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Locke and Key series was worth the wait

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It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. I’m talking about Locke and Key, the highly anticipated adaptation of the award-winning comic book series of the same name, written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabe Rodriguez. And yes, fellow uber-fans, it was worth the wait. The series boasts strong writing, pacing, performances, and above all, it looks amazing, bringing the fabled Keyhouse and the darkly fantastical world of the comics to vivid life.

(Mild spoilers below.)

We’ve had to swallow our disappointment again and again over the years, since it proved notoriously difficult to get any adaptation off the ground. The project (in various iterations) bounced from Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox, to Universal and then Hulu, before finally landing at Netflix. That proved to be the perfect match. “I think this is the story in the best possible version,” Hill said at a pre-release press event that also included Rodriguez and show runners Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Meredith Averill (Haunting of Hill House). He compared the various adaptation attempts to turning a combination lock and waiting to hear it click. “This time it clicked.”

Following the brutal murder of their father, Rendell (Bill Heck, The Alienist), the surviving members of the Locke family—mom Nina (Darby Stanchfield, Scandal) and three children, Tyler (Connor Jessup, Falling Skies), Kinsey (Emilia Jones, Doctor Who), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott, IT and IT Chapter Two)—arrive at Keyhouse, Rendell’s Massachusetts ancestral home. Shortly after arrival, Bode, the youngest sibling, finds a magical key, and then another, and another, each with its own special power. They whisper to those who are sensitive to them—and of course, Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey can hear them.

The Anywhere Key, for instance, means the bearer can turn any door into a portal to any place he or she can visualize. The Ghost Key lets the holder’s soul leave the body, while the Head Key inserts into the back of someone’s head to reveal their thoughts and memories. But those keys also make the siblings the target of a mysterious being who goes by the name of Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira) and wants to possess all the keys—especially one known as the Omega Key.

The Netflix adaptation dials back the horror a bit to focus more on the dark fantasy/coming of age aspects, according to Averill, who described it as “a family drama with fantastical elements.” But the horror roots are evident throughout and are particularly pronounced in the finale, which is genuinely suspenseful without relying on cheap gimmicks like jump scares. It’s engrossing because we care deeply about the characters and are emotionally invested in the outcome. That’s a tribute not just to the writing and casting but to the chemistry between the actors—something that, as Cuse pointed out, is an unpredictable “alchemy” that can’t be faked.

Given the change in medium, there are several departures from the original comics. For instance, the comic series opens with the brutal murder of Rendell Locke in graphic detail, while in the series, we merely glimpse parts of the attack through flashbacks. That was a conscious decision, according to Cuse, who didn’t want the violence of that attack to set the tone for the series as a whole. Instead, the first scene sets up the central mystery, as we see a man walking home and receiving a phone call informing him that Rendell Locke is dead. “I know what I need to do,” he replies. He goes into the house and removes papers and an unusual-looking key from the safe. Then he stabs himself in the heart with the key, bursting into flames and setting the whole house ablaze.

Also, in the comics, the Head Key literally removes the top of someone’s head when you insert it into their neck, allowing anyone to peer inside. But Cuse thought it would be “too gruesome for TV.”  So in this incarnation, the subject freezes and a separate representation of the person appears, able to pass through a door to an Inception-inspired dimension containing one’s thoughts and memories. The space reflects the personality of the individual, so the anxiety-ridden Kinsey’s head space is a well-organized, colorful shopping mall, while Bode’s is a theme park playground. It’s a clever way to portray such an abstract concept, and I think it works well.

The comics creators are totally cool with those creative changes. “TV is working in a different language,” Rodriguez said, emphasizing that both he and Hill did not obsess over pushing for a pure adaptation, recognizing they needed to let Cuse and Averill have some leeway to play in the fictional world they’d created. “I think they captured what Locke and Key was about and found a way to convey that on screen,” he said, calling the two formats a “DNA helix—the show is a different reflection of what is in the comic.”

