Stream Deck; GR Wildlands; Endless Space 2

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Ghost Recon: Wildlands

I received GR:W for free with my video card, and aside from using it to put the card through its paces, I’ve not played it much. It’s not a soloist game, despite having a squad of NPC soldiers backing you up. GR differs from The Division in that GR games tend to be way less forgiving when you’re getting shot. When you finally make it to cover, then, the system is calling in wave after wave of reinforcements.

Teabagging Unidad corpses

I played it last night with my brother, and Mindstrike, and we learned a few things. First, you die quickly and often. Second, if you’re attacking a cartel-held property, kill everyone quickly or else you’ll be there forever and will probably find yourself back at point one. Third, there’s no coherent line-of-sight between where you start and where you need to go. We tried to figure out our next step in the narrative but ended up picking some of the worst random locations for new players to take on.

Still, it was fun. More fun with real people. I’m hoping more people snag the game before the sale ends, because I burnt out on The Division a long time ago, and would like to play something with people again.

This is my role in the team.

Endless Space 2

Endless Space is one of my favorite 4x games. Like all of them, however, I have never actually completed a scenario. Still, it served as inspiration for several features of my ill-fated “Project Universe” because I really like the way Amplitude approached the game.

Wandering through the stacks at Steam storefront, I literally stumbled across Endless Space 2. I think I knew this was A Thing, but like many things these days it fell off my radar.

I watched the videos on the store page and decided that ES2 was a solid follow up game. It seems that Amplitude has included a lot of cool new features, not the least of which are the addition of probes instead of scouts, a need to to research FTL technology to get beyond your meager local neighborhood, and a galactic “auction house” which allows you to buy and sell technology and ships for Dust, the game’s mysteriously magical currency.

4X NSFW

I haven’t yet fired it up, but I’m looking forward to it. Amplitude is really an under-the-radar strategy developer (Endless Space, Dungeon of the Endless, Endless Legend, and other Endless universe games) that does consistently good work that I enjoy.

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The Elgato Streamdeck

Posted by on May 19, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Following on the heels of Wednesday’s post on the Elgato Streamdeck, I managed to get some time with it this Thursday and wanted to offer some initial impressions.

Nicely packaged: cradle, stand, and manual.

First, the device is solidly made. It’s basically a block with overly-glossy keys, none of which feels flimsy in the least. When not plugged in, it doesn’t look like much, but when it’s receiving power the keys are backlit with the Elgato logo spread out across the center buttons. The keys are nice and bright, but unfortunately not bright enough to overcome a harsh glare at certain angles, depending on where your local light sources are at. The deck itself can be removed from the desktop stand which may have some uses for enterprising modders out there. The stand itself, though, gets some props for innovation: it’s sporting a two-stage support system. The cradle portion lifts up on a front hinge, and you can extend either the back of the cradle to sit in the base for a more upright position or use two smaller side supports to raise the cradle up to a lesser angle, making it more keyboard-esque. However, the pins used to keep the supports in place are small and I can see them snapping off at some point in the future. I have found that in my setup, the more acute angle works best to avoid key glare, but also put the keys at an angle such that each key is slightly more difficult to see.

The removable deck and cradle

 

Setup was super easy: install the software (Windows 10 and Mac Whatever only) and plug in the device. Hopefully, you have a nearby USB port because the cable is shorter than what you’d expect from a lot of desktop peripherals and is non-detachable (i.e. can’t swap it with a longer cable).

I’m a software guy, and I love playing around with configuration software so the management utility for the Streamdeck might be one of the easiest I’ve used. The main window features 15 slots representing each of the buttons. On the right side, you have a series of commands that you can assign. Simply drag a command to a button, and you’re about 90% of the way done. Depending on the button, you’ll have some settings you can mess around with. For example, the OBS integration allows you to drag a “Scene” action. In the button properties, you select which Scene in your running copy of OBS you want that button to trigger. The updates are in real time, so as soon as you place the button in the software, it shows up on the physical device. You can also change the icon (some of which have lit and faded states to show which one is active among those it recognizes as being mutually exclusive, like OBS scenes) and layer mutli-line text on the button. I learned that Elgato has a quick key icon creator on their website if you have images but no Photoshop or graphics experience. Like the settings app, this is really easy to use and I had a lot of fun making icons that I needed.

Live updating with default config

Unfortunately, this is where my enthusiasm starts to wind down, but I need to remind you that I didn’t buy this device for its intended purpose of augmenting my live stream control. I bought it to send commands to my games — something that I couldn’t get to work anywhere often enough.

