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‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000 – TechCrunch

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When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, and there are sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems on board the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game, this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At less than $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on), I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

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Analyst: Nintendo says Microsoft’s xCloud streaming isn’t coming to Switch

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Enlarge / That Android Note Ultra 20 (with removable controller) at the top of the image is the closest you’re gonna get to a Switch-like xCloud streaming experience.

For years now, there have been rumors that Microsoft and Nintendo were planning a major partnership to bring the xCloud game streaming features of Xbox Game Pass to the Nintendo Switch. But now an analyst is citing Nintendo itself as saying that rumored team-up won’t be happening.

Game industry analyst and Astris Advisory Japan founder David Gibson tweeted yesterday that while a Switch/xCloud partnership “would make a lot of sense… I have had Nintendo tell me directly they would not put other streaming services on the Switch.” With Nintendo not offering a comment on the matter to Ars Technica, that kind of secondhand sourcing from an analyst in a position to know might be the best information we get for the time being.

Gibson’s tweet came in response to more speculative tweets from NPD analyst Mat Piscatella explaining why he thought such a partnership would be a good idea. “Nintendo would get a massive content gain and sell millions of incremental Switch, [and] Xbox Cloud would be in front of millions of new potential subscribers,” Piscatella said. In the same tweet, though, Piscatella noted that “none of this means that Xbox Cloud will actually ever make it to Switch… there is a list of reasons why it wouldn’t.” (And no, a Switch in the background of an Xbox livestream probably doesn’t point to any of those reasons in either direction.)

Back in 2019, Game Informer cited unnamed sources in reporting that a “Game Pass on Switch” announcement “could come as soon as this year.” Windows Central’s Jez Corden offered a similar report at the time, saying that he had “been hearing for almost a year that Microsoft was aiming to put Xbox Game Pass on Nintendo Switch and even PlayStation 4.”

That potential collaboration wasn’t as ridiculous as it might have seemed at first glance. It certainly would have fit with Phil Spencer’s December 2018 statement to Gamespot that Game Pass “started on console, it will come to PC, eventually it will come to every device.” XCloud General Manager Catherine Gluckstein followed that statement up in a 2019 interview with Wired, saying that Microsoft had “a vision to bring Project xCloud to every device where people want to play… I wouldn’t rule anything out, I wouldn’t rule anything in at this time.”

On Nintendo’s side, the Switch maker has already partnered with third-party publishers for cloud-based streaming of Resident Evil 7 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in Japan and international cloud versions of Hitman 3 and Control on the Switch. These are games that would otherwise be difficult for the underpowered Switch hardware to run natively, a situation that would apply to most of the streaming games on Xbox Game Pass as well.

Former Xbox exclusives like Ori and the Will of the Wisps (originally published by Microsoft Game Studios) and Cuphead have seen native releases on the Switch in recent years, too. And that’s not even mentioning the continued success of Microsoft-owned Minecraft on the Switch.

Alas, for now it seems the connections between Microsoft and Nintendo won’t extend to streaming a copy of Forza Motorsport or Halo on the Switch. In the meantime, at least we can sideload Android onto a hacked Switch and get some unauthorized cloud gaming that way.

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New handwriting analysis reveals two scribes wrote one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Enlarge / Photographic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran. It contains the entire Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, apart from some small damaged parts.

Most of the scribes who copied the text contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls were anonymous, as they neglected to sign their work. That has made it challenging for scholars to determine whether a given manuscript should be attributed to a single scribe or more than one, based on unique elements in their writing styles (a study called paleography). Now, a new handwriting analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll, applying the tools of artificial intelligence, has revealed that the text was likely written by two scribes, mirroring one another’s writing style, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

As we’ve reported previously, these ancient Hebrew texts—roughly 900 full and partial scrolls in all, stored in clay jars—were first discovered scattered in various caves near what was once the settlement of Qumran, just north of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. (Apparently, a shepherd threw a rock while searching for a lost member of his flock and accidentally shattered one of the clay jars, leading to the discovery.) Qumran was destroyed by the Romans, circa 73 CE, and historians believe the scrolls were hidden in the caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them from being destroyed. The natural limestone and conditions within the caves helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back to between the third century BCE and the first century CE.

Several of the parchments have been carbon dated, and synchrotron radiation—among other techniques—has been used to shed light on the properties of the ink used for the text. Most recently, in 2018, an Israeli scientist named Oren Ableman used an infrared microscope attached to a computer to identify and decipher Dead Sea Scroll fragments stored in a cigar box since the 1950s.

