The Obra Dinn Returns October 18th

Lucas Pope of various independent adventures and most notably Papers, Please has been working on Return of the Obra Dinn for at least four years. The Obra Dinn is a ship, a good ship, that was lost at sea in 1803. Here, now, in 1807 it “drifted into port” and you’re an insurance investigator sent to assess the damage and find out how each member of the crew fared.

If you followed development of the ship’s return you might have seen the prototypical demonstration versions Pope released, one is still available on itch. Obra Dinn has what was an original mechanic the first time I played it, and is now a bit like what players found in last year’s Tacoma — scenes of a crew interacting that aren’t with the ship (or station, in Tacoma’s case) anymore.

That’s confusing if you haven’t played either, in Tacoma it was like watching a holographic replay of the crew’s life. Of course, in 1807 the fictional setup for how you can view those replayed scenes is different from a space station in the future, but I fell in love with the prototype’s beautifully stippled 1-bit graphics and the brutal still scenes of the Obra Dinn’s crew paired with just enough voice acting. If they were TV shows I’d say that Tacoma was a great “SyFy” original and what I’ve played of Obra Dinn is a Netflix Marvel series minus the 3-5 extra episodes of cruft.

The trailer above demonstrates many changes to just about everything from the prototype, so there are still plenty of unknowns here. I’d recommend sticking with the trailer and skipping the old GDC demo, to avoid spoiling too much.

Return of the Obra Dinn will be $20 on Windows and macOS on October 18th, which is very soon now, via Steam, Humble, and gog.

PlayStation Network to Finally Allow Name Changes

If it hasn’t been hijacked yet, PSN is finally going to allow you to change your username. Sid Shuman says it’ll be free the first time, and $10 or $5 (for PlayStation Plus subscribers) after that, and the feature has some odd limitations:

When you change your online ID, you will have the option to display your previous ID with your new ID, so your friends can recognize you. Once you decide to display your old ID or not, you won’t be able to adjust this after completing the online ID change process.

The name-changing feature will be in a temporary “preview program”  in November for people who have registered to test pre-release versions of the PlayStation 4 system software, and it may break some recent games:

This feature is compatible with PS4 games originally published after April 1, 2018, and a large majority of the most-played PS4 games that were released before this date. However, please note not all games and applications for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita systems are guaranteed to support the online ID change, and users may occasionally encounter issues or errors in certain games. If for any reason you experience issues after changing your ID, you can revert back to your original ID for free at any time (you will only be able to revert once during the preview program). Reverting back to an old ID will resolve most issues caused by the ID change. In addition, when this feature officially launches, a list of compatible games published before April 1, 2018, will be provided on PlayStation.com for reference before you make a change.

Yikes.

It sounds like some games may just be broken for anyone who wants to play them after changing their name. I hope that Sony has a better workaround than “pay us to change back so you can play old games” before the name-changing feature ships to everyone early next year.

Microsoft Is Buying Obsidian

Jason Schreier has the scoop:

Microsoft is finalizing a deal to acquire the independent development studio Obsidian Entertainment, according to three people briefed on the negotiations. We don’t know if ink is on paper yet, and plenty of major acquisition deals have fallen apart in the final hours, but those close to the companies believe it is all but done.

Obsidian’s RPGs could work very well over a streaming service.

PSN Account Hijackers

Patrick Klepek has a terrific read up on Waypoint about his investigation into Sony’s incompetent security practices around user accounts, and the social engineering crews that steal them:

$1,200. That’s how much someone is asking for a PlayStation Network account I’ve been investigating for the past few weeks. “Secure,” the person calls it, claiming the account will “never be touched” by the original owner again. “He won’t be getting it back,” they claim. More than a thousand dollars? That’s a little rich for my blood, and so I counteroffer: $700.

He also has a few updates on twitter for after you’ve read the article.

Microsoft’s xCloud Game Streaming Disempowerment

Microsoft is making good on their E3 promises and has announced a marketing name and demonstrated their Xbox cloud gaming streaming service, xCloud in a video and news release attributed to Kareem Choudhry, their Corporate Vice President of Gaming Cloud:

Today, the games you play are very much dictated by the device you are using. Project xCloud’s state-of-the-art global game-streaming technology will offer you the freedom to play on the device you want without being locked to a particular device, empowering YOU, the gamers, to be at the center of your gaming experience.

