It’s easy to criticize WWE today. It’s always been easy to criticize WWE—even during its best creative period, from 1997 to 2000 (excluding 1999), it was full of horrible humor, segments that existed solely to embarrass certain wrestlers, and storylines that didn’t go anywhere. Today, though, more than ever, the company seems to go out of its way to disappoint its fan base. It’s spent years trying to build itself around a wrestler, Roman Reigns, who is resoundingly booed on every TV show. It’s tried to minimize the importance of wins and losses, leading to very few wrestlers showing the kind of sustained dominance that traditionally helps to establish top stars, with the claim that match results are an outdated metric that are less important than storytelling. The company reveals it doesn’t truly believe that, though, when it makes sure to protect the wrestlers it’s most dedicated to building around, even if that hurts the overall narrative and undermines hot new stars. (See Braun Strowman’s quick, clean loss to Brock Lesnar in September.) WWE might be capitalizing on its various revenue streams more efficiently than ever, but from a storytelling perspective the company has been a mess for most of this century, subject to the increasingly bizarre whims of an owner who doesn’t understand what his customers want and who has intentionally rejected what has worked in pro wrestling for decades. It’s easy to criticize WWE today because, from a creative standpoint, it’s largely a disaster.
That’s even spread to the company’s videogames. WWE 2K18, which came out last week, features a MyCareer mode that highlights one of the biggest problems with WWE today. MyCareer, much like the hours of WWE TV found on the USA Network every week, is utterly divorced from reality. The rosters of Raw and Smackdown are full of wrestlers who struggle to recite scripted promos full of stilted language and corporate buzzwords that few people in the real world would ever utter. There’s a regular shot that happens repeatedly during every WWE telecast where multiple wrestlers will be having a conversation but will all be facing the camera, with their heads turned towards each other, like those awkward old sitcom scenes where an entire family is sitting on one side of a dinner table. Interviewers like Charly Caruso can’t establish any credibility with the fans because they ask inconsequential questions that are nonsensically written, and have to stare passively off camera for lingeringly long moments at the end of every interview. The awkward corporate verbiage most consistently undermines the announcers, who have to shout out WWE slogans throughout every show. Other than a few exceptions, the WWE of 2017 is a stifling, lifeless world filled with inhuman robots shuffling through storylines that have no lasting impact and rarely make sense.
That kind of sounds like a videogame, doesn’t it?
The only way WWE 2K18’s MyCareer mode can be considered a success is if it’s supposed to be a satire of how unnatural everything in WWE is today. It starts with the utterly absurd and repetitive depiction of NXT, WWE’s developmental system that combines green newbies just learning the craft with top independent talents making a brief stopover before debuting on the main roster. Every week my wrestler, the burly, serious-minded technician “Thumper” Gary Ryan, shows up to the same arena wearing nothing but his trunks and boots. He sees one of two different fictional WWE office employees standing in the same spot in the garage every show, both of whom say the exact same thing to him every single time. As he walks back stage random members of the NXT roster will be posted up in a small circuit of specific locations, usually uttering some fatuous praise of the company in a way no real person would ever speak. (Nikki Cross, who’s part of an anti-authority stable vaguely reminiscent of the antifa movement, will hang around catering talking about how she loves being a WWE superstar because she gets to be a role model, in one example of how these backstage vignettes are made up of unlikely conversations that have no connection to the wrestler’s characters.) Sometimes NXT’s impresario Triple H stands right by the entrance, rolling his eyes and sighing as he does his old D-Generation X ring entrance spiel to placate my character. “Thumper” Gary Ryan is a massive geek and fanboy, apparently.
If you only experienced pro wrestling through the MyCareer mode, it would literally be incomprehensible. Backstage agents talk about matches like they’re actual athletic competitions, but every other aspect is sold as a performance. It’s about connecting with the fans, until suddenly it’s about actually winning matches. We’re more than two decades past the death of kayfabe, so there should be no problem in acknowledging the realities of this business; a wrestling game in 2017 should make a strong, definitive stand on either side of that line. Either preserve kayfabe, and make it seem like a legitimate competition in every aspect, or else acknowledge that it’s scripted entertainment and make the objectives less about winning and losing and more about following the script as faithfully as possible.
Instead WWE 2K18 tries to have it both ways. Wrestling is real except for when it’s not. The actual wrestlers are animate mannequins when they aren’t in the ring, all of them just so darn excited to be there. The Company Man and Fan Favorite duality awkwardly tries to capture the face/heel dynamic, but MyCareer is so ineffectual at telling stories that nothing winds up having any weight to it. Like WWE itself, it’s a confused, confusing mess that doesn’t do justice to the ridiculous and entertaining spectacle that pro wrestling can be. In that one way, this might be the most successful WWE game ever.
The peculiar structure of pro wrestling provides a great opportunity to make a game that explores the very nature of storytelling and how it intersects with real life. Most players probably wouldn’t want that—they probably just want to pit their favorite wrestlers against each other in actual matches, and probably fantasy book some kind of Bullet Club invasion of Raw. The developers of WWE 2K18 put a lot of effort into constructing the MyCareer mode and its story, though, just as they’ve done with various narrative-focused modes for years. They owe it to themselves and their audience to produce something more substantial and satisfying than what’s on display here. It’s disappointing that they’ve produced something so incoherent, no matter how faithful that might be to the real WWE.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.