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Avatar: The Last Airbender is back on Netflix, but don’t start with the first episode




Avatar: The Last Airbender is back on Netflix after a seven-year absence, and if you never caught the show, now is a perfect time. Avatar isn’t just one of the best animated series around; it’s full-stop excellent television regardless of format. This might not be clear from episode 1, though. As premieres go, it’s charming but geared toward hooking children. Skepticism is okay! Just don’t pass it by without diving into one of its best episodes, “Zuko Alone” (season 2, episode 7). It’s a standalone tale that explains everything you need to know — a terrific martial arts Western with surprisingly rich characterization and a gut-punch ending — all in 20 minutes.

In Avatar, there are four nations, each based on the mastery of a different element: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. The Fire Nation declared war on the others, and the series is about children caught up in this war. Most episodes focus on Aang, the titular Avatar, the only person in the world with the ability to master all four elements and prophesied to restore balance. The only problem: he’s a child and not quite in command of every element yet. Through a mix of standalone and serial episodes, Avatar follows Aang and his young friends as they help him on his journey to master the elements, while pursued by Fire Nation and stymied by adults in power.

“Zuko Alone” focuses on the young Prince Zuko, one of the show’s primary antagonists, exiled from the Fire Nation after a humiliating failure, left to wander on his own. The episode is removed from the show’s highly serialized plot. Like in a good Western, Zuko takes on the archetypal role of The Man With No Name. He arrives at a small frontier town for rest and a meal when he encounters a conflict: crooked Earth Kingdom soldiers are terrorizing the villagers they’re supposed to protect. As a once-proud member of the invading nation, Zuko has been a villain unaccustomed to caring about others. In exile however, his priorities are slowly shifting, and he decides to intervene. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the plot of Shane, one of the most beloved and regularly homaged Westerns.)

In “Zuko Alone,” the former prince finally gets a chance to see what he’s represented all this time to the people outside of the Fire Nation. His internal conflict is externalized by his decision to hide his identity, and the unspoken idea that his new friends might not respond so kindly if they knew who he was.

One reason Avatar: The Last Airbender is loved by its fans is the way it refuses to talk down to its audience. Like Phillip Pullman’s YA trilogy His Dark Materials, it’s a show that rarely simplifies things to “good” or “evil,” letting its protagonists be selfish and wrong at times and giving its antagonists depth whenever possible. In the world of Avatar, characters are caught between compassion and conflict, and war provides them with regular opportunity to behave nobly or selfishly. That its main characters are all children only underlines all of this. The frequent goofy hijinks and moments of weakness are all normal parts of growing up, and no matter how much we’d like it to be, growing up does not happen in a vacuum. It happens out in the world where there is conflict, war, and pain. The children of Avatar want to be kids, but they’re also inheriting the world of their parents and are just starting to see it for what it is — but they’re not yet jaded enough to stop seeing what it could be.

This is what makes “Zuko Alone” a good introduction to Avatar: it’s a small character study of one of these kids, scarred in more ways than one, coming to terms with all manner of consequence — the cost of his decisions, the burden of his place in the world, the limits of his control over how others perceive him, and the potential he still has to become who he wants to be, under his old name or not.

That’s pretty good stuff for a kid’s show.

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New Xbox One update lets you customize the order of your Guide tabs




Microsoft has released a new Xbox One update that brings a number of changes to the Guide menu, which gives you quick access to things like your friends list, messaging, and achievements. The biggest change is that you can now reorder your Guide tabs, which should make it easier to customize your Guide in a way that’s best for you. Microsoft first previewed the new Guide in April.

The updated Guide has a new default left-to-right order and fewer tabs that consolidate some features. The new “Parties & Chats” tab puts Parties, invites, and messages all into the same tab, for example. And if you want to customize the order of your tabs, you can do so by selecting “Customize guide tabs” on the “Profile & System” menu.

You can get a look at some of the new Guide tabs in this gallery:

Microsoft has also updated the Xbox Live Community page, dividing it into four channels: shared by friends, official posts from games, club activity, and popular on Xbox Live. The update also gives you new ways to filter your game collection and shows you live thumbnails while you’re browsing through Mixer streams.

The changes come as Microsoft prepares for the launch of the Xbox Series X this holiday. Microsoft hasn’t shown off the full Xbox Series X dashboard just yet, but in a few teasers, it looks very similar to what’s available on the Xbox One.

Xbox Series X dashboard in Microsoft’s recent videos.

