Review | Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus front cover
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I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive that Sapiens, which I had enjoyed. As it progressed, I became surprisingly ambivalent about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).

The Starting Point

The first few pages impressed me, as Harari paints a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas, and some questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.

Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.

As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:

“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven;t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”

This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;

“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana….As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters…”

That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.

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Weeknote 26/03/2021

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Reading

https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/8/22319173/openai-machine-vision-adversarial-typographic-attacka-clip-multimodal-neuron

Why does it seem like the smarter something is, the more easily it can be taken down by unexpected stupidity? In this case, machine learning models that are smart enough to “read” handwritten words and recognise them as references to an object mistakenly assume that the word is the object. The end result? Sticking a handwritten label on any image scanned by this system will cause it to report that its “seeing” whatever is written on the label instead.

From technical stupidity to natural eccentricity: these sea slugs can decapitate themselves and then regrow their entire body including all of their internal organs. One reason why might be medical; the researchers guess that the sea slugs might use this feature to ditch their old body if it gets infected by parasites, so that they can grow a healthy one back. But how do they survive without any internal organs? By borrowing the chloroplast cells that control photosynthesis inside their favourite food, algae, and powering themselves with the sugars produced when the chloroplasts photosynthesise.

Now, heading back to technical errors… https://getpocket.com/read/3284812993

This is a good lesson about how the bad software design, and more importantly the bad user interface design, that forces people to regularly rely on clunky workarounds is a recipe for problems. It always amazes me when I hear about large-scale errors that ultimately happen because the software required to do the job was incorrect, unintuitive, or poorly-designed. That’s especially true for institutions as large and as impactful as banks, where any error could result in millions of pounds being lost or mislaid – surely they can afford to spend money making the software that earns their wealth as usable and efficient for the employees using it as possible?

I also finished reading Toksvig’s Almanac, and posted a review.

On more book-themed news, I was introduced to Standard Ebooks.This is a volunteer-run project that takes existing public-domain ebooks from places like Project Gutenberg and gives them a makeover; from typesetting and formatting, to finding high-quality public domain artwork, to coding the books in an open-source format with version control to make them reliable and standardised. Its a really cool example of using technology to safeguard and support literature, rather than to lock it down.

Gaming

This week, I started replaying the campaign of Grand Theft Auto V. While I did play through the campaign on Xbox 360 shortly after its release in 2013, I played through it in a very fragmented way that means I missed a lot of the side-quests and story details. As a result, I’ve often wanted to return to it and play the story “properly”, and see more of the details and events in the sprawling world of Los Santos.

I also revisited the online aspect, which I haven’t touched for years. As many missions can’t be played solo, I’ve barely played any of the “storyline” of the online aspect. I spent time yesterday doing smaller side-events that can be done solo, which was surprisingly enjoyable… well, until I made an enemy of two other players who then kept repeatedly killing me every time I respawned, which meant that I didn’t have enough time to go into the pause menu and choose any options that could have removed me from the situation. As a result, the only thing I could do to get away from this was to leave the game, which was annoying.

Aside from that, I’ve also returned to Two Point Hospital and started a new save file to try and relearn the strategies to take on the harder levels.

Miscellaneous

A few days ago I bought my (virtual) ticket for this years OER conference. The only time I’ve actually been is 2017, when I presented my MSc research, but the effect that 2020 had on education and educational technology, as well as things like ebooksos, have brought my attention back to the tireless work of the open community. Like last time, I’m sure that I’ll finish listening to the talks and realise that everything I know is a tiny drop in the education ocean!

Review | Toksvig’s Almanac – Sandi Toksvig

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I received a small pile of books for my birthday last month, and Toksvig’s Almanac was the one I wanted to get stuck in to first. As I only knew of the almanac genre as being something from the 1700s/1800s, I sort of assumed they had been rendered obsolete by the internet, so first I went to a dictionary to check that I knew what an almanac actually was.

Here’s the history lesson for anyone who wants it: an almanac is a usually-yearly publication that holds information about multiple subjects at once. Ancient almanacs contained information about all sorts of topics that farmers, sailors, and astronomers would need. They were like a focused encyclopedia that covered what those readers would need to know in the year ahead. This included planting dates for crops; dates for natural events like eclipses and cultural events like holidays; plus celestial information like when stars and constellations could be seen. Modern almanacs still exist, though they expand the concept beyond farming and calendars into statistics, history, and collections of facts.

