Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Why Keep A Hellhound And Bark Yourself?

After the comprehensive collapse of my clever plan to have a couple of generative AIs do all my work for me this year by getting one to write a script for another to illustrate, I decided to let them play to their strengths instead by getting one to create some seasonally-appropriate spot illos (As we used to call the pictures we added to break up the text back in my 'zine days.), while another found me some suitably spooky musical selections to accompany them. Granted, I'd have to paste the damn thing together but it would still be a lot easier than writing the whole blasted post myself.

I asked ChatGPT 

Please give me ten prompts suitable for generating images using an AI text-to-image Image generator like Midjourney. They should all be themed for Halloween and be suitable for use on a gaming/music/entertainment blog with a literate and educated readership.

You can preen now.

If anyone's doubting just how lazy I can be, there's the evidence right in front of you. I have never used Midjourney. It's just the best-known AI of its kind and I couldn't be bothered to check the exact name of any of the ones I do use. Also I wanted to be sure ChatGPT knew what I meant and it seemed a fair bet it would have heard of Midjourney, although now I come to think of it, ChatGPT 3.5 uses a training set that only goes to September 2021 and Midjourney wasn't created until July 2022. 

Not to derail my own post (Bit late for that now...) but as this reddit thread explains, there are other operations going on behind the scenes that mean the AI can access more current data. It has access to something called "knowledge graphs", which are updated daily. Or failing that, as one redditor succinctly and accurately puts it, " it will confidently make shit up". Which, as we're about to find out, is just what one of them did. 

Of course, is also something people on reddit were doing long before we had generative AI to do it for us so that's another thing to consider. Primary research, guys. It's the only way. Bummer!

With ten somewhat lengthy descriptive prompts in hand, I moved across to NightCafe, where for some reason, most probably extreme laziness again, (I'd have had to scroll the page down to get to DreamShaper.) I opted for good old Stable Diffusion. I did at least stump up the credits for SDXL 1.0 rather than using the older, free option of SD 1.5. I may be lazy but I'm not mean. Well, not with imaginary money, anyway.

I was fully expecting the long prompts to result in barely recognizeable results. I was sort of hoping for it, actually. I thought it might be amusing. The AIs' ability to understand complex instructions is improving at an alarming pace, though, so I was both impressed and slightly disappointed to find the ten images largely matched the prompts pretty closely.

This turned out to be a pretty long introduction. Better have some art to break it up.

You can judge for yourself how well SDXL 1.0 did. I've used the exact prompts as captions. Well, except for the image directly above, which I just generated on the fly as I did the edit. The prompt for that one was ""There's a helhound on my trail" Robert Johnson. Blues. Crossroads. Midnight. 1960s album cover art." for those taking notes. Great job on Robert Johnson, the blues and album cover art but that's the prissiest hellhound I ever saw. Is he wearing a cravat?!

The image  I've used for the header came from the prompt "a dark, enchanted forest with twisted, gnarled trees and glowing jack-o'-lanterns illuminating the path of a lost traveler encountering supernatural creatures." You'll notice there are no supernatural creatures and no lost traveler, but it has managed to include every salient point up to and including "path", which is pretty good going, if you ask me. All of them are about on a par with that.

As I was considering what kind of post I could make out of the results and how I might best manage something halfway entertaining for the minimum effort on my part, it occurred to me I might liven up an otherwise static set of images with a few choice Halloween-themed tunes. I briefly considered going to YouTube to search for them myself until I realised it would be a lot easier to let Bard do it for me.

For some reason I prefer Bard for anything pop-culture related. Somehow I seem to have anthropomorphized the various leading AIs without ever meaning to and now I'm stuck with their imaginary personalities in my head. Bard is the younger, marginally hipper, slightly less nerdy one; ChatGPT is the pedantic, school-masterly one who's never really comfortable with anything you wouldn't hear discussed at High Table, and Bing is that one uncle everyone tries to avoid at family gatherings.

I asked Bard

Please give me a list of ten odd or unusual pop, rock or indie songs that reference Halloween.
I wasn't expecting much but at first sight the resulting list didn't look at all bad:

Here is a list of ten odd or unusual pop, rock, or indie songs that reference Halloween:

  • "Halloween Parade" by the Louvin Brothers (1959) - A haunting country ballad about a couple who attend a Halloween parade, only to find that the other revelers are ghosts.
  • "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962) - A campy novelty song about a mad scientist who creates a monster that becomes a dance craze.
  • "Transylvania Twist" by Allan Sherman (1962) - A parody of the "Twist" dance craze with a spooky Halloween theme.
  • "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley (1962) - A novelty song about a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater that terrorizes a small town on Halloween.
  • "Screaming Lord Sutch" by Screaming Lord Sutch (1964) - A proto-goth rock song about a vampire who rises from the grave on Halloween night.
  • "Witches' Brew" by Cream (1967) - A psychedelic rock song about a witch's potion that turns people into strange creatures.
  • "Season of the Witch" by Donovan (1966) - A folk-rock song about the dark magic of Halloween night.
  • "Halloween" by the Misfits (1977) - A punk rock song about the night when "the dead and the living collide."
  • "Halloween Man" by Yello (1982) - A synthpop song about a mysterious figure who appears on Halloween night.
  • "Jack o' Lantern" by The Residents (1983) - An avant-garde rock song about a pumpkin that comes to life.
  • "Halloween" by Sonic Youth (1988) - A noise rock song about the dark and dangerous side of Halloween.

