WrestleMania 33: Looking Up at the Lights, and Going Out on Your Back

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The Undertaker salutes the end of the greatest career pro wrestling will probably ever see. Credit: WWE

As someone who attaches emotion and meaning to everything I enjoy, WrestleMania is a very intense week for me, from the floods of tears during the Hall of Fame, to the Christmas-like anticipation for the event, to the awe I have watching it that will never go away. WrestleMania’s come and go, and whether they are good or bad, they are always significant – the platitudes about it being the ‘showcase of the immortals’ and ‘WrestleMania moments’ are, incredibly, not really exaggerated. I enjoyed WrestleMania 33 which I found to be consistently enjoyable, even if it lacked a real show-stealer match. The moment I can’t shift from my head (the reason we’re here) came at the very end, when Undertaker, after struggling to his feet following a loss to Roman Reigns, started to leave his gear in the ring. If there’s one thing Taker has always excelled at, it’s exuding meaning and emotion (despite often being near emotionless outwardly), and after he removes his hat for the final time, he takes this huge breath, a sigh not quite of relief, but of rest. The ride is finally over, and he can rest. I immediately burst in to tears.

I am going to write the qualifier I have seen several people write. The Undertaker wasn’t ‘my guy’, and yet there is something about him that seems to engender total respect and reverence. He’s not the best talker, but he is the best character; he’s not the best wrestler, but he does have some of the best matches ever. He understands wrestling and performance better than anyone, and takes it seriously, and everyone respects him for it. He might not be your favourite, but whenever you hear a gong, or see him toe to toe with someone, you know, almost by definition, that something significant is happening. He’s the best of pro-wrestling, and represents 20+ years of some of the most vivid, memorable years of it.

Perhaps that is why he is loved so. He has been a legitimising backbone of this crazy travelling roadshow we love and has dedicated himself to it longer, frankly, than his body would allow. He helped build WrestleMania and created many of it’s most special moments. His passing of the torch and leaving the ring no longer a warrior may well be a crucial moment in wrestling’s future, and it was sure one of the most moving in wrestling’s history.

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Undertaker, leaving his iconic hat and coat in the ring, symbolising the end of his storied career. Credit: WWE

Though I am more than happy to wax eulogistic about Undertaker’s career though, that beautiful end is only around half of the reason i’m writing this. Undertaker was the main reason I decided it was ‘now or never’ for attending WrestleMania 30 – I decided that I had to see him on his greatest stage before I lost the chance, I had to see that entrance. And I did. For that event though, I chose to wear a Bray Wyatt shirt. Bray has been a real darling of mine ever since I started watching him on NXT, and there are certainly similarities to Undertaker in him, mainly in his dedication to a character which bends the rules other characters play by, occasionally traipsing in to the supernatural. Wyatt, in fact, is a far better talker than Taker ever was, and with his commitment to every part of his character, I had never been so excited about the future of a wrestler and my related enjoyment of them.

The difference between him and Taker is, and remains, that it’s never really gone anywhere. At WrestleMania, I had the honour of seeing ‘The Streak’ broken, and the joy of seeing ‘Yes-tleMania’, but under that, I had the disappointment of seeing Wyatt fall to Cena when a victory could have really set him along the course of a phenom himself. The next year, Wyatt lost to Undertaker fairly handily to help Taker recover from the loss of the Streak, and then last year, Wyatt made the best of being booked alongside The Rock, but would never be able to overcome Rocky being important and easily murking him and his family. Wyatt has never won at WrestleMania, or really won a significant match on a big stage. His strength of character and performance though has seen him recover of late to the point where John Cena insisted on putting him over clean for the WWE Championship. A significant achievement for sure, but it lacks the historical significance that the real top guys have propping them up. The significance, say, of defeating The Undertaker in his final match.

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The Rock, delivering the People’s Elbow to Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 32 after quickly dispatching the rest of the ‘Family’. Credit: WWE

Writing this isn’t intended to throw shade at anyone other than the decision makers who booked Wyatt to lose this year, not even Orton, who probably could have spoken up to lose as Cena had earlier.

Part of the respect that the Undertaker commands without demanding it, is that he will always do what’s best for the business, and rule #1 in that regard is that, when you go out, you ‘go out on your back’, giving someone else the chance to profit from it, and by extension, the business. Roman Reigns has become something almost other to wrestling. For his part, Reigns has grown quietly but enormously as a performer, especially in recent months, and he was a big part of making Taker’s final match powerful and entertaining. He clearly hasn’t been handled quite right though, to the point where, regardless of his performances, he will be booed. Fans treat him like the most boring or lazy denominator almost regardless of what he does. Usually, the honour of ‘retiring’ The Undertaker would be the biggest lay-up of all time to stardom for a persons career, but whether that happens for Roman, remains to be seen. The hope is that either he will somehow inherit Taker’s inherent respect value (after all, this was a metaphorical transferring of ‘the yard’ to Reigns), or he can build a white hot heel run from his actions.

With Wyatt though, there is a feeling of complacency on management’s part in a way that may be due to his success at portraying the character. Losing in itself has never really seemed to damage Wyatt – he can always ‘turn it on’ and be mesmerising. But after years of constant losing on big stages, it’s hard not to see diminishing returns from him, regardless of his exceptional efforts. He recovered miraculously from it when he was reduced to comic jobber to The Rock, but this slip up when he had returned to his most powerful may be even more damaging.

Everything about his match at WrestleMania 33 seemed geared to be his moment, to showcase him in a way that suited only him. The most memorable part of the match was the recurring projections of imagery of death, disease, and pestilence on to the ring. Regardless of what people say in retrospect, coloured as it is by the match result, at the time, fans were losing their minds over this, including me. It was different, and though simple, was shocking due to both the fact it had never been done before, and the nature of the imagery. Initially, Orton and everyone else involved sold these projections. That is until Orton hit a trademark unexpected RKO for the win to become a 13 time champion. Wyatt falls short again.

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Though later mocked by some, the various visuals of decay projected by Wyatt on to Orton and the ring were shocking, and unlike anything ever seen before in WWE history. Credit: WWE

Again, with no disrespect to Randy Orton, why does he need a 13th championship here, at a time when Wyatt could have taken a big step towards lasting significance? The disgusting projections even provided him with a ‘get out’ for the loss. What do we get from this? Orton doesn’t need a win basically ever these days and can have whatever feud management want down the line. It has been suggested to me that this was the natural ending of the story – a point I understand, but it is also important to realise that sometimes (not often) the bad guy wins, and it could have lit a fire under Orton too. Meanwhile, Wyatt seems almost goofy for trying his antics in a loss. Even if he wins his rematch, it’s on a much smaller stage. If Wyatt wins this match as it was produced, he gets a big showcase win, a championship retention, and a memorable WrestleMania moment; what happened instead was people viewed him as a loser and started mocking the projections too. Once again, he was forgotten, looking up at the brightest lights there are, with management neglecting the gift he is. What happens to him in the weeks following this year’s WrestleMania and at next year’s Mania will be very telling about how damaging this was. I hope i’m wrong.

Most losses aren’t significant gestures to the future as Undertaker’s was, and it is there that him putting Reigns over in his final match will hopefully benefit him. There is a chance though, that it will just further complicate Reign’s relationship with the fans and be wasted. Further, Reigns is already treated like a top guy, and clearly will be going forward. It’s just a shame that another veteran in Randy Orton couldn’t put over Bray in a similar spot, and so the difference between Undertaker and Wyatt remains – one is an outlaw that went out on his back, and the other is a pretender that has been left on his back for three WrestleMania’s in a row. I can’t help but wish the stars had aligned a little differently, and the best Bray Wyatt had faced Underataker this year. Not only would their characters have gelled well once again, but Taker’s final sacrifice would have had the definite result of making Bray Wyatt, overnight, one of the most significant superstars in the world.

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After the fans were gone and the ring was being taken down, Undertaker’s hat and coat remained untouched in a startling and moving show of respect. Credit: @samirkh75387729 on Twitter

Thank you Undertaker.

 

 

 

 

How I Was Blindsided By The UK Championship Tournament and Fell Back in Love with UK Wrestling

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The scenes as Tyler Bate becomes ‘King of UK Wrestling’ Credit: Sky Sports

A recent article of mine considered the WWE’s UK Championship, what excited me about it, but more largely, what concerned me. I won’t rehash that here, but the result was a slight dampening of my excitement for the tournament. Nevertheless, I tuned in like a lot of interested fans from Britain and beyond, live over the weekend, and by the end of night two, I had joy in my heart, great memories, and a new top 5 favourite wrestler.

I have a lot of different interests in my life, as well as an increasing amount of obligations, and the result of that has been a real struggle to keep up with not only just indy wrestling but even WWE shows. On a weekly basis, I try to cover RAW, NXT, and Lucha Underground, and anything beyond that (usually ICW and the odd Japanese match) is a bonus. So going in to this tournament, I actually wasn’t that familiar with most of the field bar fellow Glaswegian, Wolfgang. While that is less familiarity than many of good wrestling twitter friends have with the field, I think it is probably the level of familiarity casual fans might have with the field, and it is from that perspective – among others – that I think this event was a success as many of these unfamiliar talents shone brightly and staked their claim to a future in the business. I will give do an annotated ranking of the field based on my impressions later, but first, I want to talk about the benefits of the tournament structure generally.

Watching the first night, I was enjoying the tournament. The setting of the Empress Ballroom, a place I have visited many times in my life having lived very close to Blackpool for a number of years, was perfect. Blackpool embodies the best flavours of the British style, it has a gritty glamour coming from a mix of carny magic, end-of-the-pier humour, and working-class hard work; and with William Regal overseeing it all, the setting was perfect. The wrestling was good too. Each match was fun, there were some cool, stiff spots, and there were some highlights including Jordan Devlin cheap-shotting Danny Burch for some major heat, and Pete Dunne’s end-of-show assault on Sam Gladwell which provided a nice narrative bridge over to night two. Maybe it is clear from my tone, but while I certainly enjoyed night one, I was by no means blown away. I was intrigued by Devlin and Dunne, but even then, it was still largely just a passing interest. By the end of night two, I was obsessed with Dunne. What I have since realised is that the careful booking of night one set up for a very powerful night two.

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The beautiful, historic, Empress Ballroom in Blackpool which hosted the tournament. Credit: Sky Sports

Tournaments of course build towards a final, so from a practical point of view, it makes sense for them to not blow the doors of night one and have to top it when it matters the next night, but at least in this case, night one played a very crucial role in setting the scene and defining the players. All 16 got to wrestle on night one and all 16 got to set out their stall and define their character and role in the tournament. Some who would go on to play major roles, including the eventual finalists, got to do even more between main-eventing and being the aggressor in the overnight angle, but everyone got to define their place in the tournament narrative.

As the tournament progressed to night two, the matches didn’t get any longer, but the intensity of the matches did grow, starting hot with the intensity of Sam Gladwell seeking revenge against Pete Dunne, Wolfgang and Trent Seven trading stiff shots and near-falls, Tyler Bate shocking himself against Wolfgang, and then stunning himself against the Bruiserweight. Just as the setting hearkened back to traditional British wrestling style (albeit with more contemporary move-sets), the booking was also very traditional, and that was at the heart of the joy of this event. Every match on night two was a pretty black & white face vs heel match up with the exception of Wolfgang vs Bate during which Wolfgang acted far more heelish than before in attitude if not in act; all leading to the undoubted top face taking on the undisputed top heel in the final.

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The tournament final with popular face Tyler Bate facing off against greasy heel Pete Dunne. Credit: WWE

As the tournament progressed and the pieces moved around, it became clear that the likely final would in itself also tell a very traditional story. Heel vs face, tutor vs student, and dastardly cheat vs injured hero. WWE on it’s grandest stages really struggles with this in the modern era, but this tournament and the finals exemplified how to do it perfectly. I want to talk about the individual wrestler’s later, but by the end of the show, Dunne had become a fascinating, must-see character to me. His actions were so cheap and brutal that he brought with him an electric anticipation and the promise of relished violence. Up until the semi-finals, many of the wrestlers had made an impression of me, but no one like Dunne – that was until Bate’s victory over Wolfgang with the crowd rising to their feet in unison as he hits his finish, at which point, Bate started standing out to me too as a great wrestler and determined babyface to counteract him. In the context of this tournament, they were made for each other.

I called Dunne attacking Bate from behind after the semi-finals – at this stage it would have been almost disingenuous for him not to, and that set up a traditional – almost cliche – story of the cocky heel cheating to get ahead and the injured face who is terribly injured and can’t possibly win but by God he’ll try anyway! Before the finals, I couldn’t see past Dunne winning, but as the story set itself up, it was clear it was only going one way, and despite the predictability of the result in that contextthe climax was no less satisfying. Dunne was undoubtedly the star of the show, but Bate became a star too and set up a very intriguing title picture going forward when the weekly shows start. The 19 year old incredible talent having a target on his back and a pissed off Dunne chasing him is going to make for a great challenge, especially as Dunne becomes more desperate.

I also have a more positive outlook about the upcoming UK WWE Network show now compared to when I wrote about WWE being potential cultural appropriators. I think the crucial element will be the the upcoming series will be produced in the UK rather than the US, and as a result, won’t have the same problem at least of unfavourably overlapping with the main roster. There won’t be any ham-fisted British section of RAW and Smackdown with red, white, and blue ropes or something. It will be a self-contained show from which i’m sure talent can be called up to the main roster, but otherwise, like NXT, it will be it’s own universe. It’s disappointing that the smaller home nations only had one representative each, and i’m not sure that Irish competitors should be included at all, so I hope that in future shows and tournaments that is rectified as each country certainly doesn’t have a lack of talent. There are also still issues around WWE defining British wrestling to a mainstream audience, but at the least, I am more confident that the show is going to be entertaining and successful without having to fit in with the whole other world of the main roster.

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Pete Dunne in maroon, fur, and with his mouth-guard which provides a unique look. Credit: Sky Sports

Since the end of the tournament, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, how great some of the talent is, when the regular show will start, and especially Pete Dunne, who’s understated and perfect ring music, I have been playing to myself all day. I started not knowing most of the talent and being a bit underwhelmed by the prospect, to having a new top 5 wrestler and being super excited about British wrestling and it’s place in the world. And all it took was simple storytelling and good wrestling. Fancy that.

So as promised, I will now rank (this is the world we live in) the wrestlers from the tournament, based purely on my memory of the tournament and the impression each man made. Some are at a disadvantage from losing in their first match, but that can’t be helped i’m afraid, and some still made a good impression despite that disadvantage:

16) Saxon Huxley
I don’t want to be too hard on Saxon as this was the first time I saw him, but he dropped like a lead balloon with me. His promo about believing society is an illusion and liking books seemed like a real stretch and didn’t translate to his action at all. He came out with a weird strange that just had me questioning his choices, and mixed with his wrestling not standing out much, he couldn’t get over with me. Maybe it works elsewhere, but this time, Huxley was just a joke – literally with many of my twitter pals.

15) James Drake
Drake suffered from being the second most important competitor in a pretty dull match after Cole couldn’t stop talking up his opponent Joseph Conners. Drake’s promo was by the numbers and he did nothing else to really stand out.