As a reference book, Toksvig’s Almanac isn’t really meant to be read from beginning to end (although it can be). It also isn’t meant to be a exhaustive dive into any of the individual people featured, which Toksvig makes clear in her introduction. Toksvig’s Almanac is a collection of jumping-off-points, a signpost pointing readers to the existence of hundreds of names, stories and events so that they can learn more about the ones that interest them. Its main focus is a chronological tour through the year, which highlights a different woman on each day. (To do this, it also has a good introductory explanation of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, and of why September-December seem to be in the wrong place in our calendar – short version, blame Augustus Caesar!).

The entries for each date are supplemented by quotes, poems, information about worldwide holidays and festivals, and longer entries about stories that connect multiple historical figures. The entry about how suffragists began to use cookbooks to spread political education and information about the suffrage movement to women was the most novel of these for me, as its a connection that I would never have thought to look into without being informed about it from outside.

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Weeknote – 19/03/2021

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Reading:

A modder known online as T0st published details of how they found and fixed an issue in Grand Theft Auto V. Their solution reduces the loading times of GTAVs online mode by 70%. As a result, Rockstar Games (the GTA developers) rewarded T0st with $10,000 and incorporated parts of his solution into an official update.

https://www.pcgamer.com/rockstar-thanks-gta-online-player-who-fixed-poor-load-times-official-update-coming/

This chain of events has received mixed responses. On one hand, its great that Rockstar listened to T0st’s solution and used it to improve the game. The financial reward was also something they didn’t have to do – Rockstar’s bug bounty program rewards people who find and report crucial security or privacy flaws, and they chose to make an exception for T0st and award it to them as well. Given the size of the online GTA playerbase, a 70% reduction in loading times translates into thousands of human-hours saved in future too.

The criticisms of Rockstar are also merited, however. GTAV has been out for 7 years, been released across 3 console generations, and has also been referred to as the single most profitable piece of digital entertainment in history.Yet Rockstar didn’t do anything to implement what was apparently a simple fix until someone unrelated did the work in their spare time. A lot of people are cynical about whether their response was solely about avoiding bad PR, and I understand where that view comes from.

Adobe, on the other hand, are definitely being criticised due to this illogical action:

https://torrentfreak.com/adobe-goes-after-27-year-old-pirated-copy-of-acrobat-reader-1-0-for-ms-dos-210315/

Really, Adobe? I know that copyright is complex, and that brands have to actively protect their copyrights or their legal right to them can be made null. But applying a DMCA takedown here seems excessive, especially as the tweet was only a link to another website rather than the direct source of the software. Also, Acrobat Reader 1.0 is 5 years older than the DMCA legislation itself, which makes this feel even more unnecessary.

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Review | Coffee Talk

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Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.

Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.

As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.

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Weeknote – 12/03/2021

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Quite a lot of the people I pay attention to online – often, the Open Education / tech ethics crowd – use Weeknotes to keep track of their many projects, links and creations. I find the weeknote structure appealing, so I’m going to test it out as a way to a) keep a better track of the (many) things I start and don’t finish, b) talk about some of the interesting articles I read or games I play that wouldn’t ever make it into a full blog post or review. (I won’t be doing predominantly work-focused weeknotes – they’ll mostly be a reading list/link roundup – but I’ll mention work if there’s something interesting to include.)

Articles

A few days ago, I read this article about how smartphones are helping illiterate women in India by giving them a way to socialise with people outside of their household, run businesses, take part in activism and report information to journalists, all through voice commands and sharing images. This really made me think, because I’m someone who needs to write things down to make sense of them, and who learns everything by reading it, so I cannot comprehend what not having that option must feel like. The article describes how one of the women, Mallika, can now use WhatsApp to talk to a friend – before smartphones and data plans, she had to climb a mountain to communicate with them.

Now, on to ice cream trucks. I found this article interesting, because its a really good example of how one person being in the right place at the right time (and knowing the right person) can change an entire industry or movement. Finding out that the company which makes the music boxes inside 97% of all ice-cream trucks consists of just 2 people really reminded me that so many of the things we’re familiar with are the results of decisions made by a handful of people.

Video

Clutching at Random Straws — This is a talk given by stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, to a school in England. It’s a great discussion, with practical and funny demonstrations, of how easily we can be misled when it comes to data. For example, Parker shows the students how collecting large amounts of data can fool us into finding “impossible” co-incidences easily, and how we can easily be influenced into hearing patterns such as messages in music played backwards. All of this is done in a way that doesn’t require high-level maths knowledge, and its a really clear introduction to some of the ways that we can be misled by data.

