Oliver Lee Bateman laments the inability of game developers to produce a video game that captures the unique charms of professional wrestling.
I was excited when my review copy of the latest installment of THQ’s WWE series arrived. I hadn’t played a wrestling game on a console with any regularity since 1997, when WCW vs. nWo: World Tour combined with Final Fantasy VII to consume the majority of my free time during junior year of high school.1 Since then, dozens more wrestling games have come out, most developed by THQ and roughly corresponding to whatever “season” the WWE was on, á la EA’s various pro sports series.
I loaded up WWE ‘13 and selected the “story mode” that allows the player to relive the WWE’s ludicrous Attitude Era, a nadir in wrestling creativity that has recently begun to be rehabilitated as the preteens of that era have reached adulthood. Would this “story mode” allow me to impregnate Mae Young with a plastic glove, as powerlifter Mark Henry had done? Would I have to push the square button as fast as I could to avoid having to plant a smooch on Vince McMahon’s bare bottom?
No, there was to be nothing so fun as that. The game’s “story mode” opens with the founding of the heel stable Degeneration X, a creative decision that enabled Hunter Hearst Helmsley to go from career midcarder to Vince’s son-in-law and heir apparent. But you’re not involved in the backstage machinations that led to this; instead, you’re put in the role of Shawn Michaels and forced to immediately fight Mankind. I skipped the far-too-long entrance sequences2 and got right into the match, which IRL had turned on outside interference from HHH that enabled the Heartbreak Kid to win the day. What followed was a sloppy and exceedingly silly engagement. I moved my character forward and had him throw a punch. Mankind appeared to be staggered by the blow. Michaels threw several more punches, knocking him through the ropes and onto the floor. The commentary somehow managed to repeat itself despite my being a mere :40 into the match. The only offensive attack so far had been a punch. Not a low punch or a high punch, just a punch.
Mankind reentered the ring while I struggled to figure out how to exit it. As I fiddled around with the controls, he grappled my character and then bodyslammed him. I jabbed at the buttons and got HBK back to his feet, whereupon he was bounced off the ropes and into a clothesline. He rose after some more furious button-pushing, then got body-slammed again. All this in under 1:30! Mankind was a legendary worker, but he wasn’t an especially fast one, so this pace didn’t make any sense. Although the graphics were superior to those of WCW vs. nWo: World Tour, the underlying gameplay was the same. Grapple, slam, grapple, slam. After another :60 of these moves, I lost the match by pinfall.
Determined not to repeat my mistakes, I studied the controls and then restarted the “story mode.” This time, HBK walked right at Mankind (your character can’t run or even move as fast as the characters in UFC Undisputed can, it seems), grappled him, and hit a neckbreaker. While he was on the ground, I had Michaels give him a few stomps. When he rolled to his feet, I grappled him again. From there, it was bodyslam, bodyslam, bodyslam. At one point he successfully grappled HBK, but I pushed the “reverse” button at the precise moment3 and escaped the hold. Then came another series of cheap, easy moves. Although I didn’t have a life bar to follow, it appeared that Mankind was approaching the end of the line. Toward the close of the match, HHH came to ringside, perhaps to interfere in the bout if Mankind was thrown outside. But I didn’t bother with that: I bodyslammed him a few more times, applied the superkick by pressing triangle on the controller at the appropriate time, and avenged my earlier loss.
Following my bodyslam-fueled victory, I quit the game, opened the PlayStation’s disc tray, and placed the WWE ‘13 disc back into its box. I felt dirty, used, taken for a ride. What had I just done? I couldn’t bear to give a product like this another ten minutes of my life. Better games—Starcraft 2, Skyrim, Super Smash Brothers Brawl—were out there demanding to be played. In a certain sense, this is a golden age for gaming: the great games are extremely well conceived and almost infinitely replayable. Yet there is also more glossy, polished trash on the market than ever before, and I had just encountered some of it. THQ meant well, I suppose, and people who have followed this series4 will doubtless enjoy the latest offering. Considered apart from issues of brand loyalty, however, WWE ‘13 is not a good game.
The problem is this: THQ doesn’t know how to make a video game about wrestling. That’s not surprising, given that most people, including the people at THQ, don’t really understand what wrestling is all about. Some serious commentary about the sport has begun to appear, but wrestling has never successfully transcended its disreputable origins. Although it’s a billion-dollar industry5, its employees, marginalized by the larger culture, still cling to the carny mentality of yore. Pro wrestling, then, remains little beyond trashy prime-time filler, and even its “smarks” probably wouldn’t accept a game that placed backstage developments at the forefront, regardless of how integral they are to it.
