2021 is the year of old game plus

Every console generation begins with a slow trickle of game releases as developers transition to new hardware. The launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles in November last year won’t break the trend; through mid 2021 there may be fewer than ten titles exclusive to the Series X and PS5 combined. Nevertheless, the pandemic’s impact and unique hardware of this console generation — lightning fast SSDs and wide backward compatibility — will make this a gaming year like none we’ve ever had. Consider the experience “old game plus” where gamers spend a lot of time playing what came before but in revitalized ways.

Regarding the unfamiliar and new, it’s already a bleak sign to see how few firm release dates we have on the calendar three months into the year. I expect the news will only get more dire over time; many if not most titles with a vague 2021 release date will get bumped back to 2022.

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The PS5 and the transformative impact of its SSD

The PS5’s solid state drive (SSD) has upended my expectations of what a console can deliver. It’s a greatly underrated technology, one that’s generated countless online comparisons around load time but remains elusive to quantify until you experience the tech yourself.

Almost from the first evening I turned on the PS5 the fast SSD made an immediate difference. Sans any PS5 specific optimizations from developers, the load times across much of my backwards compatible PS4 library improved significantly. MLB The Show 20 and Everybody’s Golf shifted from menu to game in roughly half the time. With the former I could simulate ball games far faster than before, and in the latter load times between holes were non existent. My handful of PS5 specific games — Astro’s Playroom, Bugsnax, and Demon’s Souls — had even more impressive stats, able to shift from launching the game to active gameplay in under twenty seconds. The console itself boots from a cold off state to the main menu faster than my TV could turn on. Navigating the UI across games and settings is smooth and ultra responsive.

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The decline of premium VOD and its aftermath

With Wonder Woman 1984 debuting here in Canada as a $30 CAD rental, I can’t help but consider the premium video on demand (VOD) market on shaky, unstable ground. Long term I suspect it’s more of a stopgap action out of studio desperation than viable future for movies.

At a glance it shouldn’t be this way. Premium VOD is a great value alternative to theaters. While VOD means the loss of a theater level screen and sound you avoid the time and coordination of commute, loud audience members, and pay a lot less. Here in Toronto, a $30 CAD rental matches two tickets at $15 a pop. Add in transportation costs and expensive concessions and there’s a significant savings with premium VOD. Also, by swapping out the theater middlemen in exchange for streaming distributors like Apple and Amazon, studios ensure a higher percentage of box office income from every sale.

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The Last of Us Part II buckles under the weight of its ambition

Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) sets an unimpeachable technical standard and has some of the best stealth action I’ve ever played. It’s also a game with blunted thematic impact due to excessive length and an unsatisfying story for its back half. I’m glad I played the game, but TLOU2’s weaknesses make it a significant step down from Naughty Dog’s best, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Spoilers for TLOU2 ahead.

Luddonarrative dissonance is an unavoidable weakness in TLOU2 thanks to the game’s persistent stealth sandbox gameplay loop. Granted, Naughty Dog tries everything possible to avoid this phenomenon. The main characters have backstories to justify their acts of violence. Player-controlled action tries its best to match the somber tone of the cutscenes with grotesque and unsettling audiovisual cues. When you kill an enemy soldier, an ally will often cry out their name in anguish. Hit someone with a melee weapon, and you’ll listen to them gurgle on their blood. Stealth kills are a switchblade to the throat, replete with arterial blood spray.

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Gaming’s low bar for critical discourse

The wide ranging discourse around The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) has been a welcome change of pace from usual gaming criticism. Instead of the expected debate over gameplay, fidelity, and genre expectations, there’s been far more focus on TLOU2’s depiction of violence, ludonarrative dissonance, non-linear narrative structure, treatment of LGBTQ characters, and other thematic elements. Vice ran a six hour podcast dissecting the game’s narrative, and I’ve seen similar extensive “spoilercast” treatment across other gaming sites. The breadth of TLOU2’s discussion beyond social media and enthusiast sites like IGN and Gamespot is also notable. I’ve read dissections of the game in indie film blogs (Indiewire), lifestyle magazines (GQ), and popular newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post).

