I stopped writing about fighting games a few months ago. I have digital stacks of drafts and some finished pieces left just sitting in a folder, unpublished. I felt that fighting games as a genre had no real vision for the future. I also felt that the FGC would, over time, cannibalize the bits of the genre that were left, leaving the dreams and anguish of one of the last bastions of strategy and competition in today’s modern world strewn across a red dead nightmarescape. I felt that fighting games were not dead outright, but dead to me. Each game felt like a theft from one and an insult to another, forming some endless angry cycle of repetition and ritual that the community was more than happy to revolve with. Almost every conversation with other players in which I tried to find that primordial spark that we all, at one time or another, have seen or felt, was reduced to armchair design debates and monotone prattling about DLC, balancing and eSports. It really felt like the joy…the “game” in fighting game had either been changed or lost entirely.
Personally, I’d rather not appeal to other people’s sense of enjoyment to derive my own. “How one feels about fighting games shouldn’t depend on how others feel. Play what you like,” is what I’d like to say. In reality, fighting games require groups of people. Those groups of people have to be willing to invest time into a common goal and to compete as either a means of or an end to that goal. Above all, those people have to be willing to submit to each other; in any group, there have to be those who either enjoy losing or are willing to lose. I feel that it is disingenuous to talk about enjoying fighting games without addressing the inherent desire within all competitors, casual or otherwise, to overcome their opponents. For every solitary winner, there are waves of losers that still form the base of the community as we know it. Through practicing, winning, losing and playing and practicing more, these groups of people are the backbone that house the essence of what it means to play fighting games. In this sense, relying on groups of people are almost essential to one’s enjoyment of fighting games.
The community hasn’t gone and the community hasn’t changed, but it has grown. It’s grown older: nuance and technical depth are valued over gimmicks and lookalikes. It’s grown more open: PC releases and technological advances make studying and learning about fighters easier than ever. It’s also grown colder: “major” releases are a half-step and the community drowns itself in the mysticism of eSports and the broken promises of DLC culture. With fighters fully entrenched in the post-fun era and fighting game developers themselves reaching the twilight of their careers, it felt like winter was coming for fighting games.
On the most unlikely stage of EVO 2017, fighting game developers from past and present united to respond, employing the classic flair of a Japanese drama, with a clarion call that will likely define the genre for a new era. The unofficial motto of the movement seems to be, “Let’s work together,” and the effects of the message are immediate and heartfelt. SNK, Arika, ArcSystemWorks, ATLUS and Bandai Namco laid out a seemingly unified vision for the future of fighting games. The vision for the genre? Wonderment, excitement and fun.
Wonder: a unique sense where one’s imagination collides head-on with a desire to explore. Fighting games have rarely, if ever, been able to tap into this very intimate side of gamers and this inability to appeal to gamers’ fanciful side can be attributed to a few things, but mostly the limitations of the fighting game experience. There is an arena and resources that are made known to both players–not much there to re-imagine. The new approach to tickling the fighting gamer’s brain is to ask, “What if…?” What if Geese Howard sidesteps Akuma’s fireball and punishes with a max damage launcher in a 3D arena? What if Hakumen rode in on a flapping Merkava to visit holy justice upon Narukami and his band of Persona 4 weirdos? What if? Instead of trying to craft the answer, game developers are letting us come to our own solutions and our imaginations are now the limit of our discovery.
Excitement is something that is more natural to the fighting game experience. It’s the rivalry of two pro players who have been trading sets all year. It’s the asphyxiating rush of you and your friend engaged slow-motion double KO. Excitement is also a sense of anticipation–that feeling that something’s coming that you’ve been ready–not just waiting, but ready–your whole life for. The first proper modern Dragonball fighting game might be the largest bridge the fighting game genre has ever dared to build. Even Arika enters the fray with a fresh re-imagining of their classic hand-in-glove take on a traditional 2.5D arcade fighter. The best part about this kind of excitement is that nobody’s first thought is about how these games will play on a stage or in front of a crowd or how much money players could compete for; the first thought is always how it will feel to play these games for the first time.
Fun, in what could be called the post-fun era of gaming, is difficult to produce for long periods of time in fighting games because we’ve done it all before. Over time, due to fighters having been figured out for the most part, the focus has slowly moved away from the games themselves and to studios and productions. Instead of enjoying a game that happens to not be headlining at EVO, we’re upset that this game isn’t headlining at EVO. Instead of seeing what’s cool that different studios are producing, we’re pitting them against each other like some sort of surreal industry combat sport. The lack of internal focus means the FGC spends all its energy externally on things that it, for the most part, cannot control. From eSports to DLC to game-bashing to studio-bashing to Twitter rants and beyond, the FGC has really lost a grip on having fun with these games and the games themselves have underestimated how important fun factor is to keep the community playing and satisfied. Part of the raw power behind the industry’s new positive vision for the future is the new and comparatively reckless desire to take real risks on IP and crossovers. All these games are coming out, but the studios, which we commonly craft as rivals for one another, seem to be working together as partners and jumping into the deep end holding hands. They’ve taken the first step and seem to be meeting gamers halfway with this new philosophy–should we not, as the keepers of this solitary genre, meet them halfway as well?
In conclusion, I want to encourage whoever is reading this to begin the process of being a better FGC member in earnest. We’re seeing a once-in-a-lifetime effort on behalf of the companies that help deliver games to us: the idea that we can be better if we work together. Let’s answer the call of the developmental side with a brighter vision, not of the future, but of ourselves. The FGC has often been its own worst enemy and, like any interest group, is vulnerable to acting explicitly against its own self-interest. I’m taking the first step for me by choosing to be more positive about games in general and less negative about fighters in particular. As a programmer and aspiring “mini”-developer myself, I face serious internal conflicts when I play regarding what I want as a player and what makes sense from an engineering point-of-view. I also tend to pick apart games, especially those I don’t like, as if I were trying to build up a court case against them. After re-evaluating how I’ve dissected all these games, I’ve learned that not only is not anyone’s job to care about why I dislike certain games, but chances are that nobody cares, anyway! Truly, I’ve come to learn that the FGC would be a better place almost overnight if, instead of creating a list of why one doesn’t like a game or its mechanics, one just said, “It isn’t for me.” Please don’t misunderstand–it’s important to rationalize to one’s self why one does or doesn’t like a game or mechanic so that an effort can be made to either further understand and eventually overcome that dislike or to invest one’s time in another game altogether. In truth, though, aside from one’s own self, nobody else really cares and that’s okay. They don’t have to care. They just want to have fun. We all should want that on some level, so let’s begin.
Welcome to the new cross generation of heroes. Let’s have fun together.