Wednesday, May 31, 2023

One And Done

Here's a new idea for a feature: TV shows I didn't watch. Or, to be precise, TV shows I watched one episode then stopped. Not sure it has legs but I've got enough for one post so let's go!

The Rings of Power 

Might as well start with the big one. I ought to say up front that I'm no Tolkein fan. I'm old enough to remember when he was generally thought of either as "that guy hippies used to read in the sixties" or a somewhat dated children's author. 

We had Lord of the Rings in the school library when I was just entering my teens but no-one really talked about or read it much. I gave it a go when I was about thirteen or fourteen and got halfway through before giving up. It started off okay but it got very slow and boring in the middle. By the time I went to university I'd read the whole thing and I've read it twice since, once getting all the way through for the second time and once, again, abandoning it out of boredom somewhere in the middle.

I watched the Ralph Bakshi animated version in the cinema on release and enjoyed it but that was mainly because I've been a lifelong fan of animation and cartoons, not because it was Lord of the Rings. I saw the three Peter Jackson movies on release and enjoyed the epic sweep but I never felt the need to watch any of them again. I've played Lord of the Rings Online on and off for many years but because it's a comfortable tab-target mmorpg, not because it's set in Middle Earth.

In essence, I feel like the best thing about Tolkein in general and Lord of the Rings in particular is that they helped to create a space for other writers to explore. I respect his influence but I don't necessarily believe he's the epitome of the genre he inspired. 

Given that background, I ought to have been squarely in the target market for Amazon's populist updating of the franchise: enough familiarity with the IP to be interested in trying it but enough emotional distance not to get riled up by the liberties being taken with the great master's vision. And I was quite looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, the first episode was bland as all get out and duller even than the dull patches in the books. It also had a lot of extremely annoying Actors with a capital A doing Accents with another capital A, something that works on me like nails down a whiteboard. I got to the end of Episode One and told myself I'd get back to it later but I never did. 

As things stand, I probably never will. Maybe it gets better, as some people have assured me it does, but it would need to get a whole hell of a lot better to be worth the bother and no-one's claiming that.


Looks as if we're going to be doing this both in declining order of hype and by platform. It's as good a way as any. Swarm is another of Amazon Prime's big ticket events, one that I'd heard plenty about well before the first episode landed. It kept cropping up in news items on my music feeds because one of the two co-creators is Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino aka that guy out of Community.

Having a noted hip-hop star at the helm isn't the only thing about Swarm that caught the attention of the music press. It most probably wasn't even the main thing. The real reason there were so many posts and articles about the show leading up to the launch was the subject matter. 

Swarm is a very thinly-veiled take on the cult of personality that surrounds one of the biggest stars in the world, Beyonce. The central character, Andrea, obsesses over pop star Ni'Jah, an obsession she shares with an online fandom known as The Swarm. With Beyonce's real-world fanbase being known as the Bey Hive, the clef to this roman is peeping right out from under the doormat.

Beyonce is on my fairly long list of acts I really ought to know more about. She's in that pool of performers I respect but I don't yet know if I like because I haven't gotten around to listening to them all that much. For that reason, any nuanced light and shade playing across the fiction-reality hinterland would have been lost on me.

All I saw in the first episode was a well-made, well-acted, well-filmed, well-written horror story. I appreciated it but I'm not usually in the mood for psychological horror right before I go to sleep, which is when I watch all my TV. Even less for bludgeoning violence. The scene where Andrea batters a man to death with a vase didn't do much to help me get to sleep that night, which was the main reason I didn't watch the second episode the night after or any night since.

Unlike Rings of Power, this is a show I do plan on watching more of - just not at bedtime. I'll save it for when I'm ready to watch something during the daylight hours.


Citadel, the show Amazon seems to be pushing hardest right now, is waaaay more violent than Swarm but that's not why I stopped watching after the first episode. Countless people get shot or blown up or stabbed in Episode One but it's pure cartoon violence. I don't think you even see any blood spilled. 

That's only to be expected. It's a "spy action" show (That's a genre now?) executive-produced by the Russo Brothers, best-known for their work with the MCU and it absolutely plays like a super-hero movie. No-one's here for the gore. It's all about the explosions.

It's also supposedly one of the most expensive TV shows ever made and based on the one episode I watched, all that money ended up on screen. It's fast, slick, brash and thrilling so why am I not watching it any more?

It's bloody stupid, that's why. Or the first episode is, anyway. I fancy myself to have an exceptionally high tolerance for plots that make no sense and characters who don't act like human beings but even I have my limits. 

In the first episode you're expected to believe that a secret society of super-spies with global reach has existed for decades, controlling the political direction of nations and making course-corrections in the name of public good by way of assassination and mayhem. Pretty tough ask, right?

Then you're asked to believe that in a matter of hours that entire global organization has been wiped out by the trans-national forces of governance literally to a man, that one spy left standing being Stanley Tucci. Oh, and also the two leading characters in the series, who it's now revealed also miraculously somehow survived the otherwise entirely successful purge.

Seriously, I can suspend my disbelief over some pretty deep ravines of nonsense and have done but this is a suspension bridge too far. I literally couldn't bring myself to care enough about the insane plot to click on Play for Episode 2. I'm not saying I'll never pick Citadel up again but I'd have to be pretty damn short of better things to watch.

So much for live action, Amazon Prime and hype. On to Netflix, where all three shows are small-scale animations no-one's talking about.

Kitti Katz

Here's the pitch: "Three teenage girls transform into fierce feline superheroes to save the world from an evil Egyptian goddess and still have time for soccer practice." Come on! You want to watch that. Don't pretend you don't.

Well, I did. And I liked it. It's fast, flashy, funny and light-hearted. It's also incredibly throwaway, which is the problem.

