Ben Pack is an editor at Giant Bomb and a swell guy. Ben did not write himself an intro this year, and this could have turned out bad for Ben were his list to fall into the wrong hands. Thankfully, the person editing this list is very nice, just like Ben.
Ah, the end of the year. Didn’t think you’d make it, huh? Well neither did I. But here we are, a couple of tough-as-nails motherfuckers. We’re walking away from 2019 a little older, a little wiser, and, if you’re anything like me, with a few more achievement points under our belt.
This year certainly was hard, but it was also full of amazing new experiences, both in video games and outside of them too.
Movie of the year: Parasite
I wandered into a movie theater while on vacation in Philadelphia because I had a few hours to kill before dinner. I knew nothing about Parasite, but grabbed a ticket for it on a whim after hearing about it from a couple of friends. I’ve since seen it two more times and will not shut the hell up about it. Bong Joon-ho does an incredible job of blending genres together, and kept me laughing at the edge of my seat while telling a hauntingly beautiful story about wealth inequality.
Album of the year: Chain Tripping
I don’t listen to a lot of music, so take this one with a huge grain of salt, but, if my Spotify numbers are anything to be believed, I loved the hell out of this album. I’ve enjoyed the occasional single from Yacht dating back to 2009, but I wasn’t even aware they were releasing an album this year until I heard them on an episode of Comedy Bang Bang (side note this is also my CBB episode of the year).
Here is where I would talk about the album, if I knew how to write about music other than “this shit slaps.” This shit slaps. Also they worked with AI to write the lyrics, which normally might send me into a “oh god the future is here we’re all fucked” shock, but for this it worked.
Best new food that I found out I like in 2019: Broccoli
In 2016, the Keto diet turned me around on a lot of foods. When you can’t eat carbs, you start to get desperate for… anything you can eat. It was then that I discovered plenty of foods I had previously hated. Cauliflower, brussels sprouts, mushrooms and more – turns out they’re all delicious. But there was one thing I was stedfast in my dismissal of – the cursed green sinner’s plant.
One time in 7th grade I got a baked potato for lunch, and underneath the nacho cheese topping there lurked a great darkness. I took a big bite and got a mouth full of brocc, and proceeded to throw up right then and there on the lunch table in front of Jessica S. I’ve never forgiven broccoli for that moment. But upon visiting a friend in Philadelphia, I was presented with some broccoli that she had cooked. I couldn’t say not out of politeness, so I took a little bit and lo and behold it was fuckin delicious. Broccoli, and trying new things, both rule.
Biggest Mistake of my 2018 GotY List: Not putting Dead Cells at #1
I loved the hell out of Dead Cells, but December my Switch was stolen from me, along with my save for the game. I was heartbroken, but I had beaten the game at that point and figured that my time with it would be done there.
Flash forward to a random UPF where Rorie booted the game up. I immediately was reminded of how great it was and downloaded it that night. I’ve since put about another 100 hours into it, getting to boss cell 2 difficulty and downloading the paid DLC update. This game has joined my personal hall of fame with games like Super Mario World and Spelunky – all games that I could see myself playing for the rest of my life.
Top 10 Games of the Decade: TOO HARD TO FIGURE OUT
I was going to do this, but I ended up with like 60 games, and there’s no way I’m narrowing that down to 10 in the amount of time I have to write this list. But just know that Vanquish would for sure be in the top 5. Instead I’ve done something stupider…
Top 10 Years of the Decade, Ranked by their Best Games
6. 2019 ([REDACTED], [REDACTED], [REDACTED])
Honorable Mentions for Game of the Year 2019
My brief fling with Void Bastards was as intense as it was short. The style, atmosphere, writing, and progression were all top notch – all bolted onto a familiar, yet polished PC FPS core. I’ve yet to play the DLC, but I’ll definitely go back in 2020.
As a die-hard Mario fan, not getting into the first Super Mario Maker was probably my biggest gaming sin to date. That’s why I was so excited for the sequel. Unfortunately, there just didn’t seem to be the same amount of enthusiasm around it as the original, so I ended up playing far less than I thought I would. However, I really enjoyed my time with the game and thought the single player mode was a great addition. This game was also was responsible for some of my favorite content from the year.
Remnant was a huge surprise for me. If you can stop rolling your eyes enough at the “Dark Souls meets Resident Evil” description to check the game out, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised as well.
Ok without further ado, the reason for the season, the canonical Ben Pack Best Video Games of 2019 that I played the year they came out. I’m going to keep some of these brief, as you can hear more of my extended thoughts in our podcasts.
