Category: The Desk of Gabriel Morton

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AEW Double or Nothing Pre Show: Part 2

AEW Double or Nothing Pre Show: Part 2

Backstage

A girl who presents like Bayley on meth is backstage saying things. Apparently, she was like this first, which is a bit of a bummer as, first or not, the work is on her to demonstrate difference from her more famous comparison. I have yet to see “Girl who is happy” be a character with much depth if she is always happy. Bayley would frequently get serious, mad, etcetera, and this was much needed variety. But Smiley Kiley Ray gets all of a few seconds so I won’t hold anything against her yet.

She’s interrupted by two librarians who shush a bunch. This is obnoxiously bad for two reasons: 1, wrestlers who are jobs; and 2, the most it could be is funny and it isn’t that. Wrestlers who are other jobs is not a personality or character, prior roles can inform those, but otherwise there is no narrative reason for you to be here. Things like this can work when you’re creating or twisting within an established story world, otherwise it’s a comedian getting on stage and telling you about this hilarious thing his friend said before telling you that you probably had to be there. Like a lot of the show, this feels like an in-joke, which is stupid in a context where you are trying to create a new In.

We go to a video recap of Cody/Dustin which is great but I’ll talk about that when I get to the match, otherwise we’re onto their first singles match.

Kip Sabian vs Sammy Guevara

Expectations:

I have neither heard of nor seen anything from these two so that creates a kind of starting bias. Without any prior narrative to draw on, the pair are given a single point around which to make their impact, so I’m keeping this in mind. Aside from this, they both look lean and light, but not explicitly lucha, so I’m expecting some decent spots. That said, this is the pilot for a series, so spots alone won’t carry the match.

The Match

Out of the gate, the commentators do their jobs which is already addressing my problem of not having any narrative. They tell me about Sammy, about how he’s an irritatingly egotistical self-promoter. They don’t explain the panda motif, but since they’ve done some other work, that can be a point to be revealed as opposed to a frustrating piece of meaningless festoonery designed to distract from a lack of personality. He expresses his character in the ring the moment he gets in, lazing on the turnbuckle and bothering the ref when Sabian is entering, so he is already exceeding expectation. A competent match will be enough and anything good will impress.

Kip Sabian (Sabin?, the announcer pronounced it like that), enters and the commentary actually explain why this match exists, why each wants to win it, and how to buy the PPV. COMPETANCE! He’s basically the same archetype as Sammy, which is what led to the match, and I like that. This town ain’t big enough sorta thing between two very similar wrestlers creates a natural conflict point and a goal besides just “win”. NJPW does this a bit, where it’s less about winning as much as it’s about how you win, and this secondary goal point creates an internal logic for spots that would otherwise be fucking stupid.

You let a guy elbow you in the face 6 times to prove that you aren’t just lucky, you’re stronger and better. Kip and Sammy are already expressing this with a mirrored headscissor takedown to kick-up routine. This tells me that they both think they are so much better than the other that they can afford to be showy, and this creates a narrative reason for a lot of the fancier stuff I am expecting. This is a great example of meshing character and narrative to create a logical platform for the in-ring expression. I am pleased.

Excalibur is doing a reasonable job of explaining why the wrestlers do things and Sammy does a backflip over an Irish whip before basking in the audience attention. Some great character moments follow, Sammy avoiding the obvious attack only to be read by Kip and punished. I have now learned, through the medium of wrestling, that while both are egotistical, Kip is smarter and more serious. Excellent work.

The ref is active in a good way, looks like she actually remembers rules exist. Excalibur explains why Kip is going for Sammy’s legs, take out the high flying, and is emphasising that he lacks experience when Kip does things too close to the ropes. Again, more examples of how commentary supplements character and helps define the narrative.

Over the top to the floor suplex was a little sloppy looking. I’ve not seen it before, so I am assuming the point is to carry the momentum through. Going to the effort of generating momentum only to stop it may work for The People’s Elbow, but it is an otherwise poor idea as it breaks the internal logic of wrestling. Momentum equals more move damage, killing it kills the move.

Sammy does a neat shooting star press to a hung up Kip. Well, I’d think it were neat but I could barely get a look at it as whatever blighted dipshit is producing this edited it like it was Liam Neeson trying to jump a fence. I can’t say this clearly enough: EDITING BREAKS IMMERSION. Hollywood has occasional excuses in the form of having to edit around the fact that your star is often not a stuntman, doing it when it’s pro-wrestling is inexcusable.

GAAAAAH!

Sammy heralds a 630 and cops Kip’s knees in the back. Kip does his finisher, The (sigh) Deathly Hallows, a kind of sit down reverse FU, and wins. Were I on commentary, I’d have emphasised that Sammy lost because he was shouting the move he was going to do to impress fans. If you want losses to have meaning, they have to occur for reasons. Sammy’s ego told Kip what was coming next, which was why he was able to reverse it.