It seems that Elgato has designed the software to be extremely specific in what it does and how it operates. Since the company focuses on streaming technology, their software heavily favors streaming tasks. It has support for Elgato’s own streaming software, OBS, Twitch, and only a few other services like Twitter. For local hooks, there are media control commands, app and website launchers, and hot key broadcasters. Even then, OBS requires a plugin so that the Elgato command software can communicate with it when another app has focus.

For use with OBS

I was mainly focused on using the hotkeys. I tried Elite Dangerous because that’s a game where having access to a lot of keys is something that will enhance the experience. For testing, though, I only created a new button and assigned it the Hotkey “1”. In Elite, this opens the left-side control panel for mapping, local targets, etc. It works when docked so I knew it would be something that I could do without having to leave my current station. Unfortunately, the game refused to acknowledge the key press. I know that the key was working, however, because I could open the chat entry box and see a string of “1”s whenever I tapped the button on the Streamdeck. I tried full-screen window mode, and full-screen mode (since some games are picky about that kind of thing) but nothing changed. I even tried the 32bit non-Horizons enabled version to no avail.

Ideally, for use with Elite Dangerous, but with fewer assignments.

Figuring I’d try something else, I booted up Guild Wars 2 and rebound my “1” key to the “B” key which would open the RvRvR standings window. Again, no luck. Again, I tried adjusting the window mode and verified that the key was working by activating the chat box and hitting the button.

Since the Streamdeck is brand-spankin’ new at this point, and since Elgato doesn’t maintain a community forum, I had to descend into the depths of *shudder* Reddit to find the /r/elgatogaming subreddit. Thankfully there was a Streamdeck “megathread” where people were talking about it, and I saw at least two people claiming that they had done exactly what I was trying to do. I asked one poster if he/she did anything specific to get it to work, but haven’t seen any replies.

On a whim, I loaded up The Elder Scrolls Online to test with the original GW2 “B” key button, and amazingly, it worked. At this point, I don’t think I’d done anything differently between the GW2 test and the ESO test. At an earlier point, I suspected that there might be something running on my system that was hijacking the input from the Streamdeck software since I’d experienced something like this in the past with audio. I shut down anything that I thought might handle key input like Plays.tv, my Logitech keyboard and mouse software, and even Steam and it’s overlay, but the results had been the same. I read that the Streamdeck software should be run as Administrator in order to be able to send keys to another app, but that didn’t seem to help either.

As it stands, the Elgato Streamdeck is at the “confounding” level on the “love it or leave it” scale. I’m not going to say “disappointing” because I suspect that there’s something standing in the way of what I am doing and what I want it to do that may or may not have anything to do with the Streamdeck or software themselves. I can tell you, though, if I can get it to work then I’ll quickly upgrade my assessment to “spectacular” because it’s an excellent piece of hardware. If they release an SDK or expand their software beyond the narrow focus on streaming (which may never happen due to Elgato’s market segment), or if more apps adopted the input hooks for it (Hey, Discord!), then its value would skyrocket. I don’t know that I’d suggest that everyone go out and buy one and experience an input Nirvana because unless you’re a moderate to hardcore streamer or use apps like Photoshop that have a lot of keyboard shortcuts, it seems that the Streamdeck’s operations are limited and pretty “fragile” in that they’re easy to interrupt.

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Transparency and Star Citizen

Posted by on Apr 17, 2017 in Editorial, Star Citizen

Transparency and Star Citizen

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Star Citizen backer. At the writing of this post, I am in for about $300 over the course of the entire campaign. I had started out with one of the entry level packages and then upgraded over time, folding better and better ships into even better ones until I reached the present pledge-configuration of a Constellation Andromeda and Dragonfly hover-bike. I’m sure there might be a few folks who are reading this and are nodding, having bought into the development of Star Citizen at various levels and it’s single player companion Squadron 42; they know what this process entails. I’m absolutely sure there are others who are reading this with less charitable reactions: what a fucking idiot. Must be nice to have money to throw into a black hole.