14) H.C. Dyer
Watching Dyer’s pre-match promo, I was quite interested in him. The calm way he described getting pleasure from striking people was interesting and gave him some intensity, though it seemed to be all he had. Though he smartly managed to translate the promo to his match with some nice striking, he got overshadowed by Trent Seven in a short match during which he didn’t do much to stand out.

13) Roy Johnson
Roy Johnson’s lack of experience told quite strongly in his appearance, both in the way he spoke and to a lesser extent, how he wrestled. He wasn’t a bad dance partner for Dunne though and he was at least offering something different to most of his contemporaries in terms of his ‘wavy’ gimmick. With some more experience he could be quite an exciting competitor, and he was a welcome change of pace in the field.

12) Dan Moloney
His high placement is almost exclusively due to his pre-match promo. Again, he was a good opponent for Mark Andrews, but that match was more about showing the high-flying Welshman. Despite that, Moloney’s intense promo about things he’d seen and how he had no regard for anyone else’s safety spoke to the sort of dark promo I generally like.

11) Joseph Conners
Conners was at an early disadvantage when Cole made him his early pick for the tournament. Though Cole gives off the impression of a respected and knowledgable veteran announcer (which he os of course), his history of nonsense and general lack of popularity makes him, for lack of a better term, an uncool person to be associated with. His opening match with James Drake wasn’t much to write home about though he elevated his game against Andrews in the second round. Some decent working, but another somehat bland character that said he was intense more than showed it.

10) Tucker
Tucker didn’t get much of a chance to showcase himself being in only one match, but he was a good part of a good match with Tyler Bate which headlined the show. Bate was the star of it, but he was helped by Tucker who made it a good match and seemed like he could go over. His Super Duper Kick looked good and he could no doubt play a good role in future outings.

9) Trent Seven
This is probably a lot lower than most would have him. Seven is clearly loved by parts of the crowd, and as a wrestler, he has a pretty cool stiff style, but from the start, he rubbed me up the wrong way. His character is that he has facial hair. It’s basically all he talks about, and it’s hardly even unique when you consider there is Tyler Bate in this tournament and Jack Gallagher elsewhere in WWE who gets how to do a full-blooded gimmick that involves that sort of aesthetic rather than the aesthetic being the gimmick. If Trent Seven shaves his facial hair, who is he? Another good wrestler.

8) Danny Burch
Danny Burch made quite a leap here. On NXT, he has had impressive moments, but is basically a jobber. Here, he was in the shape of his life, and played a gristled veteran perfectly. He wrestles very neat and powerfully and seemed a totally different prospect here. I was surprised that he went out early in fact because it seemed there were more depths to mine with him. Hopefully he can take that veteran edge to upcoming shows if he doesn’t go back to NXT.

7) Tyson T-Bone
Tyson T-Bone was totaly unlike the rest of the field, even the ones who stood out because this guy just seemed like a guy who got by with fighting. I don’t know if there are many travellers who have made it to the wrestling scene because it seems like it would go hand in hand with it traditionally, but it seems pretty unique. Tyson had a really warm rogue style character and gave us the line that he asks the Virgin Mother for forgiveness whenever he hits someone. He managed to somehow mesh well with the more traditional style of Wolfgang and had a good match.

6) Sam Gladwell
When I first saw Sam Gladwell, he was a little close to home. As I mentioned I used to live in the area of Blackpool, and he just seemed a little too earnest while seeming quite pale and even sickly. Boy though, Gladwell really got over with me, partly with thanks to others and booking. His first match wasn’t anything too incredible, but after being attacked by Dunne, he came back the next night with a great intensity. His match with Dunne was really good, and he played his character of pissed off victim looking for revenge but falling short perfectly. He went from being a bit of a local goober to being a fiery local hero.

5) Jordan Devlin
Ignoring the fact that Devlin isn’t British, he started off in a bit of hole resulting from his pre-match promo where he talked about being Finn Balor’s student – the problem being that he styled himself almost exactly after Balor. Given how he acted later, that may even have been an intentional setup to a frustrated character. His match with Burch was hard hitting and fun, and though the finish was quite confusing, it made an impression. I thunk the blood was probably a coincidence which further muddied the water, but the dusty finish was something Devlin totally took advantage of. The superkick after the match made an impact, but what I liked more was his post-match promo in which he complimented himself on a ‘convincing’ victory. Great heel stuff and part of a good match.

4) Mark Andrews
I don’t want to be too disrespectful but I found Mark Andrew’s character pretty milquetoast with his high-fivin’ antics. Saying that, Andrews sttod out in the ring. More than a high flyer, he did high-flying things that were extra impressive and crisply executed. Each of his matches were strong to very strong and he got over pretty well. He reminded me a lot of Evan Bourne, leading me to calling him Ifan Bourne (sorry), but that’s certainly no insult.

3) Wolfgang
I’m pretty biased here in that Wolfgang was the only wrestler i’d seen significantly before the tournament, and I generally enjoy ICW, and always enjoy Glasgow folk, but here, Wolfgang sure cemented himself as a big talent. There are a lot of big hairy Scottish guys, and many are talented, but Wolfgang has that and more. He showed off his entire moveset at the tournament, flipping all over the place and no matter how much you see that, it’s always amazing seeing someone with that sort of body do that. We also proved himself really easy to like, but when he went up against Bate who got more adulation, took it in his stride and acted in a more heelish manner. He certainly impressed and was one of the most memorable parts of the show.

2) Tyler Bate
Tyler Bate was a slow burner with me. Though I like the thing in his promo where he names his different fists and showed how he’s sucker punch people with his left (that’s a Stan Laurel move, by the way), the way he delivered it was kinda lame. His match with Tucker was good, but it was really his semi-final with Wolfgang where it all came together. The clash of styles was fantastic, and Bate started to show a really deep and emotional level of wrestling. I will never forget that moment, not when he gets the 3 count against Woflie, but when he gets him up for his finish because the crowd goes WILD with anticipation for him winning. That is a specific kind of magic that only wrestling can create, and it was the start of an emotional final chapter of the night. Him getting over his teacher while carrying a severe injury was, as I say, cliched, but it was the right move and it really worked. He is a great choice for champion, and for crying out loud, he’s only 19. He could be a very big deal in the future.

1) Pete Dunne
And then we have Pete Dunne. In retrospect, I noticed Dunne from the start. It’s just a small thing, but in the promotional videos before the event, there were glimpses of each guy, and with respect, about 10 of them look very similar to each other. The person who stood out to me each time was Dunne with his mouth guard. I didn’t think much of it, but now it’s clear that that’s just part of what makes him great. Dunne had my attention at the end of the first night, but even then, it just seemed like an interesting angle, but by the end of the night, he was the most intriguing, exciting talent by quite a long way. One thing that was clear even after the first night though was the magic chemistry he has with Regal. Wearing maroon, intense, dastardly, and wrestling incredibly stiff, the comparison is impossible to ignore. People come up with dream matches for Regal consistently, but this is the one that makes most sense, and if Regal does have one more match in him, this would be perfect. Dunne is like a second coming of Regal, but with his own edge on the character – he has a lot of Regal’s qualities, but adds a level of impatience and entitlement which make him all the more slimy and easy to dislike. There’s so much more, and I won’t write at too much length about it, but from not being afraid to look slimy and horrible with his hair all over the place and the effect of the mouth-guard, to following through on his character away from the promo which is something a lot of the guys here didn’t do. In his promo, he said that he wouldn’t let anyone get in his way to his title, and he showed this throughout the tournament. He beat up Gladwell to get an advantage, he attacked Bate from behind to get an advantage, and then mercilessly went after them to try and win. For all the talking each wrestler did, too, I would argue that it was only really Dunne who stood out as consistently dangerous and brutal. The short Japanese history he refers to in his promo shines through in the way he suplexes and throws people down or on to things, melding it with the traditionally British trait of using the ring as a weapon. He fell short in the tournament, but I think it could create even more of a monster. To me, this is the most exciting wrestler in my universe right now.

A Round-table On WrestleMania 32 and It’s Divisive Build

 

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The poster for this year’s WrestleMania at JerryWorld, credit: WWE

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about Daniel Bryan, his career, and the magical but fleeting zenith of it that was WrestleMania 30. In that article, I mentioned the probability of writing about this year’s ‘Show of Shows’, though at the time, I didn’t have a handle on what to write about. Now, just days before Mania, I’m still struggling to grasp how I feel about the show, and it strikes me that – to differing extents – that is how I’ve felt about the builds to each WrestleMania for the past three years, starting at that show.

For this article, I had initially planned something snappier than the veritable essay I wrote about The Last of Us, but this being about what I warmly refer to as ‘The Real Christmas’, I’ve decided to take a page from Vince McMahon’s dog eared playbook and bring in some big names for a one-shot deal to write about this year’s WrestleMania. Of course that means this is going to be lengthy, but I think the insights of these wonderful, smart, and funny people will provide some insight on to how WrestleMania has come to be of late. Before we get to them though, I’m going to introduce my point of view to measure it against as I get the feeling that this year’s show has had a wider, though not necessarily fervent, range of feelings towards it.

I don’t know if this is a trend I have convinced myself of, but it seems like after WrestleMania 29, the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ became a bumpier and more fluid place. Before that, once the Royal Rumble was done it felt like WrestleMania matches were set in stone. Approaching WrestleMania 30, until the latter stages of the build, it seemed like we were getting Orton-Batista, only for the collective will of fans and probable reactionary nous of WWE brass to enter Daniel Bryan in to an equation which left the main event unclear until after the show was underway. Since then, the Road to WrestleMania has had the air of a negotiation period between fans and WWE bookers with WWE offering fans a main event, fans weighing up their approval of the players involved and voting with their cheers and boos regardless of the presentation before them.

This isn’t right of wrong necessarily, it just feels different, but there certainly are pitfalls of this form of build. The Royal Rumble, unfortunately, has become a referendum on Roman Reigns over and above the great, open-ended spectacle it once was, in which Reigns enters, is booed relentlessly until he is eliminated, and whoever squares up against him is instantly supported. This has led to nothing short of surreal scenes two years running at The Rumble, both associated with Reigns. Last year, the near unimaginable happened when fans drowned Reigns and a bemused looking The Rock of all people in boos after Roman won his WrestleMania shot. Conversely this year, Triple H became a hero to the people, somehow, simply for stopping Reigns from winning. I still enjoy the Rumble, but their Reigns-centricity has been an unfortunate turn for it of late. What’s worse, is i’m not sure how to even fix the trend.

On top of the effect on the Rumble generally, I think this veil of negotiation, whether or not it’s just a mirage cultivated by the WWE, has led to a climate in which WrestleMania can strike gold, as it did in New Orleans, but which I fear could also fail just as spectacularly. This year, my main feeling about WrestleMania is one of confusion. I’m confused about how to feel about Reigns and Triple H, I have no idea what is going on between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, I’m not exactly sure what The New Day are, and I don’t understand why Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens can’t just slug it out without five others, including Zack Ryder, sharing the ring with them.

I think Reigns has a heap of potential, but it is clear that something isn’t working. His spectrum of responses go generally from mild approval to the tunnel vision hatred of the crowd from the go-home RAW. Meanwhile, the booking alterations to address this seem to be miniscule while Reigns himself still seems on auto-pilot most of the time. Meanwhile, contextually, Trips is still ‘The Authority’ heel, but when he’s intense, committed, and when he’s beating Reigns down, he is beloved. At this stage, it would seem simply tone-deaf to give us the Reigns victorious confetti ending and the program appears to be crying out for some deus ex machina similar to that of Seth Rollins closing last year’s show.

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Reigns cashing in Money In The Bank and keeping the title from Reigns turned a good, fun show, in to a great show, credit: WWE

At least contextually, the Reigns-HHH story follows rough logic; the Shane-Taker feud is perhaps the most confusing main event program WrestleMania has ever seen. Shane-O got a great response upon his return because people associate him with some cool moments, and genuinely missed him because he is kinda goofy and hasn’t been seen from in years, but by the end of the night, it was buried under a brow-furrowingly strange match-up with The Undertaker. Against most people, Shane would be a loveable fan favourite (in an alternate universe, Shane vs Triple H would be a logical barnstormer), but against The Undertaker, he is sharing the spotlight with the WrestleMania G.O.A.T. respected by all in a feud that is full of sizzle but bereft of meaning, with more equaling less. Between the high stakes that stink of contrivance, and the splitting of loyalties between the combatants, it is hard to find the hook for this. I like the idea of Shane sticking it to Vince (at least in kayfabe) and changing RAW, which is a weird thing to tease fans with if it isn’t to happen, but especially at WrestleMania, I don’t want to see Taker lose to Shane, especially with the caveat that it would trigger it being his last WrestleMania. I respect Shane and the crazy things he does, but I just wish he was doing it against someone else. To make it worse, Shane has sounded monotone and shaky throughout, his words not matching his actions, while The Undertaker just seems to be moving through it all, a pawn on a bigger board. Of course, part of that is intentional, but the effect that should have of creating intrigue hasn’t come to pass as a result of the strange ingredients surrounding it.

The fact is, WrestleMania 32 will probably be great. Intrigue for WrestleMania 31 wasn’t in a much better state than this year’s until the end of the event and Seth Rollins’ intervention. I won’t go off half-cocked on the idea that WWE may be restling on laurels in the knowledge that people will watch Mania because they are subscribed to the WWE Network or can get access to the Network for free; but I will say that I get the feeling that their successes in the last two years with standout Manias that succeeded almost in spite of their developmental build process has made WWE somewhat complacent about this year’s show. Is a great WrestleMania worth a build process that involves months of mostly bland TV focused on manipulating and alienating fans just so the big event can succeed in response? More importantly, what happens if WWE can’t replicate the magic of this recent formula and WrestleMania 32 isn’t even that good? What do we have left then?

So wrapping up my part of the article, I will go through what I care about on the show, what I want to happen, and what I think will happen before handing over to my friends and comrades. I won’t be reading what they write before me, and will only minimally edit, so similarities in opinion can be read as something of a trend (within a tiny microcosm of course).

What I Care About At WrestleMania 32
I’m currently most looking forward to Ambrose vs Lesnar. Lesnar and Heyman are Lesnar and Heyman. Heyman’s hype is always second to none at this time of year, and Lesnar is easy to hype as he retains the impression at all times that he might tear someone apart. Here, his journey from amused, condescending humouring of Ambrose to someone who he wants to tear apart because he won’t go away has frequently been the most intriguing part of the show and Lesnar has been a great adversary for Ambrose to grow against. For the first time in months, Ambrose was able to show what the ‘Lunatic Fringe’ is beyone a haircut-sounding piece of marketing and stands above all others as someone willing to throw his body in to the meat grinder because he loves it and it’s all he knows. The street fight stipulation helps the match too as it legitimately plays to Ambrose’s character against the prize-fighting Beast, gives Ambrose legitimate hope in the match, and promises a degree of grindhouse insanity.

