A Simplified View of Fighting Game Narrative Evolution

Depending on who you talk to, the best narratives in video games can be held against narratives of other media and be considered of legitimate quality, or they're all garbage and who really wants to play a video game for the story, anyway. The debate over the general quality of narratives in the medium as a whole aside, fighting games in particular have historically never been taken seriously for their ability to spin a yarn. This is a notion that even the most ardent defenders of game narratives have to concede, simply because for many years, stories in the genre were not considered a high priority. They were flavor to give these crazy menageries of ninjas, robots, dudes in karate gis and ladies of sizable assets some sort of context beyond being blank slates. Back in the early days of the genre, the most shocking plot twist in a fighting game was the fact that Chun-Li actually had a branching point in her Street Fighter II ending.

Early Successes (and Failures)

The succinctly told story of the first Mortal Kombat.

For many years, the fighting game series with the most comprehensive storylines were arguably Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters. In the case of King of Fighters, the yearly installments of the series featured stories that led from one game to the next, and over time have formed a series of simplistic sagas. However, the story in each individual King of Fighters game is largely the same; a tournament sponsored with nefarious intent is held, and a trio of determined fighters defeat the hilariously overpowered villain. Wash, rinse, repeat.

As for Mortal Kombat, the story is more complex, in that it eventually breaks away from the concept of each game being centered around a tournament. The problem with the series came in its later entries, when the story became so convoluted with characters and mind-numbing plot twists that Netherrealm declared a do-over by playing the reboot card. But more on that in a bit.

Prominent Problems

Guest-character status aside, Link's ending was just as valid as most of the others in Soul Calibur II.

There are a lot of reasons that fighting game narratives have been, to put it kindly, less than stellar. Beyond the general disinterest on behalf of the writers to tell a decent story, there's the dysfunctional nature of the story progression. The majority of fighting games present an arcade mode that may, at best, present some form of prologue to introduce a character, perhaps one or two "story" fights, in which the fighter has a unique dialogue with his or her opponent, and an ending. But most of these endings will inevitably conflict with one another. For example, in Soul Calibur II, most every single ending involves the character finding the Soul Edge and either:

  • Claiming it for him/herself, with varying results.
  • Destroying it.
  • Filling the world with darkness, because he's Nightmare and already had the Soul Edge to begin with.

In this case, there's no narrative continuity. Every ending leads down a different path, and likely only one ending, if any, will factor into the story for the next game. Characters that saw resolution in their endings will instead continue to seek their resolution. No room for closure is provided, if only because a character will likely come back for the sequel, and the writers can't think of any other motivation for him than the one he already had.

Okay, but what about stories that do link their endings together? Take Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. When taken as a whole, the storyline of the game from its introduction to the individual character endings feels relatively cohesive. With a couple of exceptions, events in one ending are directly related to events in another. The individual parts manage to form a whole that feels coherent and logical. Only the endings of the villains (Shang Tsung and Quan Chi) really stand out from this because their endings dictate that they succeed.

So of course, the following game, Mortal Kombat: Deception, chooses to follow the ending path of the villains, thereby invalidating the tapestry created by Deadly Alliance. It was a self-inflicted shot in the foot. And while letting the bad guys "win" (their victory turned out to be exceedingly short-lived) might have been edgy and expected by Mortal Kombat standards, it could also be argued that this single twist broke the plot. The following game, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, elevated the story even further into the realm of the absurd by reducing the narrative into a race between every single character in the series to reach the top of a ziggurat and fight a dude made of fire for Real Ultimate Power.

Huh. Well, then. Who's for a DC Comics crossover? Anybody?

...Guys?

Modern Solutions

But all is not lost. Modern fighting games have shown that it's possible to structure a coherent narrative with a solid beginning, middle, and end. And while the individual quality of the stories of these games is variable, they're all a far cry above the old standard of a simplistic ending presented as an award for reaching the top of the tournament ladder.

BlazBlue

The story mode menu in BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger.

The BlazBlue series, created by Arc System Works, evolved from story presentation concepts found in their earlier work on the Guilty Gear series. And while multiple versions of the second game, Continuum Shift, have been released, the storyline has not been heavily affected as a result. The story is divided into smaller narratives that focus on individual characters, and each story has multiple paths; the ending earned is based on choices made in dialogue trees in actions taken during combat. However, each character's story path has one canon ending, and as progress is made through these individual stories, the player will eventually unlock the gameplay path to the true ending, which ties the narrative up and leads into the following game.

While it's not a straight path from beginning to end, the manner of narrative progression in BlazBlue offers incentives and replay value, as well as having the chance to practice with a range of diverse characters and styles. In a sense, these alternate endings are analogous to the more simplistic arcade endings found in other games (and in BlazBlue's own separate arcade mode) in that they're diversions to find while working toward the true end to the story.