The digital animation isn't great, which doesn't help. Movement seems off, somehow, especially in the fight scenes, which I found distracting. The real problem, though, was the characterization of the three leads, Tabs, Kia and Zami. Not only did they not establish themselves strongly enough in the first episode to make me feel I wanted to see where they went next but the whole thing moved much too quickly from the set-up to the pay-off in a way I found both confusing and unsatisfying.

It's a fundemental problem with shows of this kind. Something otherworldly happens to turn an otherwise ordinary tween or teen into a superhero or they discover that magic is real or that aliens exist on Earth but instead of taking time to assimilate the existential experience, in order to hold the attention of a target audience assumed to have an attention span measured in microseconds, events that ought to take days or weeks to come to terms with come to be accepted as the new normal with nothing more than a couple of quick one-liners and a wry expression.

How that kind of life-changing event is handled is often key to whether I carry on with a show of this type or not. The better shows, like Supernatural Academy or Guillermo del Toro's Tales of Arcadia trilogy, treat the transition from reality to fantasy as an opportunity to demonstrate character growth and as a major plot point. It can take a whole season or even more for the leads to come to terms with the situations in which they find themselves.

With Kitti Katz, being turned first into tiny kittens and then catgirl superheroines is just another day in the schoolyard and if they're not really amazed by what's happening to them then why should I be, either? I might watch some more of their adventures some time but chances are I won't. There are too many better choices when it comes to animated series and only so much time.


Sharkdog is by some way the youngest-playing show on this list. It looks like it's aimed at six-to-eight year-olds but it would work well for younger kids, too. The premise is the elevator pitch to shame all elevator pitches: what if someone crossed a shark with a dog and you had it for a pet? And that's it.

Absolutely nothing is explained in the first episode. How Sharkdog exists, for example. How he swims through earth. How he breathes air and water (And quite possibly soil.) Why he acts like a dog when his head and therefore, presumably his brain, is so clearly that of his shark half, not his dog half. 

There was clearly no point whatsoever asking any of these or the other ten million questions that flooded my mind as I watched that first episode. Not only was nothing ever going to be explained, nothing needed to be explained. It's the simple tale of a boy and his sharkdog, What more do you need to know?

Sharkdog is well-animated and pretty funny in places but I'm not six any more. It was never going to hold my attention. That's not to say I'll never watch it again but I'm not going to be working through the whole three seasons or even the rest of Season One, even if  it does have an absolutely stellar rating on Rotten Tomatos - 100%. 

Of course, that's just from a single review. Someone out there really likes Sharkdog.

Neo Yokio

And finally, Neo Yokio. This is an odd one. Ostensibly it's an anime but from the moment I started watching, something about it felt slightly off. It had a weird, almost nihilistic edge to it that I found unsettling. I kind of liked it but it made me nervous.

When the credits rolled I spotted a familiar name. One I recognized but couldn't place. So I went to Google and looked it up. The show was created by Ezra Koenig and it turns out the reason I recognized his name is that he's the lead singer of Vampire Weekend.

Vampire Weekend, for anyone who doesn't know, are a very successful rock band out of New York City. They are, indeed, one of the most New York of bands, which ought to put them squarely in my wheelhouese, except I've never really taken to them all that much. I don't not like them; I just don't like like them. 

What I do like like is the idea of the songwriter from a quintessential New York band creating an alternate-world version of the city and turning it into a cartoon. That is definitely cool. The show itself, however, at least in the one episode I've seen, comes across not so much cool as cold.

The world-building is interesting, for sure. There's a whole lot going on in that first episode that I very much want to know more about. The problem for me was the tone. The set-up has lead character Kaz wallowing in self-pity after a break-up with his girlfriend, who has, in a telling twist, moved to LA to further her career as an investment banker. 

I didn't warm to Kaz and when you don't find an affinity with the protagonist it can be a deal-breaker. It's clear that he's supposed to be sad and depressed and suffering from existential ennui, so you're expected to cut him plenty of slack, but honestly he just came across a spoiled, rich dickhead much of the time. It's like they were reaching for Jay McInerney but they landed on Brett Easton Ellis.

This is one show I'm pretty sure I'll come back to, in time. It didn't catch me in quite the right mood but it obviously has huge potential and I'm sure Kaz will experience some solid character growth to pull him out of his over-priveliged funk. 

It's not a big commitment, anyway. There's only one season and it's only six episodes (Plus a special.). I'll get to it when I get to it. It'll wait.

And that's it for now. There are plenty of other shows I've only watched one episode of but most of them I can't even recall enough about to say why I stopped. This probably isn't going to make much of a feature after all.

Just the one episode, in fact. How appropriate. You'd think I'd planned it that way...

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Covered In Confusion - AI Edition.

I sat down at the computer this morning intending to work on that music post I didn't put up on Saturday. It wasn't going to be either of the as-yet unwritten music posts I've mentioned several times in previous posts, in case you were wondering. Chances are I won't get to either of those now. They don't seem as interesting as they did when I thought of doing them and if I'm not interested in them it's for certain no-one else will be. Time moves on and leaves us behind if we don't move with it.

While I was thinking about that, I caught up on my Feedly queue, which was where I found Tobold, talking about anonymity. I'm not going to join in with that tired old theme but Tobold's assertion of just how easy it would be for anyone who cared to find out his own, real name reminded me of something else I'd been meaning to post about, back when Wilhelm and I were asking the various AIs if they'd heard of a few micro-famous bloggers.

At the time I expressed the hope that it might become a blogging fad. I wanted my blog roll to light up with posts by people sharing their AI-generated biographies. Sadly, that didn't happen, possibly because, as Shintar and Redbeard both commented, the results weren't all that interesting. 

I did run a few well-known blogosphere names through the AI filter myself, though, and I had it in mind to get a post out of it before, predictably, I forgot. Mind like a steel trap, me, don't y'know?