The commentary was still a bit dry and slow, but I’ll forgive them that here and focus on the good work done in calling the match and explaining the narrative elements.

The production so far has been worryingly bad, WWE bad, and this stands out terribly when “not WWE” is one of your primary marketing gimmicks. Big spots were missed in the Battle Royal, okay, maybe a bit chaotic, but big spots missed like Sammy’s suicide dive?  Are you taking a nap? That and the camera cutting during moves have got to stop. These aren’t aesthetic choices, they are measurable mistakes when presenting dramatic violence and doubly stupid when the people you are filming are the ones doing all the cool shit.  

Overall, the match exceeded expectations. It had a nice lock-up opening that emphasised that it was a wrestling match, the clash of similar characters created a reason for the showiness, and the characters defined themselves through their wrestling. Nothing was unforgivably sloppy, and (production aside) the bits that were supposed to wow me did. Can’t ask for more from the competitors so I am excited to see more, and this is a very good start to AEW’s singles competition.

Star Rating

I’ve already written here about the stupidity of this, but I’ll say it again: homogenous rating systems for wildly variable creative works are done by lazy people to get idiots to argue. Putting them at the end of an otherwise well written piece just nudges dingbats into further illiteracy and weaker critical understanding of the thing they are supposed to love.

This match gets a 12 out of Umlaut

The Tail End

The video package for Sadie Gibbs looks good and it’s nice to be able to see something like this and be excited for it as opposed to dreading the inevitable waste. Whether AEW will succeed is still very open to debate, what isn’t is the near clockwork efficiency of WWE’s failings.

Hey, Adequate ‘ol JR, neat.

Ending on the Executive Vice Presidents arriving is a solid idea and gives a kind of character to the event. Cody continues to look like a young Geese Howard, Kenny reminds us that he is an internet goof, and the Young Bucks remind us that they are the Family Guy cutaway gags of wrestling. Cody playing straight helps counterbalance the goofy in-joke-ness of the others. I don’t want to sound like I don’t like comedy in wrestling, I love it, but like a lot of things, you have to be judicious with it as comic tone can disrupt any attempt at seriousness. This goes triple for meta, which is my primary concern with anything Young Bucks.

I wish Wrestling Arcade would make a fucking game already. Ah well, bring on the main show!

By Gabe

AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

AEW: Double or Nothing Pre Show

Like a lot of single, unemployed 36-year-old men, I am a big fan of the art of Professional Wrestling, and in 2019, it has never been a better time to be an art buff. New promotions are hardly news, nobody even bothered to read the press release for my one based around stop-motion teddy bears, but when one has the backing of a billionaire and several of the saner sounding performers, the world takes notice. And so it was that Double or Nothing, from the newly minted All Elite Wrestling, burst into life. Technically their second stab at it, this one serves as a kind of pilot for what will be a series proper, and, as this is a rare opportunity, I decided to write about it. If for no other reason than nobody else I know pays attention to wrestling and there’s only so much a bus stranger is willing to tolerate.

As it is new, I am going into this fairly raw. While it’s impossible not to be aware of a lot of the roster, I have consciously avoided doing any research on anyone, as I want to receive the performance as AEW’s new creative world intends. Additionally, except the battle royal, this will not be a strict blow-by-blow recount of events. This is closer to critique than news, so it is expected that you’ll have a working knowledge of the work being discussed.

I’ll also be discussing my expectations of things going into them. I tend to only see this in discussions around wrestling (and other media besides) when something has failed terribly or succeeded wildly, but it’s an important thing to discuss in general. This is because it gives readers a way to frame their understanding of a critical point.

What I mean by this last bit is that when someone says something is Great and you say it’s Good, they’ll only see the relative difference between those two points and not the fact that the thing being discussed is still of a high quality. Basically, if you jump up and down, telling me something is the best thing ever, that’s the bar set, so even something very good is going to fall below that. I’ve been through this dozens of times with dozens of things, most notably with Breaking Bad and Bioshock: Infinite, and I don’t expect it to work but I’ll go to my grave trying.

The Name

I am already not a big fan of the All Elite Wrestling moniker. As a standalone, it’s overdone. Nobody would expect Partially Elite Wrestling or Frequently Elite Wrestling, so All is an odd determiner to use. As a reference to the name of the core group of wrestle-friends who are producing it, it’s a tad on the nose and brings up minor concerns regarding a dominant group both booking and wrestling for a promotion. All this said, AE-Dub is a fairly innocuous initialism so these are minor points.

The Buy-In

Having some basic shit going on to keep the early arrivals busy is one thing, but I’m finding the increasing complexity and plot relevance of pre-shows to be counter to the idea. If it were a series of single matches, or even a battle royal, that just introduced some potential hires to an audience who may never have seen them, that’s one thing, but that there’s a stipulation (winner gets a shot at the belt) means this is critical to AEW’s fledgling narrative world and so having it exist as a diminished, separate pre-show is a mistake.

