Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance: Round 3

Hello again fighting game folk.  I’m sorry it’s been so long but I’ve had a ton of crap to do and while I’ve been writing somewhat consistently, I haven’t had the time to sit down and commit it all to the blog.  No longer!  I’m happy to present the third installment of WFGSLS, and this time we’re focusing on what might just be the most sensitive issue in the series.  Let’s dive in!

Round 3 – The Game and Its Players

If you want to boil a fighting game down to its most pure component what do you get?  Give up?  The essence of a fighting game is the competition it fosters.  At their heart fighting games are all about facing and defeating opponents, digital or human, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the fight.  What matters is the victory!  I feel like I’m channeling a little Ryu here.

One of the most brilliant moments in fighting game history - Courtesy of Joe Madureira and Udonentertainment.com

I think of the fighting games of today like a game of pickup basketball.  To play and enjoy you don’t need any back story, character development, or an overarching narrative.  You need a ball, a net, and at least one other person.  There’s nearly infinite strategy and depth in a game of one-on-one basketball: a million ways to move and react depending on your opponent’s positioning, who has the ball, what you know about the other player, and so forth but it’s a very bare bones experience, that is to say, no frills attached.

And a majority of the community likes their fighting games this way.  In the heat of the moment no one cares that Liu Kang is fighting for the fate of Earth Realm or that Bison killed Charlie.  What matters is your spacing, the frame advantage on your attacks, whether or not you’re safe from punishment, and what your meter looks like.  Hardcore fighters are absolutely satisfied with that experience and that’s the inherent problem with fighting games and narrative: for many players, the competition and gameplay is enough.

The rise of the competitive arcade scene and the birth of home-grown tourneys and high-profile international tournaments like SBO and EVO undoubtedly adds credence here.  These guys and gals gather to test their might against the best in the world, not talk about the subtle intricacies of their character’s back story.  I’m pretty sure Mike Ross doesn’t play Honda to prove that sumo’s the strongest sport in the world, just like Justin Wong doesn’t use Rufus to get revenge on every Ken player he’s forced to fight against.  They fight to prove they’re the best, and that’s all they need.

Seth and Skisonic probably aren't talking about their favorite Street Fighter story moments - via Kotaku.com

Here’s a bit of proof I’ve sniped from the comments over at Shoryuken.com in response to my previous posts:

“From the day I picked up a controller to play X-men VS Street Fighter, and Street Fighter Alpha 3. I never cared for the story. Although it’s my personal opinion, all professional players should feel the same.  We didn’t come to hear stories. We came to fight.” ~ Odilon

“because no one really gives a damn. I would hope that the developer invests in the engine, balance, characters and extensive testing etc so my fighting game has the best possible gameplay. If the effort into the god damn story suffers, so be it.” ~ sebmaq

“With all the stuff there is to focus on in a fighting game, I actually prefer having less story so I can soak everything in.”  ~ ChapterB

“Why are people so obsessed with story in fighting games? It’s a fighting game. It’s about the mechanics not the dramatics. If you want a good story, go read a book.” ~ Jedah Doma

I just love that last one, “If you want a good story, go read a book.”  Anyway, so I’m leveling blame at the nature of fighting games, but also at the community that demands nothing more of them.  That might seem a little foolish, to blame poor narratives on players just because they enjoy what fighting games provide, but when their attitudes feed the continued development of fighters without adequate stories, it makes a little more sense.  Why should developers add story if the sales say they don’t matter?  Really, these two problems are connected and feed off of each other, a tale of souls and swords eternally retold.

Now keep in mind that I’m not trying to vilify anyone here.  If you love fighting games and could care less about the story, more power to you and it should be pretty apparent that you’re not alone.  Yet I think this mindset allows for the stagnation of the genre.  I remember reading a few comments saying that fighting games “can’t” tell good stories because it’s not in their nature, that they’re not built for it.

“Fighting games are not the stage for compelling story.” ~ bradlee289

That sort of thinking honestly saddens me and it insults the creativity and ingenuity of developers and designers while putting false limitations on the fighting game genre as a whole.  Just because we haven’t seen a great story or story mode in fighters doesn’t mean it’s not possible, it just means that we’ve become so familiar with “how fighting games should be” that we’ve stopped dreaming of the possibilities.