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Sony confirms PS5 will have exclusive games playable only on next-gen hardware




The PlayStation 5 will have one selling point Sony thinks might be important to fans who are on the fence about upgrading to a new generation of gaming console: exclusive titles, playable only on the new hardware. Speaking with in an interview published Friday, PlayStation boss Jim Ryan said his company’s upcoming device — which, as of today, has its first official reveal event scheduled for next week — will have games you cannot play on existing PlayStation 4 devices.

Of course, that’s been true of pretty much every past console generation of the last three decades. But it’s notable now because Sony and its primary competitor, Microsoft, have gone to great lengths over the last few years to create new system architectures that bridge current and future generations of gaming hardware. That means, in theory, Sony could release new games for both the PS5 and PS4, as Microsoft plans to do with its Xbox One platform for at least the first couple of years after the release of its more powerful, next-gen Xbox Series X. But Ryan says he wants to give PlayStation fans “something new, something different, that can really only be enjoyed on PS5.”

“We have always said that we believe in generations. We believe that when you go to all the trouble of creating a next-gen console, that it should include features and benefits that the previous generation does not include. And that, in our view, people should make games that can make the most of those features,” he said. “We do believe in generations, and whether it’s the DualSense controller, whether it’s the 3D audio, whether it’s the multiple ways that the SSD can be used… we are thinking that it is time to give the PlayStation community something new, something different, that can really only be enjoyed on PS5.”

This is, of course, less of a technical debate about platform capabilities and more of a conversation around marketing strategy. Both the PS5 and the Xbox Series X will support backwards compatibility, meaning you’ll be able to play most, if not all, of your current game library on a next-gen device. But only Microsoft has so far committed to supporting cross-generation support for first-party games, like its upcoming launch title Halo Infinite, that will be playable on PC, Xbox Series X, and Xbox One. (Third-party developers, like Madden and FIFA owner Electronic Arts and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla maker Ubisoft, are also far more likely to continue supporting current and future generations simultaneously for quite some time.)

That makes sense: Microsoft’s entire platform strategy going forward is about deemphasizing what device you’re playing on and focusing instead on letting players move purchases across platforms with, in some cases, cross-save and cross-buy features. This started with Xbox Play Anywhere, and it’s now extending to a new initiative the company calls Smart Delivery, which will ensure you don’t have to buy copies of games twice when you move from, say, the Xbox One to the Xbox Series X. You’ll simply get the enhanced version of the game on whatever platform you choose.

It’s important to remember as well that Microsoft is investing heavily in technologies, like its Xbox Game Pass subscription service and its xCloud platform, that might make unit sales and other traditional financial metrics less important to its business in the future. That will be especially true if Microsoft successfully bridges the console and PC platforms in ways Sony could never pull off.

But it also makes sense then that Sony doesn’t want to follow suit, as Ryan’s comments confirm. Sony had the best-selling console of the last decade in part by focusing heavily on exclusives like Bloodborne, God of War, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Even now, in the last few months of the PS4’s life cycle, Sony is continuing its strong track record with The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima, two exclusive titles likely to be big sellers this summer.

The challenge for Sony going forward will be in making the case that its new hardware justifies the jump from the current generation and that the company isn’t just gating new titles behind a pricey console upgrade. That will mean really selling the PS5’s capabilities, like its supposed ultra-fast solid-state drive and its upgraded CPU and GPU, and doing so in a way that makes consumers feel justified in spending hundreds of dollars on new hardware. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft positions its Xbox Series X against the PS5, and whether Microsoft can successfully win over consumers with its argument for more cross-platform, cross-generation support.

We don’t know what the PS5’s launch slate will look like. Presumably, the company will have more to show next week. And it could be the case that at least some first-party Sony games do see concurrent releases across both PS4 and PS5. Sony is also clearly building out a multiplatform strategy, starting with Horizon Zero Dawn, which involves bringing its exclusives to PC. But Ryan’s comments strongly suggest that Sony isn’t abandoning its trued and true console-first strategy. That means PS5 exclusives will, at least at launch, be a big selling point Sony will use to try to convince people to stick with its platform come this fall.

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NYU’s virtual graduation event turned into ‘a vaporwave nightmare’




On May 19th, New York University student John DiLillo attended Grad Alley, the school’s annual block party to celebrate commencement. For two hours, he and a few friends went to places like “Pictionary Island” and peered into the (surprisingly hollow) rubbery inside of a dolphin. He got stuck underground. He ran into exactly six people, including “a mysterious panda avatar who flew several virtual yards away from us and claimed to be a moderator trying to make sure we were having fun.” Eventually, he logged off with a headache.