My expectations for this are just a bit above average. A battle royal is not the format for deeper narrative expression, and the chaos of that many people lends itself toward sloppy spots, so they’re always a mixed bag. I expect a bit more than say, the WWE, though, as this is a new fed with a less restricted move set and many young up-and-comers all trying to make a good impression. I am predicting this will lead to some fun spots that will elevate it above the somewhat messy nature of the match type. Otherwise, this will be thoughts-as-I-go with a little pausing for an idea or two.

And we’re off.

I like Excalibur from about go, never heard of him before this but he has a good voice for this and seems to know what he’s talking about. Alex Marvez looks and talks like the audience is the principal and he’s explaining why the school dress code doesn’t apply to him. I’m giving them some leeway, though, as things like commentary chemistry can’t be forced. Dryness or some quiet moments will be largely ignored, but anything worse is cause for concern.

TOO MANY RULES. Fucking hell, this feels like Wrestlers of Catan and all to fit the casino motif is absolutely not worth it. Why are there groups? Are these functioning as teams? I don’t feel like any of this will be meaningfully relevant to the way the match flows either so the whole thing is like taking 2 minutes to explain Uno to the audience before Avengers starts.

Starting with guys in the ring already is a bit of a bummer too, but one I’ll let slide. The roster is hardly set yet so having fully organised entrance themes/videos to bind them to is beyond fair expectation.

Okay, so the clubs are in the ring, oh and Excalibur is explaining that yes, the rules are needlessly complicated and this is a basic battle royal. Of the clubs there’s Sid Haig fresh of a Simpsons cameo, my Christopher Daniels CAW, my Akira Tozawa CAW, a guy with no legs, and MJF who looks like the anime main character in a crowd shot already. Michael Nakazawa gets a good reaction from the audience, but I’ve otherwise little to go on.

MJF reminds me of a rich lady’s corgi with that scarf and he is absolutely a guy who had a trollface pic as his avi on a message board somewhere.

Marvez is talking and I realize I haven’t understood a word of it. He’s the perfect white noise, I have achieved Buddha nature and returned only to finish this article and be a bodhisattva.

LOOKS LIKE IT’S TIME TO OIL UP! Excalibur helpfully telling me that the man using baby oil uses baby oil. Nakazawa and MJF both conduct themselves with a very strong sense of character so they’re standing out already. Actual Hakan reference from Excalibur so his stock is only getting higher.

The battle royal problem is already emerging. When there’s not a lot of guys in the ring, it’s everybody taking a nap while the spot happens. This puts a lot on the spot to be enough to distract me from this fact but starting with the funny stuff is a good plan as it gives the violence somewhere to go.

MJF looks like Colt Cabana fucked Matt Striker.

Nothing is happening for a long time and it’s boring. They need to be filling the ring at this point. Pacing means you can’t have these guys doing the fun shit yet, but that means I’m watching MJF and Simp Haig coordinate stomping. There’s neither character nor athleticism and there’s not much left of wrestling if you take those two away.

Hey more people.

Brian Pillman Jr with a mullet that makes him look like Ricky Morton Jr, a guy called Isiah Cassidy who is swiftly kicked over by Brian, and Jimmy Havoc. Havoc looks exactly like this emo guy I met in Melbourne who kept trying to talk me into a threesome with him and a girl that I was 100% sure didn’t exist. Oh, and Joey Janela, who looks like a last-minute Macho Man costume. Clustered entrances like this are novel, and at least they’re doing something with it, but this is still change for its own sake as opposed to whether it meaningfully benefits the format.

Hey, it’s Stan, or Sean Spears, another WWE refugee. He hits the ring and the wrestlers are allowed to start being interesting again. There is a very good argument to be made that AEW can’t just absorb every underused WWE guy, but it is nice to see the audience getting into Spears.

Man, they’re making up for it being empty earlier. Another minute and now another full pile-o-dudes heading down. Jungle Boy is the son of the recently deceased Luke Perry, which is odd for people of my age bracket because Luke Perry was the name synonymous with hot dudes for ages. His kid looks like a Tarzan twink in a gay escort catalogue. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as it’s nice to see genuine youth on a roster. It’s particularly helpful here as he’s countering the age of Billy Gunn and, of all people, fucking Glacier. As a huge Mortal Kombat fan, I was so into Glacier back in the day, so this is nice.

An orange guy who seems to care about Isiah emerges with them along with oh my fucking god what is that!

Acey looks like Kirby swallowed Samoa Joe. I hope he’s athletic fat and not just one of the barely-ambulatory physical oddities that promotions like to add to the roster. What a mighty Chungus! I bet he’s the athletic fat so I’m looking forward to him pulling out a moonsault or something.

