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A ship, wrecked: HBO’s The Last Cruise chronicles COVID-19’s infamous cruise ship



The trailer for HBO’s The Last Cruise.

Filmmaker Hannah Olson might be the only person to ever have two world premieres at South by Southwest while never having her work shown on a single screen in town. Back in 2020, Olson was ready to bring Baby God, her HBO documentary on the fallout from revelations about disgraced fertility doctor Dr. Quincy Fortier. But then March 6, 2020, happened—the city of Austin declared a disaster and effectively cancelled SXSW for the first time in the event’s 30-plus-year history.

“The pandemic became very real for me very quickly because my premiere was canceled on March 6, 2020,” Olson tells Ars. “So at that point, I felt very strongly I wanted to pivot… and I started looking closer at these people stuck on a cruise ship out in Japan.”

Just like that, Olson had unexpectedly started on her second feature documentary before her first had even debuted.

Two months earlier, in January 2020, Olson had traveled to India on vacation. Moving throughout Asia then, she quickly became aware of the uneasy spread of a novel coronavirus throughout China long before the situation landed on the radar for many Americans. But it was the February 2020 news reports about this virus being discovered on a cruise ship docked in Japan that really captured her attention.

“I’m a news junkie. So whenever I read a news story, I’m looking for people’s Facebook profile or social media profiles,” Olson recalls. “‘OK, who are these people?’ I started looking on social media thinking, ‘Maybe if they were on the ship, they were still posting to Facebook.’ Through social media, I started finding this enormous trove of footage—people on every deck recording their lives around the clock: the crew, the passengers. I just started collecting, and I eventually reached out to people to hear their stories.”

The result, Olson’s new documentary called The Last Cruise, debuted sans Texas screens as part of SXSW Online 2021 (the film hits HBO Max on Tuesday, March 30). Built largely upon an impressive cache of eerie home video, it’s a gripping, frenetic, first-person view of one very trying month aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it docked in Yokohama, Japan. This real world exercise in found-footage horror could very well be the most unsettling, anxiety-inducing ~40 minutes you watch all year.

Dry land, please

The Last Cruise takes viewers back to January 20, 2020, when only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 existed outside of China. For anyone who’s ever dared to step on a cruise ship, the opening scenes will look familiar: older travelers living out their global dreams on small daily excursions, packed halls watching stage performances, everyone taking selfies as they look out onto the ocean at night.

Olson uses these “before times” to introduce a wider range of experiences than that, however. She connects with not only American tourists but with Indonesian workers on the ship’s crew or kitchen staff, the Italian doctor overseeing the ship’s medical resources, a ship performer, and a pastry chef. All of these people seemingly have their cell phones filming constantly, even if it’s just to say they’ll be wishing good health to family and friends in this new year.

“As much as this film is about the early days of the COVID crisis, it’s also about the way we narrate our lives—people were filming and taking photos the entire time, guests and crew. So what happens when your vacation photos become plot points in some real-life horror movie?” Olson says. “What happens when your vacation photos become part of something larger, become part of an international news story? [During production] I felt like I was looking at evidence—evidence that the government seemed to know more than they were letting on. I watched US government officials enter the boat in hazmat suits—well, OK, this isn’t matching what I’m seeing here [back in the US].”

Without spoiling any of the astounding moments captured from multiple vantage points, it suffices to say that viewers are simply along for the ride in The Last Cruise. Though bringing in a lot of post-cruise or wider-world perspective would have been easy, Olson eschews sit-down interviews with US and Japanese government officials or health experts. Or, more accurately, she did those but ultimately decided to leave such detail on the cutting-room floor: “I wanted the film to mimic the feeling of being on the ship, and no one on the ship was talking to experts. No one on the ship had information,” she says. “Other films are going to do that. We will have no shortage of expert commentary on COVID. I wanted this film to be an experience.”

Because of this, The Last Cruise maintains an almost claustrophobically narrow viewpoint focused solely on this ship at this point in time. Passengers, crew members, local health officials, and numerous onlookers come to terms with the terrors of COVID-19 in real-time, small bit of information by small bit of information. Watching the movie more than a year after the events, of course viewers have more perspective, but that only makes seeing the utter lack of information and urgency unfolding all the more anxiety-inducing. The Last Cruise reminds us concepts like asymptomatic spread or maxed-out hospital capacity were not always universal knowns.