Star Citizen is ambitious which is undeniable no matter which side of the table you sit on. The closest analog is probably…well, nothing, really. EVE Online comes to mind because both allow you to jump into different ships and fly around a living persistent universe, but SC has personal avatars that can disembark their ships and participate in entirely different gameplay. There are also games like Mass Effect which will allow you to land on planets and explore with a team, but that’s not right either since ME is a scripted single player game with limited scope. SC is probably most like Elite Dangerous, except that Elite locks you into your ship like it’s afraid you’ll wander off and never return…something that’s possible and even required in SC as you will need to visit NPCs on space stations, planetside, or even between ships docked together in deep space. Even though I’m not a game developer, I can appreciate how difficult making this game must be. It’s been tried before and has failed spectacularly, and I’m sure that everyone working for RSI reminds themselves of this every day. Nevermind the fact that they have taken in several millions of dollars from people who really want this game enough to gamble on one of the most ambitious projects that the games industry has birthed. It’s not a project for the squeamish or the half-hearted, especially since we’re talking about an industry that frequently plays its cards close to the vest when it comes to progress reporting, treating each PR push as a “warm fuzzy” or “hype” opportunity. There are a lot of eyes on this project, and a lot of those eyes are extremely critical for two reasons: the amount of money they’ve taken in, and how long the development is taking.

SC has had a rough road which we didn’t learn about until after it started abating. Their initial attempts were hampered by a crisis of leadership, which isn’t all that hard to believe when you view Chris Roberts as one part visionary, one part eccentric, and several parts rampant ego. Although Roberts occupies a very respectable place in the pantheon of game development for his Wing Commander series, it had been quite some time since he’d done any development work that mattered and I would think that this hiatus helped contribute to the confusion involving different studios orbiting the core team working on a project that would dwarf the largest MMO to date. Add to that Robert’s “top-down management style” (putting it kindly), and the choice of CryEngine which turned out to be another hamstring when the engine couldn’t accommodate the design and then when CryTek ran into serious financial trouble. The project was apparently spinning out of control, and it’s documented in the Kotaku article “Inside the Troubled Development of Star Citizen” which I urge you to read for an investigation into the project, circa 2016.

After reading that article, then, you’ll either come away with a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to create a game of any scale, or it’ll solidify your belief that SC is nothing but a scam that no one has caught on to yet — well, except for Derek Smart. Smart has no compulsion against getting his foot wedged up people’s asses, and there’s got to be some kind of bad blood between Smart and Roberts. From an outsider’s perspective, it could be related to Smart’s own attempts at a massive open world ground-and-space simulation, Battlecruiser 3000AD. Back in the early 1990s, Smart attempted to create what was at the time one of the most ambitious gaming products ever seen, but due to bugs, wild claims of capability of the product, and good old fashioned legal combat between Smart and publisher Take-Two, the game quickly earned a reputation as one of the largest failures in video game history at the time. Smart would go on to pop up like Whack-A-Mole from time to time, even forming a new studio to work on modern MMOs, but Star Citizen seemed to call to him like a proverbial moth to a flame. I don’t know why, although it could very well be because SC was looking to do what he couldn’t: make a massive space sim game, and was already flush with millions of dollars signaling votes of confidence that BC3000AD never enjoyed.

By the time Smart arrived on the scene, there were strongly encamped supporters and detractors. While I don’t know if anyone would consider throwing their lot in with a firebrand like Smart just to support their position, he certainly made it easier and popular for detractors to voice their opinions on SC. Many people were demanding pledge refunds because they felt the project was a scam, or that it was taking far longer than they believed that it should. Truth be told, they weren’t wrong on the development cycle complaint: SC has been in production for about six years. According to its Wikipedia articleWorld of Warcraft took 4-5 years to develop, which included rigorous testing. Back in those days — the early days of MMOs, mind you when no one really knew what they were doing — 4-5 years was certainly a long time. These days, games can come to market in half the time thanks to experienced developers working on established knowledge, engines, and concepts, but look at what such a cycle churns out. How many MMOs have fallen by the wayside or been derided because they just don’t seem to have done much to step outside the box created by WoW?

In the development world, we have a saying: When you want me to build you a product, you can have it good, fast, or cheap; pick any two. Star Citizen has chosen “good” but has opted to stick with just “good”. Their rationale is that the money paid to them is in the form of a “pledge”, not a purchase. People are naturally wary of this kind of doublespeak, and it may very well be a way for RSI to avoid certain pitfalls involving a purchase of something that hasn’t yet been delivered. We are, after all, getting access to the game in its alpha state, will get finished products, and can choose the amount of money we wish to part with by selecting starships of different size and ability to represent the level of buy-in. For all intents and purposes, it looks like we are buying something (ships) for our pledge…just something without a definitive, final due date. Because RSI has opted to go with just the “good” option, and because they are sitting on top of a pile of money that is still rolling in, they are doubling down on the promise of “good”, and that takes time. Companies like Blizzard always throw out the “it’ll be done when it’s done” and people get antsy but understand that this is Blizzard’s M.O.; they create quality products and people are willing to give them time to ensure that the products live up to the company’s legacy. RSI doesn’t have any previous products to vouch for them; just their words, which is partly why Derek Smart started legal action against them a few years back, claiming that Roberts was mismanaging the revenue and that RSI would never get their product to market.

