My Favorite Video Games of the Last Decade

Since it looks like all of us are about to have a lot more free time, I thought I’d share my list of favorite video games of the last decade (which I meant to finish earlier). In what I’m sure is a shock, I have somewhat odd taste in games: I care almost purely about story and have minimum interest in games that are only about competing with other people or trying to defeat ultra-difficult bosses and master the controls. Gameplay still matters, obviously, but only in terms of how it serves the story, and so there are a few games on this list that maybe are more like interactive movies than what a lot of people think of as games. I recommend all of these stories highly and think a few would appeal even to people who don’t think of themselves as liking video games.

These aren’t in any particular order — even though I love obsessively ranking things, for some reason with video games it feels pointless since a lot of them have very different goals and aspirations.

Also, I own a PlayStation 3 and 4 and do not bother with other inferior consoles. I’m extremely loyal to the Sony brand and consider X-Box and Nintendo fans to be worse human beings than me.

Gone Home

The original “walking simulator,” Gone Home was polarizing — some consider it among the best games of all time while a very loud segment of players don’t even think it’s a game (this will be a recurring theme of this list). I don’t really care what it is, personally, because this was one of the best stories told in the last decade in any medium. Gone Home put you in the shoes of a teen girl who returns home from studying abroad and finds that her parents and sister are missing. You wander around the home, finding clues and hints about their whereabouts while never directly interacting with anyone. The tapes your sister leaves behind tell a powerful enough straight-forward story, but the real genius of Gone Home was how the game played out in your head, allowing players to form their own conclusions about the characters by extrapolating and connecting dots. While only 2-3 hours in length, I got a lot more out of this game than the vast majority of bloated big budget titles.

Life is Strange

An angsty little episodic teen drama with medium graphics, questionable voice acting, and some utterly cringeworthy older-men-writing-for-teenagers dialogue, Life is Strange was certainly a game that had some very obvious flaws. But few games have gotten me as emotionally hooked into the characters and the story, and I think it created its own little universe that allowed me to look past some of its shortcomings and appreciate a game attempting to tell a story in a different way. You play as Max Caulfield, a girl who gains the ability to rewind time, which influences the main narrative involving her reuniting with her troubled friend Chloe and solving the disappearance of one of the popular girls from school while a possible apocalypse looms over their town. The game gives you some very difficult choices along the way in its Twin Peaks meets Freaks and Geeks story, which is full of genuinely shocking twists and turns.

Mass Effect 2 and 3

The final two games in this fantastic trilogy were a perfect mix of story and gameplay, with a mix of compelling characters and a plotline with real stakes. Playing as a customizable main character named Shepard (a heroic woman if you have any taste, but I am aware that some cretins play renegade and/or as the dull male counterpart), your mission is to save the galaxy which involves assembling a collection of colorful cohorts from different alien races who all have their own intertwined conflicts in the game’s lore, which is sort of like Star Wars but better. ME2 is correctly recognized as one of the best games of its era, and ME3 delivers what I felt was a satisying conclusion to the series, though be aware that many players (read: whiny nerds) threw a shitfit over it in a similar scenario to Game of Thrones.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

One of the great issues in video games now for me is bloat: gamers want to “get their money’s worth,” which means stories often stretch to absurd padded lengths and make you completely sick of the game by the time you finish (if you even do). The Witcher 3 is maybe the only game I played with one of these epic length stories where the duration felt earned due to the emotional core of the story, which is mostly the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia trying to find his ward and daughter figure, Ciri, who is being hunted by the Wild Hunt who want to use her ultra-powerful elder blood. Geralt is a somewhat bland protagonist, but he’s surrounded by one of the better groups of complex and well-drawn women characters in games, and the gameplay was an intriguing challenge as each monster you slay required a different strategy.

The Last of Us

Let’s hope coronavirus doesn’t go like the pandemic at the start of The Last of Us, which sweeps through humanity in its opening and 20 years later leaves the uninfected living in military quarantine zones or cults while the infected have turned into ravenous fungus zombies. In this post-apocalyptic environment, a smuggler named Joel reluctantly escorts a sarcastic young teenager named Ellie across the country in hopes that she can provide a cure for the disease. Developer Naughty Dog’s previous series, Uncharted, ran into an issue where the gameplay was non-stop shooting and violence, but the cut scenes were jovial with characters who seemed unaffected by their rampant killing spree (something I later learned is called “ludonarrative dissonance”). The Last of Us is rare among modern violent games in that the bloodshed feels gross and wrong, though necessary, and as the player you’re thrust into brutal situations that aren’t these fun shoot-em-up scenarios. This means the game is heavy and bleak, maybe to a fault, but the story is so gripping, the relationship between Joel and Ellie gives it heart, and its ending is one of the best in any media of the decade, with a resolution that is true to the characters and has about 50 different shades of ambiguity.

