Get your start buttons ready, folks, I’m talking about one of the last things you’d expect to have a plot! …No, not whatever is trendy for nerds to mock. It’s fighting games!
Ah, fighting games. Button inputs, dial-a-combo, outrageous special moves, and people beating each other up while getting up daisy fresh for next round. Of all genres, this one seems like the one of those that least needs a plot, right? Really, just give it a tournament or event, design a marketable cast, give ’em some fluff, and you’re good to go, right?
I’m sure we’re all vaguely aware of the basic plots of the big fighting games, especially now that the latest ones have had such prominence. Netherrealm (the studio formerly known as Midway) in particular has heavily marketed their own story modes. And certainly, when the characters are flashy enough, people can’t help but be pulled into their backstories to know that there’s an intense rivalry between them, raising anticipation for their clash.
But what some of us might not know is that even back in the day, some fighting games had a surprising amount of lore to them. That, in fact, actual writing is NOT a recent invention! Let’s look through the history books, shall we?
The Tournament Of Tournament Tournaments
Let’s start with the barest beginnings when fighting games were simple cartridges or arcade cabinets, a simple way for people to enact fictional violence against each other. Though I won’t be going into the major history of fighting games, I can at least look at the plots.
The early fighting games ran entirely on arcade and versus mode, so story requirements were light. Like any other arcade or console game at the time, you had writers come up with a reason for the fight and enough of the characters to know who they were and what they were after. And…that was it. The bare structure of it was backstory, character design, and character endings. In fact, half the fun was figuring out which endings were canon and which were conflicting, many tying in with others. And that wouldn’t be known until the next game which revealed who really won the duel or, in some cases, revealing both endings were right but the guy that died was a body double.
Writing at this time was almost entirely separated from gameplay, a reward for being skilled enough to beat the boss or patient enough to wait for the menu to load the story scenes. It tied into what the character was after and tended to give them exactly what they wanted, because back then, you had to work on the premise that your fighter was the absolute winner. This, of course, led to the aforementioned complications of figuring out which endings were TRUE (again, some might call that a perk).
That’s on the surface, however. Don’t underestimate the depth of characters! Whether through loading screens, instruction manuals, or promotional materials, many of these guys could have SURPRISINGLY complex histories. While this may not be apparent with the earlier installments, it becomes much clearer the longer a series lasts. That’s because the writers have not just the events of the last game to build off of, but more time to actually explain more of the characters, such as just how the heck are Ryu and Guile able to shoot hadoukens and sonic booms. Sure, it’s telling instead of showing, but lighten up, man, it’s a videogame.
What Do You Mean You’re Not Here For The Tournament?
Endings DID, however, evolve to showcase more teasers that not everything was wrapped up, whether it was the rival getting away or the dark power going dormant for another time.
Fighting games would move away from the old endings of “I won! I’m the best! I’m using all this prize money to make my dreams come true!” (though the tournament trope was still a good device to get everyone in one place) and started diversifying them for two reasons: To give room for future installments (“Ah, but will he finally achieve his revenge in SUBURBAN SLAPFIGHT 2???”), and to tell a wider story.
After all, it’s much easier to communicate your story’s lore when you can devote some endings to what was happening in the different sections of the plot. Because sure, we all know there’s some big drama about Siegfried fighting his dark side to deal with Soul Edge, but doesn’t everyone REALLY wanna know about what that scamp Yoshimitsu is up to as well as Mitsurugi’s latest failure to fight the forces of industry? Seriously, the guy keeps throwing himself into fights between demigods and demons because he has a midlife crisis about his old weapon being inferior to a newer, more explosive weapon.
In addition to the writing itself, it’s worth mentioning that even back in the arcade days of yore, games still kept finding ways to weave in more of their story into the structure of arcade mode. They would have cutscenes, intermissions, special fight intros like when you face your rival, or sub-bosses that were significant to the character. These were the early days of the industry revolution known as (GASP) actual voice acting and automatic intermissions.
New And Improved! Tournament: The Story!
So that’s innovations working within the framework of a fixed arcade mode. But now we’re going into THE FUUUUUUUUTUUUUUUUUUUUURE.
