We are frequently debating about whether fighting games should have stories. After all, these are games that are primarily designed for competition or to be played with other people, single player is mostly treated as one of three things: Training for the online/multiplayer game, an afterthought, or the unnecessary focus of the game that takes away from the multiplayer.
Yet when it’s done well, it’s such a delight.
You may be wondering just why stories in fighting games should matter? What possible justification could you have other than ‘two people just don’t like each other and want to fight out their differences’? Personally, I believe fighting games are just as capable of having just as deep a lore and just as compelling characters as every other genre out there. And yet very, very few of them take advantage of this.
Just look at what Netherrealm Studios has done with its games. While the folks at Netherrealm have always been rather ambitious with the way they do single player content, 2011’s Mortal Kombat did something that I thought was actively impossible for that series: Tell a shockingly compelling story. Hell, even Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe told a similarly compelling story, despite it being one of the stupidest crossovers ever.
It works especially well when you consider that this new Mortal Kombat took what little lore and story the first three Mortal Kombat games had and made it work as a reboot. Though there are some issues I have with Netherrealm’s method of storytelling. While most of the fights are justified appropriately, there are just as many that are there with little to no justification, and it feels like padding.
There’s also a bit of a segregation in just what you can do in the gameplay and what can actually occur outside of it. In every fight in the story mode, you can’t use any fatalities. And fair enough; after all, you can’t remove characters from the story that easily. But later on, there are characters who come off as though they shouldn’t be messed with. And yet fighting them is just the same as every other fight in the game. Though it’s not the worst example of this.
Compare this to what Arc System Works do with its stories. Persona 4 Arena, BlazBlue and the Guilty Gear games (post Guilty Gear XX) are some of the most story-intensive fighters out there. Each story feels more like a visual novel, with deeper personalized stories, multiple endings and numerous choices. And unlike Netherrealm, Arc System don’t segregate story elements from the gameplay — if an opponent powers up in a cutscene, they’ll be noticeably stronger in the fight.
Arc System is also smart about communicating to players where they failed. In Blazblue Continuum Shift’s story, hitting a bad end leads to a cutscene where an NPC will tell the player where they could improve their choices next time (like, for instance, trusting one particular character over another). And it actually fits within the game world. So far, so good right? Well, there’s still a couple of issues with this approach.
Without considering the content of the story, since that’s rather subjective, the big issue in using the Arc System flowchart method is that it’s not very clear at times how you’re supposed to progress. In the majority of cases, you’re meant to just win a fight to move on. But then you’ve got the fights where you need to win using a specific technique or win via timeout. Does the game clue you into this? Nope! Without a guide, knowing what characters to pick (and how to unlock them) for their stories to progress to final story is a pain.
With that said, let’s take a look at one way you absolutely should not handle a story in a fighting game, and it isn’t a fighting game at all — it’s a wrestling game; specifically WWE ‘12 and its Road to Wrestlemania mode. Now, without getting into the material itself, Road to Wrestlemania falters on two gigantic levels.
Its first issue is pacing. In WWE ‘12, you spend a six month in-game period with each of the three playable characters. And that’s six months spent wrestling in about 30 matches per character. For comparison, Mortal Kombat has you play four or five fights in its sixteen character story mode. Blazblue and Guilty Gear are roughly the same. But it gets better.
Do you recall how I mentioned gameplay and story segregation earlier? In WWE ‘12, there are few matches where you win via normal methods. However, in a staggering amount of them, your task is to whittle down your opponents health up to a certain point, then they’ll have a button flash above their head. Once you hit that button, a cutscene triggers to end the match. And nine times out of ten, that cutscene is of your opponent defeating you.
It’s frustrating as all hell, doubly so if you watch wrestling on a frequent basis, because victories are never that sudden. You could be beating the unholy hell out of an opponent — they could NEVER touch you — and yet you’d still lose for story purposes. And you don’t lose because of someone interfering on the opponents behalf or the like. You lose via a clean, uninterrupted finish. I cannot stress how cheap and frustrating of a way that is to tell a story. Especially when it happens as frequently as it does in that game.
Regardless, I’m still excited to see more and more fighting games try their hands at a story mode. For every Blazblue or Mortal Kombat there is a WWE ‘12 to balance it out, but with a bit more execution, it could pay off quite a bit more than you’d think. And with Capcom wanting to try more single player content, it could be interesting to see a Street Fighter or crossover fighter story mode. All in all, I’m very interested to see the future of story modes in fighting games.
Come back on Saturdays for more thoughts and views from the NG+ cast and crew.
[Image credits: Technology Tell; NetherRealm Studios; Aksys Games (via Siliconera)]