This article originally appeared in issue 78 of The Escapist.
Football is the world’s greatest sport. It just took Sensible Soccer to make me realize it.
When my dad heard my mom was pregnant, he went out and bought his future child a present. It was a large, colorful book explaining how you played football, full of annotated diagrams showing the best way to head the ball, get perfect dribbling technique and all the other basics his child would need to become Stafford’s answer to Pele. He didn’t know anything about the kid other than it existed, but pretty much his first thought was to try and pass his love of football onto it.
When I was old enough to read it, I loved it. Of course, I took the wrong message. My dad gives me a book about football? It means Dad wants me to read books.
You have to understand, I’ve never hated football. I just didn’t understand football.
Oh, obviously in a mechanical way, I understood football. I knew how it worked. I knew the names of the famous players. I could explain the offside rules to foreigners. I knew what an Old Firm derby was and why they could be so messy. I’d watch a few games on the box, especially the big ones, and kind of liked them.
But I fundamentally didn’t get it.
It took the dawn of the ’90s for anything to change; collusion between three influences in my life: The Amiga, Amiga Power and Sensible Software.
Despite being a Californian import, the Amiga is especially definitive in the U.K. Only the first PlayStation rivaled the Amiga, and since the PS1 conquered the rest of the world, it kind of undermines why the machine was specifically interesting in a British context in the mid-’90s.
The Amiga was a true Home Computer; a hobbyist machine, which you were meant to do literally everything on. It was primarily used through a TV, had standardized hardware and lots of chips which were primarily of use for lobbing a mass of sprites around the screen. Even better, it had one processor called Fat Agnus, which gave it a little quirky charm. This chimerical nature continued into what you actually did with the machine. In terms of its games, it straddled the gap between what the PCs and consoles were up to. It couldn’t do the action games as well as the Mega Drive or the SNES. And it couldn’t do more heavyweight topics as well as the fledgling PC – specifically, it struggled with 3-D, even early vector 3-D, let alone when people started lobbing texture maps around. But since it could manage some simulacra of both, you had a climate where both sorts of games were accepted, hybridized and a middle-ground between the two explored.
Yes, you can play a decent game of Pro Evo or OutRun 2 on a PC now. But you couldn’t then, and the attitude – that, somehow, you don’t play action games on the PC (unless they’re first person and/or online and/or enormously macho) – has fossilized into dogma. That simply wasn’t true on the Amiga, which means that any time I hear a modern gamer say, “That’s not my sort of thing,” I end up sighing. Back then, it was all our sort of things. True gaming sluts, we were up for anything.
This attitude was personified by Amiga Power, unarguably the greatest magazine about videogames ever written. No, really. For half a dozen reasons, but here’s a relevant one: They marked the hardest anyone’s ever dared. Sub 10-percent was absolutely commonplace, even for relatively big games. By the time it closed, there was a considerable list of publishers who’d just refuse to send the magazine their games. Because they were … well, to use AP‘s own words, whining, childish hatemongers.
AP was a bit juvenile at times, which is fine, because games are a bit juvenile, and being juvenile isn’t just a pejorative. Being idealistic and having a complete unwillingness to compromise are two absolutely primary juvenile traits. I’d swap a lot of quasi-serious professionalism for them.
If something got a mark in the 90s in Amiga Power, it meant something. I didn’t always agree with them, but I knew they agreed with what they’d written, and they’d lead me to enough interesting places for me to follow whatever they suggested. Hell, they’d already got me into pinball via the divine Pinball Dreams, created by future Battlefield 1942 developers, Digital Illusions. (Huh!)
AP gave Sensible Soccer their highest-ever mark. I trusted AP.
For what it’s worth, I trusted Sensible Software too. Everyone trusted Sensible. While it’d have been harder to call at the time, with the match long over, it’s fair to describe Sensible as the definitive Amiga Developer. Despite being rooted throughout the 8-bit scene, they came to their full power with Commodore’s 16-bit machine. They’re also definitive in a way that they ended up being tied to the Amiga, being unable to transform into something else as its age came to a close. While people like Bullfrog became a PC developer of note, Sensible disappeared down a hole of their own making with their infamous unfinished great-lost game, PC graphic adventure Sex ‘n Drugs ‘n Rock’n Roll.
But before that, they left behind a string of genuinely classic games. Mega Lo Mania was Civilization as observed through an English surrealistic filter and one of those pre- Dune II proto-real-time-strategy games which people tend to forget about when writing history books.
Cannon Fodder was an overhead-viewed action/strategy game using a mouse-control. Arriving at a similar time to Bullfrog’s Syndicate, it was a fascinating example of how two development studios could approach a similar concept with their own design priorities and end up with a radically different games. Where Syndicate was oppressive, Cannon Fodder was witty. Where Syndicate was black satire, Cannon Fodder was underwritten with a quiet moral rage at war.
Of course, there was Wizkid, a game so delightfully warped that it makes Psychonauts look like Gary Grigsby’s World at War and probably remains the world’s only graphic adventure/Arkanoid-clone hybrid.
And there was Sensible Soccer.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, sitting down to play. Not quite true: Back on the Spectrum, I’d played a fair chunk of Jon Ritman’s seminal Matchday II, and I’d also enjoyed Microprose Soccer, Sensible‘s chunky eight-bit forerunner. But Sensible Soccer was something quite different.