One of the more intriguing results I got was when I asked the AIs about Tobold. All three of them, without being specifically asked for it, decided to tell me Tobold's real name, along with a considerable amount of real-world biographical detail, like where he worked and what publications he'd appeared in. 

Unfortunately, all of them assigned him different names, careers and credits, none of which, as far as I could tell after googling them, had any basis in reality at all. They were all real people, but they weren't Tobold, any of them. 

I didn't keep copies of those replies, so I can't tell you who Bard, ChatGPT and Bing think Tobold is. I could ask them all again but I'd probably just get a different bunch of nonsense. They do like to extemporize when they don't have the facts.

For example, when I asked ChatGPT for a biography of myself, suitable for use on my blog, I got one that seemed pretty accurate in many respects... except my real name is not Peter Smith. AIs don't like to admit they don't know something. Rather than be caught out in their ignorance, they just make it up.

Still, I'm finding them increasingly useful for things other than just filling up a blog post on a slow news day. I'm starting to think of things I can get them to do that I haven't had much luck with using other means. 

The key to getting meaningful output seems to be to enter into a proper conversation with them, as though you'd been assigned a keen but inexperienced research assistant, one with far too much confidence in their own ability, someone not fit to be left to get on with things on their own, who needs constant supervision and correction. 

If you micro-manage them, you can gently guide them towards giving you the answers you want. You still have to check them against a third-party resource but overall it's faster than doing the whole thing yourself.

I have a practical example. One thing I've long wanted to be able to do is sort YouTube videos by the number of views. I would like to be able to see music videos that have hardly been watched by anyone, in the forlorn hope of discovering some amazing artist almost no-one's heard of yet. Yes, I know. Pathetic, isn't it? Still, it's nice to have a hobby...

You'd think it would be something YouTube would do automatically but I've spent quite a while fiddling around with settings and filters and search terms and as far as I can tell it can't be done. Perhaps unsurprisingly, YouTube really wants you to watch things that are popular, not waste your time messing about with stuff no-one else likes. 

After reading Tobold's post and being reminded of my earlier AI experiments, it occurred to me I could contract out and get the AIs to give me a playlist for today's post.

That seemed like a good idea because it was going to be yet another collection of covers and I was a little wary of just banging it out with no context or theme other than "Here are some more covers I found since the last time I did it a week ago.". Instead, I thought I might ask the AIs to come up with a playlist of new-to-me covers I could use. Maybe some of them would even be good.

Spoiler alert: they mostly couldn't do it and when they could they mostly weren't much good.

First,  though, I needed to make sure they had the tools for the job. I asked ChatGPT:

"Are you able to read the viewing figures for individual YouTube videos?"

ChatGPT was apologetic. No, it told me, it wasn't:

"As an AI language model, I don't have real-time access to specific data or the ability to browse the internet. My responses are based on the information available to me up until September 2021. Therefore, I'm unable to provide you with current or specific viewing figures for individual YouTube videos. To obtain up-to-date information on viewing figures for YouTube videos, I recommend using YouTube's official analytics tools or referring to publicly available sources that track such data."

Fair enough but as I said, I haven't had a lot of luck doing that, so...

"Ok, given that limitation, can you suggest some very seldom viewed videos from YouTube prior to September 2021 that are labelled as "cover versions" or "covers" of other songs?"

ChatGPT suddenly cheered up - a lot:

"Certainly! While I don't have access to real-time data, I can provide you with some examples of seldom viewed cover videos on YouTube that were available prior to September 2021. Here are a few suggestions:
    "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Queen) - Cover by Marcela Mangabeira
    "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen) - Cover by Alyssa Baker
    "Imagine" (John Lennon) - Cover by Olivia Millerschin
    "Shape of My Heart" (Sting) - Cover by Caroline Costa
    "Fields of Gold" (Sting) - Cover by Gabriella Quevedo
    "Creep" (Radiohead) - Cover by Karen Souza
    "Hotel California" (Eagles) - Cover by Stefano Barone
    "Blackbird" (The Beatles) - Cover by Julia Westlin
    "I Will Always Love You" (Whitney Houston) - Cover by Chloe Paige
    "Time After Time" (Cyndi Lauper) - Cover by Alice Kristiansen

Please note that the view counts of these videos may have changed since September 2021, so it's worth checking their current view counts on YouTube."

Hmm. I was afraid of that. YouTube is stuffed silly with bedroom troubadours giving us their readings of the pop-rock classic canon. Very, very few of them would anyone outside their immediate social circle ever dream of watching, which is why they most deservedly have low viewing figures. Figures to which I do not want to add. 

I should caveat that by saying some or all of the above could be marvels of creative interpretation and reinvention. I didn't watch any of them.

Oh, sod it. Now I've said that I feel I ought to at least try a couple. There are only a couple of songs on that list I could stand to hear by anyone, especially the original artists. Time After Time would be one.

Well, it's not terrible. Dull as anything but harmless, I guess. And it has... 14m views!  Okay, maybe they all came after September 2021, although since the video's been up since 2016 I kinda doubt it.

The real problem is that these are all covers of songs that have been covered a gazillion times. And two of them are by Sting! Maybe we can get around that, somehow.

"That's great. Here's a more difficult task: can you provide a similar list but of low viewing count videos of cover versions of songs, the originals of which also have low viewing counts?"

That ought to filter out the Imagines and Hotel Californias. And bloody Sting. It did, too. Sort of.

