The last thing I want this site to be is timely, but seeing some online noise about remarks in this interview (specifically “…these characters are just functions…”) inspired me—I had been writing about this kind of fighting game design philosophy for a couple of months, and this gives me the opportunity to expound a little more.
I lived in the odd transition in the dissemination of information, when print and early Internet lived side-by-side on more or less equal terms, as the latter was not nearly as universal as it would become and had very few centralized hubs for reference—instead, there were a series of arcane discussion forums and fan sites whose veracity was always in question, all long before more reliable sites like Wikipedia built themselves up and became the wellspring for all things. I was around in the days when a magazine could still print articles about old/new TV shows or movies or whatever, pure information without much in the way of original reporting, but was also around when the Internet made those articles (even more) redundant, probably around the early 2000s, a shift that would seem seismic if it wasn’t about something so completely frivolous. Still, having essentially one source for all basic information about something like entertainment, be it Wikipedia or its many gaudy fan-edited mutant offspring, IMDB, or probably a million hyper-specialized sites, is still something that would only exist in the dreams of the people reading and writing Starlog thirty or more years ago.
The interactions between fans and creators is one of those topics that won’t go away—not as long as they keep coming up with more ways for fans and creators to interact, whether either party wants to or not. In the case of SF, most of its history of fan interaction has to be seen in the context of its early days, where the “creators” were split into two groups: writers, rarely rising above the lowest of low-key fame, and the low-level actors who made up the casts of TV series and some movies, who were as close to being celebrities as this field got without actually being that unattainable stereotype (especially as they got further away in years from their star-making roles.) The primary ways for fans to interact with these two groups were conventions (which had been going on as far back as the late thirties, where it was entirely writers and members of highly-organized fan clubs) and letter-writing. Starlog provided the third method.
Over the last few years, I’ve become obsessively interested in the science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you prefer…this is why just using SF is useful, no one can get mad at which terminology you use) of the seventies, which saw the genre explode in multiple mediums and then transition into what is (more or less) its current position in the cultural world. This was partly inspired by my relatively recent dives into the history of SF literature (I, unlike a lot of fans, didn’t become a massive fiction reader until late adolescence), which was the parallel force to the higher-profile cinematic SF, influencing and contrasting it; I was also rereading Keith Phipps’ “Laser Age” column on the much-missed Dissolve site, which chronicled that very period, tracing the trends and through-lines of the science fiction boom period instigated by the one-two punch of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes in 1968. The more I’ve read about this time, which followed the slow dissolution of the sixties revolutionary and counter-cultural movements in the western world (which still lingered in remnant form for decades afterwards) and fully embraced the casually cynical worldview that appeared in its wake, the more fascinating it seems, a time of weird ideas and ambitions and money to throw around chasing dreams forged by ex-hippies, paranoids, and cynical businessmen trying to co-opt the first two. SF suddenly appeared in all mediums, and much of it tried to have something to say, successfully or otherwise.
By the mid-to-late 90s, Capcom started experimenting with the arcade mode progression in their fighting games, primarily in their non-Street Fighter/Darkstalkers/Marvel games; rather than the random line-up of opponents followed by one or more bosses, they began to take the character story-driven match-ups that were present in the Street Fighter Alpha games (which had character-specific rival and final boss battles) and go even further with them—who you fought was determined by who your fighter was. I imagine part of the reason why most of the games went in this direction is to differentiate them from Capcom’s “big” fighters, and from each other; theme became incredibly important, and that led to highly-specific visual designs, techniques, and narrative flourishes. They could no longer just be a fighting game with a different set of characters, but one with an individual concept and aesthetic identity, leading to one of the most diverse and interesting line-ups the genre has ever seen, with the narrative-based arcade modes being just one of the major avenues used to highlight that diversity.
There isn’t really a ton of room for smoothly integrated storytelling in fighting games—the match is such a visceral ballet of violence with near-limitless possibilities, trying to impose a consistent narrative on it seems a foolish task. The best most fighting games can do is include some specific pre- or post-battle dialogue between characters (and, in the case of Street Fighter IV, having some specific dialogue that can pop up in the battle itself), or cinematic cut scenes—the latter being kind of the boring default choice, as it never really feels apiece with the game itself and can come off as scenes from an animated spin-off movie awkwardly grafted onto the game. Plus, even if the delivery systems weren’t so limited, it’s not like most fighting games would have a really riveting plot to deliver—they very earnestly take after their non-video game inspirations, dumb-as-hell action/adventure schlock (be it movies, animation, comics, or whatever) or beautifully-made martial arts films where “plot” is left simple so as to more easily string the fights together.
There are many subtle or seemingly extraneous things that contribute to the overall feel of fighting game, and sound design is chief among them. You’d think the people playing the game would be so concerned with the actual battle that things like music, sound effects, and voices would be easy to overlook—although at least with the sound effects, they’re important to the game as cues for the game’s actions. But people care about the music and voices anyway, because they add to the atmosphere of the game, and can make a battle more intense (or more methodical), or liven up the mood; just like the overall visual style, the sounds help define the tone of the game, and contribute to a game’s individual vibe.