DiLillo, like countless students across the country, would not be spending graduation the way he envisioned. The pandemic has made that kind of mass gathering, filled with students, teachers, and parents, not just irresponsible, but potentially deadly. To soften the loss, NYU officials instead ushered thousands of students into a virtual space dubbed “VR Grad Alley,” a blocky, low-res re-creation of places associated with the school. The idea makes sense on paper. Stuck inside, people have had to get creative. House Party is how we socialize, dates take place on FaceTime, weddings happen over Zoom, and Animal Crossing is where the best talk shows are. Travis Scott held a concert in Fortnite. If kids can re-create their college campuses in Minecraft, why not throw a graduation party online?

But for some students who attended, Grad Alley wasn’t just a letdown. It was a puzzling experience to send them off into the world. Those who spoke to The Verge describe it as surreal or even downright bleak. “It had tremendous DashCon vibes,” says student Chris Kindred, referring to Tumblr’s infamous failed con. “Somebody really tried to make a slice of New York, seemingly based on no reference of New York.”

A spokesperson for NYU, Jason Hollander, tells The Verge that the school came up with the idea after speaking to senior students. Many wished they could return to campus before graduation. “While we sadly couldn’t fulfill that for them, we wanted to offer them some sense of being back in the Village before they officially became alumni,” he says. They decided to do a riff on the Grad Alley block party, this time “in VR as a nostalgic taste” of Washington Square Park where the festivities typically take place.

“The goal was to give students a chance to explore the space alongside friends, to make a few last lighthearted NYU memories, and to, hopefully, bring a smile to their faces after a long and challenging semester,” Hollander says.

To enter Grad Alley, students first created their avatar, a legless, robotic being with a bubblehead and googly-eyed stare. They could choose from a set of cartoonish skins, including everything from pandas and Game Boys to Star Trek’s Spock. There was also the option to upload photos to blank avatars, but some students had trouble with this as well. “I couldn’t find a photo that fit the mold, so it just ended up looking like my avatar was wearing an alien’s skin Silence of the Lambs-style,” DiLillo says. The VR world included rooms to join for different activities, such as chess in a virtual Washington Square Park, a trivia lounge, and a rooftop lounge.

But VR Grad Alley was, by design, not made to allow for students to meet up with just anyone. They could invite each other into rooms that held up to 25 of their friends, but only after the event went live. To do so, they needed a link or code to the room they intended to join. “We did this so that friends could find each other and spend time together on their last official day as students,” Hollander says.

Each account of the experience given to The Verge sounds a bit like a person describing a dream. Kindred says he went to the Kimmel Rooftop Lounge “because it looked the least ridiculous,” only to encounter “a video of a guy who looked almost exactly like Quentin Tarantino, playing a midi controller.” Eventually, he realized his character model wasn’t attached to the floor, allowing him to freely float away. “I did end up finding my way to the end of the universe,” he jokes about his character clipping through the game’s scenery. “I ended up going maybe a few minutes out, and I guess at that point it started to look a little profound.” Or at least, he adds, as profound as it could be after you’ve found the seams of the game.

Another student, Melissa Alvarez, says it felt like playing a weird version of Minecraft or Roblox with no reward. “I turned my mic on to talk to people, but obviously there was no one in there to talk to so that was a waste of time. That was enough to turn me off and I decided to leave. My friends refused to join.”

On Twitter, Elizabeth Ballou tweeted several dispatches and screenshots, including an in-game selfie booth with the oddly unenthusiastic declaration “CONGRATULATIONS,” no punctuation, printed in block letters on a purple background. (Ballou wrote about her own experiences with NYU and Grad Alley for Vice.) Speaking to The Verge, she described the vibe as depressing, “a vaporwave nightmare.” There was a frustrating kind of isolation to it all, says Ballou and a lack of the spontaneous interactions that make experiences like an online game feel joyful. “Even if I had been able to persuade more friends to join me, what would we have done? The controls didn’t allow us to take actions like dancing, or smiling, or congratulating each other.”

Those who did successfully group up with friends reported mic and sound issues. According to DiLillo, the mics worked best only if you were close to each other; the farther you strayed from others, the quieter it was. “This blocky facsimile of New York just made me miss actually being able to spend time in the real thing with real people instead of in cyber-purgatory with a few butt-plug robots,” he says.

