The Dynamek Perspective: The Art of Storytelling

It's here... it's finally here! After writing for this website for TWO YEARS and having the opportunity constantly get bumped down the line, I can finally write about the topic I've been wanting discuss ever since I joined Kick-Punch-Block! This month's Dynamek Perspective is all about narrative conveyance... 

With the news of SFV's impending Story Mode update, an opportunity has finally been granted to me. That opportunity, in case this month's subtitle wasn't clear enough, is narrative conveyance a.k.a. the art of storytelling. Before going any further, I understand that caring about the actual plot of fighting games puts me in the minority of a minority, but I can't help it. I was a huge bookworm as a child. I was so hooked on reading in my youth that I'd actually read all the sides of the cereal box during breakfast. A good story just always captivated me. When I found out that my favorite story of all time had a game series based on it, I flipped out. A few years later, I learned that a seminal work of literature got its own (fairly mediocre) game, I was amazed at the idea of such adaptation. Stuff like that blows my mind. This love of reading bled into my love of fighting games. I was one of those kids who would read the instructional manual front to back whenever I rented/bought a game. I always wanted to know everything possible about the characters because it would help me form a connection with them.

Let's take it back to the very beginning, Street Fighter II. Back then, we all knew what the deal was: Villain either did some horrible stuff or was the force behind some bad stuff happening to a number of people and they all fought their way to him. Classic stuff, rarely goes out of style. Retroactively, my only real issue was that while the conflict was apparent, the various character motivations were barely touched on at best & outright vague at worst. If you didn't play the first Street Fighter or at least research the events of it, you would have absolutely no clue why the hell Sagat was so visibly salty in Ryu's ending. Because of moments like that, I believe that the gradual shift towards acknowledging plot in fighting games became somewhat necessary. For that very reason, I always favored SNK's approach when it came to narrative. Case in point, Fatal Fury. Right off the bat, you get a clear visible representation of why the protagonist wants revenge against the antagonist. Go back & watch all the old SF2 intros. As awesome as they are, there is no relative information to be gleamed from them outside of the fact that there are punches & fireballs involved. Don't even get me started on the existential conundrum I suffered once Akuma showed up.

I'm going to come back to SFKOF in a minute, but I would like to take this time to address the plots & stories of other games. First off, I look at the 3D fighters, like Tekken & the Soul series. From a mechanical perspective, I've always enjoyed the Tekken series, but speaking solely from a narrative standpoint... it's pretty frustrating. The Tekken series is, at its core, all about the Shakespearean quarrel that plagues the Mishima bloodline. (Seriously, they are a mess.) While that isn't exactly a sin, it takes away from the tapestry of characters the story has weaved together over the years. Think about something: regardless of how fun/optimal he is, would the Tekken storyline suffer a loss if Yoshimitsu wasn't there? No, because the Manji Clan leader has next to no bearing on the central plot. A lot of characters don't and that is a shame because some of their stories are truly engrossing while others frankly deserve to be canon. The Soul series was always, in my opinion, very good when it came to narrative conveyance. Their methods were always impressive, too. However, they suffered a huge step back with Soulcalibur V. It's not that the game was bad, they just couldn't seem to be bothered to explain anything. (Who the fresh hell is Z.W.E.I. and why does he have a Stand/Persona in medieval times?!) Truth be told, I feel the most sorry for the Asian characters on the roster. They popped up for literally a single appearance & were never seen or heard from again! Instead, the entire story focused Patroklos & Pyrrha with the (apparent?) real villain assuming the physical form of Cassandra... I got nothing to add to that, sorry. The whole ordeal just left me feeling hollow.

Then you have the quote unquote "anime" games. Of the lot, I feel as though Persona 4 Arena is the weak link in the proverbial chain. Because it's a fighting game based off of two separate entries from a series in an entirely different genre (read that line again because it has a lot to unpack there), the game's narrative just casually assumes you know everything that happened in both those aforementioned games. No offense, but that is a lot of required reading to do if I want to have some semblance of an idea as to why high school students are jumping into televisions. Then you have BlazBlue. This series unabashedly reads like a full-blown manga. All of it tropes & devices have their roots in traditional anime, there's no mistaking that. It's not a bad thing, either. What is bad, though, was how it originally approached the idea of narrative conveyance. In BB: Calamity Trigger, their story mode was hampered by the fact that you had to lose every match in order to get 100% completion on the story. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see why that's dumb. Thankfully, they learned from that mistake and grew from it in Contiuum Shift Chrono Phantasma. By opting to tell an all-encompassing story that functionally involved everyone & allowing for progression to be inclusive as opposed to completely linear (not to mention the awesome application of Good, Bad & Joke endings), the player was allowed to become far more invested in what's happening. Everyone served a purpose & they all had integral parts to play. In doing so, the experience was greatly enriched.

