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Street Fighter is one of the greatest story telling games
by Sjors Jansen on 10/14/13 03:42:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(Reblog from:


In light of the "Nacht des nacherzählten Spiels" (Night of the retold game) that will take place on 26 October in Berlin, I thought it might be appropriate to share a perspective on story and storytelling in games. Because what better measure is there than to listen to players' stories, recounting their experiences of games played? What stuck with them, the story or.. something else more akin to gameplay?

And sure, not everybody will 'get' everything about a story, and some will make up their own interpretations. Take David Lynch's movies or a random abstract piece of art. But with most videogames our biggest issue is worrying if players want and can skip dialog and cutscenes, so it's usually a different angle. But that also points to how story in games doesn't work the same way...

So. I always thought I simply picked up my opinion on story and storytelling in games from one of Chris Crawford's lectures, but a couple of weeks ago it was pointed out to me that he apparently means something different than I do. Alright, so it might be worth the trouble of scribbling some of it down then.

Street Fighter is a game that has great storytelling.
And maybe Superman 64 and Family Dog told some of the grandest stories of frustration in the history of all mankind.

I know, but there is a point to it.

You've probably heard of the troubles writers and developers have with integrating story into a game. That's the traditional view on stories and storytelling. But it's not the only interpretation.
The basic think I took from Chris Crawford was that Story is the static data. Maybe Setting is a better word if you shove more of what is traditionally called Story into Setting, or something. But let's not quibble over terminology now where we're still learning to understand this medium and things are so unclear.

The storytelling part is actually what the game does and allows the player to do, the interaction with the static data. I guess you could interpret this as some of the books a player can find and read inside of one of the elder scrolls games. Or the audiologs from bioshock. Or maybe even more traditional exposition like cutscenes and monologues or half-dialogues.
But from the perspective I'm trying to describe, these are actually pretty weak examples since the interaction is so limited or pretty much nonexistent. I'm not saying that to be disrespectful, I remember the world's end, the opera house and ultros pretty well from final fantasy 6 for instance. This has nothing to do with respect or disrespect, it's trying to look at things in a different light.

So, I claimed Street Fighter has great storytelling. I'll explain why.
What do the players do in that game? They fight. They fight and fight and then fight some more.
The story? The static story data? Well there's a backstory for each character. Maybe you're interested in how Ryu is always looking to get stronger, or that Ken is rich and married or perhaps you feel sympathy for the green fucker that electrocutes people because he was in a plane crash somewhere in the jungle and he survived all these years on his own just to grow up into a horribly mutated man looking for his mother? Or that there are secret corporations with evil intentions trying to exploit the best fighters in the world?
What is really going on is that the story is nothing more than: There's a fight between two people. All of those backstories are really low level, very vaguely contextual to the fight. The real story is found in the specifics of the fight. The parts the player can interact with.
And that's not the character's history, it's the character's body. How does it move, how fast does it move, in what way does it move, what do these moves do, what can I use them for, what properties do these moves have, stuff like that. Which is all still static data for the most part. This all serves far more directly to influence the core story of: a fight between two people.

The storytelling is the interaction between these elements. As soon as you have two human players getting accustomed to their characters, learning what they do, they are exploring the static data. And they will use this knowledge to interact with each other, and thereby creating their own narrative together. And the more the players start to understand and master this, the more something magical happens. I think this is because interacting is also exploring each other's understanding and perspective on the static data, in effect exploring each other's minds. Are they fooling you? Are they pretending to fool you? Are they pretending to be pretending to fool you? etc..

And loads and loads of people talk about this lots and lots in great detail, a great introduction to this are the UltraChen TV videos for example, which can be found on their youtube channel Try looking at match analyses or "first attack". Or "level 3 focus" if you want something more in depth. The first 5 minutes of this is probably a good allround example: They also really can talk for hours just on where a player positions his or her character on the screen. Street Fighter did a great job making everything, the tiniest detail, have consequences.