The second match I particularly care about is the Divas title match. The build has spun it’s wheels a bit for the last few weeks, but the mixture of the history and chemistry the women have in-built from NXT mixed with Charlotte’s coming in to her own as a condescending, fathered-in heel, the clear fun that Becky Lynch is having while clearly passionate, and Sasha showing glimpses of the true ‘Boss’ while interacting with Becky has made this feel like a fulfilling feud that should culminate in an exciting match.

I’m excited about Jericho and Styles, and seeing Zayn and Owens on the big stage, but both aren’t so developed that I am especially looking forward to them as perhaps WrestleMania demands. Saying that, I think if we get the best of Jericho, his match with Styles could be an absolute show-stealer.

Also, the New Day’s entrance and potential fourth partner.

What Do I Want To Happen at WrestleMania 32
I think this Mania will live or die, believe it or not, based on the success of it’s main event. While i’m most baffled by the Shane-Taker feud, I think it is so baffling that it can almost get away with being OK as long as Shane gets in some sports, no one gets hurt, and we move on. On the other hand, while I do like Reigns, I couldn’t help but have a bit of an empty, disappointed reaction to him overcoming the odds, surrounded by confetti. Triple H seems to be in amazing shape, and I trust him implicitly to tear it up, but Reigns needs to do something new – not necessarily because he’s doing something wrong, but because the fans – rightly or wrongly – will reject it out of hand if he doesn’t.

If it was up to me, I would certainly be looking at the double-turn. Triple H’s recent promos about obsession, and striving to be the best is easily translated to a more sports-like heroic figure, fighting for the company and ‘sport’ he loves. I’d like to see Reigns give in to his petulance and not be able to take down Trips legitimately while we see Hunter give everything he has to succeed. I think Reigns has to win in these circumstances, and rob Triple H of the title. If i’m being really greedy, I would love to see this trigger a road to where Triple H becomes an authority figure more like we have at NXT – a respected veteran who genuinely wants what’s best for business, and does it with a nod to respect and fairness. Reigns’ turn can perhaps be linked to whatever the result of the Shane/Taker match is. The embittered loser of the battle between Shane and Vince could take Reigns corner as a heel, proclaiming him as the future of the company and a way to keep an investment in the company following the event. That may be a step too far, but if done well, it could give the event as a whole a cool narrative thread.

What Do I Think Will Happen at WrestleMania 32
The only thing I am particularly confident about at the event are that The New Day will beat The League of Nations given the gulf in interest and popularity between the two teams.
Beyond that, I simply don’t see Shane beating Taker, so ridiculous would that be at WrestleMania.
And for the main event, it just seems like Reigns is nailed on to win as Triple H only makes sense as champion almost as a metaphor. The question is whether Reigns wins as a face or heel, and that i’m not really sure of. WWE have done a good job in recent years of delivering great WrestleManias in spite of their own booking and build, and I do trust them to do that, so I see Reigns winning in a way that is somehow less than pristine.

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Ambrose seems primed to shine on the big stage, win or lose. Credit: WWE

Luke Healey (@pitxapillar)
More will be written about this one day, but the era of wrestling we currently find ourselves in – common wisdom has it that Grantland columnist David Shoemaker coined the term “reality era” in the aftermath of 2011’s Money in the Bank PPV, but looking back it appears Shoemaker initially favoured the phrase “worked shoot era” – is defined no matter what you call it by repeated attempts on the part of management to negotiate hostile crowd responses to the product. If the rebellion against a stale main event scene incited by CM Punk in his now-legendary “pipe bomb” promo that year set the precedent for arena crowds crossing the streams of kayfabe and vocally demanding that the “workrate” guys get a look in on the upper-card spots typically reserved for the “body” guys, it was Daniel Bryan that pushed this phenomenon to its peak in the three years that followed.

Wrestlemania XXX was not the end of the story, however: somehow, despite the clear signalling from WWE that they had taken note of the relative crowd reactions to appearances by Bryan and Batista (who was supposed to be the brightest star on that year’s mega-card) and had adjusted their plans accordingly, we are still witnessing the kind of booking that made the “pipe bomb” and the “yes movement” seem so necessary and so vital in their moment. The decisions that made Roman Reigns’ rise to the top of the company by contrast seem inorganic and ill-advised don’t need to be rehashed here; what is most significant in the build-up to this year’s Wrestlemania is that this time the WWE don’t appear to be prepared to pull out any measures to adjust course in the wake of Reigns’ increasingly calamitous audience reception as the company’s apparent top babyface.

The legacy of the previous two years’ Wrestlemania shows has been decided by thoughtful kayfabe responses to real problems with hostile crowds: in 2014 Bryan was worked into the main event via a choreographed fan “occupation” of Raw and a match of the year candidate with Triple H, and last year Seth Rollins’ deux ex machina run-in with the Money in the Bank briefcase spared WWE from either having to hand Reigns a defeat in his first Wrestlemania main-event or to find out what a smark-filled Levi’s Stadium sounds like when a man the crowd refuses to love gets the win over a competitor that had been for a year been built up as nigh-on indestructible.

The build to both these events was fraught at best and laughable at worst, but the last two Wrestlemania cards ended up delivering in a big way; it might not just be a case of recency bias when fans repeatedly proclaim these two shows to be among the best in Wrestlemania history. Which begs the question, how do the WWE pull it out the bag this time round, having passed up the opportunity to work Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar into the main event, and without the convenient device of a Money in the Bank cash-in? The WWE title match is one of the less promising matches on the card, but we’re not dealing here with something in the nature of The Rock and John Cena’s main events in 2012 and 2013; for all that the New Day’s first appearance on the Wrestlemania main show, the seven-man ladder match, the Ambrose-Lesnar street fight and, most notably, the triple threat match for the soon-to-be re-branded Divas’ Championship seem like the best bets for all-out pro wrestling gold, finding out what becomes of Reigns’ push is still an extremely interesting proposition. Fans, performers and bookers are still finding their way through the corridors that Punk and Bryan, to say nothing of NXT and its indie-inflected alumni, built in the first half of this decade, and this year’s Wrestlemania can’t help but go a long way towards showing us where we’re all at – assuming the company’s top brass are inclined to listen.

Team Total Divas vs Team BAD & Blonde
This match is mainly interesting because of the sudden introduction of two women – Emma and Eva Marie – that have lately been developing their character work effectively down in NXT. I sort of assume that from now on every call-up will have a proper fanfare, but I guess the two of them had already appeared on the main roster in any case. Have they explained yet what Lana’s beef is with Brie Bella?

Kalisto v Ryback
Going off what people have said about their Smackdown match last year I fully expect this to be an entertaining affair but the pre-show slot is hardly a vote of confidence for either man, especially given the pomp and circumstance with which the US title match was introduced last year.

Andre Memorial Battle Royal
It’s quite obvious that this is where Bray gets given something to do. Hopefully he, Rowan and Strowman get embroiled in some faction warfare with the Social Outcasts, leading down the line to Bo Dallas becoming the Wyatt he was born to be.

AJ Styles v Chris Jericho
It’s the sort of thing that would look careless in other circumstances, but I quite like that the build to this match is based off a number of recent in-ring encounters. There’s an effective asymmetry to the idea of a fourth match that spills out of the best-of-three series as a result of personal vendetta. On the other hand, we’ve seen these two pull out all the stops numerous times before, so I can’t see how this match ends up anything other than overshadowed.

Kevin Owens v Sami Zayn v Dolph Ziggler etc. etc.
I’m glad they’re not rushing into the Owens-Zayn blow-off in their respective first Wrestlemania appearances, but there are other aspects of this match which I seriously regret. Neville belongs here, but so does Tyler Breeze, and a match bringing together more former NXT talent (Sin Cara and Zack Ryder don’t count) would have made for a very effective use of this stipulation. Will still be fun, obviously.

New Day v League of Nations
All I want from this is for The New Day to ride out on unicorns, gradually parting to reveal their mystery fourth man, who pulls up in a golden unicorn-drawn chariot…it’s their captain, Seth Rollins.

Charlotte v Sasha v Becky
The news about the WWE’s decision to follow NXT in ditching the “Diva’s” label and bringing back the Women’s Championship is great news, as is the suggestion that this match might get a full twenty minutes. This needs to be the first example of a properly long, emotive, high-stakes NXT-style women’s match on the main roster, and I’m sure it will be. I’d love to see Sasha walk out as champion, but there’ll be plenty of time for that down the line.

Ambrose v Lesnar
Probably the most exciting match on the card. There’s a real sense of narrative purpose and momentum to this one, and the outcome is unpredictable. They’re teasing blood and gore, so I’m hoping for something that comes close to the drama of the “Grave Consequences” or “Cero Miedo” matches from the last season of Lucha Underground. I’m fairly sure this is the match that cements Ambrose as one of the company’s top stars for years to come.

Shane v Taker
You have to look through the recent booking short-cuts and think about this match in terms of its utter strangeness, a strangeness which was more palpable when Shane made his initial return last month. Shane McMahon. Wrestling the Undertaker. Inside Hell in a Cell. What!? This could go all over the place, both literally and figuratively, and is unmissable despite all the narrative mis-steps that have been made in the build.

(Editor’s note: Also check out Luke’s writing archive on tumblr, whatever that is).

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WrestleMania has a lot more to compete with these days, including bona fide dream matches under it’s nose. Credit: WWE

Adam Wilson (@gingerpimernel)
(Disclaimer: I make no pretense of being an impartial journalist. This simply predictions for each match, and what I’m looking forward to most, and who I want to win)

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Wrestlemania. The Grandaddy of Th-REDACTED: Wrestlemania is henceforth the Extremely fit and virile young man of them all looms. Biggest wrestling night of the year, easy. It’s become a thing unto itself, with independent companies from throughout the US around the world, converging on whatever city The Big Yin is running in. Even around the world, such as here in the UK, companies run shows on the night with screenings afterwards. It’s a great time to be a fan. Even if WWE isn’t your cup of hot beverage, there’ll be something on for you.

Truthfully, I feel underhyped. I’m more excited for the shows I’ll attend in person that day (Fierce Females and ICW, in that order), and definitely more so for NXT Takeover, because, y’know, SHINSUKE NAKAMURA. It’s not that I think the matches will be bad, far from it. It’s just the stories leading into it that haven’t gripped me personally (I watch shows to be INTO them, not to sit and go “Ooh, he’s selling that move well!”). Then again, people are daft about the Shane McMahon stuff and I don’t like The Rock, so what do I know anyway? That said, there is stuff in there I’m excited about, and the spectacle itself is always fun. Still no idea how they’ll top last years ‘OMG RUSEV IN A TANK’, but let’s take a look.

(note: I’ve no clue what the running order is, so I’m just going to do them in the order they’re listed on Wikipedia)

US TITLE MATCH: KALISTO VS THE RYBACK
Consensus seems to be this’ll be on the pre-show, and that’s probably fair. Not much of a build other than Ryback going “Here, you’re good and all, but I’m The Big Guy, and Big Belts For Big Guys”. Despite the slagging Ryback gets online, this’ll probably be a fun enough match. Wee flippy guys like Kalisto are usually a good foil for big guys (but for The Big Guy? Who knows?), David ‘n Goliath and all that. Anyhoo, my money’s on Kalisto to win.

THE TOTAL DIVAS VS B.A.D. AND BLONDE
Again, lifting that name off Wikipedia, and I got confused at first because I went “Here, Naomi and Tamina aren’t even remotely blonde”, until I cottoned on that it’s ‘B.A.D.’ as in Team B.A.D., AND Blonde, as in blonde lassies, because I’m a bit slow sometimes. Folk are moaning about Eva Marie making the save, as if WWE want folk to like her, even though her partners treated her arrival like a fart in a lift. Hopefully, like with NXT, they’ve realised no one likes her and play to that. Still shocking she gets a Wrestlemania payday and Bayley doesn’t though. B.A.D. & Blonde to win, probably with Lana pinning Brie Bella.

THE USOS VS THE DUDLEYS
I keep forgetting this one is happening. Which is a shame, because The Usos are fun as hell. Not really much to say about this one, other than I hope The Usos win to continue the ‘old Attitude Era duffers getting battered by the new breed’ thing they seemed to start at Wrestlemania 30.

(now I’m switching to reverse Wikipedia order, because otherwise I’ll finish on New Day v The League of Nations, and that CLEARLY isn’t main eventing)

THE NEW DAY VS THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
The League of Nations confuse me, but then again, WWE’s historic “Multiculturalism? BOOOOO!” attitude generally does. I really like Barrett, and LOVE Rusev, and want better than this for them, but I cannot bring myself to cheer against The New Day, who’ve consistently been the most entertaining thing on WWE TV for the best part of a year now. That said, League of Nations will probably win, because there’s more of them, which I’m OK with because the titles aren’t on the line, and The New Day need to keep those FOREVER.

ANDRE THE GIANT MEMORIAL BATTLE ROYAL
So who’s all in this? From what I’ve seen/remember, The Social Outcasts, Kane, Big Show, Darren Young, The Ascension… and I can’t remember anyone else offhand. According to this handy and informative Wikipedia article, Tyler Breeze, Mark Henry, Jack Swagger, Fandango, Damien Sandow, Goldust, & R-Truth have also been announced. I know they’re building the whole Kane/Big Show “we’re huge so your efforts to hurl us out are FRUITLESS” thing, but let’s face it, they’ve lost nearly every Over The Top style match they’ve ever been in. My pick here is Curtis Axel of the Social Outcasts, because it’d be an amazing tribute to his dad, after the lovely one he did on Raw the other night.

AJ STYLES VS CHRIS JERICHO AGAIN
I find it a bit weird this is on without a stipulation, given the amount of times it’s happened already. 2/3 falls maybe? It’ll be good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done to death. Also, while I’m at it, their bit on Raw was weird. AJ Styles coming out like “I’m not going away and I’m going to chant obnoxiously til I get what I want” is the logic of a four year old throwing a tantrum, and should not be encouraged. Meanwhile, Jericho initially refuses the challenge, which’d mean no Wrestlemania match, because he doesn’t believe they should, so he’s actually a man getting booed for putting his principles ahead of monetary gain. Weird. Anyway, this’ll be good and AJ Styles will win.

INTERCONTINENTAL TITLE MULTIMAN MATCH
Again, thrown together and weird, but it’ll be heaps of fun. I didn’t like that Sami Zayn’s first pinfall over Kevin Owens was not only in a throwaway match on Raw, but didn’t actually get mentioned. To be honest, I can’t decide between Sami and Owens here. I can’t see any of the other guys winning it, but I’d prefer a Zayn title win over Big Kev to be one on one, so I’ll go with Owens for the victory. Also, non Shane O Mac mad bump of the night will probably go to Ziggler.

DIVAS TITLE MATCH: CHARLOTTE VS BECKY LYNCH VS SASHA BANKS
Of all the matches, this is probably the one I’m most looking forward to. I really want Becky to win this (even though my head says Sasha will), but most of all I just don’t want Charlotte to win, and nothing makes  a match more exciting than caring about the outcome. Anyway, between here and NXT, they’ve all shown they have great chemistry together, and in my opinion Sasha and Becky are two of the best wrestlers on the roster, regardless of gender, so this should be fantastic.

