, Livin’ Da Dream
Visual Concepts has long dominated video game basketball. For NBA 2K16 they made one of their more ambitious moves with Livin’ Da Dream, a single player story mode. While a career mode has become an expected part of sports games, having a narrative driven mode hasn’t been attempted by the biggest brands. For many players these career modes go beyond simply following a single player and allow them to create their own stories. This time Visual Concepts attempted to build a story for the player. Written and directed by Spike Lee, Livin’ Da Dream ends up falling short. It pulls the player out of their story and the tone frequently clashes with the on-court action.
The story follows Frequency Vibrations, or Freq, a Harlem born basketball player as he goes from high school phenom to the NBA. The other major players in the story include your childhood friend Vic, your sister Cee Cee and your parents. Later on your girlfriend and agent become recurring characters and the team owner for your NBA franchise also makes a couple appearances. The story itself is mostly predictable; your sister thinks your girlfriend is a gold digger, your best friend drops your name to get women and your agent is always looking for a buck. These clichés could be overlooked if the rest of the story fit with your character but unfortunately it never connects.
Right away the story shoves the player aside by renaming your character. While the in-game announcers have recorded hundreds of names the story crafted by Lee isn’t about your character, it’s about Freq. None of the characters ever refer to your player by anything other than Frequency or Freq. Not only is it ridiculous to hear the team owner talk about how they are welcoming Frequency Vibrations to their team, it also removes the feeling that your character is the center of this story. The clash becomes even more obvious if you build a character who isn’t black. Your family is unchanged, and while this makes practical since as the characters are modeled after their respective actors, it doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. It can lead to some almost laugh out loud moments like your mother talking about what is was like when she was pregnant and you couldn’t look more different than her.
After playing a three game high school season you are given the option to choose a college. In a surprising, but welcome, twist the game licensed 10 real college teams such as Kansas, Michigan and Arizona. They even have the 2016 rookies on their respective college teams so when you play Wisconsin you see Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker on the court. Unfortunately picking your college is one of the only choices the game allows you to make.
The college season lasts four games, with the final game being the National Championship game. After each game you are given a measure of how your draft stock is trending and where you are likely to be picked. In my playthrough I struggled a bit in college and was projected to be picked outside the lottery. Coupled with a loss in the title game I thought it would be best to return to school for my sophomore year to improve my stock and take another shot at a championship. The game makes a big deal about this decision, culminating in a long cut scene featuring a conference call between your parents, agent Dom Pagnotti, your sister and your girlfriend Yvette who is introduced in this scene with no background at all.
The central conflict is between your father and Dom. Your father is adamant that you need to finish college while Dom is certain he will make you the number 1 pick. Ignoring the fact that the game had already told me there was no way I was going to be picked first overall I had already decided that returning to school was the best option. I told everyone I would sleep on it and as the screen faded I expected to see another menu, similar to when I chose a college, with the option to jump to the NBA or stay in school. Instead I was told that I had entered the NBA Draft. In this pivotal moment of my character’s career the decision was made for me so that Spike Lee could tell his story.
From this point on the story becomes a chain of cut scenes with no input at all from the player. Decisions are made for you and there isn’t anything you can do about it. The crux of your first NBA season is how your relationship with Vic is affecting your career. The game goes out of its way to stress your loyalty to Vic, however from the start they paint him as a selfish deadbeat. The very first scene talks about how he is constantly skipping class and discusses the benefits he has as an F.O.F. or friend of Freq. From there you see him ogling cheerleaders at every one of your high school games (and even your sister at one point). Everything about the guy made him out to be a dirt bag so when the team owner talked to me about cutting him loose and revealed how much I spent to solve some legal issues for him I was beyond done with the guy. Of course the game doesn’t care because this isn’t my story and it’s not my choice to make.
This all comes to a head in one of the more ridiculous scenes in the entire game. Freq and Vic get in a fight over the way he is spending your money and abusing your status. When Freq threatens to cut him off Vic reveals his ace in the hole. Years ago as children you got in a fight on a stair case with another boy and this other boy ended up falling down the stairs to his death. You ran away leaving Vic to take the fall and he did it to protect your brand. There was never any hint and the game never mentions this incident again. It was as if even Lee realized that there wasn’t any chance someone would like Vic so he had to give a reason for your character to stick by him.
While this craziness is happening off the court the basketball isn’t left out. The announcing crew also refers to you as Freq, only occasionally using your character’s name when announcing lineups. On top of that the characters in the game continually talk about your superstardom, at one point you are given your own line of Jordan’s, even when your play doesn’t warrant it. I had a typical rookie season, there were some ups and downs and I was never more than a role player. Off the court however, every cut scene talked about how much of a star I was. The dissonance between my level of play and the way everyone treated me added a layer of unintentional comedy to even the most serious scenes.
The most egregious gameplay error the game makes is sacrificing basketball for the story. In order to pace the story your rookie season is reduced to eight games plus playoffs. Player progression in the career mode is heavily reliant on playing games. You earn currency at the end of each game based on your performance and this is spent to upgrade your player. An average game performance will earn enough currency to level one of your skills up by a level or two at the early stages. When I started my player was rated 55 overall and by the end of my 8 game season I hadn’t even cracked 65 overall. The game robbed a year of player development to tell a story I wasn’t even able to influence. Thankfully the story only lasts your rookie season and after that the game changes to a more familiar career mode.
Livin’ Da Dream is an interesting experiment for sports games. It’s held back by Lee, who isn’t trying to hide the fact that he is making a movie and not a piece of interactive entertainment. While the experiment ultimately fails there is some potential for a narrative in a sports game. It’s easy to imagine a more interactive story with branching options and room to allow players to imprint their own personality and ideas into their characters. Hopefully Livin’ Da Dream is the first of many attempts to make this interesting idea work.