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Beyond The Mat: How To Fix Wrestling Games

Beyond the Tat, More Like

2K have finally released all of the DLC for WWE 2K15. Why do I care, you might be wondering, given that I gave the game a bit of a kicking in my review. Primarily, I care because I am too stubborn to stop playing, even though I can't possibly recommend the game to anyone else. I love wrestling and even though 2K15 doesn't do most of the interesting things that a wrestling game COULD do, I'm having fun poking around in the Universe mode, pretending to be a booker, organising almighty feuds and pushing my favourite characters to the stars.

Once again, I've been thinking about why I want to see wrestling translated into game form successfully. Even if you don't know WCW from ECW or Goldust from Goldberg, you might be entertained and, hey, maybe you'll realise there's something behind all of the babyoil and biceps.

I was watching the Elimination Chamber event last night. If you don't follow wrestling, or the WWE in particular, that might sound like a particularly horrible killing floor, or like something out of one of the Saw films. In reality it's one of the daftest match concepts in the almost entirely daft world of professional wrestling.

Wikipedia explains how it all works:

“It features a large chain-linked circular steel structure or "chamber" which encloses the ring. The chamber's floor is platformed over the ringside area which elevates it to ring level and within the chamber are four inner enclosures outside each ring corner. While similar in profile and nature to WWE's original large scale steel-structured match, Hell in a Cell, the Elimination Chamber match is strictly a six participant match wherein two participants begin the bout in the ring as the remaining four are held within each inner enclosure and are released into the match at five minute intervals. The objective is to eliminate each opponent from the match via pinfall or submission.“

The “inner enclosures” are called “pods”. Large men, trapped in pods, waiting to be released into a cage so that they can suplex one another into oblivion. This year's event, which took place on May 31st, revived the concept, which seemed to have been dropped due to what the WWE reckoned was a shortage of venues that could handle the mighty power of the chamber. That may be true but keep in mind that this is the same company that claims the steps that lead to the ring are made of a material so dense that it must be forged in the heart of a blackhole.

That's because they want you to wince when a large man lobs them at someone.

Watching a wrestling match, you're supposed to believe (or at least pretend that you believe) that the entire event isn't scripted. In fairness, that's probably true. Even the most carefully choreographed match involves a great deal of improvisation and communication between participants (referee included) once the action begins. Spots (moves or chained sequences of moves) will be planned in advance but the structure has to be flexible, to account for unexpected physical twinges or injuries, poor placement and countless other minor elements that can throw off a plan, often by making it unsafe.

Essentially, wrestling is rehearsed but it is still physical performance, with all the unpredictability, mistakes and unexpected brilliance that you might expect when human beings put their bodies on the line in an attempt to entertain. The script might build up to the moment the mic drops and the fists start to fly, but then there are a couple of blank pages with loose notes before the ending, which almost always plays out exactly as planned.

A good wrestling game should be about those blank pages, which WWE 2K15 is, but it should also be about the script around them and the notes that guide the action.

A strange thing happened at last week's Elimination Chamber. During what ranks as one of the top five matches I've ever seen, the crowd acted like they were at a wake. To be fair, I'd have been pissed off it was my wake because they were chanting and occasionally applauding, but they should have been blowing the roof off with sheer unbridled joy.

Perhaps someone had left the sensitivity controls on their mic all wrong or perhaps John Cena was communicating more clearly and slightly louder than usual because he was in the ring with a man he's never fought live before, but I found myself mesmerised by the sound of him calling spots before they happened. The match took on a completely different flow as rest holds and even occasional meetings in the middle of the ring at pace became obvious meeting points for the exchange of information and ideas. Recognising the speed with which the two men were directing their own performance made the match even more impressive.

And so we come back to games. I want to be the guy calling those spots in the ring, or having an opponent mutter them to me as I hold him down in an armbar. A career mode in which you're told how the match is going to go (win/lose/disqualification) and left to figure out an entertaining routine with the other competitors.

There could be certain spots you have to include, from tables and ladders to a brand new finisher that you need to sell to the fans. There could be occasions when you're in the ring with someone you don't entirely trust and you'll have to make tough choices on the fly – do you override some of the wilder suggestions coming your way or do you go with them and risk screwing up the flow or, worse, injuring yourself or somebody else.

All of this goes back to the proposition in the opening paragraphs of my WWE 2K15 review – I want a wrestling game that is about being a wrestler rather than the pretend version of a wrestler who is actually involved in real fights. There is so much drama packed in a career that involves negotiating backstage relationships as well as fan support, while also attempting to build a technical repertoire and character skills. Instead, we have a very basic beat 'em up with occasional scripted story sequences.

Our recent article about a fantasy football league with actual fantasy (and sci-fi) characters reminded me of VGCW, an entire wrestling franchise that operates through an old version of the WWE game. The character creation suite allows for fairly accurate recreations of characters from all manner of games and it's the only place you can see Phoenix Wright beating up on Mario. It's fun and many of you would probably enjoy it.

There are alternate wrestling games as well. Grey Dog Software's text sims cover wrestling in two formats – a single wrestler career mode or a promoter simulation that plays out as a management game. I love the idea but have always struggled to care about the fictional world presented. There are mods to bring in real world companies and their personnel but I've never pushed past the interface hard enough to really get involved.

Finally, there's Mdickie. If you've never heard of the developer of Jesus Christ simulation The You Testament and many fine wrestling games, you're in for a treat. Mdickie's games are among the strangest, jankiest and yet most compelling I've ever played. In the chaotic simulation of his worlds (everything on-screen seems to be interactive and the AI blunders around using all of it), wrestling is a perfect fit. There are hair vs hair matches, flaming table matches...I've seen characters pick up guns and shoot at one another in the middle of a tag team competition.

The WWE, when it was still the WWF, used to brag that “anything can happen” while two men in tights lumbered around a ring while the crowd waited for SOMETHING to happen. In Mdickie's games, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink attitude and wonkiness of the engines becomes a source of delight, as even the strangest events can be made to fit into wrestling storylines.

After all, whatever Mdickie's games might accidentally simulate, it won't be as weird, wonderful or downright terrible as half of the ideas that sprang fully formed from Vince Russo's mind. For that, we should be entirely grateful.

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