SHANE MCMAHON VS THE UNDERTAKER
I realise I’m overwhelmingly in the minority here, but I don’t really care about this one. As I said in the previous match, nothing draws you into a match more than caring who wins, and honestly here, I don’t. I’ve always felt a bit ’emperors new clothes’ when it comes to Shane. He’s done breathtaking dives and that, but as is so often said in wrestling, you should care about the person taking the dive, not the dive itself. The idea of Undertaker having a competitive match with him is baffling to me. That said, if Shane wins, and it puts an end to the era of the heel GM/authority figure on Raw, I’m all for it. Even more so if the prediction I saw that this is how they’ll debut Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows is actually correct. So aye. Shane to win here, probably, unless he doesn’t.

BROCK LESNAR VS DEAN AMBROSE
This is the other match I’m really looking forward to. Brock Lesnar, by virtue of being Brock Lesnar makes near enough any opponent he has an automatic underdog, and Ambrose is built for that. Taking every hit the most powerful man in wrestling can give, before laughing, thumbing his nose at Paul Heyman, and sticking his tongue out and waggling his fingers on the end of his nose at Lesnar, before being suplexed into Row Z or something. And not Row Z at the AT&T Stadium, but wherever they’re hosting Raw. And not the post-WM Raw, but one in like, three weeks. That said, Ambrose is my pick to win, so they can finally make him The Man, when he topples his BFF Roman Reigns, right? Right?

Let me dream, FFS.

TRIPLE H VS ROMAN REIGNS
I’m really trying not to be negative here, but I’m struggling to think of a Wrestlemania main event I’ve cared less about that didn’t contain The Miz or The Rock (nothing against you lads if you’re reading, but *blows massive raspberry*). Again, I’m sure it’ll be a good, physical match, I just don’t care about the outcome. I don’t hate Roman the way a lot do, but nothing about him as a solo act makes me want to get behind him. For me, watching him post-Shield is like watching Chris Cornell slum it in Audioslave after Soundgarden. And as much as I love what he’s done with NXT, I’ve still not forgiven Triple H for 2003. Roman’s obviously going to win, so hopefully if/when he feuds with Ambrose afterwards, I’ll be emotionally invested instead of watching it, knowing it’s good, but not being able to get into it. Though my dream ending for this is for Joe Hendry to make a surprise debut and beat them both. This is doubtful though, as he’s on at ICW just hours before, and thus Joe won’t be able to make it as he’s billing himself as the Local Hero again. Maybe if he still called himself the Global Hero, we’d be in with a shout.

I don’t want to end this on a down note, so I’ll note that I had similar feelings before Wrestlemania 30, and that was bloody terrific, so hopefully I’m wrong again. And as I said, there’s something for everyone this weekend, so I’ll have a splendid Wrestlemania weekend anyway. I hope you do too.

IMPARTIAL JOURNALIST VIEW OF THE REAL MAIN EVENT
Shinsuke Nakamura is going to knee Sami Zayn to pieces. This is because according to my very real journalist sources, Shinsuke Nakamura is the King of Strong Style, whereas Sami Zayn is not.

(Sami, I love you, I love you lots, but you are not the King of Strong Style. Shinsuke Nakamura is)

So there it is. If you want to win Big Cash Money, there are betting websites you can visit where you can put every penny you have on these results. I strongly recommend you do if you want to be filthy stinking rich. Put the HOUSE on them. My name is Adam Wilson. Follow me on Twitter @GingerPimpernel if you so wish. I like wrestling and if you’re reading this, chances are you do too. So let’s talk wrestling and have a laugh.

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Multi-man ladder matches have become a WrestleMania staple, but does the hidden blockbuster story therein expose WWE’s wasteful approach to the show? Credit: WWE (and Snickers, I suppose)

Jacob Kerray (Not on Twitter, but everywhere else. Look him up)
I’ve heard more and more people who haven’t previously voiced any interest mention Mania this month. It makes me think Vince’s grand plan is working. For him not for wrestling fans. I think their attention is still centred on The Rock more than it is any of their current roster, especially judging by their most ubiquitous hype video. Vince doesn’t need to impress us, he has us hooked. We are junkies.

The quality of wrestling since I came back to watching it regularly around 2011 – coincidentally when Rock returned – has in my opinion exponentially increased and the athleticism and stronger style has made for some amazing matches. I can’t, however, think of one storyline they have told properly in terms of planned build and culmination. This isnt to say there hasn’t been good storylines but the good ones have happened by accident when the fans or talent have hijacked the show. I was watching the build to Starrcade with Sting vs Hogan recently, and Sting said with no irony, that ‘It’s best to keep me mouth shut’. The build was all based on either guys reputation and the fans desire to see babyface vs heel. The storyline worked so well and was so simple it made the panto style match seem good.

Can you imagine what Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, and in fact any of WWE’s current talent – given the consistent level of quality they have – would do with a well considered simply plotted out storyline? With every opportunity they have been given to tell a simple good storyline that doesn’t expose either party they have missed and over exposed someone. Top to bottom of the card I have a problem with every part, highlighted mainly by Kalisto vs Ryback. To give those two a singles match but make the Intercontinental title match with a built-in storyline a 6 man spot fest is indicative of where they are, confused and panicky.

The only hope I see is that it will come out the same as last year. Low expectations leave room to be surprised. If there is not a major storyline shift after this Mania the. I will really feel like a junky sucking at Vince’s dry tits.

 

The Last of Us: Playing In the Darkness and Finding the Light

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The moment where The Last of Us finally grabbed me. Credit:  thelastofus.wikia.com

*Quick note about this article: I played the ‘Remastered’ edition of The Last of Us so some issues I talk about may not apply or apply to the same same degree as they do to the original PS3 edition.*

With it being nearly three years since The Last of Us was first released, writing a review-come-narrative close up of the game is not a particularly original or timely idea. There is already a lot of material written and created about the game, pretty much all of which lavish praise over the game’s story, gameplay, atmosphere, and acting; many calling it amongst the best games ever created. This article will – spoiler alert – echo a lot of that, but less than a week ago I wouldn’t have written that; in fact, up until last week, I was considering doing something I don’t believe I have ever done – give up on the game, leave it uncompleted, and trade it in. In a vain attempt to promote this article on twitter, I posted that “I’ve never quite had a relationship with a game like I have with #TheLastofUs I’ll explain more in my inevitable upcoming review.”

I think that was taken by my followers as awed preamble to another fawning review of the game, but I was actually referring to my own complex connection with and enjoyment of the game. I got The Last of Us for Christmas (2015, for posterity’s sake) after hearing plaudits from critics and more importantly from friends who enjoyed it. I played it for the first time at the start of January and was, frankly, disappointed. I hadn’t given up on it, but I didn’t pick it up again for another month when I played it for a second time after which I liked it fractionally more but was still disappointed, despite, at that point, being around a quarter of the way through the game – specifically, just after escaping the Boston capitol building and adjoining subway tunnel with Ellie but without Tess. Something about my personality makes it very difficult to leave things unfinished, but I was indeed very close to giving up on the game despite it’s reputation. However, just last weekend, I finally picked it up again, in the hope that I could push through it and write about it anyway, hoping to keep writing about video games anyway. As Joel and Ellie escaped Boston for Pittsburgh though, the game finally hooked me, and for the first time I was keen to play the next day, and the next day, and so on until I finally finished the game yesterday night, becoming more and more invested with each turn. This article will partly try to explain that journey, how this game – eventually – provides the best narrative experience I’ve ever had with a game, and one of the best from any media platform, and I’ll also, amongst all of that, provide review technical aspects of the game.

When making a narrative driven game, developers have certain choices to make about their structure, each of which has strengths and weaknesses: linear or multiple possible paths and endings; controlled levels or open world. In recent years, linearity appears to be out-of-favour and almost treated as a laughable choice, with multiple possible endings being seen as something which provides more of a unique experience and higher replayability for the player but by the time you’ve played through a few different endings, the game’s narrative muddies in to something less memorable while a linear game with a single ending allows for the game developers to concentrate and work fully on one story. Of course that comes with it’s own pressures – if the single narrative fails, the whole game fails. While there is no reason it has to follow this way, linear stories favour carefully designed levels to play through to control the experience the player has, stories with multiple endings, such as Fallout games, for instance) favour the open world, allowing the player to create and naturally direct their own experience. The Last of Us favours a linear story told through a series of controlled, carefully designed levels, and through that risk, the story ends up delivering through excellent, natural dialogue writing, some stunning settings and scenarios, natural tensions, carefully considered metaphorical subplots, and all capped off with the best voice acting and emotional facial capture I have ever seen in video games – and again, amongst the best in any entertainment form.

But I nearly didn’t experience most of that, and that is significant.

While I don’t want to dwell on the weaknesses of the game, rather than just repeating all the plaudits, I am interested in exploring the strange journey I had with the game and why it took me so long to get invested in to a game that eventually got me more invested than the vast majority of games I’ve ever played. To help with this, I watched though a YouTube ‘movie’ of the game, in part, to remember what that first quarter was like, and I do think I came up with some answers.

The opening of the game was very well scripted (both in terms of dialogue and scripted game moments) and certainly emotional as we watched Sarah die in Joel’s arms. The game’s writers managed to draw a very likable character in Sarah in just 15 minutes or so of the game’s opening, helped hugely by playing as her and getting immersed in her experience, and set the game up wonderfully. What happens next is incredibly jarring, and though there is good reasoning for this, it failed with me. We jump forward 20 years and are thrown in to an unfamiliar quest with Joel and a new character in Tess which doesn’t cash in on that opening and gave me little reason to care about what they were doing. The jolt was intentional, and served a purpose – we see Joel, reduced to a form of survival mode that relies on showing no weakness and taking what you want to keep yourself safe. He is irritable and lacks an emotional response to anything. This of course paints a picture of the ‘new normal’ setting, helped of course by glimpses of oppressive force and intimidating threats, both human and infected, but the problem is that this scene setting gives us little to invest in. If Joel doesn’t care about his journey himself beyond a sense of personal duty, we don’t know exactly what threat Robert poses and why, and the setting is well drawn but not much of a stand out from similar survival settings, then why would I get invested as a player. That was where my first play session ended. My second ended after meeting Ellie, deciding to undertake the ‘job’, and Tess dying, and while those big events are certainly significant, they hadn’t hooked me yet either; and while Tess on her own is a great character – a strong-willed, strong-minded character, I think she may have been the reason.

Tess LastofUs

Tess is a great character, but perhaps waters down the interactions between and connection to each character in the early sections of the game credit: screencap from  a Video Games Source video on Youtube.

At this stage we haven’t spent much time with Ellie, and while glimpses of her memorable personality are there, they are dulled by her own mistrust, and hidden somewhat by the adults taking charge of the situation. At this stage, though we know Ellie is significant, and even know why, the fact that this duo are consistently discussing the merits of helping her make her still feel like an item in a fetch-quest. When you get in to trouble as Joel, Tess is there to help rather than Ellie. Joel and Ellie have some time alone, but not much, so their interaction is limited otherwise. After Tess dies and Joel decides to go on, he does so more through his love for Tess and the unfortunate fact that he has nothing to go back to. Our journey has the feeling of more of an impetus, but after quite a sizable amount of game time where I found it hard to comprehend and care about what I was actually doing, I was really wondering why I should bother. It was here that my second play finished and I was considering giving up on the game. I knew Ellie’s importance in the story as the potential ‘saviour of humanity’ but she still felt more like a host than a character, and the world I had seen wasn’t really unique or interesting enough to care about saving. For me, it was after the Boston acts that the game patched these gaps for me and started reeling me in. It was there that Ellie really showed herself as a character worth saving in her own right, and not just for a cure, and that she really became part of a cohesive on-screen relationship with Joel that would only continue shifting and blossoming from there as they were plunged in to more life-changing events that they shared, and survived, together. It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate some of the subtleties and qualities of this opening quarter or so, and while it is great that they exist and they have an effect on emotional reactions to the rest of the game, it is and unfortunate failing in some otherwise near perfect storytelling that they exist and that this section of the game is so dry because of them, at least on a first play-through.

I want to stress again that I don’t have an issue with Tess as a character – she is an excellent character in fact, but to reiterate, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was at my play session after she died – in which we met Bill, escaped Boston and moved through Pittsburgh – that I was finally hooked by the game. In fact it was that Pittsburgh section of the game that was crucial to my connection with the game. What is interesting about that is that Pittsburgh is the only place Joel and Ellie visit that doesn’t serve a particular purpose. They start in Boston of course, they travel to Wyoming to find Tommy, they go to the University of Eastern Colorado in pursuit of the Fireflies and end up in the un-named settlement nearby out of need once Joel is injured and later because Ellie is held there by David’s crew, and finally they head to Salt Lake City because that’s where they are directed  to go to find the Firefly doctors they are looking for. Other than Pittsburgh being broadly on the way to Wyoming from Boston, Joel and Ellie never really say why they go there. Perhaps they are looking for supplies, and the fact that the game isn’t full of immersion-killing exposition is one of it’s strengths, but looking back, there wasn’t even a need to go to Pittsburgh. Despite that, it is the part that grabbed me and led me to complete the game with joy. We have seen a lot of spirit and genuinely funny humour (a rarity in gaming) quips from Ellie at this point, especially with Bill, so we are growing to like her and be used to her presence without Tess to share the limelight with, and it is the point of the game where Joel is given a reason to value, respect, and if not start liking, start tolerating Ellie more.

This game is light on down time, even when not surrounded by enemies, it is rare that you feel safe, but eventhough we don’t see much of it, the car journey from Boston to Pittsburgh allows Joel to wind down a bit and talk loosely about music before his time, and falling for Ellie’s gags about the porn magazine. Immediately upon arriving in the city though, it all goes to pieces. They barely survive an ambush during which Joel’s tone seems more genuinely concerned for Ellie than before and from there on, Ellie both saves Joel’s life and then covers for him against a group of hunters. Joel’s initial irritation at Ellie for not following his direction quickly turns to his own brand of quiet respect when he hands her the rifle to cover him. Until now, he has not allowed her to have a gun, but this marks the point where he sees her as more of a partner in the effort and generally values her more. I think it may be no mistake that that is (by process of elimination) the part of the game where the cover art in which she is carrying the rifle comes from – that is how crucial the section of the game is. After meeting Henry and Sam, another clear moment of bonding happens both for the characters and for the player with the characters – when Henry and Sam cut and run from Joel when his escape route from the hunters fails, Ellie jumps down and stays with him, showing faith in Joel and a recognition of the fact that their fates are now linked. After escaping the sewer section comes the only true bit of downtime in the actual gameplay which comes in the small residential street they come across after the sewers. Joel again is noticeably more tolerant and even friendly to Ellie during the many situational conversations and almost glimpses of normality in the homes. It is also helped by the mirroring of Henry and Sam – you’re not beaten around the head with it, but there are of course parallels in their relationships; it’s most clear when Joel is angry at Henry for bailing on them and Henry – plausibly – reasons that Joel would have done the same for Ellie. This helps soften Joel to Henry which in-turn shows that Joel cares for Ellie. I went through the same journey. I was furious at Henry for making Sam abandon us but totally softened after he helped save Joel and Ellie. It never seemed contrived and made the prospect of failing in the journey or losing Ellie something I cared about and quite a lot within the relatively short amount of time of it all happening. Seeing the tragic end of Henry and Sam only served to highlight, again for both characters and player, the stakes involved in the journey and by proxy, the bond Joel and Ellie had formed, mirrored in Henry and Sam.