Top 10 Games of 2019
10. Mortal Kombat 11
I think the most interesting thing I can say about Mortal Kombat 11 is that it made me care about the story mode of a fighting game. The actual fighting is very much “a good one of those,” and the towers and ranked seasons seemed… fine, but somehow Mortal Kombat made me care about Johnny fucking Cage of all people. They seemed to have a lot of fun with it, while still trying to tell an interesting story that works both on its own, and as a metatextual representation of the where the Mortal Kombat story has gone. Also the fatalities are fucking sick.
9. Outer Wilds
I still haven’t beaten Outer Wilds. In fact, much to my dismay, I’ve only gotten the chance to really explore a couple of planets. But the first time the game clicked for me I knew I was in. I’m an impatient gamer, and normally the kind of guy who will hit up a walkthrough after only a very small amount of frustration with a puzzle, but the sense of discovery of Outer Wilds has me trying to complete the whole thing without looking anything up.
I played through about 2000 holes of Desert Golfing, a game which was a deconstruction of mobile golf-games. What the Golf? is just as perfect a golfing game, but on the complete other end of the spectrum. A mere handful of levels into the game, and you’re flinging your golfer, a soccer ball, cars, and the like towards the pole. This game has a similar spirit to WarioWare, with a mystery-packed overworld backing it up. Also it is chock full of clever homages to other famous video games–but golf.
Hypnospace, to me, occupies the same parts of my brain that Return of the Obra Dinn did last year. Both games have premises that sound like they could be terrible free CD rom games (insurance adjuster on a boat in the 1800s, and digital detective investigating pseudo-early-’90s internet pages for copyright violations). Both games also extremely nail their aesthetic. The websites you visit in Hypnospace seem like they could have been real Geocities/Yahoo pages frozen in time.
But the real reason both of these games struck such a cord with me is that they’re both games that, under the surface, tell a uniquely personal and heartfelt story. The aesthetics of Hypnospace were enough to hook me, but the turn that happens about halfway through the game was really what compelled me to finish the game.
Ring Fit Adventures is the only game on this list that I try to make sure I play every day. And yes, I know that the nature of it being an exercise game means that you’re encouraged to play daily or you will lose results – but if the game that was there wasn’t fun I think I would have dropped it like the dozen other exercise games I’ve tried.
I am consistently surprised by the depth of its systems. There’s turn-based combat, with certain moves being more effective against certain types of enemies. There’s a crafting system that is integral for harder difficulties. There’s an inventory system. There’s side quests. I just hit level 40 and unlocked a skill tree, which apparently branches out even further than it is initially presented. All of this is in the service of doing real exercises. I know I’m not going to become jacked if I continue playing, but I’m already feeling the effects of just a few weeks worth of sessions.
In the world of live service games demanding that you sacrifice any amount of free time that you have, I’m growing more and more appreciative of short games. I got a 100% completion on Cadence of Hyrule in under five hours, which definitely left me wanting for more. But looking back on it, I was on board from start to finish in those five hours.
The exploration, the combat, the bosses and the world design were all top notch. The game could have very easily been a re-skinned Crypt of the NecroDancer, but it really worked hard to distinguish itself and cement itself as a true Zelda game. Plus the music is legendary, and I’ll be listening to the remixed Gerudo Valley theme for a long time to come.
4. Apex Legends
YEETING ON FOOLS WITH THE EVA 8 WILL NEVER GET OLD.
First of all, I connected with the story and setting of Sekiro in a way that I never have with the Souls games before. Wolf’s story of carving his own path, figuring out what “duty” truly means, and the destruction of Ashina, all felt more tangible than the anything in the Souls games.
Second, this is a game all about offense. There are plenty of moments where you need that good ol’ stick-and-move-style of Souls combat, but being able to just lay down a ton of offense with a few key parries, even against the scariest bosses in the game, was exactly what I was looking for.
Control is one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played, and I played it unpatched on a base PS4 where it would often drop to single-digit FPS, or soft lock coming out of a cutscene for 10-15 seconds. I was willing to look past these flaws, however, as I’m a massive fan of the world that Remedy created in this game.
It’s absolutely dripping with flavor. One of my favorite examples of it is a room you find early on that is covered in post-its. My first thought was it was just weird for weird sakes, an attempt at unsettling the audience ala Twin Peaks. But after playing through the game and learning about altered objects and objects of power, suddenly that room tells an entire story. The core gameplay and the plot involving Jesse Faden and her brother are competent, sometimes even compelling, but the thing that kept me coming back to Control was everything around the edges. Also, the Ashtray Maze is maybe my favorite moment of the year.
My 2018 Game of the Year was Into the Breach. It was unusual for me, as I’m not the biggest fan of games like XCOM or even FTL, but the game itself was just so good and confident in what it was that I couldn’t help but fall for it. Disco Elysium, for me, was that times 10.
I’ve never played a CRPG and typically will start to zone out of I have to read more than a couple of paragraphs of text at any given time. That’s why the initial buzz for this game blew right past me. But after hearing so much about Disco, I had to give it a shot and I’m so incredibly happy that I did.