“I do wonder how interested people will be in watching a COVID documentary as we’re still living in it,” Olson says. “Going into making this, in February and March last year, I kept thinking, ‘Is it too soon to make a film about COVID? We don’t know the end result.’ But I knew I’d be interested in the origin story and that the first outbreak outside of China would remain relevant and have lessons to teach us.”

“It doesn’t make any sense”

Beyond being a captivating chronology, The Last Cruise also shows that many of the greater societal challenges COVID-19 has surfaced over the last 13 months existed long beforehand. The unequal toll of this health crisis along class and racial or ethnic lines becomes literal quickly on the Diamond Princess as being “quarantined” really only applied to guests. Crew members share footage and memories of still living in close (unmasked) quarters and being required to carry out ample (and unmasked) tasks to keep the ship operating while docked. The hokey, HR-speak ship motto—”One Team, One Dream”—becomes a driving force in the downfall of many crew members.

“We couldn’t just stay in our rooms; the crew had to keep the ship going,” an American performer named Luke says in the film. “Answering phones, delivering medications, cleaning for 12 hours a day… We were delivering 3,000 meals, three times a day, to all the guests. We were put into harm’s way, but in the moment that’s all we knew how to do.”

The lack of transparency around handling the virus on ship in The Last Cruise also mimics similar issues that would reveal themselves within organizations everywhere from employers to governments to schools. It wasn’t until Day 23 on board that a crew member broke the ship’s policy banning talking publicly about work in order to bring to light the unsafe conditions being forced upon staff. Medical officials appearing in documentary footage seem to convey almost no context to the people they approach, whether those individuals display COVID-19 symptoms or whether they’re bystanders wondering about others or when they might get home.

“It’s the whole experience but small,” Olson says. “You have the rich people staying in their room and the crew becoming essential workers, and no one has any information. All the news outlets early on were reporting that the ship was in quarantine, but all the footage I saw on Facebook from the crew members showed them continuing to live and work in shared quarters, not in quarantine. How can we talk about that as quarantine? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Last Cruise will simply horrify viewers with what’s unfolding before their eyes while simultaneously nudging everyone to contemplate the larger issues this ongoing pandemic regularly forces society to grapple with. It may be less grim than many of the other COVID-19 documentaries that take audiences inside hospitals or keep the overall death count front and center, but it’s no less of a shake-you-to-the-core, sober viewing.

The Last Cruise becomes available on HBO Max today.

Listing image by DAXA / HBO

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Ubisoft’s first NFT plans make no sense



Enlarge / Galaxy brain, meet Ubisoft brain…

Ubisoft became the first big-name game publisher to jump on the non-fungible token bandwagon Tuesday. After teasing its interest in the space last month, the company is officially rolling out Quartz, a system of in-game cosmetic items powered by a new kind of NFT, called “Digits.”

By using a decentralized NFT blockchain, Ubisoft promises its Quartz system will “grant players more control than ever” and “more autonomy and agency” in order to “genuinely make players stakeholders of our games.” But as currently described, Ubisoft’s Quartz system seems like an overcomplicated repackaging of a run-of-the-mill system of DLC cosmetics—but now with extra buzzwords and artificial scarcity layered on top.

And despite all the bold talk of “decentralization,” the Quartz system is still so deeply controlled by Ubisoft that we wonder whether a simple internal database managed directly by the company would be a better fit.

Quartz, explained

Quartz—which rolls out later this month—is simply a system that provides access to cosmetic items for a single game, Ghost Recon Breakpoint. The first three such cosmetics—representing a specific gun, a face mask, and “enhanced pants” in the game—will be available for free on three days in the coming weeks.

