Guilty Gear Strive and Tone
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Guilty Gear Strive (Arc System Works, 2021), the colorful fighting game known for its outlandish characters and rock n’ roll aesthetic. This essay will cover Strive’s non-playable story mode, which is viewable in-game through a series of cutscenes. Players who have not watched Strive’s in-game story may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.
Since 1998, Daisuke Ishiwatari’s Guilty Gear fighting game series has been a favorite in the fighting game community. Drawing influences from heavy metal music, action movies, manga, and anime,1 Daisuke and his team sought to create a series that would reflect their interests while still appealing to fans of popular fighters of the day, like Street Fighter (Capcom) and Mortal Kombat (Netherrealm Studios). More than two decades later, their efforts have been a proven success, with seven main series entries and dozens of other enhanced titles and spinoffs.2 The most recent title, Guilty Gear Strive, has been the best selling series title to date and boasts a Metacritic score of 88%, an all-time high for the series.3
Fighting games rarely put their stories at the forefront, as the arcade format does not easily lend itself to storytelling. The Guilty Gear series goes against conventional wisdom, featuring a complicated backstory that comes further to the forefront with each title. Guilty Gear Strive continues this trend with its inclusion of a four-and-a-half-hour animated film that the player can view at any time. It’s a chaotic story full of incomprehensible turns and twists, and it’s packed to the brim with characters who make little to no impact on the story. Some scenes require the player to possess deep knowledge of the series lore to understand, while others require a substantial ability to suspend disbelief. While any one of these aspects would be enough to ruin another narrative, Guilty Gear Strive’s story is still enjoyable because of its tone: a gleeful absurdity that might better be called ‘stupid fun.’
Choosing a Tone
Labeling Guilty Gear Strive’s tone as ‘stupid fun’ may sound reductive or dismissive, but there’s nothing simple about choosing the right feel for a story. Strive’s tone works because it fits the story’s theme while satisfying the expectations of both the genre and the series. The first component, theme, is the major question or concept that the cast wrestles with as the story progresses. In the world of Guilty Gear, where super-powerful people make up the bulk of the cast, characters must fight against ever-increasing threats, leading them to ask: “What is the greatest source of power in the universe?” By the end of the story, there’s only one clear answer: the will to fight for what you believe in. Time after time, characters who believe in themselves and their cause succeed despite overwhelming odds, thus proving the theme’s thesis. While this theme lends itself to a variety of tones, gleeful absurdity gives Strive the freedom to make the forces of antagonism as powerful as possible while still giving its heroes a shot at victory. When the good guys win, despite all reason and logic, the audience doesn’t feel cheated because logic doesn’t matter. The outcome doesn’t have to be smart; it just has to be fun.
Guilty Gear Strive’s unabashed commitment to entertainment and spectacle is a good fit not only because of its connection to the theme, but also because it conforms to audience expectations for the genre. As a fighting game, Strive’s gameplay is based around two individuals (or one individual and a computer) using their chosen characters to brawl for supremacy. Any story that wants to be faithful to that gameplay needs to incorporate many opportunities for the characters to show off their combat skills. While a serious, more realistic tone requires storytellers to give compelling reasons for these fights, a tone centered around fun has no such responsibility. In other words, it doesn’t really matter why the characters are fighting, so long as they are.
There’s one more reason Guilty Gear Strive’s tone works, and that’s its connection to the other titles in the series. Strive does not exist in a vacuum; it builds on the efforts of its predecessors, including their music, stages, and characters. While it’s not unheard of for a series to make a tonal shift partway down the line, so much of Guilty Gear’s identity is wrapped up in its aesthetic that a tonal shift would leave the narrative designers with some tough choices. If they wanted to keep the same cast while shifting to a more realistic tone, they would have to spend inordinate amounts of story-time making post-hoc justifications for the character’s absurd designs and backstories, or they would have to strip away all of the elements that make them unique. By maintaining the tone of the previous entries, Strive is free to keep the focus on progressing the narrative of the series without alienating any long-term fans.
