I spent most of this episode trying to decide what the hell I was going to do with Johnny Manziel. My original premise wasn't as captivating as I'd hoped, and, appropriately enough, I scrambled. Week 16 of Breaking Madden was a lot like Manziel's debut as starter of the Cleveland Browns: rife with missed opportunities, ideas that didn't pan out, and eventual defeat. In the end, I threw the artificial notions of "goals" and "success" out the window, and let Johnny Football do what he probably wanted to do all along.
In the end, I am perfectly fine with that. This episode of Breaking Madden is about Johnny Manziel extending the play, as he is famous for doing. He can stretch out a single play for an entire minute. An entire quarter. Forever, in fact:
Music: "Johnny Strikes Up The Band" by Warren Zevon
What's the longest play in the history of American football? Even the plays that feel like an eternity, the very longest, most tortured Hail Marys, the zig-zaggiest interception returns through dense thickets of inept tackling, never last longer than 20 or 30 seconds.
I want Johnny Manziel to extend a play for so long that time no longer matters. The field will be his, to do with as any man with a plot of land might do. Till the soil and grow corn. Build a cabin. Hang a portrait of ducks flying over a pond. Choose bath towels that match the tiles. Pour a mug of coffee and hobble with morning legs to the porch; sit and enjoy the sun as it floats over the tree line. Build a future, Johnny.
I am here to help, and so are 19 of my friends. Please welcome the newest members of the Browns, and their Week 16 opponents, the Carolina Panthers.
As usual, I found them on Twitter. I asked y'all:
if you would like to be in the next Breaking Madden, please tell me about the biggest waste of time you have ever experienced— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) December 12, 2014
As per usual, the responses were a riot. There are stories of Y2K doomsday predictions, two-month-long trips home from Kuwait, seven-hour drives that ended in a breakup, and, simply, "law school." You can read them all here.
In order to help give Johnny all the time he would ever want, our six newest Browns make up the offensive line. They are as large as I could make them, and rate a perfect 99/99 in every rating category. As you've probably already guessed, the new Panthers are the polar opposite: five feet tall, 160 pounds, and 0/99 in every conceivable skill.
That explains this, I guess.
In Madden, the most lethal ratings cocktail usually involves an Awareness level of 0/99. Johnson, number 4, is actually just being completely oblivious, but I see a guy bailing from a shitty party.
This behavior might seem strange to a lot of people, but know that within our society, there is a subset of us who have no issue with throwing on a coat, heading to a bar or a party or something, putting two feet in the door, and peacing out after two minutes. Maybe you spot your ex or something. Personally, if I bail immediately, it's almost certainly because it's an absurdly loud, crowded bar. It's hell. Eking out barely enough room to stand, holding a drink with a T-rex arm, shouting every line of conversation, and hearing maybe 70 percent of what the other person says: this is my Kryptonite. I love a chill bar, and I like a moderately busy bar. But put me in some generic Irish bar at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night and I turn into Sean Connery from Finding Forrester when the kid tries to take him to a Knicks game. I'm perpetually bug-eyed and sneering and all I want to do is go home and ghostwrite your term paper.
My original idea was to keep Johnny scrambling in the pocket for as long as it took for the game clock to hit zero. And with a little practice, I could do this reliably. Trust me, it's not really worth your time to watch that in its entirety. But as we've seen previously in Breaking Madden, if a play lasts long enough, the game's AI totally runs out of stuff to do.
After a few minutes, Johnny's offensive line stopped blocking for him. In fact, they stopped playing football entirely. Look at 'em! Even as Johnny scrambles for dear life right in front of them, they go into "video game bad guy guard" mode. For them, the play is over, and I get it. Props to the artificial intelligence for even finding two minutes' worth of stuff to do, because that's about minute and 50 seconds of content that virtually nobody would ever see.
Check out the daps between the Browns' No. 75 and the Panthers' No. 6. Pretty good.
Unfortunately, from a big-picture perspective, this scenario didn't turn out to be very inspiring. Johnny held the ball for 10 or 15 minutes, the Panthers' offense did their thing, and the Browns lost 21-0. Shrug.
