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Tekken: the fighting game that takes women's stories seriously

Caroline O'Donoghue

A young woman stands at the grave of her recently departed father, her blond hair in a ponytail. After a quiet moment, she places flowers on the ground, then hears the crunch of gravel behind her. She whips around, pulls out her gun and finds a brunette woman of roughly her own age. The brunette smiles faintly and reassures the blonde that she’s not here to fight. She, too, is here to pay her respects. They walk past one another, visibly tense in blocky 1996 animation, and decide to let the feud rest. For today.

This is one of the more conservative story endings for Nina Williams, a much-beloved combatant in the Tekken series of fighting games. In conversations around classic female video games characters, she often gets overlooked. Street Fighter’s Chung-Li is the first lady of the fighting genre (the Princess Leia buns, the thighs that launched a thousand “crushed to death” fetishes) and, although Peach wins the popular vote, no one has ever come close to stealing Lara Croft’s crown when it comes to overall iconic omnipresence. But growing up, Nina Williams was by far my favourite character, which naturally made Tekken my favourite two-player title. It wasn’t just that she was Irish – although I remember gasping the moment I read that in the Tekken 2 booklet, it being the first time I had anything in common with a woman from a video game – it was that I felt as if I knew things about her.

As the years went on, I watched her rivalry with her sister Anna through 30-second clip scenes that were earned through beating the game with either character, often showing two sides of the same interaction. They go from the playfully combative, quasi-erotic dynamic in Tekken 1, to Dynasty-style dramatics in Tekken 2, lurching forward to a sci-fi plot in Tekken 3 where both sisters are put under cryo-sleep and Nina’s eggs are harvested to help create her son, Steve Fox, to Tekken 4, where a memory-wiped Nina is contracted to kill the son she doesn’t know she has, and spares him at the last moment. There’s more, a lot more. Tekken is the very definition of “a lot”. It’s soap opera, anime, drama, toy commercial. You fight and grind with one character for hours to unlock 30 seconds of story, so you can add that to a scrapbook of other 30-second clips, most of which make almost no sense, but need to be pieced together as part of the wider narrative.

In Tekken, every character is on their own hero’s journey, in which they enter the Iron Fist tournament, usually because they need to confront someone, get something or stop something. Nobody ever enters Iron Fist for the money or the heck of it. They battle through a dozen or so fights of three rounds, usually ending with a supernatural near-unbeatable boss, and then they walk off into the sunset. And we get to see what that sunset looks like for them. Sometimes it’s Jun Kazama taking a bus to the middle of the woods. Sometimes it’s Michelle and Julia Chang, archaeologist and scientist respectively, trying to take down the Mishima Zaibatsu. For me, Tekken is the gold standard in terms of classic arcade games that went out of its way to show a diversity of female characters.

Diversity here is a relative term. There are no black women in the series. They’re all smoking hot, crazily proportioned women with insane fashion choices. Nina was, rather conveniently for the designers, put under cryo-sleep for 15 years and woke up still in her 20s, while Kazuya Mishima’s face aged like a railway map in the rain. But in comparison with Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, and the other fighting games of the era, the women never felt like tokenistic afterthoughts, there for girls to feel mildly included and for boys to ogle. By taking every character on their own hero’s journey, they necessarily had to write every journey. Tekken exists in a crazy, mixed-up world where women are people. They have jealousies, rivalries and long-standing misunderstandings that morph into lifelong feuds. They have children, and they have weird feelings about those children. Teenagers, mothers, daughters, assassins, nature girls, sexpots, cat-masked demon thieves (Kunimitsu, we never see enough of you!), they all had as valid a place as the male fighters and as complex a history.

Tekken gives you a lot more story than virtually any other fighting game, and asks for more mental flexibility from its players. When you win the Iron Fist tournament with a character, you are given their victory, and what they do with it. However, a parallel narrative universe exists that is the game’s “real” version of events: each Tekken game has a canon winner, and this canonic story focuses on the Mishima family blood feud.

If you are confused, you’re not alone. “How are you even supposed to know what actually happens?” says Awp Williams, a Tekken YouTuber. “The answer would usually be to wait until the next game or look for clues in other characters’ scenes and dialogues in the same game or a previous one and decide for yourself. What I learned through my research of Tekken as an adult is that these scenes/endings show what would happen if certain conditions are met. More specifically, it shows what a character would do if they in fact ended up in the situation they find themselves in. It shows you what kind of person they are, which can give you clues for scenes that do matter to the canon story. It makes it fun to theorise.”

Complicated and unwieldy? Absolutely. But it has also made Tekken one of the most enduring fighting games of all time. Like any soap opera or pro-wrestling storyline, Tekken exists on a principle of in medias res: a universe where stories are never ending and never beginning, and the viewer is expected to either catch up or ignore what they don’t understand. “If you’ve never played Tekken,” reads a 2017 review of Tekken 7 posted on Mic, “the newest game doesn’t want you to start.” And that may be so, but for every casual fan Tekken might lose, another obsessive is born. One who, like me, has been piecing together this scrapbook for more than two decades, and doesn’t plan on stopping.