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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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There’s something seriously wrong with Homelander in The Boys S3 trailer

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An uneasy peace will be shattered in The Boys S3.

The Boys is coming back to Prime Video for its third season, and the streaming platform has released the official trailer. Our crew of misfits had arrived at some closure in their battle against the “supes” and gone their separate ways at the end of the second season. But it looks like that uneasy peace is about to be shattered, given the number of exploding bodies and glowing laser eyes showcased in the trailer.

(Spoilers for S2 below.)

As I’ve written previously, the show is based on the comic book series of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. The Boys is set in a fictional universe where superheroes are real but are corrupted by corporate interests and a toxic celebrity-obsessed culture. The most elite superhero group is called the Seven, operated by the Vought Corporation, which created the supes with a substance called Compound V. The Seven is headed up by Homelander (Antony Starr), a violent and unstable psychopath disguised as the All-American hero. Homelander’s counterpart as the head of the titular “Boys” is Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a self-appointed vigilante intent on checking the bad behavior of the Seven—especially Homelander, who brutally raped Butcher’s wife, Becca (Shantel VanSanten).

The second season ended with a bloody showdown that saw the demise of Becca as well as the mutilation of Homelander’s supe squeeze, Stormfront (Aya Cash), who turned out to be a Nazi disguised as a “patriot.” Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) and Starlight (Annie Moriarty) successfully blackmailed Homelander into loosening his bullying stranglehold on the Seven. Meanwhile, the government cleared the Boys of all wrongdoing after they were publicly smeared as terrorists. A disillusioned Hughie (Jack Quaid) decided to try to fight the Seven through politics rather than violence and went to work for Congressperson Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit)—but he doesn’t know she’s actually a super-powered assassin with her own murderous agenda.

Enlarge / There’s something seriously wrong with Homelander—well, more wrong than usual.

YouTube/Prime Video

So what can we expect from the third season? We already knew that the first episode is entitled “Payback”—the name of an earlier Vought group of superheroes, loosely based on Marvel’s Avengers. Payback members include Eagle the Archer, who appeared in S2 of The Boys (played by Langston Kerman). He’s the one who recruited the Deep (Chace Crawford) and A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) to the Church of the Collective before the cult turned against him. A fictional Seven on 7 news report last summer informed us that Eagle had quit the superhero gig and is now trying to become a rapper.

Expect Payback to play a major role this season, since two other members are joining the cast: Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles) and Crimson Countess (Laurie Holden). We also know that the third season will incorporate one of the comic’s most shocking storylines: Herogasm. In this standalone comic miniseries, the Boys infiltrate Vought’s annual superhero party, which turns out to be just one long weekend of kinky sex and drug use on a secluded island.

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Star Wars content flurry confirmed: New Disney+ series, film updates

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Enlarge / We already know plenty about the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi, launching later this month, but a lengthy feature out this week chronicles all the other Disney+ content coming soon from a galaxy far, far away.

Lucasarts

When it comes to learning about new Star Wars content, there’s really no beating a massive, feature-length look behind the curtain at Lucasfilm and Disney. This month’s launch of the simply named Obi-Wan Kenobi series has proven a good occasion to get such a peek, thanks to a sweeping—and at times, frank—documentation of all things Star Wars from Vanity Fair.

The article primarily follows the lead actors of Disney+’s four upcoming live-action Star Wars series, though it also covers the IP’s apparently rocky path away from feature-length films and toward serialized TV content (though, yes, it does get to films by the end). It includes an acknowledgment from Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy that the company’s constant return to the old well, which has included a recast Han Solo and a CGI-tinged Luke Skywalker, isn’t sustainable. When pressed about those attempts, she replied, “Now it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that.”

Put Thrawn on notice?

So while the new May 27 Obi-Wan series will return to popular characters and their original actors, the upcoming Disney+ material announced here leans toward expansions of characters who don’t necessarily date back to the original 1977 film. 2023’s Ahsoka will focus on the popular character from Clone Wars and reintroduced on The Mandalorian, and its premiere season will focus on a “continuous story” that will almost certainly involve the character’s refrain of hunting Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Andor, coming “late this summer,” stars Diego Luna as his Rogue One character Cassian Andor and will be helmed by longtime Bourne film series director Tony Gilroy. This “refugee story” will rewind years before the events of Rogue One to the character’s turning point from an anti-rebellion lone gun to a spy determined to stop the Empire’s rapid expansion, and it will revolve largely around the “adopted home” he takes up after his birth world is destroyed.

