Friday, February 9, 2007

Character development and other first post stuff

Hello, everyone. As I stated in class during our big group intro, I have never been a big wrestling fan (besides an early childhood appreciation of Hulk Hogan), but I'm interested in it academically because the storytelling and character development angles seem to have a lot in common with certain videogames, of which I AM a big fan. So, let me bore you for a few minutes with a bit of that.

How story functions in videogames is kind of a hot topic in critical circles, and no genre makes story more problematic than what are generally called fighting games, i.e. games in which two characters (one or both of which controlled by a human) with complex controls beat and/or kill each other. There realism varies from game to game, but most involve a heavy dose of fantasy--demons, people throwing fire from their hands, or just martial artists who regularly defy the laws of physics and biology. These games are, by almost any standard, sports games, but designers have been cramming character storylines and rivalries into them almost since the beginning.

The archetypal example for this, in my opinion, would be Mortal Kombat, a series that began in 1992, and released its 7th canonical iteration last year. The game could best be described as Enter the Dragon if it were a superhero comic: mysterious tournament, 7 contestants with different fantastic powers, and a lot of people getting killed. Two of the contestants, Sub-Zero and Scorpion, are dressed identically except for the colors of their uniforms. Sub-Zero, dressed in black and blue, uses ice-based attacks, while Scorpion, dressed in black and yellow, executes his opponents by breathing fire. So, just looking at these two characters at work, we already have a vague relationship between the characters, similarities (appearance) and differences (elemental opposition). When the game is not being played, the "attract" screen displays biographical information on all the characters, although Scorpion and Sub-Zero are both described in very vague terms. We know that Sub-Zero is an assassin, and Scorpion, for some reason, seems to dislike him very much. Upon completing the game with Scorpion, we find that Sub-Zero killed Scorpion a year before the tournament, and Scorpion made a deal with a/the devil to exact revenge. (There's more, but this is the quick and dirty.)

Of the 7 main characters, Scorpion and Sub-Zero become hugely popular with fans. In Mortal Kombat II, we are told that Scorpion killed Sub-Zero during the previous game, yet Sub-Zero is back. Upon completing the game with either Scorpion or Sub-Zero, we learn that this new Sub-Zero is the younger brother of the original, and that Scorpion has chosen/been assigned to protect the new Sub-Zero, as penance for murdering his brother. (If this doesn't make sense to you, don't worry--Mortal Kombat is notoriously underwritten and subject to frequent retroactive story changes. I've been playing for 15 years and it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either.) So Scorpion and Sub-Zero, once mortal enemies, are now friends, and remain hugely popular. However, from a pure narrative standpoint, their storyline is finished. There's no real place for their characters to go, even if they're popular.

Mortal Kombat 3 rolls around, and the creators want to do something new with the series, so they massively alter the game's aesthetics, dump several popular cast members, bring back some unpopular ones from the first game, etc. Scorpion is missing entirely. Sub-Zero returns with a newly heroic storyline and a new costume. The fans HATE this, and an upgrade is soon released that reintroduces Scorpion and "Classic" Sub-Zero. The storyline is even less clear than before, but the fans seem pleased.

Nonetheless, the series is running out of steam, and facing complaints that the dark feel of the early games has been ceded to an over-the-top, Wile E. Coyote kind of violence. So in Mortal Kombat 4, the series goes back to basics. Sub-Zero is back in his original uniform, and Scorpion is back, once again trying to kill Sub-Zero. (This story essentially pretends the events in MKII didn't happen, and the creators mumble some bullshit about hypothetical continuities instead of hiring a writer to connect these stories in a way that makes some degree of sense.) At the end of the game, Scorpion befriends Sub-Zero again, and embarks on a quest for vengeance against Quan Chi, who was setting him up. In the next game (Deadly Alliance), Scorpion and Sub-Zero are still around, but each is involved in a different web of alliances and rivalries.

This is one of the more famous examples, but the genre abounds with characters who are set up as foils to one another, babyfaces and heels, who swap their rivalries and moral status with every game. I'm not familiar with the storylines running in the recent WWE, but in the things we've watched, there seem to be some similarities. What's most interesting about this is that, while reviewers and academics generally treat fighting game storylines as epiphenomenal, the players care deeply about them--which also seems consistent with the way wrestling fans and cultural critics seem to view pro wrestling.

That's it for now. Laundry to do.


Sam Ford said...

Interesting comparisons, Peter, that gets as the layers of narrativity involved. I think that your points are especially right about mid-card WWE feuds and most traditional wrestling feuds. The stories are underwritten, and fans often fill in some of the rest for themselves and develop theories and such about the storylines.

The main difference in the narrative element of wrestling is its soap opera influence from the other side that has led to more weekly narrative development, particularly for the top characters that the writers spend a lot of time with.

The difference between the modern idea of a wrestling promotion with a writing team and the former idea of a booker who pretty well looked at who he had and then tried to make a reason for the rivalry based on that is key.

Very nice comparison, though, and I hope this class serves you well when thinking about the video game comparison. Wrestling and video games certainly have a lot of strong ties, through the popular WWE games themselves and the variety of influences back and forth.

Ender said...

It's good to have a relative outsider in the class who doesn't know a lot about wrestling going into it. A fresh set of eyes should provide a really important viewpoint for the rest of us.

Sub-Zero and Scorpion kind of remind me of Kane and the Undertaker, brothers, the first implied to be a powerbroker of hell and the second Death incarnate and a powerbroker in some undefined mystical Judeo-Christian afterlife (I'm going here based on the cruicifix he tied Stephanie McMahon to, the druids who've sometimes led him to the ring and the brilliant ethereal light contained in Paul Bearer's urn.) They're sort of doppelgangers and look sort of similar but they're also opposites, one with fire (like Scorpion) and the other with mist (instead of ice.) They've battled (too many times), they've reconciled, there's a death in their past. Very similar.

Alex Maki said...

I hope you are able to, by the end of the term, be able to talk about pro wrestling like you did Mortal Kombat.