The phrase “Fighting games with story” can inspire a number of reactions from people. To the general public, it just sounds like another aspect to a genre of video games they may or may not have an interest in, but to fans of fighting games its a phrase that generates revulsion, aggressive apathy, support, ridicule, or outright anger. It seems like everyone in the fighting game community has some kind of opinion on story modes in their games, and all of them revolve around how relevant they are.
The most prevalent opinion on the amount of focus fighting games should have on their stories is they should have “very little”. After all, “gameplay should always come first, so who cares about what happens to the characters you’re playing as?”. That’s a fair opinion, and if I’m being honest, there’s really no way to refute someone who completely feels that way. If your mindset is totally entrenched in the idea that gameplay and gameplay alone is all that should matter in a fighting game, then no one can really convince you otherwise. I’ve known of some who claim that developers could replace every character in a roster with stick figures with different abilities and they would enjoy a game just the same. That’s great and all, but for those of us who at least care a little about such “irrelevant” things as a character’s personality and back story, it’s clear that a cohesive story adds a certain weight to who they are.
Part of the fun of playing video games is the fantasy of it all. You’re thrust into a new world with all of these colourful characters, and the difference between this medium and pretty much every other one is that you actually get to interact with these creations, you can shape their world just as much as they shape yours. Fighting games add a competitive edge to that, but they often overlook the world building aspects of it too. Most of the time developers just throw together a collection of harmless stereotypes and call it a day. Sure, there may be a cliche anime-esque story unfolding in the background, but players implicitly know that next to no thought went into it and end up not caring at all. That’s fine too, since the only world most fighting game players are looking to shape is a world of pain and humiliation for their opponents, but that was before people believed that game designers were capable of more. All of that changed recently with what NetherRealms Studios is doing with their games today.
At this point, the Mortal Kombat franchise is legendary for its boundary pushing blood and gore that actually necessitated the existence of the ESRB ratings for video games, but another aspect of the franchise which I feel pushed boundaries is that its brought a level of story telling to their game that just wasn’t seen before with other fighting games. Yes, the bar was set incredibly low with most game stories being confined to amusing little arcade endings for each of the characters (something Mortal Kombat has as well), but Mortal Kombat took it to the next level with their 2011 reboot of the series that saw to a huge amount of world building and lore being written. Characters with complex relationships and pasts, intertwining plotlines that both honour and surpass the cheesy plots of the series’ past, and a strong narrative arc that carries through all the way to the end are what defines the kinds of stories NRS are telling these days. There are some issues with synthesizing the story with the gameplay (believe it or not, it’s actually difficult to build a story that must be peppered with several fights every 10 minutes), but if the story preview of their soon to be released game’s first chapter is any indication, they have made significant strides in that area.
Evil sorcerers, fallen gods, Shaolin monks, themed ninjas, and special forces agents populate the cast of Mortal Kombat, and the story that ties them all together is epic in scale. Because NRS seems committed to going forward with this direction, Mortal Kombat X (the soon to be released addition to the franchise) has brought a number of additions not typically seen in fighting games. For example, they actually created fully voice acted (with an A-List voice cast mind you) dialogue exchanges between every member of the cast; most of which range from funny to darkly threatening. That’s a ton of work for something most fighting game developers would deem a wasted effort, but to fans of the franchise and its characters, it really means a lot; just as the marginal improvements to things like the character’s wardrobes and characterizations do not go unnoticed. With Injustice: Gods Among Us having preceded the latest game in NetherRealm’s releases, it’s clear that there is steady progression in improving the story elements of their titles. The more detailed the story elements, the more there is a possibility for people to be sucked into their world and truly invested. The more invested you are in a character and their story, the more satisfying it is to crush opponents using them. Some may argue that taking the time to work on the story takes away from the game experience, but I would argue that it actually can enhance it in some ways. Recently I found myself pouring over Reptile’s wiki page, legitimately interested in his past and story. This may be just a personal feeling, but I can’t help but be more invested in him melting the faces of his opponents knowing that he’s the last of his kind, looking for an opportunity to revive his species.
Some cite Smash Bros. Brawl and its disastrous story mode (titled Subspace Emissary) as a reason not for fighting games to focus on stories, but I would counter that Smash‘s story of game is hardly an applicable example. The reasons for this are that Nintendo continued its long history of refusing to give lines of dialogue to their characters, the story was poorly conceived and had no flow, and most importantly, it was a Nintendo cross over game so it never really needed any kind of story (although it is almost impressive that they failed to make an interesting one given the characters they had). That’s part of what makes Smash so fun, since all of these characters already come from fleshed out and interesting worlds, we already feel connected to them. Games like Mortal Kombat should world build to emulate that feeling without the need for so many past games (the reboot and ninth installment to the series alone did more for the world of Mortal Kombat than any of its eight predecessors). People who can’t sympathize with those who desire more from their fighting game stories should at least be able to understand the joys of playing as your favourite character in a fighting game crossover. What NRS is doing with its franchise is giving players the opportunity to feel like who they play has significance that goes beyond just their moveset.
With Mortal Kombat X, NRS is continuing its admirable effort to make their series enjoyable in more ways than what is considered conventional. They’re making their gaming experience into something more, while still keeping elements fresh and unique by implemented a number of gameplay changes (including moveset variations for every member of the cast). Adding the value of an engrossing narrative while recognizing the value of world building is definitely one of the ways Mortal Kombat has managed to stay relevant after over two decades of existing. The franchise put itself in the spotlight with its boundary pushing gore, but I believe it is its boundary pushing thoughtfulness that’s keeping it there.
Quote of the Day:
Kung Lao: I have no quarrel with you.
Reptile: I will tear your flesh.
Kung Lao: … I now have a quarrel with you.
– Mortal Kombat X