I’m not going to go through every event of the rest of the game, but I do want to discuss what made the narrative of this game so strong from here on out. In Wyoming, the main narrative crux of the section is Joel trying to pass on the task of transporting Ellie to the Fireflies on to his brother Tommy. Though it is clear that Ellie can handle herself at a pinch, it is still hard to know she’s on her own, and so when she bolts on a horse, not only do feel guilty for upsetting her, but you want to find her as soon as you can to make sure she’s safe. Apart from the way she almost flippantly announces herself when called in the house despite supposedly being mad and upset which was a little jarring, the conversation between her and Joel when he catches up with her was the first time I teared up. It is such an emotional, difficult conversation in which Ellie explains that she is now so invested in Joel that without him, she’d be scared and that if he leaves, it will be another trauma for her, but rather than him apologising or anything, he doubles down, sternly telling her that she is not his daughter, he is not her father, and they are splitting up. It is clear though, to me at least, that this is him aware of his genuine emotional connection he had grown with Ellie scaring him given his history with his daughter, and trying to protect himself from it either because he wants to forget and not sully his past with Sarah, or because he thinks it will make him more vulnerable. You want to make tell Ellie it’s fine and you’ll protect her but can’t control this broken man in Joel, so when he, in his own obtuse way, changes his mind and decides to go on with Ellie while being able to see her visible relief, it is such a relief. Though it’s been increasingly obvious, it is here that Joel matches outwardly the solidarity that Ellie showed by jumping down in to danger to be by his side in Pittsburgh. In the time between this Wyoming section and arriving at the University of East Colorado, it is clear that the bond is more open, and the quiet time during which we explore the university before engaging enemies there, with the extra relaxation of trotting along on the horse that their bond is now clear and mutual.

That break between scenes and game sections like that are another narrative strength the game has. Especially between Fall and Winter, there appears to be a lot left to the imagination which in some ways, may seem like a kop out. In this case though, it makes wise choices with these gaps, allowing us to fill in gaps that would be less satisfying than if we saw them. They also allow time to pass in our mind which adds to a palpable sense of bonding between the characters, even if we never have to see how it occurs. We see enough of it in the game’s situational conversations and shared experiences that we can imagine countless other ways they will bond without having to necessarily see them. The game is very economical and only shows us what we need to see, letting us fill in some of the gaps ourselves.

Lakeside_Resort

One of the most memorable scenes of the game where we are asked to hunt a deer while Joel’s status is unclear. Credit: thelastofus.wikia.com

The Last of Us is always playing with you, either by keeping you on your toes or freaking you out with red herrings, but also with larger narrative twists. At the end of the Fall chapter, Joel is blue, seriously injured, seemingly not breathing and falls off a horse. I was convinced that he was dead, and so cutting to playing as Ellie, with Joel nowhere to be seen, it’s only natural to assume he is dead. The Winter chapter doesn’t hold any events really crucial to the narrative arc, but the shocking events therein and the circumstances of them achieve some very important things. The scenery is so beautiful and the quiet stalking of the deer requires such focus that is juxtaposes the shock and trauma of what you’ve just seen so well that it forces you to reflect on what has happened and the implications of it. Fighting with Ellie is fascinating as she is strong, capable, but still more vulnerable. She is wily and deadly, but needs a more desperate attack to knife people and takes damage more easily. Her physical vulnerabilities are obvious, but it is clear that she is strong and able to look after herself. This section is another one that is sold narratively like the end of the game – it being winter, church bells ringing, fires burning around you, and switching between Ellie and Joel to a crescendo all rings of finale. When we leave Joel with the building Ellie is in in sight, we know he is coming and assume he will save us, but what is brilliant is that Ellie saves herself and kills David before Joel arrives. The whole scene is fantastic, but what it does is put in to sharp focus that Ellie doesn’t need Joel to survive. That isn’t to say his role in her life is undermined – he makes her feel safe, he hasn’t abandoned her, and is precious to her, but when it comes to the ending of the game, the fact that she can look after herself takes away a lot of ambiguity in the choice Joel has to make.

Then the ending finally comes, and it’s confusing, devestating, and perfect. We have the remarkable cut from Ellie bludgeoning David and seeing her bloodied face as Joel consoles her, to her standing solemnly looking at the image of the deer which is both calming but also reminiscent of that memorable Winter section. Ellie is preoccupied, not able to focus on Joel and the final push of the journey; to me, I felt she was weighing up her future and what her role in humanity’s future might be, just as Joel clearly was later when he suggested going back to Tommy’s. The environmental conversations throughout the game provide a lot of depth to the characters and universe, showing Ellie’s disappointment in the world she lives but hope for the future, marked against Joel’s gritty acceptance of it as a place in which to survive. But one here is very foreboding in retrospect, and I think reflects Ellie’s mindset. After seeing a picture of an airplane on the side of a bus, she recounts a dream in which she is on a crashing plane; she makes her way to the cockpit, wanting to save them but can’t because she can’t control the plane. I’m no analyst of dreams, but it seems a fair metaphor for her role in humanity. The lives of many depend on her, and she wants to save them – unfortunately, the control is about to be taken away from her, allowing the plane to crash, or humanity to fail. Ellie is this distant like this until one of the game’s most famous scenes. The game plays with it’s own mechanics brilliantly when you go through the animation to give Ellie a boost and she doesn’t appear, so deep in her own thoughts. This is a brilliant way to show you that something very weighty is going on with Ellie and it is followed up by what I am in the minority in thinking is one of the game’s weakest moments – the Jurassic Park style discovery of the giraffe. Don’t get me wrong, I understand, appreciate, and was moved by the meaning of the scene – that the event shows Ellie the beauty of the world and that whatever she wants, the journey must come to it’s conclusion, it must achieve something. The power, for me, comes – again – from Ashley Johnson’s remarkable performance of the scene, not the actual sight of the giraffe which I thought was a bit laughable. I can believe, of course, that giraffes could still exist, but how did a whole herd wind up in the middle of Salt Lake City? For a video game that shows incredible fidelity to it’s universe, it was a very heavy-handed metaphor which stuck in my craw a little. The meaning was clear though, especially given the way Ellie becomes more comfortable again after the sight and a serenity comes over the play – Ellie is ready to do what she has to do to save the world for humanity, and despite not knowing what that entails, she is not conflicted anymore. While it’s clear she wants to share all of that with Joel, it is also clear that doing her part is her first priority.

This is the height of their bond, and after Ellie has come to terms with her fate of going to the Fireflies, Joel is much more giving of himself, open to talking about his past, and as a player, this change made me more invested in their relationship. It is in this final section where two specific things happen which will always stay with me. The first is when Ellie passes on the picture of Sarah to Joel. Joel rejected this early on but now that he has accepted Ellie as a surrogate daughter (for lack of a better term) it is clear he is starting to heal emotionally. He is ready to get this task out of the way and go on to life a better life with his brother, daughter, and in a place with a new hope. Shortly after, Ellie says a line which for me, for some reason, is most devastating in the context of the whole story, she says something along the lines of ‘after all this is over, how about you teach me how to swim’. Ellie not being able to swim is a fantastic conceit for a few reasons, but one is that it allows this to happen. Both of these moments are very foreboding but also implanted within me as the player some understanding for why Joel would do what he does. Not only would Ellie dying after she has helped him heal emotionally totally destroy him, but he knows that she had hopes for the future too and wasn’t necessarily expecting to die. So when it becomes clear that her fate is to die, moments like that come to mind and make it even more painful.

After getting through the most infested area in the game, and barely surviving an accident in the water in which Ellie is rendered helpless, we go through the rollercoaster of finding out we’ve made it to the very much alive Fireflies and that Ellie is safe before quickly discovering what that means for Ellie’s life. If you’ve connected to the characters as I did, you experience something close to what Joel does – you think of this girl you’ve given you’re life over to, you think about the swimming lessons, and you think about not being able to save another child. You don’t have a choice here, it being a linear game, but it is a role-playing game in which the role-playing is understandable, even if you don’t agree with it, and so you go on your final run to stop Ellie from being operated on.

Game advertisements often spray around platitudes about examining choice and morality, about exploring ‘shades of grey’ but often only achieve this by giving players choices. Despite the fact that it seems near self-evident that choice would explore these dilemmas more effectively, that actually isn’t my experience. In the Fallout series, for example, there are very difficult choices to make at times, but I usually find that the replayability allows me to do multiple playthroughs role-playing as what I deem a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ and to me, the ability to play through each style kinda waters down the gravity of these choices – everything is fluid and temporary because you don’t have to stick with that choice if you’ve saved and don’t want to. In a well-written linear story like this, where both points of view are understandable and the reaction of the character you are playing with makes total sense. This is a strength of the writing throughout the game – even when someone does something shocking, it makes total sense in the context, and it was crucial that Joel’s attempts to stop the surgery made sense for the ending to make sense. It seems to be the experience of many players that when they reached the operating room, they wanted to somehow back down. It is telling of the incredible writing and characterisation of Ellie that a character who becomes so beloved is one who you essentially want to die because it is now clear to you that this is right, and what she would want.

But you’re Joel. Joel says at the end and other characters echo it at different points, that everyone finds something to fight for. Joel has lost Tess, he’s left Boston, and all he has is Ellie. Ellie has given him a genuine reason to live, filled a 20 year void in his life, and helped him to start healing. For Joel, and for the player, the shock of the revelation that she has to die, the aggression of the Fireflies, the fact that Ellie never said she wanted to lay down her life necessarily, and the knowledge that this relationship which you have cultivated must come to an end justifies cutting through the Fireflies perhaps, but when left with the scenario right in front of you of stopping the surgery, and after having time to consider it all when getting there, it is something hard to go ahead with. Whether with vigour or with hesitation, you are forced to go ahead and do something it is hard to agree with, and it is the feelings involved with that that really confront you with moral ambiguity. You run down the corridor with Ellie in your arms in a clear, circular mirror of the opening scene with Sarah. Joel couldn’t save Sarah that time, but this time, regardless of any context, Joel will ‘save’ Ellie. He has to. It’s a relief, in a way, because you’re so attached to Ellie, but you also realise what that means in a larger context – that without her consent, Joel has selfishly robbed Ellie of her destiny, of what she has found to fight for. We understand, but in case any question remained about Joel’s betrayal, it is cleared up in the game’s final moments.

End

The memorable, almost heart-breaking ending which we see from Ellie’s perspective during gameplay. Credit: screencap from a SchwartzJesuz video on YouTube

 

In a game filled with memorable, emotional moments both big and small, the game succeeds in making it’s very final moment it’s most powerful. It would be easy to bodge a happy ending from this, but the bravery of the developers to go for an ending that was honest to the setting, the characters, and allowed the player the opportunity to be confused, infuriated, and moved forever. The direction of the scene does something simple but perfect. You play as Ellie. Generally in the game, you play as the person who is guiding the action and (to an extent) looking out for the other character. When you play as Ellie in Winter, she is either protecting Joel or herself, and when you are her again at the end, while there is no combat or challenge, it is important because it makes it clear that Ellie is now the stronger of the two and that Joel is reliant on her. You walk through the woods as Joel gleefully talks about how like his daughter Ellie is and how excited he is to spend the future with her and you see it through the eyes of Ellie, knowing what he has done to her to achieve this. I believe personally, also, that it hints further at Ellie knowing full well that what Joel said happened wasn’t the truth, so to see him speaking like this from her perspective makes us react just as she is reacting, with anger and a tinge of almost pity for this almost childlike character Joel has become.

Then Joel lies to Ellie’s face, and it’s a gut punch. A gut punch followed by another as Ellie responds ‘ok’. The ‘ok’ response deliberately gives the player enough ambiguity to come up with their own meaning of it – whether or not Ellie believes him or not and what it means. To me, I am convinced that Ellie knows Joel is lying but that, despite that, after thinking about it, Ellie realises that she loves Joel now as a father figure, the only person she has left, and that, imperfect as it is, she can live with that. Joel mentions that you need to find something to fight for. His actions preserved his reason to live, but robbed Ellie of hers, and that is the greatest betrayal. Her survival guilt isn’t just because she feels guilty that her friends died and she didn’t, it’s because her friends died, she didn’t, and her survival meant nothing. We see her struggle with that, but accept it, and then we’re left to live with it. It’s perfect.

Video games have an advantage over other storytelling mediums in that they make you the driver in the story, the person controlling the characters, even if their future is pre-determined, and so you are inherently immersed in the game more than a movie, TV show or even book can – that is why they have such promise as a medium. The Last of Us is one of only really a few games which show video games starting to live up to that promise. It’s a shame that the pacing at the start was difficult for me to get through, and it is a weak spot of the game for sure, but especially once you get past that, the dialogue, direction, attention to small details, and set pieces are near-perfect and it creates a story that is among the most memorable and powerful in recent memory, without the asterisk of it being a video game or not.It takes a tired, over-used setting of essentially a pandemic apocalypse, uses many of their well-worn tropes, but delivers them in a way that is so powerful that it feels fresh and memorable.

Playing As the Last of Us
I’m no expert in things like A.I. or user interface or combat, so you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of technical knowledge, but as a gamer, I can comment on what I enjoyed and didn’t, and what I think worked.

I spoke early on about how I struggled to connect with the game early on, and perhaps the teeth skin that kept me interested enough to come back that crucial third time was enjoying the basic combat, and most specifically, the way you have to manage your combat throughout to survive. In most games things maybe start of scarce but as it goes on, you become overpowered both in strengths and also the amount of guns and ammo available. Here, there are maybe half a dozen guns and a few extra weapons, and at any one time, you’ll have a few available to you, and even then the ability to use them is limited. From there, very naturally, you approach combat much more tactically, which is my preference in gameplay. You switch from stealth to some form of first person combat very fluidly, and between the excellent, raw, sound design, the brutal, raw animations, and the imperfect but satisfying gunplay, the combat feels desperate and visceral. It is something you want to avoid if you can, but can be fun, satisfying, and rewarding once you end up in the middle of a battle. Tactical thinking expands to the different sorts of enemies. Again, with enemies in this game, less is more – there are human attackers, infected runners, clickers, and bloaters, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses. Humans are smarter and will flank you, but are less visceral, furious fighters; runners are the smartest of the infected, and can see, but don’t have the intelligence of humans and aren’t as dangerous as the other infected; clickers are the most infamous enemies, and are much more dangerous in that if they get you, they kill you instantly and early on, your guns basically wont work on them and you can only really kill them with shivs which require a much more up-close attack, but they are attracted to fire, so a molotov cocktail can take multiple down even without a lot of accuracy and they can be distracted much easier; bloaters are the toughest enemy, eventhough you only come across a few, they take a lot more damage and have the same instant kill threat, but they are slower, so you can strafe and sprint away to set up enough attacks to eventually bring them down. Dynamic enemies mixed with dynamic, satisfying attacks makes the combat very satisfying for the most part, while the whole aspect of managing your resources throughout places it well in the apocalyptic setting.

