Spike Lee and NBA 2K16's Storytelling Revolution

A collaboration shows how the worlds of gaming and filmmaking are converging.

2K Games

Spike Lee’s latest project opens on one of the strangest images he’s ever captured: three actors wearing skin-tight body stockings with cameras mounted to their heads and pointed at their faces. As they chat about their undertaking, Lee walks in, claps them on the back, and addresses the camera. Before the story has even begun, he’s lifting the veil—this is how the new Spike Lee Joint, called Livin’ Da Dream, was created. Livin’ Da Dream is the story mode for NBA 2K16, a basketball video game. He wouldn’t have to do this in a film, but in introducing the real actors involved, Lee is clearly trying to underline artistry at work.

Video games have long experimented with narrative, and the “cut-scene,” or short movie clips that move the story along in between playable sections of the game, has been around for generations. Sports games, mostly intended for playing with friends, haven’t traditionally put much emphasis on storytelling, but with technological advances come new frontiers. In the NBA 2K MyCareer mode, you take on the identity of a young player entering the league, get drafted by a team, and play only as him on the court. Eventually, with some perseverance, you can become a superstar. In Livin’ Da Dream, that basic arc is given a more detailed backstory, and a heck of a lot more melodrama, by Lee.

Few video games value realism more than the NBA 2K series. Each edition of the game, which debuted in 1999 and has been updated every year, is as anticipated by the basketball industry as it is the general public. A player’s overall rating, which determines their effectiveness, is viewed by some as a crucial referendum on their status in the league. When Hassan Whiteside, an unheralded backup player for the Miami Heat, emerged as a superstar last season, he was asked about his out-of-nowhere success by the ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox. “I’m just trying to really get my NBA 2K rating up,” he joked. The game quickly obliged.

Playing a game in NBA 2K16 reflects that commitment to realism. Players’ faces and bodies were scanned to reflect their particular celebrations, facial movements, and tattoos; the camera moves and cuts as if you were watching a real television broadcast; real-life announcers go on long digressions about NBA history and specific players. Each annual edition usually reflects a superficial upgrade on the last, with better graphics, up-to-date team info, and a few new features, but there are enough new features every year to justify the purchase for any basketball fan. 2K16’s major addition is Spike Lee’s involvement; though the MyCareer mode has existed for years, it always felt rudimentary, a canned take on the average career path of an average NBA player. Lee (who is credited on the game’s cover) made one of the most famous basketball movies, He Got Game, and has been brought in to spice things up.

Livin’ Da Dream is as big a failure as it is a success, but its mere existence is fascinating, representing the latest primordial step in the evolution of games into a more narrative form of storytelling. When you start your career, you create a player, pick his position, and sculpt his face and body however you please. But then that creation is plopped into a perfunctory coming of age drama that rings somewhat hollow. You’re a straight-A student from Harlem nicknamed “Freq” (that way the characters can address you without calling you by your given name), with devoted parents, a twin sister who teaches you how to play basketball, and a ne’er-do-well best friend named Vic who encourages you on the path to stardom. You play high school games, choose where to play college ball from a number of universities, debate with your family whether to jump to the NBA after one year, and then get drafted by a professional team.

There are twists and turns along the way not worth spoiling, but all of them are extremely predictable. Lee brings back Al Palagonia, who played the greaseball agent Dom Pagnotti in He Got Game, to reprise the character (who rants and raves about your avatar being the best young player alive). As you achieve success, Vic’s life lurches into tragedy. Your parents and sister remain steadfast fans throughout, but even if you agree with their arguments to stay in college and get a diploma before entering the NBA, the game won’t let you—Lee’s story is on a specific track, and you have to follow it. It’s a fascinating melding of the customizability of video games with the more straightforward approach of film. It’s why Lee introduces his actors at the start of the game: He wants players to understand that there’s more at work here than usual.

Livin’ Da Dream might ultimately be dubbed a failure. Though the game got its usual rave reviews, critics mostly panned the MyCareer mode for making players sit through Freq’s hackneyed story. But it’s worth remembering that home video games as we know them are only some 40 years old. Forty years into the history of cinema, the silent era was just drawing to a close, and the first “talkies” were being released. Lee’s efforts are rudimentary and fail to fully grasp the unique properties of gaming—the level of control the viewer wants, and the variety of storytelling possibilities that can unfold as a result. But NBA 2K, and the gaming industry at large, is only growing more ubiquitous and profitable. These kinds of narrative experiments will eventually strike gold.