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Breaking kayfabe: How WWE video games are impacted by the 'Reality Era'


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Let's start with a concession: there is a large swath of readers who are hesitant to discuss professional wrestling with any sort of seriousness. It's viewed as a low art form by some, and many others would balk at even considering it art. But even those readers can concede that professional wrestling is a popular form of entertainment.

There are very few people, perhaps other than young children, who believe that professional wrestling is real in the way that a boxing match or MMA fight is real. That's not, however, to say that professional wrestling is 'fake,' as some of its detractors deride. The proper term would be 'scripted,' because when a person falls off a 12-foot ladder, it's going to hurt. That pain is real, regardless of whether or not it was pre-determined.

Gallery: WWE 2K15 (MyCareer) | 5 Photos

Many die-hard fans knew, decades ago, that wrestling was scripted. It was known amongst inside circles as 'kayfabe' – the portrayal of scripted events and rivalries as real. It wasn't until the 1980s, however, that Vince McMahon and the WWE (then known as the WWF) began admitting, on record, that the matches were 'sports entertainment.' It accomplished two objectives. It broadened the narrative scope to allow for more outlandish characters (like the Undertaker, a old Western mortician and zombie) and stories, allowing the WWE to circumvent the rules and regulations imposed upon competitive sports.

Still, these admissions of 'scripted storylines' were kept in press statements and corporate memos – the product still sold itself as real, even if everyone was admitting, off the air, that it was not.

In just the past three years something changed. Take "Total Divas," for instance: a WWE reality show starring the Divas (the corporate branding of female professional wrestlers in the WWE), following the pros and documenting friendships, parental conflicts, and love lives. This is an unprecedented, on-camera surrender of kayfabe. By depicting top wrestlers out of character, with intricate relationships and problems apart from the storyline, the WWE contrasts the 'reality' of backstage with the 'fantasy' of the ring.

This is the weird, post-modern reality of WWE's current 'Reality Era' – an attempt to blur the line between backstage and onstage. Fans are too savvy at this point to accept gimmicks – or outlandish characters – as real, legitimate contenders. In the 'Reality Era,' most new wrestlers appear under their own names, fighting as hyperbolized versions of themselves. Wrestlers engage in social media, mixing their private lives with their onstage personas. And the blur between reality and the ring has bled onto broadcasts, as speeches and monologues – known as 'shoot' promos – reference real events alongside fake rivalries.

The WWE's new, creative approach has extended to its video games as well. In a little over a decade, the games' single player modes have changed dramatically – from identifying the player as a wrestling character, to identifying the player as a wrestling performer.

At one time, the WWE video games' single-player campaigns were dramatic, fictional narratives, with highs, lows, and betrayals. Wrestlemania XIX, released as a GameCube-exclusive in 2003, was a prime example of these fiction-driven storylines. The single-player campaign was a 'Revenge Mode,' which had your wrestler get even with the WWE by destroying a building, wrecking corporate vehicles, and ultimately facing off against Vince McMahon himself at Wrestlemania. In the process, you killed multiple security guards and construction workers with your wrestling moves. This was the WWE at its most self-serious – a dramatic, if overwrought story, with no winks or references to backstage choreography.

Four years later, WWE video games were still focused on these fictional storylines. Now, however, there were some subtle nods to backstage planning. In the game Smackdown vs. Raw 2007, for example, you had a locker room 'hub,' where you upgraded a wrestler, accepted challenges, and checked your voice messages – your General Manager sent you fight offers, and your rivals sent you nasty, threatening voicemails. This was a strange, blurring compromise – acknowledging that there was a backstage with bookers, even if that backstage was a strictly kayfabe one.

These pre-conceived plotlines, which blended backstage and onstage, continued in the game Smackdown vs. Raw 2009, which followed seven individual wrestlers – John Cena, Triple H, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, C.M. Punk, Batista, and Rey Mysterio – on their 'Road to Wrestlemania.' This proved popular, and even WWE '12 featured a similar mode.

Six months prior to its release, however, wrestler C.M. Punk delivered a kayfabe-breaking promo on Monday Night Raw in front of a live audience, where he continuously referred to breaking the fourth wall as he lamented his position as a superstar within the company. The 'Reality Era' was near.

WWE '13 – released the following year with C.M. Punk on the cover – was the first WWE video game to acknowledge this change in creative direction. Rather than creating a new storyline, WWE '13 paid tribute to the past storylines – specifically, the 'Attitude Era' that began in the late 1990s and led to the emergence of superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. By re-enacting classic matches, the game put us, metacognitively, into an interesting place. We were now backstage co-conspirators, invested in making history happen the way it was supposed to. We were performers, who were working towards a preconceived outcome, rather than characters, with plot-driven motivations.

Finally, in WWE 2K14, the developers took this concept to its logical conclusion. Not only did we re-enact classic Wrestlemania matches (along with old school costumes and faux-grainy footage for the 1980s matches), but we also re-enacted the match highlights as well. In the main event between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III, for example, it was not enough to simply beat the Giant. We also had to clothesline him to the ground, body slam him, and hit the Leg Drop to finish him – just as it occurred in 1987. Now, our story mode advancement was truly based on our ability to 'stage' a fight, rather than 'actually' fight – which, incidentally, is exactly what professional wrestlers are trained to do in real life. WWE 2K15, which 2K Sports is releasing today on Xbox 360 and PS3 and late in November on Xbox One and PS4, looks to continue this trend – making the player complicit in its theater, and re-enacting former feuds move-by-move, spot-by-spot.

The fear of admitting it's 'all an act' has always been: How will the audience react? Will people buy tickets and merchandise for a performance? By dropping the ruse, the WWE seems to have earned fan respect. The 'magic' of believing it was all real has been replaced by something deeper. More fans now cheer for the performers, rather than the characters. They cheer, not for the storyline's 'good guy,' but for who can 'sell' and act the most compellingly. The video games reflect this approach, and are also more resonant for having done so. It's sweetly ironic that in admitting how fake it is, professional wrestling has become even more real to those that cheer loudly in the stands.

[Images: WWE, 2K]

Kevin James Wong is a freelance writer based out of Queens, NY., with work featured both online and in print at VIBE, Complex, Salon, Racialicious, and PopMatters. Follow him on Twitter.

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