Mortal Kombat

Sindel practically rewrites half of the Mortal Kombat story herself in the span of sixty seconds.

The story presented in last year's Mortal Kombat reboot is easily the most cinematic of any fighting game story to date. Structured as a linear narrative divided into chapters based on the character under the player's control, it takes the existing mythos of the first three Mortal Kombats and essentially serves as a second draft of the original narrative. Existing story arcs are given more depth, characters are given more definition, or in some rare cases, are rewritten almost entirely, and the narrative as a whole works to undo what had become a garbled mess by negating the possibility of major story events that proved problematic in the latter games in the series.

It is, in essence, a major do-over. One that benefits from fan nostalgia while also recognizing and eliminating aspects that just did not work, or never made sense to begin with. If there's any particular flaw that Mortal Kombat has in its story, its on the side of the gameplay mechanics, as the developers insisted on keeping the frustrating difficulty of the old Mortal Kombat boss fights. I have yet to hear anyone state that they enjoyed the final battle against Shao Kahn. For me, my experience with that battle was one of the few poor points in the game's presentation.

Dead or Alive: Dimensions

The story is still pretty ridiculous, but Dead or Alive: Dimensions uses its narrative as a means to train newcomers.

Like Mortal Kombat above, Dead or Alive: Dimensions features a full story mode that compiles and retells the events of the first four Dead or Alive games with a greater level of detail. The end result has both some strong positives as well as strong negatives. While an effort is made to retell the story, rather than reboot it, it's fairly obvious that the narrative arc in Dead or Alive was never particularly strong. The story focuses mostly on the core storyline of the series, and for the most part, the player is in control of a select few characters, with at least lip service given to the more minor subplots of the other characters. But the end result feels disjointed, and for the effort it goes through to present the core story, it still doesn't feel particularly coherent at a number of points.

However, the story mode in this game does succeed in ways where Mortal Kombat lacks. The story mode doubles as a tutorial, and over the course of play is constantly introducing the player to basic and advanced concepts. The final chapter, focused on Helena, pays special attention to the unique aspects of her fighting style and stances. Where Mortal Kombat makes no effort to teach the player how to play as the story progresses, Dead or Alive's story is structured in a way that is ideal for newcomers, both in recapping the plot and in providing a learning experience that exists outside of the more standard and basic training mode.

Soul Calibur V

Soul Calibur V moves the series into new narrative territory.

As with both Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur V features a linear storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. But rather than attempt to reboot or retell a preexisting narrative, the story of Soul Calibur V is a true sequel that follows upon the events of the previous game. It is also the shortest of the story modes listed here (it took me roughly two hours to make it from beginning to end in a single sitting), and also the least cinematic; the majority of the plot is told through sequences of static images accompanied by voice-over and sound effects.

All of this being said, the game's story is arguably also the most focused, as it centers on a select few protagonists; Patroklos and Pyrrha Alexandra, the son and daughter of longtime series protagonist Sophitia, and Z.W.E.I., who is playable in a select few chapters. (Before anyone asks, no, I do know why Z.W.E.I. is an acronym, nor do I know what it stands for.) The story takes the basic tale that has driven the series since the days of the original Soul Calibur and tells a new chapter in the struggle between the swords Soul Calibur and Soul Edge that, while still simplistic, offers a greater degree of depth and complexity than the series has really ever been known for. I know that this sounds like a contradiction, but in the comparative sense, by choosing to present the story in the manner that it does and by including specific twists to the narrative, it not only tells a story far deeper than the average, exceedingly shallow fighting game, but also manages to depict the actual relationship between the swords in a light that wasn't as obvious in earlier titles.

That being said, the story isn't without its flaws. Thought the plot does a good job of remaining focused on specific characters, a number of characters that do appear are given very limited roles, and there's one particular twist in the story involving turning back time that could have easily been done without, as it feels like little more than a tacked on way to fit Edge Master into the story. That being said, I enjoyed the story, though this may simply have something to do with the fact that I've been working on a story of my own that features characters very similar in ways to Patroklos and Pyrrha.

In Conclusion

As with any story, mileage will vary, no matter how well a narrative is presented. And while fighting games as a whole have a long way to go to catch up to the narrative quality found in other genres, developers have made great strides during this particular hardware generation in providing a greater sense of complexity and cohesion that the genre had sorely lacked in its early years. And I say this with the understanding that even now, there are many people that could not care less about fighting game narratives; at the end of the day, the greatest draw of a fighting game is how well it plays. But if a fighting game can both feature gameplay that can be taken seriously by the tournament crowd and a storyline that can attract the less competitive mindset, then then all the better.

