I hate Doris Burke.
That’s not fair. I don’t hate Real Doris Burke. I haven’t watched much basketball on television in a while, but I recall Real Doris Burke as being a consistently interesting sideline reporter, and if I recall correctly, occasional announcer, on ESPN’s NBA broadcasts. Real Doris Burke is fine. Fake Doris Burke, on the other hand, drives me crazy.
Doris Burke is the sideline reporter in NBA 2K13. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Doris Burke provides the voice of “Doris Burke,” an imaginary sideline reporter for a video game basketball simulation. Obviously there are no sidelines, and there’s no “reporting” in a game where all possibilities have to be programmed in. So why does Fake Doris Burke even exist in the game? Part of it is to provide verisimilitude—sports video games have generally, since the 1990s, attempted to ape television presentations of games (there are a few exceptions; I recall the superb High Heat Baseball doing more to give the feeling of attending a game and listening to the radio presentation.)
To that end, Burke tends to present generic bromides. At the start of the game, she’ll say she interviewed one team’s coach and he told her the strengths and weaknesses of an opposing player. This seems straightforward enough, except that she only has so many players she can talk about. I’ve made a league where historical players play alongside modern-day ones, and Burke never mentions the historical ones. Her info is also often outdated—she describes the Rockets’ James Harden as a “sixth man,” a role he filled in his previous team, before he was traded to become a star. She’ll also “interview” a coach again toward the end of the game, and mention that he wants his team to play hard if they need to come back, or play hard if it’s a close game, or play hard to keep the lead. It sounds right, but means nothing.
What annoys me the most about Burke is the third thing she does, the “Sprite Uncontainable Game.” As a part of the television package structure, between the third and fourth quarters of each game, she describes which team or player has had the “Uncontainable Game” so far (the addition of Sprite, a longtime NBA sponsor, both adds verisimilitude and funds the game!). Essentially, she’s trying to tell you, the player, what’s the most important part of the game that you’re playing has been.
And she gets it wrong. Every damn time, she gets it wrong. That’s why I hate Fake Doris Burke. Sometimes the wrong is a bug. Once, in game two of a five-game playoff series, she gleefully declared that Steve Nash was raising his game for the crucial seventh and deciding game of the series. Most of the time, she’s annoyingly boring. She declares “the play of the Bulls early in the game is the deciding factor so far,” without actually mentioning what made that run so important. The Bulls were ahead, they’d had a run, so the game made Burke say that it happened. Then she kicks it back to the announcers, who agree. “That run really changed the game, didn’t it.” “It sure did, Kevin,” say the guys in the booth.
Sometimes the programming simply falls apart. If the game is tied, Burke will often declare that one of the teams “is getting all the breaks, and they’re positioned to win the game” despite the clear evidence that the game is tied. NBA 2K13 also plays a few short replays of the events the “Uncontainable Game” segment refers to, and when Burke does the “gets all the breaks” line, those replays fall apart. They’re disjointed and totally incorrect, and it quickly goes back to “live action.” It’s a bug, yes, but it’s an indicative one: the game has no idea what’s going on.
While this annoys me, it also fascinates me. How bizarre is it that a game is programmed to be aware of itself? NBA 2K13, like all sports games where the announcers talk about more than just the immediate action, isn’t just a simulation of a sporting event: it’s also a description of that simulation of a sporting event. It’s a game of a game that makes a game of talking about the game.
The booth announcers in general fare better than Doris Burke does. She’s been written the worst lines. But their storytelling falls apart as well, in revealing ways. In one game, I was only able to beat my opponent’s defense by giving my power forward, Paul Millsap, the ball. He’d do a post move, get fouled, and shoot free throws, of which he made every one. He was dominating the game with more points than anyone else. But NBA 2K13 decided to tell me that Millsap was having a bad game, because he missed a few too many non-free throw shots. “He’ll want to forget this one, Kevin,’ intoned Steve Kerr. Every previous time I’d heard the announcers do this exchange, they’d been correct. This time, they were hilariously wrong.