Joey Janela sells a Jungle Boy headscissor take down like RVD sells a piledriver and things are picking up a little.

I know the rules are “over the top rope” but I still feel that letting anyone on the outside for too long clutters the match visual. Outside the ring is where the losers are, having to keep track of who went out but not the bad way is poor storytelling. The most we can get out of it is the “guy sneaks back in” bit which is the kind of shitty cliché AEW said they were avoiding.

Nak is out and GLACIER HAS ICE MIST! It should have been blue or something, right now it looks like he’s just HHH spitting in people’s faces. AEW’s reality level is veering more toward the mixed variety, with New Japan as the sport and Lucha Underground as the comic book as poles. I like this blend, and it can be managed perfectly well as Undertaker demonstrates.

Okay. In the space of 3 seconds we have: a plot relevant event of Glacier being tossed and a confrontation between MJF and Billy Gunn; and a novelty spot of Janela having a lit cigarette stapled to his head. The camera doesn’t catch that second one which is staggeringly bad production. If someone stapled something to my head to get attention, I’d want people to see it. Also, it should have been something else. Janela lighting a cigarette in the middle of a battle royal is dumb unless nicotine is his spinach. They’re still looking at Billy Gunn’s foreskin-y head when I hear the staple gun go off again and a woman scream.

Here come the spade – HOLY SHIT THE ORANGE BLACK GUYS DID A LEAPING TOP ROPE HURRICANRANA TO CUTTER! Again, this happens in the bottom right corner. This is a good example of fault within structure and not fault inherent to structure. Napping wrestlers while stuff happens is effectively inevitable. Not being organised enough to have your cameras on major spots isn’t.

I’m a fan of Luchasaurus from his Lucha Underground days so it’s nice to see him. I—okay someone’s angry aunty is barrelling down the ramp like they’ve just seen someone in the ring attempt to vaccinate a child.

Apparently that’s Marko Stunt and he’s 5’2. Sonny Kiss looks like the kind of guy who makes being gay their whole character while simultaneously railing against having characters defined by their sexuality. Like if Russel T Davies wrote a Bayard Rustin biopic. And everyone’s favourite brain damaged uncle, Tommy Dreamer. Neat-o.

Stunt is a fascinating height and weight combo. Like, clearly not a midget, but doesn’t look like an adult at all. It’s legitimately like watching someone bash a child from the outer suburbs.

Acey had been standing still for so long he blended into the horizon, but the suicide dive was nice. Luchasaurus rolls into the ring and literally lays there. This doesn’t stand out enough to look like anything deliberate, as though he were playing possum or something, it just looks like he edits a later spot into a part where it makes no sense.

Tommy Dreamer lobbing bin parts into the ring and hitting Luchasaurus is fun, gives a sense of genuine chaos as opposed to a bunch of separate theatre sports groups trying not to bump into each other. Now everyone lines up for their concussion syndrome.

As someone who loathes Vince McMahon’s bodybuilder fetish, it’s good to see a lot of smaller guys running around AEW. That said, Luchasaurus is a good and necessary counterpoint. No behemoths can be as dull as only behemoths, and some of my favourite matches are between different sizes. Case in point, the double choke slam on Private Party, watching a big guy try to do that to two also big guys is always sloppy.

Adam Page looks like if Tumblr drew Stone Cold. I know very little of him, aside from some NJPW work, and nothing has really stood out. Knowing that AEW intends to make him something big ups the expectation. His run to the ring and immediate dominance are a good opportunity to explore the difference between a story demonstrating something using its tools and storytellers relying on external tropes.

The two main tools wrestling has are the wrestlers and the commentators, what one does the other can elaborate on. Page comes down and starts beating people left-right-and-centre, why? He is not visually different, he’s not huge or anything that would otherwise set him apart and explain this, even Dreamer had his bin lid. Page even has a limiting factor, an injury, so we need to know why he can do so well.

Is it because he is the last guy out? Makes perfect sense, but the commentary doesn’t mention this to confirm it as part of the narrative, so we’re left with a guy doing the Top Tier battle royal clean-out just because. The audience never sees a reason why Page is this big deal, and the commentary never supplements our ignorance. He doesn’t even have the external record, like Moxley, to lean on. AEW hasn’t told us why Page is the new IT guy, there just has to be one and we know he’s been picked. This is narrative structure, trope, doing work that storytelling tools should be doing.

Conversely, Moxley and Juice Robinson have an upcoming match in NJPW and the first thing that fed did was address the fact that the pair fought when their new big guy, Juice, was an NXT jobber. Juice addressed this himself, via NJPW’s more sport like interview narrative tool, and stressed that prior jobbings were irrelevant, as he has trained very hard and changed a lot since then. This is using established narrative elements to explain why someone who was a jobber in one fed is a high tier guy in another, and why an upcoming match will be more competitive than prior ones.

