March 1, 2013 by samjo14
Narrative in Fighting Games: A Look at Mortal Kombat
We frequently discuss in class the relationship between a game’s story and its gameplay. In the past, I have argued that a game’s story is essential to shaping the player’s approach to completing the tasks assigned to them by the rules of the game. I still support this opinion to an extent, as I can name many games that would be a completely different experience without their narrative. However, I hold that this relationship between narrative and gameplay, like many other relationships and debates within video game academia, are best understood on a game-to-game basis. A good counter-example to the importance of narration lies in the 2011 release of Mortal Kombat (which we’ll call MK9, because it is the 9th game in the canon). Though the developers have chosen to add a detailed story, MK9 is a game to be analyzed from a ludologist perspective, because its most narrative mode, story mode, is neither emotionally immersive nor rewarding.
Narrative is more essential in games where the entire package is a single-player campaign (although some games, such as hack n’ slash dungeon crawlers, include multiplayer campaigns). But there are just as many, if not more, examples of games that just don’t have designed stories. Particularly, sports games and puzzle games come to mind. While it’s easy to account for those concrete cases of games where story is either essential or nonexistent, the debate is complicated by those games that present a story within the game, but do not incorporate it into the gameplay. Many fighting games including MK9 are symptomatic of this. This most recent edition in the series has a story mode available, but it adds nothing to the experience of beating up your opponent.
Recall that in our class discussions and readings, narrative in videogames is partly defined by the existence of spaces upon which the player acts. Previous releases in the Mortal Kombat series, those released roughly between 2000 – 2007, featured single-player adventures (dubbed “Konquest mode” in some editions) which actually involved players navigating and acting upon spaces. But in MK9, that campaign mode was scrapped for a narrative experience that is less interactive. This story mode is not as minimalist as the 20th century versions of the games. In those editions, single players had only the option of an arcade ladder (i.e. a series of increasingly difficult opponents), a mode with an ending unique to their character upon completion. The MK9 story mode is somewhere in between a fully actable narrative space and the minimal story that made the arcade ladder. In a general sense however, the MK9 developers have made a game that is more ludological than narrative.
The experience of story mode goes exactly this: a cutscene followed by a fight followed by a cutscene once again. The player is thus given reason for why he is battling his opponents. However, it is unlikely that this triggers any emotional investment within the gamer, because the action of fighting is so separate from the experience of watching the cutscenes. In relation to the MK games that have featured a Konquest mode, the player especially does not feel that his fighting is taking place within a story world.
Moreover, the general plot involves an invasion on an epic scale. During the course of story mode, the player will use sixteen different Kombatants (Mortal Kombat fighters), each of whom is played for only three or four fights. Because of that, the player feels very distant from each character and hence they do not gain much from participating in the narrative. One can then say that the narrative does not add much if anything at all to the gameplay.
In fact, story mode actually takes something from the experience of playing a Mortal Kombat game. One of the most notable features of the series, one that continues to cause much controversy, is the ability to finish a defeated opponent with a glorified attack called a Fatality. The Fatalities are rewards for having vanquished a formidable opponent. However, to keep the story going, it would not necessarily be logical to have a character killed after every fight. Therefore, the ability to perform finishing moves is not available in MK9’s story mode. And thus, the player may find a more rewarding experience in other game modes.
To be fair, there is some incentive to playing story mode. If the criterion for a good experience is reward, than story mode adds to the experience because two new Kombatants are unlocked during the course of story mode. If entertainment value is the criterion, than story mode fits this because it has better sound and graphics than previous games in the series, and is thus more appealing to the senses. However, the chance to learn the backstory of Mortal Kombat will not appeal to everyone, especially those who just want to fight. The cutscenes only interject between fight sequences. Therefore, other modes such as multiplayer and arcade ladder are ideal.
As a personal fan to the series, I enjoyed the story of MK9. However, I do not consider it an experience of much replay value because I do not feel as if I am participating in the narrative world. When playing MK9 I now choose the fight-only modes, those are the non-narrative modes, because they offer a more streamlined beat-’em-up experience. Similarly, game analysts have little to learn from the MK9 story mode because the game has so much more to offer during the fighting experience. The main action of MK9 is ludological, not narrative.