14 Comments
15 Comments
Posted by Hailinel

Depending on who you talk to, the best narratives in video games can be held against narratives of other media and be considered of legitimate quality, or they're all garbage and who really wants to play a video game for the story, anyway. The debate over the general quality of narratives in the medium as a whole aside, fighting games in particular have historically never been taken seriously for their ability to spin a yarn. This is a notion that even the most ardent defenders of game narratives have to concede, simply because for many years, stories in the genre were not considered a high priority. They were flavor to give these crazy menageries of ninjas, robots, dudes in karate gis and ladies of sizable assets some sort of context beyond being blank slates. Back in the early days of the genre, the most shocking plot twist in a fighting game was the fact that Chun-Li actually had a branching point in her Street Fighter II ending.

Early Successes (and Failures)

The succinctly told story of the first Mortal Kombat.

For many years, the fighting game series with the most comprehensive storylines were arguably Mortal Kombat and King of Fighters. In the case of King of Fighters, the yearly installments of the series featured stories that led from one game to the next, and over time have formed a series of simplistic sagas. However, the story in each individual King of Fighters game is largely the same; a tournament sponsored with nefarious intent is held, and a trio of determined fighters defeat the hilariously overpowered villain. Wash, rinse, repeat.

As for Mortal Kombat, the story is more complex, in that it eventually breaks away from the concept of each game being centered around a tournament. The problem with the series came in its later entries, when the story became so convoluted with characters and mind-numbing plot twists that Netherrealm declared a do-over by playing the reboot card. But more on that in a bit.

Prominent Problems

Guest-character status aside, Link's ending was just as valid as most of the others in Soul Calibur II.

There are a lot of reasons that fighting game narratives have been, to put it kindly, less than stellar. Beyond the general disinterest on behalf of the writers to tell a decent story, there's the dysfunctional nature of the story progression. The majority of fighting games present an arcade mode that may, at best, present some form of prologue to introduce a character, perhaps one or two "story" fights, in which the fighter has a unique dialogue with his or her opponent, and an ending. But most of these endings will inevitably conflict with one another. For example, in Soul Calibur II, most every single ending involves the character finding the Soul Edge and either:

  • Claiming it for him/herself, with varying results.
  • Destroying it.
  • Filling the world with darkness, because he's Nightmare and already had the Soul Edge to begin with.

In this case, there's no narrative continuity. Every ending leads down a different path, and likely only one ending, if any, will factor into the story for the next game. Characters that saw resolution in their endings will instead continue to seek their resolution. No room for closure is provided, if only because a character will likely come back for the sequel, and the writers can't think of any other motivation for him than the one he already had.

Okay, but what about stories that do link their endings together? Take Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. When taken as a whole, the storyline of the game from its introduction to the individual character endings feels relatively cohesive. With a couple of exceptions, events in one ending are directly related to events in another. The individual parts manage to form a whole that feels coherent and logical. Only the endings of the villains (Shang Tsung and Quan Chi) really stand out from this because their endings dictate that they succeed.

So of course, the following game, Mortal Kombat: Deception, chooses to follow the ending path of the villains, thereby invalidating the tapestry created by Deadly Alliance. It was a self-inflicted shot in the foot. And while letting the bad guys "win" (their victory turned out to be exceedingly short-lived) might have been edgy and expected by Mortal Kombat standards, it could also be argued that this single twist broke the plot. The following game, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, elevated the story even further into the realm of the absurd by reducing the narrative into a race between every single character in the series to reach the top of a ziggurat and fight a dude made of fire for Real Ultimate Power.

Huh. Well, then. Who's for a DC Comics crossover? Anybody?

...Guys?

Modern Solutions

But all is not lost. Modern fighting games have shown that it's possible to structure a coherent narrative with a solid beginning, middle, and end. And while the individual quality of the stories of these games is variable, they're all a far cry above the old standard of a simplistic ending presented as an award for reaching the top of the tournament ladder.

BlazBlue

The story mode menu in BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger.

The BlazBlue series, created by Arc System Works, evolved from story presentation concepts found in their earlier work on the Guilty Gear series. And while multiple versions of the second game, Continuum Shift, have been released, the storyline has not been heavily affected as a result. The story is divided into smaller narratives that focus on individual characters, and each story has multiple paths; the ending earned is based on choices made in dialogue trees in actions taken during combat. However, each character's story path has one canon ending, and as progress is made through these individual stories, the player will eventually unlock the gameplay path to the true ending, which ties the narrative up and leads into the following game.

While it's not a straight path from beginning to end, the manner of narrative progression in BlazBlue offers incentives and replay value, as well as having the chance to practice with a range of diverse characters and styles. In a sense, these alternate endings are analogous to the more simplistic arcade endings found in other games (and in BlazBlue's own separate arcade mode) in that they're diversions to find while working toward the true end to the story.

