I love fighting games. Always have, ever since I played games like Street Fighter 2 and Clayfighter (shut up) on the SNES. Recently, I’ve found myself getting into AAA-style shooters, such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. They’re normally not my thing, as I’m usually focused on RPGs in my spare time. As I get older and seek out new experiences, I’ve found room for them in my headspace. One thing I’ve noticed, especially lately, is how much these two genres have in common. They’re both competitive, they’re both divisive, and they both have constant discourse about single-player versus multiplayer.
What does having a story mode, or campaign as it sometimes is called, do for these kinds of games? Are they necessary, or are they merely window-dressing for what are ultimately skill-heavy, multiplayer competitions at their core? Is a story mode baked in, in order to attract casual players and ease them into hardcore genres? Or are they stuffed in as an aside for the sake of content volume being the big, contemporary selling point it is?
In a shooter, the campaign almost feels like a separate game. Any Call of Duty hardcore can tell you, the story and the online are practically two different games. The tools and weapons can be totally different, and sometimes entire mechanics or features are segregated to one side or the other. That said, the core is intact on both sides, and the campaign can be an excellent teacher. Casual fans who may be too intimidated by Call of Duty and its arcade-like twitchiness can hop into the story and work their way up the difficulty settings as they come to learn and understand the core feel of the game. A lack of a solid campaign can hurt a shooter big time, as the first Titanfall demonstrated.
On the other side, I have much more complicated feelings about story modes in fighting games. I don’t see them as necessary, nor do I see them as teaching tools. In fact, the way things have gone lately, they’re starting to feel like more of a burden or even detriment. When Mortal Kombat 9 dropped, NetherRealm attempted to change the very foundation of the genre. Mortal Kombat had long built a reputation on being a sloppy, clunky mess of a game, its only appeal being its cheesy setting and over-the-top gore. So, with the big reboot (after a dismal failure resulting in Midway dying outright), NetherRealm embraced it.
Mortal Kombat 9 had an enormous, multi-hour story mode, then sent players on a journey throughout Mortal Kombat history. The story sought to tie together the mythos, leading from the original game to Mortal Kombat 4 and beyond. It was fun, in the same way Paul W.F. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat film was. But it achieved very little in moving Mortal Kombat 9 forward as a fighting game. That said, everything else did. Mortal Kombat 9 and all of NetherRealm’s games in general have always, more lowkey, been bastions of single player content, moreso in myriad game modes than storytelling. Yet, people focused on the story mode. They put it on such a pedestal that other fighters after were expected to follow suit. And they tried, and most failed.
As it turns out, fighting game developers aren’t good storytellers! Especially in the world of Japanese game development, where cultural nuances and language barriers don’t often lend themselves well to the kind of structured, haplessly lore-obsessed style of western games. Mortal Kombat 9 worked because it was like a giant, 8-hour long B-movie, with its head shoved so far up its own ass it was compelling. Street Fighter V took well after launch to provide its similar venture, and it was mostly incomprehensible. The same can be said for Tekken 7.
Furthermore, another point of praise for these modern fighting story modes is the “seamlessness.” A cutscene will play out, then transition into a fight. You get bounced around between characters without warning and just have to go. This is fine if you already know what you’re doing, but what about the casual fans, the ones who cry afoul when something like this isn’t in a game? They just, you know, flail around after a quick peek at the move list, or they rely on cheap accessibility gimmicks like Tekken 7’s “story moves” deal. By forcing this method of storytelling in fighting games and placing it on such a pedestal, hopeful fighting game fans are actively sabotaging their own ability to learn how to play the games they ostensibly want to learn how to play. Then you crush them in versus mode, and discouraged, they move onto the next thing.
Sure, trying to appeal to everyone boosts sales overall. But fighting games are competitive products that take genuine time and investment to learn how to play well, to get the most out of them. eSports is a budding business, and the only way to keep it going and growing is to feed it. Things like Street Fighter IV’s Challenge Mode are true boons, tools that not only teach the player in new ways outside of practice mode, but also reward players for trying it out. So many casual fans became Actually Pretty Good at Street Fighter because of this approach, and at the time, the scene saw explosive growth. Tekken has always struggled to teach new players its depth despite its early, easy barrier of entry. And for that it suffers, coming off as more of a second fiddle.
I understand the want and need for content volume, and I understand how intimidating fighters can be. I understand the usefulness of tools and resources, within the game, to help new players. But giving them automatic combos and story modes that don’t bother doing anything other than say, “here’s a dumb story and a win button, thanks for your 60 bucks” isn’t doing anyone any favors. Sure, there are some short-term gains, but fighting games can’t afford to be Assassin’s Creed, the game that comes out once a year and is forgotten about by the next sequel. Fighting games need a shelf life, a competitive spark and the means to keep it fed and healthy. Street Fighter IV lasted for nearly ten years, sustained by a growing tournament scene and added DLC content updates. We need more of that, not a shelf full of Mortal Kombats.