Stories in Fighting Games: Tekken’s Missed Opportunity

A version of the following article has been first published in Greek at IGN Greece.

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 being captivated by all those colourful characters.

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.

Just a small warning here, that there are going to be some heavy spoilers about the story of the game.

What exactly is going on with the Mishimas?

For those not familiar with the game, let me fill you in real quick. The series has always been revolving around the Mishima family. The first two games are about the father-son rivalry between Heihachi and Kazuya Mashima, and the efforts of both to obtain leadership of the Mishima Zaibatsu conglomerate, while trying to eliminate each other. In the following games, Jin (Kazuya’s son, and Heihachi’s grandson) enters the fray. Disgusted by his family’s antics, he also tries to get himself rid of his relatives, and gain full control of the prestigious Mishima conglomerate. All that, with the ‘King of the Iron Fist Tournament’ serving as the background.

In Tekken 7, 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 something called 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.

“Hey Akuma, nice of you to drop by”

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, 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 have released tie-in comics, nor would they promote Tekken 7 as “the end of the Mishima saga”. So, if you use this 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 (and waaay many more) 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 other guest characters in Tekken 7. The most recent one is Negan. While he is a main character in the Walking Dead series, he has absolutely no place in the Tekken storyline. Actually, the fact that he is not going to be part of the story was even mentioned in his gameplay trailer.

However, there have been some exceptions; some fighting games, like the last three 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. This not only a nice way to make every character inclusion relevant to the game’s world, but it can also encourage engagement with the series itself. Mortal Kombat fans are some of the most active ones when it comes to on-line prescence and fan-made content (which can also be good promotion for the series).

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. Most of the buyers are –probably- interested in the game’s 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 have nothing to lose.

After all, we are storytelling beings. Even before scripture was invented, humans would always tell stories. And everything we do, say, and imagine is based on a bigger narrative.

This leads towards a bigger debate: are video games a medium to communicate stories with? And how good can they be at that? This debate has been so big, it has even been the subject of two waves in academic game studies: ludology (that places emphasis in gameplay) and narratology (that places emphasis in narrative). But that could be the topic for a next discussion.

Tekken is a property of BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment

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