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‘Gato Roboto’ and ‘Dig Dog’ put pixelated pets to work in gleeful gaming homages – TechCrunch

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Drawing inspiration from games of yore but with dog and cat protagonists that signal light adventures rather than grim, dark ones, Gato Roboto and Dig Dog are easy to recommend to anyone looking to waste a couple hours this weekend. Not only that, but the latter was developed in a fascinating and inspiring way.

Both games share a 1-bit aesthetic that goes back many years but most recently was popularized by the inimitable Downwell and recently used to wonderful effect in both Return of the Obra Dinn and Minit. This is a limitation that frees the developer from certain concerns while also challenging them to present the player with all the information they need with only two colors, or in Dig Dog’s case a couple more (but not a lot).

In the latter game, you play as a dog, digging for bones among a series of procedurally generated landscapes populated by enemies and hazards. Dig Dug is the obvious callback in the name, but gameplay is more bouncy and spontaneous rather than the slower, strategic digging of the arcade classic.

On every stage you’re tasked with collecting a bone that’s somewhere near the bottom, while avoiding various types of enemies and traps or, if you so choose, destroying them and occasionally yielding coins. These coins can be traded with a merchant who appears on some stages, offering various gameplay perks like a longer dash or higher jump.

Get it! Get the bone!

The simple controls let you jump, dig, and do a midair dash that kills enemies — that’s pretty much it. The rest is down to moment-to-moment choices: dig around that enemy or go through them? If I go this way will I trap myself in this hole? Is it worth attacking that bat nest for a coin or will it be too hard to get out alive?

Collected bones contribute towards unlocking new stages with different, more dangerous enemies and devious traps. It gives a sense of progression even when you only get a bone or two, as does your dog rocketing back upwards in a brief but satisfying zoomies celebration every time. So even when you die, and you will die a lot, you feel like you’re working towards something.

It’s a great time-waster and you won’t exhaust its challenges for hours of gameplay; it’s also very easy to pick up and play a few stages of, since a whole life might last less than a minute. At $4 it’s an easy one to recommend.

Interestingly, Dig Dog was developed by its creator with only minimal use of his hands. A repetitive stress condition made it painful and inadvisable for him to code using the keyboard, so he uses a voice-based coding system instead. If I had been told I couldn’t type any more, I’d probably just take up a new career, so I admire Rusty Moyher for his tenacity. He made a video about the process here, if you’re curious:

Gato Roboto, for Switch and PC, is a much more complicated game, though not nearly so much as its inspirations, the NES classics Metroid and Blaster Master. In Gato Roboto, as in those games, you explore a large world filled with monsters and tunnels, fighting bosses and outfitting yourself with new abilities, which in turn let you explore the world further.

This one isn’t as big and open as recent popular “metroidvanias” like Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest — it’s really much more like a linear action-adventure game in the style of metroidvanias.

The idea is that you’ve crash-landed on a planet after tracking a mysterious signal, but the spaceman aboard the ship is trapped — you play his cat, Kiki, who must explore the planet in his stead.

At first (or shall I say fur-st) you really are just a cat, but you’re soon equipped with a power suit that lets you jump and shoot like any other action game. However, you frequently have to jump out of it to get into a smaller tunnel or enter water, in which the suit can’t operate (and the cat only barely). In this respect it’s a bit like Blaster Master, in which your pilot could dismount and explore caves in top-down fashion — an innovation that made the game one of my favorites for the system. (If you haven’t played the Switch remake, Blaster Master Zero, I implore you to.)

Gato Roboto isn’t as taxing or complex as its predecessors, but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a non-stop romp where you always have a goal or an obstacle to overcome. The 1-bit graphics are so well executed that I stopped noticing them after a minute or two — the pixel art is very clear and only rarely does the lack of color cause any confusion whatever.

Like Dig Dog and Downwell before it, you can pick up color schemes to change the palette, a purely aesthetic choice but a fun collectible (some are quite horrid). The occasional secret and branching path keeps your brain working a little bit, but not too much.

The game is friendly and forgiving, but I will say that the bosses present rather serious difficulty spikes, and you may, as I did, find yourself dying over and over to them because they’re a hundred times more dangerous than ordinary enemies or environmental hazards. Fortunately the game is (kitty) littered with save points and, for the most part, the bosses are not overlong encounters. I still raged pretty hard on a couple of them.

It’s twice the price of Dig Dog, a whopping $8. I can safely say it’s worth the price of two coffees. Don’t hesitate.

These pleasant distractions should while away a few hours, and to me they represent a healthy gaming culture that can look back on its past and find inspiration, then choose to make something new and old at the same time.

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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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