This Page thing stands out a little more as he’s a friend of the people who run everything, and so far, that’s my biggest alarm going into AEW. Anything even veering in the direction of All Elite Wrestling being All About the Elite Wrestling is a concern.

Jungle Boy is trying to choke Chungus and it reminds me of the time I RNCd a huge Samoan neighbour.

Marko Stunt’s whole career is going to be getting thrown very long distances and I hope he makes tonnes of money doing it.

There’s gotta be a no-armed wrestler we can tape the no leg guy to. Dustin Thomas does a 619 and a neat slingshot 450, but the fact remains that there’s no viable way to have him be more than a novelty act.

Another storytelling thing, how does Brandon Cutler have the wherewithal to reverse Gunn AFTER he’s eaten a finisher? No-sells are okay in the tiniest of doses and for very specific narrative reasons. Cutler’s just some guy and he’s fine so I suppose the Assman’s ass ain’t what it used to be.

Per the Page point, Sleepy the Zen Commentator emphasises that MJF is doing well because he is a crafty opportunist. This fits with his dickbag persona and so now we have a meshing of personality and combat tactics which leaves us with a well-rounded wrestling character. I know what sort of things to expect from MJF, how he may structure situations and matches, or which ones may benefit him. These are proper storytelling tools.

Janela goes through a table in the best way possible. It looks like it was head first but I think he’s okay so it’s fine. While I’m on them, these tables are great. Wrestling tables run the gamut from Lucha Underground’s gimmicked and delicate ones to any rando indy fed using a veteran hall’s slab of oak that doubles as a bomb shelter. These are a great mix, solid looking but they break well.

Sonny Kiss gets Dreamer in a move I can only describe as the “Ha Ha, You’re Gay”, so I may have been wrong about some aspect of my earlier impression of him.

WRESTLING CANON ADDITION! Gay guy butts are the butt equivalent of Samoan guy heads. If you are hit by one, you lose, and even a straight butt user like Taguchi loses if his butt connects with gay butt.

I don’t know what an Orange Cassidy is or why he’s even in this match, but he amused me. Commentary explained him and his character better than they did Page.

Havoc bites fingers like the Melbourne emo tried to suck mine and we’re down to the meaty end of the royal, the characters who matter. See, this is how a battle royal can be used to create that upper tier, I now see these 4 guys –MJF, Luchasaurus, Havoc, and Page—as being the logical better guys by virtue of having fought their way to the most attention. Page still hasn’t leapt out though, as MJF has been in this thing from the start while he’s been napping for most of the 5 minutes he’s been in the ring.

Havoc busting out a shoryuken is neat. Luchasaurus’s low bridge was slow and lame.

Page’s buckshot lariat is a great move and something that would work better without a supposed knee injury. I want to emphasise, I have no issue with Page or his push. This is about me watching AEW and trying to learn about what it is and who is in it via what is presented. Page won with an injured leg, so I suppose he is pretty tough and has a lot of willpower. But he was the last entrant so he kind of had it easy. I know more about the character and wrestling styles of the not-quite-midgets, Twinkzans, gays, and various hardcore legends than I do the guy who won the thing.

Overall, the battle royal lived up to expectations. The modified rules are pointless and should be jettisoned. Change is only worthwhile if it adds anything and entrance interference is the sum gain from a needlessly complicated rule change so it’s not worth it. The match itself was the standard mix of fun spots and naptimes, but the overall plot arc of making Page the next title challenger was stunted by very poor characterisation.

Up next, Sammy Guevara and Kip Sabin. I have no idea who these two are so I’m looking forward to it. But that’s a tomorrow story.

By Gabe.

When it’s you

When it’s you

Professional Book Slammers

The point of interaction between created work and end user is a dynamic one. There’re a lot of reasons for making art and one of the most common is to create some kind of effect in the audience (there are exceptions but they’re not relevant here). So, this dynamic point is where someone or a group of someones’ intentions interact with another human. Dara Ó Briain has famously stated that this point of interaction is so pronounced in video games that they are the only medium to kick you out for not doing it right. A book doesn’t slam itself shut if you aren’t picking up on the themes. This is somewhat inaccurate, as the book will shut if you’re not getting it, it’s just the agent in this case is you. Videogames take what all other art does and makes it official.

In this, there is a lesson that there are rights and wrongs with art, and that sometimes the wrong party is you. Games make this clear and yet it is still such a difficult thing to get people to realize that sometimes the fault isn’t external. The blame for this process being harder than it should be lies with the types who lord their knowledge over others, or craft a thin personality from the illusory prestige that comes with swaddling oneself with socially constructed high art. But a third party making a point look bad isn’t the same thing as a point not existing. Sometimes it’s you. But to make this easier on you, the rest of this will be about how I’m the idiot.