So I put both teams in the Super Bowl. I was hoping to take control of both teams, prevent either team from ever scoring, and poke a little at the game's overtime construct. In the postseason, of course, teams play as many overtime periods as they need to break the tie. Maybe if I necessitate enough overtimes, I'll expose some kind of glitch! Maybe the game will be over, and without a winner, the Super Bowl trophy will float around, held up by an invisible person! Something?
No, nothing. Madden executed the overtime system without incident. This episode of Breaking Madden still lacked meaning, although a couple funny things had happened along the way.
I finally appreciated the power of audibles in this game. The game allows us to change a guy's individual assignment; among other things, it lets us assign a guy to man coverage. All 11 men on the field can be put on man, and all can be put on the same man. This is something I plan on exploring/exploiting in greater depth in the future, because that shit is a riot.
Players who are seven feet tall and 400 pounds, of course, hit very hard. They're elements of nature. If it's decided that they're going somewhere, they are going to that place, no matter what is in the way. Even if that thing is their quarterback. With limited protocol to work from, these linemen would sometimes just kind of bunch up in a cluster around Johnny, representing a terrifying amount of potential energy. At random, that could transform into kinetic energy, and there was nothing to be done about that.
I wasn't even touching the controller here. Johnny just got caught up in the wave and shoved nine yards upfield.
By this point, I'd spent an irresponsible amount of time in search of some sort of purpose to this experiment. Maybe there wasn't. Maybe there was nothing to say, maybe this episode really was simply, "grown man plays a video game like he's 10 years old and strange things happen."
I took the Browns and Panthers to the practice field, a place unbound by clocks or downs or any such thing. I could spot the ball wherever I wanted, and instantly repeat any play I wanted. Remember what I said about audibles? Those can also be used to drop literally any player into zone coverage, even the linemen. So I did that, and I found something like an atomic clock: a thing that would degrade, but very, very slowly, across an immeasurably large plot of time.
Sometimes, after five or 10 minutes, one of the players would seemingly grow fed up with his stupid assignment. Defying my instructions and the game's instructions, he would drop out of coverage and make a beeline toward Johnny.
And Roman Harper took the hard road, too. For reasons I can't explain, my offensive line would sometimes line up in single file right in front of me. Rather than run around them, Roman just barreled through and took them head-on. He was pissed off. That is my explanation.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Thirty. The system began to slow down, one component at a time. Madden was becoming an old grandfather clock, and we had lost its winder key. It struck noon at 1:06, and by tea time, it was bedtime.
Some, like Mr. Harper there, fell into an alternative plane of time. Others went out like a lamp.
They're still observing, craning their necks, looking around, but they are otherwise frozen. The longer a play ran on, the more this tended to happen.
And even now, like Johnny Manziel eluding a half-dozen Alabama linemen, I was desperate to reach some kind of conclusion. To add to this, my heart was filled with regret: at one point, Johnny was standing still at his opponent's 20. Think the Matt Stafford Incident, but twice as amazing: he was sandwiched by a couple of his own giant blockers, got squeezed a little, and then, POWWWW. Johnny flew into the air like he'd stepped on a land mine, and was catapulted 30 yards in the air. He hit the cone at the corner of the end zone, so it even counted as a touchdown. The first-ever 20-yard flying-man touchdown.
I went to the replay. The play had run on too long. Madden had stopped collecting replay data. I missed it. It was one of the funniest Madden moments I had ever seen, and I missed it. You would have laughed your ass off, I promise you, and it feels criminal not to be able to share it. I am so sorry to have let y'all down.
And shortly after that, it occurred to me that no point needed to be made, no goal attained. Perhaps, just as Johnny sometimes appears to extend a play for the sake of doing so, it's fine to simply wind a clock, sit quietly, and watch it die.
I decided that Johnny would spend an afternoon in Scrambling Quarterback Heaven. For as long, at least, as something so beautiful could last:
Music: "Prince Johnny" by St. Vincent