How Important Are Stories in Fighting Games? The Case of Tekken 7
OK, let me start by saying something: I LOVE fighting games. In fact, my first ever video game memory is a fighting game one: Ι, about 5 years old, playing the original Tekken and using Yoshimitsu against Wang.
The Tekken series has always been a discussion topic among my friends, and any new installment has been met with enthusiasm by me. Of course, the same occurred after the announcement of Tekken 7. The buzz about the future of the cursed Mishima bloodline was getting more and more intense with June 2 2017 (the game’s release date) approaching. When the game was out, I couldn’t wait to check the conclusion to a story that had been going for over 20 years.
And it wasn’t as I expected it.
Hmmm wait! Is this piece of text just another fan ranting about a video game? Well, I hope you don’t see it that way. My aim is to start by analyzing the reasons I think Tekken 7 had a weak story, and then move towards a general discussion on storylines in fighting games.
There are going to be some heavy spoilers about the story of the game. In fact, I am going to focus on some specific parts of the story, and not summarize the entire saga.
What exactly is going on with the Mishimas?
In the game, we get the revelation that Heihachi killed his wife, Kazumi, when they were both young. But Heihachi was supposed to be a good guy in the beginning. He only became villainous after his wife, who carried the Devil Gene and could transform into a demon, attacked him and unveiled that she was –in fact- sent by her clan to kill him, because they predicted he will become a threat to the world. After Kazumi’s attack, Heihachi’s mentality was never the same, and he turned out to be the greedy, egotistical, merciless man we all know. Thus, in fact, Kazumi’s attempt to kill him was the ‘trigger’ that turned him into a bad guy in the first place. Does that make much sense? To me, it does not. And if her goal was to kill him, why did she have a son, Kazuya, with him that also carried the Devil Gene? One reason could be that in case she failed, Kazuya would finish her deed. But that was never explained in the story.
And Akuma? The presence of Street Fighter’s (SF) ‘Great Demon’ in a Tekken game attracted worldwide attention. However, that version of Akuma is slightly different: according to designer Michael Murray, Tekken’s Akuma may retain all characteristics of his Street Fighter counterpart, but that does not mean that the two universes are integrated –just the Akuma part. So, is this version of Akuma supposed to be an original character? It was never made clear. After all, the existence of a SF character would also mean the existence of the entire SF universe into the Tekken universe, and that is not the case here. After clarifying this, let’s see what this (original?) character brought into the storyline.
Akuma is revealed to be a person from Kazumi’s past – someone that Kazumi helped many years ago and is now indebted to her. At this point, there are two critical questions that may occur. Regarding the question “why only appear now?”, his response was “I was merely waiting for you to become stronger”, something that does not make much sense either: you attack an opponent when they are weaker, not stronger. Unless he meant he was waiting for Heihachi to match his level, since he was considering him not a real match before. That causes another problem though, because Heihachi was about 75-years-old at the time of Tekken 7. At a younger he should have been in a better condition. But this is just a detail (and Heihachi is amazingly powerful in any age). A more important issue, in my opinion, is Akuma and Kazumi’s relationship.
“Kazumi once saved my life. That’s all you need to know” says the red-haired fighter. Yeah, that is a nice answer if you are an unstoppable killing machine that prefers fighting than speaking. But if you are a player following the storyline, it is not very satisfactory. When Akuma was first announced, people wondered how you can make a demonic being like Akuma owe you a favour, since the ‘debt’ storyline was emphasized and repeated in the trailers and promotional campaign. Well, we will never find out, I guess.
Unfortunately for him, Akuma fails to kill his opponents –although he leaves them for dead. And when Heihachi dies, it happens by Kazuya’s hand, not Akuma’s. It is significant to mention here that there is a secret battle in the end of the Story Mode, in which Kazuya clashes with Akuma once more. The outcome of the battle is left unresolved. What I think most probable is that Kazuya will find a way to survive, and Akuma will not appear in the next installment, mainly because he is a guest character, meaning that if there are plans for his return, copyrights must once again be obtained. Thus, the goals set by Akuma in his storyline were not achieved, and Tekken 7 got a character who might be convenient in competitive gaming, but of no real impact to the story –although his role was advertised to be pivotal.
Expectations and reality
Contrary to other Tekken games, Tekken 7 used its story as basic promotion material. If Bandai Namco did not care enough for the story, they would not release tie-in comics, nor would they promote Tekken 7 as “the end of the Mishima saga”. So, if you use your story as one of your main marketing campaigns, then it would be more appreciated if you deliver a decent story. And although we were promised the end of the Mishima saga, we got a nice ‘To be continued’ promise (The Kazama saga is next perhaps?).
One last thing I would like to mention is my dissatisfaction with the ‘Character Episodes’. They were supposed to show us what happened with the rest of the characters during the events of the tournament, and in a manner they did. They were, though, so poorly written, that no conclusion could be reached.
The general question
The Tekken 7 case brought a relevant question to my mind regarding fighting games and their plots: do fighting games need a story? Well, in a manner, yes. There has to be an excuse to bring 30 or 40 characters together to compete against each other. But with the rise of on-line gaming and competitive gaming, stories are becoming obsolete. Take for example Street Fighter V: a game that was released in February 2016 fully operational for on-line matches, only to receive its story mode about five months later, and an Arcade Mode with character endings came two years after the game’s initial release. Same goes with Killer Instinct (the 2013 edition). It was released in late 2013 with some very basic story mode campaigns, until it finally got a bigger story mode named ‘Shadow Lords’ in September 2016. John D. Carmack, lead programmer on games like Doom and Quake, once said that stories in video games are like stories in porn films: “It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” While recent video game series like Uncharted and Life is Strange have proven that story can actually matter, since they are heavily based on quality storytelling, the fighting game genre cannot claim the same. This is also confirmed by the new guest character in Tekken 7, Geese Howard. While Geese is a very important character in the Fatal Fury series, (so far) he has absolutely no place in the Tekken storyline.
However, there have been some exceptions; some fighting games, like the last two entries in the Mortal Kombat series, which make a very good use of the story and the single-player modes. In those, there is a Story Mode that presents (almost) every character’s role in the overall story of the franchise, while also giving the player the opportunity to use many of those characters.
I’m not delusional. I know that looking for details at a fighting game’s main story will not affect its sales not even at a tiny fraction. 99% of the buyers are –probably- interested in a fighter’s game mechanics and competitive elements. But as an entertainment medium, video games have the capability to convey a good story, move an audience, and carry strong messages. A production company can always devote a little more time on explaining why so many characters want to participate in a martial arts tournament or defeat the evil guy. With a good script, fighting games do not have anything to lose.