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Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles – TechCrunch



2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low-key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: Many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple of days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets, old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.


Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good-old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s, but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action à la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.


Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialog is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

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The local politics of AirBNB’s ban on DC rentals



Enlarge / Airbnb said it will refund guests who had booked stays in Washington next week and reimburse hosts for lost income.

Bonnie Jo Mount | Washington Post | Getty Images

On January 9—three days after supporters of President Trump started a riot at the US Capitol—Sean Evans decided it was time for action. Evans had seen a post on Nextdoor about neighbors running into hostile Trump supporters the night of the riot, leading to a verbal altercation that had left residents of his corner of Northwest DC on edge. Now, rumors flew online that the upcoming inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden would bring more protesters and more armed violence to the streets of his city. “I don’t want them in my neighborhood,” Evans thought to himself. In fact, he didn’t want insurrectionists in the city at all.

So on Nextdoor, Evans asked his neighbors to stop renting out their properties via Airbnband VRBO. A few hours later, another neighbor devised a hashtag: #DontRentDC.

Separately, a group called ShutDownDC gathered 500 volunteers to message DC area Airbnb hosts. The group sent messages to the managers of 3,400 properties in the region—polite ones, according to ShutDownDC organizer Alex Dodd. The messages alerted the Airbnb hosts to an upcoming threat and asked them to please refrain from booking anyone in their homes in the days surrounding the inauguration.

It worked. On Wednesday, Airbnb said it would cancel and block all Washington area reservations next week. Guests who had booked reservations would be refunded; if hosts had reservations or had canceled them recently, they would be reimbursed for the lost income. Airbnb spokesperson Ben Breit said the company “came to this decision following dialog with Washington, DC, officials, the Metro police department, and members of Congress.” (Earlier in the week, DC’s mayor had asked people not to travel to the inauguration; many customary inaugural events will happen online.)

For Airbnb, the incident is a reminder that all its politics is local. The company, now publicly traded with a value of more than $100 billion, has made its reputation on selling visitors on neighborhood authenticity. But its business model has at times made it a lightning rod for local affairs, and left it scrambling to solve social ills. Airbnb has battled with local governments to allow short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. It has tussled with local officials over taxes and data sharing. It has reshaped the economies of tiny vacation towns. It has tried to prevent big parties in rentals, which have sometimes led to violence. More recently, it has met with the ire of neighbors who don’t want virus-stricken out-of-towners filling up their overloaded ICUs.

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Report: Xbox’s “instant on” feature could consume 4 billion kWh by 2025



Enlarge / A lot of neon green power potentially

Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

The “instant on” feature that’s activated by default on new Xbox Series S/X consoles could suck up a total of 4 billion kWh—the equivalent of a year’s operation for a large power plant—from US owners alone through 2025. That’s according to a preliminary report released this week from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentally focused nonprofit advocacy group.

As the name implies, the “instant on” feature of the Series S/X (and the Xbox One before it) lets users skip the usual startup time when turning the console back on. That saves about 10 to 15 seconds of waiting per power cycle on the Series S/X, down from about 45 seconds on the Xbox One. (This is separate from the Xbox Series S/X’s heavily promoted “quick resume” feature that loads the game state for recent titles directly from the system’s fast SSD storage and works in either mode)

“Instant on” standby also lets the system check periodically for system updates in order to download and install them in between play sessions. But leaving the “instant on” feature active means the Xbox Series S/X draws nine to 10 watts of power 24 hours a day—even when it’s not being actively used—compared to less than 1W if the standby settings are switched to “energy saving” mode.

The Xbox Series S/X initially drew 25 to 28W of “instant on” standby power at launch, but a recent firmware update caused a dramatic reduction, placing the new systems below the ~13W drawn by the Xbox One’s “instant on” mode. The PlayStation 5, by contrast, uses between 1 and 2 watts when sitting idle in “rest mode.”

It all adds up

A power draw in the single digit watt range may not sound like much, but it can add up when millions of systems are left plugged in and idling for years at a time. For a single console, that 9W of additional “instant on” power draw can add up to about 78 kWh in a year, or roughly $10.60 in energy costs for an average US home (going by the October 2020 EIA average of 13.6 cents/kWh).

