I’m currently working on Slayer Shock, a role-playing shooter about hunting vampires in Nebraska. This game is thematically structured like a television series: each mission is called an “episode”, a group of episodes is a “season”, and each season ends when the player and their team stands victorious over the latest villain. (To be clear, that's just flavor; this is not an episodic game in the usual sense.) The core elements of the narrative—heroes, villains, and plot points—are randomly chosen or procedurally generated to create unexpected stories.
While interactive game systems can generate thrilling player stories, they’re historically less successful at creating characters and plots with the charm and feel of authored stories. I knew from inception that if the narrative aspect of Slayer Shock were to be a unique selling point, interesting game mechanics were not enough. I would need to develop a separate system for generating memorable characters and coherent, engaging storylines. This isn’t without precedent—Dwarf Fortress builds massive mythologies, and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor creates memorable rivals—but it is not clearly solved for all purposes in all kinds of games.
In particular, the procedural and strategic structure of Slayer Shock means there is effectively no end to the narrative. Victory over one villain progresses to a confrontation with the next, allies join or depart according to their personal desires, and the game has to manage those events and try make it all coherent. To invent a narrative generator that could accommodate these demands, I would first have to understand how to write an infinite number of perpetual stories.
For research, I first looked to scripted television series (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which informs much of the tone and theme of Slayer Shock), but I found it difficult to extrapolate any general lessons from that format. Most television keeps its stories contained to the episodic unit, with big picture season or series plots developed in the margins, in ad hoc ways. While the reliable structure of “monster of the week” shows or procedural dramas could be instructive for other kinds of story generators, I found that they weren’t helpful for my purpose. I realized I wasn’t actually interested in the content of an episode, I was interested in what changed between episodes.
My next brief research stop was at soap operas. With their relentless development schedule (typically producing 5 hour-length episodes each week), melodramatic characterization, and penchant for twists and cliffhangers, I was sure there would be a wealth of available research on the structures and patterns and tropes of daytime serials. And perhaps such research is out there, but a cursory TV Tropes search didn’t return what I wanted. And, no offense intended to fans, but I wasn’t excited about the prospect of watching hours of soaps to internalize their design.
Around this time, I watched Max Landis’s “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling” film, and so my research path finally led to professional wrestling. Sometimes dismissed as “male soap opera” (a statement with so many layers of problems that I’m not even going to attempt to unpack it now), professional wrestling does in fact exhibit many of the same properties as daytime serials: a staggering amount of content produced every week; frequent, seemingly arbitrary twists; and exaggerated, simply-drawn characters. And as with soap operas, I could find a lot of information about specific plots, but relatively little about the general patterns of story development. If I wanted to understand the narrative design of pro wrestling, I was going to have to study it myself.
Note: For the purpose of this article, when I say “professional wrestling”, I’m talking about WWE’s mainstream version of “sports entertainment”. There are lots of forms of professional wrestling, but the exaggerated characters and angles of WWE are what I found useful to deconstruct for this purpose.
As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up with a vague awareness of pro wrestling, mostly by way of occasional appearances in video game magazines. Wrestling became unavoidable during WWE’s “Attitude Era” in the late ‘90s, and I could identify all the big stars despite never watching a single minute of it. I didn’t understand the appeal at the time—it’s fake, why watch a match where the outcome is predetermined?—and it wasn’t until I finally dug into it last year that I realized what everyone else already knew: it isn’t about the matches per se, it’s about the performances and the storylines. It’s theater.
The first narrative challenge I faced in Slayer Shock was how to make generated characters unique and memorable. My fear was that each villain would be interchangeable with any other villain; perhaps visually unique thanks to a randomized appearance, but functionally and emotionally identical to the rest. Here, I found wrestling especially instructive. Wrestling promotions face a similar challenge to develop a constantly shifting roster of dozens of wrestlers into distinct characters that can get “over” with the crowd. How does wrestling distinguish one bulked-up shirtless man from the next? They give them gimmicks.