    "To Build a Home" (The Cinematic Orchestra) - Cover by Sophia Scott   
    "All I Want" (Kodaline) - Cover by Lewis Watson  
    "Mykonos" (Fleet Foxes) - Cover by Jess Greenberg 
    "In the Waiting Line" (Zero 7) - Cover by Jillian Edwards  
    "Bloom" (The Paper Kites) - Cover by Karlijn Verhagen  
    "Heartbeats" (The Knife) - Cover by Daniela Andrade  
    "Blue Moon" (Frank Sinatra) - Cover by John Adams  
    "The Cave" (Mumford & Sons) - Cover by Laura Zocca  
    "Shadow of the Day" (Linkin Park) - Cover by Jada Face 
    "Holocene" (Bon Iver)  Cover by Josiah and the Bonnevilles

Well, it's an improvement. Still not quite what I was looking for but maybe something there might work... if the damn things actually existed or matched the criteria in the prompt.

I tried finding Bloom as covered by Karlijn Verhagen on YouTube. No sign of it. Karlijn's there alright, with dozens of other covers, just not that one. I guess she took it down sometime between September 2021 and now. Couldn't find In The Waiting Line by Jillian Edwards or Holocene by Josiah and the Bonnevilles. Plenty of other covers by both of them but not those.

How about Heartbeats by Daniela Andrade? I like The Knife. That might be worth a look. And it kinda was.

The only problem is it has 2.8m views. Less than Alice Kristiansen covering Cyndi Lauper but still not exactly a low number.

To be fair, ChatGPT did warn me:

"Please note that the view counts mentioned here were accurate up until September 2021 and may have changed since then."

Which might explain it - if the huge majority of the thousand-plus comments in the thread weren't over two years old. Several commenters mentioned they'd first heard the cover in an episode of Supergirl, which might date a surge in popularity, if I could pin down when that episode aired. 

I've seen all the seasons of Supergirl except the last one but I didn't recall this song so I asked ChatGPT which episode it might have been. ChatGPT was confident that

"there is no episode of the TV show "Supergirl" that features Daniela Andrade's cover of the song "Heartbeats", 

although it did issue another caveat based on that September 2021 cut-off: 

"It's possible that the information may have changed or that the cover was used in a different context. However, I don't have access to real-time data, so I recommend checking official sources or conducting a specific search to find the episode you're referring to, if it exists."

 I could have done that but instead I asked ChatGPT's biggest rival, Bard, who told me:

"The song "Heartbeats" as covered by Daniela Andrade was featured in the Season 3 episode of Supergirl titled "Legion of Superheroes". The song plays during the scene where Kara and Mon-El are talking about their feelings for each other.

The episode aired on February 22, 2018."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. If that's true, it's a full three years before ChatGPT's event horizon so that excuse won't wash. ChatGPT would have just denied the existence of something it could have known about but didn't, rather than simply saying it didn't know.

Is Bard telling the truth, though? I mean, it sounds very authorative but we've been here before. The answer is... well, kinda. 

I belatedly took ChatGPT's advice and looked up the details of what music was used in the episode Bard specified. I checked on a couple of websites designed to do that sort of thing and the song wasn't listed against that episode on either of them. However, according to both - Whatsong and Tunefind  - it does appear in Season 1, Episode 10, Childish Things, as "Kara is flying around the city at night". 

Right episode, wrong season.

Bard wins that pre-match skirmish, then, but it's anything but convincing. Let's see how it does in the main event. Again, first I had to make sure it was up to the task - or thought it was.

"Are you able to read the viewing figures for individual YouTube videos?"

"Yes, I am able to read the viewing figures for individual YouTube videos. However, I am not able to share that information with you. YouTube does not allow its users to share the viewing figures of individual videos. This is because YouTube wants to protect the privacy of its users and to prevent people from gaming the system. If you want to know the viewing figures for a particular YouTube video, you will need to contact the owner of the video."

Bard carried on for some time in that vein, explaining who I'd need to contact to get the information I need. Except, as we all know, it was talking nonsense. YouTube viewing figures are anything but confidential. I politely asked Bard if it was absolutely certain of what it was telling me:
"Hmm. Are you quite sure about that, because the viewing figures I mean are clearly and publicly displayed on every public YouTube video. It's the figure in the description that follows the word "Views".
Oh! You mean those views...
"I apologize for the confusion. Yes, you are correct. The viewing figures for individual YouTube videos are publicly displayed on the video's page. I am still under development, and I am always learning new things. Thank you for pointing out my mistake."
Bard is always so polite. It's probably why I'm starting to use it in preference to the others. Bing is just flat and dull while ChatGPT can be a tad snippy. Still, better just make sure we're all on the same page for once...
"So, can you read those figures?"
"Yes, I can read the viewing figures for individual YouTube videos. I can also read other information about the video, such as the title, the description, the length of the video, and the date it was published. I can also access information about the video's creator, such as their name, their profile picture, and their channel name.

Would you like me to read the viewing figures for a particular YouTube video?"

 I would like that, Bard! Thank-you for asking. In fact:
"I would like you to suggest some very seldom viewed videos from YouTube (Those with a very low "view" figure") that are labelled as "cover versions" or "covers" of other songs. Ten examples would be enough."
Bard then proceeded not only to give me a list of ten cover versions but also a large thumbnail to click to take me to the source of its information. It looked very impressive and professional except that, when I clicked through, in every case what I got had nothing to do with what I'd asked for.

I'd copy/paste the whole thing here but it would be a) far too long and b) a complete waste of time. I'll just give one representative sample. This is what Bard promised me:
    "Bohemian Rhapsody" by The Trashmen (views: 2,000)  
    No-one would be happier than me to hear a version of Bohemian Rhapsody by surf-crazies The Trashmen. Sadly, they never recorded one. Why Bard thinks they did, I have no clue. There isn't even an AI version... yet. As for where it gets a figure of 2000 views for something that doesn't exist...

    What I got when I followed Bard's link to its source was this: a news report about Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody video topping one billion YouTube views. It could hardly be further from what I was asking for if it tried.