What is great to take note of as well, is that as soon as the other player is taken away and replaced by an artificial opponent, the game is nowhere near as fun. There is no magical bond, there are no mind games. Maybe capcom wasn't good at programming good character control algorithms (it's more likely to be very hard to program a noticeable sense of anticipation and adaption to player behavior in a fair way, something which comes natural to humans) or maybe it's because exploring an algorithm as a player is just not something humans like or appreciate.
And sure, you could use this as an argument to say that Street Fighter is bad at storytelling because it's the players that actually tell the story, or make up and share a story between their minds. And I think that's a fair point, but if you wanted to force a clear distinction you could probably say that the story is just: A fight (with all the character backstories etc.), and the storytelling is the movement and actions of the characters.

So, where does this perspective leave the traditional story? And what do we do with all those backstory elements?
I don't know. To me it's like flavouring, atmosphere, which is also very important (for me it really stands out in games like super metroid). And for many people this can be an instant turn on or turn off. This may also be what people mean with books when they separate literature from pulp.
Also I don't think it's a great idea to overload words like story and storytelling, novelists think about storytelling a great deal and these things are very established. So maybe we should use different or new words, or just put "interactive" in front of them.
But this probably explains why traditional writing and story is so often just an afterthought when it comes to videogames.

In any case, I hope this illustrated a different view on story and storytelling. It is certainly not the only one but maybe it helps to contribute to your own views.
I do actually still wonder if, measured absolutely, people talk more about traditional story material, like: "mario is trying to save princess peach from bowser" or more about the interactive experiences they have, like: "I cannot get past the ice level, it's so damn hard and that stupid Birdo hits me all the time!"

Thanks for reading.

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Jonathan Jennings
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I didn't notice just how thick an atmosphere Street Fighter had Until I recently listened to one of Guiles old school music themes by itself . I realized just how much the music and scenery often added weight to every punch and movement and how the ensuing fight really seems like the penultimate battle of two players fighting , jabbing , counterpunching and trading Hadokens and sonic booms in the most physical game of chess one could imagine .

Street Fighter really does do a great job of setting the stage and letting players create a memorable show , makes sense why Fighting Games were always such huge attractions in some arcades. Great Article Sjors !

Randall Stevens
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Great article. It reminds me of my favorite stories to come from the FGC:

There are two alphaism radio episodes where Viscant and Skisonic go over the history of MVC2, and how it shaped the community. Great stuff about how the scene in the US changed because of this game.

Then there is the greatest SRK thread ever: "Info on the Old School SF Scene?" It has so many wonderful stories from the days of arcade competition. It breaks my heart a little every time I read it, because I know these days will never happen again, and I am happy to have seen what it was like. The story told by jcasetnl is just wonderful.

These are not current, and not about the new games, but if you enjoy the stories of fighting games and their players, then you should track these down.

Sjors Jansen
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Thanks guys.

I chose Street Fighter to illustrate a different view on stories exactly because it provides a very focused and detailed experience on a very simple subject. And everything then flows from that.
But there are a number of other games for which this goes as well, Starcraft or Counter-Strike for instance, and probably some of this also gets through in MMORPG's. It just gets a bit more watered down in my opininon.

Also, I have some hope that something like the old school scenes will return, because they left a big impression. It's a piece of culture that sprung up because these games enabled it. And that's where you basically transcend the medium. It no longer matters if it's a videogame or not, what matters is the resulting interaction between people and how others can relate. It's basically a form of communication. And I think that's something that will return and keep returning in one way or another.

I think one of the things developers are trying is to build these great algorithms or "Artificial Intelligences" that can reproduce this interaction without humans. Basically a Turing test.
And it would be interesting to see commentators analyze matches between two "A.I." components and see if there were hints of a 'personality' shining through.
I'm not sure if it's the right way to go, because you would actively be replacing humans and before you know it you'd have a community of artificial players duking it out with humans standing on the sidelines :) But I guess you could say that mimicking human behavior may be one of the most impactful (and difficult to implement) storytelling devices in videogames so far.

Kai Boernert
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After reading this, I think especially one(well two) games are really using this way of story telling as their only story.
DwarfFortress, as almost all you do there is archived only by your interaction, yet offering enough depth to create complex stories. Actually there are even players retelling their individual stories in several forums.

The other game that really shines in this is SpaceStation13, as due to the player interaction the story behind one round can get pretty complex and rarely repeats.

Jarod Smiley
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Well, I simply adore this article because SF is by far my favorite franchise of all time. I main Ken in just about every iteration I've played, and I've grown accustomed to the character. So much so, that with each iteration, myself and others have very strong indications of what Ken should play like.

