Kayfabe isn’t a euphemism for false. Kayfabe is specific to pro wrestling, and it means everyone – athletes and fans – getting the story straight without saying so. It’s a conspired narrative that you can’t acknowledge is unreal, like a hilarious family secret whose official version changes when your drunk uncle shows up sober.
“That’s the approach we take: We don’t break kayfabe,” said Marcus Stephenson, a producer on WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, due out Tuesday. He said it with a chuckle, later acknowledging that he’d never acknowledged kayfabe when talking about the game with other reporters.
I’ve participated in kayfabe. Nearly 20 years ago I refereed a pro wrestling match, a moment that remains stamped on my brain. So I have empathy for THQ, makers of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw – the Madden of rasslin’, which must also referee something plausibly without getting in the way of the fun.
As a ref on that night in 1992 – chosen at the last minute because the one they had didn’t show up – I was brought into the dressing room and told how the night would go. I win the opener, said Russian Assassin. This is the signal for my finishing move, said Bad Chad. I’m stealing the belt during the battle royale, said Texas Outlaw. Watch out for folding chairs, the Italian Stallion, the promoter and top face.
I’m pinning the Stallion in the tag-team title fight, said Mean Mark, who, despite “JOHN 3:16” printed on the butt of his trunks, was the evening’s biggest heel.
“You’re sure of that,” I said.
“Yeah, Stallion and Super Mario win the belt back next week in Statesville,” Mark said.
In SmackDown vs. Raw, THQ must approach it from the opposite angle – as a true sports simulation. The outcome isn’t predetermined and must be contested objectively.
“We’re presenting this to the user as a competition,” Stephenson continued, “so we try to make the computer AI difficult enough to where they put the offence on you, and it’s up to you to reverse what they’re doing, so that you have an extended amount of time to dish out offence on an opponent.”
At all times, though, your opponent is fighting you; he’s not laying back just because he’d been beating on you for the first three minutes and now it’s your turn.
“It’s tricky,” Stephenson said. “We get communication from our fans about this, they ask us to make the matches follow what you see on TV. My question back to them is, ‘Well, if you want them to stay down, then you better expect us to keep you down for a certain amount of time.’ After we say that, they go, ‘You’ve got a point.'”
But without the potential for stagecraft pro wrestling would be just another fighter. So while the game must put the combat first, backstage antics and storyline form an indispensable part of the simulation. There are out-of-the-ring elements that a player can deploy to his advantage, particularly in SmackDown vs. Raw’s new mode, WWE Universe, which will supply more than just a series of matches in a career mode. It’ll take all of your exhibition matches and use them to build storylines, rivalries, run-ins and everything that makes pro wrestling not a sport but “entertainment,” as it is factually called.
“In past years, other than Road to Wrestlemania [a campaign mode, which will return to SVR 2011 and feature backstage elements]there was no reason to think that one match had anything to do with another,” Stephenson said. “Now, WWE Universe acts as an umbrella for all of your exhibition matches. We’ll make up the individual storylines, and that breaks the routine of the video game match, which is damage, damage, damage, signature move, finishing move, pin.”
For example, in a Universe bout between John Cena and Randy Orton, the CPU might serve up a cutscene where Big Show interrupts the match with a run-in. “The more I keep playing, Big Show and Cena will become rivals, and they’ll interfere in each other’s matches, or join up with stables, and continue the story. That’s WWE wrestling on your TV, and that’s what Universe is.”
It’s a tough job, simulating something that is itself a simulation. Logically, false plus false ends up being true. I asked Stephenson if he sees SmackDown vs Raw as a presentation of pro wrestling, if it was actually real.
“I wouldn’t say we’re making it ‘real,'” Stephenson said. “I think we’re making it what TV is, and if you’re watching TV, that’s what we’re trying to mimic. We’re trying to mimic your eight-year-old’s interpretation of what the WWE is.”
It requires, like the referee in a pro wrestling match, both piercing the veil and pulling it over the eyes. It just depends on who sets the terms of the bout. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 must pretend not to be that authority, but it is; in my one night in the ring, I had to pretend to be that authority, but I wasn’t.
The tag-team match, the one Mean Mark and his bad guy teammate were supposed to take, followed the liturgy Stephenson described, except in reverse: Heels took the offensive first, then the faces got a reversal. I was waiting for the heels to re-reverse when Italian Stallion put Mark’s shoulders on the mat and hooked his leg.
I swept in to make a show of counting to three and give time for Mark to kick out. Stallion said something to Mark. One … no sign of life. I slowed the count. “C’mon, ref!” Stallion said in his stage voice. Two … still nothing from Mark.
Stallion fixed my gaze, quite seriously. “Count … him … out,” he said.
I slapped the canvas and ended the evening, never breaking kayfabe.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku’s column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.