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June 28, 2018

How to Save Dead or Alive 6 (Maybe, LOL)

I don’t think there was ever any doubt that we would get Dead or Alive 6; the question was when.  Things looked grim for a while, considering that Koei Tecmo/Team Ninja dropped future support/updates for Dead or Alive 5, and at the time there were no outspoken plans for a sequel.  Then when the E3 Eternal Engine fired up, right before the deluge of info we got confirmation of the franchise’s upcoming successor -- and a trailer to boot.

Probably the most interesting news to come out of it is a certain effort that the devs are making this time around.  According to interviews with execs, the idea is to tone down the sexuality that the franchise has long since become famous for.  Highlights include toned-down jiggle physics, a new sense of realism to make fights more convincing, and the decision to not force everyone to look great at all times.  This time around, they’re going to make sure that “first and foremost, they are fighters”.

So my first thought here is “Haven’t we done this before?”  The answer is yes.  And it didn’t work out.  My second thought here is “All right, how are they going to fix this?  Preemptively?”

Full disclosure: I like Dead or Alive.  That is to say, I like Dead or Alive 4, AKA the only game I’ve had substantial experience with.  I did play a tiny bit of DOA5, though, and I thought it was pretty interesting.  Is it the most in-depth, technical fighter out there?  No.But it is what it is, and that means it’s fun.  I’ve got fond memories of giant-swinging ninjas off staircases, after all.  So to be clear, I want the game(s) to succeed.

More importantly, I want the games to be good -- and to get better over time, so that A) they can enjoy some semblance of relevance, and B) so they don’t have to endure savage scorn and ridicule.  Is DOA6 in a prime position to reach that plateau?  Maybe.  But I have severe doubts.  If we go ahead and assume Team Ninja is trying to take a bite out of that eSports pie -- and making the game more outsider/audience/TV friendly to do so -- then they may have already stabbed themselves in the foot with Ryu Hayabusa’s Dragon Sword.

We live in a world where Capcom couldn’t get one of their marquis titles -- Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite -- a spot at EVO 2018.  What chance does DOA6 have, sexualized or not?  That’s not an indictment of the game in progress, but we have to be real here.  There’s a deluge of fighting games out there right now, with the ones out now being progressively updated, and more on the way before the year is done.  (*crosses legs and clasps hands in nervous anticipation of Soulcalibur VI*)  You have to do a lot to get the fighting fans on board, especially if you want to retain players -- because keeping even basic competence in one of the genre’s entries requires a distinct time investment.

It’s probably not a coincidence that ArcSys has its trio of anime fighters on deck for EVO 2018, and not just because My Hero Academia is bringing everyone back into the loving embrace of “Chinese cartoons”.  (One of those fighters won’t even be 3 months old by the time the tournament starts!)  Those games have style in spades, but so do the other entries this time around.  Branding certainly helps, yet the real key here is that the heavy hitters have all earned respect.

Dead or Alive hasn’t.  And I’m concerned that it’s not going to.

The franchise has entered a nightmare of a catch-22.  It got its start as a saving grace -- a final, desperate gambit -- for the then-ailing Tecmo, and earned attention with its striking 3D combat as well as its pioneering breast physics.  That didn’t change for years, and the devs leaned into the skid with aplomb and gusto (as proven by the “she kicks high” advertisements).  As I’ve said about the Senran Kagura games, it may have a style that’s easy to resent -- and stands as a breeding ground for controversy -- but at least it has a style.  A character.  An identity.

Then DOA5 came out and it had a massive identity crisis.  They said they were going to tone down the sexuality, and tried to make good on their promise with smaller (?) chests and more realistic faces.  Then the fan outcry came in, and eventually they started running that back via hundreds of dollars in sketchy DLC costumes.  Not to mention they added in Marie Rose and Honoka to try and cater to all the fetishes…and eventually threw in Mai Shiranui as a guest character, the supreme ruler of breast physics.  

The bigger issue here is a simple one, at least in my limited experience.  I would have accepted either the seriousness or the sexuality of DOA5, assuming that the devs had the guts to choose a lane and stay there.  But more importantly?  If they wanted to go down the serious route, then they had to prove that it was a good move -- to replace what they had and relied upon (to a fault, arguably) with something of equal or greater value.  They didn’t.

DOA5’s story mode is duller than a moss-covered tree stump.  It takes itself way too seriously, but is also way too stupid, but paradoxically is also way too goofy.  The only good moments are asides where the characters actually have a little fun, and get away from the slog of a plot.  Admittedly the “too serious fighting game story mode” has been a problem for virtually everyone that’s tried it, but DOA5’s one of the more ravaged victims.  The visuals, the music, the aesthetics, the action, and more -- everything was geared toward trying to mimic a summer blockbuster (and appeal to a western audience, by extension), and the game suffered because of it.  Then came the big back down, and suddenly it’s a bikini bonanza featuring everyone’s new favorite character, Honkers.

