October 19, 2023

Happy Thursday.

I've covered dogs playing video games before, so I guess I should have anticipated a dog speedrunner. Peanut Butter, a shiba inu, can clear old-school Nintendo game Gyromite in under 26 minutes.

Today's edition: 1,648 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: AI helps revive an actor's voice

Cyberpunk 2077 supporting character Viktor Vektor. Screenshot: CD Projekt RED (captured by Axios)

A Ukrainian company that used AI to re-create a deceased actor's voice for the video game expansion Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty says their technology can transform the field of voice acting without leaving humans out of the process.

Why it matters: Advances in AI have alarmed voice actors who fear the technology could be used to eliminate their jobs.

  • But Respeecher, the firm that worked on Cyberpunk, says AI is best used to modify human voices rather than replace them.

Driving the news: Respeecher's work for Cyberpunk 2077 re-creates the voice of actor Miłogost "Miłek" Reczek, who performed the Polish voiceover for supporting character Viktor Vektor in the 2020 video game. Reczek died in 2021 prior to the recording of voice work for 2077's expansion, released last month.

  • The game's developers at CD Projekt RED chose not to recast the role and instead tapped Respeecher to re-create his voice by manipulating lines spoken by another actor.
  • "The new lines were performed by Janusz Zadura, who tried to emulate Miłek's style of speaking, after which we used Respeecher's algorithm to adjust these new recordings so that they emulated Miłek's voice," the game's localization director, Mikołaj Szwed, said in a statement to Axios.
  • CDPR received permission to do this from Reczek's sons, the studio said, and it credits three "synthetic speech artists," who helped manipulate Zadura's voice, in the game.

What they're saying: Respeecher CEO Alex Serdiuk told Axios, on a Zoom call from his office in Kyiv, that the company's projects are all "purely and completely ethical."

  • He emphasized that Respeecher always ensures that it has permission to use the voice its AI is trained on. (In the Cyberpunk case, the original actor's family was not paid. "Miłek's family didn't want any compensation, they treated it all as tribute to their late family member," a studio rep told Axios.)
  • Serdiuk also is adamant about keeping people involved in the process. Today's text-to-speech systems that exclude people can't generate sufficiently realistic enough AI-generated lines, he says.
  • "You cannot tell text-to-speech exactly what emotion you need," Serdiuk says. The way he sees it, human actors, recording the lines that the AI can then manipulate, are essential to providing that emotion.

Yes, but: The use of AI to resurrect the voices of dead people has stirred concern by the SAG-AFTRA actors union and others, especially given risks it could be deployed without consent.

  • Actress Zelda Williams recently criticized AI-generated deep-fakes of her father, Robin Williams, who died in 2014.

Between the lines: Respeecher has worked extensively on TV shows and movies, using its approach to offer a younger voice for Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker in a Star Wars show on Disney+ and generating lines in the voice of basketball great Wilt Chamberlain in a documentary for Showtime.

  • Its video game work has been lower profile. Serdiuk tells Axios that Respeecher worked on a "major voice" in Sony PlayStation's 2022 blockbuster God of War: Ragnarök, though he isn't authorized to say exactly what his company did.
  • Another video game project Respeecher can't detail involves using its tech for "scaling some very high-demand voices," Seriduk says. That means Respeecher will train an AI to transform the lines of one actor to make them sound like an actor who isn't available to record them, with the more popular actor's OK.

2. Review: Super Mario's spectacular return

Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Screenshot: Nintendo

If playing a video game, as it's been said, involves making a series of interesting decisions, Nintendo's newest game, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, offers players the most interesting set of decisions ever presented in the company's flagship series.

Why it matters: Wonder, set for release tomorrow, is the first big new Mario game in six years and the first since the release of April's theatrical blockbuster, "The Super Mario Bros. Movie."

Details: Super Mario Bros. Wonder, like its dozen or so predecessors from the last 38 years, is an interactive obstacle course. This one is set on a 2D plane, a so-called sidescroller like the earliest Mario games.

  • Players can control Mario, but they don't have to. Nintendo provides a record 12 characters to choose from, including a trio of female stars: Princess Peach, Daisy and Toadette.
  • Levels, as always, are governed by dream-logic physics that allows for floating platforms, mushrooms that make your protagonist bigger, and, in the titular twist, one magical "wonder flower" per level that enjoyably transforms each course in some radical and usually unique way.

The most interesting choice in Super Mario Wonder is presented before each level, as players are invited to choose one of 24 unlockable badges that significantly modify how their character will function.

  • Some badges make the game easier (turning the protagonist's hat into an optional parachute) or more fun to explore (by enhancing the heroes' jumping ability, making it easier to access Wonder's many secret areas). Some even make it more difficult (one devilish badge turns our hero invisible; good luck clearing levels like that).
  • And they suit the enterprising culture of how players have unofficially tackled Mario games for years: playing the games rapidly to set speed records, playing blind-folded, controlling them with a dance pad, etc.