So what am I saying this time?  I’m saying that the narrative in fighting games suffers because when it comes down to actual competition, story isn’t necessary for victory.  I’m also saying that many players are satisfied with current fighting game tropes and don’t consider story intrinsic to the experience thus developers don’t spend time on narrative.

Yet there is hope!  Tons of commenters here at I Speak Comics and at Shoryuken.com recognize that storytelling could improve the depth of our favorite fighters and add a little something extra to our experience.  With the rise of console gaming, the decline of American arcades, and increased expectations for $60 games I think we’re in a very unique spot to see fighting game stories evolve in the next few years but only time will tell.

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Weekly Want List

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde #1

Looks like I can expect a pretty chill week.  I’m excited for The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde, Marineman, The Incredible Hulk, RASL, and Scalped.  However now that I’m actually going to grad school I need to save the SHIT out of my money.

That means I can’t go on crazy comic book binges, purchase Mortal Kombat 9, or buy nice things for my girlfriend… Hehe at that last one.  I hope she doesn’t see this.

Regardless, these are the books I want this week!

Dark Horse Comics
The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde #1

DC Comics
Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #9

Image Comics
Marineman #5

Marvel Comics
Age of X: Universe #2

Incredible Hulks #627

New Mutants #24

Uncanny X-Men #536

X-Men #10

Vertigo
Scalped #48

Miscellaneous
RASL #10 

Unlimited Highlights: Thor vs. Loki

HAVE AT THEE!

I’ve haven’t read too many Thor comics in my time and I honestly regret it.  Thor’s a fun character and a ton of awesome writers and artists have added to the Golden Avenger’s long list of illustrious deeds, but I’ve never had a reason to pick up his books.

That all changed when I saw Chris Samnee’s art on the Roger Langridge penned “Thor The Mighty Avenger.”  I really enjoyed the series’ unassuming innocence; it was a breath of fresh air in a medium filled with hyper sexualized and hyper violent content.  I know Marvel has been gearing up for the jawsome looking Thor flick with plenty of new series but there hasn’t been one I’ve really dug like Langridge and Samnee’s all-ages delight.

However while reading for my Unlimited Highlights freelancing (which you can check out here) I came across the amazing Loki mini-series by Rob Rodi and Esad Ribic.  Up until now I had never really given the Thor/Loki dynamic any careful thought but Rodi did a wonderful job of humanizing the malevolent prankster into someone I could empathize with.

Before I had read the Loki series I had always seen him as Thor’s annoying younger brother but through this amazing series I realized that he’s less a recurring nuisance and more an integral part of the Thor mythos, working as a perfect foil to his half-brother’s obvious heroic attributes.

After reading through the mini I’m of a mind to say something as outlandish as the Thor/Loki struggle may be the best hero/villain foil in all of comics, even trumping the Batman/Joker dynamic.  While the Batman vs. Joker relationship is a great metaphor for sanity vs. insanity, Thor and Loki have something a little more permanent.  Batman and Joker are mortal characters in comic books, while Thor and Loki are immortals in their comics, but also ancient gods of Earth.  That they were once worshipped in our reality adds a bit of metafiction to their conflict.  They are very literally linked by destiny, fated to clash time and time again as each Ragnarok brings about the Twilight of the Gods.

In the mini-series this issue is thrust into the forefront: Without Thor, who is Loki?  Therein lies the truth that Loki lashes out against, that he is fated to fall to Thor in every universe, that his role is that of the schemer, the trickster.  Unlike Thor who is destined for glory, Loki will only ever know darkness and defeat.  There’s just something so human about his struggle.  Every hand is against him and yet he fights to defy his destiny.

I don’t want to spoil everything about the books so I’ll just stop here.  I recommend the series wholeheartedly and to anyone who enjoys Thor, mythology, or just comics in general: You won’t be disappointed.  It’s a stunningly captured tale that lays bare the inner workings of a relationship that goes much much deeper than ever I gave it credit for.  This is Loki’s story.  Seriously, read it, you’ll be glad you did.