It was obviously a Sensible game. Unlike Matchday‘s side-on view – now the standard one ala FIFA or Pro Evo – it was viewed from above. And not slightly from above, but some distant point, perhaps suspended precariously from the bottom of a blimp. You could see huge expanses of the pitch. The men beneath you were tiny blurs of pixels. Even if there was masses animation, it’d be almost impossible to tell.
Sensible Soccer didn’t look like the best game ever, if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
Admittedly, I did. The tiny sprite thing was just one of Sensible’s constant visual signatures. Sensible’s John Hare has since talked about how this minimalism wasn’t actually a weakness. In fact, Sensible Soccer is better animated than a modern football game, by using the impressively sturdy anti-aliasing of the human mind to fill in the gaps. When watching FIFA, there’s always going to be tiny problems which drag you out of the world where animation doesn’t quite match up. As you approach perfection, the errors scream. In Sensible, the reverse happened, with people claiming to have seen animation where there was none. It all happened so quickly, overhead kicks were pasted in our inner minds.
Meanwhile, thanks to its perspective and one-button control system, Sensible Soccer was Audrey Hepburn elegant. In Sensible, you were instantly passing the ball around the pitch in ballet-like movement, from player to player to player.
It took me time – I was young – but I eventually worked out why Sensible Soccer was so extraordinary. First, the initially odd camera angle: Taken out so far, you saw most of the pitch. You were aware of the positioning of all your team at any moment. You could see who was free. You could see who was covered. You could just see. And since you could see, you could actually choose who would be best to pass to. Yes, other games had radar. But no one ever used radar.
Secondly, the basic button press: In Sensible, the ball was kicked the second the ball was tapped. An instant, accurate pass at whomever you chose. Tap. Tap. Tap. The ball moves from one to the next to the next, in perfect movements. While there was very little skill in performing the action, with it automatically choosing the appropriate player, this freed the player’s attention to considering the higher level matters. Passing was easy, so – yet again – people were free to choose who would be best to pass to.
The result was strings of passes that had the geometrical perfection of cheekbones.
There was more to the game than passing, of course. It allowed for impossibly dramatic aftertouch to the ball, allowing it to swerve past the outreached pixel-fingertips of the keeper. You could abandon the passing, and just play the long hoof, but even that was more tactical than in a game with a closer view, and in practice proved an ideal way to take advantage of a lapse in the defense. Enormous leaping headers and sliding tackles allowed a sudden thrust to reclaim a ball or turn a cross into a goal-threatening shot. You could play with formations for strategic effects.
But the passing was always the skeleton around which the game was built, what everything else was built upon. Even the basic skill of dribbling the ball up the pitch was – in game terms – defined in how it’s not passing the ball. When doing this, your players basically bobble the ball at their feet, a far, far trickier proposition than a pass, risking a loss of control. Your ability to risk a run was based around a tactical commitment of giving up the ability to easily slide into a pass. You believed you could swap flexibility for a tactical gambit.
Which means that, compared to a modern football game, Sensible Soccer had much fewer moves. In terms of “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” it was a far less accurate simulation of a football game, but I suspect more accurate games wouldn’t have taught me to understand football in the way Sensible Soccer did. Sensible Soccer was a cartoon of a football match, and cartooning is the art of magnification by removal. What remains is what the artist considered important. And in this cartoon simulation of football, you’re left with what is – basically – the core of football.
And over those first few months with Sensible Soccer, that’s what it taught me. The core, the reason why people watch this bloody game. Yes, the atmosphere is one thing, but not the only thing. I’d been to matches before as a kid, and even then got the intensity of tens of thousands of people staring at a field of grass and desperately wanting a small ball to go one way or another, but that didn’t explain why they were doing it in the first place.
Equally, the iconic images confuse you. The absolutely showy seconds, caught on film, played forever in slow motion over recent AOR hits on evening television aren’t what football are about. Not really, any more than the icing’s the cake or the orgasm’s the sex. You watch a 90-minute game; it’s not really for the high marks of skill. In fact, if you watch a game in real life, you can barely see the skill when it happens. It may be part of the payoff, but football – the bit you should be watching – is a structural thing.
And the trick is that football, more than any other major sport, is one of constant fluidity. Others have lots of handholding for the viewer, with regular stops and short bursts of play before the game comes to rest again, giving the observer a chance to consider. Football, compared to baseball or American football or even basketball, never stops. You have to read it on the fly, following a long tactical sentence of meaning. To really watch a game of football is to know why the ball is moving over there, why that defender is being pulled from position, what is going to happen next. Or, rather, what should happen next, and why someone’s being a bloody idiot if he doesn’t do it. That is, to understand its language and grammar; to read it. Sensible Soccer‘s simplified form showed me the structures to watch for, in platonic-perfection. Sensible Soccer explained it all.
After Sensible Software, I understood football. I was never going to love football as much as – say – any of the narrative forms, or a decent conversation or a movie. I was never going to love it like my dad – the sort of love which redecorates the garage door with an enormous Everton logo when they got to the cup-final – but I get it, and know why – as far as sports go – there’s none finer, and why it’s the world’s favorite. And I like understanding it, and I understand liking it.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.