How a Fighting Game’s Story Can Change Players’ Lives

By on March 27, 2020

If you pick up the story mode of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, an anime fighting game released in 2008, you might be surprised at what you find. Unlike in most other fighters, the main character in BB:CT isn’t obviously heroic or admirable. He isn’t upbeat or happy-go-lucky. He doesn’t have pure ideals or a light heart. Instead, Ragna the Bloodedge has a mission. He knows who he is and what he has to do, and no matter what anyone else might think, he won’t stop.

The BlazBlue series is produced by Arc System Works, the maker of Guilty Gear and a rare example of a studio that puts real effort into the stories of its fighting games. Many fighting-game developers skimp on story because they know that their customers will spend almost all of their time in versus mode. But Shon Norris (who also goes by “Rebellious Ragğer”) can personally testify to the value of a well-crafted fighting game story.

“As a child,” Norris says, “I noticed villains tend to have a whole lot of fun with their roles and what they do, from random explosions to epic, cocky, or funny monologues.” More importantly, villains are usually the ones who hold true to themselves in the face of social censure. The same goes for Ragna, BlazBlue’s leading anti-hero. “The man’s a total rebel bada**, taking on the world on his own with no allies, no friends, just himself…I relate to the character because [of that].”

Wielding Darkness

For years, Norris has dreamed of becoming a comic book creator or mangaka (a manga author). As anyone can tell you, that’s a risky path to take; the stereotype of the starving artist exists for a reason. So if you’re willing to walk that road, it’s safe to assume that you’ve got a little bit of a villainous streak in you: something epic, something rebellious. In other words, you have to be at least a little like Ragna.

Even so, creativity is a tricky thing. Any amateur can summon up raw imagination. What distinguishes a master is the ability to refine that raw material over and over again while being buffeted by external criticism, internal doubt, and the normal pressures of everyday life. Some artists are lucky enough to have (or to be able to buy) supportive teachers, mentors, and friends to help them along. Norris wasn’t. “As I grew up and went through high school, I was [misunderstood and treated like an] outcast,” he explains. His school turned him away from its creative writing program twice, and his family attacked his goals. In response, he only tightened his grip on them.

“[O]nce you know what you need to cut out of your life to make [your dreams] work, you have to be this way,” he says. “You can’t sugarcoat it…You’re going to have to do things in life that everybody’s going to disapprove of. You just have to know it yourself – there’s right-wrongs & wrong-rights.” In short, you have to be able to take the negativity that the world throws at you and turn it into strength. To Norris, this is reminiscent of Ragna’s supernatural powers. He refers to it as “wielding darkness.”

Pick Your Fighter, Pick Yourself

Norris eventually found his way to the Fighting Game Community, thanks not only to BlazBlue but also a slew of other franchises, including Smash Bros., Street Fighter, Tekken, and Dead or Alive. In the FGC, he found the people who understood him. Just as artists have to find a way to turn hardship into strength, FGCers have to learn to see every loss as an opportunity to get stronger.

That’s why one of Norris’s fondest fighting game memories is his loss in pools at the Evolution Championship Series last year. “It hit me so hard. I’ve never felt like that before. I failed. I was crying tears of joy…I was so thankful because I knew I could grow from there and [that] this wasn’t my peak.” But before Norris found the FGC, he found a fighting game story. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Stories create community,” according to the social humanitarian Peter Forbes. In other words, the FGC is what it is because of its stories.

Some of these are stories of friendship and joy, stories that have low stakes and happy endings. Many of them are the stories of people who persevere through real pain, learn from their defeats, and find the strength to stay true to themselves. Either way, almost all of them are about real people: artists, tournament organizers, streamers, players.

The lesson of Norris’s story is that we need more from the games themselves. Every single fighting game character is an opportunity to inspire someone in the same way that Norris was (and is) inspired by Ragna. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, by showing Norris how someone like him could be the main character of his own story, BlazBlue accomplished the greatest feat that any work of art ever can: it changed his life.

Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) wishes to thank Shon for helping to coauthor this article. To learn more about Norris, follow him on Twitter here. To learn more about Horowitz, visit his website.

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