A 2019 study of the so-called Temple Scroll concluded that the parchment has an unusual coating of sulfate salts (including sulfur, sodium, gypsum, and calcium), which may be one reason the scrolls were so well-preserved. And last year, researchers discovered that four fragments stored at the University of Manchester, long presumed to be blank, actually contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

The current paper focuses on the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original scrolls discovered in Qumran Cave 1 (designated 1QIsa). It’s the only scroll from the caves to be entirely preserved, apart from a few small damaged areas where the leather has cracked off. The Hebrew text is written on 17 sheets of parchment, measuring 24 feet long and around 10 inches in height, containing the entire text of the Book of Isaiah. That makes the Isaiah Scroll the oldest complete copy of the book by about 1,000 years. (The Israel Museum, in partnership with Google, has digitized the Isaiah Scroll along with an English translation as part of its Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project.)

Most scholars believed that the Isaiah Scroll was copied by a single scribe because of the seemingly uniform handwriting style. But others have suggested that it may be the work of two scribes writing in a similar style, each copying one of the scroll’s two distinct halves. “They would try to find a ‘smoking gun’ in the handwriting, for example, a very specific trait in a letter that would identify a scribe,” said co-author Mladen Popović of the University of Groningen. Popović is also director of the university’s Qumran Institute, dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In other words, the traditional paleographic method is inherently subjective and based on a given scholar’s experience. It’s challenging in part because one scribe could have a fair amount of variability in their writing style, so how does one determine what is a natural variation, or a subtle difference indicating a different hand? Further complicating matters, similar handwriting might be the result of two scribes sharing a common training, a sign the scribe was fatigued or injured, or that he changed writing implements.

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account, too. This allows experts to ‘see’ the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not reached by a transparent process,” said Popović. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data the scrolls provide.” The Isaiah Scroll, for instance, contains at least 5,000 occurrences of the letter aleph (“a”), making it well-nigh impossible to compare every single aleph by eye. He thought pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques would be well suited to the task.

First, Popović and his colleagues—Lambert Schomaker and grad student Maruf Dhali—developed an artificial neural network they could train to separate (“binarize”) the ink of the text from the leather or papyrus on which it was written, ensuring that the digital images precisely preserved the original markings. “This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” said Schomaker.

They next created two 12×12 self-organizing maps of full-character aleph and bet from the Isaiah Scroll’s pages, each letter formed from multiple instances of similar characters. Such maps are useful for chronological style development analysis. Fraglets (fragmented character shapes) were used instead of full character shapes to achieve more robust results.

The results indicated two different handwriting styles, an outcome that persisted even after the team added extra noise to the data as an additional check. That analysis also showed the second scribe’s handwriting was more variable than that of the first, although the two styles were quite similar, indicating a possible common training.

“We will never know their names. But this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

Finally, Popović et al. created “heat maps” for a visual analysis, incorporating all the variations of a given character throughout the scroll. They used this to create an averaged version of the character for the first 27 and last 27 columns, making it clear to the naked eye that the two averaged characters were different from each other—and hence more evidence of a second scribe copying out the second half of the scroll.

“Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses,” said Popović. “Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”

The authors acknowledge that their analysis doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that the variations are due to a scribe’s fatigue, injury, or a change of pen, but “the more straightforward explanation is that a change in scribes occurred,” they wrote. They also concluded that their study shows the added value that scholars engaged in paleographic research can gain by collaborating with other disciplines.

The next step is to apply their methods to more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We are now able to identify different scribes,” said Popović of the significance of their findings. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

DOI: PLOS ONE, 2021. 10.1371/journal.pone.0249769  (About DOIs).

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PS4 owners lament the shutdown of beloved “Communities” social network

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Enlarge / Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead…

In the world of social media, new networks are constantly popping into existence and then fading away when they fail to become the next Facebook (or Twitter, or TikTok, etc.). Still, last week’s shutdown of the PS4’s Communities features (and the lack of a suitable replacement on the PS5) has left many PlayStation fans bitter about the death of a vibrant space they used to connect with fellow gamers.

For those who never had a chance to join a PS4 Community, the groups served as a kind of player-created and moderated message board system, accessible directly via the PS4’s system menu (and through the PlayStation Mobile app, before that connection was shut off last year). Members could share text messages, screenshots, wallpapers, and more on a shared “Community Wall” or form parties to chat and play multiplayer titles together with other online members.

Specific PS4 Communities could form around a single game or series, a geographic area, a cultural grouping, or just shared general interests (“Smoke&Play” and “Vaping Gamers” were popular Communities at one point).

“My reaction to the Communities going away at first was quite a shock if I’m honest,” said Alex Richards, who said he belonged to 15 different PS4 Communities, some with tens of thousands of users focused on PS4 trophy hunting. “Overall, I felt like it was like having to say goodbye to a virtual family of sorts, as I had met some fantastic people through being a part of the Communities, and knowing that the platform we all shared as people and gamers [would] suddenly disappear was a real shame.”

Richards was so upset by the shutdown that he put together a “RIP PSN Communities” video on YouTube, complete with maudlin music and sad gray raindrops casting a pall over the proceeding. “Thank you for the memories and the good times we shared,” he wrote in a video chyron.

A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.
Enlarge / A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.