Virginia

The least gamey of any game I played, Virginia is more like a 2-hour movie where you are in the body of the main character. Inspired heavily by Twin Peaks and The X-Files,  you play as an FBI detective named Anne Tarver, who along with her partner investigates the case of a missing young boy, which quickly gets unbelievably surreal and weird. Featuring no dialogue, the game relies on its score by Lyndon Holland and its unique art direction and character designs to tell the story, which is trippy and challenging in a way that games rarely are. Even if this isn’t the most interactive game, it’s worth experiencing once — maybe twice if you miss details the first time.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Another rare open-world success story, Horizon Zero: Dawn scores high for its unique setting, taking place in the distant future where humanity has been reduced to primitive tribes while surrounded by mysterious dinosaur-like machines that are starting to become violent. The main character, young tribal outcast Aloy, offered a different kind of protagonist than the typical gruff sarcastic dude, though her supporting cast in the tribal storyline was less developed and was the one area where the game suffered. The stand-out part of this game was the story of humanity and the world itself, which was gradually unraveled Gone Home style through audio logs in different locations. Through those, you learn of how the world became like it is in the current setting and how humanity responded to an unimaginable crisis.

Firewatch

In the heartbreaking opening to Firewatch, you learn the story of your character meeting his wife, and how she began to suffer from early dementia that caused you to take a menial job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest to escape. You have no contact with other characters except for your supervisor, Delilah, and the relationship that unfolds is one of the best-written and emotionally involving in any game. The story itself also increases in tension as you find increasingly strange activity in the forest, which is even scarier because of the sense of aloneness conveyed by the game. This is another walking simulator type game without a ton of action, but is one of the stronger narratives you’ll find in games.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Another walking simulator, this one takes place in a British village in 1984 where everyone has mysteriously vanished. You simply walk around and explore the village, going from house to house and uncovering audio that depicts the final days of the humans there. This is another game with low interactivity, but it’s a hell of a story with some of the best music and voice acting of any game, and its story has some satisfyingly weird twists and turns.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Yet another walking simulator type game, this one tells the story of a seemingly cursed family through a series of poignant vignettes that show different characters reaching their end, sometimes in bizarre and surreal ways. As the protagonist, you arrive at the family’s mansion and uncover the history by walking from room to room, which is about the extent of the gameplay other than some minor controls that add to the immersion of each story. This was another rare game that felt risky and weird, and sometimes it seemed more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel than a video game.

The Women’s Elimination Chamber Was The Best Worst Match

One of the personalities you unfortunately become acquainted with when you get way too hardcore into wrestling is Dave Meltzer, who has reported on the industry for years and created The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Meltzer is maybe most known these days for his star ratings of wrestling matches, which started with a 0-5 scale but now has had multiple scale-breaking matches, including a recent AEW match he rated six stars. His ratings feed a concept that has taken hold of the wrestling industry: the idea of a match as an artistic performance that is held up to a critical standard of excellence, and fans now often rate matches themselves based on how “crisp” the “workrate” is. Meltzer’s system in particular favors matches with high athleticism, long run times, dramatic kickouts and false finishes — the recent AEW tag match he gave six stars was basically four wrestlers hitting every move that ever existed for over 30 minutes.

I didn’t like that match a whole lot, and I’ve increasingly become alienated from what the typical wrestling fan perceives as a “great match.” Wrestling is an art form, but I don’t think it should ever overtly resemble art. You should feel like you’re watching people fight, not like you’re watching people put on a great performance. And too many of these highly acclaimed matches are more like Cirque Du Soleil demonstrations, with everyone trying to “steal the show,” but in the process losing the thread of this being a simulated competition that it should look like you’re trying to win. This is in part a self-fulfilling prophecy from Meltzer’s scale — his influence on wrestling has shaped what a generation of wrestlers think “great wrestling” looks like, and they put on matches looking to score high on his star ratings scale rather than to tell a story or make people emotionally invested.

