The worlds of sport and entertainment owe many debts to professional wrestling. Pro wrestling was never bound by the rules of athletics or fiction; it got to play on whatever stage felt right at the time, wherever the fun and the money was. Sure it all boils down to large men in strange costumes hugging each other but when has that stopped anyone? Promoters learned early on that the key to making their repetitive sideshows interesting was the story of heroes versus villains, the narrative wrapper that gave context and meaning to the action. Strong, simple stories let you access deep corners of the audience’s psyche; pro wrestling’s approach, especially the way that they construct villains or “heels,” has influenced everything from the NFL to TV drama, and has particular relevance to videogames.
Professional wrestling evolved – and still thrives – in front of live audiences. In the older days, it wasn’t so obviously scripted, and, in the late 1800s, it may have been an actual legitimate sport, at least some of the time. Whether the outcome was fixed or not, wrestlers needed to be able to hold a crowd and be more interesting than the other carnival attractions around them. Big personalities tended to dominate; a wrestler who could project a clear image and get a reaction (good or bad) from the audience was usually more successful. Subtlety was difficult to convey – audiences, equipment, and promotion strategies were all relatively unsophisticated, and the best approach was to play it as broadly as possible. Skillful performers knew how to tell simple stories in and out of the ring, stories where there was a good guy and a bad guy, an honorable man and a sneak, a hometown hero and a big-city bastard trying to cheat him.
A system of “faces” and “heels” (good guys and bad guys) evolved, with standard tropes and routines for each. A face heard the crowd cheer his actions in the ring; a heel was jeered at, spit on, and hated by a hall full of people who were paying for the privilege. The heel’s job was to stoke the crowd’s negative reaction – to be the guy that you love to loathe. ‘Gorgeous’ George Wagner was a pioneer of simple, effective ways to piss off a crowd, like having his personal valet spray the ring and sometimes the front row with “Chanel #10” disinfectant. The whole thing was a fundamentally Shakespearian setup; despite what you might think, the Bard wrote for big, mixed audiences, too, and knew the value of a memorable asshole.
Pro wrestling’s theatrical underpinnings gave it a running start when TV emerged. The format was a natural fit for the small screen and it has been broadcast nationwide and since the 1950s. With drama, comedy, colorful characters and accessible storylines, it was hugely influential on the development of both “legitimate” sports broadcasting and TV soap operas. Legendary heels like Killer Kowalski, Crazy Luke Graham, and Buddy Rogers made big names and piles of cash in the new medium, and pretty much any gimmick was fair game as long as it worked. Hate was great, and if they loved to hate you, that was great too, but making an audience not really care was the worst sin that a heel could commit.
Being the ’50s, there was a lot of race-baiting, North/South taunting, and parochialism in the heel repertoire. One sign of things to come was The Sheik (not the later Iron version), a guy named Ed Farhat from Michigan who wrestled as a psychotic Syrian. The Sheik would use illegal moves, cut his opponents, and even throw fireballs at them. He never spoke on camera but audiences loathed his low-down uncivilized foreignness – interestingly enough, earlier Sheik-type characters had usually been heroes, more in the mold of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. The Sheik was a little more extreme, a little more exaggerated than most of his contemporaries; he and other heels paved the way for the 1980s, the abandoning of all pretense that pro wrestling wasn’t scripted, and the rise of the human cartoon characters of the WWE.
Hulk Hogan, as always, was right. And not just about saying your prayers, taking your vitamins, and testifying in court about steroids. Hulk Hogan spoke truth when he said that The Undertaker was the Gravest Challenge that he’d ever faced. That Andre was a terrifying giant who might, in fact, eat human flesh. That Macho Man Randy Savage was a turncoat, woman-beating cur of questionable masculinity. Hulk Hogan knew that heroes are defined by their villains, and that, to be a living god to 10-year-olds everywhere, Hulk needed to hype the bejeesus out of the opponents he faced in the wrestling ring. These weren’t human beings, these were monsters, and Hulk loved telling his midget interviewer, “Mean Gene” Simmons, just how great a wrestler it would take to defeat them.