To estimate the total extra “instant on” power draw across all Xbox consoles, NRDC author Noah Horowitz told Ars he assumed 30 million US sales of the Xbox Series S/X through 2025 (a number itself based on estimated sales of the Xbox One). Most of those sales would be concentrated near the system’s launch in Horowitz’s modeling.

Horowitz then assumed that two-thirds of all Xbox owners would stick with whatever the “default” energy setting is on their system. “We don’t have hard data on this but it’s based on typical anecdotal experience whereby users typically stick with the default option, rather than opting out and selecting something different,” Horowitz said.

With all that factored in, Microsoft’s decision to have “instant on” as the default power mode adds up to 4 billion kWh of additional energy consumption over the next five years. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual output of a 500 MW power plant, and it translates to about $500 million in added energy costs and 3 million tons of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the NRDC’s reckoning.

“Given those numbers, our hope is that most users would be willing to wait an extra 5 to 10 seconds for their console to restart if they knew the impact,” Horowitz writes.

Uncheck that box

The NRDC is urging Microsoft to change the system’s default settings to “energy saving” mode right out of the box worldwide (this is already the case in Europe, thanks to the region’s energy efficiency directive). That change could be implemented by firmware update for existing systems and at the factory for newly sold systems going forward. Microsoft has yet to respond to a request for comment on the matter from Ars.

The NRDC also notes that high-end games consoles are absolute power hogs when it comes to the simple function of playing streaming movies or TV shows. New consoles draw anywhere from 31W (for the Xbox Series S) to 70W (for the PS5) when streaming from Netflix or Amazon Prime in NRDC’s testing. That’s way more than the 3W or so for a dedicated streaming box like Roku or Apple TV.

“We have repeatedly urged Sony and Microsoft to include a dedicated low-power chip for video playback in their consoles, and this request is even more important today given the potential for long hours of ‘binge watching’ via the console,” Horowitz writes.

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Wandavision series premiere: A slow, brilliantly weird start for “MCUTV”



Enlarge / The black-and-white world of Wandavision, as occasionally interrupted by color in its first two episodes on Disney+ as of today.


The modern era of Marvel Comics television has been a jumpy one, with ABC and Netflix dividing-and-conquering based on available comic series, exclusivity deals, and otherwise trying not to step on Marvel Studios’ gargantuan toes. Fans got some fascinating television out of the process, but those network deals eventually fizzled—perhaps not coincidentally, right around the time that the Disney corporate umbrella began plotting its own content-filled streaming service.

As a result, today’s premiere of Wandavision on Disney+ is far from the first TV series with clear links to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s definitely the clearest one yet. Take two major actors from repeat MCU films, slap them into the first-ever TV series that opens with a Marvel Studios logo, and you’ve got yourself one massive statement of intent.

As if that weren’t gutsy enough, Wandavision goes further in terms of ambition with a two-part series premiere that will befuddle fans and outsiders alike. After over a year of squint-worthy reveals, with hints of black-and-white TV throwbacks and superhero-filled intrigue, we have 65 minutes of goofiness, dread, and a sense that this weird series is only going to get weirder.

Doozy me this

Mild spoilers from here on out, based on previously revealed series trailers.

More bluntly, the first 30-minute episode is so odd that it’s unsurprising to see Disney+ break its tradition of “one episode a week” and offer the second episode for immediate binging. The first episode commits severely to the series’ apparent “twin timeline” gimmick by focusing almost entirely on a seemingly idyllic world, trapped in a late 1950s TV sitcom universe. Every man wears a suit; every woman wears a pointy bra and immaculately coiffed hair; and every scene is bathed in absurdly bright lights, black-and-white filters, and artificial audience laughter.

Even if you haven’t followed lead characters Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), Wandavision quickly clarifies their otherworldly superpowers—meaning, each I Love Lucy-caliber moment of laugh-tracked slapstick has a healthy superhero dollop. Tidying the kitchen means juggling a series of hovering dishes. A dated reference to demanding food from the wife is interrupted by a reminder that Vision’s a robot and can’t eat, anyway.

The first episode primarily hints to the series’ underlying layer by peppering the cookie-cutter sitcom setup with increasingly nagging questions. Husband and wife see that today’s date is marked on the calendar with a heart, and at first, we’re led to believe it’s funny that they both can’t remember why it’s there. Anniversary? Special occasion? Wandavision sets a predictable sitcom plot into motion when the couple splits up in making incorrect assumptions about this date, leading to a wacky dinner party where the duo tries to both keep guests comfortable and hide their superpowers. What a doozy!