Loki #1
Loki #2
Loki #3
Loki #4

Grad School, Taxes, and Other Work

The Art of War - Sun Tzu Limited Edition Print

I wish I could be writing more of my “Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance” series but life gets in the way sometimes.  Right now I’m trying to finish my FAFSA so I can get a decent student loan and rock grad school really hard come August.

Of course to do that I need a ton of info from my 2010 Tax Return which is royally fucked because I never ended up getting a W2 from my chief employer…

However the news isn’t all bad!  I know I’ll be able to get everything done in time, so really no worries there, and I’ve got a new gig helping my friend Kelly Roman market and publicize his graphic novel The Art of War, out Spring 2012 from HarperCollins and !t Books.

I had the good fortune of working with Kelly and artist Mike Deweese as a sort of Editorial Intern on the book.  Heck, maybe when the book comes out I’ll be able to actually show you the changes that were made because of my input!  If you’d like to check out the book Kelly has made the first 3 chapters available for download and online viewing at the official website – http://TheArtofWarGraphicNovel.com – So be sure to check out the result of 5 years of hard work!

I’ll definitely be talking more about the book and projects related to the book in the near future so if you’re interested keep checking back.  I just wanted to put my To Do List up here on the blog to keep me honest and focused.

Things to Do:

  • Finish FAFSA
  • Do more for The Art of War
  • Make sure my tax return gets properly taken care of (paper copy BS)
  • Write more for the blog and talk about comics/fighting games more!

Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance: Round 2

The second installment of WFGSLS is here guys!  First off I want to thank everyone who commented here at I Speak Comics, Shoryuken.com, and at Eventhubs.com.  While some of your responses were pure trolling (heh, shame on you) I really appreciated the well-thought out rants, diatribes, and essays written by readers both supporting stories and not.

However, I wanted to point out that I’m not trying to force feed you the idea that fighting games NEED stories (after 20 successful years without them why would I try?), but rather I’m trying to explain why they don’t have them.  Do I believe fighting games might provide a more well-rounded experience for players if they did have a serviceable canon?  Absolutely, but that’s besides the point.  So without further ado, it’s on to part TWO!

Round 2 – Multiple Characters and Endings but a Want of Modes

SFII Character Select Screen from MobyGames.com

It’s safe to say that while Street Fighter put fighting games on the map, it was Street Fighter II that changed the game forever.  How?  By adding the character select screen.  Now what was once a single player/character experience exploded into a flurry of unique choices when deciding one’s combatant.  SFII featured 7 all-new fighters, from a bear-hugging wrestler straight out of the U.S.S.R., to a green mutated monster that somehow rolled out of Brazil’s darkest jungles.  Never before had such a whirlwind cast of freaks and fighters found their way into an arcade cabinet.  Add to that a Vs. mode which encouraged human competition and a rock solid gameplay system and you’ve got a game that people are still playing to this day.

However these unique new characters weren’t fighting in a vacuum.  In one bold and brilliant move Capcom took a huge step in sculpting the SF universe into something more tangible and gave each fighter an ending cutscene after defeating Bison, the dastardly dictator of Shadowloo and end game boss.  From that brief ending vignette you could sleep easy knowing that Chun-Li had avenged her father and that Guile had avenged Charlie, that Ryu had walked out on the awards ceremony and that Ken had finally married Eliza.  Wait, what?  And there we’ve stumbled upon our problem: Multiple characters with unique endings creates confusing canon.

Chun-Li defeats M. Bison to avenger her father by JcDizon:

Guile beats down Bison to avenge Charlie by JcDizon:

That needs some clarification, multiple characters with unique endings in which they all defeat the main boss separately, cause confusion.  Why?  Because the player doesn’t know what really happened at the end of the 2nd World Warrior Tournament.  At least not until a subsequent game comes out.  The same goes for Mortal Kombat and a whole host of other games, Samurai Showdown, Soul Calibur, Bloody Roar, the list goes on and on.