By that, I mean game franchises venturing into new ways to tell the story, be it in refining the existing arcade modes or introducing new game modes. And I mean game modes with meat, not those silly minigames where you destroy some poor sap’s car.
Some used spinoffs which attempted to tell the story in a less restrained format, while others had a separate campaign mode within the game serving as an actual ‘prequel within the game’ to set the scene for just what the heck was happening. Though they weren’t exactly the best in lore as fighting game writing was still developing, they at least set precedents of different ways to explore plots besides just “set the game on easy mode and kill the boss” or “watch a YouTube video compiling all the endings because screw you and your command grabs, final boss.”
Mortal Kombat’s early looks into it may have been critically panned, but they did showcase that you could evolve fighting games to be more than just a 1v1 slugfest. That players would, in fact, care about seeing the game’s story. The lore was already evolving to be more and more complex, of course; now they just needed ways to show it. They weren’t the first, but they were certainly one of those with the highest profile.
This approach would be refined by Soul Calibur, with their third game, in fact. They adapted their arcade mode into a Choose Your Own Adventure style story mode for each character complete with quicktime events while still having a conventional “kill everything between you and the boss” mode. Both to make the experience more personal for the character you chose, and also as a means to give more replay value. Some characters and endings, in fact, could only be unlocked if you chose specific paths or executed events correctly, just like the old days of meeting conditions to fight unfairly overpowered hidden bosses.
The Future Of Story Mode…Actual Story Mode
That leads us to the modern times with the Story Mode we now recognise, where you switch between multiple characters and follow one overall plot. Definitely the most user-friendly one out there. Mortal Kombat 9 was one of the biggest examples that jumpstarted this, and games since then have adapted that structure into their own games. Yes, even Street Fighter!
Arcade mode didn’t go away, however! It still retains the developments I noted, though the writing there has also shifted towards more fantastic directions now that we have an ACTUAL Story Mode with an ACTUAL plot and ending. They vary from the utterly outrageous to the plausibly in-universe, and I do believe it’s too early to tell what’s the state of whether they’ll be implemented in canon or not, though Injustice 2 kind of acknowledges this by flat out calling their arcade mode the MULTIVERSE (read: Alternate Universe). Still, the tradition of interconnected and outright conflicting endings is still alive and strong!
Alright, Can We At Least Interest You In Tournament Merchandise?
So looking at this overview of writing in fighting games, what can we learn from these?
Well, firstly, it’s a tribute to how readers love piecing things together. Whether you’re not into the genre or a hardcore fan, I can mention that fighting games, in addition to a competitive scene, have a VERY dedicated fanbase of lorehounds who behave like any other nerd: speculating on every little detail while getting irrationally angry at retcons.
Secondly, any fighting game’s background can be a model lesson in taking the time to read the user manual for anything, even if it seems direct and plotless. You might be surprised with what you find. Quick, off the top of your heads, do any of you know what’s the deal with Scorpion and Sub Zero? There’s nothing wrong with NOT knowing, of course, but it’s pretty fascinating once you learn. And you can take that attitude to almost any franchise…well, except FIFA. Or NBA.
Finally, what we learn from modern Story Modes is probably a lesson in design, applying to both gameplay and writing: Keeping the pacing diverse and interesting, while also giving you insights into different characters, whether in terms of personality or gameplay. With the new Story Mode, you get a crash course on how to use these different characters, which in turn helps keep gameplay from getting monotonous with the same character over and over, which in turn gives you multiple POVs to free up the story to jump from place to place and forward and backwards in time. This diversity is, in fact, a good crash course on the rudiments of actual writing.
Whether you’re an aspiring writer or someone planning a game (tabletop or online), getting a good handle on structure will serve you well. You’ll know what structures work and what they’re good for, and from there, you’ll know how to tweak it.
You may want to write something different from Mortal Kombat or Injustice, and that’s cool! But at least with them, you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to use different characters as well as how and when they use this cast. This way, you actually have an excuse to see the supporting characters in action instead of growing sick and tired of the same two headliners all the time.
And good use of a good cast is, as I mentioned often, one of the most vital parts of a vibrant story. Because if you’re really only going to focus on one character, what’s the point?