I was watching that Mega Man rap for what must have been the millionth time, having discovered it about a month before Boivin did, when I make an Internet mistake I sometimes make – I scrolled down into the comments section. Unsurprisingly, an argument had broken out. An argument… about game canon!
You see, the rap references the year 2010 as the one in which Mega Man lives. Of course, any true fan knows that the Mega Man series doesn’t take place during any specific year, other than the vague and nebulous “200X” (and sometimes 20XX). How could Duane and Brando commit such a heinous crime? And don’t they know that Mega Man’s robot dog Rush wasn’t introduced until the third game in the series?! I mean, come on, right?
So why do we care? Every nerd on the Internet who has ever argued about the Legend of Zelda timeline knows somewhere deep down within him or herself that it doesn’t really matter, that the point of many of these games we play is not in the loose narrative but in the way the game plays and the way it feels to play it. Why, then, do people dedicate so much time to filling in the massive blanks in these games’ internal logic?
See, the thing is, some of these game narratives are scanty, but they have potential. Let’s keep Mega Man as our example – over the course of its more than twenty years, the series has continued to mutate and change in a way that few fictional universes have the opportunity to do. You have the original series, and then the Mega Man X series which takes place some hundred years afterward, and each subsequent permutation takes place about a hundred years after the last. You could do some genuinely cool things here, and sometimes the games grasp at the most basic elements, especially between the original Mega Man games and the X series. Elements in later Mega Man games occasionally foreshadow events in the X series, and the X series will sometimes allude to villains and events in the original series.
This is all well and good and all, but the way these games handle their vague links is unsatisfying at best and gratuitous at worst – these links exist, yes, but they’re not taken advantage of. To date, there is no solid link forged between any of them – these convenient hundred-year gaps in their narratives are done specifically to separate the games, not to bring them together into one narrative. The time jumps are mostly pushed by gameplay, not by the urge to forward the plot. After all, you’d effectively kill the original Mega Man series if, in one game, you joined its storyline and the storyline of the first X games - the recent success of Mega Man 9 tells us that we definitely don’t want to shut the door in the face of an actively mooing cash cow.
Of course, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Mega Man. People will forever argue about the chronological order of the aforementioned Legend of Zelda series even though it doesn’t matter even a little bit that A Link to the Past takes place before the original game. The timeline of the Castlevania series is similarly debated. People seem interested in the Resident Evil narrative, though in my experience it is a wonder when its characters string a goddamn sentence together. People wonder if the gravity is consistent from Mario game to Mario game. Why? We all know it doesn’t matter a lick, right?
Well, obviously, there’s some need that the gaming community has that developers have so far been horrible at addressing – the need for narrative. At the heart of every one of these nerd arguments is the hope that the game’s creators have some Grand Vision for it all, that Keiji Inafune had the Blue Bomber’s entire story planned out in 1987 when he started work on the first game. Many gamers have a desire for the intricate, more fleshed out stories that they sometimes see in their fan fictions.
There are still lots of problems with game narrative, chief among them the problem of integrating story with a gameplay in a way that is not jarring the way that in-game cutscenes manage to be. However, even on the forums and comment sections of our online community, there’s obviously a desire for something more. Games have the power to be the next big storytelling medium – let’s home someone figures out how to harness that power, and soon.