There’s an odd intersection of SFF and professional wrestling fandoms. It surprised me when I first encountered it, but since then, I’ve become a devoted reader of Rival Angels, a woman’s pro wrestling comic by Alan Evans, and one of my favorite Choice of Games titles is Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco. Since neither is technically fantasy (although there’s definitely an element of the fantastic to pro wrestling), I’m stretching the inclusion criteria a bit for my spotlights by covering both of them together. If you’re not into the WWE, read on to see if you can be convinced that the best wrestlemania might not be on Pay Per View…
In Slammed, you play an up-and-coming professional wrestler, trying to make your name in the world and striving to compete for one of wrestling’s biggest titles. From the beginning, Chikiamco has the characters — and the PC — acknowledge that wrestling is scripted, and that a lot of the challenges revolve around how you choose to portray yourself to the fans. Are you going to be a face — a “kayfabe” — who’s a hero, or are you a trash-talking villain on stage (but a consummate professional in the locker room)? But while your career provides the context for the story, the real plot is about your relationship with a wrestler from your past — a college friend who once held you responsible for a tragedy that impacted her wrestling career. (Note: she was female in my game; she may be male in other playthroughs.) Now at the top of her game and a rising star in her own right, will she reach out to you as an ally? Or will you be enemies? And how much of the truth will you reveal to your fans?
Slammed not only involves scripted pro-wrestling but MMA unscripted matches, reality television, a pop-star would-be wrestler, a blogger with a hidden past, and more mysteries than I’m sure I uncovered in my first play through. But I had such fun — and such satisfaction — with the story on the first run (which is not always the case in interactive fiction) that I’ve been putting off playing it through again until I need a pick-me-up read. The whole story kept me clicking through choices well after bedtime a few nights running. The NPCs (and potential romantic partners) have depth the whole way through, and the betrayals are surprising enough that I didn’t see them all coming. (Some, but not all.) As a writer for Choice of Games, I was also intrigued by the structure Chikiamco uses–the choices were so well-built into the narrative, I had trouble figuring out where the game branched off and came back. I never felt roped into the narrative, and the sense that I as a player was driving the plot forward was incredibly well done.
So, there’s no fantasy, and no magic, and there’s a clear distinction between the real and the fictional that your PC acknowledges. But as an interactive fiction game, this one is well worth playing, even if you’ve only watched professional wrestling once or twice in your life (which is the boat I fall into.)
Rival Angels launched at the end of 2007, introducing Sabrina Mancini, “Ultragirl,” a young woman wrestler who gets moved suddenly out of developmental and into the Rival Angels wrestling league. Along with three other rookies, called the “Upstarts,” Sabrina gets thrust head-first into the world of wrestling drama and politics. Unlike Slammed, Rival Angels never acknowledges a script — instead, the dramas and melodramas are all played out as if professional wrestling were unscripted. This works beautifully in a comic, because all of the grandstanding is presented as real, and there’s no real distinction between the wrestler as a stage name and the wrestler as a fighter. The roles the wrestlers take — as villains, rules breakers, or virtuous talents — are presented as choices. Sun Wong, one of the upstarts and Sabrina’s BFF (and, in the current story arc, her competition), chooses the path of the rule breaker, striving to join up with the notorious team Damage Inc. Sabrina, a good girl almost across the board (she does occasionally push those rules…), gets into trouble for deciding not to join mean queen team Hell’s Belles at the beginning of the series. The alliances and betrayals of professional wrestling are all here — as well as some pretty incredible fights, which Evans draws impressively — but because there’s no assumption of a script, the story reads like an action drama, and it’s easy to get invested in the characters, even if they’re initially hard to like.
One of the great things about Rival Angels is how great a proportion of the cast is female, but the story is designed to appeal to both men and women. That seems to me to be something of a rarity; I’ve encountered mostly scenarios where largely female-dominant casts in comics are designed to appeal to women, or to fit into a specific manga genre in which the main male character (usually nerdy) is surrounded by beautiful women who all fall in love with him. But Rival Angels, written by a man, does a great job of portraying women wrestlers as fully-developed people with real concerns about careers and friendships (and, occasionally, romance — but those plots are not nearly so important as the first two).
So, professional wrestling in comics and interactive fiction — give it a try! These two stories may not convince you to turn on pay per view Wrestlemania, but they show how surprisingly well pro wrestling translates into a non-television medium.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels Choice of Kung Fu and Showdown at Willow Creek are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels (one recently funded by Kickstarter), several short stories, and a contributor to role playing games. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.