Context is also something I think about a lot in art, and in wrestling it is particularly important. If every match is a “banger” where the competitors trade moves back and forth, kick out of everything, and engage in non-stop frenetic action, it has a numbing effect. Part of what once made these matches great was that they were rare and special, but now you can see an indie-style 20 minute “classic” every week, if not even more often. I’ve felt this in particular watching NXT, where everyone is so highly trained and athletic, but it leads to a sameness in the matches. My exhaustion of this style of wrestling has led to a weird effect where I have started to appreciate matches that just tell a coherent story of reasonable length and don’t engage in any of these modern wrestling tropes. Exhibit A for this happened last Sunday with the women’s Elimination Chamber match.

The chamber is a WWE match type where wrestlers are locked in pods and there is a convoluted rules system that basically leads to them wrestling in this dangerous structure. There is an underlying expectation to these gimmick matches now, that they’re going to be full of exciting action and creative moves. In the chamber match that happened earlier in the night, a wrestler climbed to the top of the cage and did a backflip onto all the other wrestlers, which wowed the crowd. With the women’s chamber match, which main evented a long three-and-a-half hour show, WWE subverted those expectations and essentially put on a match that was intentionally unentertaining and bad — and I loved it.

I realize that sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain. To start with, everyone knew who would win this match — the winner would get a match against this blog’s hero Becky Lynch at WrestleMania, and Becky had already started feuding with Shayna Baszler, the former long-reigning NXT champion. Along with that, the other five women in the match (Asuka, Natalya, Ruby Riott, Liv Morgan, Sarah Logan) had all either lost to Becky already or not been portrayed as serious competitors. So there was no drama in the outcome, which led to a disinvested crowd. The way the match played out pissed them off even more: once Shayna got in the match, she just systematically eliminated all the other competitors, and multiple times she cleared the ring and just stood around gloating while waiting for the next victim to come out of their pod. So a large chunk of this main event match was, incredibly, just Shayna Baszler walking around the ring taunting the other competitors while no action occurred. Everyone knowing Shayna would win and then Shayna easily dominating made this match unappealing while also adding a lot to the story, as there was a crushing and depressing inevitability to her victory.

Part of why I loved this match is that it had a verisimilitude to it that you rarely see in wrestling anymore. I remember watching Floyd Mayweather fights, and I would get pissed off that he dominated boxing in such a boring and workmanlike fashion that wasn’t fun to watch. I would be desperate to see a boxer step up and kick his ass, but no one ever could because he was too good. The psychology of this match felt similar: this wasn’t about every wrestler getting to showcase their artistic abilities, but about Baszler, a cage-fighting specialist, just being much better than everyone else and focusing only on winning the match and abusing her competitors rather than being entertaining. Now obviously wrestling should maintain its unique quirks that separate it from just being simulated UFC, but this was the perfect way to establish Baszler as a total killer, as well as a vicious heel who you hate in part because she “ruins” matches like this with her methodical style. This was a match that had a purpose to it that told a more resonant story than “look at the moves these wrestlers can do.”

The cost of this presentation was that WWE put on a main event that most people hated, and not really in the “getting worked” way where they’re upset at a heel but still hooked into the story. It remains to be seen, but I think the benefits of this are worth it: it makes future Shayna matches more compelling, especially her upcoming showdown with Lynch, because she seems unbeatable and is hated by fans for being “boring.” Ideally, that can be paid off with a satisfying moment when Baszler loses, and she’s already set the template in NXT, where both of her title losses were the kind of joyful moments that make me love wrestling. It also creates a context where you don’t know that every single main event is going to be a 30-minute thrill ride, or that every gimmick match is going to have the predictable high spots and excitement. In a sense, this match died so that other matches could live.

Actually, Trump is Pretty Easy to Beat

I watched the last democratic debate on Wednesday night and one of the subjects brought up over and over by every candidate was “we need to choose a candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” with each making their own case for why they’re that person. The way each candidate talked was in line with how most liberals I know (or follow on Twitter) seem to view this upcoming election, as a very difficult one against a candidate who is uniquely hard to defeat. It’s easy to understand why they feel this way: we all got cocky last election thinking Trump had no chance, he seemed immune to scandals or deficiencies that would sink other candidates, and of course, he won and is now an incumbent. But increasingly I think people fundamentally misunderstand what happened last election and as a result are underrating the chances of the democratic nominee, regardless of who it is.

My belief in this is primarily rooted in one idea: that Hillary Clinton was possibly the worst presidential candidate in American history. This has nothing to do with my own beliefs or feelings about her but is instead a conclusion that I think can be reached by clearly looking at facts. Clinton had never shown a particular knack for winning elections and was essentially gifted the Democratic nomination because it was “her turn.” The first sign she might not be a great candidate was when relative unknown Bernie Sanders put a huge dent in her campaign. Hillary had spent years in the public eye being a polarizing political figure, and whether it’s fair or not, people just don’t really like Hillary, as evidenced by her consistently low favorability ratings.