“I think they captured what Locke and Key was about and found a way to convey that on screen.”—Gabe Rodriguez

Hill and Rodriguez both have brief cameos in the series, as does Tom Savini, a makeup and VFX artist known for his work on the classic horror films of George Romero, among others. (In the series, Kinsey becomes friends with a group of students who call themselves the Savini Squad, with the goal of shooting their own low-budget horror film.) According to Hill, Savini was actually his unofficial babysitter on the set of Creepshow (1982) when he was nine years old, an experience that convinced him that “I wanted to kill people in interesting ways and invent remarkable monsters.”

The ten episodes of this first season cover most of the main narrative arc in the comics. “You’ve got to spend your bullets,” Cuse said of that decision, and again, I think it was a good call to make this first season as strong a narrative as possible. Hill described it as “All killer, no filler,” noting how the unique Netflix model freed the writers from having to hit specific targets, such as ad beats, or adding extra scenes just to fill an allotted time slot. “If an episode needs to be 35 minutes, fine,” he said. “If it needs to be 80 minutes, that’s fine, too. You can tell the perfect story at the perfect length.”

Of course, the finale wraps up several narrative threads while leaving some things open for a possible second season. It’s too early to know if the show will be renewed, but I hope so. There is still so much of the world’s rich history and mythology to explore further—where the keys came from, who made them, and who (or what) Dodge really is, for instance. Hill and Rodriguez are currently working on a new six-book series tentatively titled World War Key, which would no doubt provide additional fodder for any future seasons. “It’s such an engaging universe, there are definitely more stories to tell,” said Rodriguez. Here’s hoping this creative team gets that chance.

Locke and Key is now streaming on Netflix.

Listing image by Netflix

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Indie devs outraged by unlicensed game sales on GameStop’s NFT market

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Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

In the first week of GameStop’s recently launched NFT marketplace, the NiFTy Arcade collection stood out from the pack. Instead of offering basic JPEGs, the collection provided “interactive NFTs” linked to HTML5 games that were fully playable from an owner’s crypto wallet (or from the GameStop Marketplace page itself).

There was only one problem: Many of those NFT games were being minted and sold without their creators’ permission, much less any arrangement for the creators to share in any crypto profits.

While the man behind NiFTy Arcade has since been suspended from GameStop’s NFT marketplace, he’s still holding on to the tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency he made by selling those NFTs before the suspension. And while the NFTs in question are no longer listed on the GameStop NFT marketplace, the unlicensed games themselves can still be accessed on GameStop’s servers and across a blockchain-based file storage system, where they may now be functionally impossible to remove.

What if an arcade, but with NFTs?

NiFTy Arcade creator Nathan Ello told Ars his collection grew out of a desire “to highlight potential use cases for NFTs beyond static images.” But Ello got a bit abstract when asked to explain the utility of freshly minted NFT versions of games that were already freely playable elsewhere on the web.

“If people find value in these NFTs, that’s a bonus, but my intent is to create and showcase games that are playable within NFT marketplaces and within NFT wallets,” he told Ars. “Should someone want the convenience of playing the game directly from their wallet or their own profile page on the marketplace without having to navigate to mine, then they’re welcome to buy a copy.”

The NiFTy Arcade collection, as it appeared on the GameStop NFT marketplace on July 15.
Enlarge / The NiFTy Arcade collection, as it appeared on the GameStop NFT marketplace on July 15.

Ello ended up selling hundreds of NFTs based on the NiFTy Arcade collection’s first three games, making at least 46.7 ETH (worth about $55,000 at the time) from those sales as of July 15. But for at least two of those games—Worm Nom Nom and Galactic Wars—Ello admitted he never sought the necessary permission from the original creators before selling them. There’s also evidence that Ello minted and distributed a number of other games through NFT marketplaces without the creators’ permission, including Breakout Hero, Super Disc Box, and Invader Overload, according to Joseph “Lexaloffle” White, the creator of the PICO-8 pixel game engine.

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Evo weekend is here: How to watch the fighting game event of the year

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Enlarge / The crowds this year will be smaller, and masked, but offline is back in Vegas

Evo

After a two-year pandemic-induced break the Evolution Championship Series (better known as just Evo), the annual celebration of all things fighting games, is back in Las Vegas this weekend. Thousands of fighting game players and fans will fill the halls and arena at the Mandalay Bay casino to make their attempts at a top 8 finish, get in casual games with people from around the globe, watch panels, browse Artist Alley, and just generally soak up a chance to be offline with the fighting game community again.

