A few weeks ago on WWE’s flagship Monday Night Raw show, Kofi Kingston aimed to get stereotypical bad guy ‘heel heat’ by running down the town he happened to be in. In this case they were in Nashville, Tennessee, leading to the toe curling line ‘I hate country music, and that’s not just my character talking; I really hate it’.

It was cringeworthy not just for the age-old tradition of the ‘he’s talking bad about where I live!’ sentiment or the regional stereotyping, but because of Kingston breaking through the fourth wall to emphasize a stance that few would care less about. Kayfabe is a term in wrestling that was a hangover from its origins as carnival sideshow, referring to the protection of the predetermined nature of a bout. Recently it’s broadened in scope to discuss how consistent and protective the medium is of its fiction. The line was a reminder that at wrestling’s highest level, the concept is dead.

Wrestling has a difficult relationship with kayfabe, not just because of 1980’s TV exposés, or state athletic commission regulations on legitimate sports (the original reason WWE brands itself today as ‘sports entertainment’, not unlike how consoles have been labeled by all manner of synonyms other than ‘computer’ to avoid taxation over the years), but because of social media and modern news gathering making stars of this 24/7 soap opera instantly accessible. It’s hard to keep up the facade, and writers have a hard time coming to terms with the medium’s blending of fiction and reality.

What’s strange is that videogames have been dealing with the same disconnect, yet have only relatively recently started talking about it. Games have, in fits and starts been trying to instil kayfabe rather than take steps to eradicate it of late, to varying degrees of success. Yes, while wrestling kayfabe was dying on Internet message boards, ludonarrative dissonance was just a twinkle in the Gamasutra bloggers eye.

Feelies were a nice attempt at sugar coating DRM, but didn't make it any less invasive.

Feelies were a nice attempt at sugar coating DRM, but didn’t make it any less invasive.

Videogames may only be roughly four decades old, compared to ‘modern’ (i.e: fixed, for want of a better term) pro wrestling’s 120 odd years, but during the medium’s lifetime, it’s had horrendous difficulty keeping up kayfabe. In the olden days, or even up to the 16 bit era, the veneer of immersion was paper-thin; games may have told decent stories at times, but the worlds they sunk you into were so abstracted by visual design and technical limitations that it really didn’t matter all that much when your game was broken up by large pictures of floppy discs that told you the game was ‘LOADING’ and then ‘DECRUNCHING’. If anything then, concessions to gaming fiction seemed oddly quaint, or ill thought out. Infocom’s text adventures, packed with ‘feelies’ like guide books or cloth maps were a clever way of disguising copy protection and primitive DRM as something fun (you’d be asked to refer to these materials in the game itself), but didn’t prevent the illusion from being shattered when asked to prove you bought the game like a good boy or girl. Many flight simulators of the era meanwhile would deliberately obfuscate menu systems, disguising them as office spaces that had you save by clicking on the telephone or what-have-you. These were usually frustrating stumbles through office space (and then followed by the aforementioned giant disc loading screens anyway).

The polygonal era of the mid to late 1990s, and the more convincing worlds it produced made kayfabe a more important issue worthy of protection. There seemed to be an odd schism between the west and Japan in this regard: on the one side of the Pacific you had Half Life wonderfully explaining away the kayfabe breaking UI status indicators in the form of Gordon Freeman’s power suit, replete with little alarm sounds when he took damage. Halo took that idea a step further, not only using the augmented reality overlay of Master Chief’s helmet to give a kayfabed reason for UI elements, but even using calibration of same as the reason for switching on or off y axis inversion, and giving a storyline explanation for regenerating health in the form of the armour’s shield regeneration.

Half Life finally gave a fictional purpose for UI readouts and damage indicators, a foundation Bungie would build upon.

Half Life finally gave a fictional purpose for UI readouts and damage indicators, a foundation Bungie would build upon.

On the other side of the water though, kayfabe wasn’t protected in the least. In Japan, Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrulian inhabitants would cheerily tell you how to lock on with the Z Button or to give them something ‘with C, with C’. Metal Gear Solid began an uneasy relationship with its own universe, at once presenting an immersive world and telling players to hold the crouch button, change their controller port, or even look at their CD cases for a code. To Kojima, the fourth wall wasn’t something to be fortified, but a two way portal.