Despite Hillary being uniquely bad, Trump’s victory required a wide confluence of fortunate events. Hillary was a heavy favorite in the days leading up to the election until the infamous Comey letter gradually swung the odds until Trump was (if I remember correctly) about 30-40 percent to win on Election Day according to FiveThirtyEight. Even with the letter (and Russia and sexism if you want to fold in those factors), Trump won by very narrowly defeating Clinton in three swing states while losing the popular vote, and my guess is if you simulated that Election Day a million times he probably wins less than 50 percent of the time.

In addition to that evidence, there’s just the reality that all of us witnessed Trump bumble his way through the campaign, beat a clown car of incompetent Republican frontrunners in the GOP primary, run into a constant string of scandals, and get crushed in every debate by a not particularly great debater. Of course, he has a base of people who like him and Republicans who will put up with him, but that isn’t enough people to turn him into an electoral powerhouse. Now running as an incumbent, he doesn’t have that “let’s burn this whole system down” angle supporting him, but instead will be forced to defend the status quo of his own presidency, which rates as highly unpopular in every poll, putting him in the same company as past incumbent losers like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Every potential democratic nominee (except for Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, who objectively suck) will likely be favored over Trump in a general election. People my age don’t really like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar much, but they’re each skilled politicians who know how to win elections and are generally liked. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, has consistently high favorability ratings, is pretty much scandal-free (outside of media-created pseudo-scandals like “Bernie Bros” and concern over his age), and has an enthusiastic base with a message that emotionally resonates with a wide range of people. Elizabeth Warren could potentially unite those two sides of the party, winning over some of the less extreme Bernie supporters while also appealing to moderates and independents. Regardless of your own leanings, it seems really obvious to me that these choices are far better than Hillary Clinton, who was widely hated and only created enthusiasm among those weird people on Twitter who thought she was Daenarys Targaryen or something.

And note that this is coming from me, someone who is cynical to a fault and has essentially no faith in humanity to ever do the right thing. I’m fully aware that the majority of voters just pick who they like most in a very lizard-brained way. That’s part of why I think one of the popular democratic nominees, especially someone like Sanders who has likability and authenticity, is likely to win over a widely despised incumbent. Basically, I don’t think Trump is an effective campaigner just because he barely won one election against a horrible candidate, and this time he will face a much stronger candidate in a far less favorable context. This doesn’t mean it will literally be an easy campaign or that he can’t possibly win again, but other than PTSD or Russia conspiracy theories, there is no real reason for liberals to be so scared of this guy. Right now, the biggest thing liberals need to overcome is their own defeatist mentality.

 

The Legacy of Trish Keenan: All Circles Vanish

There’s a reason beyond my own laziness that this project has hit a snag: Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (henceforth referred to in this piece as “this album”) is a uniquely difficult album that resists most typical attempts at interpretation and analysis. I’ve never been sure if I really understood everything it was trying to do, or if I was even meant to. Through the years, my opinions on it have vacillated from “this isn’t even a true Broadcast album” all the way to “this is the most Broadcast album of all the Broadcast albums.”

Released four years after Tender Buttons, this album was a collaboration with The Focus Group (Julian House), who had collaborated on the band’s artwork in the past and had an obsession with digging through the past and repurposing old sounds into little bits of psychedelia. He drove enough of this project to receive equal billing, which has led to a weird modern frustration — this album doesn’t appear on Broadcast’s Spotify page, but is listed under “Broadcast and the Focus Group,” making it easy to miss for new fans discovering the group and adding to the perception that this was more of a side project and not one of the band’s “true” albums. This was also the only Broadcast album (other than 2011’s posthumous Berberian Sound Studio, which I don’t really think of as one of their “canon” albums) released while I was an active fan, but I mostly remember not initially liking it because it was so different, and I might have went about five years before I even listened to it again.

Years later, the album has grown on me a lot, but I still think there was some validity to my initial reaction — that the appeal of Broadcast was how they made pop songs that were simple, but contained layers of weirdness and psychedelia underneath that you could gradually unfold. This album removes a lot of that satisfying subtlety and replaces it with very overt strangeness — this is more of a shout than a whisper like “Echo’s Answer.” The litany of samples and sounds in every song are jarring, and I’ve never been able to tell how much of it was original material and how much was scrapbooked together from old horror movies and the Radiophonic Workshop. The only traditional song on this album comes at the beginning: “The Be Colony” isn’t too far off from classic Broadcast and is one of my favorites by the group.

