Wrestling Video Games, Where Performance is Power, and Fiction is Reality

Though I don’t mention it often, over the past year or so I’ve become a fan and regular viewer of Video Game Championship Wrestling, a weekly show streamed on Twitch that uses characters from video games and has them play out both matches and stories similar to an actual WWE show, with free pay-per-views (an oxymoron yes) that cap off each arc. During this time, I’ve come to realize how interesting the concept of pro wrestling video games are.

Whenever a video game is based on a “real world” activity, be it shooting people, playing basketball, or building TCG decks, the games are designed to simulate some activity where the intention is to win or lose. With pro wrestling, however, the point isn’t to overpower the opponent but to put on a show, and to merely mimic the idea that these two wrestlers are really going at it. This is what’s known to wrestling fans as “kayfabe,” or supporting the illusion that everything happening in wrestling is 100% real, and to go off-script or to break that illusion is a “shoot.” In that sense, a wrestling video game is akin to a video game about Shakespeare, where you would have to perform plays in front of an audience and receive their applause.

The gameplay mechanics that go into these wrestling games are a reflection of this performative quality, especially as time has passed and things have gotten more sophisticated. In the “drama” of wrestling, matches go back and forth, wrestlers have “signature moves” that tell you when they have the momentum, and they have “finishers” that generally net them the win should they land. If you look at a bad old wrestling video game, like Wrestlemania for the NES, it fails to follow “wrestling logic.” You punch and kick and never use holds, while occasionally a power-up symbol floats by and makes you stronger. Very few of the wrestlers can even perform their unique finishers, and overall there was clearly little effort expended to make it “feel” like wrestling beyond slapping some popular faces on and making the background a wrestling ring. In contrast, more successful games of the era such as Tecmo World Wrestling do a much better job of replicating the idea of a wrestling match, by doing something as simple as giving the characters unique finishers and having dramatic cut-ins when used on worn-down opponents.

In the case of WWE 2K14 (which VGCW utilizes for its show), there are actual built-in “drama” mechanics such as the fact that a wrestler can make a “comeback” that replicates digging deep when the chips are down.  You have signature moves that can build up into finishers. All of the attacks are things that have happened in the history of the WWE (or at least in some sort of televised wrestling). While there is obviously a wide chasm of difference in terms of technological and graphical power between an old NES game and a PS3 game, what’s more important is that the latter is practically a game whose display is fundamentally based on “storytelling” rather than “competition.”

While this could be extended to, say, fighting games (which take a lot of cues from martial arts films and anime), with the wrestling game there’s a greater sense of mixing up what is real and what is fake because of the origin of the wrestling itself. As with so many things that dramatize combat, certain techniques would never work or would be too impractical in a realistic setting In the game world, but the wrestling video games take it a step further because supporting and maintaining kayfabe is in a way the key to victory. To win is to play along with the rules of wrestling as performance, and to do otherwise is perhaps in its own way a form of shoot.

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One thought on “Wrestling Video Games, Where Performance is Power, and Fiction is Reality

  1. I only partially agree. I think a deficiency of pro wrestling video games that will forever exist is the fact that they are in fact trying to make a legitimate competition out of something which is not. With all other sports games, the goal is to always continue to progressively approximate reality. But with the exception of maybe one specific mode in a few entries of the Fire Pro Wrestling series of games, players are not rewarded for “putting on an entertaining performance” in wrestling games.

    In nearly every pro wrestling game, you’re out to actually win the match the exact same way you would be if you were playing a UFC game. Professional wrestling is “real”: who executes a move when is dependent on fighting game concepts such as timing and priority. You don’t reverse out of a move or escape a hold because your opponent allows it; you must accurately input the proper counter. If you create a character, max out their stats, and give them only an arsenal of utterly devastating moves (aka the Super Dragon method) there is no penalty for using that character and having every match be where you one-sidedly devastate every opponent for a very long time. In actual pro wrestling, that sort of thing is only effective when you see it very sparingly (typically, a one-sided victory is kept short).

    The Fire Pro games–which were more “simulation” than “sports”–had a mode where your character’s success was based not on pure win/loss record, but on viewership ratings, crowd attendance etc. What drove these things were criteria that you never, ever see in the “WWE 2K” games. Allowing your opponent to hit their signature maneuvers on you. Not repeating the same move or combo over and over again. Having the match fall within a certain time allotment (this one’s of critical importance to actual WWE matches, yet it’s never in the games). Performing taunts. Bleeding. And so on. You’d still be encouraged to win the match, but you’d actually need to be in real danger of losing. This resulted in far more accurate gameplay to modern professional wrestling–your videogame John Cena match would actually require you to “overcome the odds” like the actual ones–but implementation in game mechanics is effectively the “breaking kayfabe” you speak of.

    Like

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