Coloring Outside the Lines of Sports Video Games' Pretty PictureBrent Nielsen has a corner office catching 270 degrees of Florida sunshine, and his face lights up whenever you tell him a good golf story. Especially one that happened inside the game he makes, Tiger Woods PGA Tour.


"OK, so, I'm a stroke back of Tiger on No. 17 at Augusta," I open. Nielsen has a look like he can't wait to hear it.

That's good, because I can't wait to tell it. The Cliff's Notes version is that I go bunker on my second shot, hole out for birdie, and Tiger bogeys, giving me a miracle and the Green Jacket on the next hole. You can get more of the details here. I'm not sure I'll ever have a moment that heart-pounding, exciting or fulfilling in a sports video game again.

"But you know what I really wanted," I said, "was a close-up on Tiger, with just an utterly beaten expression, and Jim Nantz is saying something like, 'And Tiger Woods is stoic.'"

"That'd be awesome," Nielsen laughed, and we both understood each other. He had asked my advice on how to make his game better, and this sort of thing was so specific to my experience I knew it would be impossible to design a game that offered that sort of customized exclamation point on what was already an amazing moment it had created for me. Still, like any golfer in real life, I wanted to memorialize the awesomeness of that shot, which is why I spent two minutes on the subject.

It, and other conversations I had, brought up a concept I hadn't really considered before: The responsibility of a sports video gamer in creating the story of his virtual athlete, and the balance of one's imagination against all of the passive or semi-interactive scenes that are or could be rendered in the game's career modes. These are entertainment products, consumed by millions, made and refined each year, and it doesn't really matter how deep they go in the role-playing or the customization, there will always be something they can't deliver to complete the fantasy.

And that fantasy is unique to all of video gaming because, even though games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Deus Ex: Human Revolution serve vastly deeper experiences, they are not connected to real life in the way sports video games are. Something like Skyrim has to offer a more developed structure of multiple story arcs and optional development paths for your character because the entire world is fantasy, down to the Eidar cheese. There's nothing anchoring it to real life. Going to college at Winterhold in Skyrim, and slaying a dragon in the middle of the main quad is not a backstory I'd come up with on my own. But in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, I wear a red golf glove because I pretend my guy, like me, went to N.C. State, a simple designation that isn't available in the game and yet, frankly, would add little even if it were.

I've been a deadeye shooter, a hothead fastballer, a dying head coach. All of that was coloring outside the lines of a video game.

That kind of filling-in-the-blanks for yourself is done all the time in sports video games, and has been done for years. It's why, two years ago, NCAA Football added the means to generate recap stories in your online dynasty, the career mode that has you in charge of a football program. The NCAA Football development team knew that its lifelong players were writing up their own fake AP-style roundups and emailing them around, as if Florida State walloping Ole Miss 72-9 in the Sugar Bowl had happened in real life. Hell, I've written those stories. Years ago, I sent one to the college beat writer at the Rocky Mountain News, who wrote back saying my coach was an obdurate jackass who gave terrible interviews.

At various stages of my sports careers, I have been a walk-on deadeye shooter at State who saves his best games for those no-good son-of-a-bitch-bastard Tar Heels. I've been a hothead fastballer who drilled Chipper Jones in the back and made an enemy for life. I've been the first female amateur at The Masters, praying in the night to make the cut. I've been an overweight sanitation worker who got a roster spot in a minor league tryout. And I've been a football coach whose dying words were engraved on the facade of the stadium bearing his name.

All of that stuff was coloring outside the lines of the video game I was playing. No title has served up experiences that specific, nor could that be expected of one. NCAA Football's "Road to Glory" could give us an interactive cut scene where your high school prospect has a signing-day announcement and chooses one of three caps on a table. Great. I'll still want to see my quarterback hugging his mom after his first college start. Our imaginations will still walk far outside the boundary lines of the game.

***

So, no, I don't really want Tiger Woods PGA Tour to custom-fit its broadcast to serve the idealized one I imagine, where my showerhead is the press conference microphone every morning. ("Well, Jim, I left a lot of strokes out there today, but ...") The fact I care that much is evidence that Brent Nielsen and his group have made a fundamentally compelling game.

This ad-libbing is the chance to build on a story the game had created. It's a personal investment, and the best games don't try to mindread these wild stories, they are secure enough to inspire you to append your own writing to it. They are, like Nielsen was with me, secure enough to invite you to make them better.

Coloring Outside the Lines of Sports Video Games' Pretty Picture
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.