In the case of SF the character endings acted as a reward for players determined enough to battle through every warrior on their quest to defeat Bison.  So unless you beat the game, you wouldn’t know what your character was fighting for in the first place.  For some of us that doesn’t matter but it’s unquestionably poor storytelling.  Again, we can blame it on the arcade mentality.  No opening cutscenes meant the player got into the game quicker and unless they were familiar with the system, lost quicker, ensuring a constant stream of coins plinking into Capcom’s cabinets.  If a player did manage to reach the end, the minute long cutscenes probably wouldn’t have cut into Capcom’s bottom line.

Yet unbeknownst to the developer, this move set a very damaging precedent in terms of story development in fighters, as it was mimicked by almost every other fighting game at the time.  In an attempt to make every character a star in their own story, to empower the player, and foster a connection between the player and their digital avatar, they effectively retarded the development of narratives in fighting games for 20+ years.  Why?  Because very few games gave players a “true ending” in their mess of unique character-specific endings.

Mortal Kombat II Endings.  Which one is real? from samspir

Without a “true ending” game developers are forced to almost work backwards when they’re trying to set up the narrative for a new game.  They need to make it clear what happened in the previous game and then further the story from there.  If they don’t, well then you get things like retcons and developers resorting to different media sources to make canon understood, i.e. official SF sources telling info not found in-game.

So what do I want to say here?  I think that adding characters adds almost infinite depth to gameplay and creates chances for unique story developments, but because of a 20 year old tradition that gives every character their own unique story ending, in which they’ve “saved the day,” it’s very difficult to solidify canon and create a tangible, consistent story.  Not making the “true ending” clear immediately leaves players to imagine what happened and could possibly lead to extra expenses when developers release other media sources to confirm or deny story elements.  Yet that’s only half the problem.

Like I said before, these characters aren’t operating in a vacuum, and neither are their different endings.  Both of these items are inextricably connected to the second part of this post: Arcade Mode is generally the main way through which players glean each character’s story.

What I mean is that because the characters aren’t a part of a mode that distinctly supports storytelling, the developers are limited with what they can do.  Arcade Mode is immutable and constant, an intrinsic piece of every fighting game.  But if developers wanted to give the player a story, a meaningful story, they shouldn’t rely on the Arcade Mode to do it, but rather a Story Mode or maybe even go the route of Tekken 5 and give us an Adventure Mode.

We’ve been given the same host of modes since the beginning: Arcade, Vs., Online Vs., and Training make up the bare minimum when it comes to fighters.  Every once in a while you’ll get Story, Survival, Team Battle, and others to help liven up the experience but they rarely give the narrative more meat.

Standard Mode Select Screen of the Darkstalkers persuasion courtesy of GiantBomb.com

As many people in the comments have pointed out, there are exceptions.  BlazBlue has taken a big step when it comes to developing their unique universe by including a dedicated Story Mode (to some other commenter’s chagrin).  In it each character battles specific characters and the story changes given certain circumstances (win, lose, what have you) and not every character battles Hazama, the final boss.  Soul Calibur II had Weapon Master Mode which attempted to make the player the main character in their own unique narrative, while 3 & 4 tried a BlazBlue-ish route (though 3 came out before BB), with small choices between fights and even mini-games that affected your character’s health in the next match.

Then there are the Adventure Modes that never quite seem to fit, ala Tekken 5, but I suppose we can’t blame them for trying.  I think that the rise of console gaming has actually provided an outlet for more storytelling avenues in fighters and might help rope new players in for the long haul.  Instead of trying to get players in and out, players are encouraged to play for hours at a time and an Arcade Mode that you can beat in 30 minutes isn’t quite as interesting for a new player as a Story Mode that details the universe and its denizens, but I’ll get to that in a later post.

The KoF franchise actually does something interesting and has a sort of “true ending” feel throughout the series, as the story unfolds character’s gameplay actually changes occassionally (Iori losing his flames to Ash), but again, if you finish with any designated team they will have won the tournament and different plot points will be revealed, which may or may not be canon.  You don’t know until the next game.  Two steps forward, one step back.