Lucasfilm tells fans to expect a third season of The Mandalorian somewhere between Andor and Ahsoka (meaning late 2022 or early 2023). Though details on that upcoming season are scarce, the Vanity Fair feature explores the debate original showrunners John Favreau and Dave Filoni had over whether to introduce an infantile, Yoda-like creature in the first season. We learn that Favreau was the one vociferously arguing in favor of “the child,” but the interview never says exactly what put Favreau’s vision over the top.

We do hear Favreau credit artist Chris Alzmann with the design of Grogu, at least. “There were a lot of different looks that popped up, and then we got one that finally clicked,” Favreau told Vanity Fair. “He had kind of a goofy, ugly look. We didn’t want him too cute.”

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Sony reportedly forces Insomniac to stay silent on abortion rights

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Enlarge / A few of Insomniac’s biggest franchises.

Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man developer Insomniac Games has made a $50,000 donation to the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP), and its parent company, Sony, will reportedly match that number. But those donations come amid public silence from both companies on the contentious issue and reports of internal drama surrounding a response to the Supreme Court’s reported efforts to overturn 1973’s Roe v. Wade precedent.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that PlayStation President Jim Ryan sent an email to staffers urging them “to respect differences of opinion among everyone in our internal and external communities” on issues such as abortion rights. “Respect does not equal agreement. But it is fundamental to who we are as a company and as a valued global brand,” Ryan reportedly continued.

That same email went on to share a more “lighthearted” and detailed story about Ryan’s cats’ birthdays, according to Bloomberg, a tonal disconnect that rubbed some employees the wrong way.

Following Ryan’s message to employees, The Washington Post reports that Insomniac CEO Ted Price sent an email to studio employees last Friday outlining the corporate donations to WRRAP. Sony will also match employee donations made through its internal charity portal and plans to reimburse employees who may need to leave the state to obtain abortion services, according to the report.

But Price’s email also reportedly detailed how Sony “will not approve ANY statements from any studio on the topic of reproductive rights.” That’s despite Insomniac sending nearly 60 pages of employee messages to PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst asking the company to “do better by employees who are directly affected” by any pending abortion decision. “We fought hard for this and we did not win,” Price wrote.

Price went on to address the sometimes awkward parent-child corporate relationship that has developed since Sony acquired Insomniac in 2019. “As far as our freedom of speech goes, while we do have a LOT of autonomy that often gets taken for granted, there are times where we need to acknowledge we’re part of a larger organization,” Price reportedly wrote. “For the most part, our ability to tweet has been unfettered. However, there are rare times when we’re in opposition (like this week) and [Sony] will have the final say.”

A wall of silence

Insomniac’s apparent forced public silence on this issue comes weeks after Bungie became one of a few companies to speak out in support of abortion rights. “Standing up for reproductive choice and liberty is not a difficult decision to make, and Bungie remains dedicated to upholding these values,” the company said.

Psychonauts developer (and Microsoft subsidiary) Double Fine and Guild Wars developer ArenaNet tweeted out similarly supportive statements in the days following Bungie’s move.

Activision put out a more neutrally worded statement regarding abortion rights last week, saying the company is “committed to an inclusive environment that is supportive of all of our employees” and that it “will closely monitor developments in the coming weeks and months.” Microsoft also said last week that it would “continue to do everything we can under the law to protect our employees’ rights and support employees” and pledged to pay for employee travel costs related to out-of-state abortion services.

But even limited public statements like those stand out as exceptions in the video game industry. The Washington Post found that 18 of 20 “major video game companies” it contacted about the issue did not respond to a request for comment.

Those companies may be receiving advice recommending them to stay away from the issue. The Popular Information newsletter recently reported on an email from major PR firm Zeno urging companies not to “take a stance you cannot reverse” on “subjects that divide the country.” On issues like abortion, Zeno wrote, “regardless of what [companies] do, they will alienate at least 15 to 30 percent of their stakeholders… do not assume that all of your employees, customers or investors share your view.”

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