Mortal Kombat

Sindel practically rewrites half of the Mortal Kombat story herself in the span of sixty seconds.

The story presented in last year's Mortal Kombat reboot is easily the most cinematic of any fighting game story to date. Structured as a linear narrative divided into chapters based on the character under the player's control, it takes the existing mythos of the first three Mortal Kombats and essentially serves as a second draft of the original narrative. Existing story arcs are given more depth, characters are given more definition, or in some rare cases, are rewritten almost entirely, and the narrative as a whole works to undo what had become a garbled mess by negating the possibility of major story events that proved problematic in the latter games in the series.

It is, in essence, a major do-over. One that benefits from fan nostalgia while also recognizing and eliminating aspects that just did not work, or never made sense to begin with. If there's any particular flaw that Mortal Kombat has in its story, its on the side of the gameplay mechanics, as the developers insisted on keeping the frustrating difficulty of the old Mortal Kombat boss fights. I have yet to hear anyone state that they enjoyed the final battle against Shao Kahn. For me, my experience with that battle was one of the few poor points in the game's presentation.

Dead or Alive: Dimensions

The story is still pretty ridiculous, but Dead or Alive: Dimensions uses its narrative as a means to train newcomers.

Like Mortal Kombat above, Dead or Alive: Dimensions features a full story mode that compiles and retells the events of the first four Dead or Alive games with a greater level of detail. The end result has both some strong positives as well as strong negatives. While an effort is made to retell the story, rather than reboot it, it's fairly obvious that the narrative arc in Dead or Alive was never particularly strong. The story focuses mostly on the core storyline of the series, and for the most part, the player is in control of a select few characters, with at least lip service given to the more minor subplots of the other characters. But the end result feels disjointed, and for the effort it goes through to present the core story, it still doesn't feel particularly coherent at a number of points.

However, the story mode in this game does succeed in ways where Mortal Kombat lacks. The story mode doubles as a tutorial, and over the course of play is constantly introducing the player to basic and advanced concepts. The final chapter, focused on Helena, pays special attention to the unique aspects of her fighting style and stances. Where Mortal Kombat makes no effort to teach the player how to play as the story progresses, Dead or Alive's story is structured in a way that is ideal for newcomers, both in recapping the plot and in providing a learning experience that exists outside of the more standard and basic training mode.

Soul Calibur V

Soul Calibur V moves the series into new narrative territory.

As with both Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur V features a linear storyline with a beginning, middle, and end. But rather than attempt to reboot or retell a preexisting narrative, the story of Soul Calibur V is a true sequel that follows upon the events of the previous game. It is also the shortest of the story modes listed here (it took me roughly two hours to make it from beginning to end in a single sitting), and also the least cinematic; the majority of the plot is told through sequences of static images accompanied by voice-over and sound effects.

All of this being said, the game's story is arguably also the most focused, as it centers on a select few protagonists; Patroklos and Pyrrha Alexandra, the son and daughter of longtime series protagonist Sophitia, and Z.W.E.I., who is playable in a select few chapters. (Before anyone asks, no, I do know why Z.W.E.I. is an acronym, nor do I know what it stands for.) The story takes the basic tale that has driven the series since the days of the original Soul Calibur and tells a new chapter in the struggle between the swords Soul Calibur and Soul Edge that, while still simplistic, offers a greater degree of depth and complexity than the series has really ever been known for. I know that this sounds like a contradiction, but in the comparative sense, by choosing to present the story in the manner that it does and by including specific twists to the narrative, it not only tells a story far deeper than the average, exceedingly shallow fighting game, but also manages to depict the actual relationship between the swords in a light that wasn't as obvious in earlier titles.

That being said, the story isn't without its flaws. Thought the plot does a good job of remaining focused on specific characters, a number of characters that do appear are given very limited roles, and there's one particular twist in the story involving turning back time that could have easily been done without, as it feels like little more than a tacked on way to fit Edge Master into the story. That being said, I enjoyed the story, though this may simply have something to do with the fact that I've been working on a story of my own that features characters very similar in ways to Patroklos and Pyrrha.

In Conclusion

As with any story, mileage will vary, no matter how well a narrative is presented. And while fighting games as a whole have a long way to go to catch up to the narrative quality found in other genres, developers have made great strides during this particular hardware generation in providing a greater sense of complexity and cohesion that the genre had sorely lacked in its early years. And I say this with the understanding that even now, there are many people that could not care less about fighting game narratives; at the end of the day, the greatest draw of a fighting game is how well it plays. But if a fighting game can both feature gameplay that can be taken seriously by the tournament crowd and a storyline that can attract the less competitive mindset, then then all the better.