We get about 20 minutes into the episode before question marks begin piling up, right around the time that the episode’s trope-filled ’50s throwbacks grow a bit tiresome. Olsen and Bettany’s chemistry is the best part about this goofy content, but when they split up for the day, their supporting cast—a dry-as-dirt bunch of office coworkers for Vision, and an absurdly aroused neighbor (Kathryn Hahn) for Wanda—doesn’t live up to that spark. Thankfully, the dinner party gets downright weird, as we come to understand that the date on the calendar was the tip of the couple’s iceberg. Turns out, they’re as confused by this whole 1950s pastiche as we are in the audience.

For which children?

This moment from the second episode sees Wanda wondering how to deal with the curious sight of blood. As in, red blood in a black-and-white world.
Enlarge / This moment from the second episode sees Wanda wondering how to deal with the curious sight of blood. As in, red blood in a black-and-white world.


The episode takes a little too long to get everyone onto the same page—and there’s enough foreshadowing through the episode to make viewers begin tapping their watches and saying, “Get on with it.” But the weirdness cultivates enough of a sense of dread that I, at the very least, was willing to commit—but I do wonder if I’d have felt the same way without a guarantee of a second episode to watch immediately after.

Sure enough, this second episode begins cheerfully toying with the fact that Wanda and Vision appear to exist in two places at once, even though the camera continues focusing only on their black-and-white sitcom selves. We also see an advancement in the series’ apparent era, with the following episode looking nearly a decade newer in terms of fashion and video treatment, along with an increasingly clear look at what doesn’t quite add up in this idyllic universe.

A fundraiser event prompts the couple’s neighbors to say the phrase “for the children” in monotone unison—often enough for us to notice that there aren’t any kids around. An inter-office chat peppers dark anti-communist sentiment between playful banter. And a freak radio broadcast includes chatter that seems to be aimed at Wanda, as uttered by whatever man makes a brief cameo at the end of the first episode. That says nothing of the way these first two episodes play around with hints of color, or the fictional commercials that shamelessly tie the series into the larger MCU.

All of this is, once again, stitched together by Olsen and Bettany driving the series with a goofy, adorable chemistry that they would otherwise never get to show off in Marvel Studios films. At the same time, the duo still carves out their own humorous space with superpower sight gags usually relegated to the dustbin of ’80s sitcom history (e.g. Small Wonder, Out of this World). Without this duo in the drivers’ seat, quite frankly, I may not have been eager to recommend the 65 minutes on Disney+ thus far. The show is otherwise an exercise in feeding MCU teases and mysteries, while building an entirely new plotline that seems to borrow from similar Scarlet Witch comics stories (with a few distinct differences thus far, arguably to fit into whatever film follows this series).

Big ups to the House of Mouse

But I also can’t help but enjoy how outright dark and weird the series gets in those moments when the first two episodes’ shimmering, superficial layer starts to crack, revealing a pulsing, disturbing belly beneath. Marvel Studios is clearly cashing in on the combined factors of viewer goodwill, buoyed by millions of Avengers film fans coming in with allegiance and understanding, and the fact that viewers aren’t stumbling onto this show in episodic, network-TV fashion. I imagine a confused comics outsider tuning into the first episode 22 minutes in, when a man begins choking on his dinner while his wife begins berating him in a cold, almost David Lynch-ian manner, and immediately shouting, “There’s something wrong with the TV!” while changing the channel to Wheel Of Fortune.

For that, I applaud the House of Mouse for putting this oddball series front-and-center on Disney+, guaranteeing to confuse at least a few hundred-thousand viewers while delivering a slow-burn story of what the heck has happened to Scarlet Witch and Vision since (or, uh, during?) the events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s another example of Disney making the most of a captive streaming audience and taking existing properties to strange new places, instead of trying to please everyone with every big-ticket character in a film’s two-hour runtime. (Or, as of late, more like 2.5 hours.) Best of all, this two-part premiere isn’t really demanding. Go on, put the episodes on while checking your phone or making a meal. You can always pause and rewind when a glaring red-and-yellow object appears in the otherwise black-and-white frame.

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