I hope you enjoy this list of odd and unusual Halloween songs!

A few are a bit on the nose - Monster Mash especially - but most of the rest look more than promising. Until you run a sanity check, that is. 

I can't find any evidence the Louvin Brothers ever recorded a song called Halloween Parade, although Lou Reed did, on his New York album. It'd be hard to think of two musical acts further apart on just about every imaginable spectrum than Lou Reed and the god-fearin' Louvins. 

I asked ChatGPT to tell me what song matched Bard's description and it told me with complete confidence "The song you're describing is "Halloween Parade" by Lou Reed. It's a haunting and melancholic song that tells the story of a couple attending a Halloween parade where they discover that the other parade-goers are the ghosts of their friends and loved ones who have passed away. It's a poignant and eerie take on the theme of Halloween and loss." I ran that past lyrics.com. It's a complete misreading although I can see how you'd get there.

No-one's going to question the Bobby "Boris" Pickett classic so we'll let that pass. I confess I was completely ready to believe Allan Sherman had recorded a version of Transylvania Twist, but sadly he didn't. He recorded Bla Bla Bla Bla says Count Dracula aka My Son (Count Dracula) aka My Son, The Vampire. No-one seems able to agree on the exact title. Whatever you call it, it's terrible.

Transylvania Twist is actually by Baron Daemon and the Vampires. It's not bad, especially when set to clips from The Addams Family.

Purple People Eater is by Shep Wooley but contrary to what Bard claims, has nothing to do with Halloween. It's contestable whether the creature ever threatened anyone  - it just wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star - but even if it did, there's no evidence it happened on October 31. 
Perennial parliamentary wannabe Screamin' Lord Sutch released plenty of records suitable for a kitsch Halloween party (Aren't Halloween parties kitsch by definition? Ed.) but he never recorded one with his own name as the title.
Sixties supergroup Cream never recorded a song called Witches' Brew, either. They did record one called Strange Brew, which is about a witch, in as much as it's about anything. There are a few songs called Witches Brew (Apostrophes optional.) by other people, including Katy B and somewhat incredibly, Janie Jones, the self-same underworld entertainer celebrated by The Clash on their first album.

Season of the Witch is, of course, by Donovan as Bard says as well as a host of others. I thought I'd done a post of covers of that song but search tells me I haven't so there's one for the draft folder. Halloween by The Misfits is also real and pretty good in a Ramones pastiche kind of way. 

Swiss synth-pop duo Yello made an astonishing fourteen albums but as far as Google can tell me, they never recorded a song called Halloween Man. A couple of people did but the results are so obscure no-one's thought to upload them to YouTube. Spotify can help you if you're that interested but I can't. Similarly, situationist smart-arses The Residents do not appear to have included anything called "Jack o' Lantern" in their satirical repertoire. Shame. I was looking forward to hearing that one.

Last and most definitely not least, Sonic Youth and Halloween. It's real. Here it is. Worth the wait, I think.

I make that evens for Bard making up its answers. Less than evens if you include the descriptions of what the songs are about. If you ever find yourself in need of an object lesson in why you should never trust a generative AI to pick a party playlist, feel free to link to this post.

We seem to be an awfully long way down the page without any of those Halloween pictures I promised, don't we? I guess I'd better fix that now or next thing you know it'll be Bonfire Night. (Go look it up. Or ask Bard. Wait... don't do that.)
A hauntingly beautiful scene of a Victorian mansion surrounded by an eerie, mist-covered forest under the light of a full moon. A lone figure stands on the mansion's porch, holding a flickering lantern.


A spectral symphony orchestra performing in a decaying, overgrown amphitheater deep within a haunted cemetery. The musicians are ghostly figures, and their instruments emit an otherworldly glow.

A witch's apothecary filled with rows of ancient, dusty bottles containing mystical potions and ingredients. A black cat with piercing green eyes perches on the counter.

A chilling moment in a Gothic cathedral as a hooded figure in a crimson robe conducts a ritual with a mysterious, ancient grimoire while a swarm of bats spirals overhead.

A masquerade ball held in a forgotten, cobweb-covered ballroom. Elegant and eerie masks conceal the faces of phantom dancers gliding through the night.

A spooky carnival at midnight, with dilapidated rides and game booths shrouded in fog. A grinning, skeletal ringmaster beckons visitors to the eerie attractions.

A haunted pirate ship emerging from the ghostly fog, its tattered sails billowing as spectral pirates prepare to unearth their cursed treasure.