That kind of brings us to today. Although the Smart sideshow was a nail-biting distraction, RSI has basically used it as an opportunity to give Smart what he wanted withing agreeing that they were doing what he demanded. He wanted to know where the money was going, and what RSI was working on as proof that something was being done, so RSI has opened its doors to the public.

  • Funding ladder which lays out how much they have collected, and what each tier “unlocks”
  • Monthly studio report which explains what got done and is pulled directly from their internal work-tracking systems. The report is broken down by sub-studio and details work both accomplished and what’s setting them back (Note: link was to the report current at the time of posting).
  • Production schedule report lists the next steps in development which will eventually become the subject of a future month’s studio report.
  • Letter from the Chairman which is Robert’s platform to talk about what got done and what’s still left to do.

As consumers, many of us still operate under the belief that we are in a “partnership” with game developers. We give companies money, and therefore they are beholden to us in whatever way we wish to collect. Most of the time we’re content with a simple product/service-for-cash transaction but a lot of people believe that if they’re supporting a company financially then they deserve a window into the operations at least, a seat at the design and development table at best. In a lot of ways companies themselves are to blame for empowering this entitlement when they run campaigns to let consumers be the “fifth Beatle” in choosing from options that are probably of no consequence to the developers themselves; they would just assume do all options, but in the interest of “good, fast, or cheap” they’re allowing the consumers to make the choice and by extension are making the customers feel like they’re invested in their product instead of looking elsewhere at a competing product.

To me, it seems that RSI has taken the criticism it has endured and has agreed with many of their detractors. “Want to know what we’re up to with your money? Here’s what we did, and what we’re going to do next,” is essentially the goal of their monthly reports. In addition, they have several video series each week which gather special interest stories from around the company. They’ll talk about the procedural generation of planets in one series, and talk about dealing with troubleshooting bugs in another. If you really want to know what’s going on with Star Citizen then you don’t really need to wonder, but you do need to have a shitload of time to consume it all, and the stomach to endure the nitty-gritty of technical insight into the esoteric world of game engines, physics, audio, server technology, rigging and texturing and modeling and all of the complex systems that people forget are the foundations of the products that we bitch about like they dropped into our hands from a magical vending machine.

Honestly, I can’t think of another company that goes to these lengths to keep consumers in the loop. A lot of companies don’t have to, though. Blizzard doesn’t. Neither Bethesda nor Bioware does. For them, it’s enough to announce, mete out occasional details punctuated by scripted trailers and scripted developer interviews and press junkets, and people give them the pass (antsy, baited-breath passes, but passes nonetheless). Because of their mountain of cash, because of the length of their development cycle, and because so many people have been beating on their door demanding accountability, RSI is doing all this to provide accountability. I suspect that they are going to these lengths not just because people demand it, but because they can; whereas Blizzard wouldn’t tip its hat in such a radical fashion when working on something new, RSI knows that there’s no way anyone could match their efforts at this scope and with the quality targets they are aiming for in a timeframe that would steal their thunder.

Sadly, almost 2000 words into this post, and with all of the material that RSI is putting out to show people that they’re not all just partying in Cabo with the money, people are still going to be angry and accuse them of shady dealing. These people don’t like RSI’s funding method. They don’t appreciate the fact that stupid amounts of money can’t dilate time and make things happen faster (remember, RSI tried to bring tons of people on board to move quickly early on, and it was a disaster). I suspect a lot of people are upset because the game is too ambitious, and these people think that RSI is just throwing more features onto the pile as they accomplish previous milestones. These people will readily point to Elite Dangerous as how to get a space sim game out the door on schedule and without rampant feature creep, although really this is a false equivalency considering what little Elite does in release and what SC does already in alpha. Maybe some people are even just pissed that this system seems to be working despite people’s best efforts to stay mad at it. They can’t back down now lest they lose face in their communities.