A quick issue with the clickers. They are certainly memorable enemies, but I do have an issue with their whole explanation. It is explained that they see by using sonar, but this doesn’t match up with my experience of them. If they saw with sonar, they should have been able to see me in any room they shared with me while clicking, and not be able to see me if I was in a different room. In my experience, clickers seemed to be able to chase me between rooms at times eventhough I should have become invisible once in a new room, and at other times they seemed oblivious, eventhough I should have been visible to them regardless of noise being made. What it played more like was that their hearing was made super acute in lieu of their vision. I adjusted to this, but especially early on, it affected my play-style, leading to some frustrating moments and deaths, and it is a rare lack of care from the developers.

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The crafting interface is a simple, flowing interface which really adds to the urgency of the game. Credit: neogaf.com

A quick note about the interface and crafting as they’ve been said by pretty much everyone who has played it, but the simple interface for your inventory and crafting is wonderful and realistic. Not only do you only have a few kinds of weapons to use, but you can only use two guns at a time – because you only have two hands. Few games put that sort of effort in to their realism, and it only adds to the visceral combat sections. If you run out of ammo with the guns you’re holding or you feel you need to change your weapon, you can, but you need to go in to your backpack and take the time, defenseless to make the switch. It’s a decision, and one you have to get right. Similarly, it would be strange in this setting to not scavenge for materials , and not try to craft things to help you. There isn’t much about to scavenge, and when you do, you have to make yet more choices. The most common example is the best – do you make a health pack or a molotov cocktail? It depends on your style and gambling on what you think might be round the corner. Not only that, but crafting and using these materials, like with changing guns, takes time. Especially using health kits. If you want to use a health kit, you can, but you need to do it from a safe place because it seems, again realistically, to take a fair amount of time to do so, during which you’re defenseless. The way the interface barely interferes with the flow of the gameplay and only adds to the combat experience is to be applauded as a huge strength.

Relatedly, another elephant in the game though is the A.I. The developers certainly had some choices to make with the A.I. because combat, and especially stealth, with a partner raises some issues that, in this game, required a compromise which can be jarring. The enemy A.I. will only engage in combat when they see you personally, so at times, Ellie and others can be running around right in front of enemies and they won’t respond or react, only to enter combat when they see you. The alternatives have their own negatives, but it really jars with the desperate atmosphere of the combat and the realism of the game more generally.

On the plus side, the NPC A.I.s have their strengths, too. I’ve already mentioned how the enemies have different strengths and weaknesses within their A.I., but Ellie especially as a companion has a very strong A.I. She warns you and assists you in battle in a way that makes total sense and actually helps you. Though it plays a smaller part of the relationship in this game, and her level of help is different, it reminds me of your relationship with Quiet in MGSV. When you’re without Quiet after she’s been helpful by your side so consistently, your bond with her becomes undeniable, and that is also the case with Ellie. It’s more subtle, but knowing she’s by your side, doing what she can, plays a part in building the bond between the characters.

The final thing I will mention about the gameplay is the puzzles that occur throughout it. Initially, these were a fun aspect of the gameplay, not super challenging, but always rewarding. At times, admittedly, this would feel repetitive and frustrating, especially at the points where I was struggling to get invested in the game, but they provided much needed quiet time in the game. Another problem I had with the game initially was that before I cared about the story, the constant feeling of fear or paranoia about what could happen made the experience exhausting and one part of the game where I could relax the most was when I was placing a plank or a bin or a ladder. Another reason why the swimming-based puzzles were so important were because they not only made Ellie feel somewhat vulnerable but also played in to the sort of life someone would have after this sort of outbreak, where it would be harder to learn to swim, and finally, because after so many instances of it, it made the powerful dialogue where Ellie talks about learning to swim  make contextual sense and give it more power.

Ok
I’ve discussed a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses of The Last of Us that many reviewers and commenters have discussed, but still seem to have had what seems to have been a minority experience with it, playing it and not really enjoying it twice in two months,and then getting hooked, completing the game within days of my third playthrough, and getting so invested in the incredible story that I’ve written a huge article about it.

There’s no need to rehash what I’ve said before, but apart for the section between starting to play 20 years after the pandemic and Tess dying, the story works incredibly well. I’ve never seen voice acting and animation near the quality of that in this game. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but without the incredible narrative, acting, and direction, it would be a fun but pretty bog standard game. This is an example of how linear games can be the most powerful form of storytelling. Movies or TV shows or books don’t (or very rarely) do this, and we don’t expect it from them, so why I see the benefit of choice in games, the risk of creating a linear story can pay off hugely when done correctly. Only a linear story can create a story this powerful and memorable because that is the only arc the developers have focused on. They haven’t had to write multiple endings, trying to share different kinds of power and emotion. That final conversation is the sort of thing that will never leave me, and i’m glad I haven’t seen an alternative ending to bleed in to that.

I can imagine some cool future sequels, but i’m not sure I want them. I know enough of the characters to understand the potential issues they will come across in their future, but I don’t need to see that. I’m also not sure I need to play it again. If I do, it would just be to experiment with different difficulties and play styles, but I feel satisfied for now and for a long time. The game and it’s story is lodged in my mind forever. That’s amazing given I was so close to not even picking the game up again so far through, but I am so glad I did because as a game player, a movie watcher, and a storyteller myself, it is one of few experiences I’ve had in storytelling media that I’ve loved so much that I’ve just fallen in love, not been able to stop thinking about, and wanted to to write about and see emulated more and more.

 

Fallout 4: Not Rocking the Juggernaut

The USS Constitution from Fallout 4, screenshot from YouTube user, 'Kenj, the Neutral'

The USS Constitution from Fallout 4, screenshot from YouTube user, ‘Kenj, the Neutral’

I recently wrote my first video game article for the Neon Idols, reviewing Metal Gear Solid V from a narrative standpoint primarily, though with some broader points too. It became a very hard article to write though as the game, which is a canonical game in a franchise I love, was very flawed despite it being a lot of fun at times; and so I move on to Fallout 4, which is a canonical game in a franchise I adore.

I’m glad to say that this review should be somewhat easier for me to write, and though I will criticising elements of the game and it’s narrative, the flaws here seem much less egregious than those of MGSV. The first thing I will say about the storytelling in this game is that it largely did exactly as a good story should – it dragged me around at will, eliciting powerful reactions an emotions. I’ll elaborate on that achingly vague description as we go on, but what the game also did, which is also very powerful, was completely alter my approach to playing it. I think the best way to explain this is by talking you through my personal approach to the game – something many players have going in.

I have always loved the roleplaying aspect of the Fallout series and have played up to it in a serious way, as will become clear. When I started playing Fallout games, I generally went in enjoying being a demon of the wastes, as callously evil as I could think to be (killing Old Lady Gibson but leaving the dogs to live and waste, saving people’s lives and killing them myself etc etc). It can be a lot of fun and was what I wanted to do during my first play through of this entry, but it didn’t last long. At all. The power of the pre-war prologue to the story and the opening action in Vault 111 changed my planned buccaneering approach to more of a revenge rampage – I still planned to be evil, taking out my frustration on the Commonwealth, but now with the caveat that I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise finding my son.

So I blew my way through the wastes, putting most side missions to one side in the pursuit of my son and The Institute, meeting Piper and Nick Valentine along the way. Though I initially found Piper grating, she quickly grew on me while I found Valentine to be super cool and noble; and though I was still playing ‘angry’ as it were, I already found myself softening some of my actions so as to not disappoint my companions. That brings me to the first real takeaway regarding the storytelling here, and that is that some of the voice acting is very good, especially so with Piper and Valentine. When the writing of and voice acting for the NPCs are so good as to lead you to change your whole approach to the game, that aspect of the storytelling is doing very well. If it wasn’t for the infectious nobility of Valentine and the charming righteousness of Piper, the wastes would have been a much more bloody and dangerous place with me roaming it, and I would have had much less help finding my son.

Speaking of Piper, I mentioned that though I disliked her initially, I quickly overcame that and found myself torn by the first opportunity to flirt with her. I was torn because one of my earliest memories in the game – a moment that informed my entire approach to it to this point – was seeing my wife shot in the head so that Kellogg could take my son. I found a weakness of the game to be that while your character understandably is driven by finding his or her son, they barely speak at all of your deceased partner, but she was very strong still in my mind. This is a person you love, and as far as you know at this stage, their murder was a recent event. So I held off the flirting, thinking I could pursue that in a later playthrough, perhaps when I did a ‘proper’ evil playthrough (though that of course would be anathema to being in a relationship with Piper anyway – it was all very confusing). Yes I probably took all of this too seriously, but it shows that if you’re willing to give it a chance, the game is more than capable of engendering that.

At some point after confronting Kellogg – someone I did take a great deal of pleasure in ‘wasting’, because who wouldn’t – I found myself with Dr Amari, inspecting a part of Kellogg’s synthetic brain for one of my favourite quests, ‘Dangerous Minds’. This quest involves no fighting or salvaging as usual, and is the closest equivalent to the enigmatic Tranquility Lane quest Fallout 3. It also provided the second existential blow to change my play style. The placement of this mission, just after the act of killing Kellogg is a narrative triumph and one of the strongest bits of writing in any game I’ve ever played. Right up until the start of the mission, Kellogg is the main bogeyman, the focus of all your anger, and seemingly unimpeachable as an evil villain, but over the course of the quest and seeing Kellogg explain to you, personally, why he is how he is. It doesn’t make what he did right, and you don’t forgive him, but more impactful, you recognise a man who has been driven down a path of necessity just like you are. In my case, I didn’t feel guilty for killing him, but I felt a large part of my anger at him subside. I had killed him, it was over, and with the extra influence of Piper and Valentine, decided I didn’t want to be like him; I wanted to stop the cycle of violence. From doing something as ridiculous as literally wandering around the neurons and synapses of characters brain (somehow), I went from being on a rampaging quest with a vanquished bogeyman to wanting to be a part of a recovering wasteland. I still wanted to find and destroy those responsible for taking my son, but that aside, I wanted to just act to help the wasteland and its inhabitants, rather than being so singularly minded and violent. Such an effect on my experience solely down to good writing and timing is incredible, and the period between that and reaching the Institute was perhaps the most narratively enjoyable as I’ve had in any game.

Son and Father meet at The Institute, credit to usgamer.net

Son and Father meet at The Institute, credit to usgamer.net

Then of course you reach the Institute, and it feels like a big showdown, maybe the showdown, and everything gets turned on its head. The reveal of the Institute and the direction of your initial glimpses of it through the elevator are wonderful – a bright, clinical and futuristic place that contrasts with anywhere in the Commonwealth, all shown in motion until you finally see your son. It’s a whirlwind of activity and emotional responses, and more is immediately thrown at you through the odd behaviour of Shawn, who turns out to be a synth copy, and then finding out that the old man before you is your son, he is older than you, and he is leading the organisation you hold responsible for all of the wrongs committed against you. Be it anyone else you’d kill that person immediately, but the reveal serves to put you in enough of a flux (for me anyway) to just follow the man in a bit of a daze. It makes the choices in the rest of the game far more difficult, especially after hearing some noble-sounding reasoning for their actions.

The story for the rest of the game isn’t told poorly or insignificantly, but that is the undoubted climax of the game from my point of view. The main quest, for me, though it wasn’t even presented as such, was hunting down those responsible for my wife’s murder and my son’s kidnapping, and once I found answers to those questions, a lot of the urgency and tension behind my play was released. Even my pre-credits climax of destroying the Institute didn’t quite match up. What is interesting is my reaction to the revelations from your first trip to the Institute. As soon as I found out that my son was alive, thriving, and living a very different life to me, whether I would help him or not, I wouldn’t need to ‘save’ or pursue him as before; and learning that my wife had died, in fact, 60 years ago in game time, made me view that dilemma differently too. By uncovering the truth of her murder, and killing the only person left alive who was responsible, I felt I had put her to rest. I was ready to move on in this new life as a saviour of the alternate world I found myself in, and I was ready to move on with Piper who I really felt a (potentially embarrassing) connection to after fighting alongside her so much, getting used to and fond of her personality, her love for her sister, and her charmingly referring to me as ‘Blue’. I didn’t bother much with the other companions apart from a few experimentations with Hancock and Cait, as I wanted to focus on moving on to new horizons with Piper and Valentine as my crew.

This all sounds emotive, and again, I should possibly be embarrassed, but it is testament to some truly great writing that I had such an emotive reaction to the game at several points. It must be said that while destroying the Institute (or your faction of choice) was a necessary end-game, the drop off in vigour of the story is ultimately a narrative mis-step. It was at that point that I roamed more, relaxed more and had more of the fun a Fallout game exploring aimlessly, following loose ends and looking for hidden stories, but the fact that the written ending of the game felt like an afterthought is a definite flaw. In fact, following the journey I had been on, a lot of me wished to not destroy any factions and keep much of the status quo – I saw the benefits and flaws of each one and would have been content to keep them checking each other while I make the Commonwealth generally a better, safer place to live.

This points to another big narrative flaw of the game. I will state before the rest of this point, that there is still lots of replay value to this game, and scope for very varied experiences in the game, primarily depending on the factions you align to. However, an age-old battle between a focused, single narrative and an open-world flexible narrative is far less balanced here than in previous games. Part of the reason I ended up as a saviour of the wastes rather than an psychotic killer was that I honestly found it very difficult to do anything bad. Your hand is very strongly held in the early stages of the game to meet the Minutemen, who you can’t kill which limits your opportunities to actually be a bad person. Beyond that, it feels like there are generally fewer opportunities to do evil unto others, and that mixed with the emotive storyline which strongly frames you in to the position of a traditional hero makes it hard to have a satisfying time as an evil player. Though you can roam as freely as in other games, and there are certainly big choices to be made, it feels like you’re affecting the region far less than in other games simply because you’re being guided much more throughout. Speaking of that opening section of the game, I feel the Concord trip shows this the most; not only in having to meet The Minutemen, but in going through the fun but very contrived set piece where you find your first power armour and take on your first Deathclaw. This is no unique take, but it felt like special moments in previous games were given to you with basically no effort and without any satisfaction. Perhaps the best of this great story is able to take place because the developers hold your hand so strongly, but I certainly think that is to the detriment to the truly open world narrative of the game.

With all this considered, I would like to compare the narrative and storytelling of Fallout 4 to its Bethesda generation predecessors Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Ultimately, it feels very very similar to both in terms of its feel. Despite many tweaks which I will get to shortly, it feels like ultimately the same game as especially Fallout 3, just in a different setting. Usually, that would be a criticism, but in this case, it is exactly what people wanted. Many wanted a new version of Fallout with a different, interesting story, and that’s what we got; perhaps that’s all it should have been. They took the Fallout model and despite some narrative mis-steps along the way, told a great story with some great writing and visual set-pieces.

    Levelling Up: More General Points About Fallout 4

Disregarding pure narrative itself, there is plenty to say about this game, many of them positive, and many not. I’ll go through these point with more brevity than my narrative discussion, but be aware that nit-picks usually require more words to describe than positive points.