But I’m unhappy this same level and breadth of discourse doesn’t occur across more games and more often. Nor has chatter about TLOU2 been universally deep or mature; there’s a tremendous amount of vile, toxic “debate” from bigots upset with the game’s plotting and LGBTQ representation.

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Give Microsoft Edge a chance

After almost two decades of avoiding Microsoft-based web products whenever possible, I’ve come full circle: the new Microsoft Edge is my browser of choice. It has excellent privacy options, a large extension community, and developer support that makes it a reliable option on macOS over Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Admittedly, when I first started using the new Chromium-based Edge a few months ago, I was skeptical about its potential. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer left a bad taste in my mouth, thanks to the struggles I had developing against IE6 and IE7 in the early 2000s. But the more time I spent with this fresh iteration of Edge, the more I was left impressed.

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Conveying intimacy in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Many shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last movie I saw in theaters before COVID-19 landed stateside. While I’m sad that watching movies on the big screen won’t be an option for a while, at least it ended on a high note. Portrait is an astounding film with unimpeachable craftsmanship, from acting to script and cinematography. And now, with the film’s availability on Hulu, it’s also a great film to enjoy at home. For this post, we’ll look at how the camera — its distance from subjects, characters in the frame, where, and for how long — can convey growing intimacy between characters.

What follows is light on spoilers. We’re only covering content from the first thirty or so minutes of the film, glossing over dialogue and plot developments. That said, some setup is in order: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany during the late 1700s.

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Recommended podcasts, pandemic edition

As I write this, NYC is a hotspot amid a global pandemic. I spend my days jumping between work, family, and too much coronavirus-related social media, almost exclusively within the confines of a one bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan. I’m aware this level of stability is, in many ways, a privilege, but it’s nevertheless a stressful time.

I find solace in podcasts covering subject matter removed from chaotic world events: film, gaming, and technology. COVID-19 is a big enough story that some virus talk per episode is inevitable. Still, hearing it from familiar voices, especially when they share the same feelings of anxiousness and isolation I have, is comforting. Podcasts are also easy to squeeze into my day, be it going on a late-night stroll outside, taking care of chores, or unwinding before bed.

What follows are a few of my favorites, grouped by subject. I purposely prioritized podcasts with smaller followings, though I note several more popular options at the end. Subscribe in your podcast app of choice or through the links I provide below.

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Tot: opinionated app design matters

Tot, a scratchpad app for macOS and iOS, has graduated from a side experiment to an essential part of my workflow in a matter of weeks. I highly recommend giving the app a try on Mac (it’s free), and if the design works for you, buy it on iOS.

Admittedly, when I first saw Tot pop up on social media and sites like MacStories, I was skeptical. There are already hundreds of note taking apps available on the App Store. Given several options like Bear and iA Writer nail the basics so thoroughly, with strong aesthetic design and years of iteration, it’s hard to see how any new competitor can stand out. But I’ve always had longstanding respect for The Iconfactory in terms of their attention to visual design. $20 later (more on that price in a bit), equipped with Tot’s iOS and Mac apps, I dove in to give it a try.

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Subscriptions and games as a service will dominate console gaming’s future

I expect the gaming landscape for console games will be radically reshaped in a few years. The existing $60 AAA game market will mostly collapse. Indies, stifled by saturation across every market, will turn to subscription services as their only viable path forward. Everyone will still chase Fortnite (or its successor) to become the next free-to-play hit.

Gaming trends today portend significant changes on the horizon. For years we’ve seen the same $60 titles — mostly first person shooters (Call of Duty, Destiny) and big sports franchises (FIFA, Madden, NBA2K) — dominate NPD and digital sales charts. But more recently, these perennial best sellers have shifted into effectively “games as a service” platforms. Studios increasingly focus on new functionality at a core fan base that readily laps up micro-transactions. This ensures revenue stays flowing in well past the upfront sticker price. Look at FIFA and how so many improvements lead back to Ultimate Team. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot added a Fortnite-inspired battle pass and a prominent shop rotating in and out costly cosmetic gear. This is rampant speculation, but I could see the anticipated Halo Infinite moving in a similar DLC-heavy direction, reliant on a narrowing core base to push the game’s initial investment into the black.

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