I hate that we don’t own games today. What we “buy” to download from services like Steam, PSN, Nintendo’s eShop, or Microsoft’s store that doesn’t have a sassy marketing name, is so ephemeral.

Subscription services like PlayStation Now, Plus, and GamePass take that to another level. The second you stop paying them, every game you were enjoying with your friends, and experiencing alone or with somebody on the couch is gone.

It’s the same for Netflix, and Apple Music, and all of the other video and music streaming services.

We own nothing with these services and platforms, nothing lasts, if we can’t pay and keep paying for multiple services we don’t get to continue to enjoy creative works and participate in culture.

I can understand how it could be exciting to work on the technology behind these services, and it will enable some people to access things that they would never be able to, but the real goal is obvious and I’m not excited for it.

Microsoft, Sony, EA, everybody who already has a platform and an audience are all rushing to be the platform that gets your $10 or $15 or $20 a month and hooks you for as long as you can pay. They want to convert us from people who buy a box and a few games a year to people who are just paying them all the time for access to whatever games will work with the latency their service has.

How many services are you subscribed to? I can think of so many that my family uses: Netflix; Hulu; Apple Music; PlayStation Plus; 1PasswordiCloud storage.

Subscription services, and game streaming subscriptions in particular, are the opposite of the “empowerment” Chowdry is talking about. I don’t doubt that Microsoft will come up with a more compelling pitch when there are new games that can only work on their streaming service.

Forza Horizon 4 is a Delightful Arcade Driving Thing

I have only barely dipped my toe into Forza Horizon 4, but it’s already a fun and goofy open-world driving game just like the last few, with the notable addition of changeable seasons affecting the greater British landscape this entry takes place in.

The Horizon offshoot of the Forza series have always been odd games. I don’t really enjoy the racing aspect because I’m terrible at it. Maybe it’s because even the simulated experience differs so much from the regular-ass driving I do in reality, I don’t know. Despite that, I just turn the game down into easy mode and love blasting through town and country hunting for bonus boards to knock down, hidden barn finds, and the absolute thrill that is the missions the game puts you on. The missions have specific goals that sometimes, and the most fun times, turn the game into an almost Tony Hawk Pro Skater-like experience and attempt to get a high score in flipping your car over five hundred times. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where I can spend an hour flying around a construction site and not make any progress but still have had great fun.

The cars are all well rendered and beautiful, I play on my desktop computer or streamed to the TV for big screen car drivin’.

Horizon 4 also includes real-time multiplayer in addition to the Drivatar ghost cars that populate your game and races with your Xbox friends in addition to randos.

It also still has the silly customizable skins you can download or create that can turn your ride into An Anime car or apply a livery full of advertising from your favorite race-mobile as-seen-on-TV.

Perhaps the most ridiculous new thing in Horizon 4 is the addition of unlockable dances for your avatar that appear before a race, after a race, and most ridiculously, whenever you find a vista in the game and you’re offered the chance to stand on or about it and dance.

The one change that is a little concerning is that I understand you can’t just download a new tuning for your car on the fly. That little bit in Horizon 3 let you turn a mediocre cheap ride into something approaching a supercar just before a race.

Keza MacDonald was moved by the seasons while reviewing Horizon 4:

The game even turns our weather into something beautiful. As the seasons change, so does the climate and the nature of the light, along with the driving conditions. Edinburgh’s New Town shimmers in pale spring sunshine, and in winter the snow in the Highlands sucks all the light out of the sky. The cottages in Ambleside are prettiest in the summer, when the trees are so bracingly green you can almost smell them. If you have a 4K television, this is what it was made for. Now and then, such as the first time I drove past Edinburgh Castle in the perfect twilit blue of a summer night in Scotland, its beauty made me quite emotional.

The Forza series meaningful to me for a different reason, the first Forza Motorsport was the last game I tested at Microsoft Game Studios before quitting that job, and I’ve never returned to play the Motorsport line. I’m just not cut out for more serious racers. Horizon’s got what I want in something slightly more earnest than Burnout.

Forza Horizon 4 is out now on the Xbox One and Windows. I recommend getting it digitally downloaded if you can so that you can play on either platform.

Siri & Shortcuts in iOS 12

Easily the most impressive feature of iOS 12 is the integration of Workflow into the operating system as the recently-rebranded Siri Shortcuts. Apple’s on-stage demos of Siri Shortcuts have consisted of people explaining a half-dozen different actions these shortcuts perform, as funneled through one simple command. However, Siri shortcuts are also tremendously helpful at drilling down into an application to complete one task without opening that application when it would be inconvenient to do so.