The WWF of the 1980s and early 1990s was the silliest, maddest, and most successful wrestling show of all time. While Japanese, Mexican and other US organizations stuck to more realistic styles or refused to acknowledge the match’s pre-determined outcomes, Hulk Hogan and uber-promoter Vincent McMahon went a different route. WWF heroes were inhumanly perfect pretty-boys and godlike warriors taken (sometimes literally) straight out of comic books. They were locked in mortal combat with a fantastic parade of over-the-top bad guys: Ravishing Rick Rude, the Big Boss Man, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper, The Undertaker. Many of the star heels had already developed their gimmicks in other promotions, but Vince McMahon’s approach was to turn everything up to 20. It was awesome in its simplicity, and it worked. Sure, the balding Hulkster with his cheesy red bandanna was the upfront hero, but the WWF heels were the real magic.
But then the bad guys took over the spotlight completely. Somewhere in the mid 1990s, as the WWF descended into near-bankruptcy, it became clear that traditional heroes had become boring, and with the rise of wrestlers like Stone Cold Steve Austin, the heel/face construction changed. Dwayne Johnson was the perfect example. He was a highly silly and universally loathed pretty-boy called Flex Cavana before he embraced his darker, weirder side and became The Rock. Even Hulk Hogan, sensing the winds of change, abandoned his prayers-and-vitamins shtick and joined the ranks of evil. Little has changed since, and pure “babyface” heroes are now an anachronism. It arguably echoes a wider shift in popular culture (we’re all cynical bastards these days, aren’t we?), but the fundamental story structures remain, and villains are as fun as ever. The rules for constructing a pro wrestling bad guy are the same as for anything else, just bigger and sweatier, and apply to every medium from “real” sports to videogames.
Games, of course, have never shied away from big villains themselves. How many classic ’80s Nintendo games were defined by a larger-than-life villain? Bowser, Shredder, Dr Wily, Mike Tyson, Ganon … selling a hero is easy but limited; selling the bad guy opens up literally mythic levels of dragon-slaying awesomeness. If the enemy is weak, you don’t accomplish much by defeating him. But if the enemy is a button-mashing, totally unfair, screaming-your-lungs out pain in the ass to defeat … well, anyone who could overcome that must be something special.
While big is often good, originality really doesn’t come into it. Most of the greatest villain templates already exist: the corrupt king, the bitter prince, the unstoppable monster, the foreign devil, the vengeful woman, the chaotic trickster, the mirror image. They work and they’re incredibly flexible: neither Ric Flair nor Shakespeare gave a crap about originality when crafting bad guys, so why should game designers? Taking a classic template and adapting it to a new environment is often the best route. Ultima‘s “Age of Armageddon” Guardian is essentially a dark god from another dimension seeking to take over worlds – you know, that guy. Ultima master Richard Garriott uses the familiar setup to his advantage as he makes the villainy personal, by having the Guardian taunt you in your dreams; sinister, by having reputable human organizations as the day-to-day front for evil; and epic, by spreading the battle over multiple worlds and games. It’s a helluva ride (at least until Ultima IX), and the Guardian’s bad-guy tropes work all the better for him being in the classic mold.
The Guardian’s also a distinctive heel who pisses you off. Villains are about personal reactions: They can be mean, cowardly, scary, or annoying, but should never be about nothing. This can often be the difference between minions and masters: the Combine forces in Half Life 2 are wonderful cannon fodder, but the real villain (so far) is Dr Wallace Breen, the human traitor who rules Earth as a Vichy-type puppet. His combination of self-serving doubletalk and cowardice grates on you from the opening moments of the game, and he’d make a great pro wrestling manager. Despite his treason, Breen does have a perspective and justification for his actions, which is crucial to his evil. Villains who know that they’re villains aren’t trying hard enough. Just like the hero, the villain believes in themselves and thinks what they’re doing is justified.
Villains in all media can be deeply sophisticated or incredibly simple, but, in the end, they have to work. Professional wrestling and videogames have always been ahead of the curve on storytelling; they serve demanding audiences who don’t often care for theoretical niceties, and, as a result, often have a lot in common with older forms of performance that flourished around campfires and stages. Big sweaty men dancing round a ring can be as laughable as children mashing buttons to collect gold coins; both images are less than they seem. Videogames have learned a lot from wrestling by telling stories through mythic hero/monster or face/heel structures. But I wonder if the confluence of these two forms of entertainment might reach the level. Maybe Bowser should team up with The Undertaker to finally kick Mario’s ass. Or the next Wrestlemania could be headlined by Ryu and Ken versus an undead Andre The Giant, complete with a Left 4 Dead expansion pack. Oh, the possibilities …