An abandoned, ivy-covered library in an ancient, cursed castle. Dusty spellbooks and scrolls are strewn about, and the ghostly librarian hovers nearby, ready to share forgotten knowledge.

A spectral ballroom where phantom dancers waltz to the eerie strains of a spectral orchestra. Their gowns and suits are adorned with spiderwebs, and the atmosphere exudes a macabre elegance.

And there we go. My favorites are the pumpkins at the top, the deserted library and - predictably - the cat. They're all pretty good, though. They'd make a nice Halloween slideshow. A lot better than Bard's ideas for the soundtrack, that's for sure.

As for saving me time, if anything it's taken longer than it would have if I'd gone into a game and taken some screenshots before hitting up YouTube for some keyword searches. We seem to be a good ways off the combined reliable research assistant, photographer, sketch artist and general helpmeet I was hoping for. 

Let's meet back here this time next year and see if the Halloween 2024 is the year the AIs write the post without any help from me. 
Now that really would be scary.

Monday, October 30, 2023

One Hundred Hours And Whole Load Of Pumpkins

Yesterday evening I finally clocked up one hundred hours in Dawnlands. I'd been stuck at 98.5 for several weeks after I suddenly and entirely unintentionally stopped playing. I'd been logging ifor an hour or two pretty much every day since the game launched back in August and then just like that I wasn't playing any more. No reason for it. I just stopped.

And now I've started again and look what's happened while I've been away. They've only gone and decorated the whole place for Halloween! And what a great job they've made of it, too.

The first thing I was greeted with was a splash page telling me there were eight days of the Enchantment Night Gala left. It didn't tell me eight out of how many but I checked and it's ten so I only missed the start.

There are four main strands to the event, three of which revolve around the inevitable special event currency, Enchanted Night Candy.  It's for spending only. Don't try to eat it. You'll get sick.

Daily quests give candy as a bonus on top of their regular rewards and if you find yourself with too much candy on your hands, the ever-hungry Carromu will happily swap it for Diamonds. 

For the more active Warriors (We're all called Warriors in Dawnlands, just like other games call everyone Adventurers.) there's the opportunity to steal candy from babies monsters, specifically the pumpkin-headed ones who only come out at night. 

Technically, it's not stealing because the monsters stole it from us and we're just taking it back. Although it's candy that only monsters can eat and it's made specially for monsters. Just not these monsters. It's complicated. My advice is just kill 'em, take the candy and don't think about it too hard!

A very nice touch is that some of those pumpkin-headed monsters are the regular little goblins who've dressed up for Halloween. Not all of them, either, just a few, which adds a weirdly convincing gloss to the nightly murder spree. I pity the poor saps who got so excited by the thought of Halloween they couldn't resist getting all dressed up - they might as well have painted targets on their backs.

There are also some new, spooky, wraithlike creatures whose pumpkin heads look a lot more sinister. They're tough, as I found out when I attacked the first one I saw but not that tough. Or maybe it's me  that's tough now. Pretty sure I wouldn't have wanted to fight them when I was new here.

The final event is double yield when you grow pumpkins. I'm not sure I want that many pumpkins but thanks for the thought.

The candy gets you all kinds of season-appropriate items in the aptly named Candy Exchange. Although the new store stocks a few items that can only be bought with cash shop currency, there's far more you can get for candy. 

That seems to be how Dawlands usually works. I'm really not sure how they're making money on this game although it appears people are playing it still. I got a big message when I logged in, reminding everyone about the rules against botting and trading accounts for real money, so I have to assume there's enough interest in the game to fuel some kind of black economy. That suggests some level of popularity, at least.

There are a few things in the candy store I'd like. Furniture, mostly. A couple of recipes. Maybe one of the wearable pumpkin heads, although I've never been a huge fan of those. Prices range from a steep 100 candies for rugs and tapestries all the way down to just twenty for a pumpkin lamp hanging from a dead tree. 

Unusually for an event like this, there's a hard cap on how many candies you can collect during the whole event. You can only do three daily quests and the night-time killfests are capped at 60 per real-world day, 440 for the whole ten days. It's a clever way of reducing the compulsion to overdo things. 

So far I have about 160 candies. There were several new one-off quests that gave me about 40 or 50 and then I did the dailies two days running, which took me over a hundred. The rest are from kills.

I haven't worked out how many I need for the things I want but I'd guess even half of what I'm allowed would be more than enough. I'll be logging in every day to do the dailies, anyway. It's a chill, fun event and it's new to me so I'm enjoying it quite a bit.

The decorations in the villages are very impressive, if not wildly over the top. There are pumpkins everywhere. There's also a nice backstory about the lore behind the festival. It would be nicer still if the translations were better but I appreciate the effort that went into it, all the same.

All in all its a very solid effort for a first major holiday. Makes me wonder what they'll do for Christmas. 

I just hope the game is still around come December. I'm not done with it yet.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Are We Nearly There Yet?

It's Halloween again and as usual I'm wondering what I can dredge up for October 31 this time.

