Arms and the Hidden Power of Story in Competitive Games

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<i>Arms</i> and the Hidden Power of Story in Competitive Games

When Nintendo’s newest fighting game, Arms, was first announced for Switch, people wanted to know why the fighters had springy arms. They had many questions: Why the arms? Why the masks? Why are their arms sometimes not extendable? Fans proposed their own hypotheses, but Nintendo remained mostly quiet about this weird new world.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, art director Masaaki Ishikawa explained that the game’s backstory took a back seat to gameplay because of priorities: “Fun is more important than anything,” he said in the interview. “The setting and the story has to be fun too, but has to be subordinate. I’m thinking about backgrounds and stories, but if it gets in the way of the game—it has to take a back seat.”

Plenty of games—especially sports and fighting games—struggle with incorporating a compelling story into their action. Many fighting games have added story modes to their campaign, all with varying degrees of success, but stories suffer when they’re given less thought and attention than mechanics. Ishikawa’s decision to prioritize action and prolong the history of lackluster story arcs in competitive games might at first be disappointing. But the result of the narrative delay is actually a tantalizing trickle of information, slowly being released through social media, in promotional videos, and finally through the game itself.

Arms’s in-game story mode is its Grand Prix. Players learn a little more about why each boxer decided to participate in the sport and is rewarded with a character-specific image when they become the Grand Prix champion. But the Grand Prix barely explains the world beyond the fighters. The answers to our many questions are, surprisingly, in the game’s photo gallery.

Here’s a brief recap of the story of Arms so far, provided by captions in the photo library:

There’s still a small dispute as to when the ability to extend a body part first appeared in the world. Some believe it’s been around for 1,500 years, others 4,000 years. There is an official ARMS League which keeps track of the population of people with this ability. According to the league, about 20% of the population possess the Arms ability. A person’s arms can transform to something closely related (either physically or emotionally) to the person, which would explain why Ribbon Girl’s arms are ribbons, and Min Min’s are noodles. This may also explain why Twintelle’s hair were affected rather than her arms, though no caption confirms this. Other than their springy arms, a person with the ability will also have spiral irises.

ARMS as a sport is only 120 years old. People were only able to safely compete once the special masks were invented. These masks prevent a person’s arms from unraveling or involuntarily changing shape. Now, thanks to the ARMS League, these masks are provided to people free of charge.

There are, of course, a few subjects that differ from the norm. For example, most people wake up one day to find that their arms can now extend. Kid Cobra, however, was born with this ability. Another oddity is Twintelle, who is the only person on record to have the spring ability in her hair.

So far, that’s really all we know about Arms, but there’s so much in these little photo captions that speak to so many other things. Nintendo has created a world that is relatively new. If it’s confusing for us as players, it’s because it is confusing for the people living in the Arms world. And there are still questions that can be answered. For example, all of the current fighters merely use their ability for the sport, but what about people who may use it for evil? Have there been any casualties while someone’s arms are uncontrollable?

The story in Arms, while small, doesn’t feel like a secondary feature. It’s hidden; it’s as mysterious as the special ability. The game is absolutely about fighting, and as Ishikawa says, that will always be the main priority. But the slow drip of new information keeps the world of Arms strange and compelling.

Arms isn’t the first fighting game to incorporate storytelling through short bursts of exposition, nor is it the most successful. Overwatch is perhaps the most notable competitive game to also heavily incorporate storytelling into the game. Each character is provided a short that explains that person’s role in the story of Overwatch, and who in the world they align with. It’s a complex web of storylines that, as Dante Douglas points out at Paste, conflicts with the entire point of the game:

“The world that we get glimpses of in the cinematics simply isn’t the world of the game. Mei isn’t an adorable scientist, she’s a ruthless killer willing to freeze her own allies if it means moving a payload toward an objective. Overwatch (the in-game entity, sworn to protect humankind) has no quibbles with teaming up with murderous rogue agents like Reaper in order to capture a point.”

Unlike Overwatch, Arms isn’t in conflict with itself. Rather, the story helps bind the characters even closer. Each character has their own personal motivations for wanting to be the champ, but the world itself also needs these characters to help uncover the things about the ability that the ARMS League still doesn’t know.

One of the first trailers released for Arms featured two people walking toward each other, preparing for a battle. One is a businessman, his opponent a schoolgirl. They engage in a brief stare down before raising their arms and unleashing their new, springy limbs. Before understanding the history of these powerful arms, I understood this trailer to show the game’s accessibility. Anyone, from an adult to a child, could sit down and enjoy this game.

But with the new context provided in the story, the trailer points less toward the player, and more toward the fighters themselves. They are, or were, ordinary people. Sure, Twintelle and Ribbon Girl were already popular as a movie star and a singer respectively, but most of the other fighters lived outside of the limelight before they woke to coiled arms. Now they’re adored by fans, and observed by scientists. There’s something larger about this game about colorful boxing gloves that Nintendo is slowly showing us.

Competitive games are typically less about telling a story and more about winning a fight, but Arms shows that the narratives can still be impactful even when placed in a supporting role. Even a character whose sole purpose is to battle in a ring still needs story to shape how and why they fight. Where other fighting games’ stories suffer or clash with the game’s main objective, Arms’s story plays a supportive role to the combat; it proves that, if not added as an afterthought, narratives for competitive games can (and should) complement the combat.


Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com for a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.

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