This may not sound like a paradigm shattering piece of news, but I'm excited about Soulcalibur IV. Virtua Fighter may hold my heart for technical fighting games, but that tale of souls and swords, eternally retold still manages to bring out the button-mashing kid in me. You remember transcending history and the world, don't you? You don't?
Kylie Prymus is the first columnist for PS Fanboy. A Ph.D candidate in philosophy, Kylie specializes in the sociology of technology. Through this new weekly column, Kylie will explore the impact of PlayStation on thought and culture.
I remember that tale. I remember long nights debating the merits and flaws of the Soul Edge and Soul Blade and trying to understand the metaphysics behind good and evil swords transforming to fit their wielder. It was a mighty fine fighting game too, but it was the story that kept me coming back to complete the game with each and every character. Back then I could tell you the motivations of just about every character in every fighting game I played. Nowadays you're lucky if you even get endings.
Funny thing though - during those musings on the power of the Soul Blade I never once wondered what would happen should Darth Vader get his grubby prosthetic hands on it. Nor more recently have I thought about the even greater power Kratos could get (only to eventually lose I'm sure) by its acquisition. The very question is nonsensical.
When Namco first began putting guest characters into the Soulcalibur franchise they gave a nominal explanation for the appearance of people as diverse as Link and Spawn. While it was certainly the snake's hip to be able to fight as these characters, the attempt to fit them coherently into the Soulcaliber universe made about as much sense as the Elder Wand's path of ownership.
Before you head out to the hardware store for some pitchforks I'm not saying that fighting games need stories. We don't play them for the story any more than we do most first-person shooters (though apparently both genres have enough plot to launch movie after movie after movie). I, like you, am very excited about the idea of a Vader/Voldo duel, almost as much as the thought of Reptile taking on Martian Manhunter! But just so we're on the same page here, we're talking about fighting not for ones conviction or beliefs, not to save someone's life or to take down an evil corporation. We're not even talking about fighting to be the best (though I may have to rack up a few trophies). Most fighting games lack a story, certainly a coherent one, because we, the player, just want to fight. If anything these digital bouts are proxy battles, fought for the thrill of fighting and not for any kind of story-driven ideology. It's as if each of us individually is a Private Military Com--
Wait, did I just lapse into Kojima-speak? I apologize for that. Please be patient while Act II is installing. . .
Well, just for the moment, let's L1+Square+Left Stick Roll with it. Perhaps what is arguably the most narrative game in existence has something to tell us about the repercussions of gaming without narratives. When we pit Magneto against M. Bison in the Battle of the Crimson Abs, we're not interested in their personal motivations or what they had for breakfast that morning (though Capcom did make some interesting attempts). We're also not interested in who would "really" best whom (ahem, Superman vs. Sonya? You've got better odds on Gary Coleman taking out Big Boss Man) because every character must be reasonably balanced. We fight these crossover battles for the sheer joy of fighting them, and perhaps that makes us, the player, a bit like the soldiers who occupy Outer Heaven.
But wait. Since when do competitive games need a narrative? Tic-tac-toe never had a narrative. Neither did chess, the most pervasive simulation of military strategy in the Western world. It's not until the modern era that board games begin to incorporate enough of a storyline to justify a feature film. So if we're not performing a story, and we're not semi-professional gamers using the game as an extension of our own life narrative, is this just mindless diversion devoid of context?
Philosopher and extremely influential virtue theorist Alasdair MacIntyre addresses the notion of narrative context inside the practice of game playing. By his account each life requires a narrative unity, that is, a story weaving through the disparate activities we engage in over the course of our existence that makes some sense of the whole. In playing games that are sufficiently complex we come to value certain "goods internal to the practice". There is something valuable to be learned by practicing that game and only that game, something which is only valuable for playing that game. To put it more simply, games influence us by instilling goals and values - they are practice for how to do create values in life - bringing meaning to what is essentially a meaningless existence.
Enough with the abstract theory. What does this mean for us as gamers? Well if the games we play are devoid of context and we can create no illusion of playing for any reason other than the joy of battle, how can we make any sense of our lives as a whole? If our gaming habits consist of disconnected battles fought willy-nilly between characters who have no connection to each other there may be a danger that we will stop drawing connections between the people and events in our own lives. How often have you thought about introducing two of your friends to each other, only to do so and discover that they have no context with which to interact, other than you? Your friends need a reason, a context, a narrative that brings them together, otherwise that interaction will be unfulfilling. If we limit ourselves to games that lack context, particularly conflict games, we may start to see our lives as lacking any essential context and our friends as a random collection of people lumped together for no other reason that because it sounded cool.
Now if only I could orchestrate a MacIntyre/Kojima crossover. . .