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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!

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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