That was, however, the premise of Adam Ryland’s Extreme Warfare text sims, and I suppose he has cornered the market6 on games that put you in the booker’s position. Nonetheless, if the THQ crew could take their considerable skill at fashioning “uncanny valley” likenesses of pro wrestlers and apply that toward creating a sandbox world for the player’s Paul Heyman/Vince Russo/Ole Anderson/Dusty Rhodes booker character to inhabit, I can’t even conceive of how good the resulting game would be. Imagine roaming freely around whatever arena your show is taking place at, talking with wrestlers, ironing out grievances, helping set up matches, and perhaps even interfering in them. You could start by working in a tiny regional promotion and wind up in the WWE. Or, in a historical mode, you could take charge of a federation like Georgia Championship Wrestling during the late territorial era and attempt to survive WWF’s takeover attempt. In a game like this, you would be empowered to do almost anything that one could conceive of a wrestling promoter doing7, and in an intuitive, visually appealing way that Ryland, owing to budgetary limitations, hasn’t yet produced.
This won’t ever happen, of course8, but isn’t it pretty to think that it could?
- I’m not sure if there was a way to become “good” at WCW vs. nWo, although my cousin Charlie became proficient at staging somewhat realistic-looking wrestling matches with it. I, on the other hand, became proficient at chaining together 15-20 Scott Norton (yeah, everyone’s favorite arm wrestling champion was in there) powerbombs to win a cheap and easy victory. You’d strong-grapple the guy, quickly do the controller movement for the powerbomb, hurl the guy to the ground, pick him up, strong-grapple him while he was dazed, and then do it again. If he somehow managed to break the sequence, you’d wait a few minutes, run through some regular grapples, and then do it again. However, even a properly-staged wrestling match in this game was quite absurd; after all, how many hurricaranas-in-seriatim could one expect to see in a match? How could a man’s back withstand the force of 15-20 powerbombs? And, most importantly, in an activity where winning and losing was predetermined by the booker, why should the virtual matches be framed as a contest of fighting skill at all?
- Why are sports video games so laden with this filler? How many programmers work exclusively on designing lavish sequences that are nearly always fast-forwarded or skipped? Surely no one lingers on these scenes: after watching the opening to a new game in Madden or EA’s companion NCAA Football series, I can’t imagine that even the most lethargic among us would sit blithely through it again. The exceptions to this rule are FIFAs 2012 and 2013, which feature blissfully short introductions leading to enjoyable gameplay, and NBA 2k13, where the Jay-Z-overseen soundtrack embeds itself in one’s brainpan, thus making the pregame music videos almost impossible to ignore.
- What was being tested by this particular “reverse” function, I wondered? WWE ‘13 was the first game I had played in a very long time where everything that I was being asked to do seemed utterly pointless. This came as a shock, given that THQ’s UFC Undisputed 3, although a bit complicated at points (your “blue worm” chases your opponent’s “red worm” when you’re applying a grapple!), was nevertheless a faithful simulation of that sport. Therein lies the problem: UFC supplanted pro wrestling as the nation’s most colorful fighting sport, and, as has been noted elsewhere, its bloody reality made the lurid fantasy inherent in pro wrestling seem silly and shallow by comparison.
- Can such things be? Is there anyone among us who has played every single WWE game?
- Albeit one in which the near-monopsonist McMahon’s huge profit margins hinge on the fact that his actor-stuntmen are not unionized and deprived of access to employer-provider health care.
- This game, or least the versions that I played up to the ‘08 ediition, is every bit as good as the much better-known Out of the Park Baseball simulator. However, I’m quite certain that Extreme Warfare’s subject matter, which has far more limited appeal, has in turned limited its sales. There are other issues with the game, though: it takes a maddeningly long time to move your federation forward in time, and match staging entails a significant amount of point-and-click micromanagement.
- Lest one might argue that this would be impossible to make, a game along these lines would be far more “bounded” than Skyrim or LA Noir. The arena is a finite space, and the activities that could be undertaken there would be limited in number. You wouldn’t, for example, be able to just run around shooting people, although you would find yourself dealing with sex scandals, drug scandals, and backstage conflicts among your wrestlers.
- No self-respecting game development company would put millions of dollars toward the creation of a game that would interest only Dave Meltzer, the Masked Man, and a handful of late 90s e-wrestling veterans. That means we’ll have to content ourselves by continuing to combine Fire Pro Wrestling Returns with Extreme Warfare—a clunky and inelegant solution, but a solution nonetheless.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Penny & Farthing.