Last year I dragged out the Adult Wednesday Addams videos which I thought were both hilarious and seasonal but no-one seemed very interested. At all. Just like no-one cared the first time I did it, which for some reason was right after Valentine's Day, although it seems I was just celebrating Wednesdays in general, which seems weird even for me.

Anyway, yesterday I began to feel the pressure of another Halloween with nothing much to bring to Show and Tell, when the obvious occurred to me: let the AIs do it! I was saying only a few days ago how they seemed to getting so good I might try getting one to draw a comic for me. Why not now?

Yeah. About that. It started out looking like it was going to be easy. It really wasn't. It was impossible.

Impossible for me, anyway. I'm far too lazy. Which is why, even though I can write, I wasn't going to be writing this script myself. As the saying goes, why buy a robot butler then fetch your own drinks? If the AIs were going to draw the damn thing, they could write it, too.  

That part was easy. Really easy. ChatGPT is getting very good at this sort of thing. So good, I didn't even bother to put the job out to tender with Bard or Bing. I asked the latest free version of ChatGPT - 3.5 - to do it. (There's a later model, 4.0, but you have to subscribe and it's $20 a month, which I think is a bit steep. I'd seriously consider $10 just to get the speech but I'm confident that will come to the free version in time and I can wait.)

I wanted to keep it simple and short so I asked:

Please write a Halloween-themed script for a comic-book featuring a talking fox, a talking cat and a young girl.  The script should be suitable to give to an artist to draw and should result in 2-4 pages of finished work. The script should include both dialog and necessary descriptions.

ChatGPT started typing instantly. It finished the whole script before I could read the first panel. When it responds that fast you know its on familiar ground. It must have seen lot of "Halloween" and "script" and "comic-book" data during its training.

The first draft was about what I expected. It was cheerful, bland and unoriginal but also very coherent. As a story it doesn't really go anywhere but then neither do most human-scripted amateur comics. I've read plenty of worse comics that were written by real people giving it their very best shot. Like some of mine, for example.

Here's the full script:

Title: "Halloween Haunters"

Page 1:
Panel 1:

    A full moon casts eerie light over a small, suburban neighborhood. Decorated houses line the street, with carved pumpkins and cobwebs adorning the porches.
    In the foreground, a young girl named LILY (around 10 years old) in a witch costume with a pointy hat, stands beside a gate, clutching a trick-or-treat bag.
    Beside Lily, a TALKING FOX named FINN (who's wearing a wizard hat and cloak) sits on his haunches. His eyes are wide with excitement.
    Beside Finn, a TALKING CAT named WHISKERS (wearing a vampire cape) lounges on the gatepost, looking nonchalant.

Alright, guys, let's fill this bag with goodies!

Panel 2:
    Lily, Finn, and Whiskers approach the first house, which has a spooky skeleton decoration on the porch.
    The front door opens, and a WITCH (in a classic witch costume) hands out candy. A cauldron with treats sits nearby.

Happy Halloween, little witch!

Happy Halloween!

Panel 3:

    Lily, Finn, and Whiskers each receive a candy from the witch and place them in their bags.
    Finn whispers to Lily.

I heard there's a legendary haunted house nearby. Want to check it out?

Panel 4:

    Lily, now holding a full bag of candy, grins at Finn and Whiskers.
    Whiskers looks skeptical, while Finn winks at Lily.

Absolutely! Let's go on a spooky adventure!

Page 2:

Panel 1:   

Lily, Finn, and Whiskers stand before the infamous HAUNTED HOUSE. It looms in the background, dark and foreboding. Eerie sounds emanate from within.
This place looks amazing! Let's go in!

Are you sure about this, Lily?

Panel 2:

    The trio enters the haunted house. Cobwebs, eerie portraits, and mysterious sounds create an unsettling atmosphere.
    Finn leads the way, lighting the path with a small glowing orb.

This is fantastic! So spooky!

Keep an eye out for surprises, you never know what you'll find in a place like this.

Panel 3:

    Suddenly, a GHOST (semi-transparent with a mischievous grin) appears in front of them, blocking their path. It hovers in mid-air.

Boo! Did I scare you?

You almost got me!

Nice costume!

Panel 4:

    The trio shares a laugh with the friendly ghost as they continue their journey deeper into the haunted house.

Page 3:

Panel 1:

    Lily, Finn, Whiskers, and the friendly ghost approach a door with an eerie green glow. The ghost gestures towards it.

This is the spookiest room! You have to check it out!

Panel 2:
    Lily, Finn, and Whiskers push open the creaky door, revealing a room filled with FLOATING PUMPKINS and GHOULS. The pumpkins have wicked grins, and the ghouls dance around, creating a mesmerizing spectacle.

Wow, this is incredible!

I've never seen anything like it!

(Pretending to be unimpressed)
Eh, it's not bad.

Panel 3:

    The friendly ghost joins the dancing ghouls, and they all laugh and have a great time.

Happy Halloween, my friends!

