Monday, November 23, 2015

Survivor Series 2015 and "Theses on Roman Reigns in The Main Event"

 To get business out of the way: Almost every single match on the card ranged from good to very good, though I wouldn't call any of them instant classics like I did with Reigns' cell match last month. The booking behind the matches made many of the results predictable (that the bracket managed to kill a singles push for Kalisto is especially worthy of reprimand, Cesaro slightly less so given his recent injury,) but the quality of the matches worked ended up making that more or less irrelevant, especially since most of the matches had “the right” endings from a booking perspective. Originally I'd've booked Owens to beat Ambrose so Reigns could feud with Owens, which continues their history from the #1 Contendor's Tournament from before Rollins' knee injury, but given the swerve cash-in ending, Ambrose and Reigns fighting a clean face vs. face match for the title was the smart move.
Highlights for me included: Del Rio showing up to work and putting on a really physical match with Reigns that far exceeded my expectations for the US Champion who's run so far has been marked with spotty, slow matches.

As well, Charlotte worked her best match as Women's Champion thus far, with the progression of the match naturally creating the needed pace without needing the forced drama of kayfabe injuries that make finishing with the Figure-Eight nonsensical. Paige also showed off some very natural and well-studied heel work in the ring, taunting her opponent, the audience, and brutalizing Charlotte with submission maneuvers and hard hits. Charlotte's own offense was aggressive in nature, including an attempted pin with her knee on Paige's throat, but I think logic would make that excusable given the lengths Paige went to to question Charlotte's ability and credibility. This feud is probably ending here after the faux pas on RAW about Charlotte's family, but this match may have actually been the highlight match for those focused mostly on technical ring work.

As well, WWE successfully bit the bullet and resisted the temptation to make either of their top babyfaces turn heel in the main event, which would've been career-threatening for both men, incredibly obvious, and incredibly short-sighted.

The one match that didn't have the right ending was The Brothers of Destruction vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper. I'm not sure what Braun Strowman did to piss people off backstage, but he got buried hard tonight, and Bray Wyatt's credibility as a heel took a huge hit yet again in a match that he and Strowman both really needed to win and also that Undertaker really needed to lose (and I mean he needed to eat the pin) to make stakes for what will likely be his final Wrestlemania match. Last month Wyatt could disregard match outcomes as he reorganized his Family, but this match made the entire family look weak. All of this only amplifies what I talked about last month: Undertaker won't be on RAW tomorrow and he won't work a match at TLC, the Royal Rumble, or Fastlane, the roster is hurting for credible heels, and older wrestlers on WWE's roster have done a horrible, horrible job putting over new stars who need wins a lot more than they do.

With all of that out of the way, I present to you:

Theses on Roman Reigns in The Main Event.

I: How Human Voices Work

I'm doing a lot of generalization here, but stick with me. Grown women and children have naturally higher voices than grown men do. Children occupy an alto-soprano range voice, with girls capable of reaching the treble range and boys capable of reaching the soprano range, and while women's voices lower as they age, their voices remain naturally high, also tending to occupy an alto-soprano range (typically the Soprano I range, with a rare few being capable of retaining Soprano II range as they age.) Men, however, reach down into the countertenor, baritone, and bass ranges. For any number of reasons, these tones, and thus, these lower voices, more easily project across a wider range, which, combined with the tendency for mean to speak louder, means that grown men are more easily heard.

Thus, it must be noted than when you hear Roman Reigns get booed (or John Cena), he is never being booed nearly as universally as one might think. This was on display during Reigns' barn-burner HIAC match against Bray Wyatt last month, wherein we heard the noted “Cena split”, where the higher voices of the audience, the women and children, chanted “Let's go Roman!” while the deeper and louder voices of the audience chanted “Roman Sucks!”

In short: if you think WWE going with Reigns as a main-eventer is stupid because he's getting booed, I refer you to the above. The WWE does a lot of stupid things. They don't put belts on people who don't draw or make merch money.