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Review | Tetris Effect Connected

Screenshot of the cooperative mechanic, which combines each player's field into one large field.
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Somehow I’ve never owned a Tetris game before, so when I discovered Tetris Effect Connected on Xbox Game Pass soon after it was released, I decided to try out this version. The graphic style showcased in the screenshots and trailers seemed impressive, and the idea of head-to-head online matches appealed to me much more than experiments such as Tetris 99.

My first impression of Tetris Effect Connected was a little negative, purely because it seemed oddly pretentious. This was mostly due to its language and exposition; the campaign is called a “Journey mode” and is described as “a voyage of emotion and discovery”, while you are referred to as a “Guardian” whose job is to help save the galaxy from a negative void that’s going to erase existence. Leaving that to one side and jumping into the gameplay, however, quickly appeased my scepticism.

Its clear from the first information screen that Tetris Effect Connected aims to be an immersive, sensory-blending experience; its encouragement to equip surround sound or wear headphones “for maximum enjoyment” is presented with the same prominence as its photosensitivity warning.

This aim is reinforced by how the Journey mode is built to be near-seamless. After completing each stage, you automatically transition into the next one, while failing a stage resets you to the start of the previous stage rather than returning you to the stage selection screen. This approach feels like its designed to absorb players into a flow state, especially as the power-up mechanic is called “the Zone”. Once you’ve filled the Zone meter by scoring points, you can activate it to slow down time and hold tetrominoes at the top of the screen until you’re ready to release them. While activated, lines that you clear won’t vanish as they normally do, but will instead stack underneath the existing game board. When the Zone activation ends, all of those lines are cleared at once, allowing for not just the titular high-scoring Tetris (4 lines cleared at once), but an Octoris (8 lines), a Decahexatris (16 lines), and even clearing more lines than the game board contains at once (an aptly-named Impossibilitris).

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Review | The Touryst

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Today I’m looking at indie game, and former Switch exclusive, The Touryst. One of my friends recommended it to me, as he found its free exploration and relatively short length relaxing.

Initially, I didn’t find it quite as peaceful, because the first thing I did was jump out of the arrival boat on the wrong side to see if I could swim in the surrounding ocean … I could, until I was eaten by a shark.

Once I respawned which let me quickly discover that there is no life counter and no major consequence for death, I began exploring the islands. The Touryst takes place across a cluster of small islands, which you travel between by boat. The boat being at the end of a boardwalk and accompanied by an ever-present Captain reminded me strongly of the balloonist in Spyro the Dragon, which added to the game’s nostalgic vibes. Some of the islands are inspired by real-life locations like Santoryn (Santorini) and Fyjy (Fiji); all of them are compact, colourful, and studded with secrets, mini-games and tasks.

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I Finally Finished … Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell

An image of combat in Saint's Row: Gat Out of Hell
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According to TrueAchievements, I first played Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell in July 2015. While I’ve dipped in for a couple of co-op sessions since, it’s been on my “I’ll finish this eventually” pile for years. My plan was to spend 1-2 hours finishing any remaining campaign missions on and fulfilling any close achievements, and then to retire the game completely.

What actually happened was that I spent around 5 hours that evening finishing every activity New Hades had to offer, and unlocked the 100% activity ending. After my second evening of exploring, I had beaten up Satan, and collected every orb, book, and piece of audio commentary. Then I saved my progress and realised I was at 98% game completion…

So the day after that, I went for full 100% completion. It’s safe to say that Gat Out Of Hell caught my attention, and my time, much more this time around.

Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell is a standalone expansion pack that follows on from Saint’s Row IV. It features the same open-world gameplay and upgradeable superpowers found in IV, but moves the actions to a new location – Hell itself. As Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington, you must prevent Satan from marrying his daughter Jezebel off to Johnny. You do this by getting supernatural assistance from a cast that includes previous Saint’s Row characters as well as famous additions like Blackbeard and William Shakespeare.

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Game Review Tier List and Review Collection

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Given that game reviews have accidentally become my most common posts on this site, I wanted to make sure I was doing them as fairly and as well as I possibly could. One part of this, for me, is figuring out how I compare games to each other. While I don’t want to get as granular as using a number or percentage system, as I think that I would then focus too hard on those numbers at the expense of looking at the individual games, I did want to add some kind of structure.

A more general tier or category list, that covers the most likely possible options without forcing reviews into a rigid scale, seemed like the best approach. While this will change in future if I need it to, the table below contains the rough framework that I’ll use for comparing games.

I’ll also keep a running list of games I’ve reviewed in each tier below – consider this post the meta-post for my game reviews!