Welcome to your PS4

Richards is not alone in mourning the PS4’s Community features and the unique ways they let players connect with others. “It was an extraordinarily convenient setup,” Australian PS4 owner Ian Mackinder told Ars. “If you wanted to send a picture or make a comment or whatever during play, it was just a few seconds’ work to flip from the game, do [a] post on whichever Community you chose, then return to play.”

That simplicity led to PS4 Communities forming around some interesting and unexpected shared interests. “The best example I can think of is one guy who set up a Community specifically for pictures from all PS4 games,” Mackinder said. “There was even a regular weekly competition where a theme would be specified (e.g. “emotion,” “black and white,” “heights,” etc.). Entries would come in from all games imaginable. No prizes, just… positive feedback and seeing who’d get first, second, third, etc.”

For others, the appeal of PS4 Communities was more utilitarian. “For games like Destiny 2, some [high-level] activities don’t have matchmaking, so it was the only way to squad up for endgame content,” PS4 Communities user Lesvix told Ars. “On the big Community, you had posts every minute so it was very convenient to find people.”

“Also, as an adult, I don’t like to play with children, so the community helped find people of the same age,” Lesvix continued. “When searching for people, you can mention 18+ in the post [and get] no children.”

“A tribute to a fallen hero”

For many, PS4 Communities were a welcoming way to get acclimated to a new title in the same place you were playing it. “Picture yourself a new gamer with a new game. Where do you turn for info?” PS4 Communities fan Blackdwag07 (who asked to go by his PSN handle) asked rhetorically. “YouTube is great, but it’s a video, maybe years old. With Communities, you could go to them [and easily find] info, news, wallpapers, and groups and friends to play with. I could ask any questions and get answers faster than searching Google, and better answers also.”

“The Communities were a valuable means of meeting fellow players, for new arrivals seeking guidance, and for both seeking and providing general advice/assistance,” Mackinder added. He cited the PS4 Communities for No Man’s Sky in particular as “very positive places. Any newbie who fronted up asking for advice could be sure of getting a response.”

Not every PS4 Community was so welcoming, of course. Many languished from a lack of activity or quickly got filled with spam or toxic harassment. But the players I talked to suggested that the PS4 Communities they stuck with were much less prone to abuse than other online spaces.

“There were many communities where the ‘owner’ had, for some reason or another, basically abandoned the community and left it completely unmoderated, meaning that pretty much any troll or griefer with the energy would have free rein for as long as they chose,” Mackinder said. “Communities that were properly looked after had no such problem.” Mackinder suggested that a basic check-in from Sony to see if Community owners and moderators were still engaged could have prevented a lot of the worst abuses in unmoderated spaces.

“I also owned a couple of communities myself, including one called PlayStation Network Addicts, which was more of a variety community,” Richards said. “It was a safe and inclusive space for all kinds of gamers and for the time in which it existed, I feel like it served its purpose well.”

Where to now?

When Sony announced the pending PS4 Communities shutdown last month, users were left scrambling to maintain their connections to the friends they had found through the network. “We thankfully have PSN Messages, including group chats and parties, but… a group chat allows up to 100 people, whereas PSN Communities allowed up to 100,000 people,” Richards said.

Aside from personal group chats, Discord seems to be the main beneficiary of the shutdown, with many PS4 Community users telling me they had moved their social groups to the gaming-focused social service. But Mackinder lamented that these replacements are “not nearly as convenient as what we had. But there you go. Thank you, Sony.”

Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.
Enlarge / Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.

“Since I do have [other] social media, [Communities] being deleted didn’t affect me that much,” PS4 Community user Scourge HH told Ars. “But I have to imagine, people who are more wary or shy regarding social media are probably feeling it much more, since they lost a huge social interaction feature, connected to the very games they play. I used to see a lot of people posting gaming compliments or finds on the different Communities.”

In the end, many PS4 players (and new PS5 owners) may never even realize that PS4 Communities are gone—Sony’s removal of the feature certainly suggests it wasn’t popular with a critical mass of the user base. Still, among the PS4 Communities users I talked to, Sony’s decision to shutter the feature has generally left them with a more negative view of the PlayStation as a whole.

“If there is no social space on PSN, I am thinking of switching to PC, and I have been using Sony since the PS1,” Lesvix said. “It’s funny how PlayStation gave free games as part of ‘Play at Home,’ but without Communities, it is more like ‘Play alone!'”

“I’d also add that there is a lot of bitterness about Sony’s actions,” Mackinder said. “No one expected much basic consideration from them, but a very common sentiment now is ‘My next console will be Xbox.'”

“In short, Sony has removed a huge quality-of-life feature from its services and has made sure that I at least will not purchase a PS5,” Blackdawg03 said. “Honestly, [Communities] made Sony games so much better because there was this huge group you could turn to. Other players would give their time, game materials and currency, help, and friendship to help you master your ‘lifelong game.'”

“I’m sorry for being emotional, but we lost our place to belong.”

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