Often times we would have discussion on balance updates/gameplay tweaking because we feel like we "know" who Ken is, and how he should play. This move doesn't represent him well, his walk speed is too slow, it doesn't "feel" like Ken. These gripes come from us learning the character over the years, his move-sets, how you should space yourself when fighting, his basic zoning fundamentals, kara throwing etc...I just appreciate anyone that brings to light just how deep fighting games can be, and above all, what an amazing community and friendships come from the competition it breeds.

While it may not require as much forethought as a game of chess, or as much intellect, (since execution and hand dexterity is a factor in fighting games) it holds a special place for me in the game world.

If anyone is getting Ultra SF4 hit me up on PSN!--Omnistalgic

I'm not expert, but a solid intermediate player with adequate skills. Also play VF5.

Keith Burgun
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Hey, if we twist the word "storytelling" enough, all games can be storytelling games! Hooray! I guess that solves that whole story in games problem!

Sjors Jansen
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Hi Keith,
you're right of course. Just look at how a word like love can often be twisted into meaning something different to different people.

But what I wanted to point out here is that the thing traditionally regarded as story, we kind of tack on to games. Is it any wonder people are struggling with that?

And at the same time, the story that arises from the gameplay of a videogame is often kind of disregarded. Whereas that's exactly something that's inherent and reasonably unique to our medium.

As I pointed out, I'm not sure if we should name it storytelling. But, it seems very much to be how a videogame tells you what it is, how it tells you its story. To me it seemed noteworthy to at least look at it from a different light.

Sjors Jansen
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For a very different view, arguing for more direct literary influence in games, checkout Andrew Smith's post here:

And for a perspective somewhere in between, check out Kevin Maxon's post here:

Scott Lepthien
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I think the viewpoint you present is interesting, however I do think this line of thinking has some issues. Namely when I think about board games you have almost the same experience but I think you would find very few people who would call the experience of playing a board game experiencing storytelling (unless of course something like telling a story is the core mechanic of the game, for instance something akin to a pen and paper RPG).

I mean if you take a very cerebral game similar to the battle of wits that occurs in a fighting game (obviously ignoring reflexes and muscle memory involved in playing a video game), like Chess or Go, it seems difficult for me personally to call the experience of playing those board games to be storytelling.

The only real differences between the two are obviously how the user interacts, which I think is irrelevant to storytelling, and the back stories that the characters in the game have and the settings where the game takes place (which obviously would be present in a more complex theme based board game). In all reality the back story is really just a sub-feature if you will since obviously each real life player of a video game has a "back story" and a setting where they are gaming, which is also present in a board game, say for instance where are you playing the board game and who are the other players.

So I guess my question to you is do you think that all board games also tell stories? And although I'm not going to explain the whole basis for this, wouldn't live sports games also have to be called storytelling?

I think if I personally had to explain what I think about this topic it would be that playing the games are your personal experiences, they only become a story when you tell someone about those experiences, or a commentator attempts narrate the "story" of what the players are thinking and doing. And I guess kind of based on that personal definition my thinking on this has to assume that since any other kind of personal experience, i.e. your first date, graduating high school, etc..., are not stories unless you tell them to someone else, an experience in a game must follow those same rules.

Sorry if this post seems a little all over the place, it was written fairly stream of consciousness, haha.

Sjors Jansen
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I'm fine with stream of consciousness. It seems pretty clear what you're saying and I think it's too early to tie anything down anyway, as it would tie down any thoughts on the subject as well.

I think it's a little bit of a struggle with terms so I wouldn't force it to be called storytelling. I just think what I described is the more natural expression of a game. Wether to also call that storytelling or not I leave up to others. But it's interesting to note the discrepancy.

A game like tetris doesn't really have a traditional story, but the game talks about order, perhaps that making order from chaos is hard or something. Or you could see the game as a representation of the inevitable process of cell degradation as we get older. More and more faults slip into our cellular structure and as a result we die. (But that's attributing meaning where there may be none.)
Something very story focused like Heavy rain probably tells you about how you have little time to make choices in life or something. And Gone Home might actually be telling you about discovery.
As Chris Crawford says: it's about what players do.