The term “gimmick” encompasses everything that transforms a wrestler (i.e., the real person) into their character: behaviors, catchphrases, costumes, and more. It’s the supernatural horror of the Undertaker, it’s Stone Cold Steve Austin’s middle finger salute, it’s The New Day spilling out of an oversized cereal box in anime armor and unicorn horns.
The takeaway isn’t to craft a unique gimmick for every generated character, because that would be impossible. Instead, what I learned was to develop a library of common gimmick elements that mainly serve to distinguish one villain from the next. From that seed, I can let the characters grow in the player’s mind based on the actual events of gameplay. Even in wrestling, the best gimmicks take time to develop and get “over” with the audience; many wrestlers begin with either minimal characterization or with common, tropey gimmicks.
The second lesson I learned was repetition. When wrestling finds an angle or a gimmick or a feud that works, they milk it dry. Sometimes this is tedious or boring: characters reiterate their ongoing angles in promo after promo, the participants of upcoming or recent title matches are repeatedly thrown into the ring again with no meaningful outcome, and the commentators do little more than remind the audience of the wrestlers’ gimmicks. But the reasons for this repetition are manifold and valid. It makes it easy for new or returning viewers to catch up on the storylines. It ingrains the gimmicks in the audience’s minds. But most importantly, wrestling is theater. Everyone involved is performing live for a crowd who showed up that night to see their favorite wrestlers. And from this perspective, it makes no more sense to criticize wrestling for its repetition than it would to criticize a band for playing their most popular song at every concert.
My takeaway from wrestling’s repetition is about how to maximize the limited narrative bandwidth in this particular game. With its procedurally generated levels, there is little room for narrative delivery during core gameplay in Slayer Shock. Plot development happens at the margins of gameplay, in between missions, just as it mostly happens in between matches in wrestling. With such limited opportunity for narrative content, it is critical to reinforce characters through repetition, and there is little time left over to substantially develop them beyond that.
Furthermore, the performative aspect is increasingly significant in games, except in this case, it’s not the developer performing to the player. Instead, it's the developer and the player collaboratively performing to viewers on YouTube or Twitch. Here again, repetition can help ease viewers into the experience and provide unique memetic hooks for each audience.
My previous project was NEON STRUCT, a game loosely inspired by the excessive reach of the modern surveillance state. Worried that I wouldn’t do the subject justice, I labored over every line of dialogue, struggling to make the script cohesive and coherent, trying to force the game to fit the message.
With that in mind, the third guidance I find in wrestling is adaptability. Wrestlers get taken out of action unexpectedly due to injuries or personal reasons, but the show must go on. On any given night, they may feature anyone from supernatural beings to ex-MMA fighters to literally Donald Trump; but they always have to bring it back to two people grappling in a ring. To be fair, wrestling avoids tackling highly-charged political subjects like the surveillance state, but I actually believe the audience would buy it if they tried.
What I take away from wrestling’s occasionally astounding incohesion is that it doesn’t really matter. As a creative artist, I can take a hard turn and my audience will follow along if they’re on board with what I’m doing. The player and the viewer come to be entertained, and it’s always better to surprise them than to bore them. If they poke holes in the construction or logic of a scene later, at least I’ll know it comes from a place of passion instead of disdain.
And speaking of taking a hard turn, the final point I’d like to share about wrestling is the many ways I’ve seen that the wrestling industry mirrors the video games industry, and what we might take away from that.
Of course, the same could be said of novels, music, film, comic books, or virtually any other creative pursuit. I don’t mean to imply that all these fields are the same, and I certainly don’t believe that all these properties are good things. What I do find reassuring about it—in a year when the sustainability of independent game development looks uncertain for so many of us—is that our medium isn’t unique, and it isn’t going away. Opportunities may come in different forms than we’re used to, and we may have to look for the open windows when the doors close. But if an industry built around sweaty men in briefs slamming each other into the ground can remain a staple of entertainment across the US, I think we’re going to be just fine.
Slayer Shock will be released in Q4 2016 for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and is currently on Steam Greenlight.