Fighting games have never had very strong narratives. I have never purchased a fighting game expecting character development, emotional cut scenes, or memorable dialogue. I play a fighting game for the obvious, frantic core of it all...the fighting.
And yet, elements of a story are all in place in these games. The game sets characters toward a goal: Win a world tournament, stop an ancient evil, claim an all-powerful weapon, etc. Characters are even tailored to specific roles, the poster children for good guys like Ryu of Street Fighter and Liu Kang of Mortal Kombat are clearly portrayed as the heroes. Likewise, Nightmare of Soul Calibur and Kazuya of Tekken are obviously the baddies.
Everything is in place...so why is there not more emphasis on story?
A blog I stumbled upon in the great wide Internets hit the nail on the head. In a short entry looking into the same topic of fighting game stories, his/her words can be summed up with this:
"If any developer, designer, player, or writer absolutely needs to blame the current sorry state of fighting game stories on any one thing, they can blame it on the arcades, the place where this whole mad scene started"The arcade influence is still too heavy in fighting games to provide a narrative. Fighting games are still much more of a competitive, two player, pick up and play experience. Even in the single player arcade, the only mode with true story in most fighters, the second player can still press start at any time to hop in and challenge you. There is even a countdown screen when you lose a fight on most of these to Continue. It's much like a puzzle game that would hold your attention for a time. Did you play Tetris because you felt a strong desire to build disappearing buildings for the entertainment of local children? With these types of game it never becomes a question of story, but what fight or what stage is next.
Then there is the idea of a story progression mode, such as the past attempt at this in Mortal Kombat: Deception's "Konquest" feature. This open world option allowed you to move along collecting coins and going from point to point to...well...fight. It was like playing Arcade mode, but I had to physically walk to my next battle. Unlike other genres of gaming that open up new game play elements, new weapons, new enemies, or epic boss battles; the fighting genre already has most of everything it can offer from the start to players. If anything, arcade and story modes simply exist to train you for online competition.
You must also consider the idea of what is "canon". With most games clocking in at a 15+ character roster, which one is considered "the" iconic story to follow? While most would agree the main characters like Ryu or Kyo Kusanagi (King of Fighters) would be the story to document, there will be other devotees to different characters. It's safe to say that Sub-Zero is not considered a supporting cast member to many.
Does this mean a big story is not possible? Of course not, developers just choose not to center the game around it.
The director of Marvel vs Capcom promised a truly in-depth story for the latest installment, with a Marvel writer taking the helm no less. That idea was obviously scratched and left me pretty disappointed. Here was a sporting roster of colorful characters and personalities with great potential that ended with a story panel that made no sense. This is Marvel comics we are talking about; the same people that can kill Captain America, but not really kill Captain America, but time travel with Captain America all at the same time. Needless to say, I expected a little bit more with a comic book writer on board.
Recent games have improved upon the typical story formula recently. Blazblue in particular was praised for its story instead of the run of the mill arcade and ending. Although it was much more favored to the anime enthusiast, it provided choices in the story and branching paths that made for an interesting addition. Street Fighter 4 at least chose to include small "rival" scenes in which two characters exchange words. I had no clue what they were discussing most of the time, but it was a nice addition that built the fight up.
Do I ever expect fighters to contain full fledged cinematics and stellar voice work to sway me from competitive online play to AI battles? No. I do expect smaller aspects to improve as time goes on, however. The most I could ask for at this point is a stellar character ending that actually makes sense, because at this point in gaming; fighters are still all about the fighting.
So what do you think? Do you ever want your fighting games to contain fleshed out stories? Is the tride and true Arcade mode enough to tide you over?
Sources: I Speak Comics by Sumo. - Worth a read for his fighting game articles, hits a lot of great points.