For example, when I’m playing Clash Royale, which has been filling a strategic hole in my heart for some time, I often want to skip Overcast to the next chapter of the podcast I’m listening to. You can only take so many SquareSpace ads.

Before iOS 12, this meant flipping over to Overcast in the multitasking switcher, expanding the current podcast to fill the whole screen, and then tapping the next chapter arrow. Finally, I’d flip back to the game to see that I had lost one or all of my towers and the game was probably over.

In iOS 12, with Overcast 5, you can configure a list of shortcuts within the app to handle practically any function of the app from changing the playback speed to skipping the current chapter. That changes the scenario to one step, “Hey Siri, Overcast next chapter.” Siri isn’t always fast, but she is definitely faster than swapping to Overcast app and attempting to do the same thing.

There is a lot more functionality in Shortcuts that I haven’t even tried yet, and this example was only simplifying one task into one command instead of several tasks, but it feels obvious at this point that these programmable actions can alleviate some of the burden placed on users to adapt to iOS.

My main gripe with the Shortcuts functionality as it exists today, and with Siri in general, is that Siri takes over the whole screen when it isn’t necessary to do so. Many Siri activities that aren’t even shortcuts only necessitate a small confirmation that the requested action took place. The iPhone 6 Plus-sized devices (and especially the XS Max) cry out for a small window of the screen to pop-up a Siri response, then nobody will miss out on their game of Clash Royale just to skip a podcast ad.

Part of the problem that causes Apple to dedicate the entire screen to Siri may be the low confidence we all have in Siri to hear us correctly. Even today I couldn’t get my (Series 1) Apple Watch to understand a simple request for a timer (CW: misogynistic slur in text). The misunderstanding turned the request for a timer into a nasty message that I was surprised to read, then a few tries later it became a request for information about a movie I don’t want to see. Finally, I gave up and set the timer myself. On the iPhone a full-screen Siri response gives you the ability to see and edit the request if it was misunderstood like my 20 minute timer was on the Watch.

Once Apple’s confidence in Siri is higher, we may get that partial-screen response to our requests. I recommend keeping up with Shortcuts via MacStories.

“…I love the Bangles!”

Michael Lewis writing about the national embarrassment’s transition to office:

Before any of the calls could be made, however, the president of Egypt called in to the switchboard at Trump Tower and somehow got the operator to put him straight through to Trump. “Trump was like … I love the Bangles! You know that song Walk Like an Egyptian?” recalled one of his advisers on the scene.

Vote the national embarrassment out of office if you’re in the US.

I Miss WebOS and Windows Phone

After I hit publish on that last article a friend asked a question that I’ve been thinking about: What do you do if you don’t want to use a phone with iOS or Android?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a good option today. WebOS from the now defunct Palm and Windows Phone from Microsoft were the only two big alternatives.

WebOS had a tremendously different design from today’s iOS and Android, but it has now changed hands between Palm, then HP, and now LG.

Windows Phone… well it looked and felt like an evolution of the Zune’s operating system, but I liked some things about that style. I had hoped that Microsoft would keep at it until they hit it out of the park with a winner, but it’s been forever since there was life in that platform.

Abhishek Prakash has a list of open-source mobile operating systems, but they’re all either already failed, Samsung garbage, or still “in development.”

If there were a complete mobile operating system that could compete with Android and iOS on the user experience level, and somehow had a ton of support from app and game developers, it would also need a strong hardware partner to develop an amazing pocket computer. I don’t see that happening.

Even Amazon’s Fire Phone got cancelled, and Amazon already had a strong competitor to Google’s app store.

Microsoft might come back with a Surface Phone but even Thurott said: “But a Surface phone? That makes no sense.” That quote is from late 2016. I think Microsoft might be able to have a better shot today if they could get some kind of branding right for once, which they seem terminally incapable of doing. A few weeks later Thurott wrote that there might be some life in the idea of a Surface Phone yet, and ended with the hilarious:

…I now believe it more likely than not that the software giant will in fact someday sell a Surface phone.

God help us all.

Still, that was in 2016 and here we are, two years later, and Microsoft’s leadership must not feel like they have the right device or the right distance from Windows Phone’s failure to even tease a return.