This is to say nothing of the fact that in the internet age, when there is more backstage reporting than ever before, babyfaces being booed is pretty much inevitable, because the booing itself is a political act mostly meant to perform the supposed hardcore-ness of the wrestling fans who do it. The booing doesn't say “this guy's a jerk, he should lose” or even “this guy isn't good” (though it does say that) but mostly “I'm not getting what I specifically want right now,” and aside from possibly the return of Daniel Bryan (whose push towards Wrestlemania XXX played on these internet politics) and thrusting him back into the main event, pretty much nothing would ever silence those boos, and WWE does well to ignore them while listening to the kids who will continue to be their most dedicated fans.

II : On The Possibility of Ambrose or Reigns Turning Heel

I'll talk about Ambrose later down but we need to focus on Roman first, because there are a number of levels, almost too many to write about, on which the concept of the Roman Reigns heel turn simply does not work.

First: it's what the Rock did. And as I've discussed before, the “Samoan Heritage” angle is not going to get Roman over, partially because of vile racism, and mostly because for the brief moment that WWE did highlight his Samoan heritage and pointed out his relationship to The Rock, people believed that he was only getting pushed because of his relationship to The Rock, something that can only get you heat. As well: Rock 2.0 (which is ultimately how people would view Heel Reigns, regardless of the character he performed, because of the expectation that he will follow a similar character arc to The Rock, because Nostalgia) is not a sellable character beyond nostalgia, and is not something that WWE can rely on for someone they want to make into their next long-term babyface while John Cena slides back down to the midcard. For Reigns to be The Man he has to be his own man, and turning him heel would undo most of the work done to establish him as a separate identity from his relatives.

As well, Roman's key weakness (which he has been steadily improving) is his mic work. For any number of reasons, a babyface can afford to have less-than-stellar mic work, but a heel needs to be able to talk for days. They need to be able to talk shit. They need to be able to rile up a crowd. The only heat Roman has is with smarks who hate him for whatever god-forsaken reason, and he gets booed during his promos precisely because for the longest time his promos were very weak. (That they have notably improved has had little effect on those who boo him at live events, which is as unsurprising as it is disappointing.)

On top of that, Roman's moveset, while hard-hitting and slam-oriented, is ill-suited towards heel work. This is not to say that he couldn't learn the submission moves and limb-specific work that would be required of him as a heel, but suffice to say that his in-ring work as it exists is not already well-suited towards him being a heel.

In short, Roman would be ineffective as a heel in a way that he has not proven ineffective as a babyface. This brings up an uncomfortable truth for the IWC to confront: what they see as being desperately necessary out of Roman because they believe that Roman gets booed because people hate him is actually incredibly risky. If Reigns doesn't work as a heel (and he won't) he has to do a lot of work to turn back face, and that quite simply may not work with the fans he has, particularly children, who may find it difficult to forgive him. He may only be a few years old in the main roster, but for good or ill, Roman Reigns is already John Cena, and if WWE wants him to be John Cena, in terms of being their hero for children, they cannot make him a heel.

Ambrose, on the other hand, is frankly just an incredibly obvious heel, who might actually excel in that role. However, a turn for him now serves to sever one of the few dramatic bits of humanity on WWE TV that has proven resonant with fans of Ambrose and Reigns: the friendship shared by the both of them. (That breaking up that friendship also delays the reuniting of the SHIELD should not go unnoticed of course.) Moreover, Dean Ambrose may be able to effectively work and talk as a heel, but it is very likely that his heel persona would be dealing in some incredibly offensive stereotypes about mentally ill people, given that his already uncomfortable “Lunatic Fringe” merchandise (that he rarely ever wears) already plays off of it. On top of everything else, he is already a well liked babyface, and while he is really in need of a hot feud to put him back in the spotlight, I personally think it makes more sense for him to be wrestling for the IC or US belt while he waits to be put back into the main event (where he definitely belongs after Reigns' next title reign comes to an end.)