So to answer your question, yeah I think so. I'm not sure of all boardgames since I haven't played that many. But take the game of thrones boardgame, that obviously weaves plots horrible enough to have people bear a grudge long afterwards. A game like Twilight Imperium seems to be telling a long and complicated epic set in space And Dixit is probably an excellent boardgame regarding this kind of storytelling. And it also shows that there can be an incredible lot going on without speaking.

So I get your point about stories and storytelling only existing when it's externalized, but I don't agree that it has to be expressed. Each player of Dixit will have his/her own interpretation of what was going on. Though it also kind of depends on how you want to define those terms.
Is a traditional story that's still in the head of the writer already a story or can it only be called that when it is written down? That's sort of terminology...

And yeah a game of sports probably has this as well, even though there are generally way more spectators than participants.
Consider the traditional story of a sports event. It's probably not huge, maybe the origin of the sport was rooted in slavery or something like that. And maybe you could take the lives of the sporters into account. So sure there might be some traditional story stuff.
But one of the reasons why people like taking note of it is because the event itself is telling its own story. And it's different every time.
But I think it's safe to say you get pretty different stories depending on wether you're a spectator or a participant. Though story angles might be the better term here.

Kevin Maxon
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Got all riled up about this topic and had too much to say, so I just wrote a blog post with my feelings:

I tried to formulate a TL;DR, but my discussion kind of relies on ideas from other fields (aesthetics specifically). But here goes:

Games and stories are the same kinds of things—stories are games of make-believe, whereas games are stories whose events are built out of looser rules (instead of rules like “imagine a bear” we have rules like “move up to 3 spaces”).

Because of the similarity between the two forms, we can use the language we’ve built to talk about one of the things to shed new light on the other.

While authors of fiction get to have a very tight hold on how their readers’ game worlds might unfold, game designers instead create systems that generate an extremely broad array of possible game worlds. When we redesign our systems, we are constraining or expanding this array, changing what kinds of game worlds might emerge from our systems, attempting to find a better set of possibilities.

Basically, I agree wholeheartedly with you, Sjors, and I guess I've been thinking about this for a while and have a good deal to say on the matter.

Sjors Jansen
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Hi Kevin,

I read your post the other day and provided a link to it a couple of comments up.
I like the make believe theory and think it's very true. I think it's also why I like a lot of pixelated art better than hd 3d models, it simply leaves more room for the imagination.

It seems Chris Bateman and Chris Crawford seem to be getting at the same thing, though I'm not sure of the specifics. But I do think traditional story and stories from gameplay are pretty different monsters. In an abstract sense we can unite them if we look at their effects but the creation process is very different. It think that could end up confusing people. That's partially why I chose to present the "game story" a bit radically.

Getting from abstract things like rules to the actual gameplay is also quite a journey. For instance: "Game designers author these stories in a removed way, by giving the players rules that they must follow when determining the next event in the story."
This could also be interpreted in a traditional way like: there's a miniboss and you have to beat him (rule) to get to the next event in the story (cutscene). Which would be missing the point, yet at the same time this is why the unity through abstraction works.
But of course I very much agree with the general idea.

I guess if you compare two platformers like mario and family dog, which sort of have the same high level rules, you could say: "oh those are comparable". But the, let's call it low level rules, the actual implementation of the tactile experience is very different. With family dog it's like reading a book while the wind is constantly flipping pages, and your hands are tied to your back.
Chess doesn't really have those "low-level rules". Yet in a lot of games it's a big part of what determines the interactivity. And thus is another opportunity to "tell a story".
I felt it kind of got lost in the shuffle.
But I admit I'm wary of tying things down to a methodolygy, because imho too many games are derivatives already.

Kevin Maxon
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I appreciate the reality-check! You're right that it doesn't always make sense to combine the two meanings. In common discussion, especially as a player, it's awkward to maneuver around the regular usages of the words. But as a designer, I think you can pick up a lot of interesting details about a game by relating it to the kinds of things we'd typically call stories.

Thanks for the feedback. I'm going to continue trying to grapple with the relationship between MBT, games, and stories, so it's great to get these other perspectives. Funny that you mentioned my blog above and I managed to miss it!

Eric Tharnish
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Have you ever competed with others in a fighting game, Mr. Jansen? This might not seem at all related, but I'd like to know what drove your notion about this relative to Street Fighter.