Endings from KOF 2003 from FighterFan – Part. 1

In my eyes X-Men: Next Dimension, for the Gamecube, PS2 and XBox, has one of the best dedicated Story Modes out there.  While BlazBlue’s might be more in-depth and more interactive, it doesn’t have the same rigid style and concentration on pure storytelling.  It stands as a great example of what can be accomplished from a purely narrative point of view.  Though, having 40 years of established canon, well-known characters, and professional comics scribes working on the project is one heckuva crutch to lean on.

X-Men: Next Dimension Story Mode from vidfreak727

So this time around, why do fighting game stories lack substance?  Because a multitude of characters have their own unique endings resulting in questionable end game canon and because developers are still following a 20 year-old tradition, telling the story through the Arcade Mode without exploring the plethora of other options out there.  Teams are innovating and experimenting though, make no mistake about that, and if the depth of BlazBlue and others is any indicator, I’m excited for the future.

And that’s it for Round 2.  Hopefully this entry creates some more conversation and I’m sorry if I missed any of your own favorite examples of great Story Modes.  The sheer number of fighting games out there makes it impossible for me to catch every single gleaming exception to my aforementioned generalizations, so people with more knowledge than I are always welcome to drop some of it on me.  Stay tuned for Round 3!

Keep fighting,

Sumo out!

Weekly Want List – April 6th, 2011

Solomon Kane: Red Shadows cover courtesy of Newsarama.com

This week we’ve got a ton of books coming out and I don’t know how I’m going to decide which comics to leave on the shelves.  Hopefully I won’t have to leave any, budget be damned!

Dark Horse Comics
B.P.R.D.: The Dead Remembered #1 – A story about Liz as a child?  This is uncharted territory for the Hellboy universe and too be frank I’m surprised it’s taken so long for the team to get here.  I’m looking forward to it.

Solomone Kane: Red Shadows #1 – I’m a sucker for Solomon Kane, but I couldn’t tell you why.  I think I like the idea of a staunchly religious man, hard as steel, killing sinners and monsters all over the place.  He’s not always written well but Solomon can be interesting, and Guy Davis’ cover makes me want this all the more.

IDW
Blue Estate #1 – Seems like a shot in the dark sort of comic but who knows?  I’m going to check out the first issue and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Hehe, boobies.

 

Image
Chew #18 – Oh c’mon team, you gotta be reading Chew.  It’s funny and ridiculous and unbelievable and incredibly well written and pencilled.  The FDA is the most powerful department of government!  Start picking it up immediately!

Firebreather: Holmgang #2 – This series should never have been cancelled in the first place, but since making its debut as a CGI movie on Cartoon Network it seems poised for a much needed revival.  I like the story so far so I hope the guys keep it coming.

The Intrepids #2 – A strange tale that looks fun.  The first issue was a blast and intrigued me enough to purchase the second.

Ultimate Cap courtesy of Geekdraw

 

Marvel Comics
Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #5 – For some reason, just now, I don’t really want to get this comic anymore.  I love the art and the story is fine, I dunno…  Maybe it’s the 9 hours of sleep over the past two days getting to my brain?

Fear Itself #1 – I can’t say that I’m too blown away by the avatars of the Serpent, or whomever attacked Hulk, Juggernaut, and other guy with a LiteBrite.  I’m a little curious, but just a little.

Herc #1 – Are you back to your face-punching, beer-swilling, womanizing ways Heracles?  Please say it’s so!

Ultimate Comics Captain America #4 – What I thought was going to be a boring fight between Captain America clones has become something different entirely.  I can’t wait to see how this one ends.

Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance: Round 1

I’m a sucker for a good story; I think most of us are.  A well-told tale transports you to a different world, a different universe, transforms you into someone you never thought you could be, and introduces you to people you never thought you could meet.  Stories terrify, inspire, inform, entertain and in the realm of video games add entirely new dimensions to the player experience.  We know that narrative in games is important (50+ hour long RPGs prove it), so after 20 years of fighting games why do the genre’s stories still suck?