Positive: Combat isn’t usually my first concern but I noticed a big improvement in the combat nonetheless. It felt sharper, more realistic, more fun, and more satisfying, and even further, I was very pleased with the compromise Bethesda came to with the V.A.T.S system. In trailers, the new system looked worrying to me as I though combat would be much more difficult, but V.A.T.S in Fallout 4 still offers the same tactical pause and consideration of previous games, but offers a more dynamic experience where you can wait for opponents to come in and out of cover, allow for changing circumstances, and save up a critical shot for a rainy day. Between the new V.A.T.S. and the new real-time combat systems, the whole experience of combat is hugely improved.

The dialogue wheel in action, credit to forbes.com

The dialogue wheel in action, credit to forbes.com

Negative: The biggest negative change made to the game is undoubtedly the dialogue wheel. Again this isn’t an original thought as this has been near universally unpopular, but the dumbing down of the narrative wheel is a terrible delivery system which can mask some excellent and genuinely funny or emotive dialogue. In previous games, you would see exactly what would be said, in detail, and though it may be clunkier aesthetically, it is vastly better for two reasons. Firstly and most immediately, the dialogue wheel doesn’t always make clear what you will say, especially when it just tells you you’ll say something vaguely sarcastic or romantic, but even where it hints at the dialogue more specifically. Secondly, the wheel limits the player to only four options whereas in the past you could get more and would have more variety in what you could say, helping you to create a more unique and definitive character. I liked the fluidity of the wheel and the direction of conversations, but what you see when speaking to a character should be closer to the older lists of dialogue.

Positive: The same style of mechanic of the dialogue wheel is utilised when scavenging. Hovering over a body or container allows you to select items to take with ease while allowing you to look at them in more detail in the older-style inventories if you so choose. This makes scavenging and exploring generally a lot less of a slog than it could be in the past.

Negative: Though there are some notable exceptions such as Vault 81, or the kid in the fridge, it feels like there is a slight lack of diversity in the wastes and slightly fewer unmarked stories and quests to come across. This is based on personal experience so I won’t say that definitively, but my experience was of fewer friendly NPCs and discoveries leading to quests replaced by far more fighting. The wastes have never been safe, but the feeling I got that the vast majority of characters I would come across on my travels would be Raiders, Super Mutants, Ghouls or Gunners to be ploughed through became a bit grating.

Positive: Everything in the game has a purpose. In previous games, a huge amount of things you would come across would be near useless that would just weigh you down frustratingly. Here, even if you pick something up by mistake, it will be of use as relates to the crafting/workshop function which I will discuss in slightly more detail later. This means that finding an aluminium can be cause for celebration and makes exploring and scavenging a more cerebral or tactical experience.

Negative: Though some of them led to interesting journeys, one of my biggest pet peeves of the game were the constant repeated ambient missions, in my case with The Minutemen and Railroad. While the Railroad ones were more diverse and interesting to me, the Minutemen ones really grated on me, often going to the same place to do the same thing including once just having to walk in to a place and telling someone they were saved from their kidnap without a shot fired.

Positive: The new perk system took a while to get used to for me, but I came to enjoy the way it worked with the main S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats being used to unlock perks depending on your strengths with perks being able to be upgraded. This means you can choose to either spread your perks around or specialise a bit more on some areas that you upgrade three levels.

Negative: The new perk system isn’t perfect though. There is seemingly no level limit for characters so it means that after a certain point, you become less specialised in your perks and more over-powered in every way. At the same time, each S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat needing 10 stars to unlock each perk in its area is too many to get a chance to choose between each one without a ridiculous amount of levelling up. I was level 65 and still had several perks to unlock the opportunity to choose. My ideal solution would be having the same amount of perks but requiring fewer upgrades to the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. points to unlock them and having a limit of say 40 on the amount of levels you can reach.

Positive: The way armour works in the game, both normal armour and power armour is more dynamic. Being able to put together disparate pieces of armour to maximise it from what you have makes armour more dynamic and means that the scavenging for armour requires a bit more attention. Even more, power armour being put together in the same way but with the extra element of requiring fusion core power to use them. Initially, this means that you only ever use your power armour if you really need it, and in my case, I hung my power armour at my Sanctuary Hills base and took a real pride in it. As time went on, I built up dozens of fusion cores which lessened how careful a decision use it would have to be, but the mystique of it was built up by that point anyway.

Positive: Following on from the point about constructing armour from disparate parts you find, the level of customisation of armour and weapons, including naming them, is a really nice point of progress in the game. Personally, I didn’t upgrade my perks in the right ways to make the most of it, but the detail with which you can upgrade armour and weapons allows you to make unique pieces of armour and weaponry that you can be proud of, can mould your style of gameplay, and can make for more memorable combat experiences.

Positive: Related to the combat in the game, I like the way radiation affects the player in this game when compared to former games. While it was previously unclear in previous games how radiation would affect you, at least until you became sick with radiation sickness, but in this game, each bit of radiation exposure weakens you as a player, and depending on the radaway you have, you have to decide whether you can tolerate your HP levels and monitor it throughout, which seems more natural and relevant to the gameplay.

Positive: The way companions can be used and utilised has improved for this game – gaining specific perks with them (using Valentine to unlock terminals, for instance) and gaining further perks if you reach a maximum bond makes each companion suitable for different situations and gives them the ability to be deployed tactically. The ability to choose which weapons and armour they equip too gives the player a further and welcome tactical edge when compared to using companions in previous games.

Positive: While I mentioned that I found the mix of enemies in the game to be a bit repetitive in the sense that they, generally speaking, fell in to 4 categories: raiders, ghouls, gunners, and super mutants and there were times I got a bit bored of that palette. This was offset strongly though by the extended ranking of enemies in this offering, especially the inclusion of ‘legendary’ enemies. Going through the game, taking down enemies can be a lot of fun and hugely satisfying, but there is an extra edge of excitement when you find yourself fighting a legendary enemy, and an extra feeling of satisfaction when you beat them (and get their rare loot). It’s also clever how more of them spawn as you grow strong and ultimately overpowered. In the latter stages of my game, I did enjoy scything through basic enemies with one-shot kills, but the more frequent legendary enemies would cut through the complacency and add some variety to the experience.

    Final Points
A player's amazing construction with the game's settlement interface, credit to f4fans.com

A player’s amazing construction with the game’s settlement interface, credit to f4fans.com

Lots of karma gained there by Bethesda, and certainly more than any karma lost. There are a few important final observations though to mention that are neither positive or negative. Perhaps the most major one is the workshopping and settlement building tool. It can be frustrating as hell, but it is also and most importantly a really inventive addition to the game. The key point is that it isn’t mandatory – apart from a few exceptions – and so it’s a no loss situation. I did a little bit of building after meeting my son and made Sanctuary Hills a true sanctuary for the Commonwealth (though I didn’t care about anyone else. I also like the role playing potential of it. In my next ‘evil as possible’ playthrough I plan on building nothing for anyone but myself, and building myself a huge, impenetrable tower; whereas in future heroic games, I will make more use of settlement building and supply routes to try and make something like a working infrastructure for the Commonwealth. That makes it a really instinctive addition to the game and one they will need to keep in future game.

Another (and final, I promise) point I would like to make is about the game’s graphics. Much was made of them being poor for a next-gen game. This is understandable in a way when you compare it to 2015 contemporaries in games such as Metal Gear Solid V or Star Wars: Battlefront, it is very far behind, but to me, it was a non-issue. This is a personal view, but circumstantially, I know others felt this way – that a photo-realistic game would be too much of a departure from a really quite distinctive aesthetic and would have been hugely detrimental to the game. There had previously been complaints about dull, lifeless maps, to which I say, bluntly, IT’S A F**KING NUCLEAR WASTELAND! Fallout is a game franchise which places you in a unique and distinctive apocalyptic setting, gives you a basic main quest, and lets you discover the rest for yourself in the way you choose. While Fallout 4 wasn’t flawless in this endeavour, it stuck to that formula, had some excellent story elements, and made some very clever improvements. For me, the hype of the game was a new installment in the franchise done right, and that’s what I got.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Finalé

Twin Snakes. Venom and Naked Smake make up the collective phantom of 'Big Boss'. Credit to Genius.com, Gameinsider.com and Gameinformer.com as the sources for the pictures which constitute my terrible metaphorical creation.

Twin Snakes. Venom and Naked Smake make up the collective phantom of ‘Big Boss’. Credit to Genius.com, Gameinsider.com and Gameinformer.com as the sources for the pictures which constitute my terrible metaphorical creation.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was released at the start of September after a wait of over seven years, and to universal acclaim. This will be my first ever post about a video game or video games generally and, in the interest of discretion, that is because generally, I’m not a huge gamer. By this I mean I don’t keep up with most of the zeitgeist of the industry and don’t actually own many games. There are several games and game franchises, though, that I adore and really admire, as well as seeing near limitless potential in the medium for great entertainment and meaningful societal and artistic contributions. The games I adore are the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the Fallout franchise, LA Noire, Madden NFL, and perhaps my first real gaming ‘crush’, the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

When I think of Metal Gear Solid, I am rushed with memories of intense, atmospheric, almost intimidating gameplay, incredible boss-fights with wonderfully cartoonish characters, lengthy cinematic cut-scenes, clever fourth-wall breaking set pieces, a confusing but immersive universe to get (very) lost in, and the tactical joy of stealthy infiltration. It is with this extensive baggage that this and any MGS games enter the fray. So far, The Phantom Pain has not only survived this but flourished critically by addressing what many people view as some of the more tiresome hallmarks of the series; and while this will serve as a game review, it will focus especially on one trademark aspect of the series: narrative and storytelling.

The Metal Gear universe. Credit to dragoth from the spacebattles.com forum.

The Metal Gear universe. Credit to dragoth from the spacebattles.com forum.

As generally happens with waves of millennial opinion, the initial and overwhelming critical success of the game has been met with a retaliatory wave of negativity about several aspects of the game which list it as far less than perfect. As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. As with everything Metal Gear Solid, there is a huge amount to consider and talk about, so I want to start with a very simple but damning complaint.

Metal Gear Episodes
The Phantom Pain is lauded as the franchise’s first foray in to open world gaming, and that is something I will discuss later, but within that world, you progress as Venom Snake through a series of ‘episodes’. Hideo Kojima is well known for producing a cinematic experience full of long (many would say bloated and overlong) cut-scenes between action. As hinted before, this has always been something I’ve viewed as charming, unique and frequently beautiful. However, in this title Kojima takes this charming pretention too far to a near delusional and certainly short-sighted pretention with his ‘episodes’ and ‘chapters’.

The most egregious aspect of this is the television-style credits before each mission which tells you who will be ‘starring’ in the episode as well as the various enemy combatants and the tech they will be using. This is a decision which benefits nothing other than empty style but detracts greatly from the narrative and the game playing experience as it plainly spoils what is about to happen. You get the shock and fear of The Skulls or the Man On Fire while you’re still in the ACC chopper approaching the mission zone. For such a minor, near non-existent point of egotistical style, the drama of the game and the narrative beats and progression are completely trampled on; it’s a decision that beggars belief and it’s unbelievable that the structure was maintained throughout the development process.

Similarly, at the end of each mission, you are given end credits to bookend the mission. This indeed gives the game the feel of an episodic TV show which must have been something like their intention, but again, this is to the detriment of the actual narrative experience, completely taking you out of the situational drama of the game. You feel safe and relieved like it’s all over, which is a fine emotion to feel during a game, but not as much in a Metal Gear game, the atmosphere of which is always about you being one man alone, surrounded by threats with the only safe direction being to go further in to the belly of the beast.

Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with Kojima and his team altering the setting of the game, but it becomes problematic when it is framed with constant reminders that it’s all just a game and you’ve progressed another level. I certainly don’t want to ‘fantasy book’ the game too much, but surely it would have felt more like an ‘open world’ if you were dropped in Afghanistan with a list of changing objectives, having to travel to Mother Base and Central Africa when you choose or as necessary. In a sense, you can already do that of course, but for a sandbox game, it is really quite linear, unlocking missions usually one at a time. This is interrupted by having to go home to the ACC or Mother Base, where there is very little to actually do.

Metal Gear Freedom
One of the main talking points about the game, especially in the overwhelmingly complimentary press, is that Metal Gear has entered the realm of open world games and flourished. While you are certainly presented with an open world, there is rarely any incentive to really explore. Only the most avid looters would travel around taking on small outposts when you get plenty of opportunities to infiltrate bases in and around missions. There is very little (almost nothing) to see and do between outposts, and as one reviewer accurately pointed out, especially in Afghanistan, much of the map is inaccessible hills and mountains, restricting you to valleys and corridors, Basically, the idea of it being an open world is an illusion.

Ocelot and Venom look over the Afghanistan surroundings. Credit to Konami.

Ocelot and Venom look over the Afghanistan surroundings. Credit to Konami.

It is more philosophical than literal, but the real ‘open’ aspect of the game comes from the infiltration. One aspect of the game that pretty much everyone agrees with is that the game is brilliant, fluid, and insightful to play. You are presented with a setting, an objective, and some obstacles, but aside from that, you can approach the mission however you want – with traditional stealth, all guns glazing, sniping from afar, direct or using trickery. This is where each individual’s narrative really sets itself apart as each player really blazes their own path and creates their own memories of the missions and progression of the narrative.

That mixed with the, shall we say reserved performance of Keifer Sutherland and the fact that you name and design yourself Fallout-style at the beginning (of consequence later in the game) means that while you play as Big Boss, you can project more of yourself on to Venom Snake than any other Metal Gear character before it. That in itself is an interesting and useful approach to narrative, even if I don’t really believe it to be intentional. However, the issue of narrative in games in my personal experience is looking for the right balance of the designers telling a well-written story and personally affecting the storyline yourself. This is an issue in other games I love like Grand Theft Auto and Fallout, but my views on narrative in Metal Gear Solid are unique to the game.

Metal Gear Storytelling
In the Metal Gear solid games, I basically want to have no influence on the story. That feels strange and unintuitive to write, but Kojima has, by design and necessity, created a universe, neatly overlaying recent historical realities that is hugely complicated, shifting, and all-encompassing; just like real life. He has created this with his trademark huge themes and even huger cutscenes. I have played through the games and read up on the history several times and still find myself unable to fully comprehend the universe, but it all fits in to the overall narrative arc despite that, including what little we get in MGSV.

While people more focused on gameplay love this game, speaking for myself as someone who loves the story, characters, and atmosphere most, feel like this game is a big let-down in this respect. As I say, what we get works well – extended explanations of the spread of the concept of language and parasites (which mirror previous themes of genetics, AI’s, and the war economy from previous games), a classic sniper boss battle with Quiet, Volgin revitalised as the Man on Fire, and the cutscenes we get are a rare treat.