Edited by SlightConfuse

As you siad in your conclusion, the majority of people don't really care about the story but the gameplay. the story works as a way to introduce new characters into the mix. I feel like mortal kombat is an outlier of sorts in the fact that they went all out with content. id argue the story mode was a tutorial in the sense that you played multiple characters and could find one that fit. while not teaching mechanics it is a learning tool none the less.

One of the problems is making the fights not seam tedious as you progress. the constant fighting sets can start to wear. if i remember correctly soul calibur 2 had different settings for each battle. tekken 6 had a beast em up that was ok but could have been better

Posted by Hailinel

@SlightConfuse: Mortal Kombat's story mode isn't really what I'd call a tutorial. It has you play as some of the characters, but it never explains anything regarding gameplay or strategy. You're supposed to figure out everything on your own.

Edited by PixelPrinny

Good write up, though curious you omitted Street Fighter IV with modern examples when you pointed out that many old fighters basically had endings with "Well this is what this character did when they won the tournament/got Soul Edge/etc" and there was no overarching narrative to it. In SFIV's case, while each ending obviously has your character beating Seth, the aftermath of it is all linked together -- Ryu and Sakura meet up as he blows the place up with a metsu hadoken and they meet other characters as they escape; Abel, Guile, and Chun Li all infiltrate the place and escape together (after Vega tries to poison Chun Li to death), etc. So while -who- defeats Seth differs based on your character, there is an actual overarching story which was a pleasant surprise.

As for old school games that did it right, I always liked Soul Edge and the Rival Schools franchise. Sure Soul Edge was basically, as you said, just how each character deals with winning and destroying Soul Edge, but a lot of them went beyond that, with Li Long actually canonically dying in his ending, or Mitsurugi having a face-off with a rifleman in his (and you had to do a well-timed input to actually avoid being shot).

I agree with your thoughts on the new Mortal Kombat's storymode. Though I absolutely haaaated the scene with Sindel basically killing off 90% of the cast with the wave of her hand. Sooo Sub-zero can solo Kintaro and Goro just fine, but died in one hit from her, yet friggin Nightwolf was able to take her on solo in a fight? Really, really weak. Ah well, the storymode over all was an enjoyable ride (save for, as you said, that stupid Shao Khan fight. Gawds, that was so terrible)

Honestly I wasn't a fan at all of Soul Calibur V's storymode and really would have preferred old-fashioned arcade endings to what they came up with. It was an incredibly short story focusing on two whiny, annoying characters, who -- as even Tira stated within the story itself -- are mere jokes compared to their mother (what ever happened to Cassandra btw?), and felt like more of a throwaway story than even quick arcade endings typically are. "Whiny boy gets thrust into a position of power. Whines and runs away from problems. Hits rock bottom and smartens up. Defeats evil. Teh end." Didn't realize I was playing a generic JRPG in fighting game form. And that'd be fine if more than three people of the cast actually played a roll. I'd have much rather have followed ZWEI and Viola than the two siblings. Or ANYONE. Why no arcade endings for the like... 26 or so other characters? Really, really weak and disappointing and as you said that time travel part was completely unnecessary. Grr... The more I think about it, the more I hate that story mode. Bring back the different single-player modes from early games in the franchise! D: (Also why didn't it let me set story battles to one round... grrrr! Using those twats for 3 round battles was so tedius, my gods)

/rant

Posted by ArbitraryWater

You have reminded me of the time I played through Blazblue's story so I could unlock Mu-12. I repressed those memories for a reason.

Posted by BrockNRolla

Storyline in gaming is of the utmost importance to me. But why the emphasis on fighting games? I think most people see fighting games as a series of mechanics rather than a holistic story-driven experience. It is of no surprise to me that most fighting game story lines fail. It is a nightmare to think a manner in which that sort of system can come together in any narrative fashion.

Posted by upwarDBound

I never cared about story in any fighting game and doubt I ever will. The stories are so convoluted and contrived it's impossible to take them seriously as an overarching narrative.

Posted by ImmortalSaiyan

I don't care much about the storys of Fighting Games but I like when a effort is a least made. I like watching the nice CG ending videos in a Dead or Alive or Tekken game. I felt that Blazblue did a poor job with the story, gosh that was a chore to play.