After that, this album is pretty much just a trip, and it takes a lot of the more subtle psychedelic aspects in Broadcast’s music and amplifies them to the fullest. The entire Alice in Wonderland construction of their songs comes very heavily to the forefront here, with Keenan’s ghostly innocent voice surrounded by all sorts of obscure sounds. It is never unpleasant to listen to because of the band’s gift for gentle melodies, but at times it is frustrating because of its patchwork structure. Parts like the haunting beginning of “Royal Chant” that I want to go on forever drift away in about 40 seconds, replaced by the next oddball sound they dug up. That makes it difficult to latch onto any sort of central meaning or purpose to the songs at times.

I’m normally weary of just accepting musician’s explanations of what their music is at face value (I prefer deciding for myself), but in this case, Keenan had a good summary:

I’d like people to enjoy the album as a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night, and a science worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day, all headed by the Focus Group leader who lays down sonic laws that break through the corrective systems of timing and keys.

That provides a bit of a road map to the album, but it’s still one that, at least for me, is more prickly and hard to love than all of their other efforts. One thing I think defines Broadcast’s music is a spirit of generosity — their songs had a warmth to them through sound, but also allowed listeners freedom to slowly find the truth and meaning hinted at in their songs. This is the only music they made that has a hint of self-indulgence to it, a sense that maybe it was more fun for them to make than it was to listen to.

Despite these reservations, there are times I listen to this album and convince myself that it was actually the purest representation of Broadcast. It captures many of the band’s obsessions in their purest form: the use of old sounds to create something new and weird, the desire to challenge listeners, and the idea of using psychedelic music as a door into a different way of thinking. It’s radically different from everything they did previously, yet also kind of the same, and I believe the band set out to make an album that was effective in part because it was disorienting, confusing, and not easily interpreted or analyzed. Broadcast loved making puzzles, and this is one I still haven’t figured out — that might make it the most effective of them all.

Brock Lesnar, The Royal Rumble, and the Art of Pissing Off Your Own Fans

I realized recently why I like WWE more than most other wrestling fans and don’t really enjoy AEW: I’m a bad person who enjoys seeing people get upset. AEW’s vision for wrestling is very positive, it’s inclusive, and it’s about pleasing their rabid audience, who are maniacally into every show and cheer loudly for all the wrestlers. This approach has a lot of upsides in terms of the “we’re all in this together” vibe of the promotion, and the way it’s been branded and marketed to this audience is part of why it’s been doing well for an upstart company. The downside is that it makes it hard to tell a story that authentically gets fans riled up in the way wrestling can. Sure, the company has some heels like MJF and Pac who will do villainous things, but because the underlying feeling about the company is so positive, I never get the sense that people are genuinely upset by their actions — they’ll boo and play along with the story because that’s “being a good fan,” but they’re not actually pissed because the company itself is portrayed as benevolent and caring, even within its own fictional universe.

This is a big contrast to WWE, which for a long time has portrayed itself as a heel company in storyline. Its hottest storyline ever involved Stone Cold Steve Austin fighting the boss, Vince McMahon, and recent storylines have involved similar demonic authority figures who meddle with the crowd’s favorite wrestlers. This approach has myriad downsides, and has probably cultivated the general feeling of resentment many fans have towards WWE, but it can also still be harnessed to tell stories that have an emotional weight that I’m not sure a company like AEW could quite pull off. The clearest most recent example was “Kofimania,” in which 11-year veteran Kofi Kingston finally got a chance at the world title that eluded him his whole career. He ended up jumping through hoops set up by Vince McMahon, who claimed he didn’t feel he was championship material, before finally winning the big one at Wrestlemania and then going on a lengthy Cinderella title run. But in the end, the clock struck midnight and it all came crashing down at the hands of Brock Lesnar.

This was one of WWE’s shrewdest meta-booking moves of the year, and it made fans legitimately irate. They hated that Kofi went on this long run only to be booked to get squashed by Lesnar in four seconds. They hated that Brock, who wrestles only part-time and has been portrayed as someone who hates wrestling and the fans, was champion again, which meant his title would disappear from TV. A segment of fans will still insist they hated it because it was “bad storytelling,” but they should learn that an unhappy ending isn’t always a bad one. This succeeded in making people hate Lesnar even more and it gained Kofi tons of sympathy because, once again, the company screwed him and didn’t see any value in him. If this match had gone on for 10 minutes with Brock winning, that emotion wouldn’t have been there — the feeling would have been that Kofi got a fair shot, it was a good title run, and everyone would have moved on with their lives.

