I almost flunked out of college because of Mortal Kombat on the Genesis. (Yes, that's how old I am.) Classes skipped, papers turned in late and reading assignments left barely skimmed, all because I was trying to perfect my Scorpion technique. And while the undead ninja from the gory fighting series is a favorite of mine, he's not the favorite. That honor goes to Lei Wulong, the occasionally drunk kung-fu cop from Namco's Tekken franchise.
I've been thinking about fighting games a lot. For no particular reason, really. The genre's experiencing an upswing lately and stands at a crossroads as the call of e-sports and wider awareness compete against the desire to maintain cohesion.
I get that tension. Fighting games ask for a hell of a lot of commitment. Not just to learning and executing arcane combinations of stick movements and button presses, but they also ask you to commit to other players. You need to study your opponents, sometimes over a long stretch of time or sometimes in a split-second. And in the inevitable clashes that follow, you test your mettle against another's, learning something about yourself and your opponent.
So, back to Lei. What does he tell me about myself? Superficially, he grabs me for a bunch of different reasons. He's essentially a pastiche of classic Jackie Chan roles from movies like Drunken Master and Supercop, which I first watched in college. But I recently realized that my affinity for Lei goes deeper than those pop cultural resonances.
The thing I love most about Lei Wulong is the fluidity of his moveset. The different stances of his Five Form animal kung-fu he can present to opponents represent a broad range of possibility. During college and the years after it, I spent hours in Tekken 3's training mode. I'd pick my favorite stage—King's sky-high wrestling ring for that killer music—and go at the computer AI for long, long sessions. But more than anything, honing my skills felt meditative. It was almost always solitary. I'd sink into a kind of fugue state: alert, respsonsive yet deeply relaxed.
The way I play with Lei feels almost like some sort of journal-keeping. I can remember when a certain move changed or was tweaked. Other staples of my Lei style feel tattooed on my fingertips. I can't not do them, which probably isn't helpful to building a balanced style.
Lei's a dancer, the kind of martial artist I like to pick in fighting games. Ironically, I'm a shy dancer in real life. (I'll get up if someone puts on some Fela, but will still feel hella self-conscious.) Maybe that's why I enjoy Lei's loose, improvisatory style. Can make his body do he kind of things I can't accomplish in real life. Move from high to low really quickly, surprise my partner and prove I can move with the best of them. (Sidenote: I prefer the way that 3D fighters like SoulCalibur and Tekken let you play with space. And I play on gamepad, because fightsticks weren't really a thing when I was coming up.)
The Hong Kong crimefighter's not the most powerful striker, but he gives me lots of room to improvise. Again, this probably says something about the kind of self-image I've tried to craft for myself. I try not to walk around with a lot of ego, and put priority to letting myself explore new ideas. With Lei, I always feel like there's always a better way for me to hook one stance into another. I play a little bit with Paul, Law and some other characters but Lei's my main. He's flexible. I try to be, too.
Fighting games—and the enthusiastic community around the genre—remind me of hip-hop. They inherently invite tussle, trash talk and training. There's a built-in aggression, lots of it centered on machismo, because it's an ecosystem built on skills. Skills that are highly quantifiable yet amazingly diverse and open to interpretation.
Yet, there's also a strong suspicion of outsiders within the Fighting Game Community and suspicion from those who control the game. Are they trying to use us, cheat us, milk us and move on? Rap music faced and still faces the same dilemma. It's mainstream now and little debate is given to its worth. Nevertheless, a set of ideas about what is or isn't hip-hop has hardened into a restrictive shell over the decades. It would suck if that happened to fighting games, if notions of the "only these kinds of people play them" sort hindered appreciation of the skill needed to excel at competition.
Going back to college, there were moments when my group of friends would chill in someone's dorm rooms and try to unleash freestyle raps. That kind of in-the-moment creativity always eluded me. Or maybe I was never brave enough. My experience with fighting games and with Lei has been markedly different. I've never been good enough to be a professional competitive gamer but I've been able to express parts of myself with the moves of one specific character. That's been good enough for me.