Posted by RenMcKormack

I played a fighting game once. I can't remember the name. But it started with an asteroid, made of clay, hitting a circus. I believe there was also a snowman involved. Its the Citizen Kane of fighting game story-lines. Also the announcer would say

WELCOME TO THIS EXTRAVAGANZA

*Clayfighter

Good blog/article though. Fighting game story-lines seemingly are borne from the console generation. Its the whole problem that alot of the companies making fighting games had (as could be applied in general to makers of classic arcade games) Was that the original game was built as a tool to beat you and take your money and to work therefore in very short bursts or in one on one fighting. In the mid nineties the home consoles could handle the arcade fighter adequately enough to port them over. BUT in a home game where you have unlimited time ,no need for quarters and limited opportunity to play other people, stories grew out of necessity rather than choice. i.e. some of the story-lines seem shallow and rushed or simplistic because they were or had to be.

Posted by JazGalaxy

I didn't love Mortal Kombat's story mode for the story. I mean, honestly, it was just as lousy a story as any Mortal Kombat could ever hope to present. I loved it for it's enthusiam. I just saw the story as a mcguffin to make me continue playing the game and to master moves and characters that I wouldn't ordinarily try. I feel like this is the same system Twisted Metal (whose inspiration has always been fighting games) used with Black. Finding out "what happens" is a compelling reason to get you into the game.

Edited by Melvargh

The only part of a fighting game that matters is the 'player VS player' aspect. If you're not into that, you're not into fighters; It's all about the mechanics and characters, everything else is just fluff.

It's interesting to see where developers try to take story in fighters, but I struggle to think of who this is for. It's not going to pull in people who don't play fighters, or not for very long at least. Like, Mortal Kombat was cool, but I couldn't get through more than a few fights before wanting to fight another person.

No matter how good the story around it is, fighting AI is a terrible way to play a fighter.

Posted by Hailinel

@PixelPrinny said:

Good write up, though curious you omitted Street Fighter IV with modern examples when you pointed out that many old fighters basically had endings with "Well this is what this character did when they won the tournament/got Soul Edge/etc" and there was no overarching narrative to it. In SFIV's case, while each ending obviously has your character beating Seth, the aftermath of it is all linked together -- Ryu and Sakura meet up as he blows the place up with a metsu hadoken and they meet other characters as they escape; Abel, Guile, and Chun Li all infiltrate the place and escape together (after Vega tries to poison Chun Li to death), etc. So while -who- defeats Seth differs based on your character, there is an actual overarching story which was a pleasant surprise.

As for old school games that did it right, I always liked Soul Edge and the Rival Schools franchise. Sure Soul Edge was basically, as you said, just how each character deals with winning and destroying Soul Edge, but a lot of them went beyond that, with Li Long actually canonically dying in his ending, or Mitsurugi having a face-off with a rifleman in his (and you had to do a well-timed input to actually avoid being shot).

I agree with your thoughts on the new Mortal Kombat's storymode. Though I absolutely haaaated the scene with Sindel basically killing off 90% of the cast with the wave of her hand. Sooo Sub-zero can solo Kintaro and Goro just fine, but died in one hit from her, yet friggin Nightwolf was able to take her on solo in a fight? Really, really weak. Ah well, the storymode over all was an enjoyable ride (save for, as you said, that stupid Shao Khan fight. Gawds, that was so terrible)

Honestly I wasn't a fan at all of Soul Calibur V's storymode and really would have preferred old-fashioned arcade endings to what they came up with. It was an incredibly short story focusing on two whiny, annoying characters, who -- as even Tira stated within the story itself -- are mere jokes compared to their mother (what ever happened to Cassandra btw?), and felt like more of a throwaway story than even quick arcade endings typically are. "Whiny boy gets thrust into a position of power. Whines and runs away from problems. Hits rock bottom and smartens up. Defeats evil. Teh end." Didn't realize I was playing a generic JRPG in fighting game form. And that'd be fine if more than three people of the cast actually played a roll. I'd have much rather have followed ZWEI and Viola than the two siblings. Or ANYONE. Why no arcade endings for the like... 26 or so other characters? Really, really weak and disappointing and as you said that time travel part was completely unnecessary. Grr... The more I think about it, the more I hate that story mode. Bring back the different single-player modes from early games in the franchise! D: (Also why didn't it let me set story battles to one round... grrrr! Using those twats for 3 round battles was so tedius, my gods)

/rant

I left out some games simply because I knew that there would be more examples than I could get around to, but you're right about Street Fighter IV and the way it links endings together. That was some nice attention to detail there. Also, I never played much of Soul Edge, but the fact that some of the endings either mattered or diverged in such ways back in its day is pretty cool, too.

That Sindel scene in Mortal Kombat was completely crazy. I realize that they explained her becoming a turbo warrior by way of Shao Kahn giving her Shang Tsung's power, but she was probably among the last characters I expected to be used like that in such a scene. In the grand scheme of things, I didn't hate it as you did, but it did leave me in disbelief that they actually did that.

