If you've seen Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning film The Wrestler, you're likely aware that it features one of the smartest and most poignant, albeit brief, video game cameos in recent film.
The Wrestler, Robert D. Siegel's heart-wrenching tale of Randy "The Ram" Robinson-played by Mickey Rourke-a former professional wrestler far past his prime, is layered with metaphor. That includes metaphors like The Ram's foil Cassidy, an aging, single mother stripper—played by Marisa Tomei—as much a physical fantasy as Randy. Later, through Randy Robinson's doomed stint as part-time butcher-cum-performer, Siegel and Aronofsky drag the viewer through the titular wrestler's struggle with lost fame, estranged family, and the physical suffering that The Ram must endure.
But one scene, in which The Ram plays a fictional NES game with one of the neighborhood kids living in his trailer park, a boy who seems on the cusp of putting aside his hero worship of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is perhaps most subtly affecting in its use of video game metaphor.
Following a particularly brutal wrestling match, with Randy "The Ram" Robinson recuperating at home, Mickey Rourke's character asks the young Adam (John D'Leo) to "play some Nintendo" with him. The two play Wrestle Jam '88, a decades-old 8-bit wrestling simulator starring The Ram.
Adam: So, you hear about Call of Duty 4?
Randy: The what?
[The Ram, suffering from hearing loss, leans in to hear Adam better.]
Adam: Call of Duty 4.
Adam: Call of Duty 4.
Randy: Call it duty for?
Adam: Call of Duty 4.
Randy: Call of Duty 4?
Adam: Yeah. It's pretty cool, actually.
Adam: (sighs) This game is so old...
Randy: What's it about?
Adam: It's a war game. Most all of the other Call of Dutys are, like, based on World War II, but this one's with Iraq.
Randy: Oh yeah?
Adam: You switch off between a marine and an S and S British special operative. So it's pretty cool.
Perhaps more affecting than the startlingly accurate description of Call of Duty 4, in pre-teen terms, rife with slight misinformation, is the contrast between the two games. Like Randy and Adam, Wrestle Jam and Call of Duty 4 are decades, generations apart—one antiquated, one highly-polished and contemporary.
Wrestle Jam is a work of fiction, a faux NES game created specifically for the film by motion graphics artist Kristyn Hume and programmer Randall Furino. The brother and sister team created the game from scratch, taking influence from 8-bit fighting games like Nintendo's Pro Wrestling and Acclaim's WWF Wrestlemania.
Hume, also responsible for The Wrestler's laboriously accurate title sequence, said that the film's producers and directors wanted that "classic video game" look and feel for Wrestle Jam, an effort that took weeks to create.
"Darren is a little bit unconventional," Hume said of the Wrestle Jam project, saying that the director wanted a fully functioning demo for Rourke and D'Leo to interact with. "It ended up being a working game. He wanted the actors to be able to play the game instead of them trying to act like they were playing."
"And I didn't want to hand animate the entire game because it would be way too time consuming," Hume said.
That meant that Furino, a tools programmer at Denver area developer NetDevil, had to program Wrestle Jam from the ground up, writing rendering, input, and artificial intelligence routines for the two playable characters, Randy "The Ram" Robinson and The Ayatollah.
"[Wrestle Jam is] completely playable. There was an intro screen, character select, win / loss conditions, opponent AI, eight different attacks," Furino explained. "It was as close to a genuine old-school wrestling game as I could make it in the time allowed. I even mapped an old Nintendo controller to the input system so they could play it that way."
Hume noted that one of the bigger challenges faced when creating Wrestle Jam was limiting her character sprites designs to the reduced palette of 8-bit hardware.
"Recreating yesterdays game with today's technology was hard," Hume recalled, saying that early Wrestle Jam designs were aesthetically inappropriate, "a modern style version of an 80s game," designs that had to be throttled back to match antiquated hardware.
That even meant dumbing down the programming.
"To get that exact look and feel encompassing everything we knew an 80s wrestling game to be, meaning the awkwardly timed reactions to punches and kicks to the generally stupid AI," Furino said.
Where the film's producers also added authenticity to Wrestle Jam was its soundtrack. Although the NES game features sound samples from the Atari 2600 versions of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man—the unofficial Wilhelm Scream of video game sound effects—it also came with a custom theme, an original 8-bit score composed by musician Joel Feinberg.
Feinberg's original direction for the Wrestle Jam score was surprisingly different from the final product.
"Originally they wanted it to sound like 'Bang Your Head' from Quiet Riot, but you know you have to be really careful doing something like that because it could end up costing you a lot of money," Feinberg said. "At the time there was no real buzz for this movie so things were tight. This was really a low budget film."
That real-life version of the Quiet Riot song would become The Ram's signature track, used during his approach to the ring.
Feinberg also took direction from Nintendo's classic Pro Wrestling for the NES.
"It reminded me to keep everything simple, not to 'over-write' the track. I think I made about 6 completely different versions, each one more simplified than the previous arrangement and different sound events."
"The director opted for the the most simplified version, I believe."
That track, titled "8-bit Wrestler," is barely audible in the final cut, but Feinberg has made a version available on YouTube.
While Wrestle Jam may not be a technical marvel, a month's worth of work from its two creators, plus Feinberg's score, went into making the NES game convincing as a narrative device.
"Given the prevalence of video games, you would think you'd see more of it," commented Robert Denerstein, former film critic at the Rocky Mountain News. "Advances in technology, like the introduction of the cell phone, have made things possible in storytelling that weren't possible before."
"I think it's something you'll see more of," Denerstein added. In the case of The Wrestler, the film critic says the references to the NES and Call of Duty 4 add a sort of poignancy, helping to make narrative leaps.
"I knew how Aronofsky was planning to work it in to the story but seeing it done was completely different. The way [Rourke] looked when he asked D'Leo to play, the whole back and forth about COD4, it really gave the feeling that Randy was living in a world that outgrew him," said Wrestle Jam programmer Furino on seeing his work in the film.
"I believe the movie would have been amazing without the game but I do like to think that my sister and I added a little something special. It was great that Aronofsky chose to go the rout of creating an actual game and I'm really grateful to him and my sister for the opportunity."
Similarly grateful was Infinity Ward to have their ultra-popular shooter used in the film.
"We were totally unaware that CoD4 was going to be referenced in the The Wrestler pre-release," explained Robert Bowling from Infinity Ward. "We got word of it before it went public, due to one of our guys getting into an early screening of the film and seeing the reference. Other than that, it was a total (and awesome) surprise to us."
"Personally, I thought Robert Siegel did the best game reference in a film I've seen in a long time, if not ever. It was natural and sold what they were going for with the scene," Bowling said.
But Bowling brushed aside accusations that the Call of Duty 4 reference was pre-planned or even product placement.
"I wish this was product placement," he quipped. "We should get some ‘Call it Duty 4?' shirts made."