In a more normal year, I’d be there myself, maybe not trying for that top 8 finish, more like just trying not to go 0-2 in Street Fighter V or Third Strike. But despite a robust mask and vaccine policy I’m just not feeling like traveling or being in Vegas with the current state of the world. So I’m going to spend my weekend cozy at home streaming a ridiculous amount of content and trying not to feel like I’m missing out too much. If you’d like to join me here’s a quick guide to what the weekend has to offer.

An Evo overview

You may have heard of Evo before, perhaps from the infamous Evo Moment 37 video or from Sony’s acquisition of the tournament series in 2021. If you’re not already a fighting game tournament watcher, here are the basics of how Evo works. There are eight main games featured, which I’ll list below, as well as a huge amount of less official side tournaments. Each game has the same basic structure, you start in a pool of players, everyone on equal footing. Tournaments are double-elimination, meaning you have to lose twice to be out. If you can win several matches in your pool without being eliminated, you move up to the next one, eventually leading to a top 24 bracket, then a top 8, which leads to the grand finals.

Part of the excitement of watching pools is the upsets. The previous champion has to start the same as anyone else, and there’s no guarantee an unknown won’t hand them their first loss, putting them in the loser’s bracket and one game away from losing that top 8 repeat dream.

As you advance deeper into the matches, the level of play becomes more high level and tense, so if you’re less inclined to spend hours watching the safe bet is to catch a top 24 or wait for the top 8 to see the real high-stakes matches play out.

Every game will feature commentary by people who are experts in understanding and explaining the on-screen action. With a few basics under your belt and their patterns, you should be able to keep up even with games you’re not familiar with.

The key to understanding the double-elimination format is everyone starts out in the winner’s bracket. If you lose once you go to the loser’s bracket. Lose from there and you can sit and watch the rest, you’re done. Mathematically this means that when you get to top 8, half will be in the loser’s bracket, half in the winner’s bracket, and the grand finals match will have a winner’s side and a loser’s side.

To win the entire tournament from the loser’s side you need to beat the other player twice, once to send them to loser’s (known as resetting the bracket). Making a loser’s run is no easy task, but a bracket reset always gets the crowd hyped up. They love an underdog, but it also means another set to watch.

If you see an L or a W next to someone’s name on the stream overlay that’s indicating if they’re playing from the winner’s or loser’s bracket. The last thing that’s handy to know is most games are run as first to two, so you have to win two games to beat someone. This generally becomes the first to three wins in top 8.

Dominique “SonicFox” McLean congratulates Goichi “GO1” Kishida for winning the grand finals of Dragon Ball FighterZ at Evo 2019

Dominique “SonicFox” McLean congratulates Goichi “GO1” Kishida for winning the grand finals of Dragon Ball FighterZ at Evo 2019

Evo

The games

This year the main featured games at Evo are:

  • Street Fighter V: Champion Edition
  • Guilty Gear Strive
  • Mortal Kombat 11: Ultimate
  • Tekken 7
  • The King Of Fighters XV
  • Melty Blood: Type Lumina
  • Dragon Ball FighterZ
  • Granblue Fantasy: Versus
  • Skullgirls: 2nd Encore

All games will be streamed on Twitch starting Friday, August 5 at 10 am Pacific Time. A complete interactive schedule of all the games can be found here. Half the games will have top 8s from the main hall on Saturday. The other four (King of Fighters, Tekken, Street Fighter, and Guilty Gear) will have their top 8 on Sunday in the Mandalay Bay arena.

There are also community-run tournaments for an additional 52 titles, everything from the alternate World War II title Akatsuki Blitzkampf, to barely-a-fighting-game-kinda-like-frisbee-air-hockey Neo Geo classic Windjammers. A list of all 52 games as well as a viewer’s guide summary for each one can be found here, so check that out if you want to dig into the wider range of titles you might not be familiar with.