Unlike traditional DLC, where supply is unlimited and every purchased copy is identical, Ubisoft stresses three ways in which Quartz cosmetics are unique:

  • Limited editions: Each Quartz NFT “edition” will be limited to a set number, ranging from “a few units to a few thousands,” Ubisoft says. It’s not clear how many will be available for each of these first three “free” editions.
  • Serial Numbers: Each individual NFT in a single edition has a unique serial number that “is displayed on the collectible and on the in-game item.”
  • Player names: A Digit’s metadata will contain “the history of its previous owners,” represented by their Ubisoft player names.
The first three
Enlarge / The first three “editions” of Quartz NFTs will be available at specific times later this month.

So in practice, your “Wolf Enhanced Helmet A” will look and function a lot like mine. But if you look closely, you’ll see a different number etched into the virtual forehead of that helmet. And if you dig into the NFT’s metadata, you’ll be able to see who used to own that particular copy of the helmet.

Ubisoft seems to foresee a chase-the-collectible metagame forming around these minor differences. “Owning a Digit will make you an actual part of its history,” the company says in its FAQ. Elsewhere, Ubisoft encourages players to “be the first owner of a particular Digit or chase the one of your favorite streamer.”

OK, sure. Maybe some people will get really excited about “owning” the only digital pair of Wolf Enhanced Pants numbered “69420” and once owned by Ninja. We can’t say that we’re excited about it, but there may be some market for such a thing.

But marketing rare or unique in-game items—and letting players resell them—isn’t a new thing. Ubisoft doesn’t need NFTs or “the blockchain” to enable this kind of artificially scarce digital collectible; a basic centrally controlled database could do the same thing much more simply.

Anyone who has sold a special-edition ship in Eve Online‘s strictly regulated economy knows how this can work. The same goes for anyone who bought and sold Artifact cards on the Steam marketplace or those who remember the ill-fated Diablo III real-money auction house.

All these examples and more predated the widespread adoption of NFTs and didn’t need the technology for any of the features Ubisoft is touting here.

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Halo Infinite’s PC version looks like it needs more work



Enlarge / Get ready for choppy frame rates on this bad guy’s animations, even on your most powerful PC, thanks to certain missing optimizations on Halo Infinite‘s upcoming PC version.

Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

Ars Technica will eventually go hands-on with Halo Infinite‘s campaign on PC, but as I noted in my feature-length review, our repeated requests to test the game on PC were declined.

So ahead of the version’s Wednesday launch, we’re left sifting through reports from the few outlets that were deemed worthy of getting a PC-specific look at the Infinite campaign. The most comprehensive analysis thus far, delivered by Digital Foundry PC gaming legend Alex Battaglia, ends with a pretty strong judgment.

“I will not be playing to beat the campaign to completion until a number of issues I mentioned are sorted out, as I really want to have a super-smooth Halo experience that the current game does not always offer,” Battaglia says.

See for yourself (kind of)

Head to Steam or the Windows Store right now, and you can download the free-to-play competitive multiplayer version of Halo Infinite. If you do, you’ll find a pretty robust settings menu that includes the all-important toggles for visual settings, along with sliders for both your field of view and your monitor’s aspect ratio.

The best news ahead of the campaign’s launch is that the PC ultrawide monitor ratios—which can reach extremes like 32:9, compared to the HDTV standard of 16:9—seem to be working well in the versus modes, which focus primarily on first-person combat, along with brief cinematic camera pulls before and after a match.

The Infinite campaign will arguably put more of an emphasis on arbitrary monitor ratios, as it includes a lot of cut scenes. These scenes also play with Master Chief’s perspective in clever ways, as they move from his in-helmet view to third-person perspectives at a moment’s notice. Previous promotional footage for Infinite confirmed that the game’s PC development team has focused on making sure those cut scenes work with ultrawide monitor ratios. So far, though, we haven’t seen anyone test these perspective-shifting cut scenes, nor Infinite‘s ambitious open-world environment, on screens beyond the 16:9 standard.

Not feeling so dynamic

Exactly how much will this scene stutter in <em>Infinite</em>'s PC version? According to Digital Foundry, perhaps quite a bit.
Enlarge / Exactly how much will this scene stutter in Infinite‘s PC version? According to Digital Foundry, perhaps quite a bit.

Xbox Game Studios

Battaglia also says there are a few curious issues with the PC build’s performance that aren’t found in the console versions. The biggest problem is a constant “frame time” bump when the game’s dynamic resolution scaling (DRS) system is enabled.

