Video game story writers could learn something from professional wrestling. That’s what independent developer Luis De Leon of 2401 Studios argued at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco in his presentation, “It’s Not Fake, It’s Pro Wrestling: Applying Wrestling Storytelling in Games.”
For outsiders, wrestling might seem like an unlikely source for creative inspiration. But because professional wrestling is scripted, it has perfected how to manipulate an audience’s emotions based on a simple formula.
Simple isn’t always best, De Leon noted. But following basic guidelines modeled after pro wrestling strorylines can give game developers a way to get players invested in their characters and games. This was something that De Leon discovered while working on Valkyrie Galaxy, an arcade-style shoot-’em-up party game. He wanted its characters to interact with each other after rounds of the game, similar to how they do after matches in Street Fighter II.
But De Leon wanted these interactions to give off more personality and play off of rivalries. That’s when he looked at professional wrestling. He found a template for making characters with distinct personalities.
Wrestling characters only come in two types. You have heroes, known as babyfaces in wrestling lingo; and bad guys, known as heels. Babyfaces are always likable. They’re winners, but they’re also underdogs. Heels are unlikable. They’re jerks that only care about winning, and they’ll happily cheat if helps secure a victory.
As an example, De Leon brought up New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Tetsuya Naito. He’s a cheater. “Tranquilo” is his catch phrase, which he started back when he was wrestling in Mexico. It means “take it easy.” Naito cheats, has friends interfere in his matches to give him benefits, and even attacks referees. Once he won NJPW’s Intercontinental Championship. Instead of treating the belt with respect, he would try to destroy it. He even once tried to pay for his lunch with the belt.
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These qualities might seem over-the-top, but they’re effective at making a memorable villain.
De Leon also found a template for storytelling inside actual wrestling matches. Most matches follow a simple template:
- Babyface shine: The hero starts off strong and is in charge of most of the offense.
- Heat spot: The heel cheats and gains an unfair advantage.
- Extensive heel beatdown: Thanks to his unfair advantage, the heel now controls the match.
- Hope spot: The face makes a brief comeback.
- Double down: The heel and face go back and forth, trading big moves.
- Comeback: The babyface finally regains control of the match.
- The finish: Either the hell or babyface wins.
This structure accomplishes multiple things. It gives you a basic dramatic frame that keeps people invested. It shows that your hero is strong while also establishing while it’s likely they’ll still lose. It puts you on an emotional roller coaster ride, making you doubt who is going to win.
It also protects your hero. If he loses, a viewer can still believe that the babyface is strong. The heel did cheat, after all. It wasn’t fair. But if the face wins, then it’s even better. He overcame unfair odds.
That’s maybe the most important lesson. Everything in a pro wrestling story happens to get the face over, wrestling lingo for getting a reaction from the crowd. A heel cheats and acts like a jerk to give the face adversity to overcome.
Video game villains should work the same way. They are an obstacle for the hero. We need to believe that they could win, even if they have to cheat to do it. A hero’s victory means nothing if the villain isn’t a threat.
This babyface/heel dynamic from wrestling is a pure version of a good relationship between a hero and a villain. Using these ideas from pro wrestling, De Leon was able to make a system for interactions in Valkyrie Galaxy where characters don’t just say the same canned lines after matches, but react to their opponent’s traits and roles.
Yes, wrestling stories can be simple and formulaic. But they’re also effective.