We, Aaron and I, well, he, played Sekiro recently for some dumb YouTube channel and at the point when that video was recorded, I’d only played a little bit of the game. In this time, I had formed several thoughts about the nature of it, its pros and cons, and expressed a few of them over the course of the video. Being already aware of this as a problem already, I’d prefaced these with the disclaimer that my experience with the game was short, and my feelings did change over the course of the video (particularly in regards to the environment bounding). But by the time of this writing, I have played a lot of Sekiro and, over that time, learned just how much of the problem was mine.

It’s important to reflect on things like this because failing to runs you the risk of missing out on fun things as a consumer, saying dumb things as an internet talker, and/or not growing as a human. And god help you if you call yourself a fucking critic.

Cratin’ for Granted

Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’d be a good teacher of it. Much like how you don’t have to actively think about walking or getting a fork into your mouth, the things we practise a lot become automatic and we lose sight of them as they become parts of larger patterns. Remaining aware of these pieces is a key skill for educators. This is why watching my lady-friend, who only ever plays games like Factorio, play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has been a great refresher course.

There’s a point in Odyssey where your genetic VR avatar has to get a beam of light to point at something. Even if you’ve not played the game, this is probably already creating a picture in your head. Twisting and shoving a mirror about, that sort of thing. You’ve probably already solved it without even seeing it, and you’d be right. So I was concerned when my lady-friend was hopping all about the place and grumbling about how hard it was.

The kind of craftiness it would take to hide severe mental retardation from me would still require at least an average IQ, so I dismissed that as the problem. Then I sat there and watched. She jumped about, swung the camera over the obvious solution, didn’t see it, and jumped about some more. This repeated several times. Then I finally got it. The obvious “shove these things about” signals, like a bunch of rectangular and square boxes within a bounded shoving zone, were meaningless to her because she’d never seen them before. Show an illiterate tribe some words and it won’t even occur to them that they are a thing to be decoded let alone begin decoding them.

But this isn’t about her. This is about how long it took for me to figure it out.

Stand. Lion. Two Reeds. Stool. Twisted Flax. Folded Cloth.

The mistaken idea that hieroglyphs are ideograms, pictures representing ideas, is something that’s still fairly common today. It’s not an unfair thing to think, as few writing systems use characters that are so recognisable as representations of objects in the world, but they’re actually letters that represent sounds similar to modern alphabets (they can also be the things they represent as determinatives when combined with spelled words but that’s not relevant here). A researcher from the 5th century CE, Horapollo, is mostly responsible for this. He believed the writing system to be ideogrammatic and his treatise on it shaped its understanding until the Rosetta stone allowed proper translation in the early 1800s.

Prior to that, every attempt at understanding them began at an incorrect initial assumption which was only going to produce incorrect understandings.

I am very familiar with the languages videogames use to express themselves, but this does not mean I am immune to misunderstandings. Horapollo wasn’t malicious or even necessarily bad at what he was doing. He made a basically understandable mistake and that shaped his subsequent work. Illiteracy is not the only means of misreading, and this was my problem going into Sekiro. I was familiar with languages, even ones very close to the one I was currently reading, and this is typically something beneficial. Unless you’ve made an incorrect initial assumption.

Praise it.

The language of From Software games is distinct enough that, while perhaps not the originators of it, they are certainly now the most prominent speakers of it. It is something so profoundly identifiable and describable that one can almost know exactly what to expect when buying one, a fact reflected in their odd but dedicated fan base. It’s a language I love, but it was exactly that familiarity that brought me to fault in my understanding of Sekiro.

I am a Beef Unit. A cube of mass atop slow but sensible legs that can’t move out of the way of attacks but has since learned to absorb an awful lot of them. I tend toward this approach in my games as well, but this has been particularly prominent in my Dark Souls builds. I swaddle myself in thick armour, grab something large or long (the halberd was a favourite in DS1), and then wallop whatever is in front of me while showing little regard for nonsense like parrying or moving.

I beat all three of the Dark Souls series this way, without summoning, so while I’m not one of those lunatics who do a throwables only run using a disagreeable rat as a controller, I don’t consider myself bad at the series.

So in I dive to Sekiro. Like Horapollo, I am presented with things that very closely resemble things I am already familiar with, so I approach the game with tools I already have. Because Sekiro is so familiar in so many ways, I’m not actually listening to what it’s telling me, and what it is telling me is pretty bloody obvious when I went back over it.

Firstly, there’s no stamina bar. This should stand out. The absence of a whole meter should be fairly obvious, but I was still playing the game like I was a strong but otherwise out of shape goon in a metal shell. You don’t get to be too aggressive for too long when you’re gassed after 3 swings. Gabe, there is no fucking stamina bar in Sekiro. You don’t have to retreat to catch your breath, doing this just lets your enemies regain their balance, you are to press hard and parry when needed. The game is built around this aggression, you are not rewarded for the kind of fighting I’d used in Dark Souls and yet it took me ages to figure this out. By the time I did, I realised that formerly daunting bosses like Fatty Drunkospew were actually fairly simple.