Booking moments like this are part of why Lesnar is the best heel in wrestling. WWE has meticulously booked him like a god over the years, and he’s always there to crush the dreams of your favorite wrestlers with his stupid repeated German suplexes. His mouthpiece, Paul Heyman, is one of the best talkers in wrestling history and is the perfect guy to bloviate about his accomplishments to further piss off the fans. Fans believe in Lesnar because of his legitimate credentials (former UFC champion) and because he rarely shows much of his personality to the public. At a recent Minnesota Gopher wrestling event, Lesnar was a guest coach and was seen smiling and taking pictures with children, and it was jarring because the image of him seen on WWE — a ruthless beast who only takes pleasure in tormenting others and hates having to show up and wrestle — is so rarely contradicted anywhere.

This past Sunday, Lesnar decided to enter first in the Royal Rumble, and it answered the question many fans have about why WWE invests so much in him. The Rumble match is an annual favorite that involves 30 wrestlers entering the match one-at-a-time every 90 seconds until only one is left standing in the ring. Typically, the ring fills up with guys who sort of fake fight while one notable thing is happening at a time, but this year’s was different: with Lesnar starting first and vowing to eliminate everyone (his reasons were never outright stated, but presumably it was to prove his dominance and make children cry), this match instead became a series of dramatic confrontations, with a variety of wrestlers trying their hand at slaying the beast while fans speculated on who would be the one to do it. It was the best one of these matches I’ve ever seen and an example of WWE’s antagonistic storytelling method being executed perfectly.

This match is fascinating because the entire first half is WWE pissing off its own audience, and it’s just not something you see in any other storytelling medium. Lesnar starts in the ring and predictably throws out a series of wrestlers who aren’t portrayed as being close to his level competitively. These first eliminations (Elias, Erick Rowan, John Morrison and Bobby Roode) aren’t exciting to watch necessarily, but they create a context for the rest of this match, establishing that Lesnar is unstoppable and that eliminating him will be nearly impossible. So by entry #6, fans are getting a bit uneasy, wondering if anyone can take Lesnar down or if WWE is really going to book him to “bury” the entire roster.

At #6, Kofi Kingston comes out and it’s the first confrontation of the match that feels like a big deal due to their match months earlier. And as Kofi starts kicking the crap out of Lesnar for a few seconds and the crowd goes nuts, WWE’s booking of that match fully clicks for me, because I feel how desperately the fans want to see the likable face overcome the monstrous heel. Kofi is the first to survive the first 90 seconds and then he’s joined by Rey Mysterio, a legendary cruiserweight whose large adult son, Dominick, was assaulted by Brock months ago. 90 seconds later, they’re joined by Kofi’s tag team partner, Big E (who is big) and all three of the faces team up and go after Brock.

The fans are hyped for this trio to eliminate Brock, but he ends up eliminating all of them after a couple incredible spots that showcase his freakish athleticism. Then Brock eliminates the next few guys without much effort (Cesaro, Shelton Benjamin, Shinsuke Nakamura, MVP), giving the fans some time to breathe and continuing to build a sense of uneasiness in the room, a feeling that Brock might actually win this entire stupid match. At this point, I glance at Twitter and Reddit and just see fans yelling about how horrible the match is, how much they hate everything, etc. But this is exactly what WWE wanted them to be saying and the company is playing them like a fiddle at this point — this whole segment of the match is like a symphony of audience manipulation.

Keith Lee comes out next — he’s a massive, athletic star on the rise and was a popular pick to knock Lesnar out. Brock’s reactions to Lee are hilarious and the two behemoths go toe-to-toe. Because Lesnar has just been manhandling everyone in the match for so long, Lee looks incredible just for holding his own against him, and when he takes Brock off his feet with a shoulder tackle, the crowd goes crazy (think about that for a moment — the crowd cheered loudly for the most basic move in wrestling). The two collide mid-ring and are down when Braun Strowman, an even more massive man, joins the fray, so at this point Lesnar is exhausted and up against two giants. But when Lee and Strowman start fighting each other, Brock sneaks up and eliminates both, and the crowd totally deflates. You can feel them thinking “that was our chance and they just blew it.”