As far as Soul Calibur V is concerned, I think a lot of the game's faults can be chalked up to a crunched dev cycle. It's my understanding that Namco's release date forced the dev's hands, so that might explain things like the lack of individual arcade endings, the lack of more characters in the story mode and the use of three random-style characters. As for Patroklos and Pyrrha, they aren't particularly original, but I didn't really mind them so much. I also liked most of the general beats of the story, but that it was lacking in characters and some story detail (like what specifically happened to Cassandra) was kind of a bummer. Hopefully they'll get another chance to correct mistakes that were made in another game.

@ArbitraryWater said:

You have reminded me of the time I played through Blazblue's story so I could unlock Mu-12. I repressed those memories for a reason.

Actually, Mu-12 is also unlockable via DLC. If you didn't want to go through all of the trouble, you could have just paid up. (Or not.) :P

@BrockNRolla said:

Storyline in gaming is of the utmost importance to me. But why the emphasis on fighting games? I think most people see fighting games as a series of mechanics rather than a holistic story-driven experience. It is of no surprise to me that most fighting game story lines fail. It is a nightmare to think a manner in which that sort of system can come together in any narrative fashion.

Why the emphasis on fighting games? Because this is a blog post about stories in fighting games, of course. But I think it's perfectly possible to write a good story for a fighting game. It just needs the care of good writing and presentation, and the proper structure in which to tell it. Those aspects are slowly getting better across the genre.

@upwarDBound said:

I never cared about story in any fighting game and doubt I ever will. The stories are so convoluted and contrived it's impossible to take them seriously as an overarching narrative.

The stories in games like Mortal Kombat and Soul Calibur V were actually pretty easy to follow. Do they have the best writing? No, but they're not the convoluted mess that was, say, the pre-reboot Mortal Kombat storyline.

@RenMcKormack said:

I played a fighting game once. I can't remember the name. But it started with an asteroid, made of clay, hitting a circus. I believe there was also a snowman involved. Its the Citizen Kane of fighting game story-lines. Also the announcer would say

WELCOME TO THIS EXTRAVAGANZA

*Clayfighter

Good blog/article though. Fighting game story-lines seemingly are borne from the console generation. Its the whole problem that alot of the companies making fighting games had (as could be applied in general to makers of classic arcade games) Was that the original game was built as a tool to beat you and take your money and to work therefore in very short bursts or in one on one fighting. In the mid nineties the home consoles could handle the arcade fighter adequately enough to port them over. BUT in a home game where you have unlimited time ,no need for quarters and limited opportunity to play other people, stories grew out of necessity rather than choice. i.e. some of the story-lines seem shallow and rushed or simplistic because they were or had to be.

Thanks. And I think you're right in that this new emphasis on story and story modes in fighting games has a lot to owe to the fact that they're being made for consoles rather than strictly for arcades. There's also the fact that, outside of some examples, the genre has largely been barren in terms of single-player content outside of a basic arcade mode and one or two side modes. Emphasizing the story more provides an opportunity to give players more content to chew on.

@Melvargh said:

The only part of a fighting game that matters is the 'player VS player' aspect. If you're not into that, you're not into fighters; It's all about the mechanics and characters, everything else is just fluff.

It's interesting to see where developers try to take story in fighters, but I struggle to think of who this is for. It's not going to pull in people who don't play fighters, or not for very long at least. Like, Mortal Kombat was cool, but I couldn't get through more than a few fights before wanting to fight another person.

No matter how good the story around it is, fighting AI is a terrible way to play a fighter.

There's always at least one guy like you in threads like this. I know that some people see fighting games as little more than mechanics and systems with window dressing, but some people really do find that window dressing interesting and important enough that it might even matter more to them than the overall character balance, roster sizes, or how "tournament-worthy" a fighting game actually is. I myself am not a tournament-level fighter, but I enjoy playing fighting games with friends and in single-player modes to see storylines and endings. As much as I despise T. Hawk for his absurd Village People design, that Super Street Fighter IV actually makes an attempt at closure for Juli, my go-to character from Alpha 3, was the best possible touch that they could give his ending. I find things like this worthwhile, just as I found the full story modes in fighting games like the ones I listed above worthwhile. I don't play fighting games purely for the fighting.

Edited by SoldierG654342

One of the reason why Mortal Kombat has arguably been the most successfully told story in fight games is that Ed Boon and Co. and have had creative control of it from start to finish. Many of the older Japanese franchises that were brought over were victims of sloppy, lackadaisical "localizations" that amounted to little more than someone making shit and putting it in the manual. And even with the newer franchises something is lost in translation simply because no one in their right mind is going to put an Atlus-level effort into localizing something that is in most cases an afterthought.