    On the other hand, one of Bard's other suggestions, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive as reinterpreted by alt-rock band Cake certainly does exist. It just happens, once again, to have a few more views than the 3000 Bard claims - about twelve million more to be precise. 

    By this time I was begining to lose faith in the ability of either of the AIs to answer a simple question or tell the truth but I thought I'd better at least give Bard the same rope to hang itself I'd offered ChatGPT. 
    "That's great! Now, slightly more complicated, can you provide a similar list but of low viewing count videos of cover versions of songs, the originals of which also have low viewing counts?"
    Bard responded with an even more useless list, most of which were neither covers nor had low view-counts. Once again it invented a non-existent cover of Bohemian Rhapsody to taunt me, this time by The Who. Worse, it tried to foist on me the horrors of Imagine as covered by Elton John, in a performance that's been watched by more than seven million YT viewers, all of whom must have a much stronger constitution than mine.

    Overall, not a very impressive performance by either AI. ChatGPT's output, when sufficiently channelled and questioned, was of some use but that hard cut-off in September 2021 means it's getting less so by the day. Bard, on the other hand, while winning points by being unfailingly charming and entirely up-to-date, bluffs like an improv comic on a panel show. You just can't believe anything it tells you.

    ChatGPT can at least parse YouTube viewing figures to some extent. That could be useful.  With further goading and cajoling on my part, it's possible I might be able to get it to give me lists of interesting cover versions that haven't already been done to death. I'd need it to be able to push past that brick wall in late 2021 for it to be of any real value, though. I hope that's coming soon.

    Until then, I guess I'm just going to have to keep link-surfing, the way I've always done. That's the only way I'm going to find gems like this:

    As for getting the AIs to write my posts for me, next time I'll just knuckle down and post the covers. Unless I get another bright idea...

    Saturday, May 27, 2023

    Backwards Into The Future With Cinderstone Online.

    Yesterday, I said today's post would be about music. I lied. I might still write a music post to go up tomorrow or Monday, but before then it's another type of post I enjoy writing almost as much - First Impressions.

    The game's called Cinderstone Online. It's a new MMORPG that's going into Early Access on Steam in just a couple of days. The Steam page describes it as "cute and colorful" and having played it for an hour (Okay, fifty-six minutes.) I wouldn't disagree. The official website replaces cute and colorful with "vibrant and charming". Those are slightly harder concepts to pin down but I'd say they nail them too.

    But don't take my word for it. If you want to check for yourself, prior to the official opening of the doors on Monday, there's a stress test running all weekend. All you have to do to get an invite is click a button on Steam's Store page and ask. I suggest you get on with it, though. I asked on Thursday but it wasn't until late last night I got the email letting me in.

    That only gave me a short while to check out the basics - character creation, UI and controls, graphics and sound - and to do a few quests in the starting area. It's absolutely nowhere near enough to come to any kind of judgment on whether Cinderstone Online is a good game let alone a good MMORPG but it's plenty for a First Impressions post. 

    A basic First Impressions post of a game that's just about to go into Early Access really only needs to be able to look at a handful of aspects, most of which are in that list. You want to be able to say how the game runs, if it seems buggy or glitchy, how much content there seems to be and whether what content there is seems polished or even finished. 

    There are Vistas. They work pretty much exactly like they do in GW2.
    It's important to be able to say whether the game feels comfortable to play. Do the controls work properly? Are the mechanics functional? Is it clear what you're supposed to be doing and can you do it without too much trouble?

    Then there's the look and feel of the thing. Is the world pleasing to look at? Are the graphics working with or against the setting? Can you stand to listen to the music? Does the soundscape bring the environments to life or just irritate the hell out of you? 

    And how about the writing? Does it seem coherent? Competent? Professional?  If it's a translation, is that translation a good one? How about the voice work? Is there any? If there is, is it any good?

    Most important of all comes the question of fun. Did you have any? All the time or just once in a while? Were some bits a hoot while others dragged or did the whole thing just cruise joyously along from the moment you logged in? 

    And the capper: now you've played for a while, do you want to play some more?

    Anyone know what time the first act is on?

    All of those questions can usually be answered, with some confidence, after no more than 30-60 minutes. There's a reason so many players reportedly make their decision on whether to continue with an MMORPG in a matter of minutes. That's all it takes to know if a game's for you or not.

    But of course, first impressions can be misleading. There's such a thing as an acquired taste, after all. It may well be that , if you'd stuck with the game for longer, even though you weren't having all that great a time to begin with, you might have ended up coming to like or even love it.

    MMORPGs, more than most games, can take a long time to reveal their secrets or show their best side. They're not simple, linear games. They're portmanteaus, collections and aggregates of systems, many of which can seem as though they have little or nothing to do with each other. 

    What? It's not like I killed a damn baby!
    (Read on. It'll all make sense later.)
    And they don't all offer themselves up for inspection right from the start. Parts of the game you might really like could be level-locked or hidden behind some other play-wall. They might not become available until you've played for days or even weeks.

    But who has time for that? Not me. Not any more. Get in, make a snap judgment, get out. That's me, these days. Eventhen, if that judgment is "I like this. I could play a lot more of it", it doesn't mean I'm going to. There are a lot of MMORPGs. Loads of them are plenty good enough to be worth playing, for a few weeks or a few months. No-one has time to play all of them, not even all the good ones. 

    Well, you might. I don't.

    First Impressions may not be representative of the game but they're what we've got. So, what kind of a first impression does Cinderstone Online make?

    A pretty good one, I have to say. I was both surprised and impressed by how polished and professional it felt. As expected in a game just about to enter Early Access, there are plenty of rough edges - placeholder text being a particularly noticeable one - but during the hour I played I encountered no glitches or bugs at all. Better yet, since this is a stress test, even though there seemed to be plenty of players trying the game out, I didn't experience any lag, rubber-banding, disconnections or other network or server issues.

