Why Are There No Good Professional Wrasslin’ Games?

Let’s talk about professional wrestling!

For whatever reason, I found myself totally into pro-wrestling circa April 1998. Not the World Wrestling Federation, mind you, but World Championship Wrestling. Say what you will about this promotion and how it was run, but as a complete newcomer I was, to say the least, impressed.All these crazy people beating each other up, and this somehow fell within the rules of legality AND broadcast television. Somehow, I didn’t realize that the entire enterprise existed to entertain – and hey, it worked!

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Most people don’t really get professional wrestling – it certainly isn’t about the wrestling, because the “wrestling” exists to supplement a continuing story line. Think of it like a long-running serialized television series, with its own cast of characters, alliances, heroes, villains, and the like; it was hard to tell whether any of this absurdity was, in fact, for real, or whether there was something fake about it. It sure doesn’t look fake when a guy gets hit in the head with a chair! Over time, fans become invested in this world of characters, interweaving storytelling, and long-running narratives about guys and gals who work at a wrestling company and get into all sorts of heated feuds and hijinks behind-the-scenes. And all of this gets played completely straight! That suspension of disbelief remains a necessary part of how wrestling does work, and you only need to see a good match to see how that, too, becomes its own form of performance art that exemplifies the climax of a feud without saying a single word.

The reason for its explosion in popularity, both in the mid 1980s and the late 1990s (especially WWF’s Attitude Era), it derived from both the shock factor, the twists and turns, and the general ability to resonate with the characters. The best wrestlers aren’t created out of whole cloth; they exist as slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, and over a long period of time you see them grow into their roles. Fans get invested in the long term with, say, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin precisely because he does what any blue-collar wants to do to an unkind boss – flip him the bird and beat him up (STONE COLD STUNNER)! Hulk Hogan worked in the 1980s because he seemed like a super hero in real life, a gargantuan 6’8”, 300 pound blonde-haired hero who always beat the bad guys, no matter the odds. That made his heel (read: villain) turn in 1996 all the more shocking and devastating to the wrestling audience after years of investment in the ongoing tale of Hogan.

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It’s especially weird since I never saw the good guy Hogan when I watched it.

I guess what brought this to mind is that, from my perspective, no professional wrestling video game could possibly replicate the vicarious experience of seeing your favorite wrestler win the title (whichever it may be), or finding them utterly defeated at the hands of the guy you hate the most in the company. It lacks the ability to let the player tell their own stories, instead only provided a rudimentary fighting game with all sorts of useless, time-consuming ancillary features.

Sure, I like WCW/NWO Revenge and most games like it; I like all the Aki wrestling games, based purely as a game. The Yuke’s ones are a bit more iffy, with their yearly iteration not bringing much new to the table for full retail price, but I suppose that comes with the territory of branding yourself as a serious sport (kind of). Holding the grapple button to obtain more damaging moves works in practice, and you can functionally perform any of the moves you want. You can set up a dream match between some guys who will probably never fight in a wrestling ring (Sting vs. The Undertaker comes to mind…). You can create your own wrestler who can look like a total monstrosity, or insert yourself into a career mode where things happen. But, quite honestly, none of these features, among the dozens and dozens that I didn’t list, really capture wrestling by replicating the experience of watching it.

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Lots of watching colored bars pulse and waiting for people to get back up. Hurray!

And I get it: making something like professional wrestling into a video game can really only capture the most perfunctory elements of wrestling – i.e., the wrestling. But even then, it’s hard to recreate the pacing, the tension, and the excitement of a real-life pro-wrestling match. In a video game, you’re angling to win, and that translates to wrestling games also being about winning. Thing is, translating a scripted television show into a video game proves difficult, especially if the developers aren’t trying to recreate that experience at all.

I suppose it’s telling that I haven’t found one of these games enjoyable in a very long time. They just fail to translate a real-life experience into a video game, and with the possibility space of video games that’s really a shame. There’s so much potential to make some sort of narrative-based, crazy improvised rhythm game with online play where people can choose to with, or against, the booking of the company and face the consequences as a result. Probably this all comes down to the WWE not wanting to break kayfabe (read: the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true,” specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or per-determined nature of any kind), but it really hurts the chances that a fundamentally great game will be made in this format. And that’s really a shame, because I think professional wrestling could make for a great video game!

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other things that fall flat when transitioned from one medium to another – they just don’t get the heart and soul of the thing, and miss the true prize as a result. When it comes to video games, sometimes money and “ease of design” trumps what could be something truly spectacular – that goes as much for real life as it does video games, I’d say. Laziness, and listening to people who clearly don’t have your best interests in mind, can lead us down some perfunctory paths, somewhere God does not want us to be.

You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.

Galatians 5

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.