Panel 4:

    The trio continues to enjoy the mesmerizing room, filling their Halloween night with enchanting memories.

Page 4:

Panel 1:

    Lily, Finn, Whiskers, and the friendly ghost exit the haunted house, waving goodbye.

Thank you for the incredible adventure!

You're welcome! Have a spook-tacular Halloween!

Panel 2:

    The trio, now outside the haunted house, sees the moonlight casting an enchanting glow on the neighborhood.

That was the best Halloween ever.

It sure was, Lily.

I have to admit, it was pretty fun.
Panel 3:
    Lily, Finn, and Whiskers head back down the moonlit street, bags filled with candy, sharing in the warmth of their friendship.

(Filled with joy)
Happy Halloween, everyone!

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, indeed.


(Note for the artist: Feel free to add your own creative touches, especially in panel layouts and the design of the haunted house and its spooky inhabitants.)

Now, I think everyone can agree that's not really a story. It's more of a slice-of-life vignette and not a very interesting one at that. It is, however, exactly what I asked for and excellently presented. You could absolutely hand that to an artist and have them draw you four pages of a comic book. Your problem would be getting anyone to read it.

It also looked a bit long for my purposes. I know I asked for 2-4 pages but that's a full-on four. I hit the Regenerate button to see if take #2 would be better. 

It kind of was and it kind of wasn't but it was definitely shorter:

Title: "Spooky Adventures with Foxie, Whiskers, and Emily"

Page 1:
Panel 1:

    Full-page panel. It's a dark and eerie Halloween night, with a full moon shining above the creepy old forest. The wind is blowing leaves around the ground, creating an unsettling atmosphere. The shadows of the trees are long and ominous.
    In the foreground, we see our three main characters: Foxie, a cunning and sly fox with a mischievous grin, and Whiskers, a charming but sardonic cat, are both dressed in makeshift costumes. Foxie wears a black witch hat, and Whiskers is dressed as a vampire with a small cape and plastic fangs. They stand on a cobblestone path leading deeper into the woods.
    Behind them is Emily, an adventurous young girl of about 10 years old. She's in awe of the spooky surroundings, clutching her trick-or-treat bag tightly.

Caption (top):
Narrator: "On a night like this..."

Foxie: "Alright, Whiskers, let's find that legendary haunted house!"

Whiskers: "This better be worth the candy, Emily."

Page 2:
Panel 1:

    Three-quarter page. Foxie leads the way, and they follow the winding path, flanked by tall, gnarled trees. Emily holds a small flashlight, which casts eerie shadows in the darkness.
    Emily looks nervous but determined, while Whiskers appears skeptical. Foxie, on the other hand, is full of excitement.

Emily (whispering): "I can't believe we're doing this."

Whiskers (grumbling): "This better not be a wild goose chase."

Foxie (grinning): "Oh, it won't be, Emily."

Panel 2:

    A close-up of Emily's face, illuminated by the flashlight. Her eyes reflect her sense of wonder and trepidation.

Emily (whispering): "What if we see real ghosts, Foxie?"

Panel 3:

    A wide shot that shows Foxie and Whiskers exchanging a glance of disbelief.

Whiskers: "Ghosts? Seriously?"

Foxie: "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, Em."

Page 3:
Panel 1:

    A small panel at the top of the page. The trio continues down the path as the wind howls, making it more ominous.

Panel 2:

    Emily stops suddenly and shines her flashlight ahead. The path leads to a dilapidated, ancient mansion. Broken windows, overgrown ivy, and a rickety gate give it an eerie vibe.

Emily (whispering): "There it is... the haunted mansion!"

Foxie (whispering): "Well, well, well... Let's see what this place has to offer!"

Panel 3:

    Emily takes a step closer to the gate, her heart pounding with excitement.

Emily: "Are you ready, guys?"

Whiskers (sarcastic): "Ready as we'll ever be."

Page 4:
Panel 1:

    A full-page panel, with Emily pushing open the gate with determination. The mansion looms ahead, and the moonlight casts long, eerie shadows on the overgrown garden.

Emily: "Let the spooky adventure begin!"

Narrator (top):
Narrator: "Little did they know that their Halloween night was about to get even spookier..."

End of script.

This script should result in 2-4 pages of comic book art. Feel free to adjust or expand upon it as needed for your specific project. Happy Halloween!

I was intrigued to see that Finn became Foxie and Lily turned into Emily, neither of which seemed like an improvement to me, while Whiskers, who I'd have liked to see renamed, stayed the same. Their personalities, such as they were, seemed to have survived the transition reasonably intact but the tone felt a tad darker, especially when the script inexplicably ended on a cliffhanger. 

It was closer to what I wanted and although it was also four pages it seemed much more compact. I thought maybe one of the Text-to-Image AIs might be able to make something of it. Spoiler: they couldn't. 

I fired up NightCafe, selected DreamShaper XL alpha2 and pasted the whole of ChatGPT's description of Panel 1 into the prompt field with "1960s comic style" as a prefix. I was surprised it accepted it all. I certainly wasn't expecting it to use much of it. I thought I'd be lucky to get "a dark and eerie Halloween night, with a full moon shining above the creepy old forest".