Ricochet, the pre-eminent flippy-doo wrestler of this whole generation of flippy wrestlers, comes out next, jumps right into Brock’s arms like an idiot and gets casually ragdolled into the corner. Then Drew McIntyre’s music hits and he comes to the ring looking like a guy from the cover of a romance novel and stares down his enemy. Brock focuses in on him and starts removing his gloves, knowing that McIntyre means serious business. But Ricochet comes to and kicks Lesnar in the balls, then McIntyre hits his signature “Claymore kick” on Brock and sends him toppling over the top rope.

The crowd reaction to this is something seldom seen — it was like their home team just won the Super Bowl or something, and I practically expected champagne to start popping. And it wasn’t a bunch of fans cheering because they love the WWE brand — it was because they legitimately, in real life, hate Brock Lesnar and were overjoyed that he was eliminated from this match that it was starting to look like he was winning. And now, just by kicking this large albino-gorilla-looking guy over the top rope, McIntyre (who has mostly been a villain in WWE) is instantly the most beloved face in the company. WWE brilliantly doubled down on this booking and ended up having McIntyre win the whole match about 30 minutes later, setting him up to face Brock for the title at Wrestlemania.

Brock Lesnar’s performance in the match was legendary — he was terrifying, brutal, and looked completely unstoppable. He’s so incredibly good at pro wrestling, but a lot of fans don’t realize it because they legitimately resent him due to how he has been booked and portrayed. WWE harnessed those negative emotions in this match and used it to create a new star in McIntyre, who had been previously directionless. This match was a perfect example of the give-and-take of wrestling storytelling and how context and build can create amazing moments. In order to feel as joyful and happy as fans did in that moment Lesnar was eliminated, they first needed to be really furious.

A Good Segment From Monday Night Raw, Which is a Good Show

I’m not sure if there is anything in other media quite like the relationship between wrestling fans and WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw. Clocking in at three hours every Monday night, Raw is the most-watched wrestling show in the world despite the fact that seemingly everyone hates it. There is an entire industry now of YouTubers, podcasters, and social media personalities who build their entire brand around trashing Raw and dramatically talking about how TERRIBLE and SO BAD everything is, and it’s become something of a bizarre shared ritual where fans tune in to bitch about the writing, the wrestlers that are being pushed, the amount of talking on the show, and pretty much anything else anyone could possibly complain about. This sort of contrived “suffering fan” schtick is insufferable to me and it’s part of why I tend to keep my wrestling fandom guarded in public.

I’ve always enjoyed Raw, but often it’s been something like a guilty pleasure. I have a certain respect for the difficulty of putting on a 3-hour show every week for a fickle and tough audience, and if the show ever had major flaws (and boy did it ever), I usually would find them fascinating instead of frustrating. It provides a lot of analytical fodder, thinking of how they could have handled certain wrestlers, how they should be telling a story, what a segment was trying to accomplish that it didn’t, etc. One reason I recommend wrestling is that you get a really strong visceral sense of how storytelling works in real time, and sometimes there is a lot to be learned in watching WWE step in it. But lately, for a variety of reasons, Raw has become an actual good show, with what seems to be a more logical booking philosophy and plan for its main characters. And it turns out, it’s just as fun to analyze something that actually works.

One segment in particular on this week’s show captured the essence of what I think pro wrestling should be. To the surprise of nobody who is familiar with my scorching wrestling takes, it involves the best professional wrestler in the world, Becky Lynch. That is a bit controversial because most wrestling fans on the internet think being a professional wrestler means doing the most cool moves, flipping around the ring like a gymnast, and having self-indulgent 4o-minute matches that are designed to get “five stars” from hack wrestling journalists and “this is awesome” chants from fans who don’t care who wins. I’m part of a shrinking group of boomer fans who really love the non-match parts of wrestling, and I think a lot of the art in this business comes from talking, promoting, and making people actually give a shit about the match. Nobody is better at that than Becky Lynch.

Becky has run roughshod over the roster since winning all the gold in the main event of Wrestlemania this year, and as with any long title reign, it’s brought out critics who are sick of her push and think she’s a bad wrestler because she isn’t putting on the aforementioned nonsense matches with all the moves and flips. These people are wrong, they’re bad, and they deserve to be shunned from the wrestling community. Because even months into this reign, the crowd still loves Becky and she’s still evolving as a character, from an outlaw rebel who was defying the company to the self-admitted “golden goose” of WWE who now has to fight to maintain her individuality and desire for the toughest fights while being “protected” due to her value as a corporate spokeswoman.

