In 1989, the owner of Titan Sports, Inc., admitted that professional wrestling was staged. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except for the fact that the owner of Titan Sports, Inc. was named Vince McMahon and that his company was better known as the World Wrestling Federation, or the WWF. At the time, the WWF was arguably the biggest it would ever be. McMahon had built it from a loose conglomeration of regional competitions into something resembling a nationwide league. Millions of people watched Wrestlemania every year. The steroid scandal of the early 90s hadn’t reared its head yet, Hulk Hogan was a household name, and the USA was in the brief period when people with disposable income unironically wore mullets.
McMahon didn’t reveal the secret of professional wrestling because it was the honorable thing to do, or because he wanted to prevent young fans from emulating the stunts of their WWF heroes. No, he did it because he wanted to make a little bit more money. New Jersey, the site of Wrestlemania IV and V, taxed the broadcast and exhibition of sporting competitions. McMahon was willing to swear that there was nothing competitive about professional wrestling to get around the tax. It didn’t work (you can read a court decision discussing these matters, and more, here) meaning that the WWF stayed clear of New Jersey until the tax was lifted in 1997. When they came back, they were absolutely puzzled that they still couldn’t pump their own gas.
Of course, the fact that professional wrestling was not a sport was not a complete revelation. In 1957, Roland Barthes wrote of the spectacle of professional wrestling. He noted how the rules, the costumes, and even the very physiques of wrestlers were just a series of signs, pitted against one another in a performance that was far more drama than sport. But, let’s face it, the typical WWF fan in 1989 didn’t read Barthes, and at the time the shows were almost plausible enough that they could be real. This was pre-Undertaker, folks, and while the storylines were obviously scripted perhaps–just perhaps–the matches were not.
I won’t talk too much about professional wrestling itself, if only because Barthes did it a whole lot better 60+ years ago and nothing has really changed. Check out The World of Wrestling, which I am only linking here because I assume that if MIT put it online then it’s probably okay to read without buying a copy of Mythologies. Go check it out. The important point I wanted to make was that, as early as 1989, the WWF was officially fake. There were no pretensions to reality, except to the kids I went to grade school with but I suppose they can be forgiven for being unaware of New Jersey Tax Court filings.
The real subject this week is the WWF: No Mercy for the N64. No Mercy was the sequel to the previous THQ WWF joint, Wrestlemania 2000, released in 1999 because everyone was going by Madden years at that point. THQ, via developer AKI, had previously worked on games for the WCW/nWo wrestling license. Many people consider No Mercy the last truly great professional wrestling game, as THQ afterward moved primary development from AKI to Yuke’s, who worked on the contemporaneously released Playstation wrestling titles. God help me, I also played a bit of a recent Yuke’s title, WWE ’13, and it seems perfectly acceptable, if a bit workmanlike, but some people stand by the AKI N64 titles. AKI continued to ply their trade, though, and went on to develop the Def Jam: Fight for New York, a fighting game featuring Snoop Dogg and Ludacris, so I think the world won out in the end.
What’s most interesting about WWF: No Mercy, and honestly all WWF/WWE games as a whole, is their utter, slavish devotion to kayfabe. Kayfabe, for those who are unaware, is the official, unofficial term used to refer to the illusion of professional wrestling as reality. Kayfabe is the believe that the rivalries are real, the matches are not pre-determined, and everything that that happens in the ring is a true, competitive sporting event. In WWF: No Mercy there is no acknowledgment of what people have known since 1989 (and before), which is that wrestling is a staged performance that is more about telling a story than athletic competition. WWF: No Mercy presents wrestling as nothing other than any other sport. It features a campaign not terribly different from Pete Sampras Tennis, pitting the player’s chosen wrestler against a series of opponents in a quest for a championship.
The player controls only the performer, and wrestles only against other performers. The AI similarly does not act as an actual WWF wrestler, working off a script and struggling to portray an inevitable victory or defeat as the result of a competitive match. In the WWF and WWE video games, the wrestlers do face off in a competitive match. Either side can win or lose. There is no script, no bible… Not even Faces or Heels. The player can inhabit any wrestler, whether good or evil, and bring them victory. The player can even create wrestlers to challenge the existing WWF superstars.
The closest that WWF: No Mercy comes to an awareness of wrestling’s true nature is the bizarre Guest Referee mode, in which the player takes control of a wrestler who, for some reason, has been given the job of referee. In this mode, the player can observe and referee a match, calling both submissions and disqualifications for remaining outside of the ring during a match. The goal appears to be to arrange a situation in which both wrestlers lose simultaneously, giving the referee the win. Of course, your ref can play dirty, smacking the two wrestlers around to create this situation. At least in this single mode, the game acknowledges that the matches are not controlled by the skills of the participants, though it chooses to do so in a roundabout fashion.