I didn't get anything except an error message telling me I'd used a "forbidden word". I had a look at the text but nothing was highlighted. Well, actually, all of it was, which was no help at all. Knowing what issues all of the AI projects are concerned about, I guessed it might be balking at "young girl of about 10 years old", which eventually did turn out to be the problem, although I had to Google to be certain because just removing either "young" or the specific age didn't work. 

"Girl" alone was acceptable so I carried on with that, which is why all the panels featuring Emily show a woman who appears to be in her late teens or early twenties. I mean, I guess I did specify "1960s comic style" so "girl" and "woman" would arguably still have been synonyms then. The acceptable use policy doesn't quite seem to have caught up with sixty years of feminism.

Outdated usage and moral panics were the least of my problems. After the first couple of panels it was obvious the whole project wasn't going to work. Text-to-Image AI is nowhere near being capable of interpreting the kind of long, detailed descriptive passages generative text AIs are fluent at creating. To get a meaningful result you have to stick to very short, declarative phrases.

I already knew that so it was no surprise. What I didn't know, and which was quite surprising, is that adding speech bubbles to pictures is also something AIs can't yet handle. It seems like it would be fairly straightforward but no, it's not. 

It's also not all that easy to do manually. I did a bit of reading on how to make and place speech bubbles in Paint.net and frankly life's too short so I settled for the old Classics Illustrated trick of using captions instead. Even then. getting the text to appear legibly was more work than I wanted to take on for what was supposed to be a gimmicky, throwaway blog post, which is how we ended up with the half-assed affair at the top of the page.

It was a learning experience in which what I mostly learned is that the technology isn't there yet to have AI write, lay out, illustrate and letter a comic-book page without a human doing most of the heavy lifting. Indeed, as things stand, it would seem to be a technology that's only of interest to people who can neither write nor draw because if you can do either, you'll be a lot more efficient than someone trying to speed things up by using AI. 

Also, your comic might make sense, which admittedly isn't a pre-requisite to success in the field...

I'm not going to say you couldn't produce a coherent, enjoyable, visually appealing comic by way of generative and interpretive AI but I'm definitely not going to be doing it. On the evidence I've seen, though, I'm convinced I could produce an illustrated children's book as good as many currently on the shelves where I work in a matter of hours. 

I'm pretty sure someone could write an app to generate them automatically, which would be very popular with the under fives and even more popular with their parents. If anyone ought to be worried about their career choice it's probably the people who pump out Peppa Pig spin-offs, although they presumably have enough to worry about already, what with the crushing weight of their own shame.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, AI comics.

The most interesting thing I learned is that there's a new AI app called AI Comic Factory that's specifically designed for making comics. I tried it and it works amazingly well, so long as what you're after is the comic-book equivalent of Midjourney or DreamShaper

It produces really excellent full pages from a prompt but they're as random as you'd expect. It's not capable of rendering a recognizeable graphic version of a script. It is, however, potentially much faster and more successful at producing a number of possible panels that could be used for that purpose.

But that's a post for another day. And speaking of posts for other days, for Halloween itself I've asked the Text-to-Image AIs to do what they do best, namely make me some single images suitable for use on the blog. We'll have to wait until Tuesday to see how well that worked.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Snap Judgment

After I finished yesterday's unecessarily long and detailed post on DC Dual Force, I followed through with my threat promise to play Marvel Snap so I could compare the two. Now, with all of forty minutes of MS behind me, I feel entirely qualified to jabber on about it for another half dozen paragraphs as though I had some small idea what I was talking about. 

Actually, y'know what? Let's do it in Bullet Points. They always makes things look more authoritative and they're way quicker to write.