TierDescriptionDefining Game
AmazingA game that is the best of its genre; it is so strong in design, gameplay and enjoyment that it offers an excellent experience to many different audiences.Grand Theft Auto V
BrilliantA game that is enjoyable beyond the “cool” tier; it offers a consistently good experience and does everything that you would expect from its genre and setting to a high standard.Spyro Reignited Trilogy
CoolA game that is competent and fun, but not extra-special. It might be technically good but formulaic, or its ideas might have been already done better in previous games.Team Sonic Racing
DisappointingA game that executed its concept poorly, or was marred by technical or design issues that made it difficult to enjoy.Onrush
ExperimentalA game that is so novel, or so reliant on deconstruction or meta-narrative, that it is polarising. Generally, people who like weird experimental games will enjoy it, while people who don’t like them won’t.Beyond Eyes
FailureA game that does not deliver what it promised and offers little or no fun.?
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Tech Support Adventures | iMovie Compressor kit error

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While I’m often the person my friends and family call upon for technical support for Windows, Android, or things on the internet, I have little experience with the Apple ecosystem. But when my friend Josh told me about his sudden and confusing issue with Final Cut Pro X, I was so intrigued that I had to investigate. We eventually figured it out, and I got a crash-course in OSX as well.

The issue:

Final Cut Pro X (10.2) would crash and display a “Final Cut Pro quit unexpectedly” error message whenever an export option was selected.

Further details:

  • OS – El Capitan
  • FCPX – Version 10.2, without Compressor or Motion.
  • iMovie – 10.1.6

No new applications had been installed recently, and FCPX had been working correctly after the last OSX upgrade.

We couldn’t try restoring from a backup as there weren’t any viable backups, but all of the following troubleshooting steps had already been tried without success:

  • restarting the MacBook
  • clearing FCPX preferences
  • making a new FCPX library
  • deleting generated render files
  • making a new user account
  • booting in safe mode
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Why UWE shouldn’t close their Philosophy department

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Yesterday, I found out that UWE Bristol were announcing the potential shutdown of their Philosophy department to new students after this year.

I found this out from a tweet, which shared a petition launched by a just-graduated student yesterday. While I’m not sure how effective the petition might be, it has recieved 2700 signatures in a day. I encourage you to sign and share this petition, in the hope that it persuades whoever made this decision to change their mind. The decision to close the UWE philosophy course is counterproductive and destructive, for reasons I’ll detail below. More importantly, this decision was made abruptly, with little consultation or communication.

Whoever made this decision has acted rashly and callously, leaving a cohort of foundation year students (and their programme leaders) unsure of whether the course they are preparing for will even exist after their preparation year. No student or staff member deserves to be placed in this position.

The petition is here: https://www.change.org/p/marc-griffiths-uwe-pro-vice-chancellor-and-executive-dean-of-health-and-applied-sciences-save-uwe-s-philosophy-programme

So, why is this decision misguided? Below the cut are three major reasons:

  1. Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses.
  2. UWEs philosophy course offers a unique module other philosophy courses cannot match.
  3. Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer, and philosophy graduates have essential skills and knowledge for today’s society.

Note: I’m not currently affiliated with UWE, aside from being an alumnus. I studied both of my degrees at UWE, and published my MSc research with supervision from UWE staff. I’m also not a philosophy student or graduate; my view of the value of philosophy comes from personal study and from how philosophy links to my degree subjects of psychology and science communication.

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I Finally Finished … skate.

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Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed). 

Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!

So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?

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Technological Overthinking #2 | Sony Walkman Album Art

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One recurrent technological question I have is why my MP3 players never display album artwork consistently. The issue often seems random; when I get some albums working, others are blank in their place. So I wanted to figure out what the problem was and write solutions down for future reference.

As I’ve used Sony Walkman MP3 players since about 2008, I initially checked posts and articles about Sony players. However, this problem applies to multiple brands of MP3 players and to other devices like digital photo frames.

Many people with Sony Walkman players have posted about cover art issues on Sony’s support website. But the official replies just tell people to transfer songs using Sony’s Content Transfer software, without explaining why the issue exists. I wanted to fix the issue within the music programs I already use (MediaMonkey and Mp3tag) instead of adding another program into the mix.

After looking on multiple sites, subreddits and software forums, I found three essential criteria for making album art and other tags show up properly on Sony MP3 players. (These criteria may apply to other MP3 players as as well, and the “baseline” JPG criteria may resolve issues with car infotainment systems and digital photo frames).