III: The Match Itself

In the moment the match felt obviously rushed because what could've been a 20 or 30-minute main event was forced down to 10 to fit in Sheamus' cash-in, but this was a well-constructed 10-minute match that featured my favorite developing feature of Roman Reigns: his tendency to use his high-impact moves sparsely and intelligently while working around his opponents offense (as well as simply absorb it, Reigns can eat a lot of finishers on PPV.) At Hell in A Cell, this resulted in a matchup that had more one-sided paces, with Reigns dominating early, Wyatt getting the advantage only with weapons, and then Reigns managing to counter a number of Wyatt's in-ring moves to close out the match. Here, it resulted in a more even matchup with counters abounding on both sides as Ambrose's speed occasionally overwhelmed Roman's defense, as well as his unusual reversals of momentum on the ropes and apron. As well, being top guys, both managed to absorb at least one finisher from each other, with Ambrose kicking out of a Spear earlier in the going. Ultimately, as deeply-underrated commentator Michael Cole said, it came down to the last man with the ball. Ambrose went off the turnbuckle and winded up for a big move, and Reigns hit him suddenly with the spear for the pin. For a moment, Roman Reigns was your World Heavyweight Champion. It was not to last.

IV: On Consistent Storytelling and Metatext

Roman Reigns' loss to Sheamus tonight was heartbreaking, and genuinely tragic in structure. Allowing himself a brief moment to vent his frustrations with how opportunity has been stolen from beneath him despite effort upon effort, Reigns rejected to have his hand raised by Triple-H and Speared the COO, at which point he was immediately Brogue Kicked by the Irishman, who immediately cashed in the Money in the Bank Contract. Reigns kicked out of the first finisher, but he ate a second almost immediately and that put him down. Sheamus is your World Heavyweight Champion, and he doesn't deserve to be there.

This is where we hit the consistent drama and the metatext: Roman Reigns spearing Triple-H is not representative necessarily of beef with Triple-H, but of Reigns' frustrations with WWE as a structure. How the inherent unfairness of the Money in the Bank briefcase lead to him being screwed at Wrestlemania XXXI and how shoddy officiating led to his failure to achieve retribution by using that briefcase himself, and then Triple-H had the gall to offer him a place in the Authority despite having never shown him any love before, not to mention causing the betrayal of his once-friend Seth Rollins. It's also about how WWE has mismanaged Roman Reigns. How they screwed up his push towards WMXXXI and his characterization basically since the breakup of the SHIELD. How they've managed to make something as simple as making Roman Reigns a main event superstar and screw it up, just like they've screwed it up with so many guaranteed winners before. For fans of Reigns, seeing him Spear Triple-H is satisfying on a number of levels because of all of these factors both inside and outside of kayfabe.

That Spear also represents a minor betrayal of the sort of values that Reigns is intended to embody as a babyface, as deserved as it is. It was a display of hubris, and it also betrayed the sort of calm Reigns has portrayed. It's the kind of short-term and short-sighted satisfaction that one is not supposed to strive for as a babyface.

And as punishment, Reigns was cashed-in on, again, and lost to Sheamus, the man who he lost the MiTB contract to after deserving to win it so obviously. (Note: this would be a great setup for a feud if Sheamus was even remotely threatening as a heel, or entertaining as a wrestler.) Yet again, Roman worked so hard to get where he got to, and lost it all because as tough as he is, and as talented as he is, he's only human. And this time it even happened again, during a title match, with a Money In The Bank cash-in. And he lost it to Sheamus, a total jobber who's been an absolute afterthought for most of the year, and who totally deserves it because he's a lazy in-ring worker and an at-best uninspired talker who's W-L record can never back up the bark. (Something that I can't help now but think was planned as a way to make his cash-in win as much of a swerve as possible.) The consistency of that is pretty admirable.