This is the nature of the Internet, circa 2017. Progress is being made on Star Citizen, full stop. Its there on their website in several forms, on YouTube each week, and is something everyone who pledges can get their hands on in the form of the alpha client. As someone who is in for a pound I’m in the group that would really love to have the game right now, of course, but as someone who is in for a pound I don’t want the game as is; I want the game as promised. That being said I’m also flexible; I know that Roberts and team(s) have a massive amount of knowledge on game design and development, and have been learning more as they go. If they say they can’t do something that was promised, I’m OK with that. I’d rather they focus on what they can accomplish or what they think they can accomplish rather than holding things up as they stumble through possible solutions just to tick boxes on someone’s contract. The good news is that they seem to be accomplishing a lot of what they did promise, even when they admit that it was a difficult problem to solve. Even better, once this project is done and their studios disband (as all game studios seem to do), this knowledge will disseminate into the larger development pool so that other teams won’t have to struggle with the problems that RSI is working on. A “good” Star Citizen is certainly not cheap, and it’s certainly not fast, and I’m OK with that especially now in light of their frequent updates being made available to everyone — not just those who have backed the project.

I’m sorry if you can’t understand where I’m coming from. I’m not using 2500 words to try and convince myself that I didn’t waste money. I check in on their progress every week and because of it, I feel the momentum of the project which can’t be felt by those who stopped paying attention once they had made up their mind that the project is a failure or a scam. If you’re on the fence, dig through the RSI website; unlike a lot of game company sites their front page is filled with updates, behind the scenes, and lore entries. There is literally a ton of information from behind the screen doors of the company being put out there for anyone who wants to look at it. I do urge you to look at it, especially with an open mind, if you are skeptical or otherwise have no horse in the race. I can’t predict the future, of course; this project may absolutely crash and burn, but that’s the same risk any company takes and none of them are bulletproof. Most, however, go down in flames without the kind of transparency that RSI has adopted, and if you want to understand where the company is going, do your own due dillgence and don’t rely on groupthink. Read the articles. Watch the videos..

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The Black Box of Decision

Posted by on Apr 14, 2017 in Editorial

In the days when all we had were newspapers and magazines, radio, and TV, we had to wait until the morning, evening, or late evening to find out about them. Because of the timing aspect we that we didn’t know stuff but we also knew that if there was anything to know, we’d get around to it eventually when publications arrived on our doorsteps or we tuned into the 6 AM, 6 PM or 10 PM news broadcasts. The Internet changed that and receives a fair amount of legit criticism for being too “on” because broadcasting something as it happens doesn’t give us the time to figure out what it means, why it’s happening, or reflect on the lasting impact.

This is why I find it really bizarre when companies are so obtuse. Even though I’ve spent most of my life without the Internet (although that will change in a mere few years), I have become so used to getting important information and reasons accompanying my news stories that when I don’t the stories seem stupid, pointless, and nonsensical.

Case in point: Nintendo, the great Cypher of Reason in the games industry, has opted to discontinue their short-lived NES Classic all-in-one retro console. This was a big hit with gamers when it was announced late last year and was impossible to find for the Holiday season. In fact, it’s still in short supply, unless you really want one and are willing to pay scalper prices on eBay. When news of this discontinuation came across the ‘tubes yesterday, people were pissed. The sentiment was pretty much the same: Nintendo doesn’t want a slam-dunk sale, and they must hate both money and customers. Of course, we don’t really know why they decided to look at the demand and step back; they claim that this product was never intended to be a long-running thing and that this announcement was always in the cards. But Nintendo is notorious for either misunderstanding demand, purposefully shorting their own supply chain, or just being monumentally incompetent and tone-deaf. While we get some kind of excuse, the reason and outcome are so idiotic that we can’t help but think we’re being shafted in some way.

In thinking about this I was also reminded about a product that I used to use called Forge. This is an app that silently records your gameplay and allows you to carve out clips of up to 30 seconds in length that you can share with friends. I say that I “used to” use it because while I really liked its initial incarnation, the decision-makers changed it once to compete with Twitch (didn’t work), and then again into some other kind of chimera that’s not fully realized. To me, the Forge team has no idea what the heck they want their product to do, and because of that can’t convince me why I should use their product. I’m not bitter about removing features I liked or their attempts to enter a saturated market with essentially no ammunition; I’m just confused about the indecisive direction changes and am not willing to put effort into supporting a product that’s all over the board. If the Forge team could tell us what they wanted to accomplish, and actually stuck with that plan, I’d be willing to give them another shot, but there’s been little to no communication in this vein as far as I’ve been able to see. They’re either playing it by ear or are purposefully keeping their plans close to the vest, which in my opinion is hurting them more than it is keeping them safe.

