I decided to make this blog more of a scientific study of two story experiments, with two test subjects I am well versed in: the worlds of Blazblue and Soul Calibur.
Case 1: Creating a universe and weaving it into the gameplay: The Wheel of Fate
Blazblue: Calamity Trigger splashed onto the fighting stage in 2009 from the masterworks of ArcSys. Distinguished by its markedly anime style and sharply-defined characters, its story mode was hardly innovative, yet fairly robust. The narrative was driven by individual characters: each one had its own chapter, with different outcomes dependent on gameplay actions and decisions.
The clever writing many a times plummeted into anime tropes, with conventional but spirited dialogue and fan service jutting out. ArcSys’s style, echoing its predecessor Guilty Gear, follows an interesting blueprint: make the story as confusing as possible, leave hints throughout to piece tales together, until each story is cleared and “True Ending” is unlocked, providing canonical closure for the whole game and unifying the individuals’ fates. Only then can some sense be made of the torrent of backstory and parallel narratives.
Example (simplified): Ragna, the main character, is a wanted criminal. He goes to each town to kill Murakumo units, a type of weapons develop by Librarium scientists. He eventually makes it to the Kagustuchi (town that’s the game’s setting) and, in a grueling duel, falls to a pit called “cauldron,” entwined with a robotic, psychotic enemy who vaguely represents his dead sister. We get a message that the world is destroyed. And this was the “good” ending for Ragna. It’s not until later that you learn that failing into the cauldron means the end of the world, which then is reset, and the timeline starts over again. Eventually, as conditions shift more favorably with each new timeline, in the True Ending Ragna overcomes his foe, the world is protected, and time goes on.
All that was much harder to figure out than it sounds. The story was much more well-written than GG’s, but even after watching the True Ending, I was very confused about many of the events that transpired and had to look at a guide. Continuum Shift, as in Blazblue 2, was quite similar in terms of the story blueprint but was better written and more easy to figure out – great for them. Blazblue definitely wins in terms of having a unifying narrative that provides a rich backstory for every character, giving players mere crumbs of information as they piece intricate relationships between the cast. It cast away the older fighting game convention of having Arcade Mode serving as story, and having an individual victory storyline for whomever won.
One more thing about Blazblue: a great way that the makers tie the story to the gameplay is through sound: music and voice acting. Certain matchup have a special music theme, and many pairings have specific, individualized quotes that really bring out the character relationships. Who can forget the classic Jin vs. Noel: “You’re no longer my superior, Jin Kisaragi! You’re under arrest!”?
Case 2: Lack of uniformity, staying in convention: A Tale of Souls and Swords…
The Soul series is a veteran over young Blazblue, so it’s harder to define, since story modes were fairly different from each installment. A conflict surrounding a demonic blade, set in the 16th century, the key strength of the game are the flagship, memorable characters: the fallen knight Siegfried, the demonic pirate Cervantes, sex-bomb-ninja Taki, and manic human-Twister Voldo, for example. The series having a nearly 15-year-legacy now, it’s safe to say that it’s the characters who keep veterans happy and at home with each new installment, even if the cast does change up and modes in each game vary.
I really enjoyed the Weapon Master mode in Soul Edge, even though I was very young and did not care to read much text (I also didn’t know English very well). Each character had his or her individual path, displayed on the world map, intertwined with a book with written dialogue and narration. What really stood out where the battles, with fun conditions: win with Critical Edge, Guard Impact your opponent, win with throws, under 16 seconds, and so on. Rewards were new weapons, complete with stats, and that also was a very enjoyable aspect of the game.
Soul Calibur 2’s story was mostly a disappointment. In terms of gameplay, the Weapon Master mode triumphed, but it didn’t matter which character was used and the text narration between chapters was a snooze. The 3rd installment returned to the Soul Edge’s formula, with map-based progression and choices. However, the animations and cut-scenes quickly lost their appeal as many of them repeat for multiple characters. As for Soul Calibur 4, it hardly had a story – rather just Arcade style intro and outro.
What hurts to see is that there isn’t very much story content in any of the games. The Soul series largely followed the traditional Arcade-style, this-is-what-would-happen-if-I-won endings, although by doing some reserach on Wikis one can find canon, “agreed-upon” endings and much background story to characters. It’s a shame though that a lot of that is not included in the game, but only available to those who seek outside sources.
Now, about the most recent addition. The story of the latest installment seemed really promising: picking up 17 years after the last game, with intriguing introductions of Sophitia’s children and the next generation of characters.. Conversely to other games, this time the story mode was a unified, stage-like progression in which the player assumes control of a few characters, as directed by the game. It was disappointing to see this promising advancement in the Soul universe turn out to be a shoddy, slideshow-like melodrama, with approximately 70 percent of the cast missing. It’s not that we’re asking for a Baldur’s Gate-quality plot; but at least a chance to see fan favorites and what happens to them. However, it’s the presentation of the story that hurts it the most.
Conclusion: Another case (?) and refutation
It’s worth mentioning the latest Mortal Kombat’s story mode. Unfortunately, I have not played it, merely watched a little on Youtube, but it seemed to be what Soul Calibur V should have been. It’s the same concept: a single story line, driven by characters handed to you, but told with cinematics and flair, not hand-drawn illustrations and voice-overs.
Finally, I’d like to refute a possible counterargument to this whole “good story in fighting games.” Many people do say that “it’s just a fighting game” “who cares about the story” and so on. That’s the start of a cycle, though. Gamers don’t care enough stories in fighting games, do developers end up doing a half-hearted job. And because they did a half-hearted job, gamers say that the games are only about fighting since stories are not good anyway. In the end, I definitely am happy with fighting games having the longetivity and the e-sports that surround them, but when the company ends up botching the single player content, the product as a whole looks worse and is also a disservice to loyal fans of the franchise.