Fighting games used to be notorious for their lack of a true story behind the reason why such a tournament was taking place. Even the better narratives of the different franchises, Tekken, for example were still held together by shoestring premises. Even Mortal Kombat in its early days, a series I hold in high esteem due to the fantastic mythology it has built over its various incarnations could be accused of such a crime.
It is only in recent years that production companies have started to understand fight fans may want a bit more than just a simple fighting game to satiate their appetite for a good brawl. Whilst yes, it can be argued that at the crux of every fighting game it is just about beating your opponent, there has been a steady trend in narrative being woven into our single-player campaigns. Another example would be Fight Night Champion, although currently the last entry in the Fight Night franchise still had a fantastic single-player career mode that walked straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
The trend continues, Mortal Kombat 9, a soft reboot of the franchise (think new Star Trek) greeted us with a storyline that played like a high-budget martial arts movie. Raiden’s quest to change the past to prevent an apocalyptic future had us all gripped. This wasn’t something we were used to. The fights merged seamlessly with the cutscenes. We were treated to a blockbuster in our living rooms and gaming PCs. The story was engaging, whilst the dialogue was sometimes cheesy, it fitted in with the story they were trying to tell.
This, I believe is what has changed recently with the fighting game genre. The single player campaign of a game is being built around the narrative rather than the other way around. Games designers are fleshing out a story and then making the game based off of that. It’s a wise move. Most people used to purchase fighting games just because they are the most easily accessible of all the genres, and also because they are the most difficult to master. They are a truly social games that are best played with friends, but take that and also add in a fantastic story and you have bottled lightning.
This is why the Injustice series is so strong. The first game was not scared to change up the dynamic of DC Comics’ long-held hierarchy of heroes. A world where Superman is a despot. It was the stuff of dreams for comic fans. There has always been that threat behind Superman that if he turned on humanity he would become a greater threat than any he has ever protected us from. Injustice: Gods Among Us, gave us the true story of Batman vs. Superman. Not the one delivered by Zack Snyder, the storyline in the first game in the series was far superior. Firstly because they had a genuine reason to fight. It wasn’t Batman just being mistrustful of this new kid on the block, it was two friends with a long history together suddenly having a very different point of view as to how the supervillain situation should be handled. Superman became ‘By any means necessary’, whilst Batman still believed we should never become as bad as those we hunt.
As those who played the series know, Batman recruited heroes from the main DC universe to help overthrow Superman’s Regime. At the end of the game Superman of our alternate Earth was imprisoned and his stranglehold on the world was broken. So when Injustice 2 was announced I did not expect it to be a direct sequel to the first game. But the producers of the game took the brave decision to carry on the narrative of that alternative Earth and we pick up years later where the first game left off. As a side note I would also highly recommend the tie-in comic franchise that accompanied the first game. By no means is it a cash-in, but a great universe to tell stories that could not be told otherwise. Injustice 2 pulls out many tricks we often see in Hollywood films. We have the enemies having to become allies to take down a greater threat to the world. It is an intriguing narrative concept. One used time and again in cinema with great success. Whilst it is not original, the same device was used in X2, and to an extent in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor X is forced to work with his old friend and now enemy Magneto, it is used with delicate care and consideration. Batman’s hand is forced into deploying Superman and freeing him from his red solar radiation cell to fight the common threat of Brainiac, who in this universe was responsible for the destruction of Krypton.
The writing behind the reasoning why makes narrative sense. It is bad writing that leads us to pick apart the story that is being told, but that is not offered here. If Batman had an anti-Brainiac gun then we would not need Superman to be released. But he is backed into a corner and is a man who is willing to do anything necessary to save the Earth. In this universe it is a Batman who is forgiving. He has recruited Harley Quinn to his side. Accepted Flash back into his ranks, and has established a security network to monitor the Earth’s threats. Then of course releasing his enemy from captivity to aid him is like playing with a loaded weapon, eventually that will go off. From the first time Superman utters ‘I’m not going back in there’ when he steps out, the foundation has been laid for a showdown. We already know from Superman being released that he is going to be facing Batman again. But it is the reason why the showdown will happen. We are heavily invested because of the excellent writing that the team at Netherrealm have given us. There are no new tricks, only old tricks performed by better magicians. And that is what is happening here. The story plot lines could be accused of being a cliche, but when they are delivered in such a fantastic manner as to keep me playing the next fight, and then the next fight as I want to get to the next part of the story, then something is being done right.
Should Warner Bros. have chosen a different path with their film franchises and instead of competing with Marvel’s shared universe, instead opted to adapt some of their best-loved Elseworlds books then I believe they would have been doing something very special for the cinema. Imagine Kingdom Come on the big screen. Whilst fine work is done adapting them into animation, there is something satisfying about seeing a book we love brought to life by human actors.
I believe Injustice 2 is the latest in a line of a series where they will go from strength-to-strength. A fighting game that has an important narrative and gives us characters we believe in and want to follow their paths. Be it Supergirl who has been manipulated by Wonder Woman and Black Adam into being a weapon, or Superman who is a time bomb waiting to go off, the characters are fleshed out and believable in this universe. We do not question their actions because the creators have stuck to Hitchcock’s rule of never to confuse your audience. We have been shown, not told, why our characters are behaving as such. We follow their actions, whether we agree with them or not, and we are also a willing participant to the story. Unfolding each chapter as we play on.
Truly a benchmark has been set here, and it’s not one for just being a remarkable fighting game, it is one where the narrative bar has been raised so high, others may struggle to ever reach it.