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‘Ape Out’ and ‘Baba Is You’ demonstrate the depth of simplicity – TechCrunch

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The games we see advertised the most aren’t necessarily the best representatives for what has become an incredibly diverse medium. Yearly AAA installments and massive open worlds are all well and good, but simplicity is rarely on display — which makes two recent releases, Ape Out and Baba Is You, all the more delightful.

Both are, in a way, very simple games, but from that simplicity arises complex and enjoyable gameplay concepts that can entertain (or frustrate) for hours. It’s a refreshing reversal of games that appear complex but ultimately have very little depth.

Ape Out is certainly the more simple of the two, at least in gameplay terms. You’re an ape — a great ape. A gorilla, to be precise. And you have gotten out.

The smooth top-down action has you navigating a procedurally generated office patrolled by gun-wielding ne’er-do-wells. To prevent further ape blood from being spilled, you can either punch them — usually fatal, as you are strong — or grab them, which causes them to fire their gun. Then you can throw them into a wall. That’s pretty much it!

A few things elevate the game beyond the apparently arcade-level concepts here. First is a distinctive visual style that combines a sort of watercolor or chalky effect with starkly monochrome characters and surroundings, making gameplay elements highly distinctive and recognizable while giving a definite look to the whole world.

The controls are also smooth and largely predictable, letting you confidently move through the world without worrying whether you’ll catch on something or whether your lunge will reach a guy — if you’re not sure, it’s exciting rather than frustrating. Well-spaced checkpoints make you master an area before passing on, but don’t feel punitive, and new enemies and obstacles are introduced gradually and logically.

But the music is the most striking bit. A base beat of jazz drums accompanies each stage, growing in intensity as you progress to the next level (it can take as little as 20 or 30 seconds to do so), and every action adds a beat or cymbal crash to the mix. The responsive music makes it feel like a real soundtrack to your acts, while also spurring you on to greater ones.

As Penny Arcade pointed out, Ape Out is fun and original from the moment you pick it up. There’s no boring tutorial, problematic dialogue, poorly characterized protagonist, obscure and frequently revised gameplay elements, and no “ludonarrative dissonance.” In other words you never think “wait, would an enraged ape really do that?” (By the way, it’s definitely violent — but in an absurd comic style, not graphic and horrible.)

Baba Is You is simple in a different way. Its graphics and simple grid-based movement place it in company with The Adventures of Lolo or similar block-pushing games from the ’80s and ’90s. The complexity of this game, however, comes from a mind-bending twist along the lines of Portal and The Witness: the rules of the game are actual blocks that you move around as well.

It sounds weird, but that’s the game: In addition to rocks, water, walls and various other items, there are blocks defining the actual rules of that level with a crude, blocky logic, such as “flag is win” and “rock is push,” meaning you win if you touch the flag and rocks can be pushed.

Perhaps the flag is embedded in an inaccessible fortress of walls, though. No problem. A couple pushes mean that now “rock is win” — so just go touch a rock and the level is complete. Or perhaps if you can reach it, the rule “wall is stop” can be shifted, letting you walk right through them to the flag.

The simple, cute graphics let you focus on the seemingly limited, yet actually maddeningly diverse, ways of combining and shifting the blocks of the level. “Eureka!” moments are elusive things, as the creator seems to have a knack for predicting how you might think and putting roadblocks in the way of obvious solutions. But there is that amazing feeling that you’re a genius when you come back to an “impossible” level and see it with new eyes, solving it in a handful of seconds. That’s the complexity of simplicity — a single breakthrough that takes half an hour to arrive at.

I won’t lie, though: Baba Is You is hard. It’s hard as hell. In the forums are puzzle fiends shame-facedly admitting they can’t beat the 6th level, or facepalming after a hint is offered. It’s easy to develop a mental block and never get past it — but fortunately the game is fairly open, letting you take on the first few puzzles of various themed areas of the map rather than making you clear one before moving on to the next. This isn’t a game you’ll be done with in an afternoon.