I feel special attention needs to be given to the latest incarnation of the Guilty Gear story, GGXrd. Now, admittedly, GG has always had a very sprawling & somewhat convoluted story. The earlier games, while doing fairly well at introducing all the characters, connections & conflicts, they came up a little short in terms of narrative conveyance regarding the overall plot. We know about the discovery or 'magic', the Crusades, the Second War of Magic, the Sacred Order of Holy Knights, the Assassination Guild and the Post War Administration Bureau... but we're only given scraps & threads to figure out how all of this is connected. Then you have to contend with Sol's true identity, That Man working behind the scenes & Axl inexplicably falling through time. You're left with a giant "?" floating over your head. Then along comes Xrd and something monumentally important is enacted. This is the only game where I've ever been openly prompted to play the Arcade Mode before attempting the Story Mode. Reason for this was that a great deal of relevant information came out between Isuka, Judgment Guilty Gear 2: Overture (yeah, that last one's an actual thing). If you're unaware of any of that, you'll be quite lost when it comes to this latest chapter. Case in point, Sin. By going through Arcade Mode, you learn so much about the character's motivations & relationships. Once all that is sorted out, you're treated to a Story Mode that's functionally a 10-part OVA about the aftermath of everything that happened. It's this wonderful moment of not just conveyance, but convergence. You're given this massive payoff and it is glorious to behold.

Really quick, I want to talk about Killer InstinctSkullgirls. With these two titles, you're introduced to the concept of "lore versus plot". I've always felt that there was a very stark distinction between the two, with lore being what happened before you (the reader/player) came along and plot is what happens while you're there. Killer Instinct has an incredible lore, what with Ultratech's grip on the world & the ever looming threat of Gargos. On top of those, you have werewolves, golems, vampires, immortal barbarians & all that adding that little extra spice. Here's my issue, though: where's the overarching connection? I'm aware of the individual connections, but what is the singular thread that brings all of it together? I'm not saying it isn't a rich & textured story, but it's the aloofness to it all that keeps me from diving in headfirst. Skullgirls, on the other hand, does well on both fronts. More importantly, you learn more of the lore & plot by simply playing the game. Another bit of praise is that the game's narrative takes a page out of Frank Miller's book in the sense that most of the endings aren't actually happy ones. If you need a prime (albeit heartbreaking) example of this, look at Cerebella's ending.

Now it's time to get a little heavy. Mortal Kombat has one of the most storied histories in fighting games. After the tragedy that was MK4, things turned around in a big way with Deadly AllianceDeceptionArmageddon. You were now part of an entire reality. However, if you want to keep track of everything, you need simply watch Raiden. In a weird way, he became a bookmark for the closing trilogy. He stepped down as elder god to lead the charge in Deadly Alliance. He sacrificed himself (in vain) at the beginning of Deception and returned as a dark god during Armageddon. Taking it a step further, he was the key to the reboot. Sending that message -- "He must win!" -- to his past self set in motion an entirely new, condensed timeline. *SPOILER ALERT* For all those who have been paying attention, 2009's Mortal Kombat openly retold/reimagined the first MK trilogy with Shinnok's revival being the big reveal at the end. In Mortal Kombat X, after all the dust settles, we see the unsettling return of Dark Raiden. *END SPOILERS* If this plays out how I think it might, we're going to see the return of Onaga, a possible War of the Seven Realms and maybe even the One Being itself making an appearance. Not only is that insanely motivating, it's genius because they're using the new games to parallel the events of the old at an expedient, but steady, pace.

Then there's the King of Fighters. What makes this storyline so appealing to me is that it came out about somewhat haphazardly. SNK had no clue that KOF '94 would be the hit it was. After that success, they opted to go episodic by building on the lore created in the first game & expand upon it in the next three, giving us the Orochi Saga. Unfortunately, the annual release cycle for the series led to troubles behind the scenes. Financially, SNK couldn't keep up. This lead to them jumping to Eolith to handle the next trilogy, the NESTS Saga. While it did introduce some memorable characters, the NESTS Saga felt somewhat weak to me. I guess all the cloning wore me out. Then came the shift to Playmore and the Ash Saga. Full disclosure, I never liked Ash in either gameplay or personality. However, I respect what he did in regards to the story. That kind of sacrifice is beyond definition to me. Here we are in 2016 & a new saga is upon us. I, for one, eagerly anticipate where this new direction will lead KOF's narrative.

Which brings us back to Street Fighter V. There's an elephant in the room regarding SF5 and I'm just going to call it out: Bison dies at the end. There's no way of getting around that fact. From a canonical standpoint, this game is the prelude to Street Fighter III. Notice anything that is very absent from the SF3 series? Bison and Shadaloo. Look at his new desgin. For the first time in the character's history, he is showing signs of legitimate age & deterioration. Hell, the story is even called "A Shadow Falls"... time to face facts, brothers & sisters, this is Bison's swan song. Canonically speaking, I don't see him coming back from whatever it is that's going to happen. Besides, we already know that Gill & the Illuminati rise to antagonistic prominence sooner rather than later. While I'm glad that a number of familiar faces have joined the roster this time around, I can't help but feel a little sad knowing that the book is going to be closed on an incredible villain. I suppose that all we can hope for is that he gets a satisfactory sendoff befitting his larger than life persona. Whatever the case may be, go ahead & take your bow, sir... you've earned this curtain call.

Go right ahead, sir... you've earned this curtain call.

Does the intro to "Encore" by Jay-Z play in anyone else's head when you look at this picture?

Until next time... keep fighting the good fight, my friends.

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