Infinite can strain an average gaming PC’s CPU, even when the game is running at a 720p resolution and low visual settings. The problem occurs on both Intel and AMD CPUs. Because of this, Battaglia recommends enabling Infinite‘s built-in dynamic resolution setting so that pixel counts can rise and fall to help stabilize performance during frantic, open-world encounters.

But something about this DRS system is triggering a constant, predictable freeze in the game’s frame time steadiness. Worse, the freeze is triggered by some form of rendering measurement inside the engine. So if you crank your frame rates higher, the freeze happens more often—like every four seconds when running at 120 fps. Yikes.

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Tesla’s center-screen games can now be played while the car is moving



An August video shows a game being played on a Tesla central console while the car is in motion.

When we covered the first video games available on Tesla’s center-console video screen back in 2019, we noted that the feature only worked when the car was parked. Now, though, those Tesla games can apparently be played even when the car is moving, a feature that could run afoul of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidelines and state laws designed to combat distracted driving.

While the ability to play Tesla games outside of Park is being highlighted in a New York Times report today, the change was seemingly rolled out months ago. A YouTube video from January shows Solitaire being played on a Tesla screen while the car is shifted into Autopilot mode, for instance (though other games appear not to work with Autopilot in the same video).

In another video posted in July, a Tesla owner shows space shoot-em-up Sky Force Reloaded being played while the car is shifted into drive. That video says the new capability was added as an unannounced feature of July’s 2021.12.25.6 firmware update.

While Tesla also added the ability to stream video services such as Netflix and Hulu on the car’s central console in 2019, those services are still completely disabled when a Tesla is not in park (though some owners have tried to find ways around this limitation). “When full self-driving is approved by regulators, we will enable video while moving,” Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted ahead of that streaming-video rollout.

When it comes to games, though, Tesla’s software now notes the possibility of titles running while the car is moving. “Use of Touch Arcade while the vehicle is in motion is only for passengers,” reads a warning that pops up before a game launches in the second video. Users must confirm that the player is a passenger. “Please check local laws prior to playing,” the warning says.

Laws and regulations

Those “local laws” seem aligned against the idea of having a game visibly running while a car is in motion, even if the driver isn’t the one playing. A 2014 round-up from the Consumer Electronics Association found “video screen restriction” laws on the books in 34 states and the District of Columbia. While the specific laws vary, most regulations are focused on the operation of “television” screens that are visible to the driver while the car is in motion (California’s law more broadly restricts the use of any “video monitor or a video screen or any other similar device that displays a video signal”).

Enlarge / Sky Force Reloaded running on a Tesla’s central screen while the car is driving down the road.

The NHTSA also suggests that showing active gameplay on a Tesla’s central console is likely to be a significant distraction to drivers. The agency’s 2013 “distraction guidelines” (PDF) suggest that “displaying images or video not related to driving” on a monitor visible to the driver will “inherently interfere with a driver’s ability to safely operate the vehicle.”

The NHTSA specifically calls out any display of “video and continuously moving images” and includes “things such as video phone calls and other forms of video communication, as well as prerecorded video footage, and television” as examples of what to disable when a car is in motion.

True, these laws and safety guidelines generally don’t mention video games on an in-car display specifically. But that’s likely because the concept of playable games on a car’s central console wasn’t even in consideration when the laws were written. Video games are specifically mentioned in a handful of laws targeting cell phone use while driving, however.

“It’s a big concern if it plays in view of the driver, for sure,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The New York Times about games on a car’s console screen. It’s a problem that “is crying out for NHTSA to provide some guidance and regulation,” he added.

Tesla has come under fire recently for dangerous failures of its “Autopilot” system, including many in which a distracted driver was allegedly not actively monitoring the car as required. Last year, police filed charges against a North Carolina man who was watching a movie on his phone when his Autopilot-enabled car crashed into a police cruiser. And forensic data from a fatal 2018 Tesla crash suggests the driver may have been playing mobile game Three Kingdoms when his Autopilot-driven car crashed into a concrete lane divider.

Listing image by YouTube / Cf Tesla

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