The lines have been drawn.  The damage has been done.  DOA had, and has, a reputation that’s not going to be easily forgotten; there hasn’t been a tiger yet that could change its stripes, after all.  Part of that is because Team Ninja is trying to chase after dreams and fans that don’t exist; I’d bet that the fighting game freaks out there are more anxious for Virtua Fighter 6 than its simpler, spam-friendlier cousin twice removed.  What’s the plan to make DOA6 more enticing to the FGC then?  Double down on what made DOA5 so “popular”, until one day Team Ninja decides to make more money and sells its dignity alongside nurse outfits and Halloween “costumes”?

The “I’m a Fighter” campaign doesn’t work -- not to the extent that the devs hope, because A) “I’m a Fighter” is almost synonymous with “I’m Pretty Boring”, and B) it’s too late to pretend like the game doesn’t have an image, considering that its volleyball (?) spinoff just added a feature to give girls wedgies.  Why should we believe that this time they’re super-serious about it?  Do they think they’ll set the world on fire just because they put their main heroine in a full-body skintight suit and (maybe?) gave her a breast reduction?


All right, I have to go on a tangent here.  I’m actually, seriously starting to resent the phrase/idea/meme that “I can’t take her [or this thing] seriously because her breasts are too big.”  Maybe I’m in the minority here -- and I don’t want to make a strawman argument -- but am I the only one who thinks that that’s an incredibly messed-up thing to believe?  Like, imagine saying that to a woman in real life.  Imagine treating her like a lesser person, in spite of whatever positive qualities or credentials she might have -- just because she’s better-endowed than most, and has no control over how she grew up.  It’s garbage.

And yes, I get it.  You can’t apply that logic (or senseless, white-knighting outrage) to fiction, where conscious decisions are made for every detail for specific purposes.  By extension?  Yes, there can be times when a large-breasted or fanservice-laden character can do more harm than good for a story’s credibility.  Still, simply having a voluptuous body doesn’t automatically mean the character solely exists to tighten trousers -- and even if they can have that effect, they can do more in the context of a story to prove they have the right to play a role.

I’ll admit I’m a little biased on that front, since -- no joke -- I’m someone with real ambitions to make a lead character who, when teased, legitimately has to stop and wonder if her breasts really are bigger than her head.  (Which, to be fair, is offset by the fact that the lady herself is as tall as the Eiffel Tower and thus even a single boob is the size of Godzilla.)  But I’m also someone who’s spent dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of hours revising and refining the character until she’s reached perfection -- someone with a personality, strengths, flaws, motivations, agency, quirks, and more.  As it should be.

In the real world, a person is a person, no matter what she looks like.  In Fiction Land, where every aspect is dictated by the creators, a good character is a good character, regardless of what she looks like.  This is the stumbling block that’s caused DOA to trip and faceplant for years now, and right now I have no confidence that they’ll right the ship with DOA6.  Despite having a solid ratio of females to males, and putting them in a position to ascend beyond their roles/archetypes/basic outlines, they…generally don’t.  Kasumi could be so much more than what she is now.  But because she’s been mishandled for at least a decade, right now all I can see her as is a timid little girl who pines for her onii-chan Hayate.  That’s a problem.

But there is a solution.  And that’s why I’ll now refer you to the title of the post -- and some helpful suggestions to preemptively save DOA6.  In no particular order, I recommend…

1) Let players create their own fighters
We live in a glorious (?) era where gamers can use official tools and franchise entries to make their own Saiyan, Hidden Leaf ninja, or…uh…Sonic friend.  If Team Ninja is smart, they’ll put the strongest tools on the market into their upcoming game.  Make it a standout feature full of customization options -- height, weight, age, build, hair styles, faces, voices, costumes, accessories, and more.  “More” in this case being, of course, bust sizes -- so that you can make someone more modestly endowed, rain-slick across the chest, or truly titanic.  Everybody wins.

Yes, this inevitably means that it’s a feature that’ll largely go untouched by the FGC in tournament settings, but for casual audiences?  Giving them a sense of ownership over the waifu/husbando of their creation will help them build an intimate bond, even if they can’t get a handle on the combat system.  Speaking of which?  Since Honoka was a Frankenstein of other fighters’ moves, there’s no reason why players shouldn’t be able to do the same -- either mix and match at their leisure, or create a moveset clone.  (Or throw in some other, random moves to slot in as needed.)