Playing in a top 8 in the arena at Evo is one of the highest levels of fighting game achievement.

Playing in a top 8 in the arena at Evo is one of the highest levels of fighting game achievement.

Evo

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Xbox’s latest dev tools add surprise boost for memory-strapped $299 Series S

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Enlarge / The cheesy visual multiplying effect applied to this Series S isn’t meant to imply that it’s getting four times the memory boost in this week’s Microsoft GDK update. The actual multiplication amount is impossible to confirm until Microsoft updates its public-facing documents on the matter.

Sam Machkovech

The latest update to the Microsoft Game Development Kit (GDK), an official API that targets game development on Xbox consoles and Windows PCs, seemed to be set in stone when it was announced in June. Two months later, however, that update has gone live with a surprise bonus that’s so new it hasn’t yet been detailed on the company’s Github repository.

The news instead comes from an official unlisted Microsoft video, first spotted by XboxERA reporter Jesse Norris, which included a tantalizing proclamation. The June GDK is currently live two months after its named month, and it now includes an increased memory allocation exclusively for the lower-priced $299 Xbox Series S console.

This video does not link to specific patch notes or announcements, and as of press time, searches through the publicly shared GDK do not clarify how this memory allocation boost was achieved. Microsoft representatives did not immediately answer Ars’ questions on this update’s technical breakdown.

Getting devs closer to Series S’ 10GB memory total

In the meantime, it’s reasonable to assume that this newly available pool of RAM, which the video’s narrator describes as “hundreds of megabytes,” had been allocated elsewhere on Series S systems up until today’s update—perhaps tied up by OS-level processes (which previously sucked up roughly 2GB of Series S’ total 10GB pool) that the company has since been able to slash.

Ars’ sources have confirmed what has largely been known by testers and researchers of current-gen consoles: The gap in available RAM between the $499 Xbox Series X (16GB total) and the cheaper Series S (10GB total) has made cross-platform development between the two systems trickier than Microsoft originally advertised. In Microsoft’s best-case scenarios, a Series X game that targets 4K resolutions and incredibly high-resolution textures can downscale all textures for the sake of a 1080p TV screen and otherwise get away with an identical rendering load, mostly thanks to a lot of other architecture being identical between the consoles (particularly the CPU and storage specs).

As more third-party devs have found since getting familiar with the two-year-old consoles, that’s not how development environment transposal always works. Some developers are still finding that their virtual environments, effects budgets, and lighting scenarios get bottlenecked not only by less total GDDR 6 RAM but also a shrink in its bandwidth, down from the 320-bit bus of Series X to the 128-bit bus of Series S.

Thus, even a tiny jump of, say, 200MB in RAM, or 2.5 percent, could make a significant difference for a developer trying to transpose a certain fidelity level of shadows or ambient occlusion from Series X to Series S. The “hundreds of megabytes” count could be even higher, anywhere between 512MB and 768MB, though we’re still waiting to hear exactly how much.

Few modern games are a Rift Apart from past-gen consoles

The move comes while both current-gen consoles continue to fall short on some of their biggest technical sales pitches, at least on a software level. Many of the biggest games of the past two years have failed to illustrate truly game-changing features, particularly the near-infinite virtual worlds that might be enabled by a combination of PCI-E 4.0-graded storage and supercharged memory pipelines.

This was exacerbated by a few highly anticipated Sony games rolling back their previous “current-gen exclusive” statuses in favor of cross-gen launches on PS4 and PS5, seemingly to keep game sales while current-gen systems were largely sold out and behind production schedule. Thus far, we’re largely left with last year’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart as a gorgeous demonstration of power exclusive to current-gen consoles.

At least in the case of the Xbox ecosystem, as more current-gen exclusives gear up for their launches, more memory parity between Series X and Series S could help development efforts for 2023 games like Forza Motorsport and Starfield. By the time those games launch, Series S’ default, scant built-in storage count of 512GB could grow, or its proprietary storage expansion cards could come down in price. Either move would boost the weaker, cheaper system’s sales pitch if newer games indeed fulfill the Series S promise of “as powerful as Series X, but for 1080p TVs.”

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