It's also smart: Roman has been slowly regaining popularity throughout the year because he's continued to work hard and yet continually lose on a number of occasions, and nothing else builds fan sympathy easier. I'd have to run the numbers again, but since Mania, Roman has barely more than a 50/50 win-rate on PPV, and that's only after two consecutive PPV wins these past two months. And while his sudden push to win the title here felt a little rushed, it now makes a lot of sense since we're learning that satisfaction is likely going to be delayed until at least TLC, though I think for pure excitement WWE shouldn't pull the trigger on that until the Royal Rumble in January. Last year's event, though the Rumble itself was obviously a huge disappointment, had an air of real excitement in the triple-threat between Cena, Rollins, and Lesnar, as we were left predicting who might win the Royal Rumble, as well as wondering who might be the Champion, leaving the Mania card itself totally empty. With smarter and less predictable booking (I know, I'm asking a lot) WWE could really capitalize on a similar setup again in January.

All in all, I really enjoyed Survivor Series, and, while I think Sheamus' reign should not be long, I do think that WWE showed a lot of restraint here by not making Reigns champion and by avoiding the obvious heel turns they could've created for short-lived drama. That makes it unbearably “safe” for some, but to me, sometimes “safe” just means smart.

- From Olympia, WA, Play is Labor, I'm Austin C. Howe.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Critical Switch: Zolani's Departure and The Beginner's Guide

A Special Announcement and The Beginner's Guide

This episode of Critical Switch marks an important transition. Sadly, it is my responsibility to announce that, during his time away from the show while focusing on his personal life and other game criticism projects, Zolani Stewart has decided to leave Critical Switch.

As of yet, I don't know how Zolani's departure may impact the format of the show. What I can say with absolute certainty is that Critical Switch will continue, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon. I really don't know yet, but suffice to say that, aside from my intention to continue bringing you short form radio-report-style audio criticism once a week, the format may be mildly unstable for a time.

Zolani Stewart is, and I really mean this, one of my best friends in the entire world. Since I got to know him last year, we collaborated on IndiE3, and built up it's sequel The Alternative Digital Arts Festival from practically nothing. We slept across from each other in a bare, undecorated, brand-new apartment, with no internet, and a week to actually put on ADAF after half a year of fumbling under unsupportive leadership and with a near-total lack of funding, and within a week, thanks in no small part to Iris Bull and Solon S. Scott III, we launched, on time, successfully. It was one of the most draining things either of us have ever done in our entire lives and it stands as perhaps our greatest collaborative achievement.

I'm incredibly honored that he worked with me on the basic concept of this show, and it will remain a highlight of my career and my life that we worked together on the same critical project even once. Aside from his fantastic episodes, it will remain likely his greatest contribution to keep the show limited to audio, rather than quickly expanding into video, as was my initial plan. The impact of that decision is something I may write a whole episode on at some point. And who knows, maybe the man himself will be back for a guest episode or two in the future.

For now, I want to send him off in the only way that feels right. Since I met him, Zolani has been a huge fan of “walking simulators,” first-person narrative games, whatever you wanna call them. He is second-to-none in his understanding of the genre, and his advocacy of it, with the exception of, perhaps, the great Amy Dentata, who he and I both cite as a major influence. In his very first episode of Critical Switch, which was the very first episode of the show, he talked about the walking simulator Bernband and how it inverts some of the genre norms of walking sims, particularly their oppressive and overwhelming sense of drama, dread, and loneliness.

Having played many of the walking sims he's discussed at his recommendation, I'd report that no walking sim has ever captured those genre characteristics more strongly than Davey Wreden's new game The Beginner's Guide.

Unsurprisingly for a game made by the developer of The Stanley Parable and The Stanley Parable HD Remix (which are meaningfully separate titles in my opinion, but more on that in a different episode), The Beginner's Guide has already been a lightning rod for critical discussion, given that, like it's predecessor, it is not only a videogame about videogames, but it is also a videogame that presents itself more or less as a piece of interactive videogame criticism: Davey Wreden is showing us some small videogames made by a friend of his, Coda, who stopped making videogames 4 years ago, and he hopes that by encouraging interest in his work, Coda will feel encouraged to make games again.

This is, for the record, entirely kayfabe. Coda is not a person who exists, and surely if he did, Davey Wreden himself would be mired in controversy right now based on things that he says about his relationship with Coda and based on things he quotes Coda as having said. (Though, I have read, coincidentally, that there is a popular developer of Counter-Strike: Global Operations maps who's name is Coda.)