Commercialism in the 21st century has become a game of one-upmanship where the consumer is a spectator who doesn’t understand what he or she is witnessing, and no one involved in the game is willing to explain the rules. Companies are paranoid that someone is going to beat them to the punch before they can file a patent or trademark, so lips are sealed…yet we’re expected to get hyped over scraps of information that *surprise!* may or may not actually make it to the final product — if we get a final product at all (thanks, Kickstarter!). For the most part, we play along because we’re dazzled by the fancy footwork and the roar of the rest of the crowd, but how many of us have been left with a feeling of unease and even remorse once we’ve had time to digest what we’ve been a part of? That sucks. I think the relationship between the consumer and the producer is heavily weighted in favor of the producer, which is a problem we as consumers have gotten ourselves into with eyes wide open. Technically there’s nothing pushing companies to change; Apple doesn’t do focus groups, and yet people work themselves into a consumerist coma and are grateful for the privilege of buying whatever the company produces. So I call it wishful thinking that companies were more transparent and up front about their reasoning behind some of the decisions that they make. I know it would help me feel better about entering into a relationship with a company, and I think the company could feel better about customer loyalty that didn’t involve underhanded tricks like proprietary hardware, walled gardens, and patent trolling.

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Cutting the Cord

Posted by on Apr 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Cutting the Cord

Yes, it’s 2017, and I am just now getting around to seriously considering getting rid of cable.

Since we switched to Fi and reduced our cellular bill by 3/4* I’m feeling how good it is to make a change that returns money to me. Cellular was easy, as these services are an anti-consumer racket. What’s less easy for my household is wiggling out from under the thumb of Big Cable.

While providers like Comcast will tell us that we have options in our area — like satellite — the honest truth is that it’s not really an option. We have three technology minded people in our house, so we need fast, reliable internet access. I’m sure DSL has come a long way since I’ve used it almost 15 years ago, but it’s built on top of an aging infrastructure and can’t possibly match what we get from coax and fiber. We also really don’t need a home phone line. The bogeyman regarding home phones is that without a landline, we lose E-911 service, although I would hope I’d have the presence of mind in a crisis to do everything in my power to ensure that emergency services find me at an address I verbally provide to them. What has actually been impeding our investigation into cutting the cable has been TV, though.

My hobby is PC based; my wife’s hobby is TV based. Thankfully, I can get to any website using any internet connection, but getting the TV channels that my wife wants to watch isn’t so simple. Every network and broadcast concern seems to want to have their own walled garden (lookin’ at we, CBS!) for a fee. Considering how many channels we might want from an a la carte package and the sum of the prices of each walled garden, our spend would probably add up to as much or even more than what we might pay for cable right now.

Of course, there are services which bundle the channels that make themselves available for such bundling. Sling, Playstation VUE, and now YouTube TV provide a wide selection of familiar faces — but none of them offer everything. For example, local affiliate stations are going to be difficult to come by since these streaming services source from the national feeds. A few of these services offer tiers; the higher the tier, the more channels we get, but we might also end up paying more for a single channel we really want, in addition to getting 10 more channels we’ll never watch (for us, that would be the bazillionty sports channels that seem to be the foundation of all of these services). Since no single service offers everything we might want, the decision needs to be made: suffer without, or subscribe to multiple services?

Subscribing to different services means that we’re looking at platform availability. Most everything is available for Android, iOS, and PC, which is nice but is hardly a set-it-and-forget-it solution that competes with the eggs-in-one-basket cable box. The second best option is a device like the Roku or (*shudder*) Apple or Fire TV. A lot of the services are available through gaming consoles, but there’s a lot of overhead in navigating a console, and as much as I’d be thrilled to do so, I don’t think my wife will agree to buy another Playstation or Xbox for each of the TVs we need to broadcast to. Finally, a Chromecast would work in a lot of situations, but when all  you want to do is sit down and throw something on the TV, it’s not as convenient as a cable box when you need to bring out your phone, wait for it to connect, and then choose the supplier who has the content you want to watch.

So what’s the verdict so far? Apparently, PSVue seems to have the most channels we’re looking for, followed by YouTube TV. PSVue seems to work on Android, iOS, and PC, and of course, the Playstation, but also through the Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast. YTTV works through Android, iOS, and PC, but beyond that, it only seems to work through Chromecast for TV broadcasting. Hopefully, that will change over time.

