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.
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.
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.