Choosing the right tone for a story is only half the battle; the other half is implementing it. Guilty Gear Strive upholds its commitment to ‘stupid fun’ by structuring each of its acts around a major spectacle, injecting the scenes between spectacles with humor, and downplaying the consequences of violence. The first component, structured spectacle, relies on Strive’s unique in-game viewing method. Strive delivers its story in eight discrete chunks, each of which is separated by a menu that gives viewers the chance to decide how many of its four-plus hours they want to view in one sitting. As a result of these divisions, the writers were able to anchor each section with a spectacle that delivers the promised chaotic excitement. These tentpole scenes range from the relatively sedate, like a demon using magic to hack the White House, to the totally absurd, like the White House taking flight and firing missiles at enemy planes. If an entire narrative was framed around a single one of these events, the writers would spend the rest of the story answering the questions raised in the aftermath. Strive’s evenly-spaced spectacles ensure that the audience doesn’t have time to linger on the logistics of demon hackers and flying buildings. By the time the viewer can realize the absurdity of what they’ve just seen, Strive is already onto the next event, which is that much more improbable than the one that came before.
In the downtime between spectacles, Guilty Gear Strive maintains its gleeful tone by peppering the dialogue and action with humor. The majority of the cast retains a glib facade in the face of danger, shrugging off injuries with jokes and laughing at existential threats. The ironically-named protagonist Sol Badguy is a prime example of this phenomenon. He’s got a joke for every situation, whether it’s a low-stakes encounter with a bounty on the highway or a cataclysmic bout with an all-powerful guitar-witch. Strive often uses him as a straight man who can acknowledge the absurdity of the chaos around him without diminishing it. With a name like Sol Badguy, an outlandish backstory, and powers that let him tangle with Guilty Gear’s gods, Sol’s complaints about his surreal surroundings aren’t critical so much as they are affectionate. He’s an absurd man in an absurd world. Acknowledging that is his way of accepting it, as well as Strive’s way of accepting itself.
The final way Guilty Gear Strive establishes its tone is by limiting and downplaying the consequences of violence. While most cast members have demonstrated their ability to eliminate enemies with minimal difficulty, they often choose to injure their opponents rather than kill. Even the antagonists are capable of mercy, as I-no the guitar-witch demonstrates in the prologue when she attacks Castle Illyria, resulting in thirty-two injuries and zero deaths. On the other hand, when the antagonists aren’t so merciful, the protagonists are always on hand to mitigate the damage. For example, when I-No’s partner, the demon Happy Chaos, blows up a tower full of civilians, the time-stopping Axl Low uses his abilities to spirit every potential victim to safety. The maneuver requires a ridiculous amount of effort on his part, yet it works because it fits with the theme, and by extension, the tone. It may be absurd for the heroes to be able to mitigate the worst effects of violence, but it’s the kind of absurdity that makes Guilty Gear Strive great.
Guilty Gear Strive’s adrenaline-driven narrative may seem chaotic at a glance, but it’s supported by a tone that was chosen and implemented with care. Its gleeful absurdity fits with the theme of willpower overcoming firepower while satisfying the requirements of the genre and the series. This absurdity is supported within the story through well-placed spectacles, light-hearted humor, and limited violence. Writers who wish to create their own ‘stupid fun’ stories should look to Guilty Gear Strive as an example of when to use the tone and how to make it work.
1 Asia Pacif Arts Staff (July 17, 2009). “Anime Expo 2009: interview with Daisuke Ishiwatari and Toshimichi Mori“. University of California, Los Angeles
2 “Guilty Gear Strive.” Wikipedia, 2021.
3 “Guilty Gear Strive – Reception and Legacy.” Wikipedia, 2021.
* Reference Footage: DoubleKORadio. “Guilty Gear -Strive- Story JP.” YouTube, 2021.