Why Story, Not Story Modes, is Important for Fighting Games

Why do fighting game fans play fighting games? Ask anyone in the fighting game community and they’ll give you different answers. They might say they like the spirit of competition. They might just like the rush of adrenaline of beating an opponent senseless by just being more skilled than they are. They might even say the like the rapport they can build with other people within the fighting game community. They just might like a specific character or how cool each fighter looks. Heck, they might even say they just like fighting games because they’re fun and can’t explain further; they just enjoy button mashing.

What you will never hear, though, is that they like the deep story. In fact, I believe there are some fans out there that would rather scrap the budget that was allocated for the story and put all that money into making sure the actual fighting is solid. Besides, when it comes to the genre, fighting games generally have crappy stories. The plot of any decent fighting game takes a backseat to everything else, which, in my opinion is the way it should be.

When it comes to fighting game, gameplay is definitely king. Any fighter worth its salt should have silky smooth animations so things flow together, extremely responsive controls so you can react quickly to the action and have clear visual and audio designs so you can see and hear everything perfectly. But even with that fact, that’s still no excuse for developers to not place any importance in the story. There is still an inherit need for fighting games to spin a good tale if it wants to be successful, both with the casual audience and, yes, even hardcore fans.

One thing fans tend to forget regarding how story and lore impact fighting games is how it factors into one of the most important thing about the genre: the fighters themselves.

It’s totally normal to see any modern fighting games to have rosters in the double digits. I’d even say it’s necessary to have a large cast of characters nowadays. But having a big number of playable fighters wouldn’t be exciting if they were all bland and generic people.

Practically every character in every fighting game has some little backstory and that helps you identify with their fighting style, their personality and their motivations for being a fighter. Some characters, like Street Fighter’s poster boy Ryu, are training to be the best fighter in the world. Some, like Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion, are out for revenge. Others, such as Tekken’s Law, just want the money.

While it may seem like lip service in the grand scheme of things (and it generally is), fighters would be incredibly dull without them because we wouldn’t care about the characters were picking. During Street Fighter II’s heyday, Ryu and Ken were the same character. They had the exact same fighting style and the exact same moves. Yet I know some people that were drawn to either Ryu’s calm and stoic design and Ken’s more brash and flamboyant look. It didn’t matter if they were just in the game because Capcom just wanted to give players a mirror match before palette swaps were a thing. Some fans just liked the look of one character and that’s all that they needed.

Of course, having a solid story is paramount to every game, not just fighting games. While fighting games are generally more satisfying when there are two people facing off head-to-head, that doesn’t mean that they should ignore the single player experience.

This is incredibly apparent with the release of Street Fighter V. There was hardly anything for casual fans to sink their teeth into when it was launched a couple of years ago. The only content was a very quick individual story mode for each character and a survival gauntlet. The game was bereft of staples like an actual arcade mode or even combo challenges. You would think Street Fighter V’s story mode would have satisfied the appetites of casual players but you can blow through them in an hour, thanks to the total anemic fights the CPU would put against its human opponents. It wasn’t all that fun because it was so easy, a baby could (and did) beat the computer.

This is probably why fighting games new thing is the cinematic story mode. Popularized by NetherRealm Studios in their fighters like the Mortal Kombat reboot and Injustice, it’s hard not to see the appeal. Cinematic story modes is generally meant to tell a sort of epic tale as to why the characters are fighting in the first place as well as a means for the player to control as many fighters as possible.

When it works, it works beautifully. Both Mortal Kombat and Injustice series are proof that cinematic stories in fighting games can work. I would even say that it became a kind of selling point for the games, especially after the entire Street Fighter V debacle. The stories that were told in those fighting games definitely had an epic feel and each and every characters’ personalities shown through. Oh, and the fighting was actually good, too.

The problem is that, while a cinematic story add a lot to a fighting game when done well, the opposite is also true and, when done terribly, they stink to holy hell. The sad thing is that, other than NetherRealm Studios line of fighting games, no other company can get cinematic stories right. And it’s not like they haven’t tried.

Since the entire cinematic story for fighting games was introduced (and probably made NetherRealms Studios a boatload of money), publishers and developers like Capcom and Namco Bandai have tried their hand at it to awful results. Oh, and they have tried.

After Capcom flubbed Street Fighter V’s launch, they tried to make up for it by giving fans A Shadow Falls, a feature length cinematic story. It tried to be epic but just doesn’t hold up to repeat playthroughs. It’s actually one of those “so bad it’s good” experiences, which is a compliment? Tecmo released Dead or Alive 5 with their version of a cinematic story as well. I played through it and, for the life of me, I can’t remember a single detail from it. I guess that’s how forgettable it was.

The weird thing is that, while they’re trying to give us a cinematic experience because that’s what they think fans want, it’s hardly necessary. When NetherRealm Studios started inserting cinematic storylines into their fighters, everyone jumped in but they were ill-prepared to execute it properly.

While we all appreciate the effort, if the cinematic story isn’t going to be up to snuff, then they shouldn’t even attempt it. What they can do is go back to what they did before and just give an intro and ending for each character in their Arcade Mode. When Capcom did this with the release of Season 3 and the soft reboot of Street Fighter V with Arcade Edition, they packed it in with several arcade modes that takes inspiration the franchise’s storied past. Yes, I would’ve wanted actual cutscenes instead of comic book panels with a little bit of text but they work because they tell a story that’s easy to understand and is focused on the character.

I know the future of fighting games is going to involve the cinematic story mode and, if they get better, I’m all for it. But if not, just give us some story that moves the characters forward and tells us why they fight. That’s fine and would be more appreciated than a nonsensical cinematic story.

Do you think fighting games should have cinematic stories or any story at all? Let me know in the comments section below!

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One thought on “Why Story, Not Story Modes, is Important for Fighting Games

  1. Fighting games are pretty much like wrestling. Any schmuck can go up there, perform some moves and call a day. That’s cool. But it’s WAY cooler when it’s a schmuck that we care about – either we root for him or against – and there is where backstory goes in.

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