  • It's PvP!
  • I knew that.
  • There is no PvE mode.
  • I did not know that.
  • Everything I said about lack of context  in DCDF applies equally to Marvel Snap.
  • And it's every bit as annoying. 
  • Possibly even more so.
  • Although I couldn't exactly tell you why.
  • It could be because it feels smug, somehow.
  • But then Marvel has always been the smug one.
  • There's a tutorial
  • It's perfunctory.
  • And that's being generous.
  • It assumes the mechanics are so simple they'll explain themselves.
  • They really won't.
  • Not at all.
  • I went into into the game with no idea what I was doing.
  • Not a good idea in PvP.
  • And yet I won every game I played.
  • It was only five games.
  • But still...
  • Stepping back, there's a nice animated movie at the start. 
  • I don't think DCDF has an intro movie so score one for Marvel.
  • Squirrel Girl's in the movie.
  • A lot.
  • I think that might be significant.
  • Because she's not a serious character. 
  • Is she?
  • I'm really not qualified to say.
  • I ought to read Squirrel Girl sometime.*
  • There's very, very little voice acting
  • But it's a lot better than in DCDF.
  • The graphics are snazzier.
  • The UI is intuitive.
  • And yet I prefer both the look and feel of DCDF. 
  • Go figure.
  • Add to that, Marvel Snap just throws free stuff at you. 
  • And there are a bunch of obvious progression hooks.
  • Ladders, ranks, tiered card upgrades - you name it.
  • Missions and dailies
  • All the good stuff.
  • If DCDF had any of that I must have missed it.
  • And yet DCDF is still more compelling.
  • For me, anyway. 
  • Not, it seems, for the world in general.
  • Everybody loves Marvel Snap.
  • I didn't.
  • Here's why.
  • S T R E S S !
  • OMG! The Stress!
  • DCDF against an AI opponent is absolutely unstressful.
  • Relaxing, in fact.
  • Marvel Snap against a human opponent is unpleasantly stressful.
  • Even though there is absolutely no interaction or communication of any kind.
  • Except by playing your cards.
  • Which fricken stressed the hell out of me!
  • Honestly, I was so tense. 
  • It was horrible.
  • I hated it.
  • Pretty good of me to play five games, then, wasn't it?
  • Especially as winning each game just made the next one more stressful.
  • That's the curse of the streak. 
  • I probably should have lost one on purpose just to relieve the pressure.
  • I did learn that I don't want to play any more Marvel Snap.
  • So that was good.
  • And at least now I can say I tried it.
  • Also, DCDF is looking pretty good right now.
  • I really didn't expect that.
  • I thought it would be the other way around.
  • It just goes to show, doesn't it?
  • I think I'm going to stick with DCDF.
  •  If I play either of them.
  • I probably won't play either of them.
  • At least until they add a PvE mode to Marvel Snap.
  • Then I guess I'd give it another try. 
  • Just for science, you understand.
  • Certainly not because I want to.

All things considered, it was a surprising  - and surprisngly unpleasant - experience. I think the reason I found it so stressful was because there doesn't seem to be any kind of time limit on making your moves. I kept angsting about whether I was keeping the other person waiting so I kept rushing my plays, which I found very annoying, although not as annoying as not being able to check what a card did before I played it. 

There has to be a way to do that during a match but I couldn't find it. This is where a decent tutorial would have helped. I found myself thinking that if I was going to go on playing I'd probably need to write all the conditions on every card down on paper and have them on the desk in front of me, at which point I decided it was definitely time to stop.

From posts and comments I've read on other blogs, people seem to find Marvel Snap a bit of light-hearted fun. I can't quite see it myself but I expect that's just me. Anyway, I got a post out of it and it made me feel considerably warmer to DCDF so I guess that's a win.

* I just read the first issue of Marvel Rising - Squirrel Girl & Ms Marvel. It was excellent. I highly recommend it, especially the first eight or ten pages, which are really quite unusual for a supehero comic. The whole thing is likely to be of interest to anyone who follows this blog, for reasons that will become clear if and when you actually read it. 

Oh, alright, that's far too mysterious, not to say misleading. The plot is all about video games. That's all I meant.

To the point, though, as I thought, Squirrel Girl is definitely not the most serious of super-heroes. She is, however, the genuine article, not a parody, something I was less sure about. I can see why they chose to go with her for this game.

Thursday, October 26, 2023


I'm not sure where I first heard about DC Dual Force. Probably MMO Bomb or MassivelyOP, unless maybe it was NME. For a music magazine, they do run a lot of gaming news, some of it quite random.

I may not have paid much attention to which site I was looking at but at least I registered the salient points:

  1. Free
  2. Steam
  3. DC

Put all three together and there seemed no reason not to give it a try. I'm enough of a DC fan to get mildly excited at the thought of just about anything that might feature one of my favorite characters. Granted, most times it's just it's Batman again, but I can always hope.

As far as I can gather, the game is supposed to be DC's answer to the highly-rated Marvel Snap. I already added that one to my Steam account weeks ago but I haven't yet gotten around to playing it. I must not be such a Marvel fan, obviously, although as I was running through my mental list of Favorite Characters From Superhero Comics just now, it did seem to be mostly names from Marvel that drifted to the top. I can thank the relentless over-exposure of the last few years for that, I guess.

Both games are DCGs or DCCGs or whatever the acronym is. Collectable card games in which there aren't any actual cards. I have no idea whether the gameplay is identical or even similar, not having played both of them (Probably could have done that before I decided to write this post) but people do seem to like comparing the two so I guess it's at least in the same general ballpark.

DCDF has a "Mixed" rating on Steam, which seems to reflect not so much a meh response as a psychotic division. From the reviews I read, people either absolutely love it or utterly despise it. Very little middle ground.

Having played for nearly three and half hours - a couple of lengthy sessions - I find myself weirdly in sympathy with both camps. I spent most of the time thinking "This is a total waste of my time. It's half-assed nonsense. I'll just have another go..." I wouldn't mind playing again right now...