Disco Elysium is truly something special. The game is tight and interconnected in ways that few other video games have successfully done as. You can notice it when you dive into how the games limited systems work with each other, from the transparency in the passive/active checks, to the thought catalog system, to how the skills themselves take on a persona, and even talk to each other. These all serve a greater purpose, though, in making the city block that this game takes place on feel like an actual inhabited town and not a series of buildings and people that exist solely to propel the main character to their objective. The NPCs that you talk to feel like actual people with real emotions and flaws and hopes and dreams.
Then there’s the writing. The world of Revachol is tragic. As you start to explore and talk to the citizens of Martinaise, you begin to sense a presence, the ghost of a communist revolution. It’s omnipresent, stuck in the air like the stench of a sewer. You can still see dozens of bullet holes left by firing squads stuck in walls. There’s a war happening between two equally corrupt forces, using real people as pawns in a game that you can’t even initially perceive. But the best part about the world of Disco Elysium is that, even in the face of oppression, death, and destruction–you can find glimmers of hope. Even the most downtrodden characters, people who are unwilling pawns in a game between two corrupt forces who only care about themselves, can offer some levity in the face of the darkness.
For the most part, Disco Elysium is a deadly serious game, but the majority of the moments that I can instantly recall were the times it made me laugh. One of the best ways that the game is able to balance these two tones are by making sure that none of your options as a player are black or white. There aren’t “paragon” or “renegade” choices that you’re making. The game often nudges you to make the “weird” choice, after all you are an amnesiac cop running around in gardening gloves and no pants, but the game makes it work as these choices usually result in more interesting developments. The game also backs this up by having failed rolls lead to sometimes hilarious results. You are constantly asked to “go for it” in Disco, which makes the times where you can’t bring yourself to do it even more effective. I saved about a dozen screenshots from this game, and upon revisiting them I was inspired to read other peoples’ favorite screenshots. The results were overwhelming.
It’s also worth mentioning that this is ZA/UM‘s first game. I feel like this is one of the strongest showings of a new studio I’ve seen in a long time. With them hitting it out of the park like this, I am already patiently awaiting their next game. In the meantime, if you haven’t, play Disco Elysium.
Apple's voice-only Music subscription could boost Siri's accent understanding – TechCrunch
Apple had a slew of interesting announcements at its event on Monday. But one that stood out to me — and I feel didn’t get as much attention — is the new pricing tier of Apple Music. A new “Voice” tier will offer the entire Apple Music library to subscribers at a reduced rate of just $5 per month: The catch is you have to use Siri to access it, eschewing the standard Apple Music visual and typing-friendly in-app user interface.
Apple didn’t share why it is launching this plan, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the iPhone-maker is lowering the price barrier and persuading more people to use Siri because it wants to gather more voice data to train and improve its voice assistant.
“We’re excited that even more people will be able to enjoy Apple Music simply with their voice,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said at the event.
I can’t imagine any other compelling reason why the Apple Music Voice plan exists, especially since Apple is likely offering the new service with much lower margins than the standard plan, as the licensing agreements with labels remain the same to offer up the entire Apple Music catalog.
Again, this is just speculation, but I think given the stiff competition between Apple and Spotify, if the Swedish firm could offer its streaming service at $7-8 a month to beat Apple Music at price, it would. And Apple is taking some loss with the new subscription tier because it really wants to gather vast amounts of data. When I tweeted this theory, my colleague Alex wondered aloud why wouldn’t Apple just make the subscription free? I suppose Apple, a $2.5 trillion company, can technically swallow that much of a hit on the balance sheet, but it doesn’t want to attract more criticism from standalone music streaming firms such as Spotify. It’s already facing scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior on a number of fronts.
Tech firms feed their AI models with vast amounts of data to improve the services’ capabilities. Even as Siri has considerably improved over the years, the general consensus among many people who work in tech and the masses alike is that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are far superior.
It’s likely that Apple has already been gleaning such voice data from existing Apple Music users, but as a friend suggested, “the point is this — this feature always existed. It’s just that they’d put a high paywall. They’ve lowered that wall now.” In addition to lowering the barrier to entry, making Music voice-only via the new plan means people have to engage with Siri to make use of it; Siri is a feature for standard Apple Music subscribers, but it’s highly likely that most users primarily or exclusively access the content via the app’s UI.
If you want an example of what can happen to voice-powered assistants when you require that users treat it as a voice-first or voice-only service, look at Amazon’s Alexa. Out of the gate, Alexa had to be accessed by voice. This allowed Amazon to not only collect massive amounts of training data for its Alexa algorithms, but also helped train users about how to use it to maximum effect.
