Do Fighters Need Story?
Two combatants, one against the other, that’s all you need. For as long as the genre has existed, all you needed for a fighting game to be compelling was two characters on screen beating the crap out of each other, nothing more. Right? However, as games evolve with time, they are expected to be more than just the core idea they originally were designed to be. Some genres lent themselves well to change while the fighting game genre seemed to fall to the wayside. With the release of Street Fighter IV in 2009, fighters finally managed to evolve and be compelling to a wider audience again.
One method many developers decided to implement in order to accomplish this is to have an in depth story mode involving a few or all of the characters in the game. BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend, SoulCalibur V, and most famously the Mortal Kombat reboot all incorporate a Story Mode to invest players in the game. Incorporating some sort of plot and character development into a fighting game is nothing new but is it necessary?
Many gamers complain that story, cutscenes and the like get in the way of what they actually want to do and that is fight. When you pop in Street Fighter X Tekken, you don’t want to hear about some box that’s appeared in Antarctica; you want to see who would win in a fight, Chun-Li or Nina. So even though developers are using this feature to entice gamers to buy and play their game, is it working? Do fighting games even need a story component?
It ultimately depends on how you look at it. Fundamentally, no; you don’t need a story in a fighting game. Rarely do you come back to a fighting game to re-experience the story it tells. Even if you find it enjoyable, most gamers will move on to the title’s other modes and features unless there’s a reward for completing the story mode more than once. Similarly, if you do not enjoy the story mode, you can still enjoy the game. The reason for this is because the fighting mechanics are in the end what matters.
The way the characters move, the combo system if any, the speed of the action, the way the stage interacts with the fight, the rules of the match, all of this is what fighting games are all about. You don’t necessarily play the story; you play the fights. Of course this argument could apply to all games. All things accounted for, whether it be a hack-and-slash action title, a side-scrolling platformer or even a turn-based RPG, gameplay is ultimately what matters most, whatever that may entail.
I recently finished the storyline in Injustice: Gods Among Us and I did not like the story mode at all. However, I’m still playing that game because I enjoy the combat system. Linking attacks together and juggling opponents into these 30% damage combos is a lot of fun and ultimately that’s what matters to me. I’ll probably never return to the story mode and I am completing Battles mode with each character not for their individual endings but to unlock stuff and learn how to play as each character and determine which I like the most to play as. Clearly, the story is not important to me.
Now on the other hand, story in fighting games is unavoidable. More so than any other style of video game, fighters are the sitcoms of the medium, in that they focus on an ensemble cast. You don’t have disposable enemies with no personality like you do in shooters, platformers and RPGs. Each character is designed to be distinct and original (for the most part) and that in itself implies personality. With that already inferred, why not flesh out that character and give him a little back-story?
You design a character that looks like a Japanese Karate martial artist; you’re going to want to know more about him. That’s how you get Ryu, a stoic warrior always on the path to better his fighting ability. However, such drive towards always bettering yourself can lead to bad things such as a thirst for power and that’s why elements like his rivalry with Ken and Akuma and the Satsu no Hado have been introduced into his character. This kind of character development not only invests you more into the character, it does actually affect gameplay.
Raphael from the SoulCalibur series debuted in SoulCalibur II and had a more shrewd, fast style to his moves but after the story’s events had a negative impact on him, by the fourth game, he controlled more purposely and attacked in a more ruthlessly manner with more emphasis on strength than swiftness. Personality affected how this character played like and as such, also evolved his play style. He wasn’t arbitrarily changed because the developers felt like it. His change had purpose and knowing these progressions in the story will help you play better as him and against him.
It can’t be denied that on a fundamentals level, story doesn’t impact fighting games very much. As described, you can dislike the entire story portion of a fighting game and still enjoy it, something other genres like RPGs can’t afford to do. However, the character development you get from the story effectively link to the mechanics of the game, whether you prefer it or not. What’s more is by design; you want to know more about your character. Why else did you try to complete arcade mode with all the characters in every fighting game?
I suppose it ultimately comes down to preference and I can see both sides. I personally love to follow the lore of Mortal Kombat but couldn’t care less about the story in Marvel vs. Capcom. I think we can all at least agree on this: while fighting games don’t need story, it does matter.