The big picture: Through its biggest games, Nintendo has been making this year is that tapping into its customers' creativity — rather than just their eagerness to be pulled through an entertaining experience — is an increasingly essential part of its games.

Read more: Review: Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a malleable marvel

3. Exclusive: Hearst's gaming push

Puzzmo. Screenshot: Hearst

The New York Times' Crossword/Wordle/Spelling Bee gaming juggernaut is getting some competition from newspaper rival Hearst through a new puzzle project called Puzzmo.

Driving the news: The collection of daily puzzles, presented in a format that resembles printed newspapers' puzzle pages, is launching in an online preview today with a handful of puzzles and some notable twists.

  • The site's games include a riff on the classic crossword puzzle that will include hints for each clue and a note from the puzzle's creator about their thinking behind the puzzle as part of an effort to humanize the genre.
  • Other games include Spelltower, Really Bad Chess and Typeshift, all previously released by acclaimed game maker Zach Gage, who built Puzzmo alongside engineer Orta Therox.
  • A new game from Gage, called Flipart, is inspired from rearranging a sock drawer or loading a dishwasher, he tells Axios.

Between the lines: Puzzmo can be played for free, but Hearst is also charging a subscription for added services and one bonus, experimental game.

  • Hearst isn't ready to say how it'll tie Puzzmo into the rest of its news business, but it is bullish on the eight-person team behind the project.

The intrigue: To get access to Puzzmo, players need to be one of the first 500 people each day to solve one simple puzzle online, after which Hearst will physically mail a separate key (another puzzle) to those players. If they then solve that, they are given a code to access the Puzzmo site.

4. Need to know

☹️ Layoffs continue to spread across the industry.

  • Six to Start, makers of Zombies Run and Marvel Move, is losing half its team of 25 developers and contractors, studio head Adrian Hon tells Axios. Hon is also exiting after a 17-year run. Six to Start sold to fitness company OliveX in 2021. He expects the studio's current projects to keep running, but with less staff to support them.
  • Pinball video game specialists Zen Studios, part of the embattled Embracer Group, cut more than 30 workers, or about a quarter of its workforce, in Hungary, Forbes reports.

↔️ Paradox Interactive is "parting ways" with Lamplighters League video game maker Harebrained Scheme in 2024, Eurogamer reports. Paradox acquired the studio in 2018.

💰 Spending on video games and related hardware and accessories in the U.S. totaled $4.5 billion in September, up 10% compared to a year ago, according to industry tacking firm Circana.

  • PS5 was the top console, and Microsoft's Starfield was the top game, ahead of Warner Bros. Mortal Kombat 1.

😲 Roblox has been downloaded more than 10 million times on the PlayStation 4 and 5 since its debut on those platforms last week, a company rep tells Axios.

🤔 Roblox will require all employees to work at its San Mateo headquarters three days a week next year, effectively ending long-distance remote work. "While I'm confident we will get to a point where virtual workspaces are as engaging, collaborative and productive as physical spaces, we aren't there yet," company CEO David Baszucki said.

🟥 Netflix plans to grow its gaming business through "better title selection" and increasing consumer awareness that it has games to play, Netflix CEO Greg Peters told investors this week.

🎮 Epic Games will publish its biggest externally developed game, Alan Wake 2, next week and is promoting it this week with an interactive recap of the first Alan Wake staged in Epic's own Fortnite.

5. The week ahead

Metal Gear Solid Master Collection, Vol. 1. Screenshot: Konami

Friday, Oct. 20

Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 21-22

Monday, Oct. 23

  • A quiet day.

Tuesday, Oct. 24

Wednesday, Oct. 25

  • A quiet day.

Thursday, Oct. 26

Friday, Oct. 27

  • Alan Wake 2 (PC, PlayStation and Xbox) and UFC 5 (PlayStation, Xbox) are released.

6. I played ... Spider-Man 2, then went to Brooklyn

Brooklyn's iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, in Marvel's Spider-Man 2 and in real life. Images: Sony Interactive Entertainment and Axios.

I used to live in Brooklyn, and I spent the last two weeks virtually swinging (and flying) through it in Marvel's Spider-Man 2.

  • I saw so many familiar sites, that I had to go back and compare.
  • Above, the game's version of Brooklyn's iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank side by side with a photo I snapped of it.
  • Below, my attempt to compare the game's version of Grand Army Plaza with the real thing.
Video game screenshot of Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, showing an intersection with the cured facade of the Brooklyn Public Library in the background
Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, as seen in Marvel's Spider-Man 2. Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment (Captured by Axios)
Photo of Grand Army Plaza, showing an intersection with the cured facade of the Brooklyn Public Library in the background
Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, as seen in real life. Photo: Axios

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🐦 Find me on Twitter or Threads, @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Megan Morrone for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

Hey, where'd that traffic light go?