Rocket League is a work of art, but it’s more Pelé than Picasso.
What sorts of video games represent the best that the entire medium has to offer? I talk to lots of people about games and the various answers to that question often fall into recognizable buckets. Super Mario Bros. or Doom for their ability to withstand the test of time and also for their long reach. Ico or Shadow of the Colossus for their ability to evoke a rich world through understated visual effects and mechanics. Journey for telling a poignant story while seamlessly (and wordlessly) connecting you to other people.
What sort of video game best represents the medium’s potential? It’s a question that inspires high-minded thinking and lots of pondering about the nature of art. It usually doesn’t elicit talk about cars that can do rocket-boosted backflips, but maybe it should. Rocket League is a ridiculous game, and it is a beautiful game.
Rocket League contains two goals, two teams, one field, and one ball. The basic rules are as elegant as soccer, hockey, or basketball. Your job is to get the ball into your opponent's goal. The art of the game is in its details. You drive cars that have boost jets. These cars can double jump, do backflips, and drive up the side of the arena's walls. Checking someone at a high speed causes them to explode.
Rocket League captures what I used to love about sports games before they became obsessed with chasing verisimilitude. It communicates the essence of competition and builds all of its tactics on a very small set of actions (jump, accelerate, boost, brake, etc.). Rather than layer on complex contextual button presses or instance-specific combos, everything flows out of these basic actions. Going from a stumbling newcomer to a vehicular aerial ballerina is about refining your technique rather than memorizing a controller diagram layout.
In many ways Rocket League reminds me of games like Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. It’s clearly not a simulation, but it conveys the basics of the sport in a way that elegantly represents the sport’s core points of contest. Vary your speed and placement when throwing the ball. Hit towards the gaps. Distract people with base running. Like the pre-polygonal era sports games, Rocket League focuses less on memorization and allows you to quickly focus on sophisticated strategies. Trying to second guess your opponent while still remembering to execute on your shots is a simple concept that is challenging enough to make every goal feel like an epic struggle.
FIFA is undoubtedly a more mechanically complex game and perhaps a better soccer simulator, but Rocket League captures the essence of the sport without becoming beholden to trying to cram in a preponderance of detail. A team’s momentum ebbs and flows as players fight to control the field. Every second of the game is one full of minute adjustments in the hopes that one such move will position you for the perfect strike. Rocket League isn’t devoted to realism, but to the joy in seeing a perfect strike land in the goal or to the agony of the ball bouncing off the goal post. These moments could not be more real.
The old Tony Hawk games were somewhat about skateboarding, but anyone with a basic grasp of physics knows that they weren’t the most realistic simulations, and that’s what made them great. They were about the feel of skateboarding. You explored the terrain and turned it into an improvised obstacle course. You sought to drop into a flow state of combining tricks but were continually reminded to push for more aggressive tricks. Rocket League is the same. It has all of the drama of a tense hockey game, even though it takes place in a fantasy world.
The world of Rocket League may be a fantasy, but it’s an intensely logical one. Once you make that initial suspension of disbelief, everything makes sense. The movement of the cars and the physics guiding the ball never deviate from their reality. Everything fits together in an exquisitely balanced and thoughtfully-modeled system. It’s the type of game that takes inspiration from reality without aping it. Instead, it makes its own absurd world.
Rocket League taps into the same passion that draws us to sports. Its fantasy world abides by its own strict set of rules that makes it easy to understand and at the same time incredibly deep. Its also something that could really only happen in a video game. Put all this together, and Rocket League becomes a beautiful example of the best that video games have to offer.