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Observation And The Horror Of A New Perspective


Note: Some mild spoilers for both Observation and the 2018 horror film Hereditary 

There’s this nugget of wisdom that writers like to say whenever the subject of innovation comes up: every story has already been told. The statement is probably right, but it isn’t even one of defeat. Instead, what it implies is that even though every story has been told, the real, exhilarating challenge for creators is finding new ways to tell the story. My Own Private Idaho, for example, is a version of Henry IV that uses Portland and modern language to tackle universal themes about duty, betrayal, and friendship. Or, for something more gamey, I think there’s a sound argument to be made that The Last Of Us is just another version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The specificity of the events in each story is different but the broad strokes are the same in the end: two characters traversing an unkind world, struggling to find a connection with one another as much as they are struggling to survive. 

Horror, perhaps like no other genre, bears the brunt of that distressing statement more than any other. How can you scare someone when their eyes are already searching the shadows for the boogeyman waiting to leap out, when they’ve seen 27 variations of this particular plot play out in other movies before, when they’ve become so desensitized to knives through the eyeballs and heads cleaved from necks? There are only so many stories about monsters and people and the shapes they come in, and yet in spite of that deficit of so-called innovation, horror persists, and it persists wonderfully.

Take Observation, the recently-released sci-fi horror adventure game from No Code. Observation approaches the traditional sci-fi horror staple of Artificial Intelligence Gone Awry from a fresh point of view: that of the artificial intelligence itself. Observation’s S.A.M. challenges the concept of the coldly detached sociopathic A.I. like Alien’s Mother or 2001‘s HAL by simply the virtue of you, a human being, playing the role. This novel twist lays the foundation for all of Observation’s strengths. Instead of being a weakling human running through the corridors of a broken space station, you’re the demigod trying to help (or harm?) that weakling.

Ari Aster’s film Hereditary

Observation excels because instead of taking power away from you and shoving you in a dangerous space, it lets you operate from a traditionally safe standpoint. You’re an A.I.: it’s impossible for you to suffer bodily harm. That’s a huge risk that No Code makes, making you not worry about your own safety but the safety of your human companion, Doctor Emma Fisher. This is a huge departure from horror games, where jump scares and monsters pursuing you to the ends of the earth serve as the traditional model of what a scary game should be. However, what I like most about Observation is that it packs its thrills and unsettling moments into its conceit in a natural, slow-burn way that mimics Emma and S.A.M’s co-dependent relationship as questions slowly unfold during your journey.

Just how did the space station fall apart? Who is responsible for all the troubles that Emma and her crew are suffering? Was it S.A.M, whose memory banks are conveniently wiped before the game begins, or something else? Can Emma trust you? Can you trust yourself?  The player, like S.A.M. and Emma, must face these questions head-on as they progress through the game and the pair’s relationship. Observation lurches into paranoia, eschewing jump scares for deeply unsettling paradoxes and stomach-churning plights of the soul. And during that time, the horror and possibility of danger emerges from the emotional tether you have to Emma. In the end, Observation is what the brilliant but flawed SOMA should have been: a game that has no need for actual roving monsters because its story, characters, mechanics, and setting all work together to present a powerfully disturbing and enticing experience.

In a lot of ways, Observation reminds me of Hereditary, a movie that marries grief to a Polanski-style descent into raving lunacy. For me, Hereditary‘s most powerful moment had nothing to do with blood or death but instead an argument screamed over a dinner scene where two people unleash their resentments and grief on another. It’s a raw, powerful sequence that really gives life to Hereditary’s despairing stance that family is not a place of sanctuary but instead one of doom. The movie reckons with the idea that family brings us into an existence where we’re doomed to die, where curses swim in our blood. The notion of generational curses in any medium is not new (One Hundred Years Of Solitude, An American Haunting, so on) since they’re rooted in folklore of various cultures. However, Hereditary mines that anxiety that we’re on trial for the sins and failures of our parents (and that our children will likely be on trial for our own failures) in a visceral way. Observation approaches the notion of surveillance and the idea that we’re completely removed from danger if we’re operating from a place of power in a similar, topsy-turvy fashion where nothing is sacred or safe no matter how powerful we think we are.