Then there’s the gravy. A lot of the broadcast services offer cloud-based DVR which is great as it allows you to record whatever, whenever, and watch it whereever you can access the service. This mean that when traveling in the US, we can take a Chromecast or Roku stick with us and have our familiar TV with us even in different broadcast markets. YouTube TV even offers Netflix-like sub-accounts so I could keep my DVR and favorites apart from my wife’s or my daughter’s.

At this stage, I’ve only been collecting information and haven’t yet actually tried any of these services. YouTube and PSVue have free trials, so I might take them up on those offers to see if we can live a month using those services — assuming we can find devices which work on the TVs we have. The kicker will be getting the family to remember to pick up the specific remote for the specific device to access the specific package which has the specific channels we want to watch when we want to watch them. It’s this scatter-shot distribution that is the biggest hurdle for cutting the cord for me, personally because while we might be able to replicate our preferred lineup, we have to span several services and possibly several devices in order to find what it is that we want in order to do it.

 

* At least for my wife and I. We still have to pay for our daughter’s line which is on the legacy carrier, but once the in-laws move off our legacy plan, our monthly bill will still be drastically reduced.

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Ghost in the Shell – First Pass

Posted by on Apr 4, 2017 in Editorial

Ghost in the Shell – First Pass

 

Last night we got a posse together to see Ghost in the Shell. This post will probably contain spoilers.

 

In this adaptation, we hit the ground running by being introduced to Mira Killian who we are told was rescued from a terrorist attack. Although she was gravely injured, the medical team at Hanaka Robotics was able to implant her brain into a fully cybernetic body — the first transplant of its kind.

/recordscratch

If you’re familiar with GitS, then everything is already off kilter.

One year later, we see Major (now a name and not a title, apparently) Mira Killian kicking ass in the oft-seen non-trailer edit Geisha scene. Further investigation leads Section 9 and Hanaka (running parallel investigations) to find that the Geisha were hacked by an individual named Kuze. This leads Major Mira Killian to interface with the Geisha under investigation, where she finds herself being back-hacked by Kuze’s remote connection.

This meeting puts Major Mira Killian on a path of self-discovery because this is an origin story and we need to know the reason behind the “glitches” that Major Mira Killian is experiencing. Hanaka doctors claim that these are normal and meaningless, but Kuze tells Major Mira Killian that the medicine that she takes to prevent her brain from rejecting her body is suppressing actual memories of her actual life before she was “rescued” by Hanaka, and that what they told her about her circumstances isn’t true. When Cutter, the head of Hanaka, learns of this exchange, he orders Major Mira Killian to be terminated, and Section 9 along with her.

A selfless act by Dr. Ouelete (who was responsible for getting Major Mira Killian‘s brain into her new body and repairing her repeatedly) brings Major Mira Killian to an apartment building — the apartment of her mother. This is where we learn that there is no such person as Major Mira Killian, but rather a young woman named Motoko Kusinagi who was a runaway and who vanished and was presumed dead. When Whoever She Is travels to the last remembered location as Motoki Kusinagi she meets up with Kuze, and remembers that they knew each other as different people among a group of runaways who were living in an abandoned part of the city. By this time, Section 9 has defeated the Hanaka strike teams (because of course), but not before Cutter sends a spider tank after Whatever Her Name Is and Kuze. Wasserface is ripped apart, Kuze transcends into the ‘net, and Aramaki shoots Cutter etc etc etc.

 

Let’s start off positive. Visually, the designers nailed pretty much everything, which I suppose wasn’t all that difficult considering that GitS has a very specific aesthetic that could be (and sometimes was) lifted directly from the anime. I think they kind of overdid it with all of the holograms, but at least it was set in Japan*, there were no flying cars, and there was that sense of overcrowding going on right next to examples of excess.

The writers and designers had a lot of material to go on — several movies, and several series-worth, actually — and trying to piece together where this scene originated or where that scene originated probably would require instant recall of all of those elements (which I certainly don’t have). I recognized a lot, though. The opening sequence, Kusinagi’s apartment, the Geisha scene, Kuze as a character, Batou’s boat, and even very, very specific scenes like the giant transport plane flying slowly overhead when Kusinagi is chasing the garbage collector through the alleys. Those were features of the movies or the series, although not all of them were from the same movies or series.