    The game downloaded and installed swiftly and cleanly, as you'd expect from something using the Steam platform. Character creation was straightforward but satisfying, the few, simple options available offering more than enough to create a character I felt comfortable playing. 

    Vyee! You're making me regret my choice of hair color now!

    In fact, that was the first big surprise of the session. I find one of the more significant, if least tangible ways in which I either connect with or bounce off an MMORPG is how quickly I'm able to bond with the character I'm playing. Having seen screenshots of the characters in CO - tiny cartoon figures with oversized heads - I wasn't expecting to be able to make much of a connection at all but from the moment I stepped into the world I felt an attachment to the little figure on the screen.

    To quote Bart Simpson:
    I didn't do it.
    Nobody saw me do it.
    You can't prove anything!

    In part, I think that's down to the single most unusual aspect of Cinderstone Online - the bizarre way your character always faces the camera. I'd seen this in a gameplay video and thought it looked both ludicrous and all but unplayable but seen from inside the game it turns out to be neither. Even though my character spent much of her time apparently running backwards, staring fixedly behind her, it still felt both convincing and comfortable within a matter of minutes.

    The unusual choice also neatly circumvents that famous MMORPG problem, namely what's the point
    of putting all that work into getting your character's face to look just so when, for however long you play the game after that, you'll just be staring at the back of their head? In Cinderstone Online, you won't. You'll be looking your character square in the face all the time. It makes a surprising difference to how quickly you make that connection between you and the character you're playing. 

    Well, it did for me, anyway. I imagine for some people the sight of their character facing the wrong way almost all the time will be a deal-breaker. Thinking about that and remembering the game's only just about to release in its earliest Early Access build, I did wonder if maybe it was something that would eventually get patched out for a more conventional approach. I hope not. I kinda like it, even though I really didn't expect to.

    Something else I didn't expect was the quality of the writing. It's high. I mean, I'm not saying it's going to win any awards or anything but it's consistently literate, expressive and gramatically correct, putting it well above the current genre standard. Plus it's quite frequently genuinely funny.

    Tonally, it's also quite hard to place. The game looks very young, as if the target market might be young teens at the upper end, but some of the humor is oddly dark and quirky. Take this, for example:

    What Papaver is suggesting, in case it doesn't quite come over without knowing just what he's talking about, is that he and his pal thought about using a baby as bait to lure in a bunch of aggressive wild boars that he, himself, is too scared to run off his land. Killer boars, basically. 

    Granted, he doesn't go through with it but even having him admit he was thinking about stolen baby bait casts a certain... shadow over the quest.

    Or there's this:

    I know many MMORPGs have an unhealthy obsession with alcohol but even so, that's a bit on the nose, isn't it? He was drunk and he doesn't care who knows it. Now he's asking strangers to help him get drunk again.

    I have to say I liked the tone of the quest dialog. It's sarcastic, abrasive and bitchy. Except when it's sweet and fluffy and coy, like the quest to find some lost kittens which, when I happened upon it, I couldn't help but think of as ironic. It's like someone sprinkled chilli flakes on a jelly donut... which sounds awesome now I think of it...

    You ain't seen me, right?
    All of those examples are side-quest I ran into as I was exploring the very large city where you start out. I only got as far as the first "Mission", which I think is what the game calls the central plot we've gotten used to referring to as the "Main Story Quest" in these games. The MSQ for this one is apparently quite something, too.

    According to the website, CO features "A captivating Story" in which you begin as a "small farmer" only to find yourself on "a journey to become the ultimate hero that everyone is counting on", a journey that involves "powerful menacing gods" who "suddenly appear from a parallel universe". That's quite a pitch. Normally I'd be skeptical but on the brief evidence I've seen so far I wonder if maybe the writers might not be able to pull it off. 

    Even if they don't, there looks to be plenty more down-to-earth content to be getting on with instead. The game's notable features include "A vast Open World...Dynamic Quest Lines...a ``Caravan System`` and A Dynamic Housing and Farming System", surely enough to keep most people busy, even without the having to battle other-dimensional deities.

    All of those features I cribbed from the website, by the way. I didn't encounter any of them in game but then I only played for an hour. How much or how little is already available in the Early Access build I have no idea.

    What? I'm fair-skinned. I burn easily!

    When I say I didn't run into any of those things all, that's not entirely true. I did see some hints, here and there, of what might lie ahead.

    I spoke to an NPC, who did something to my character that turned her from a Warrior into a "Merchant". Suddenly, there she was, wearing a turban with a feather sticking out of it. I might have left her like that, only I spotted a little panel in the top left corner of the screen that, when I moused over it, told me she was now pray to attacks by thieves and other indignities, so I quickly spoke to the NPC again and got him to turn her back into a Warrior.

    I also came across several massive, complicated public projects like this one, involving the rebuilding of a bridge.  It would seem there's some kind of dynamic events system involving timers and nodes and who knows what-all else. There were some announcements in chat about it but I couldn't figure out what it was all about in the time I had, so I moved on to kill some bandits instead. You always know where you are with bandits.

    I'm guessing "Longlong Name" isn't final.

    Obviously, I've barely even opened the box, far less started to put the pieces together. Whether I'll feel I've seen enough by the end of the weekend or whether it'll still seem like I've only scratched the surface, I guess I'll have to wait and see. It's a good start, though. I'm curious to find out more.

    This might be the first and last time I post about Cinderstone Online - or it might turn out to be one of those games, like Chimeraland or Noah's Heart, where I try it on a whim and end up playing and posting about it for weeks or months or even years. It certainly has the potential, which is about the most positive thing you're realistically going to be able to say about an MMORPG you've only played for an hour. 

    That's a pretty good first impression to leave. Op success for the open-access stress test, I'd say.