But the game’s perception of how the game is progressing also affects how the game works. After all, there’s something we label an “artificial intelligence” inside NBA 2K13. It’s deciding how it should defend my team. In other contests, when I’d had a player with a dominating performance, the other team would start to double-team him when he got the ball. In my example from above, Paul Millsap was dominating my game—but the game didn’t understand that he was dominating. So I could keep engaging with this strategy with impunity.
Even if you don’t play sports games, you can understand the concept of the exploit. In Far Cry 3, I was challenged at conquering outposts until I got the silenced sniper rifle, after which it was ridiculously simple to hide and win. I didn’t have any announcers saying “he’s as calm and collected as a baby in a nice bassinet” as I did so, but I felt it. Games are generally more subtle about exploits—they’re “effective strategies”—but I still enjoy listening to what NBA 2K13 think works within it, and what actually works.
Intriguingly, the trend in advanced basketball metrics is to note that close shots at the rim, and three-point shots, are so much more efficient than everything in-between that they should be the main goals of any NBA team. NBA 2K13 is programmed to make this the case—every game I’ve played involves the announcers describing how many points in the paint both I and my opponents are getting. They consistently sound shocked at the fact that close shots, layups, and dunks are more efficient than other shots, and yet they always are. There is a constant negotiation between what the game of basketball believes itself to be and what it actually is, combined with the what the game of NBA 2K13 believes itself to be and what it actually is, and the announcers are programmed to be part of that narrative.
This is quite rare outside of sports games, although it can happen. Civilization V was a widely-praised game, but the most consistent and deserved criticism of it was that the AI wasn’t good. So in the Gods & Kings expansion, Firaxis not only claimed they’d improved the AI (which generally seemed to be true), but they also included a method by which you could see what the AI’s long-terms goal were. When you had a spy, you could uncover their plans, like launching naval invasions or sneak attacks. It was a way to test if the game’s perception of itself was true in your perception of the game.
The programmed announcers in NBA 2K13 don’t just fascinate me for their insights into AI. They also fascinate me for their approach to storytelling. There’s an XKCD comic labeled “All sports commentary.” It shows announcers saying “A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers.” “Let’s use them to build narratives!” NBA 2K13 builds its narratives in this way, yes, but it also has a weighted random number generating the forms those narratives takes. It can handle straightforward in-game comebacks, or what happened last season, or when a player gets hot and starts making more baskets than they had previously in the game. But anything more complicated than that, like my Millsap game, and it falls apart.
This is what we do for all out stories, though. They have to fit into convenient narrative forms. You may have heard the glib statement that “there are only two stories, someone leaves town or a stranger comes to town.” It’s obviously superficial for all stories, but it’s also true that our mass media tends to rely on a few styles of storylines—the Hero’s Journey, for example, or a particular favorite of sports media: redemption. Anyone who ever messes up in the sports world gets shoved into a redemption storyline if they succeed at any level—Michael Vick “redeemed” himself not by serving his sentence and working against dog violence since release (although he has)–but instead by playing football really good.
We have our default video game stories as well. The Hero’s Journey dominates almost all RPGs, with the Japanese variant taking it to ridiculous extremes. First-person shooters are dominated by gruff, hypercompetent military men, except for the science fiction shooters, which have their gruff hypercompetent military men in awesome power armor. On the other hand, Open-world games generally have only the most superficial narratives, or they remove stories entirely.
NBA 2K13 is somewhere in the middle of all that. It’s using its interacting systems to build a narrative, but it’s also explaining what it thinks its narrative is to you as you play it. We’ve got enough storage space and tradition of sports announcers in games that NBA 2K13 can make the attempt to tell stories at a level of ambition beyond the here-and-now of previous sports games that I’ve played. Its failures are inevitable, but they’re also fascinating. I hate Doris Burke because she’s wrong, but I love that she tries.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.
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