Understanding accents and dialects
Another reason why I think my theory works is the markets where Apple plans to offer this new subscription tier first: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Having India, Spain, Ireland and France in the first wave of nations suggests that Apple is looking to amass a wide-range of dialects and accents from across the globe. On a side note, voice search is very popular in many markets, including developing nations such as India, and in markets like China and Japan where text input can sometimes be unnecessarily complex versus spoken word. (A Google executive told me once that the surprising mass adoption of voice searches in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market and where Android commands about 98% of the pie, helped the company improve Google Assistant and prompted more aggressive approach to innovate on the voice front.)
Siri is often framed as a bit of a laggard in terms of its competence versus the rest of the voice assistant competition, and Apple’s latest move in services could be an attempt to help it close the perceived gap, while offering customers a discounted way to onboard to its music streaming service.
PSA: the MacBook Pro 14-inch’s $20 power brick upsell is probably worth it – The Verge
If you’re looking at buying the $1,999 base model MacBook Pro 14-inch, there’s one upgrade that you may really want to make — the $20 one that gets you the 96W power adapter instead of the 67W included power adapter. That’s because, according to some wording on Apple’s MacBook Pro configuration page (spotted by MacRumors), you’ll need the more powerful charger if you want to take advantage of the computer’s fast charging feature, which can charge the laptop up to 50 percent in half an hour.
Is it ridiculous that Apple is basically taxing the people who want to buy its least expensive (but still very pricey!) new MacBook Pro? Yes, absolutely — but you should still probably pay it if you want to charge your laptop up quickly. The exception is if you already have a charging brick capable of 100W USB-PD power delivery: Apple tells The Verge that you can fast charge via Thunderbolt as long as your power brick provides enough power. If you already have a beefy power brick, you can skip the upsell.
I know it probably doesn’t feel great to encourage Apple’s nickel-and-diming, but if you want fast charging, this will likely be the best way to get it. There may be, somewhere in the world, a 100W USB-PD charging brick that sells for $20, but there’s no way I would trust it enough to charge a very expensive computer. (If it was $20, I might not even trust it not to burn down my house). I’d pick the upsell.
The one silver lining is that this is only a problem on the base 8 CPU core / 14 GPU core model — if you do any processor upgrades, you’ll get the 96W brick for “free.” Please note, though, that upgrading just the RAM and/or storage on the base MacBook Pro won’t get you that upgrade, but if you’re in the configuration screen anyways, you should absolutely check that box unless you hate fast charging.
Facebook to pay up to $14.25 million to settle U.S. employment discrimination claims
Facebook Inc has agreed to pay up to $14.25 million to settle civil claims by the U.S. government that the social media company discriminated against American workers and violated federal recruitment rules, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.
The two related settlements were announced by the Justice Department and Labor Department and confirmed by Facebook. The Justice Department last December filed a lawsuit accusing Facebook of giving hiring preferences to temporary workers including those who hold H-1B visas that let companies temporarily employ foreign workers in certain specialty occupations. Such visas are widely used by tech companies.
Kristen Clarke, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, called the agreement with Facebook historic.
“It represents by far the largest civil penalty the Civil Rights Division has ever recovered in the 35-year history of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s anti-discrimination provision,” Clarke said in a call with reporters, referring to a key U.S. immigration law that bars discrimination against workers because of their citizenship or immigration status.
The case centered on Facebook’s use of the so-called permanent labor certification, called the PERM program.
The U.S. government said that Facebook refused to recruit or hire American workers for jobs that had been reserved for temporary visa holders under the PERM program. It also accused Facebook of “potential regulatory recruitment violations.”
Facebook will pay a civil penalty under the settlement of $4.75 million, plus up to $9.5 million to eligible victims of what the government called discriminatory hiring practices.
“While we strongly believe we met the federal government’s standards in our permanent labor certification (PERM) practices, we’ve reached agreements to end the ongoing litigation and move forward with our PERM program,” a Facebook spokesperson said, adding that the company intends to “continue our focus on hiring the best builders from both the U.S. and around the world.”
The settlements come at a time when Facebook is facing increasing U.S. government scrutiny over other business practices.
Facebook this month faced anger from U.S. lawmakers after former company employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen accused it of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety. Haugen has turned over thousands of documents to congressional investigators amid concerns that Facebook has harmed children’s mental health and has stoked societal divisions.
The company has denied any wrongdoing.
In Tuesday’s settlements, the Justice Department said that Facebook used recruitment practices designed to deter U.S. workers such as requiring applications to be submitted only by mail, refusing to consider American workers who applied for positions and hiring only temporary visa holders.
The Labor Department this year conducted audits of Facebook’s pending PERM applications and uncovered other concerns about the company’s recruitment efforts.
“ Facebook is not above the law,” U.S. Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda told reporters, adding that the Labor Department is “committed to ensuring that the PERM process is not misused by employers – regardless of their size and reach.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)
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