    And now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go and play some more. If you'd like to give it a go but this weekend isn't good for you, or the invite doesn't arrive before the doors close, you will have another chance. There's supposed to be a demo available once the game's officially in Early Access. 

    As for the actual payment model, should you (Or I.) decide to buy... y'know, I haven't even seen it mentioned. You'd think it'd be there, right up front, wouldn't you? Maybe I should look into that... 

    A Stress Test for Early Access using a Closed Beta build... Words are funny!

    ... Ah, here it is, buried in the "Upcoming Release" notes for the Stress Test and Early Access, which seems an odd place to put it.. 

    "During Early Access, the game is priced at a cool €24.99, but stay tuned for a price shake-up when we fully release this summer."

    Well that's as clear as mud, isn't it? Will it be cheaper or more expensive then? Who knows? And why's it priced in Euros? Ah... because the developer behind CO, Codevision, based in Italy. Their main business seems to be VR, not flatscreen gaming, which makes the whole thing even more impressive, if yet more peculiar.

    I don't think I'm ready to lay down my €24.99 just yet, even if all progress made in the Stress Test does carry over into Early Access. That's weird, too, because Codevision will be "wiping the slate clean for the official release", which isn't supposed to be all that far off. I'd say a full wipe makes it more of an open beta than Early Access but I don't think these things have much of a set definition these days.

    There are also various Founders Packs you can buy because of course there are but on balance, I think I'll wait until we get some firm dates and prices before I get my wallet out.

    I'm not saying I won't, though. I just might. We'll see.

    Friday, May 26, 2023

    Sleeping Dogs

    It's Friday and it's waaaay too nice out to be sitting here in front of a screen. I'd love to take Beryl for a long walk in the countryside but she's really not a morning dog. It'd be like dragging one of those old-school suitcases that don't have wheels, only a grumpy suitcase that gives you a disapproving stare, like it can't believe you didn't just leave it on top of the wardrobe, happy and content.

    Not that Beryl sleeps on top of the wardrobe. Or that we have a wardrobe. She sleeps in the armchair in the front room, where I had my PC set up all through the winter because that's the room that has the gas fire that works. All winter she was behind me most days, while I gamed or wrote, if she wasn't upstairs with Mrs Bhagpuss as she crafted or watched historical documentaries on YouTube.

    Now that it's nearly summer and I'm back upstairs, where it's airy and cool, Beryl only visits me occasionally. Here, she either has to sleep on the tiger rug on the floor, like an actual dog, which she finds beneath her dignity, or in Mrs Bhagpuss's old computer chair that got retired from use because it was listing to one side and that spins in a half-circle when Beryl jumps onto it, which freaks her out somewhat, so she doesn't often bother.

    I guess this post could use a picture about now. Wait a sec. I'll go take one...

    Okay, I'm not gonna argue. That is not a great shot. I didn't want to wake her up so I took it quickly and got out. Also I used my Kindle Fire because it was next to me and I was too lazy to go get my phone. The camera on the Kindle is about as good as the old Kodak Instamatic I had in the 1970s. Actually, probably not that good...

    That cat cushion behind Beryl is the single ugliest cat cushion you've ever seen, right? Someone gave it to me a long time ago and it's just sort of been there ever since. I don't notice it any more - not until I do something to draw it to my attention, like accidentally take a picture of it.

    You know how how you stop seeing things after a while? It's part of the psychological phenomenon known as Inattentional Blindness, the best-known example of which is the experiment (Much loved by people running management training seminars) involving the gorrilla that nobody notices

    A more apposite example relating to that cat cushion would be the one where someone leaves a coffee cup on the floor in the middle of the room and after a while everyone in the house just walks around it, neither kicking it over nor picking it up. They retain some unconscious impression of its presence, enough to avoid it, but no conscious awareness that might lead them to do something about it.

    I remember reading that a few years ago but I can't source it now. I tried googling but that didn't even get me to the basic concept of Inattentional Blindness. It just kept giving me links to medical conditions involving visual hallucinations. In the end it was Bard that gave me the correct information. Here's what I asked and what Bard replied:

    "Can you find a source for the idea that if you leave an object on the floor for a certain amount of time the human brain eventually stops registering it and the person will walk around it as if it wasn't there."

    Sure. Here are a few sources that support the idea that the human brain can ignore objects that are present in the environment for a period of time:

        The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons: This book describes a series of experiments that demonstrate how our brains can filter out objects that are not relevant to our current task. In one experiment, participants were asked to watch a video of people passing a basketball and to count the number of passes made by one team. While they were doing this, a person in a gorilla suit walked through the middle of the video. Most participants did not notice the gorilla, even though it was clearly visible.

        Inattentional Blindness by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock: This book provides a more detailed overview of the research on inattentional blindness. The authors discuss the different factors that can contribute to inattentional blindness, such as the complexity of the environment, the focus of attention, and the expectations of the observer.
        The Psychology of Attention by Michael Posner: This book provides a comprehensive overview of the psychology of attention. The author discusses the different types of attention, the neural mechanisms of attention, and the role of attention in cognitive processing.

    In addition to these sources, there are many other studies that have demonstrated the phenomenon of inattentional blindness. This research suggests that our brains are constantly filtering out information that is not relevant to our current task. This allows us to focus on the most important information and to avoid being overwhelmed by the amount of information that is constantly bombarding our senses..."

    And so on for another three, long paragraphs. I'd have to say that this is some solid evidence for why you might want to use Bard instead of just googling. I'm already starting to do that, although I always then check the salient points I'm going to use by running them back through a google search as well. Still, it's proving pretty reliable and useful so far.

    Believe it or not, this wasn't going to be yet another post about AI nor, for that matter, about our dog. I just started with a five finger excercise to get myself warmed up. I often do that when I sit down to write but usually I delete the opening couple of paragraphs in the edit so the post begins when I get to the point. It's a bit late for that, now we're sixteen paragraphs in...

