Universe Mode: My Continuing Obsession With ‘WWE 2K14′ And Why It’s Basically Fanfic
I've never written fan-fiction. Okay, well, now that I think about it, that's actually a convenient lie. When I was 12, I started writing a novella-length sequel to Army of Darkness and gave up after the first chapter, and there are definitely a couple of Ask Chris columns that only avoid being straight up fanfic because I was writing them for my actual job and I can tenuously claim they were parody. But technically, in the traditional sense of a full length story detailing what would happen if Bella and Edward had to fill in as Gotham City's protectors due to Batman's tempestuous marriage to Goku, that's never really been my thing.
I do, however, know exactly what it's like, because when I play WWE 2K14, I go into it with a set of elaborate storylines that would rival any Harry Potter sequel on the Internet. It's... It's kind of becoming a problem at this point.
When the new WWE game comes out every year, the part that always gets most of the press is the single-player storyline mode, which makes sense. It's not just about the storyline itself and which aspects of pro wrestling they're going to highlight, which involves the actual matches that you can play through, the way they represent big moments from the past in the game and the video packages they make to explain historic feuds. It even determines the roster itself, which is usually split between a mix of current wrestlers and superstars from the past. It's a pretty huge deal, and when they reveal the game at SummerSlam every year, that stuff is always the focus.
For me, though, it's just an interesting curiosity. As far as I'm concerned, the real attraction is Universe Mode.
Wrestling games have embraced the idea of letting the players customize things to their liking for years -- Fire Pro for the Super Nintendo offered up a pretty robust character creation suite, and that game came out in 1991. It's not exactly a new idea, but the difference is that the current generation of wrestling games allows you to do it on a much larger scale, and with different aspects of the game.
The biggest part, just like with the effect from the different storyline modes, comes from the roster. I've got fond memories of spending hours trying to recreate ECW guys in No Mercy for the N64, but here in this magical future of the Internet, you don't have to do that anymore. Well, someone does, but not necessarily you, specifically -- there's a Community Creations section on XBox Live and the PlayStation Network, and there are fans making amazingly accurate versions of wrestlers that didn't make the actual roster and uploading them for everyone else to download. It's genuinely amazing how much work gets put into them, with some users offering up relatively obscure independent wrestlers and then giving them different outfits to represent different points in their career.
If you bought that game today -- and honestly, if you're a wrestling fan, I can pretty heartily recommend doing just that -- you could spend 15 minutes browsing through the Community Creations and come away with your roster loaded up with enough wrestlers to outnumber the official roster. Not just from WWE, but from Impact Wrestling, New Japan, CMLL, independent promotions like CHIKARA or Pro Wrestling Guerilla, even Ring of Honor, if you're the kind of person who's into that. And folks, there are some deep cuts in there. I was mystified that someone was spending time to recreate Major Gunns (a young lady who appeared in WCW circa 2000 and was mostly known for being a possession that men fought over in our ongoing blood feud with Canada), but hey, she's on there if you're looking.
I've been more surprised by who is in there than who isn't when I've gone looking for people to fill out my roster, and it's not just wrestlers, either. There are logos, title belts, arenas, all kinds of stuff that people out there are making, and it opens up so many possibilities. If you want 1993 Macho Man Randy Savage to defend the WWE Championship against 2014 Daniel Bryan at an event from 2002, you can do that. Heck, that's actually thinking pretty small -- if you want Batman and the Red Samurai Ranger to battle for the title in the arena from Pro Wrestling for the original nintendo, you can do that too.
You guys remember when Batman won the title at WrestleMania 8, right? It was a pretty big deal.
But again, all that's just a natural extension of the old Create-A-Wrestler mode that's been around for 20 years. What Universe Mode does is give you a way to structure it.
See, that's the brilliant thing about the WWE games, and it's what keeps me coming back to it every day for months, even when I've got other games that I'm interested in stacked up next to the TV gathering dust while I plot out the next month's worth of shows, and it's the simplest idea in the world. It's essentially just a toolbox that lets you set up your own version of the game. There's a calendar that you can add shows to, with the "major" shows -- like Raw or SmackDown -- representing their own individual companies, complete with a separate roster and championships. You can edit the rosters, change whether the crowd boos or cheers each wrestler, create new shows (up to six every week, since Sunday is reserved for the big Pay-Per-View style events) and assign championships to be defended. You can even have championships that aren't tied to any show that can be defended wherever, like, say, for instance, if you want William Regal to travel around with the European Championship just demolishing every other wrestler in 2 out of 3 Falls matches.