The other reason is that Mortal Kombat has always embraced and paraded it's fiction. Say what you will about it's quality, the story of MK has always been told with sincerity and conviction. I don't get that feeling from most other franchises. I rarely get the sense that fighting game franchises take their fiction seriously, and is some cases (such as BlazBlu) I get a feeling that the game actively resents me for even bothering with it.

I don't think that a lack of a strong narrative is necessarily a bad thing for fighting games though. You can have other compelling, single-player content besides a story. As fun as it was to see Sektor before he became a robot, I would have rather had more content like the beginning of the challenge tower that tutorialized some of the characters and mechanics. And if anything, knowing that his name was always Sektor bothers me now, because that's a robot-ass name.

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Posted by Hailinel

@SoldierG654342 said:

One of the reason why Mortal Kombat has arguably been the most successfully told story in fight games is that Ed Boon and Co. and have had creative control of it from start to finish. Many of the older Japanese franchises that were brought over were victims of sloppy, lackadaisical "localizations" that amounted to little more than someone making shit and putting it in the manual. And even with the newer franchises something is lost in translation simply because no one in their right mind is going to put an Atlus-level effort into localizing something that is in most cases an afterthought.

The other reason is that Mortal Kombat has always embraced and paraded it's fiction. Say what you will about it's quality, the story of MK has always been told with sincerity and conviction. I don't get that feeling from most other franchises. I rarely get the sense that fighting game franchises take their fiction seriously, and is some cases (such as BlazBlu) I get a feeling that the game actively resents me for even bothering with it.

I don't think that a lack of a strong narrative is necessarily a bad thing for fighting games though. You can have other compelling, single-player content besides a story. As fun as it was to see Sektor before he became a robot, I would have rather had more content like the beginning of the challenge tower that tutorialized some of the characters and mechanics. And if anything, knowing that his name was always Sektor bothers me now, because that's a robot-ass name.

Mortal Kombat isn't unique in having its fiction embraced. Other fighting games have historically cared about their fiction just as much as Mortal Kombat. The only real difference between Mortal Kombat and other franchises was the dedication that the series made in its reboot to tell a proper story in a cinematic context that took the narratives of the first three games and turned it into something coherent while removing the absolute worst of the bullshit. And even though Boon has been there since the start, John Tobias was the original story guy; others filled in after he left, and by the time the series had progressed to Armageddon, it just didn't feel as though the writers really cared at that point. I mean, sure, Armageddon had a Konquest story mode, but that mode felt more or less like fanfiction, and the ending didn't really make up for it. The whole point of the rebooted story was because the narrative had become fundamentally broken.

Posted by Deusoma

I had really mixed feelings about Soul Calibur V's story mode. On the one hand, it was bar none the best story in any game in the franchise, with significantly better production values than previous games and significant effort put into it, as opposed to eight meaningless fights in a row followed by an ending. I actually quite enjoyed the story, and for once actually found myself empathizing with the characters and genuinely interested in how the chain of events would turn out, which is just about unheard of in a fighting game.
 
On the other hand, the only characters it did any justice to were Patroklos and Pyrrha. SCV went to a lot of effort to change things up in the roster (even if most of the "new" characters were just new looks for old movesets). And yet, it didn't do anything with most of them! Maxi's group of fledgling warriors show up for what amounts to a cameo, so we never delve into, for example, the obvious suggestion that Kilik is Leixia's real father, or Natsu's search for the missing Taki. And it isn't just them, there are so many questions that this 17-year timeskip raises, involving just about every single character, that the game completely ignores.
 
Why is Voldo serving Soul Edge in the story mode, hunting down Patroklos and Pyrrha? 
I don't know.
 
What does Z.W.E.I. stand for, what's his real name, and what's the deal with the wolf spirit?
Beats me.
 
How come Cervantes is alive again? 
*shrugs*
 
Most importantly, why the hell has Lizardman suddenly changed his fighting style, adopted his real name, and grown a pair of feathery wings from his back
I have absolutely no idea. 
 
The story mode was very well done, but because it was so laser-focused on Patroklos and Pyrrha, almost no one else at all gets any time whatsoever dedicated to their stories, and several characters didn't even get cameo appearances. Cervantes, Raphael, Hilde, and Yoshimitsu may as well not have been in the game for all the impact they had. You mention the new Mortal Kombat game, and its comparison is a great example of what's wrong with Soul Calibur V. Mortal Kombat moved back and forth between a wide variety of characters, and just about everyone was involved in the story to some extent. Not to mention that in addition to this main story mode, it still featured the traditional arcade ladder mode that featured separate, completely contradictory, and usually non-canon endings for each and every fighter. If SCV had done this in addition to the exact same story mode it contains now, the glaring omissions wouldn't be so noticeable, or so painful, and we would have gotten answers to quite a few questions.