I love Spike Lee. Like, a lot. My 11th-favorite movie of all-time is The 25th Hour (for context, my Top 10 are here). My favorite sports films in order: Rocky, Field of Dreams, He Got Game (a Spike Lee joint). I'm not alone in thinking Do the Right Thing is a masterpiece. And with the basketball gods delivering a knockout NBA Finals, I thought back to a year ago when it was announced that Lee was writing the story mode for NBA 2K16. The time when I, and every other Spike Lee acolyte, thought: "Oh, no."
Historically, sports video games and story modes go together like turkeys and ducks. One gets shoved in the butt of the other on special occasions and everyone gets excited for what amounts to no reason. Still, all hail 2K for giving story mode a shot – no small task. And I get the interest in bringing on Spike Lee to helm it. A big name is bold! It's a game changer! Until it's not.
While the Lee/2K partnership hit nothing-but-net on one key aspect – a person of color created a story about people of color – the airballs were too plentiful, often avoidable and reeked of a lack of oversight. Starting with the title: Livin' Da Dream. Which is so obviously bad, I'm struggling to find a creative way to criticize it.
The most disappointing thing by far about Livin' Da Dream is that there are pretty much zero choices to be made. That's basically a movie, which, fair enough, but don't use the tagline "Be the Story" when it should be "Watch the Story." What's most aggravating is that, after you do get to make two superficial choices – what high school you go to, and which college (after one-sided pitches from recruiters) – you can't make the choices you really want to make. You can't tell your idiot best friend to get his shit straight; you can't tell your controlling sister to back the fuck off; you can't tell your team's owner he's being a vaguely racist asshole; and you can't shoot your motormouthed agent with a tranquilizer dart. The way you couldn't stop murdering people in Grand Theft Auto IV even though the character was "you," in NBA 2K16 you have to watch "you" make the worst possible choice in every situation. Consider that there's loads of drama and attention around if you leave school early to go pro or stay in school. But guess what? You don't get to choose. It just has you go pro. Proving this as one of the great Determinist experiences.
So, maybe the argument is it's a movie inside a video game. OK, so then was 2K too afraid to take away the keys to the car after Spike started veering into oncoming traffic? I know big names freak people out, but someone should've stepped up and red-flagged at least these things.
Yet More Baffling Shit in Livin' Da Dream
- The main character is called Frequency Vibrations (Freq for short). Let that sit for a second.
- The team owner gives off some racist vibes, and I like that Lee went there. But you get to pick Freq's skin color. So, if he's white, the vague racism is just really odd.
- The story inelegantly makes you a free-agent after your rookie season (it just happens, without real explanation!). If it's because your contract expired, that makes no sense since the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement has all rookies sign two-year deals. Otherwise it's because you, as a top-10 pick, were cut. Which is nonsense. Imagine the Knicks cutting Kristaps Porzingis because the owner thinks his best friend is a drag. Never. Bending the truth to accommodate story is forgivable, but this is egregious – in part because there's no reason given. Uh, Spike, you're a lifelong Knicks fan. You know this stuff. Or someone at 2K does. Why ignore it?
- There's a scene that features Freq and his annoying best friend driving around in a car and talking. For 14 minutes. As an analog, one of my favorite long takes ever featuring two people only talking tops out at three-and-a-half minutes. And that's an eon. No way Spike Lee would let it happen in one of his movies. So why do it here?
- The closing scene is (spoiler alert) your dead best friend sitting on a park bench and reading a tortured, exposition-riddled letter for eight minutes. What movie –er, story mode – ends with someone reading a letter for eight minutes? The ones that never get made.
This whole thing feels like a filmmaker who imposed his will on a game and found out along the way that game-making is hard. There's a reason big-name Hollywood types and video games don't mesh all that frequently. It's not just money that keeps the Coen Brothers and Diablo Cody and Shonda Rhimes from dashing off video game scripts. It's the restrictions.
I'm glad NBA 2K16's story mode exists. But it's not the spiritual sequel to He Got Game I was hoping for – instead it's a cautionary tale for all sports game stories going forward. Because somewhere along the way, Spike Lee was told "write a video game" and heard "abandon all you've learned!" If sports video game narratives are going to triumph, the aim should be the next Hoosiers, the next Rudy or the next Youngblood. Because abandoning over 100 years of screen lessons is plain dumb.