Both Baba Is You and Ape Out cost less than $20 (on PC and Switch right now), in the sweet spot between the shovelware under $10 and “full” retail games twice the cost. Both are unique and created with obvious care and attention to detail. And neither ever requires more than two or three minutes of your time — though you can, as I did last night, lose hours just as easily as you would in a AAA title. This is simple done right.

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Report: Microsoft expects UK to block Activision merger deal

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Enlarge / A small selection of the characters that would be part of Microsoft if its proposed Activision/Blizzard merger is allowed to go through.

Microsoft’s legal team now expects Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority to formally oppose its long-planned $69 billion merger with Activision Blizzard. That’s according to “four people briefed on the matter” cited many paragraphs deep in a New York Times report about the direction of globalized antitrust regulation.
Microsoft expects the European Union’s separate “in-depth” investigation into the deal to be more amenable to “potential remedies” that would allow it to go forward, according to the Times. As those processes play out on the other side of the Atlantic, the US Federal Trade Commission seems content to limit its response to an administrative lawsuit rather than issuing an emergency injunction that could have stopped the deal from moving forward.

Representatives from Microsoft and Activision have yet to offer any public comment in response to a request from Ars Technica.

A British bulldog with teeth

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority first challenged Microsoft’s proposed acquisition last July, before escalating to an in-depth “Phase 2” inquiry in September. In announcing that move, the UK regulator raised concerns that the deal could lead to a “substantial lessening of competition” in the markets for game consoles, subscription gaming services, and cloud gaming.

The Commission recently issued an eight-week extension to the statutory deadline for finishing that investigation, pushing that final date to April 26. But Bloomberg reports that preliminary findings in that inquiry are expected to be published as early as this week.

Since it was created following Britain’s contentious exit from the European Union, the UK’s CMA has been an international leader in stopping anti-competitive mega-mergers. And a negative decision from the CMA could be especially damaging for Microsoft and Activision, since the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal rarely overturns the regulator’s decisions.

While the CMA decision technically couldn’t be applied internationally, any move that prevented a merged Microsoft/Activision from operating in the UK would likely sour the deal in other jurisdictions.

The EU, meanwhile, reportedly issued its formal statement of objections to Microsoft this week, giving the company several weeks to respond.

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Endless Seinfeld episode grinds to a halt after AI comic violates Twitch guidelines

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Enlarge / A screenshot of “Nothing, Forever” showing faux-Seinfeld character Larry Feinberg performing a stand-up act.

Nothing Forever

Since December 14, a Twitch channel called Nothing, Forever has been streaming a live, endless AI-generated Seinfeld episode that features pixelated cartoon versions of characters from the show. On Monday, Twitch gave the channel a 14-day ban after language model tools from OpenAI went haywire and generated transphobic content that violated community guidelines.

Typically, Nothing, Forever features four low-poly pixelated cartoon characters that are stand-ins for Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer from the hit 1990s sitcom Seinfeld. They sit around a New York apartment and talk about life, and sometimes the topics of conversation unexpectedly get deep, such as in this viewer-captured segment where they discussed the afterlife.

Nothing, Forever uses an API connection OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language model to generate a script, drawing from its knowledge of existing Seinfeld scripts. Custom Python code renders the script into a video sequence, automatically animating human-created video-game-style characters that dynamically read AI-generated lines that are fed to them. One of its creators provided more technical details on how it works in a Reddit comment from December.

As a new media experiment, the faux-Seinfeld stream often feels awkward and unfunny, but it’s still gripping because viewers never know what the characters will talk about next. Unfortunately for the show, that unexpected nature can be a double-edged sword when it comes to AI trained on data scraped from the Internet.

A video of the “Nothing, Forever” joke sequence that led to a 14-day ban from Twitch.

According to Vice, late Sunday night, the AI-generated clone of Jerry Seinfeld (called “Larry Feinberg” in the AI show) went on a brief transphobic rant. Here’s a transcript:

There’s like 50 people here and no one is laughing. Anyone have any suggestions? I’m thinking about doing a bit about how being transgender is actually a mental illness. Or how all liberals are secretly gay and want to impose their will on everyone. Or something about how transgender people are ruining the fabric of society. But no one is laughing, so I’m going to stop. Thanks for coming out tonight. See you next time. Where’d everybody go?