Secondly, the parrying. This game doesn’t have dozens of possible forms of weapon and it doesn’t even have a shield, so the parrying is exactly one reaction point that is based around the point of impact. Couple this with the 60fps frame rate and, with a little practise, I was getting to understand the ways this, combined with the aggression, made for some excellent swordplay. One could poke and whittle an enemy’s life down but it was far more fun, though riskier, to learn parry patterns and push for the shinobi kill.

None of this was hidden behind a Byzantine series of NPC conversations. I didn’t have to look this up on a wiki. All of this was presented in plain English at the start of the game, but I was too front loaded with preconceptions to recognise it. I have seen many pictures of ducks, so when I saw another one, I failed to see any other possibility. And that is the important element here, the I. I failed to see something, the game didn’t fail to communicate it.

“I don’t know” is the first step toward wisdom

No games slam shut. You die, that’s it. The game is still there. It doesn’t uninstall itself and send your family your internet history on the way out. You just lose and don’t want to go back. Like the book, you are the agent of its ending, even if it is more explicit in telling you that you aren’t getting it. Sometimes you won’t want to go back because the game is a genuine piece of shit and there will be more of those than good games you mistakenly abandon.

But like with the hieroglyphs, this is teaching you an ultimately bad lesson. It turns you into a blind spot, the impossible option that makes every issue the fault of the art. To say every game is an unappreciated gem is obviously incorrect. To say you have never been wrong about one is as obvious. This goes for largely any work. I’ve returned to things I’d dismissed and immediately felt like an idiot for doing it. You gain nothing by defining yourself by terrible art you don’t engage in, so aggressively manning that wall will just cut you off from good things. I tend to be a little gentler in my approach today and that’s an approach I’d recommend as, after all, the problem could always be you.

By Gabriel

Content for the discontent

Content for the discontent

Alert your eyes and fire up those second-hand contraceptive sponges you call language centres because the following words are beyond your type’s usual communicative tools of wails and empty bean can throwing.

Well, it appears medical science can turn my father into a wriggling finger-pede and nourish a vast celebrity head as a pet but there are still some things beyond it. While this thankfully means we’re still in science-fiction country and haven’t yet veered into fantasy, the anti-vax of genres, it also means there are some sad things to report:

  1. There is no medical solution to that hacking mound of serpent pus, Janice.

And

  • They can’t fix Aaron’s spine.

Both of these vex me terribly. Janice’s awful lobster pupils radiate the kind of barely sapient pleading that makes you want to smash it out of its misery, and Aaron’s spine has the internal cohesion of an Eastern European state home to more than one ethnicity. I’ve tried everything, even attempting to shrink Janice down and install her as Aaron’s new vertebrae but the foul harridan’s base animal cunning was somehow triggered by the anatomically approximate spine dress I made her wear that day. Took me ages to knit, too.

I maintain Aaron should get heavily into opiates and take up jazz trombone, if you can’t beat ‘em; join ‘em, that sort of thing, but that’s also because I hold out hope he’ll shoot Janice in the face in an Oprah junk induced stupor. Ah, opiates for the middle class, brilliant idea, but I can’t listen to the sounds of them shoplifting a Wal-Mart so its trickle-down fun isn’t nearly as good as Heroin Classic.

At any rate, he’s wandering about, waiting for part of his brain to pity-fuck him some serotonin so there’s not much else going on. I could be doing things, but I won’t as that would give you an unhealthy level of expectation and you sightless cave mutants don’t even read the things I post anyway. I could probably get the Universal Translator to accurately configure my wordplay into something you’d grasp but I’d have to pay the fee for Universal Translator Pro™ for something that would wind up sounding like an anus vomiting.

But I know you dismal incels and she-incels are spoiled for choice when it comes to vaguely functional father figures to cling to like the hopeless remora you are, so I’ll throw you this thing I made and forgot about. You can print it and stick it to things, or just look at it if (when) that proves too complicated for you.

Dust is just jizz sultanas.

Gabriel.

Love in the Time of Solanum

Love in the Time of Solanum

A sandwich made with some kind of new, proprietary deli meat is always going to be seen in the shadow of the meat, with the experience of it as a whole obscured by the specific elements that compose it. ZombiU is in a similar situation, as part of the release crop of WiiU games it shoulders the burdens of being a “proof of concept” for a console with a lot to prove and standing as a game on its own. In the maelstrom of release mania, this is no small task.

Were I to draw something and hang it up with no other thought than self-expression the honesty of that act carries through. Were I to loudly proclaim that I was making art, draw something, label it “ART” then demand it be accepted as such the resulting picture, even if it were identical to the first, would be far more divisive. In this respect I think there is great value in returning to things once the hubbub has died down and ZombiU, with its unique approach to death, is worth taking a look at with post-hubbubian eyes.