    What I was planning on doing was a good old Friday Grab Bag. I know I did one on Monday but I find those posts easy and fun to do, plus I like reading them when other people do them, so why not? 

    I was hoping to be able to say something about a new MMORPG about to launch on Steam. It's called Cinderstone and it looks... well, it looks a bit nuts, actually, but it could be interesting. The game goes into Early Access on Monday and there's a "Playtest" up and running right now that goes on until then. 

    All you have to do to get access is press a button on the Steam page and Steam will send you an email "when the developer is ready for more participants". I pressed that button yesterday and so far I've heard nothing so I guess they've got enough people for now. If I do get an invite, maybe I'll have time to play long enough to form an opinion worth posting. We'll see.

    I do have an opinion I'd quite like to post about another game I have been given access to test this weekend and which I have already played a little but unfortunately I had to sign a draconian NDA to do it so I can't even tell you what game it is. I know I said I wasn't going to test things that I couldn't write about any more but hey, remember my mantra

    What I can say about that experience, which I'm pretty sure I'm safe in revealing without risking a visit from the company's lawyers, is that while I was playing it last night I had to stop suddenly and log out because Beryl was batting my arm with her front paws and sending my character veering across the screen. She may not be a morning person but evening is another matter entirely. I never start anything in a video game that can't be interrupted, like a tough dungeon or a group with other people, after about seven in the evening because it's hard to play with a dog barking and jumping up and down next to you, particularly if she also starts pawing at your mouse hand.

    That's partly why my progress on the main storyline in Noah's Heart stalled months ago and I'm even stymied on a boss fight in the seasonal content there. It's also partly why I still haven't finished the Adventure Signature Questline in EverQuest II's last expansion, Renewal of Ro. Of course it is only partly the reason. Clearly I could be getting stuck into any of those instances right now instead of writing this. Beryl barely moves until late afternoon, if not prompted. I could run a four-hour raid every morning and she'd never raise an eyelid.

    No, it's mostly me, if I'm honest. I just think about the effort involved and can't be bothered. I keep thinking I'll just let my characters get more powerful through incremental factors like time passing and game updates until I can go into those instances and half-ass them without having to pay a lot of attention.

    I think I can now say with a degree of confidence that I enjoy MMORPG content on an inverse scale of challenge. The less challenging it is, the more fun I have doing it. It's not that I don't like the dungeons - I still find them interesting, when they're well-designed - but I find the amount of time and energy required to do them when they're "challenging" feels increasingly out of proportion to the pleasure succeeding gives me. Instead of feeling exultant that I won, I feel somehow feel cheated out of the time it took, which I could have used to do something else more useful or enjoyable or both.

    It's not a new sensation. I remember feeling it for the first time back when the Bloodline Chronicles Adventure Pack arrived in EverQuest in 2005. I did it in a group and there was a bunch of stuff about hiding behind something when some boss did some attack or other and I thought "I really can't be doing with all this..." It's been pretty much downhill ever since, with the absolute nadir being the mid-period Living Story in Guild Wars 2, when ArenaNet padded out every boss fight so it would take twenty minutes of attritional combat just to make the piddling little updates they were giving us seem like they lasted a respectable amount of time.

    Compared to that, the Noah's Heart instances are a doddle and the EQII ones a pleasure. And yet I still don't much look forward to doing them. They're a hurdle to get over on the way to the next part of the storyline that I do enjoy, the part where I just talk to some NPC or do some fetch and carry quests. That's the kind of content I prefer, these days.

    That said, I did manage to complete the first part of the Planes and Prophecy Tradeskill Signature Questline with Mitsu last weekend, even though it's a fairly lengthy, very fiddly affair, something I was very well aware of, having done it several times on other characters. Thanks to the peculiar way XP works after Level 100 in EQII, there's no other practical means of levelling to 110, unless you fancy grinding out about three hundred rush orders.

    Fortunately, since I've done it before, I knew doing just Part 1 of the six-part sequence would get me all the way to 110 and onto the quests from the following expansion. In the event, I piled on all the XP boosts I could find and dinged all the way to 118 on the final hand-in. That's the kind of reward that makes it feel worth making the effort, for sure. Just seven more levels to go!

    Mitsu is progressing nicely but my regular characters on Skyfire are in something of a holding pattern, at least until I get on and do the rest of the Adventure Sig. My hopes for an easy upgrade path by way of the Overseer system have dimmed somewhat, now I've opened enough high-quality missions to see the full scope of the rewards. 

    Unlike previous seasons, there doesn't seem to  be any gear that's better than the quest rewards from the Sig Line. It looks like it tops out at 400 Resolve, which is a small upgrade to some of the quest pieces but not as much of a boost as I was expecting. It's great for kitting out alts so they can whizz through the questline faster but I haven't even got one character to the end yet so that's not really a problem I was looking to fix.

    At the moment, I'm thinking I might as well wait to see the Summer Jubilee dungeons are like. Naomi Denmother seemed to be suggesting they offered the possibility for some decent gear upgrades. Let's hope I read that right. 

    If not, pretty soon we'll be so close to Panda time and then the new expansion I'm not sure it'll be worth playing catch up with gear from last year. That's the perennial problem with vertical progression, especially in a game like EQII, where meaningful gear upgrades come several times a year.

    Oh well. Don;t want to complain. Nice problem to have, I guess. Better than the opposite, that's for sure.

    And I seem to have freestyled an entire post without even getting to any of the Grab Bag topics I had bookmarked, so I think we're done! Tomorrow it's going to be a music post, most likely. I'm working Sunday and - unusually, because they asked me to fill in for someone who's on holiday - Monday as well, so feel free to come back Tuesday if you don't share my musical tastes.

    Don't worry. I won't be offended. Almost no-one does!

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