The story told by The Beginner's Guide is intimate in scope, simple, and, unsurprisingly for the creator of The Stanley Parable, deals with characters who feel coldness between one another and distance between themselves, and I found myself unjustifiably shocked when the game's ending revealed that these characters had nowhere near the level of comfort or intimacy with each other as I'd been lead to believe. As a narrative, it runs on one of the simplest structures that recurs throughout all storytelling media: the twist that makes the point.

What point has been a subject of fierce debate amongst game critics since the game came out, with some critics feeling personally implicated by the game's seeming distrust of Davey Wreden (the character's) tendency towards close analysis. I would suggest something simpler: that Davey's crime is less his willingness to read depth into Coda's games, but rather that he takes his interpretations of Coda's games as an opportunity to read into Coda's authorial intent.

Though Wreden is revealed over the course of The Guide to be both invasive and unintentionally abusive of Coda, portions of his analyses of Coda's games have legitimate merit: his games do project reclusiveness, depression, social anxiety, and can often be cold and unforgiving. But in attempting to assign all of those things onto Coda himself, Wreden poisons the well, because the art and the artist are no longer separate, and Wreden's evaluations of the games eventually become judgements of Coda himself. As the game goes on, it becomes much clearer that Wreden resents Coda for not letting him in more, while Coda himself tries to make his games that much more unwelcoming to Wreden until he is suddenly forced to reveal his intent at the top of The Tower, wherein he explicitly states to Davey how his attempts to engage with his work have poisoned what made making games enjoyable or expressive for him, as the games are no longer for him but for Davey.

As is the failing of many an overenthusiastic critic, Wreden fails to maintain critical distance from his subject, and becomes too personally invested in Coda as an artist to allow Coda any space to breathe, which ironically takes out the uniquely “Coda” things about Coda's games that drew Davey to them in the first place.

Quite frankly, the most we can pull away from it as critics is Wreden's reliance on his attempts to read intent rather than to read simply what is communicated. Given the particulars of the story, as Coda is a developer with an audience of one, the story does not seem to be immediately applicable as anything else than a warning about the dangers of reading authorial intent, one who's stakes are driven higher by Coda's singular audience. Perhaps there are other metaphorical or allegorical readings that would add more metaphorical depth to it, but they do not occur to me now as I write this.

Any interpretation of the narrative is put into question as well not just by the reveal at the top of The Tower, but as well the epilogue of the game, which, as Heather Alexandra pointed out in her excellent video on the game, raises a lot of “water cooler” questions. Who developed the epilogue? Was it Coda's final masterpiece he never allowed Davey to see? Was it Davey, making something he thought might give him the answers he was looking for in Coda's games? What do the particular recurring symbols we see in the ending tell us about the rest of the game?

As a narrative text, The Beginner's Guide suddenly jumps from relative simplicity to incredible complexity, and creates that incredible complexity by way of devices that make the ultimate meaning of the game unknowable unless anyone in it's audience is absolutely certain of what they know the ending to represent.

For that reason, I wish to be non-perscriptive, step back from the narrative, and just sort of interpret the spaces the game puts us through from a purely emotional perspective. Maybe, after all, that's what the game wants us to do, to simply see the games we're being shown through our own eyes. The various games we're made to play in The Beginner's Guide are emotionally imposing experiences. As is the hallmark of any good walking sim, just moving through these spaces is by itself an emotional experience. That sort of experience isn't what I as a critic feel very experienced in, so I'm simply going to stop here and recommend playing the game yourself. You can also find interesting reactions to the game by Heather Alexandra, Matt Lees, and others, I'm actually very late to the party.

Suffice to say, I think The Beginner's Guide is exceptionally beautiful. And I want to wish Zolani best of luck in his continuing efforts as a freelancer and running The Arcade Review. You can show Zolani your appreciation for his time at Critical Switch by tweeting at him, I know I've thanked him enough.

From Olympia, WA, Play is Labor, I'm Austin C. Howe.