Fighting games aren’t exactly known for having the best stories. Sure there are people out there who can talk about the lore and arcade mode endings of their favorite characters for ages, but when one of these games gets a story mode very rarely do people praise it. In fact, most of the time these story modes end up being the butt of many jokes.
The reason for this is very simple. For a majority of the genre’s lifetime fighting game story modes just didn’t exist. Back in the day games weren’t expected to have a lot of content you can enjoy on your own, they were expected to eat your quarters! The closest you would get to a story back in these days is a box of text as a reward for beating the arcade ladder.
However, with the birth of home video game consoles and the realization that a majority of people who played fighting games meet up with friends maybe once a year, game devs began to put in content that a single player could enjoy on their own and this of course included story modes. Thus began a multi decade long trial and error process in the game industry where various studios tried out different methods of telling stories in fighting games. Some were successful while others crashed and burned.
Fighting game story modes tend to be one of three styles. The first we’ll talk about and by far the worst type are boring nonsense that was occasionally broken up by fights like Tekken 7’s infamous story mode where a majority of it was spent listening to an unimportant news reporter explain the plot to you. While Tekken 7 isn’t the only example of this omnipotent narrator format it is one of the worst considering the game’s budget and legacy.
The reason this is bad should be obvious. The player isn’t actually engaging with the story. They’re just being told that it’s going on by someone who may as well not even exist. This method has more or less died off over the years because of the second storytelling method we’ll discuss.
This second method is primarily used by Japanese games or games made by smaller dev teams: Just make the story mode a VN. This was popularized by Arcsys as they were able to have huge visual novel story modes in games like Blazblue and Persona 4 Arena. While this is a decent way to get the story you want across and can engage the audience it does have one major flaw: the actual gameplay.
Sometimes the story mode writers of these games get so focused on telling their story that they forget the genre they’re writing for. While Arcsys popularized this VN format they also became worse and worse at it as their games went on. Blazblue story modes can go on for upwards of fifteen hours and can contain only six fights for the first ten of those hours. While I respect Arcsys’ writing team for trying to get their vision across, this has resulted in a sin worse than being boring: People not caring about it.
How many people do you know who have played through the story mode of every Blazblue game? I imagine it’s very little. Even fans of Blazblue tended to give up on the story mode by the time the final game rolled around. They’ll still enjoy the game and characters because at the end of the day the story is only a small part of it, but what went wrong?
While a VN story mode can be good if you handle it right, you need a very careful balance of story and gameplay otherwise you risk typical fighting game players not being invested because they rarely get to play or a farce of a story where characters fight each other every two minutes for contrived reasons. It’s a very high risk, high reward way of doing a story mode.
The third method is one that’s only available to companies with a bit more budget under their belts, so let me get this out of the way first. I am not saying that games that don’t use this third method for their stories are bad, they just have a larger hurdle to jump over. I enjoy plenty of games that use method 2 for their stories and think it’s the optimal method for telling your story if you’re a small or mid-sized studio. I just really want to sing this third method’s praises.
Said third method being the cinematic fighting game story style popularized by Netherrealm Studios with their hit game Mortal Kombat 9. This story mode was presented via cutscenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a normal video game and were used to tell an actual TV drama style narrative where fights would happen frequently but (for the most part) felt natural. I prefer calling this TV drama style as opposed to movie style as ten hour movies don’t exist and Netherrealm tends to separate things into separate ongoing plot threads that feel more in line with a drama than a movie.
Probably the greatest asset of this game’s storytelling style was how it gave you the opportunity to play as nearly every character, usually switching you to someone else after a few fights. Not only does this keep the player engaged by having plenty of fights but it also gives them the chance to try out a wide range of characters to see who they prefer.
I might actively dislike the writing of Netherrealm games but from a game design perspective they have perfected the concept of a fighting game story mode and that needs to be admired. Because of this several other studios have tried to imitate them. Some with less than pleasing results…
The 2010s were a dark decade for Capcom fighting games. I don’t want to rag on it too hard as one of my goals for this site is to never write a hate article, but man did their first few attempts at story modes suck. Street Fighter 5’s story mode is infamously complete nonsense while Marvel vs Capcom Infinite’s has a constant aura where it feels like the writers actively disliked the Capcom side of the roster. It was a dark time indeed.
On a more positive note, I’m sure you all saw this article’s title. Let’s get into the main course and talk about a game that I feel does the cinematic style of fighting game story the absolute best: Dead or Alive 5!
Just like other games that attempt to do this style of story, Dead or Alive 5 has you switching characters every few fights as the story progresses. However unlike a lot of other fighting game stories that use this style DoA5 decides to bide its time during the first act. Similar to a lot of games that use the VN method the first third of the story feels like a series of completely disconnected events as characters just live their lives while the fifth annual Dead or Alive tournament looms in the distance.
I genuinely enjoy this first act of the story. Fighting games rarely give you reasons to care about characters beyond their design and maybe their arcade mode ending. Having a slow act to bring you into the world is just what a story needs to draw the player in. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing Zack desperately begging people to join the tournament and being beat up in the process?
The second and shortest act of the game is the Dead or Alive tournament itself. While a majority of fighting games center around the idea of a tournament very rarely is one actually featured in a fighting game story mode. Netherrealm was wise enough to include a tournament in Mortal Kombat 9’s story mode but that was the last time they did as the franchise was too concerned with the end of the world moving forward. Heck, Tekken is a franchise like Dead or Alive where the name of the series is also the tournament’s name but they didn’t even bother having a tournament in 7’s story.
Actually seeing a tournament happen in Dead or Alive 5’s story is glorious and I love that even though there isn’t a lot of dialogue during this part of the game it still feels engaging because almost every character you fight during this part is someone who you played as earlier while they were signing up or preparing for that tournament!
It’s also nice to see the game throw a complete curveball at the player by not having any of the franchise’s poster characters win but rather a more obscure character who while they’d been in a few games hadn’t really gotten the spotlight yet. This short and sweet act is a real fun time.
Then we’ve got the third act, the actual ongoing plot of the franchise. All the stuff here is what you would expect a typical fighting game story to focus on and shove every single character into, but Dead or Alive 5 shows some restraint by making sure this big finale is only filled with the characters it actually affects emotionally.
Remember when I compared Netherrealm’s style of storytelling to television dramas? Well Dead or Alive 5 leans into that really hard at the beginning of this act as it begins with what I can only describe as a previously on segment that recaps you on what has happened in the game so far. If I didn’t know better I’d assume this was a teaser trailer for the story that they slipped into the actual game.
I love Dead or Alive 5’s story mode, it made me actively interested in a universe that the previous games rarely made me care about and I’ll constantly praise it as the best way to do a fighting game story mode. I’m genuinely sad that it rarely gets brought up when people talk about fighting game story modes that are actually good.
Sadly it teams like even Team Ninja didn’t realize how good of a job they did as Dead or Alive 6 abandoned this story structure in favor of an individual character story select that was filled with nonsense cutscenes that make Street Fighter 5 look like high art in order to tell a story that actively killed my interest in this franchise’s universe.
I said I wanted to stay positive right? Oops. Dead or Alive 6 isn’t a completely bad game but its story mode could never live up to the hype of DoA5’s.
Let me know what you think though, are there any flaws in Dead or Alive 5’s story structure that I’m just blind to because of my love for the game? Are there any fighting game stories that you feel are completely underrated by the general gaming public?
I’d love to hear what you think. I’m Skeith from The Story Arc, signing off.