I’ve been pining for a big-bodied female grappler -- basically a female Zangief in terms of archetype -- for the better part of a decade.  I doubt I’m the only one -- which means the first to crack the code will be the first to make some serious cash.  

2) Give existing characters better stories
No one can say that the groundwork for the DOA girls isn’t there.  It is.  We’re not talking about princesses or waifs in constant need of rescuing; we’re dealing with martial artists, wrestlers, and assassins eager to duke it out.  If Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja were really serious about the “I’m a Fighter” campaign, then they could’ve ridden newcomer Mila to the top -- explored her drive for battle and combat in a world that’s tacitly insane.  But she was only a diversion in DOA5’s story, and for whatever reason isn’t even allowed to show up on Zack Island in the spinoffs.

If you want your characters to be taken seriously, then you have to take your characters seriously.  There’s a ton of potential for everyone in the cast, with brawlers like Tina being determined and proactive -- in theory, the perfect material for a strong female character.  In practice, she’s only an incomplete outline of a character because her story (such as it is) is incomplete.  Anemic.  Follow Street Fighter 5’s example with the individual character stories, so that we can see what makes our favorite fighters tick -- and expand upon them in ways often left untouched  Otherwise, Tina will never be much more than an American flag bikini.

Of course, the bigger, more pressing remedy is to write a better general story.  I mean, it’s almost as if giving characters a meaningful conflict and challenges to overcome will make them into better people.

But hey, what do I know?

3) Fix the faces
I was originally going to have a point above this one that suggested the devs overhaul the gameplay, but that’s probably a given for DOA6, and I don’t know how you’d do that without robbing the franchise of its trademark speed and reliance on the triangle of attacks > throws > blocks/holds > attacks.  The real problem is that this is a new game on the best console hardware on the market right now.  That means it’s time to make improvements where it really matters.  I see you’re working, but…please, work harder.  If you don’t want people staring at breasts, don’t make it a health risk to stare at faces.

Team Ninja, I am begging you.  Don’t let the game out the door without making faces that don’t saunter in and out of the uncanny valley.  DOA4 had this problem bad, what with its soul-sucking anime visages.  DOA5 tried to fix it, but with varying levels of success.  Mila and Momiji look fine, I guess, but others?  They still give me the heebie-jeebies if I look into their eyes for more than five seconds -- all stiff and hyper-focused, with an impossible-to-discern expression.  Critically, DOA6 presents an opportunity to mix style, realism, and fidelity into one single package for the maximum effect.  I mean, I won’t debate that SFV has its problems, but come on.  Chun-Li’s face has never been better.  Aim for that, if nothing else.

Just…just don’t try to go for Ken’s face.  Nobody deserves that.

I don’t expect Koei Tecmo or Team Ninja to follow through on any of those fronts.  It’d be nice, no question.  Still, I’ve done this dance enough times to temper my expectations (given the utter lack of imagination that led to the birth of Honoka).  So speaking of expectations?  I’m going to go ahead and assume that, at the end of the day, DOA6 is going to be fine.  It’s not going to be the second coming.  It’s not going to be a trash fire.  It’ll be fine.

And maybe that’s enough.  It almost sounds as if the devs are falling into the same trap that turned everything into Call of Duty for a few years -- that by trying to appeal to a wider audience, they think they’ll earn more cash and accolades.  Will it work out this time, now that they’ve vowed (?) to turn down the fanservice?  I doubt it.  Even though the latest games have folded themselves more than origami cranes to cater to newcomers, it’s still a genre with niche appeal that scares people off by virtue of being “too hard”.

The optimal scenario, I think, is for the devs to realize where they stand in the gaming canon.  They can’t salvage DOA’s reputation.  Nothing can.  Given that, they should cater to the audience that they have while steadily inching outward -- using slight and subtle changes over the years, in tandem with commitment to a plan or promise -- to naturally bring in curious onlookers.  Stay true to the character of the franchise while making it the best it can be…while at least considering efforts to tone down the creep factor.

Basically the best way to save DOA is to make the next entry the zenith in every aspect.  Instead of gutting the fanservice, give it the best fanservice -- equal opportunity stuff that’s sexy without being cringeworthy.  Instead of presenting shallow ideas of characters, give us the best characters -- the sorts of heroines that bizarre afro-headed bloggers can blab about at length.  Instead of buckling under the weight of expectations and demands, give us the best resolve -- a slew of creative decisions that sync up with a creative vision.

Don’t chicken out, guys.  Be strong.  Be smart.  Be you.

Or, failing all of that, just give me my big-bodied female grappler.  No, seriously.  Give it to me, AND ONLY ME.  If you don’t…well, I guess I’ll just have to make one myself.

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…somehow.  Don’t be alarmed, but it may involve sacrificing a goat.

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