This article is part of the “Critical Exemplars” features series. For the previous series, “Better Game Culture,” click here.
A Brief Modern History of Fighting Games
After almost a decade-long drought of quality titles and a steady decline in community engagement, Street Fighter IV sparked a renaissance in fighting games. Since that 2008 release, smash hits have revitalized many of the genre’s most storied franchises in the intervening years: Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat and Injustice all represent revivals or returns to form. New properties like BlazBlue and spin-offs like Persona 4 Arena have found success with niche audiences.
The fighting game genre is situated in an odd place within the field of game studies. At a superficial level, these games are among the most mechanically demanding. Inputs are precise and constant, and high level play demands study, creativity, and practiced execution. Developers work tirelessly up to and after release to craft a compelling and unique set of systems while creating a cast that provides variety and parity in equal measure. Due to the heavy reliance on franchises, licensed properties, and trope-laden subgenres, the narrative and aesthetic elements are often ignored or underdeveloped. Superstar crossover lineups and those with decades of existing canon limit what can be done with characterization and world building and prioritize brand integrity over saying something interesting or new.
Crowdfunding provides a different avenue for developers experimenting with expression in fighting games. The freedom that comes with indie development has converged with the excitement and sense of ownership in the rekindled fighting game community to produce new games unbound by the priorities demanded by their triple-a predecessors. Divekick, released in 2013, is very much a product of the culture that backed it, blending a sharp sense of humor, a grounded knowledge of fighting game history, and distilled essentialist gameplay into a self-aware experience that fighter fans could claim and share amongst themselves. 2012’s Skullgirls went a different direction, acknowledging its inspirations but using its obscure origins and novelty to explore the form and initiate a new conversation.
Skullgirls launch trailer
The Skullgirls Model
Most noticeably, Skullgirls provides its audience with a unique model for understanding the relationship between the player, their character, and the interface between them. The narrative construct of parasites, secondary characters or machinery attached to members of the main cast, helps to explicitly convey the dependency of the action in-game on the other aspects of the system. Of the game’s thirteen planned playable characters (nine of whom have been released, with the next in open beta testing), five are partnered with organic sidekicks and four are dependent on some artifact or technology. In each case, these pairings serve to accentuate the characters’ personalities and amplify their fighting abilities. Both of these categories have valuable things to say about the act of play and the unique potential of fighting games as a genre.
Natural Parasites: A System Complete
The dynamics between the living parasites and their hosts spotlight many dimensions of the player-character relationship. Three of these parasites are attached to their host in combat; two of them are permanently affixed. For all of the characters with living companions, their special and super moves are possible only through teamwork and are often the exclusive work of their parasite. The combat capabilities of these characters on their own are limited to weak, simple normal attacks and short combos of limited utility. In this way it is not hard to imagine the parasite as an allegorical parallel to the player. Without the player’s input, the character is invalid as a serious competitor on the roster. The power and complexity of the moves and combos made possible by the presence of parasites are directly related to the player’s strategy and execution, which at high levels of play largely depart from the capabilities of the character themselves, using their normal pokes only to confirm hits and launch into the more advanced techniques.
Filia and Squigly serve as prime examples and together make an argument for the interdependence between the player and the character. Filia is a teenager and a student who awakens at the beginning of the game’s arc without any memories and her parasite Samson, a mysterious brutish shapeshifter, attached to her skull mimicking hair. Squigly, the first expansion character, is an undead opera singer, resurrected by the game’s antagonist. Her partner is Leviathan, a powerful serpent who has been a loyal companion to her family for generations. The story mode pits these pairs against each other as rivals, an orientation driven by the animosity and unspoken history between Samson and Leviathan, and the way these characters relate to their hosts stand in for two understandings of the value of character. Throughout Filia’s story it is heavily implied that Samson is predatory, taking advantage of Filia to advance his own interests. His habit of inciting violence and constant deflection of questions about his nature serves to reinforce his unsympathetic characterization and position Filia herself as a victim. Mechanically, Samson’s attacks overwhelm Filia, stripping her of agency or power in her own right. At times Samson stands on his own, dragging his host as if she were the parasite. In the metagame Filia is regarded as Skullgirls’ “Ryu,” the base character with whom the player learns the mechanics. She is featured prominently in the tutorial and is likely to be the character with which the player learns their first long combo.
Squigly and Leviathan, by contrast, are shown to have a truly symbiotic and often affectionate relationship that has lasted for years and persisted even through Squigly’s death. While Filia is a blank slate, Squigly is given one of the game’s most detailed histories with some of the games longest cut-scenes and between battle conversations. In design and in combat she is shown to have interests, mannerisms, and a personality in her own right. Her exchanges with Leviathan are charming and steeped in respect, making them sympathetic as individuals and as a team. Though Leviathan is more skilled in combat, their animations are carefully drawn to show them acting in tandem and supporting each other throughout. Squigly’s position and role on the tier list is directly opposed to Filia, with one of the game’s steepest learning curves due to a fighting style incorporating multiple stances and the “Seria” charge system.
The sum of these factors is an indictment play styles and design that diminish the importance of the character. Samson represents a strong-arm treatment, invalidating and engulfing Filia and seizing her as a platform for unexamined, primal violence. The design of Squigly and Leviathan passionately makes the case for a more compassionate and equal player-character dynamic, humanizing the characters and rewarding willing players with an otherwise unrepresented mechanical depth.
Others, Mechanical and Monstrous
The technology woven through the game’s roster also plays a role in this metaphor, reflecting the role the the construct of the game plays in enabling the fantastic and connecting the player to the narrative world. Peacock’s old-school cartoon hijinks are a nod to the aesthetic of the game world and a concession to the necessity of animation in bringing it to life; Ms. Fortune’s immortality lampshades the unique quality of games that allows players to fail endlessly while learning from their wounds and improving. Painwheel’s Buer Drive grants her the power of flight and tremendous physical power, elevating her to a transcendental state. That each of these characters experiences some great trauma is a testament to the value the game places on the human interaction element. Their designs acknowledge the system but fall short of including the player, rendering the representation incomplete and the symbol damaged.
The final category of characters, those with no companion and no augmentation, stand in stark relief to the complexity of the others. Two of them are completely inhuman: a robotic version of the already immortal Ms. Fortune and Double, an abstract monster of flesh and blood. The third, Valentine, is a loner guilty of crimes against others that even the narrative itself finds irredeemable. Her face is hidden behind a mask and her dialogue is laced with cruelty, denying her expressiveness or empathetic quality. The dehumanization and horror invoked by the three are Skullgirls’ rejection of game without player, a concept it equates with some alien, unfeeling other.
Skullgirls’ affection for its players is born of its crowdfunded roots and its sense of the genre’s tradition, but the way it carried that affection into its design is unprecedented and worth noticing. The care with which the game crafts an aesthetic that acknowledges the complexity of the game as a system, and the conviction with which it situates the player at the center, are demonstrative of the artistry of the developers and the importance of their message.
Next up in the series: