How old is Heihachi Mishima? By all accounts, Heihachi is 75 in Tekken 6, but it feels like he has been in his twilight years since the franchise began. 21 real years and 23 in-game years since his first appearance, he’s still as much of a nappy-clad badass as he’s always been. He hosts a martial arts tournament every few years where his extended family are cordially invited to try and assassinate him. He’s thrown his son off of a cliff and then into a volcano, gone toe-to-toe with supernatural beings, been blown up by a room full of robots (and lived), and beaten up his reanimated dead dad. As the series goes on and the stakes get higher, his exploits only get sillier as his age advances, and yet, Heihachi will continue to live as long as Tekken games are still being made.
Tekken is just one example of a game where the story becomes cornier as the series goes on. Other fighting games often fall into similar traps. As sequels are created, rivalries are continued and time advances. These plotlines become further entwined and more convoluted, and yet, fighting games have a reluctance to let their characters go. So much so that, by the time the 9th main entry of the Mortal Kombat franchise arrived, they decided to reboot the entire game and redo the events of MK through to MK3 from scratch. Mortal Kombat X then takes the timeline 25 years into the future and features aging versions of Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, Lui Kang and Jax. While the developers introduce a generation of “Kombat Kids” to eventually replace those geriatrics on the roster, it seems that the grey-haired Kombatants aren’t ready to pass the torch just yet.
This is all in service of the character roster. Bigger rosters are a major selling point of fighting games, often making declarations such as “Featuring over 50 unique characters!” This is more than just a marketing quote to slap on the back of a box; it’s endemic to the entire genre.
These bulging rosters are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, an engorged selection of characters usually provides variety (especially given that simple palette swaps of other characters aren’t that prevalent nowadays; that just doesn’t wash in today’s market) and value for money, which can only be a bonus. It also serves as a concession to the fans of the previous game, and a boon to the fighting game community. If you select a favourite character or a “main” in a particular game, only to see them to be removed in a later sequel, you would understandably be disappointed. After investing so much time learning your chosen character’s moveset, to have to heavily adjust your style in the next game and relearn how to play would be an uphill struggle, and a barrier to getting into the latest version.
However, while still retaining their old characters, sequels add new characters to keep them feeling fresh. With each new character comes a new backstory and a stake in the world. They have to fit within the current (usually apocalyptic) plotline and have some sort of relationship with other existing characters. This adds more to the mixing pot, meaning that games that take their continuity seriously become increasingly complicated over time.
For the most part, it can be argued that the plot serves as little more than window dressing. Does anyone really know what Ryu is fighting for? Why does Blanka conduct electricity? Answers to these questions are usually available in the games themselves, or at least in expanded media, but it could be argued that only a handful players are emotionally invested in these characters enough to research or digest this information. How many players really play fighting games for the narrative or to see their favourite fighter’s story arc to its conclusion?
More to the point, as these games produce more and more sequels that seek to attract new players to the franchise, the story has to be a secondary concern for the developers. The lore surrounding Kasumi in Dead Or Alive cannot afford to be a barrier to entry, meaning that story concerns have to take a backseat. New players should be able to pick up a controller without first learning the entire history of a fictional martial arts tournament, and that’s how it should be.
Our connections to these characters are mostly superficial. This could be down to their outfits, the attitude they show before or after a fight, or even their moveset. While a fighter’s moves are undoubtedly more than a cosmetic feature (being the sole mechanic of a fighting game), they barely tell us anything about the character or the overarching narrative. More often than not, we don’t form a bond with our chosen fighters because of their personalities, instead choosing them because of how they look or how they kick people. More often than not, their character designs are based around their moveset or vice versa, meaning that many fighters are often just basic cultural caricatures or stereotypes. You have your Mexican luchadores, British boxers, and Japanese sumos and karate masters. Picking a main character is more like choosing an aesthetic that pleases you rather than picking someone who you have a deep emotional connection with.
This is reinforced by low and high tier play. Low tier players often like to mash buttons and see cool stuff happening, hence Eddy’s popularity in arcades around the time of Tekken 3. People selected him because he’d just flip around and spin on his head with his capoeira fighting style, not because they wanted to see him avenge his grandfather’s death. At the other end of the scale, high level players distill their characters down to their bare processes. They learn the combos, master their timing, and (as is certainly the case in Street Fighter tournaments) understand frames of animation during which their characters are invulnerable. Once a character has been broken down to this degree, they no longer matter on an emotional level. Ryu’s backstory involving his rivalry with Akuma seems like a distant memory by the time you’re that deep in the game.
This isn’t necessarily exclusive to fighting games, but the genre exemplifies it more than most. How can you have a coherent narrative where you can win with any character, only to have that retconned by the next release? So why do developers continue to try in this area?
NetherRealm have been slowly building a case for narratives within fighting games. In Injustice: Gods Among Us, they created an interesting comicbook-style story mode that allowed you to experience the majority of the roster while simultaneously weaving an interesting tale. The plot was mainly typical fare for a superhero caper, but it felt like it matched the style somewhat and it wasn’t poorly written. While Injustice serves as the prime example, NetherRealm have attempted this elsewhere with mixed results. 2011’s reboot of Mortal Kombat had a story mode that was met with enthusiasm, whereas their more recent efforts in Mortal Kombat X fell slightly flat. This was partially because you couldn’t perform fatalities on your opponents as they still had a part to play later in the story (even though fatalities are one of the main attractions of Mortal Kombat), and also because the story jumped around too much between time periods. However, NetherRealm have shown one way of presenting a story that provides a context for all the fighting, and have presented it at the front and centre of their games. It’s a bold move, but a commendable one that seems to have paid off somewhat.
Perhaps this is the direction that other fighting games need to move in. If they insist on having world-ending narratives surrounding magical swords (Soul Calibur) or universes colliding (Marvel vs Capcom), perhaps having one main story that all the characters fit into is more compelling than having 50 individual stories, of which 49 will be discarded for the sequel. If it can work for Mortal Kombat, a game series that was previously renowned for over-the-top slapstick violence, then it could work elsewhere.