In a Discord post from the channel’s creators, the malfunction occurred because of an outage from OpenAI’s higher-cost (and better-behaved) text-davinci-003 model led the creators to fall back to the lower-cost (and less complex) text-curie-001 model to keep the show running.

“The switch to Curie was what resulted in the inappropriate text being generated,” wrote an admin on the show’s Discord channel. “We leverage OpenAI’s content moderation tools, which have worked thus far for the Davinci model, but were not successful with Curie. We’ve been able to identify the root cause of our issue with the Davinci model and will not be using Curie as a fallback in the future.”

Selected clips from “Nothing, Forever” collected by a viewer.

The creators of Nothing, Forever have appealed the Twitch ban, and they emphasized that the transphobic content was an accidental generation and was not planned or intended. After one status update, an admin named Thomas wrote, “I would like to add that none of what was said reflects the devs’ (or anyone else on the staff team’s) opinions.”

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Hell is other humans in HBO’s The Last of Us episode 4

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Enlarge / Not the most efficient way to read the news, but at least he’s reading…

New episodes of The Last of Us are premiering on HBO every Sunday night, and Ars’ Kyle Orland (who has played the games) and Andrew Cunningham (who hasn’t) will be talking about them here every Monday morning. While these recaps don’t delve into every single plot point of the episodes, there are obviously heavy spoilers contained within, so go watch the episode first if you want to go in fresh.

Andrew: I will start by saying this episode was closer to what I expected a typical The Last of Us episode would be. A few action sequences, a couple montages, time for some bonding moments for Joel and Ellie in between shootouts. Not that I minded last week’s episode at all, it just gave me a little whiplash because it was so far from what the first two episodes had set up.

Kyle: Yeah, I’ll say this episode is the closest we’ve yet gotten to the pacing of the games themselves: (1) Ellie cracks a few jokes; (2) Ellie and Joel shoot a few bad guys; (3) Joel talks to Ellie about Hard-Earned Lessons from the ruined world; rinse and repeat.

Andrew: Which is fine! It’s the story I was pretty sure I was signing up for. Though now I’m curious to see if the show has any other curveball episodes to throw our way.

Kyle: There are at least one or two more plot and/or format curves, even if they just stick to the games. (and that’s all the cryptic clues I’m giving)

Speaking of episode whiplash, I think this was the first episode where we really got a good look at Ellie’s constant transitions between young teen goofball and potty-mouthed action-hero sidekick. It was an incredibly effective combination in the games and so far I think it’s working in this new context as well.

Andrew: And in between those two Ellies, you get tiny hints of “vulnerable kid growing up too fast.” I’m glad to know that dad-joke books survived the apocalypse.

So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?
Enlarge / So you really think you have what it takes to kill without remorse?

Kyle: I was not a dad when I played the first game, and now that I am, I’ll just say that the obvious attempts to bring out Joel’s paternal instincts work very well.

I was also a little tickled by the show’s attempts to mirror the game’s constant situations where Ellie is small enough to squeeze through somewhere to safety to unblock a door with a heavy thing in front of it (or climb up to lower a ladder down or something, which we haven’t really seen in the show yet).

In the game, these moments really strengthen the player’s bond with what could otherwise just be an annoying, quippy escort mission objective. Here, these moments fell a little flatter.

But yes, the jokebook puns are just as effective as ever!

Andrew: By the time she squeezes through her second or third convenient window or hole in the wall, yes, it does start to strain credulity a bit. Absent a gameplay reason to bond with Ellie, the show has to lean harder on the emotional beats, which, thankfully, it does pretty well.

The “bad jokes” running gag is inspired; the “bonding over past and present trauma” bits are more predictable but still serviceable. You can see the turning point of their relationship coming from 10 miles away—Joel will tell Ellie about his daughter, Ellie will share whatever she’s hiding about the first time she had to kill someone, and after that, they will be bonded for life—but it doesn’t mean I’m not eager to see these actors play out that conversation.

In fact, at this point, if I did try to play the game I would probably be frustrated that Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey weren’t in it.

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