Why is this? Throughout almost the entire history of WWF/WWE video games, none has portrayed professional wrestling for what it really is. Yukes’ later Smackdown v. Raw and WWE games on the current console generation come close, allowing players to script out story lines in a (rather impressive) comprehensive mode that includes scripted cutscenes and dialog. However, the matches are still won and lost by the skill of the player. And the WWE Universe mode, implemented in recent versions of the game, buys into kayfabe to the point where roughing up an opponent during a match can lead to legitimate, non-accidental injury. In the real WWE, both wrestlers are doing everything they can to prevent injury, which given the stunts they are performing is the real, impressive measure of their athletic talent.
It’s not necessarily easy to imagine how a game would successfully break kayfabe, acknowledge that matches are staged, and incorporate this into gameplay. But it’s also not impossible. Losing a match as a professional wrestler takes as much–if not more–skill than winning a match. Selling a loss isn’t easy. The player would still be required to wrestle “better” than her opponent to a certain point in the match, but also take enough hits to make a throwing the match at the last second believable. Prior to 2010, wrestling games could have incorporated the application of fake blood as a gameplay mechanic. There could be storyline penalties for no-selling a loss and winning anyway. Hell, losses could be forced on the player in a dusty finish. The goal might be to win a championship, but it also might rather be to get over on the fans, and earn their adoration or hatred as a face or heel. It would be more interesting gameplay than what WWF: No Mercy has to offer in the ring, which is really just a slow, grapple heavy fighting game, and especially more interesting than Yukes’ system. So Why Not?
In The World of Wrestling, Barthes describes a professional wrestling match as a display that “takes up the ancient myths of Suffering and Humiliation”. The act of one man putting another in a hold, immobilizing him while his face contorts in agony, symbolizes an agony that goes beyond defeat. It represents torture and submission in a way that no touchdown, homerun, or even bloody hockey fight can convey. There is duration and struggle to these moments, and they are used to multiple effects. These moments of submission can be a great injustice, like when a heel breaks the rules and catches his opponent off guard with a well-placed folding chair. But they can also signify redemption when the heel gets what’s coming to him in the end.
When professional wrestling is treated as a voyeuristic morality play, the idea of putting the player in the position of the actor suddenly becomes problematic. No one wants to suffer, but suffering is part of life. Whether it’s a hard day at work, or breaking up with a girlfriend, or being pinned to a soft mat in front of thousands of people by a man covered in gold paint, everyone accepts that they have to deal with a little pain. But there’s nothing worse than faking pain. Getting hurt is bad, but it happens. Accepting that you are hurt is worse, but it is just an acknowledgment of an obstacle to overcome. Pretending to be hurt, though, is inexcusable. And, for the most part, professional wrestling is built on the backs of men who pretended to be hurt.
Losing a fixed fight isn’t the most awful part, though. The real reason that a wrestling game will never subvert kayfabe and present the sport accurately is that no one wants to win a fixed fight. Throwing a match realistically is an interesting gameplay idea, and fixed fights resulting in losses are a storyline staple of RPGs. But players simply would not accept, under any circumstances, a game in which the victories were staged. No one wants to believe that the hard work put in to achieving success was in any way pre-determined by a larger, powerful system that they will never have control over. Wrestling video games are ultimately built on the same deception as the myth of the American dream.
More than that, victory in professional wrestling is supposed to be an act of justice. The heel is brought before the crowd and humiliated. Eventually, the face always wins (or the heel becomes a face, but that’s a whole different recipe that the Rock is cooking). A video game that forces the player to actively participate in the forgery of righteousness hits too close to home for the intended audience. It would serve as a reminder that retribution is often more symbolic than meaningful. Whether it is the trial of a murderer, the bombing of a country that used chemical weapons, or a cringe-inducing hold that leaves the Iron Sheik pretending to be crippled, violence does not create justice. We like to believe that it does, but at best an act of violence is a deterrent and at worst it is an accelerant towards greater strife.
These acts of violence are inflicted upon a target, but they are directed at the audience who watches from afar. And that audience–the people who play games like WWF: No Mercy–are not interested in participating in the kabuki. They want to watch. They want to believe that it’s real, or at least that it means something. That is why they cannot be allowed to participate. As soon as you let them participate–as soon as you let people in on the portrayal of the act and make them the perpetrators of fake or meaningless violence–they are turned off by the idea. No one would buy that video game. No one bought Spec Ops: The Line, after all.
Simply, a WWE game that broke kayfabe would be too subversive. It would reveal too much about why we inflict violence and perceive victory . And that’s why it needs to be made.