Why don’t I have any idea what’s happening in Mortal Kombat?  What is going on in the Mishima Zaibatsu?  Does anyone know where the Alpha series fits into Street Fighter canon?  Welcome ye olde fighting game fanatics and storytelling strumpets to the first part of “Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance.”

During this series of posts I’m going to attempt to break down the reasons for the lackluster narrative and plot development in the fighting games of today.  Some are historical, like the first point I’ll be making, and some are theoretical, but in the end I hope to shed some light on the legitimate failings of today’s 1 vs. 1 fighters, their causes, and how developers and designers might be able to avoid these pitfalls in the future.  Let’s get started!

Picture courtesy of the incomparable Kineda.com

Level 1 – The Arcade

If any developer, designer, player, or writer absolutely needs to blame the current sorry state of fighting game stories on any one thing, they can blame it on the arcades, the place where this whole mad scene started.  The early ancestors of our beloved Street Fighters, KoFs, and Mortal Kombats saw their genesis in the arcades way back in the 1970’s and 80’s.  That’s where Ryu scarred the King of Muay Thai in the first World Warrior Tournament and the rest, as they say, is history.

Street Fighter hit arcades in 1987 and became an incredibly popular cabinet.  Without any formal explanation of how to pull off Ryu’s soon to be iconic special moves, players were forced to spend their hard-earned quarters figuring out the joystick motions and button pushes needed to throw their very own hadokens and shoryukens.  From there they would pit their skills against a host of martial arts experts in a bid to become the world’s greatest street fighter.  There was no plot, just the seed of a story trapped within Ryu’s drive to become the best, which has become a central theme in the Street Fighter mythos.

Street Fighter’s ending provides only a hint of Ryu’s masochistic obsession.  Thanks to Sonichurricane.com

And therein lies the first piece of the problem: the first incarnation of the most influential fighting game ever had no discernible plot.  Yet this dilemma is two-fold, the rest of the blame sitting solidly on the entire arcade mentality: player in – player out.  Think about it, most arcade games are incredibly difficult to just pick up and play well, requiring hours and hours and dollars and dollars to master sufficiently.  Combine that with flashy screen-obscuring explosions and break-neck speeds and only the players with the fastest reflexes and the best memory could ever hope to beat them.  Put all these elements into a cabinet, toss it into a crowded, distracting, noisy arcade and give players a single, solitary life (or three) and you’ve insured that gamers hoping to master the system will throw heaps of currency into your game’s gaping vacuous maw.

Why would a developer write an engrossing narrative for a game that was only supposed to be played for a maximum of five minutes per person?  Capcom wasn’t trying to forge a connection between the characters and players, but rather make a butt-load of money in a very short amount of time. They just so happened to create a compelling gameplay system for people to experiment with and exploit.  They knew they didn’t have much time to rope players into the experience, so better to grab them with their system than with a story.

As the arcade scene developed, more and more games copied the initial format of the Street Fighter franchise and its predecessors.  The “fight past a host of character in 1 vs. 1 fights ’til you reach the boss” formula remains unchanged to this day.  While the gameplay blossomed to include a variable cornucopia of new player choices: super meters, advancing guard, guard cancels, custom combos, dashing, aerial raves, and what have you, the format stagnated and would surely smell if anyone stopped to take a sniff.

Why don’t we?  Because we don’t need a great story if we have great gameplay, varied character design, and a community of players that wants to play at the highest level.  That’s what Street Fighter bred; a new generation of battle hungry fighting gamers, a hardcore group determined to compete and become the best.  At that level it doesn’t matter if you’re playing as the despicable dictator or the virtuous hero so long as you win.  That’s always been the draw, the one-on-one competition, Capcom knows it, and storytelling fell to the wayside.

Thus ends Round 1 of “Why Fighting Game Stories Lack Substance.”  Now you know what started this heinous snafu of craptastic character cliches and negligible narratives.  You can blame it on the arcades.  But while the arcade scene may be the progenitor of this mess, there are other, more diverse reasons for the sorry state of things so be sure to check back often so you don’t miss the next installment of “WFGSLS.

PEACE,

Sumo