Admittedly, this is said in the context of it being absolutely clear that this game is unfinished, but for a game that is billed as, and really should be (given its place in the timeline) the game where Big Boss turns in to the evil heel encountered in Metal Gears 1 and 2 and completes the cycle between the Big Boss and Solid Snake eras, the story really advances barely anything in the timeline or overall narrative. Never before has a game tackled such controversial themes without capitalising at all or really saying much. There are child soldiers that are saved by Big Boss, and there is a conspiratorial attempt to cleanse the world of its language along ethnic lines which is halted by Big Boss. It must be said that the mission to save the world from the English strain of the vocal cord parasites in which you kill your own soldiers to kill the spread of the parasite is incredibly powerful, especially when they accept their fate and salute you as you do, and is a dark highlight of the experience; but that is arguably the worst thing Venom does in the game, and difficult as it is, it is infinitely justifiable. Far from being a game in which Big Boss ‘breaks bad’, he is shown as compassionate and a life-saver. Nothing has progressed from the end of Snake Eater with regards to his disillusionment with the world and the powers that be, and that is a great failing.

Venom with the child soldiers he rescued from Central Africa, supposedly on the path to evil. Credit to Konami.

Venom with the child soldiers he rescued from Central Africa, supposedly on the path to evil. Credit to Konami.

What we get, unfortunately, will be overshadowed by what we know we didn’t get, given the discovery of extra content and at least one extra mission that seemed to answer or tie up a lot of stories. Maybe it is in these climactic missions that we would truly have tied up Big Boss’s story, but unfortunately not. Having Liquid Snake in it as a youth with a great background story as a charismatic leader of child soldiers was a wonderful addition in theory but very disappointing given we don’t get a real conclusion to it – they escape with a Metal Gear and that’s just that. The loss of the scene of Big Boss pursuing his son would have been a huge boost to the game, the narrative, and the universe. It catches Liquid up with the Liquid of Metal Gear Solid 1 and offers a great platform for Venom to finally turn heel, taking on Big Boss’s son and finding a new motivation, a final straw to want to take on the world with a vengeance (hey, that would even have fit in with a major theme of the game!).

Again, I don’t want to fantasy book too much, but imagine if Venom pursues Eli to Central Africa to get the Metal Gear back, only to find that Emmerich is there too and did indeed betray them (though he has a delusional justification for it), which would immediately explain how Otacon ends up with Liquid down the line, perhaps after Huey tracks down his son while working for Liquid and finding a way to get him back. Meanwhile, Liquid could have mobilised whole outposts of child soldiers and infected them with vocal cord parasites, forcing Venom to finally kill the child soldiers and take a scorched earth policy before facing Liquid, lest their sheer numbers overwhelm him and release the parasites. Having his ‘heaven’ rejected by the child soldiers in favour of war, Venom loses all faith in humanity after what he has had to do, trusts no one, and takes up for himself and ‘his men’ almost like a cult, pointing his guns at the rest of the world out of vengeance and self-preservation. Finally, it can be revealed that Ocelot is, as usual, playing all sides. While he’s loyal to Venom and in some ways, created him, it should be revealed, perhaps via classic end of credits phone call or perhaps a more satisfying closing boss battle with Ocelot after his plots are revealed, that Ocelot helped facilitate Eli’s escape and uprising because he admires Big Boss and likes the idea of his lineage being extended, and is able to get the original Big Boss to support the idea as a check and balance to the growing power of Venom, to make sure he can’t threaten Big Boss. This would also explain how Ocelot ended up with Liquid for the events of Metal Gear Solid 1, at least in the sense of there being a connection.

They’re all quite basic beats that would need to be fleshed out, but you get the idea, dramatic, canonical ways to really tie up the series. What we got achieved a small amount of that, but in a pretty underwhelming and nonsensical way.

Metal Gear Ending
I will say straight away that I actually quite liked the twist; I thought it made sense and certainly isn’t outlandish in the context of Metal Gear lore. I just didn’t like it as an ending.

Venom Snake considers his identity in the final 'mission'. Credit to Konami.

Venom Snake considers his identity in the final ‘mission’. Credit to Konami.

Quiet’s ending after one of the harder battles felt climactic, and was certainly emotional, so for the very next mission to appear without context and presented in a way that looks similar to the notorious mission re-plays, it’s hard to even notice the mission. In fact, I believe I didn’t play the mission for a while, believing it to simply be a re-play of the first mission, and not even the last mission on the list. I had refused to play the re-plays as I believed it messed with the narrative but eventually became intrigued at the lack of progress and the fact the mission appeared somewhat different. You start it from the ACC and somehow end up back in the hospital. At best, it could be sold as a dream/memory/hallucination, but it exists entirely separately from the narrative. Effective endings are the culmination of a great story building, not just something coming from nowhere off the back of nothing. Slight fantasy booking again. If something happens to trigger the memory, be it the napalm from episode 51 or something else which brings Venom back to the hospital even as a memory, that makes it in to the story progression. Ocelot tells gives him the ‘Man Who Sold the World’ tape and explains how he saved him from the hospital, and that fits it in to the story neatly.

What is especially bad about the ‘Truth’ mission is that you have to go through the entirety of what is essentially a tutorial mission just to reach the point where the new twin snakes crash the car, leading to the identity switch. As a result, the final mission felt like a mistake or a chore – I held off that mission for a while, not recognising it as a new chapter and instead believing it to be another re-play mission. I generally like some sort of classic boss battle to finish a Metal Gear story, but if he defeats the powered up Metal Gear piloted by Liquid and Psycho Mantis, and it offers something new and cool and satisfying, an easier but powerful mission to finish the game is fine. While I was energised recognising Big Boss’s voice in the replay of the prologue, I found going through almost the entire tutorial ridiculous and frustrating – the most basic of gameplay that you had already done is the strangest way to end a story I’ve seen and certainly left it flat, despite the revelations. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the lack of cut-scenes and radio conversations were replaced by cassettes filling in narrative blanks, which I found to be a big problem throughout.

Big Boss with his nuclear weapon before the events of The Phantom Pain. Credit to techtimes.com

Big Boss with his nuclear weapon before the events of The Phantom Pain. Credit to techtimes.com

What is more is that, while the twist is certainly a change and a twist, but the problem is that it isn’t a progression, it’s a neutral or sideways step. Reviewers have been using the term ‘phantom’ ad nauseum, but what has become clear to me is that a major phantom with regards to this game is the phantom link between Peace Walker and Metal Gear 1. For me, the biggest draw of this game was the suggestion that it tied up the link between the MGS3-Peace Walker era to the Metal Gear-Metal Gear Solid era as Big Boss solidifies himself as the Big Evil. That didn’t happen, and I’m really struggling to see anything like a regression in character and progression of story. At the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss quite powerfully states his disgust with The Boss and what she came to represent as well as seemingly wanting to shut himself off, surrounded by MSF at Outer Heaven, working with anyone, good or bad, to maintain his soldier’s nation. If anything – and this is no original thought – Big Boss regresses back towards a hero; he saves child soldiers rather than use them, and he kills his own men to save the wider world from the vocal cord parasites. This is not to say that Venom should have killed the child soldiers when he had the chance, or have the player commit more serious deeds, but there is a balance to be achieved. Again, not to fantasy book, but if you were to do more questionable things, and a big reveal at the end was the selfish or evil reason behind it, that would have worked well.

Ultimately, if you look at the timeline of Metal Gear lore in it’s broader terms, this game isn’t even needed, and that is a damning indictment for the story.

Metal Gear Recordings
I mentioned them earlier, but while trying to avoid every bug bear I had with the game, I can’t ignore the use of cassettes in the game. I have heard a lot of people laud this as a useful and more optional replacement for the radio/codec narrative technique. I understand that for the players who didn’t like the long expositions of previous games, but I think it really detracts from the character of it as a Metal Gear game as well as really undermining the story and the flow of the narrative. The solution is to make cutscenes and radio calls skipable, not make you catch up on narrative in an awkward way after the fact. Yes you can listen to cassettes as you play, but they are usually relevant after the fact and quite complicated in content. If you are playing the game with any sort of concentration, you can’t do that and take in the tapes. As a result, I listened to the tapes separately while inactive, sometimes listening for a very long time, staring at the iDroid screen. I found it very unsatisfying. People who enjoy the game for what it is are being penalised in favour of players who don’t care about the story, or at least don’t care as much. Things are revealed all at once in big info dumps, rather than naturally as you play, and the whole thing feels rushed and arbitrary rather than revelatory; an extension of the issues that come about as a result of the chapters and credits.

Metal Gear Characters
Thankfully, the final negative point which warrants mention is disappointing aspects of some of the major characters in the game. The most upsetting failure in the game is Ocelot. He doesn’t resemble the integral, dynamic character of Ocelot from every other main game despite passing hints at his penchant for interrogation and revolvers. From his appearance to his voice to his near total lack of motivation in the game rather than a bland association with Mother Base and the Diamond Dogs, he is sadly a non-entity. While we know of his admiration and association with Big Boss, and it is roughly explained why he is even there (revealed in the tapes), he seems to just be making up the numbers, passing on intel and, I believe, appearing so he can appear maintain his streak of appearing in all of the series’ major games.

Skull Face is just one of a group of memorable characters in the game. Credit Konami and IGN.

Skull Face is just one of a group of memorable characters in the game. Credit Konami and IGN.

Many people criticise Skull Face as a villain, and understandably so for his sudden and inglorious end, and those criticisms are right. While I liked his aesthetic and most of his backstory (though it should have been explained more clearly and disposed of the idea that he was trying to follow The Boss’s will without any connection established between the two), he dies about half way through the game and not even by your hand in a boss fight; something sorely lacking in a game with few memorable boss fights which were such a staple of former games. Add to that, the infamous jeep ride with Venom as the game’s theme plays; a moment which I can only assume is designed to match the magic ladder climbing moment in Snake Eater but fall short in awkwardness, despite the drama of the situation Venom is in at that stage. So despite his potential, he was ultimately a disappointment as main antagonist.

The problem with Eli, I fear largely comes from the huge chunk of game cut from the finished product, so I will show clemency on his success, and while I didn’t really enjoy Code Talker, I think his impact isn’t enough to get really upset about, so I will move on to the most enigmatic of characters, Quiet. Sticking to criticism for a while, her presentation as more than half naked, consistently finding reasons to frolic in water and having her ‘T&A’ zoomed in on at several turns is gratuitous without any satisfying explanation. Kojima overtly said her design was to sell merchandise and the in-game explanation of her requiring few clothes due to the burns she sustained holds no water given The End from Snake Eater and Code Talker in the same game have the same condition and can wear plenty of clothes without issue. It’s even more of a shame given that Quiet is actually a very successful character, and the epitome of the best of what this game seemed to be aiming for – i.e. the player’s experience building the story. Quiet instantly becomes indispensable as a buddy, saving you and making missions far more achievable through her impressive abilities and straight-up bad-assery. You build your own bond and your own stories with her and you come to have a great regard for her. While aspects are missing from her story (for instance, how did she get in to XOF initially?), the mystery behind a character who can’t or won’t speak and who seemingly can’t be trusted while seemingly having a bond with her is very intriguing, while the pathos engendered by her reasons for not talking and her ultimate sacrifice is genuinely powerful, underlined by the sense of loss experience when she has left and is no longer by your side. Her presence and her story goes a long way to making this game work on any level and is probably the best thing about the game.

Metal Gear Positives
I feel my passion for the bad things about the games have made my discussion of them out of proportion with the actual quality of the game, as there are lots of positives to discuss. As mentioned earlier, the gameplay, and the varied approaches you can take to your tasks is incredible, and probably the ultimate way to play a Metal Gear Solid game.

Quiet as last we see her in the game. Credit Konami and Giantbomb.com.

Quiet as last we see her in the game. Credit Konami and Giantbomb.com.

Despite the many and serious issues of narrative that form the reasoning for this article, there are some highlights – the mission in which you rescue the child soldiers and at one point, seemingly gun them down, is among it’s most successful moments, as well as the moment where Quiet frolics with you in the rain. Despite the exploitative way it’s used with her costume, it shows a joy in her which is a nice diversion for her; and though it hints at romance with her and Venom, the story doesn’t rely on that, which is incredibly refreshing. Finally, the scene already mentioned during which you are forced to put down your saluting men is very moving and challenging and is the sort of scene and darkness the game needed much more of.

While there is a drought of bosses and boss battles, what we get is really good. Skull Face, in theory, as already mentioned, is a good antagonist, while Volgin’s return as The Man on Fire provides a unique challenge which makes sense and really fits with the longer cast of bosses from the history of the game. The Skulls are very worthy and scary foes, and we get a classic sniper battle and a challenging battle with a Metal Gear which should in some form be the final battle (and seemingly was supposed to be in the form of Mission 51).

Metal Gear Summary
The positives from the game make the flaws of the finished product all the more frustrating. Kojima still had the unique craziness in him, and aspects of what made the series great could be seen at times.

The experience of playing is a lot of fun and certainly addictive until you have finished, and so for pure gamers, I think this game really holds up. Even for MGS fans, it will be enjoyed, but the blanket critical acclaim it has enjoyed given it’s very real and obvious flaws lend credence to theories that Konami in some way influenced reviews for it, which is a shame.

It’s a fun game, and the chance to play as (a version of) Big Boss is welcomed, but the game as produced isn’t necessary to the Metal Gear story, and what it does provide is presented very poorly with characters going through no significant arcs and story beats and revelations – including the ending – revealed seemingly without thought and reason. It need not be the final Metal Gear game, and it certainly leaves gaps to be filled, but if they are going to be told in this way, I think it would be a mistake artistically if not commercially.

Metal Gear Future
This has been billed, amidst controversy, as Kojima’s last Metal Gear game, but with or without him, of course the game could continue, either through Konami, or through a more ambitious company willing to buy the licence.

I am not against the idea of another name as I think the universe and lore is such that dedicated followers of the series with the requisite skills could certainly take the deep fabric of the Metal Gear universe and continue it properly.

For the sake of a satisfying list, here are some ideas for future Metal Gear games:

  • Essentially taking the events of MGSV and playing off them with a new game to realise it’s objectives. A game that would take place between MGSV and Metal Gear 1 that would truly show Big Boss break bad and set up the events of Metal Gear 1. Perhaps you could share duties between a collaborating Venom Snake and Big Boss during which, on their way to taking down a threatening organisation, both find that the other is expanding beyond the other’s knowledge, doing a lot of morally questionable things, and each of them doubling down as garrisoned, embittered arms-hoarders, leading to Big Boss blinking first and the events of Metal Gear 1.
  • Remake either or both (together) of Metal Gears 1 and 2 with the latest generation and fox engine. It would mean a degree of ret-conning some of the original narrative, but providing the player with the chance to play as Solid Snake against Venom and Big Boss while weaving in characters from the lore that didn’t exist at the time of the original games would make for a very tantalising game to play.
  • This is possibly my favourite. A game where we get to play as The Boss. Getting to play as a female protagonist would be a nice apology for the treatment of Quiet et al and it would be a great way of adding to the character who, in a way, started it all. Playing as The Boss would truly add some circularity to the series and would allow the player to generate their own idea of her will.

The very fact that, despite being somewhat disappointed by The Phantom Pain, my mind is still racing about the series’ possibilities is telling about the magic behind the series, and the fact that I care about the shortcomings of the game highlights that further. Metal Gear Solid is truly a special series, and will never lose that magic, and as Kojima probably heads to his own Outer Heaven away from Konami, the universe he created remains among the greatest achievements in gaming and modern media. This game fits in to that universe, it’s just a shame that it’s dwarfed by earlier efforts.