Why Fighting Games Can’t Win Game of the Year

Your palms are sweating, nerves flaring. You grit your teeth as your brain sends the frantic commands to your fingers to move and press the appropriate buttons. The health bars are dwindling, and special move meters rising. You get off that perfect combo, land your finisher, and get the big K.O. It’s an adrenaline-fueled competition that leaves you with a great rush whether in defeat or victory. You absolutely love the feeling and think this fighting game is absolutely great. But for some reason it doesn’t strike you as Game of the Year quality, and you can’t pinpoint why.

This is something I’ve been kicking around in my head recently with the release of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 rapidly approaching. The game is being hyped up so much to be one of the year’s best, and I’ve loved what little I’ve been able to play of the game. But for some reason, I just can’t put it up on that same level as recent Game of the Year winners like Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Assassin’s Creed II. I thought back to every single fighter I’ve played and came to the conclusion that not a single one of them would have been considered Game of the Year material to me despite how great they were. After much contemplation, I’ve realized why a fighting game has been incapable of capturing those coveted awards and why it won’t do so unless the genre changes itself.

A good fighter has got to have a system that is both easy to use for beginners, yet provides just enough depth to have the hardcore crowd spending their time mastering it. A fighting game’s worth is almost entirely dependent upon this crucial balance of design. Because of this, every maker of every fighting game has put most of its focus on that element. While this approach can create a solid title in the genre, it is also the Achilles heel that cripples these games and prevents them from reaching their highest possible potential.

Fighting games can get there by delivering a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping gameplay experience while¬† providing one that is also rich in emotion. In order to do that, they need to come up with a great narrative. And if anyone knows fighting games, story is pretty much the least invested-in feature of almost every game in the genre. While these single-player modes may not all be downright terrible, they fail to give players a true sense of connection to the characters. They fall short of driving home philosophies and points of view to the player. They lack the ability to provide moral dilemmas — to really make people care.

A typical narrative in a fighting game is just a loose, “fight everyone in your way to reach your goal or save the world” tale. Whether it’s some evil military nation, an all-powerful badass and his cronies, a legendary weapon that all wish to possess, or just a straight-up fighting tournament, they all give a flimsy reasons to put all of these diverse and sometimes wacky characters together for some throw-downs. You don’t really care about who you’re controlling so long as their moves and looks are cool and effective. Most of the time players will only play the narrative in order to unlock all of the game’s characters. In this way not only does a story not add to the game with emotional substance, it takes away from it by forcing players to perform tedious fights so they can get to the good stuff.

Another area that hurts most fighting games is the music. Sure, crazy hectic J-pop, techno, and rock can really get the blood flowing and make you want to bring on a beating to your opponent, but at the same time it only points out why they shouldn’t be taken seriously. The music is pretty much shouting, “We’re just for ridiculous flashy fun! Do not even consider us for any award outside of our genre!” Not having a dramatic or even slightly more mellow original score will only keep people from giving them credible recognition. Think of it as showing up to a professional job interview in rave gear. You may really want the position, but the man or women who holds your fate in their hands isn’t going to see past the glow sticks tied around your neck. You have to dress for the job you want, not the one you’ve got.

Almost every single candidate for a Game of the Year award over the last few years, including the winners, has been able to succeed with its narrative and musical score. If fighting games remain the way they are, they will never be able to one-up these ever-improving titles, but if a developer decides to run this challenging gauntlet, there is a way fighting games can be changed and finally have a strong shot at Game of the Year honors.

Giving good reason as to why all of these fights are breaking out will immediately give players fewer reasons to suspend disbelief and make them less likely to become disengaged with the narrative. Maybe the main character has something to prove or wants to demonstrate that his ideology is just. Maybe some of his opponents have solid reasons as to why they’re involved in this situation as well. Giving the player options with heavy consequences will help, too. Perhaps the firghter is forced into a circumstance where he has to either kill a friendly competitor to keep going forward or decide not to and be forced to suffer for it thanks to the game’s villains. Using these decisions as a way to change which characters the player fights throughout the course of the story would not only add interest, but also replayability.

The developer will also need to give the game a sound that makes you get attached to what’s going on around you. Let the musical tones tug on your heartstrings, give you inspiration, and make you want to tear out the villain’s throat. Allow it to emphasize the tones that are appropriate with what the story is trying to tell. If it is a time piece, get some instrumentals from that era and/or location. Let the player know that you are making a strong attempt to create something memorable with the sounds coming through the speakers.

Maybe the developer can even expand the narrative and make it more than just a fighter. Have the fights be about the story’s action, but add a dialogue system for character development and engagement or minor exploration for players to get immersed in the game world. It would definitely be better than the typical fighting-game narrative formula: fight an enemy, watch a cutscene, fight the next enemy, watch the next cutscene, and so on.

It wouldn’t be an easy task, and it would take a lot of talented people to pull it off. But if given enough commitment it can be done. Just remember that before Mass Effect 2 there was Neverwinter Nights. Action-adventure games all used to be 2D sidescrollers and now you have the Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed series. Before the revolutionizing open worlds of GTA III and IV there was GTA II. At some point, the developers that create games in these genres looked at themselves and decided to take things to the next level. It’s about time that somebody did it for the fighting genre. The only question left is: Who will be the one to do it?


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Author: Mike Murphy View all posts by
Mike has been playing games for over two decades. His earliest memories are of shooting ducks and stomping goombas on NES, and over the years, the hobby became one of his biggest passions. Mike has worked with GamerNode as a writer and editor since 2009, giving you news, reviews, previews, a voice on the VS Node Podcast, and much more.

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