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Narrative design and body slams: What developers can learn from pro wrestling

Former Ubisoft scriptwriter Kim Belair discusses the ways professional wrestling tells a story through it core mechanics

Nathan Drake is perhaps one of the best recognised and most-loved heroes from gaming. He's handsome, he's got perfect hair, he's charming, delightful, and a remarkably competent mass murderer who appears largely unphased by his tremendous crimes.

Pointing out the ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted isn't exactly the hottest take in 2019, but it's perhaps the best example of the problem in games. Also, the fact that Drake killed over 1,750 people in the first three games alone and yet remains a totally swell guy doesn't appear to have really harmed the series' success or critical acclaim in any substantial way.

Every sequence where Drake kills a dozen people before casually steeling himself for the next inevitable massacre is a moment where his surface level rejection of violence as a necessary evil conflicts with the player's embrace of violence as a core mechanic.

At the root of this problem is that games like Uncharted lack any real means to further the story or explore character through their mechanics. Wolfenstein is a rare example where this is less of a problem; the actions of BJ Blazkowicz are informed by his trauma, violence is his means of expression. It's how the world has interacted with him since childhood, and it's how he interacts in return.

Kim Belair

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at Ludicious game festival in Zurich last week, founder of narrative development company Sweet Baby, and former Ubisoft Montreal scriptwriter Kim Belair outlined how professional wrestling succeeds in one core way where games like Uncharted have always struggled -- it tells a story through its mechanics. Wrestling is the only means through which its writers can spin a narrative, but those constraints have let creativity flourish.

In his 1957 essay titled The World of Wrestling, French philosopher Roland Barthe explored the mechanics of language and compared wrestling to the grandiloquence of ancient theatre, but Belair outlined how its strange depth goes much further, and what game developers stand to learn from it.

"It's a narrative game centred on one core mechanic," she said, suggesting that characters like Nathan Drake, who on the surface reject violence, would be the equivalent of a "wrestler who hates wrestling".

"A lot of the time the audience/player is there to experience your core mechanic," she continued. "And so if you want to align your values with those of the protagonist, you can't have someone who abhors exactly what they're doing."

She used examples like Insomniac's Spider-Man which, despite featuring violence, avoids murder. When Peter Parker kicks a goon off a building, he also catches them in a web.

"I don't know how Nathan Drake feels about killing and that's by design. He'll occasionally have a remark.... but largely I don't know."

"I think that the biggest success of wrestling is they are mandated by their nature to come back to wrestling as the core mechanic," she added. "So if they want to tell a story of tragedy, if they want to tell a story of comedy, if they want to tell a story of a breakup, if they want to tell story of relationship, or friends who haven't seen each other for a long time... they all have to rely on wrestling.

"So the way that they approach the given match, the way they move and the way they set it up has to convey a given feeling. That's where they excel but we keep trying to pack our games with cutscenes, with a bunch of little devices unrelated to the core mechanic... In a game that's primarily about shooting, how do we express the story? That's going to have to be a cutscene because nothing in the mechanic allows for expression. Because wrestling is so constrained, they've had to be very, very creative with how they do it."

One example Belair provided in how intrinsically the narrative of wrestling is tied to its conceit is the entrance of wrestlers into the ring. They arrive, accompanied by a theme tune and bombastic display that reflects their personality, and the ways in which it might change over the years are tied to how the writers want audiences to perceive a given character.

"One of my favourite stories is this guy Shinsuke Nakamura who was this popular wrestler from Japan and everyone loved him," said Belair. "Then [the writers] wanted to turn him into a bad guy, but everyone loves him. Whenever he came in, people would sing along with his song which was this amazing tune and people would hum along. But when he became a Heel, they added a Japanese rap to his theme song, and it wasn't because it made it worse -- if anything it made the song better -- but it did mean that American audiences could no longer sing along.

"All of a sudden that feeling of disconnection makes you feel less for that guy, and it's the same thing where if you have a character that you're playing and you perform a combo and it's perfect, you feel aligned. But if you were to do one thing and it doesn't respond or it doesn't do quite what you think it's going to, all of a sudden you're frustrated, you're confused, you're unfulfilled. And I think we can stand to use that a lot more, to not just use the ability but to use the actual connection to the game and the mechanics and the way you approach them."

An example Belair used here was The Last of Us, where protagonist Joel shoots a doctor during the game's final moments. If you, the player, don't want to shoot that doctor then you cannot progress, because Joel has intent and a relationship to his actions. In that moment, we see beyond all doubt who Joel is, and his actions reflect that.

"We're not ready to give up on murder, but we're not ready to create characters who are murderers"

That disconnection that separated audiences from Nakamura is the exact reason Drake's wanton murder is left largely unaddressed in the Uncharted series.

"I don't know how Nathan Drake feels about killing and that's by design," said Belair. "He'll occasionally have a remark.... but largely I don't know."

Drake has actions, not ideals. His position as a vessel for the player to complete the game means that he cannot have an opinion on his actions other than gleeful acceptance, or tacit consent. Understandably designers opt for the latter because games are primarily mechanical experiences and violence is part of this industry's DNA. It's the primary mechanical foundation of the medium.

"We're not ready to give up on murder, but we're not ready to create characters who are murderers," said Belair. "And when we do, we have the Max Paynes of the world."

Wrestling, however, is almost entirely about a given character's feelings towards wrestling. From the Face who loves the art, to the "Chickenshit Heel" who will try and avoid wrestling at all costs in case they get hurt, wrestling is about wrestling and its stories are conveyed through that central conceit.

Of course, there are plenty of games which succeed in tying mechanics to narrative. From Dark Souls to Papers Please, there is a huge amount of narrative depth and complexity on display. But much like how the medium has learned from films and books over the years, there is a surprising amount games can take away from how wrestling tells a story.

GamesIndustry.biz attended Ludicious with help from the organisers.

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Ivy Taylor avatar

Ivy Taylor


Ivy joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.