Yet in AAA western development, this seems to be as far as establishing and protecting kayfabe ever went. Your typical big game of today has LOADING screens, menus, health regeneration of ordinary human beings, with HUDs stripped away for the sake of immersion, but damage signified by nothing more debilitating than a slight blurring and reddening of screen edges.

Look to modern Japan though, and even in larger games, strides have been made. From Software’s titles are infamous for stringently protecting their fiction. Not only do the Souls games and Bloodborne have a phenomenal sense of place due to strong art design, but every single facet of the game has some lore behind it. Die in Bloodborne and you’ll be sent to the Hunter’s Dream, a meta portal for a world apparently constructed in a master’s nightmare; there’s an explanation here for your endless regeneration. Having another player join you in co-op requires consumable resources, a special item and a mystical incantation, that, deliciously has fictional reasons for not working 100% of the time – even connection errors are covered by BB’s staunch protection of kayfabe.

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What makes Freedom Wars’ commitment to kayfabe all the more laudable is doing so as a portable game, consumed in bite size chunks.

Then there’s Freedom Wars, Dimps’ desperately overlooked (mainly due to its host platform to be fair) not-Monster-Hunter-inspired-at-all-honest action RPG on Vita. Its world building brings a decent goliath battler up to an exceptional level, delicately playing with the fourth wall, but doing so in a way that fits perfectly within the context of the game. All its characters are in the midst of working off million year sentences, and have severe restrictions placed on their movement and physical freedom between missions. Start off and your character isn’t allowed to sleep lying down, isn’t allowed to take more than five paces in their cell, or run for more than five seconds outside of it. This isn’t a case of restricting your use of the run button. Hold it down and you can sprint at will, but you’ll see your sentence grow by 20 years the second your motion becomes excessive, just as when talking to members of the opposite sex without earning the correct entitlement. In Freedom Wars’ ultimate step to protect kayfabe, your character doesn’t have the right to see their surroundings while traveling to a mission locale, and has a blindfold placed on them; in a fantastic move, even black loading screens are accounted for (albeit later replaced by generic tool tips).

Allowing the player full freedom of movement but strictly dealing their character penalties for abusing it deals perfectly with ludonarrative dissonance, and acknowledges the audience without pandering. It’s like the best ‘worked shoot’ monologues in wrestling, talent playing off real life dislike and distrust of an opponent to accentuate televised feuds. The aforementioned Kingston promo was the wrestling equivalent of Far Cry Blood Dragon, or Retro City Rampage, moaning about fetch quests and tutorials before duly playing those tropes out anyway.

Kayfabe is more staunchly protected in Japan it seems, with more care and attention to detail than before. Even when MGS5 allows a glimpse behind the curtain, a reminder that it’s all a game, it’s almost exclusively for nods to hardcore fans, with the low health beep left over from MGS2. Deeper in, Kojima is so concerned with the world he’s created that you can disrupt supply lines for guards’ equipment, leading to embittered whining from your prey. Snake’s iDroid, meanwhile, is a concession, if a clumsy one, to traditional menu usage in games; unlike the PDAs of many similar titles, you have to find a quiet place to use your device as the game doesn’t pause while you tinker.

Drake's a shitty worker.

Drake’s a shitty worker.

Head west meanwhile, and from checkpoints to settings to tutorials to DLC, the finer points of kayfabe are being lost, let alone the broad sweeps of storytelling creating further ludonarrative dissonance. Gaming’s favourite psychopath Nathan Drake is hallucinating and near death from thirst in Uncharted 3, but when it’s combat time, he springs to his feet and his aim is true; the wrestling ‘dirt sheets’ would have a field day with his long term selling. Cinematic experiences have been the goal of the genre for the past two decades, ‘playing the movie’ a supposed pipe dream we’re getting ever closer toward. Yet from the technical (loading, saving, bugs and glitches) to the experiential (user experience from UI within to connection with controller without), there are more veils that separate the player from immersion in games than any other medium. If developers really want realism, they have to do better to protect the business.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)