1) Every song must be tagged using ID3 tag version 2.3.
2) Every song’s artwork must be embedded into its ID3 tag.
3) Every artwork image must be a JPG. More specifically, it must be a “baseline” JPG rather than a “progressive” JPG.

Now I’ll explain what all of those words mean, and the steps that I followed to make my song files and cover artworks fit these criteria. It’s important for me to clarify that each individual criteria was figured out by someone else; I’m just putting them together so that I can show the steps in one place.

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Technological Overthinking #1 | Music Library

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I can understand why streaming services have become so popular: being able to access a large library of familiar and new music that can’t be erased by a faulty hard drive or a wrong button-press is appealing. But, like most techies, I lean towards the “control” side of the convenience-control spectrum in many situations.

For music specifically, I prefer ownership over streaming. I like being able to buy albums from multiple places, store them and back them up wherever I wish, and play them on software I already use, rather than being restricted to specific marketplaces or software clients. (I would also rather rely on my storage and backups than on the unbelievably complex licensing arrangements between streaming services and publishers). For me, staying on team “offline library” was the obvious choice.

Investigating an issue with my MP3 player last year led me to an interesting program called Bliss, which I’ll give its own post in future. In short, Bliss manages your music library based on rules that you define. You set rules about how you want files to be labelled, named, and organised, and Bliss either highlights files which don’t fit the rules so that you can edit them, or adjusts them to meet the rules automatically.

Although Bliss is overkill for my relatively small and wholly-offline library, I really liked its rule-based approach. So I’ve taken the rules I decided on within Bliss and recreated them inside my desktop software of choice, MediaMonkey.

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Technological Overthinking #0

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One of the ways my anxiety disorder sinks its teeth in is by spinning simple questions up until they seem like burning matters of either unreachable perfection or moral urgency.

A question like “how can I know if a clothing company is ethical?” led to a multi-hour internet rabbit hole on how that standard is regulated and whether those regulations are regulated etc. A passing curiosity about how tree-planting programs work led to me researching not just tree-planting but the entire concept of carbon offsets and the ways in which they can be corrupted or misused.

If I’m obsessing about something in this way, putting that thought down is near-impossible. The rational realisation that time spent thinking in this way about these questions is a matter of diminishing returns – that the hours spent locked in worry-led link-following are worth less than 20 minutes of calm, engaged research – doesn’t sink in until something wrenches me away from my thoughts. Usually, the best way to stop a runaway thought-train is just to wait until another one arrives.

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Review | Letter Quest : Grimm’s Journey Remastered

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Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered (often referred to as Letter Quest Remastered) is a word-assembling RPG where you defeat monsters with your vocabulary, your scythe, and bacon.  

I was introduced to LQR by two of my friends, who assumed that I would enjoy its celebration of verbal geekery. I’m happy to say that they were correct. 

In LQR, titular young reaper Grimm must battle though the foes who are blocking him from his desired treasure … pizza. Battling is carried out by finding words in a board of Scrabble-style letter tiles; your score for each valid word becomes damage to the current enemy, who then retaliates with attacks of their own. Each defeated enemy and completed quest awards Gems, which you use to strengthen Grimm’s selection of scythes and to buy skill upgrades.

This is my best word so far. 11-letter words are uncommon, but they output tons of damage.
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Review | Aəero : Complete Edition

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Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.

Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences. However, my first few minutes with Aəero felt more like a sensory assault. After reducing my TV volume, lowering the in-game volume to 40%, and lowering the vibration strength to minimal, I could then dive into its challenging and immersive gameplay.

The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams. 

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Review | Dear Esther : Landmark Edition

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As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.

While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.

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Review | Spyro Reignited Trilogy – Spyro 2

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Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was the first game I recieved with my PS1, and also my first 3D game, so this is a nostalgic revisit for me. (As it’s named Ripto’s Rage in the Reignited Trilogy, I’ll just refer to it as Spyro 2 here). It was also one of my favourite games – I remember enjoying Idol Springs and Crystal Glacier, and finding the summer and autumn home worlds incredibly peaceful. I don’t think my 7-year-old self ever reached the final third of the original game, as it was mostly unfamiliar. This time, however, I beat Ripto at 98% completion after about 13 hours of in-game time, then reached 100% at about 14 hours (blame the Fracture Hills level for that delay!).

The major difference between Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2 is revealed in the first cutscene, which shows off a more detailed story taking place across a larger set of worlds and also introduces you to allied characters who need Spyro’s help to take their homes back from antagonist Ripto.

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