The game begins with a Tutorial in which - guess who? - Batman takes it upon himself to show you how to play. There's a framing device that I found amusing; Bats keeps beginning to explain some technical feature he thinks is important but before he can get into it he gets interrupted by some emergency and we have go sort it out, which is when the actual instruction happens. Learning by doing rather than yawning through yet another Batman Knows Best lecture. Jason Todd must be laughing his cape off.

Other than the actual gameplay, the tutorial involves voice acting, comic panels and speech balloons, which not unreasonably creates the impression there's going to be some form of narrative structure or storyline to the game. As far as I can tell, there is not. Once you hit the game proper, all of that goes away. At least, it did during the eight or nine rounds I played. Maybe it comes back later but I doubt it.

I'm guessing the nearest you'll get to a plot is in Comics mode. There are a number of Modes, in one of which, Comics, you get to play through the events that occured in specific published issues. Well, you do if you imagine them as comics produced for pre-school children, the kind with a single picture on every page and just the odd caption to explain the extremely basic plot. Oh, and a lot of sound effects apparently lifted verbatim from the ultra-camp 'sixties Batman TV show. 

This perfectly sums up my issue with most, if not all, of the superhero video games I've ever played. They all seem to have been designed by people who have not only never read an actual comic but who have taken all of their cues from the kind of cultural commentators who believe the form exists purely and simply for the entertainment of very small children or adults with an extremely low IQ. 

Given that the absolutely least interesting thing about superhero comics over the last forty or fifty years has been all the punching each other in the face, I find this quite peculiar. It's not as though other media haven't moved on from the 1950s stereotype. I mean, I know a lot of non super-hero fans complain about the final act of every Marvel movie being one long fight scene but even those critics acknowledge the two hours of soap opera melodrama and would-be witty badinage that comes before the explosions.

In superhero games it's just thump thump thump. It certainly is in this one.

I'm not saying it's not fun. It is quite fun. What I'm saying is that this kind of gameplay has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons any of these characters ever became famous enough for anyone to care about them in the first place. The designers are relying one hundred per cent on the recognition factor to pull eyes to their game without understanding why people recognize the characters to begin with.

Of course, if it featured wholly original characters no-one outside the company had ever heard of, no-one would be playing it at all, so I totally understand why they're doing it...

The question is whether seeing a bunch of familiar names and costumes on screen is enough, when none of those characters either act or speak in any way whatsoever like their originals. And no, it's not.

Honestly, it might be, if there was even the smallest hat-tip to authenticity, so you at least felt you were looking at the same characters you grew up with. They do change all the time as different writers and artists offer their interpretations after all. In DCDF, there's not the least concession to any of that prior history. The mechanics randomly team villains with heroes and pit longtime allies against each other for absolutely no discernible reason. Authenticity is clearly the last thing on anyone's mind. 

At first I couldn't really figure out what was going on. I'm long past the time when I knew what was current in the DC Universe so for a moment I thought maybe some of these people had switched sides. Certainly, over the years, a lot of villains have gone straight and the odd hero has turned bad, although it rarely lasts long. After a couple of rounds, though, I realised it was just opportunistic game mechanics in action.

There is a spurious veneer of canonical coherency. As a deckbuilder, the game groups the cards, to an extent, by having you pick from Teams. Each Leader (You get two Leaders in each Deck.) has their own Team, which is vaguely consistent with expectations but the whole thing falls down when you realise you can pair a Hero with a Villain as your two Leaders if you want and then your whole hand is just a mishmash of good and evil.

I had Poison Ivy and Batman working together. And Flash and Harley Quinn. I could just about accept that as not wholly egregious. Ivy and Harley have both worked with heroes before, when it suited them. I don't think anyone's going to be making the same allowances for The Joker or Doomsday, though. You can pair Doomsday with Superman or The Joker with Batman if you want and they'll work together as happily as though they weren't mortal enemies and (In at least some continuities.) each other's murderers.

This is the sort of thing that annoys me even while I'm telling myself it really doesn't matter. I know it's just a dumb card game that only exists as a bit of mindless fun meant to make money but I can't get past eighty years of history that easily. The gameplay may be moderately compelling but the lack of context keeps getting in the way. 

I keep asking myself  "Why is any of this happening?" and coming up with nothing but "Because". And just because isn't enough.

All told, I'm not sorry I gave the game a try. I'm not even saying I won't play it a little more although I suspect even its limited appeal will fade quite fast. I am a little disappointed by just how cynically exploitative the use of the characters seems to be. I wasn't expecting much but I got less than that.

Even the art, which I've seen mentioned by negative reviewers as the game's only saving grace, isn't that impressive. Much of it looks souless and calculating, lacking the personal feel I'd expect from even the weaker artists working on the comcs themselves. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if some of it wasn't done by some of those same artists - it does look like the kind of thing people knock out for a few dollars a sketch at comicons.

Having exposed myself to the DC version of an online collectible card game, I suppose my next logical step is to do the same with their frenemy across the panel borders. I might as well. I already have it installed. 

Marvel Snap has a much better reputation so my expectations are higher this time. We'll see if they're diappointed once more or if I come back a convert. Place your bets now.

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