NYU made a bizarre attempt at an MMO called “Grad Alley” that recreates parts of campus for graduating students. I cannot describe how bad it is. a random assemblage of textures. auto-generated usernames. nonsensical tools. every room is named “whatever” and is completely empty.

— elizabeth ballou (@lizbetballou) May 19, 2020

Another, a Tisch senior who asked to remain anonymous, said they spent roughly an hour online but that most of their time was eaten up by waiting for things to load or run. “I feel kind of indifferent, I suppose,” the student says. “Nobody asked for it, but it happened, and now it’s gone. The NYU administration has been clear that we aren’t getting a tuition refund, but trying to funnel the money into whatever this thing was certainly wasn’t a solution.”

Asked about the preparation for Grad Alley, Hollander said the school only had a few short weeks to enact their plan. In addition to servers that could potentially house all 20,000 graduating students, Hollander says NYU was “committed to ensuring this emerging technology was accessible to people of all abilities, including the visual and hearing impaired.” The final product was a joint effort between Manhattan-based design team Jump Into the Light, faculty in the NYU Future Reality Lab, the Steinhardt Games for Learning Institute, and the NYU Moses Center for Student Accessibility and the NYU Ability Project. “This was our first effort on the social VR front, and we learned a lot from the experience,” Hollander says.

(Curiously, NYU’s Game Center was not involved with the project; Hollander did not address a question about why the Game Center was not consulted. Game Center faculty member Naomi Clark says she learned of it through a student. “Of course NYU is a big institution, and often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But given that we’re the game design department of the university and MMOs and virtual worlds are at least somewhat related to games, we thought we would have at least heard about this.” Game Center students had already been hanging out virtually for weeks using Habboon. They successfully threw their own celebration independently prior to Grad Alley.)

Hollander says NYU sees “enormous potential” in the tech as a communal tool, and it intends to use feedback to continue improving the experience of social VR. “Because of the need to accommodate such a potentially huge audience, we opted to give students more control over their opportunity to socialize — rather than grouping them randomly together — and this did lead to some having trouble finding others.” He says that more than 3,000 unique users logged into the event over the course of its four-hour run. One student, he claims, even managed to connect with a job opportunity. “In all, while surely surreal, we hope the Class of 2020 found little distraction and had some fun during an otherwise stressful time.”

Reflecting on their inability to attend a proper celebration, some students acknowledged Grad Alley’s failures while voicing appreciation for the school’s best efforts. “The vibe was sad, and depressing, but I get it,” says Alvarez. “It’s like — what else were they supposed to do? I’ve been seeing a lot of my peers complaining at every turn, and if I were part of the administration at NYU I might have quit by now. I don’t know what else they could have done, this sucks for everyone and I guess this was a pretty inventive way to make up for not holding Grad Alley in person. Any event they might have held virtually would get hate.”

For NYU students, it’s a bittersweet end to their time at school. “It’s been a little bit difficult for me to put my disappointment about the way this semester ended into words,” says DiLillo, “because obviously I and most of my peers are coming from a place of extreme privilege.” In the scheme of things, their difficulties are nothing compared to those of essential workers or people who have lost their jobs. “But the way every day blends together right now does make it difficult for graduates to really feel like they’ve accomplished anything whatsoever,” he says. “Instead of getting a few days to celebrate before plunging into the job search, it’s all just the same thing with one day blending into the next, and oops, now we’ve graduated. It’s exhausting.”

Other students echo the sentiment. The Tisch senior calls being unable to say a proper goodbye to their classmates, teachers, or favorite spots heartbreaking; their thesis projects remain on indefinite hold. “It feels like I’ve tripped across the finish line, instead of walked triumphantly across a stage.”

Commencement was a 27-minute pre-recorded video on YouTube. “I should have been at Yankee Stadium bored out of my mind!” says Alvarez, referring to what the festivities might have been in a normal year. “I want people to understand that while I know I was fortunate enough to graduate at all, in a way that felt connected, it sucks so bad and no postponed commencement will make up for it. Senior week and all of these fun events were taken from me. My last chance to be a college senior, a ‘kid’ in a way before the ‘real world’ happens to me, was just ripped from me.

“I know I’ll survive, but I cried all day because I couldn’t celebrate with my friends. And no, a weird version of NYU Minecraft did not make me feel better.”

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