(Note: This is exactly what I did. It was awesome. Regal forever.)
What I'm getting at here is that it puts you in charge of every aspect of running your own wrestling universe (get it?) with whatever dream rosters you can imagine, and then lets you run the whole show as you play the game automatically sets up matches and rivalries, but that's where things get pretty dodgy, mostly because it has a bunch of weird quirks like always wanting tag team partners to fight each other. The rivalries are weird, too -- you can set up a feud that runs for 4-12 weeks, but it just matches up the wrestlers over and over again with different stipulations, something that can get pretty boring pretty quick. Which, now that I think of it, is depressingly close to how a lot of "rivalries" play out on television. You can also just hit a button and have the game simulate a match and pick its own winner, but really, if you're not interested in playing the match it gives you, then you don't need to.
I don't generally mess around with the automatic setups, though. For me, a good part of the fun is sitting down and setting my own matches, figuring out how each feud should proceed, and masterminding the most interesting storylines that I can, all of which is playing out entirely in my head. I mean, don't get me wrong, I've actually gotten out a pen and made notes about who's fighting who and what the brackets are for tournaments that I'm running, but for the most part, the motivations and intricacies of the storylines are all in my head. And they are complicated.
Here's an example, and for the love of God, feel free to skip this paragraph if you don't want to be bored to tears by the pro wrestling video game equivalent of a dude wandering up to you at the comic book store so that he can describe the history of his 22nd-level Elven paladin:
Okay, so that William Regal European Title run that I mentioned earlier? It actually started in my game of WWE '13 last year, when I had Antonio Cesaro win the United States Championship and, in an effort to declare his Swiss superiority, refuse to defend it. Instead, he revived the European Championship (retired here in the real world back in 2002), and would only defend it in "European-style" 2 out of 3 falls matches. This carried over to this year's game, but since the real-world Cesaro had joined a faction of Gadsden-flag waving Tea Party extremists called the Real Americans, it no longer fit his character. So instead, he lost the title to British bare-knuckle boxer Wade Barrett, who defended it against European like Prince Devitt (Irish), Drew McIntyre (Scottish) and the British Bulldog (guess) wrestlers until the Italian Santino Marella (who, if you don't know, wins his few victories by striking his opponent after turning his arm into an actual snake, and who wrestled extensively in drag as his own twin sister Santina) got an upset victory. This, of course, thrilled the (imaginary) crowd and shocked Wade Barrett, who demanded the rematch on the following show. Before that could happen, though, a scheduled title defense pit Santino against a returning William Regal, who turned heel by mercilessly torturing Santino with his Regal Stretch submission hold until he won the belt, then continued carving a path of destruction until he was finally stopped by Money In The Bank winner Dean Ambrose, because I pretty much wanted to play my own version of their amazing feud from FCW a few years back. Santino demanded a rematch of his own, challenging any European wrestler to a qualifying match and hoping for an easy victory because there were no other European wrestlers on his show, only to be met with crowd-pleasing cameo appearances by Finaly and a time-traveling Bruno Sammartino from 1973.
Okay, is anyone still here? If you are, the important thing to note is that this is all happening in my head. It is, by any definition of the word, fan-fiction, just as sure as if I'd written an epic poem about Sonic and Tails and their new best friend Chris who's just as fast as Sonic and just as strong as Knuckles. The only difference is that I don't have to write it down because the video game I'm playing lets me do exactly what I want in the game itself. And that's pretty awesome.
There are only a couple of downsides. The first is that tag team matches, which I love in real life and which are a great way to advance feuds, can be a huge pain to actually play owing to partners interfering in your pin and stretching out the match forever. The second is that when you spend months obsessing over a game with some pretty repetitive dialogue from the commentators, you're going to get real tired of hearing Jerry Lawler tell you that "soup's going to be on his diet!" That, however, is pretty easy to solve if you just turn the TV down and put the Rockford Files on Netflix. Oh, Rockford. Is there any problem you can't solve?
Hm. I wonder if Jim Rockford's up for download from the Community Creations yet. He'd be a pretty good Intercontinental Champion, right?