The target for Becky is Asuka, the Japanese wrestler who beat her nearly a year ago at the Royal Rumble and has continued to have her number since. Becky’s story is that WWE didn’t want her to face Asuka, figuring she’d lose again and it would damage her marketability as “the face of the company.” Asuka is a mega-talented wrestler who doesn’t speak much English but still has tons of charisma, and she’s only lost a tiny handful of matches in her entire career. Lately she’s taken to spraying her opponents with “green mist,” and in this week’s segment she hit Becky with it after signing the contract for the match at this year’s Royal Rumble.

At this point, it’s worth observing that spraying green mist in people’s eyes is not something that people generally do, and it’s seldom seen in the real world. That’s part of what made this segment feel so definitively pro wrestling to me: it’s this ridiculous character trait that has been passed down in Japanese tradition (notably by The Great Muta, who Asuka cites as an inspiration) and it’s just this weird wrestling thing that exists and is accepted by fans. The reason it’s accepted is because of performances like Becky’s in this clip: of course we know wrestling is fake, and within the realm of fakeness the green mist is even faker, but she sells it seriously and believably as if it is incredibly painful. And because she is so damn good at this, and it’s presented without any irony or winking at the audience, fans actually believe now that this mist is a real dangerous thing, that Asuka can hit it at any time, and that the most pushed woman in the company’s title reign could be in jeopardy.

Then Becky demands a microphone and delivers a fantastic promo while recovering from the mist and looking into a camera that she is blindly swiping at with her hands.  Maybe it got a little too fanciful with its language, but I felt the emotion and the intensity, and it was from someone who just is their character, not someone who is playing a role and thinks of themselves as a performance artist. And now because of segments like this, I want to see the match and there’s a clear sense of stakes — Becky needs to win this match to prove something to herself and to get revenge on Asuka. All of this build-up is going to make their match at Royal Rumble feel bigger, the moves are going to mean more, and it will almost certainly be awesome, even though I don’t think either of these wrestlers has ever done a flippy move in their life.

This should be Pro Wrestling 101, but the current landscape is polluted with an “everyone knows wrestling is fake so nobody will care about anything so why should we even try” mentality where everyone just does outlandish goofy crap and winks at the audience. I can’t even go to indie shows because all of them feature so much dumb nonsense on the card, and WWE’s competitor, AEW, continues to struggle at telling stories that have any real sense of gravitas or stakes like this one does, despite the ridiculousness of the green mist. So, bizarrely, Monday Night Raw, the punching bag of fans, is my favorite wrestling show right now and the one that I think has the most talent and a philosophy that makes me want to watch.

Cold Beat’s “Prism” is the Early Song of the Decade

The biggest thing that has always stopped me from being successful as a writer is my inability to produce something when I don’t really feel inspired. When it comes to music, I have no idea how some of these people get themselves fired up to write about albums every single week when most music isn’t all that great. My laziness and inability to pretend to like things means that just getting me to throw a post together is something of an accomplishment, and I use it as a marker of success if anything is able to get me to care enough to write. Cold Beat is one of the only bands that consistently makes me want to throw a shout into the internet echo chamber in the hopes that someone will hear it.

It is difficult to discuss Hannah Lew’s band and not have it be through the lens of how underappreciated they are — I don’t even say “underrated” because they aren’t even rated. Genuinely no one talks about this band other than me. I might actually be their biggest fan, and maybe I should give up and accept that they just don’t appeal to other listeners because they’re all worse at appreciating music than I am. Their new song “Prism” makes me want to keep fighting, though.

This is from their upcoming album, Mother, written during Lew’s pregnancy, and it feels like a strong continuation from their previous album, Chaos By Invitation, which I lauded to a largely indifferent pseudo-audience. With few lyrics, there isn’t much to grab onto in terms of themes, but musically it is a distinct work from the band, who have really carved out their own space in all of these 80s synth pop acts. Cold Beat is still really into purposeful ambiguity — the lyrics aren’t telling the listener anything, but I still feel like there is a clear emotion and meaning to it and I’m always one listen away from figuring it out. Artists who can pull off that trick tend to be among my favorites, and it’s something Lew has shown a knack for even going back to her previous band, Grass Widow.

The ambiguity is part of what makes “Prism” addictive, along with its multiple repeating motorik grooves that are joined by some swirly synths that give it a celestial quality. The band is saying this album is trying to describe earth to a newborn, and the sounds here capture the ground and the sky, along with some of the wonders of looking up into space. Once again, Cold Beat have made a song that isn’t necessarily complicated on the surface and put in so many layers that keep revealing themselves. This is the work of a band in prime form, and Mother is instantly my most anticipated album of 2020.