And that brings us to the close of the positive, I’m afraid…

First and foremost, I can’t figure out why the writers opted to introduce us to Kusinagi in the way that they did. Sadly, I suspect it’s because they felt that they needed an origin story, and there isn’t a satisfying one in the existing canon. As I have written before, this (for me) is one of the series’ greatest strengths: although canon leans towards Kusinagi as the main character, the rest of Section 9 is featured prominently enough that we understand that they aren’t “The Major and Her Team”, but an actual team where all members are strong and important. Here, the writers have elevated Kusinagi as the focal point, and because American audiences aren’t smart enough to follow anything that isn’t presented in “Marvel fashion”, the writers apparently believe that we need to know who she is and where she came from in order to know where she’s going. But still, finding out that the character is named “Mira Killian” was a head-scratcher — there was no point to that. Hanaka could have told her that her name was “Breadloaf Soupcan” and she would have believed them; had they hewn closer to the truth, then Kuze’s revelations wouldn’t have had the impact (narrative-wise) when she found out her name was actually Motoko Kusinagi.

One thing I did end up appreciating, though, was how the writers merged Kuze — who was at the center of the Individual Eleven storyline in GitS: Stand Alone Complex. The AI that is the antagonist in the Ghost in the Shell movie is the one that can wipe and reprogram people’s memories (i.e. the garbage collector who believes he has a wife and daughter when he actually is a bachelor who lives alone). The AI of the movie seeks to leave the cybernetic body it has been imprisoned in and ascend into the ‘net, which is also Kuze’s goal in the live action movie. When looked at from a distance, giving Kusinagi an adult history and a link to the antagonist meant that the antagonist had to be a real person as well, so they couldn’t have used the AI from the original movie. Since Kuze was the only other rogue hacker in the canon (the Laughing Man notwithstanding), I can see why the writers went there.

The whole identity bait-and-switch threw me enough that I couldn’t get into that place where I was watching objectively. I started asking why almost from the get-go, and then was disappointed by the only plausible answer (i.e. origin story). GitS is at its best when it’s featuring the complex intertwining of political intrigue, and also when it focuses on Section 9’s military exploits — and those are the two halves of the original canon. This movie was about Kusinagi, her history, and how she felt about it. To me, that’s not GitS. It’s not smart, it’s not as action-packed as it could have/should have been at the points where it could have/should have been, and it seemed to go out of its way to be different in order to cater to the lowest common denominator. The thing is, we see movies all the time where we don’t get origin stories. We don’t expect to start at the police academy for a story about a 40 year police force veteran only two weeks from retirement. We accept that this office has seen some shit, and we infer parts of their history from their actions in the present.

I called this post “First Pass” both as a play on “Second Gig”, but also because I want to watch the movie again at home. I suspect that I might have been too expectant, and realize that once I got thrown off kilter, I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile what I was seeing with what I had wanted to be seeing. What did I want to see? A retelling of the original GitS? That would not have been bad at all, really. The series are too dense over too many episodes to condense into a 90-minute movie and be coherent. I’m kind of sad that they pilfered all kinds of elements from across the GitS spectrum, though, because Kuze’s actual story is a whole season’s worth of stories, and so is The Laughing Man, and whatever the heck was going on in Solid State Society (because I can’t remember right now).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this movie is going to do well enough to warrant a sequel, which is both sad and a good thing. Sad, because there’ll be no shot at redemption. Good, because they crammed a lot of canon into one movie and have little else left to go on, almost as if they knew this was going to be their one and only opportunity.

I’m not going to go on record and say that this movie “ruined” GitS. It has not. It’s another entry, or an off-shoot, but it’s hardly a speedbump because we still have all of the content we’ve come to love that we can watch any time we want to remind ourselves why this franchise is so great. If anything, I think we can be disappointed that the one time an opportunity presented itself to bring this series to people who wouldn’t watch “a cartoon”, what we got was a lackluster interpretation that doesn’t “bang” so much as “wheeze”. But then again, I am a fan of franchise, and I’m not objective. Maybe someone who knows nothing about anything GitS would see it differently, but I am not holding my breath.

 

* There was a lot of hay made about the “whitewashing” of this movie by casting Scarlett Johansson as Kusinagi, but personally I didn’t ever care. After watching the movie, we had white men and women, a black man, a Middle Eastern woman, and a crapload of Japanese actors, one of whom spoke only in Japanese. It’s later revealed that Kusinagi the runaway was Japanese, but was put into a caucasian body. Why? Because in the future, Japan is a multi-cultural melting-pot, apparently. In fact, some of the more caucasian-looking characters in the GitS canon (specifically Togusa) were now being played by Asian actors. I guess any controversy is a good controvery.

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