There are quite a few books you can read that will describe the idea of the basic plot. Prominent among them is Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he details the 7 basic plots we used to tell the same stories repeatedly.
Whether you agree on the amount or specifics of what basic plots do exist, I think there is truth in the sentiment. No story you tell will be completely original, not only because all stories are told using the same templates, but because all the best ideas have already been thought of. The execution of said idea, however, is.
I say this because I often see budding writers ponder whether an idea is worth pursuing because they see other books, movies, or shows already explore the same idea.
They may have the idea to explore the tale of a sailor washing ashore in a foreign land; forcing the sailor to learn to navigate the language and culture of that land, only to learn James Clavell already did that with Shogun. But was he even the first to explore such a tale? Not even close.
In fact, the actual event James Clavell based his book on had several books written about it much earlier than Clavell did. The first of which came out in 1861—115 years before Shogun was published. Did that stop Clavell from writing the masterpiece that is Shogun? No.
Because it didn’t matter that the story had been told before. What mattered is that James Clavell had not yet told that story.
As interesting as I find the nuances of literary influence, I’m not here to talk about old books and old authors. No, I’m here to justify to myself the amount of video games I play by arguing that they make me a better writer. And how am I going to do that today?
By saying all fighting games are the same. Bear with me a moment, this will all make sense and then you too can justify your video game addiction to that little voice that tells you to stop playing League of Legends and to do something productive.
Midway Games released the first Mortal Kombat in 1992, a year after Capcom released Street Fighter 2—which came 4 years after Street Fighter, which came 3 years after Karate Champ. All going back to the point someone first had the idea to make a game featuring boxing.
Capcom didn’t brush the idea of Street Fighter to the side because it was the same idea as Karate Champ. Instead, they took inspiration from earlier titles and drastically improved on the formula of fighting games. Though their idea wasn’t unique, the execution was. And the first Street Fighter was just the beginning. Only 4 years later, Capcom damn near perfected the fighting game formula with Street Fighter 2, which became one of the greatest video games of all time.
Most all modern fighting games slightly change the strict Street Fighter 2 formula. Mortal Kombat is a gory Street Fighter. Tekken is just 3D Street Fighter. Soulcalibur is Tekken with swords. And so on. I use fighting games as the focus of my argument because there aren’t many video game genres that are so strictly defined as fighting games are. The genre is so strict there’s still this heated debate floating around in the FGC of, “Is Super Smash Bros. a fighting game?” Even over 20 years after the series initial release.
To me, a fighting game is characterized by the high level of competitiveness, strings of precise button inputs to use special moves, enclosed stages on which to fight, and, of course, players controlling unique characters fighting against other players who also control unique characters.
I’m not an expert in the FGC, or in the science of video game genres, but that’s how I see it. More so than other, looser, game genres, such as an FPS, fighting games have less leeway for toying with the basic features of the genre. Because of that, fighting games are far more similar across different titles and series than other genres of games.
Developers have less space to work with when designing a fighting game. The options available to them to mess the with formula are limited, lest they fall to the same fate as Super Smash Bros. and forever be stuck in a limbo of debate on whether a game is actually a fighting game.
Moving from an FPS like Valorant to an FPS like Overwatch requires much more relearning of game mechanics than moving from a game like Mortal Kombat 11 to Dragon Ball FighterZ. And I think that statement is perfectly shown by the fighting game pro Sonic Fox, who holds 1st Place tournament wins in 9 different fighting games.
Despite the deep similarities between games, developers keep making them, publishers keep publishing them, and gamers keep playing them. And they don’t just keep playing the same old games either. New fighting games are released yearly, and old fighting games are tossed aside for the shiny new ones. Just look at the history of the Evo Championship Series, a series of fighting game tournaments held yearly. Evo plays host to a revolving platter of fighting games. Sure, there are mainstays, such as Tekken and Street Fighter, but other titles don’t have nearly as much staying power.
So why do people keep buying and playing new fighting games despite all of them being so similar to the last? The same reason people keep reading the same stories and watching the same movies. We love what we love, and we know what we love.
We like to know exactly what we’re getting into and there’s usually no more of a sure promise of getting what you want then when you get a fighting game. There’s a specific expectation for fighting games and specific excitement for the minor details that make each fighting game unique.
I can’t stand Tekken but replace the characters with Pokemon to make Pokken and I absolutely love it. Give the characters weapons to make it Soulcalibur and I’m on board. I have a hard time getting into Dragon Ball FighterZ, but I fell right into Blazeblue Cross Tag Battle.
I’m in it for the characters, how they’re designed, how they play, and how smoothly the game plays. Really, they all play mostly the same, but the minor details of the game and the developers’ unique execution of the elements constraining the genre provide truly unique gameplay experiences between those games. To make a fighting game stand out above the rest, the game must have a fresh and interesting take on the genre. They don’t have to be as revolutionary as Street Fighter 2, but they need to be different enough from Street Fighter 2 to set them apart.
I want to take a step back from fighting games to look at another example of repetitive entertainment ravenously consumed: comic book movies. Most comic book movies have the same plots. Does that mean I won’t watch every Marvel movie because I already know exactly what story beats it’ll hit and how it’ll end? No.
Because I’m not watching a Marvel movie to find out what happens at the end. We all know that the hero will defeat the villain. We all know a world disrupted by a grand villain will be set right. I’m going into comic book movies knowing full well what I can expect. And that’s why I love them. They’re familiar and low risk.
And that’s why you don’t have to worry about creating a story that’s already been told. It’s okay to tell a story about a young wizard who goes to a magical boarding school. It’s okay to tell a story about elves, dwarves, and humans. It’s okay to tell a story about a young child discovering a magical world in their closet. It doesn’t matter that other people have already told these stories.
I already know what J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world looks like. I know what themes and ideas he finds important. But I don’t know what youfind important. I don’t know what your fantasy world looks like.
The value of a story told isn’t in the idea’s uniqueness that builds the premise, but the unique voice behind the idea. Just as every fighting game has its own flair to set it apart from the rest—despite still being almost exactly the same in their gameplay—so to can your stories be set apart from those that have a similar premise.
So long as your execution is completely unique to your own experience, there’s great value in the telling someone else’s story in your own way. Your stories will be unique because you’re the one that tells them. You are the unique element that ideas are missing. If you won’t execute the ideas you draw inspiration from, no one else will.