Fighting games are pianos.  Wait, I’ll back up.

Fighting games don’t have a lot on their minds. Punch, kick, throw, etc.  The point of them isn’t to learn anything about yourself, and they’re not there to comment on world events.  When they do have a narrative, it usually involves two officers of the law going undercover to bring down a global threat by punching people to death in a secret underworld fighting competition.  This is not, to my knowledge, how law enforcement operates in the real world, but in this particular genre you learn not to ask for too much.

You ask for the tools to hurt your opponent, and the game gives them to you.  Everything else the game gives you is an afterthought.

So yeah, pianos.

I can play a C-scale, and I think I remember Chopsticks.  I remember the first part of Chopsticks.  Nobody has ever asked me to prove this because nobody wants to hear Chopsticks, ever.  My skills with Mortal Kombat are equal to my skills as a pianist, and therefore I have tended to look at Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken and their ilk the way I look at pianos.  I’m sure they’re wonderful in the right hands, but those hands are not mine.  Consequently I’ve never given any thought to how well made many fighting games actually are.  To see how good Injustice: Gods Among Us would be, I needed a pianist.

My friend Jonathan Kerns is not an actual pianist, but hand him six buttons and a d-pad and he will compose percussive melodies of bone against bone.  I put the controller in his hands instead of mine to see what music he could make out of Bruce Wayne’s spine, and suddenly I was hearing Chopin instead of Chopsticks.

Once the problem of gameplay (more specifically, my inability to master it) was out of the way, I was able to focus on the storyline.  I didn’t expect this to yield much of interest, given the genre, but I was wrong.  Injustice is easily the most story driven fighting game that I’ve ever encountered, telling the story of dozens of heroes and villains from the DC Universe teaming up against Superman to save the world.  Yes, you read that correctly.

A quick synopsis: the Joker is going to detonate a nuclear bomb in Metropolis as several DC heroes race to save the day.  Just as they are about to stop him, they are transported to an alternate Metropolis in the near future where the bomb already went off, killing millions, including Lois Lane.  The Superman from this timeline has not taken these events well.  Instead of doing the right thing and handing the Joker to authorities, Superman institutes a global police state where any perceived threat is rounded up and executed.  The most threatening of these is, of course, Batman.  Except now there’s two Batmen, one from the original timeline, and one from this new one.  There’s also two of the Flash, two Wonder Women, two Green Lanterns (although the alternate timeline’s Hal Jordan has become a Yellow Lantern for Sinistro), and so on.  This (never rationalized) leap into quantum theory is really just an excuse to have heroes fight versions of themselves (what’s known as a “mirror match”) and perhaps most surprisingly, it recasts the Joker and Harley Quinn as guerrilla revolutionaries hoping to bring Superman’s totalitarian regime crashing to the ground.

Superman has had a rough history in video games, coming across as stiff and boring at best, and downright unplayable at worst.  The notorious Superman 64 is considered by many to be the single worst game ever created, and not just because the controls handled like a hippo in a wheelchair.  Superman’s primary obstacle to being an interesting protagonist is that he doesn’t have any weaknesses (except of course Kryptonite, which is almost always used as a diabolus ex machina whenever a writer has to delay Superman for any period of time).  He can fly, he’s bulletproof, he can hold his breath forever… it’s not so much the things that he can do that make him boring, it’s that nothing can be done to him.

All of these things that make Superman such a boring protagonist actually make the Man of Steel an interesting antagonist.  No one hero’s abilities are any match for him, so they all have to work together to have any hope of stopping him.  What could be particularly interesting about his turn as a heel is that Superman never feels like he’s in the wrong.  The loss of his family pushes him over the edge, but he doesn’t abandon the earth to chaos and self-destruction; if anything, Superman throws himself more into his job as global protector, only without realizing (or perhaps willfully ignoring) that he’s taken away humanity’s liberty in exchange for their security.

I say these things could be interesting, but only if the game focused on them effectively.  Instead, one of the few missteps Injustice makes is taking the whole notion of liberty vs. security (and all of the libertarian baggage that such a plot line invites) and uses it as a line in the sand, as if it’s an all or nothing proposition and that the only way to be free is absolute lawlessness, and the only way to be safe is to be locked away.  If you disagree with the idea of a despotic uber-mensch with heat vision imposing his will on all of humanity (and even using that heat vision to quell dissent within his own ranks), then your other option is the Joker and his merry brand of improvised explosive diplomacy.

Where the game missteps in subtext, it makes up in pacing.  Injustice moves with a momentum not seen in any superhero film or tv show, and the fights seem to be over just at the point they would leave you wanting more.  In an inversion of Fight Club’s seventh rule (“Fights will go on for as long as they have to”), the action lasts only long enough for it to be interesting and to move the story along.  Gone is the “best out of three” structure that replaces all of the momentum of an action movie with the frustration of finally accomplishing an impossible task, and then finding out you have to do it again.

So no, Injustice isn’t perfect, but it is trying to be more than just punch, kick, and throw.  It’s ridiculous, but entertaining and exquisitely crafted ridiculousness at the very least, and well worth playing for yourself.  Taking the story too seriously would be a mistake, but it seems the creators were aware of that, and didn’t take the story too seriously themselves.  To really see what the creators of Mortal Kombat have built for you, however, you’re either going to need to find a pianist, or learn to play a few songs yourself.

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