I truly believe that horror is probably the hardest genre to pull off because it requires its creator to be a skilled illusionist and manipulator, tricking their audience into thinking the same old story they’ve seen a hundred times is in fact something startling and new. Observation is a masterclass lesson in that particular art, and one that I hope the developers of tomorrow’s horror games take to bloody heart.



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Zendesk acquires Smooch, doubles down on support via messaging apps like WhatsApp – TechCrunch


One of the bigger developments in customer services has been the impact of social media — both as a place to vent frustration or praise (mostly frustration) and — especially over messaging apps — as a place for businesses to connect with their users.

Now, customer support specialist Zendesk has made an acquisition so that it can make a bigger move into how it works within social media platforms, and specifically messaging apps: it has acquired Smooch, a startup that describes itself as an “omnichannel messaging platform,” which companies’ customer care teams can use to interact with people over messaging platforms like WhatsApp, WeChat, Line and Messenger, as well as SMS and email.

Smooch was in fact one of the first partners for the WhatsApp Business API, alongside VoiceSage, Nexmo, Infobip, Twilio, MessageBird and others already advertising their services in this area.

It had also been a longtime partner of Zendesk’s, powering the company’s own WhatsApp Business integration and other features. The two already have some customers in common, including Uber. Other Smooch customers include Four Seasons, SXSW, Betterment, Clarabridge, Harry’s, LVMH, Delivery Hero and BarkBox.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed, but Zendesk SVP  class=”il”>Shawna Wolverton said in an interview that the startup’s entire team of 48, led by co-founder and CEO Warren Levitan, are being offered positions with Zendesk. Smooch is based out of Montreal, Canada — so this represents an expansion for Zendesk into building an office in Canada.

Its backers included iNovia, TA Associates and Real Ventures, who collectively had backed it with less than $10 million (when you leave the inflated hills surrounding Silicon Valley, numbers magically decline). As Zendesk is publicly traded, we may get more of a picture of the price in future quarterly reports. This is the company’s fifth acquisition to date.

The deal underscores the big impact that messaging apps are making in customer service. While phone and internet are massive points of contact, messaging apps is one of the most-requested features Zendesk’s customers are requesting, “because they want to be where their customers are,” with WhatsApp — now at 1.5 billion users — currently at the top of the pile, Wolverton said. (More than half of Zendesk’s revenues are from outside the U.S., which speaks to why WhatsApp — which is bigger outside the U..S than it is in it — is a popular request.)

That’s partly a by-product of how popular messaging apps are full-stop, with more than 75% of all smartphone users having at least one messaging app in use on their devices.

“We live in a messaging-centric world, and customers expect the convenience and interactivity of messaging to be part of their experiences,” said Mikkel Svane, Zendesk founder, CEO and chairman, in a statement. “As long-time partners with Smooch, we know first hand how much they have advanced the conversational experience to bring together all forms of messaging and create a continuous conversation between customers and businesses.”

While the two companies were already working together, the acquisition will mean a closer integration.

That will be in multiple areas. Last year, Zendesk launched a new CRM play called Sunshine, going head to head with the likes of Salesforce in helping businesses better organise and make use of customer data. Smooch will build on that strategy to bring in data to Sunshine from messaging apps and the interactions that take place on them. Also last year, Zendesk launched an omnichannel play, a platform called The Suite, which it says “has become one of our most successful products ever,” with a 400% rise in its customers taking an omnichannel approach. Smooch already forms a key part of that, and it will be even more tightly so.

On the outbound side, for now, there will be two areas where Smooch will be used, Wolverton said. First will be on the basic level of giving Zendesk users the ability to see and create messaging app discussions within a dashboard where they are able to monitor and handle all customer relationship contacts: a conversation that was initiated now on, say, Twitter, can be easily moved into WhatsApp or whatever more direct channel someone wants to use.

Second, Wolverton said that customer care workers can use Smooch to send on “micro apps” to users to handle routine service enquiries, for example sending them links to make or change seat assignments on a flight.

Over time, the plan will be to bring more automated options into the experience, which opens the door for using more AI and potentially bots down the line.



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