Whenever some marketed narrative based media – video games, movies, comics, novels, et al – is successful there come a bevy of imitators that strive to duplicate that same success, but make a mistake when considering style vs. substance. Mostly, they focus on re-active marketing – “Product A was successful, so how can apply the same stuff that made Product A work to Product B?” It’s an attempt to learn from things that worked before, but most marketing teams veer towards the style of media rather than the substance of that same thing.
When Street Fighter II hit in the early nineties, it revolutionized video gaming as a whole and went a long way towards pushing video games into the mainstream. People actively sought it out at arcades, and the initial release of the game on the SNES was one of the mightier blows struck during the Console Wars, pushing sales for the system above and beyond their normal numbers. It was a one-on-one fighting game, so many companies focused on that and that alone. One-on-one fighting games, later changed simply to fighting games, became a genre unto themselves. They were produced by the truckload.
Almost none of them were successful.
The reason for this lack of success was that they mimicked the style but possessed none of the substance. The World Heroes and Fighting Vipers of the world presented a stripped down version of what Street Fighter brought to the table. If you have no idea what ‘World Heroes’ are ‘Fighting Vipers’ are, then you’ve just proved my point. People were willing to give them a limited amount of attention at that point of time, but even a few years after release those franchises meant nothing. It was enough to keep the market alive for a small amount of time, but eventually led to the death of many companies and franchises.
See, even though the original Street Fighter II only had eight characters, those eight characters were all radically different from one another. Even without the special moves that fighting games popularized, each fighter employed different speeds, ranges, and strengths for their movement and attacks. These differences of character were the narrative substance behind the Street Fighter II monolith, and it was the quality that would ensure the dynasty of the franchise even decades from that initial release.
Because of these differences, the strategies that would ensure success for one character would not work with any other character in the game (aside from the Shoto-Clones, series mainstays Ryu and Ken – but even they would be evolved from one version of the franchise to the next). This made the game a high-speed version of chess, where knowledge of strategy and hand-eye coordination and dexterity determined who would win and who would lose.
No other game could come close to that, not at first. It’s one of the reasons that Street Fighter II dominated the market for so long – it played to the substance of knowledge and differences of character, to the point that every subsequent iteration of the game focused on the concept of game balance – which, again, ties into the narrative substance that people subconsciously associate with the Street Fighter games.
Those companies that looked at the style of the thing – the presentation of one person fighting another, with a handful of special moves and graphic design being the primary difference – failed to grab the attention of the audience and ultimately lost whatever audience they might have been able to gain for themselves. The aforementioned World Heroes and Fighting Vipers are just some of the games that failed to have any sort of strong substance to call their own, focusing on flash and style, and that is why no one remembers them.
Compare that with one of the other big games to grow out of that era, Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat focused on the spectacle of blood and an early digitization process as its graphics interface, and managed to make that the substance of their presentation. The characters, outside of three or four special moves, all played the exact same – but because the style of presentation was their substance, they struggled when that style became dated and had to reinvent themselves completely, which they did with Mortal Kombat IX and, soon, Mortal Kombat X.
Again, we can contrast that with the Street Fighter series as a whole, which has focused on a balanced application of strategy as the core component of their substance. The style changes, from sprites to polygons, but the game stays fundamentally the same because the mechanics make for the narrative substance of what’s being offered.
If we want to translate this concept into another medium, we can look at the recent slew of comic book movies. One of the biggest successes that DC Comics has enjoyed in the cinematic world is the Dark Knight, a grim and gritty Batman story and one of the best comic book movies to date. The studio took note of the same style and applied it to Man of Steel.
Man of Steel left a bad taste in people’s mouth that will ultimately doom any franchise that relies on that style. The reason for this failure is the basic promise of the narrative itself, which promises a grim and gritty take on Superman under the guise of realism. The trick is that Superman’s core substance has nothing to do with being grim or gritty. Grim worked for the Dark Knight because the center character, Batman, is a grim character. Superman is not a grim character; his core theme is one of hope, his story one of a god living to the best standards of humanity.
Again, Man of Steel touched on that without exploring it, and thus the allusions rang hollow and became a point of mockery.
Nonetheless, the grimness worked once because Man of Steel followed on the coat-tails of the Dark Knight. The next in the series – Dawn of Justice – is going that same stylistic route without the strength of a solid predecessor to hearken back to. People going to Dawn of Justice won’t think Dark Knight, they’ll think Man of Steel, and because of that they’re going to be disappointed by the experience. Dawn of Justice won’t just see the mixed reviews and fan reaction garnered by Man of Steel, it will see a backlash that those who pay attention to style and not substance will use to argue that the general public is tired of superhero movies.
This is very much not the case. Look at what Marvel has been doing with their movies; they let their individual characters be themselves, presenting the substance of each character and weaving those characters into a greater whole. Avengers is thus free to be spectacle, because the individual characters that make up the Avengers each bring an important quality to that movie that makes a greater whole.
Each of these qualities is the substance of their own stories, and when media can build a style around the substance inherent to it, that media will be successful. The trick is in recognizing the substance at the core of the media and not getting distracted by the style – pushing past the pretty surface and into the guts of the thing, asking why themes work and what themes are tied to the concept being presented.
The clearer a vision a creator has of the substance, the better a style that works for that substance can be crafted. And when style and substance work together, you end up creating media that will be remembered and can be drawn upon again and again, to ever-increasing returns.
What examples come to mind as you read this article? I’m sure more than a handful, and we’d be interested in knowing what you’re thinking. Let us know in the comments below.