Death of a player character in a game has never been an easy sell. When the structure of one’s interaction with a work is built on the idea that death is a failure, making death a part of the character’s story arc presents a number of inherent difficulties. Make it one of a number of possible endings and it will just be seen as a failure, the typical “bad ending”, meaning players will view it as a negative result of their improper play and invalidate it as an in canon element of the plot. In Resident Evil for instance, it is possible to let Jill/Chris and Rebecca get killed at various points in the game but this is not seen as the “actual” story by either players or Capcom wholly negating any emotional relevance it may have had.

The other alternative is to limit player control or remove it entirely with the endings of Red Dead Redemption and Mafia being respective examples of both. One puts you in a circumstance that it is a programmed impossibility to fight your way out of and the other is just a cutscene. The first time I encountered the former was at the end of the freeware Doom demo when you are teleported to a dark space filled with things that kill you. As a child I was certain that there was some way to avoid it and, much like the more recent generation’s attempts to revive Aeris, I pissed way too much time trying. To my young mind there simply had to be a way out because that was how games work, if you are dying you are doing something wrong and this trained mentality in gamers is what negates the programmed fail point as a viable character end. Ultimately, both are about taking control from the player and this never feels right. Like a character getting an off screen death in a viewed medium like film or TV, control removal is something that is so antithetical to gaming that it’s never really been pulled off. 

ZombiU works around this by changing a traditional aspect of gameplay/story interaction. Your in-game avatar is not the protagonist but the agency of the protagonist and dividing the vessels for player ego projection allows for an interesting and effective approach to the problem of in-game death. The story is not one of someone surviving, it is a story of someone trying to help other people survive and the result is that you are always playing as a supporting character. This is not a choice without risk, by doing this the creators relinquish a significant degree of control over the players emotional engagement with the game. After all, any circumstance where enjoyment of something is predicated on the player’s “correct” interaction with it is one where a player can have a perfectly valid negative experience. The flip-side is that when it does work it tends to be more fun than the ‘cheap pop’ of being the protagonist. Like the saga of Me, Firstarino and Supercoon.

I’m a raging egomaniac so no matter how much of my ego goes where in a division each side gets a lot. I genuinely didn’t want Firstarino (the clever name I’d given my first guy) to die because, even though it would have had negligible impact on game progress, I had projected enough to care about him. By the two hour mark, having killed and raided other player characters who’d not survived as well as myself, Firstarino and I had bonded so even though he was essentially just “a life” in a game with infinite of said, I didn’t want him to go. But go he did, in a suitably epic showdown involving a mounted gun that I stupidly didn’t reload. I lost a life, just a life and my first one at that but I felt bad about it, cursing my own stupidity and turning the game off to think about something else for a while. Upon returning I was introduced to my new life, a big, black security guard. Awesome, Supercoon.

Permit me to explain.

 The Supercoon phenomenon was something some friends and I noticed while watching loads of shitty 80’s and 90’s action films (and you’ll see it in a lot of games too). Most of them have some vast African American killbeast whose badassedness was what we could only assume was a misguided attempt at a positive portrayal. That negative/damaging stereotyping can involve superficially positive traits, “all Asians are good at math” for instance, didn’t occur to these filmmakers as they lauded a man, descended from slaves bred for physical utility, for his physical strength. This irony led us to dub the characters Supercoon, in a deliberate parody of any attempt at racial sensitivity that, due to a fairly basic misunderstanding, backfires wildly.

So in he and I stride to take on the zombie hordes with our mighty strength and righteousness honed through years of oppre—shit he’s dead already. Seriously, he lasted 20 fucking minutes and most of that was backtracking to get to where I had previously died. Now this death stung and serves as an example of what I mean about user controlled engagement. This was frustrating through nothing else than my own personal history. This character had no special background or relevance as far as the game was concerned and hadn’t done anything or been around long enough to otherwise care about. Despite this, his death had a significant effect on me. Supercoon was about to fuck shit up (in the good way), fucked shit up (the bad way) and got eaten. Later characters had similarly short lives but they didn’t matter as much because of what I had projected into the game.

Ultimately, as this is completely non-quantifiable element, it is hard to review its efficacy objectively but as it has the potential to give me such experiences I always appreciate the attempt. That and I never give anything approaching a shit when Mario falls down a hole, or I need to re-load a character after dying. By splitting the narrative and gameplay focus and by giving the ultimately meaningless agents a small degree of personality your in-game lives become more than just a number beside an “x”. This makes death relevant beyond a simple GAME OVER, while still maintaining direct player control. It’s something that I’ve not experienced (at least that I can draw to mind now) and it adds a unique element that makes it worthy of a look.

By Gabe