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As Dusk Falls review – superior storytelling elevates this interactive thriller | Games

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A family is on a tense road trip from Sacramento, California to St Louis, Missouri. The kid is tired; the dad seems conflicted; there’s clearly some unspoken tension between the mother and the grandfather. You get the impression that not everybody is keen on this cross-country move, but you don’t yet know why. I was just getting interested in this small-scale domestic drama when things kicked off properly: stopping at a roadside motel for the night, the little family gets caught up in an escalating stand-off when they are taken hostage by three brothers who have just robbed a sheriff.

As Dusk Falls is a branching thriller that you play out from both perspectives: the antagonists, and the victims. Your choices – what you say, what you do, how long you take to press a button to open a window or make a grab for someone’s gun – affect what happens to everyone, both immediately and hours later, at the end of the story. This develops empathy for every character, particularly when you start delving backwards and forwards through their lives after the tense set-piece of the motel stand-off. It also puts you in some horrible situations, because the interests of the people you’re playing are often at odds with each other.

In horror games such as The Quarry, 2K’s bigger-budget narrative summer blockbuster, it’s kinda fun to play around with characters’ lives. Here it’s more stressful, because it feels like real life. This might be a tense thriller, but it’s about believable characters touched by real-world things such as addiction, bereavement, marital stress and various overt and covert forms of violence. The stakes feel higher, even in moments where the drama is lower.

As Dusk Falls is presented as a series of painted-over photographic stills, somewhere between animated and static. I found this art style jarring at first, but I didn’t take long to acclimatise, and in fact these scenes feel more naturalistic and believable than uncanny-valley characters moving around in 3D space. Faces, particularly, communicate more emotion. It gives the whole thing the quality of something remembered, with particular moments or expressions sticking in the mind – and it’s also a clever way of offering so many different scenes and outcomes without the many, many millions of dollars that it costs to either film or fully animate them.

I would happily have watched six episodes of this if it were a Netflix series, but of course the difference with a video game is that you get to influence it. As Dusk Falls supports up to eight players, online and in the same room, using phones or controllers to vote on what should happen next. This is a fun idea but on the first playthrough especially, I didn’t really want the story to go to a vote – I wanted to be able to respond instinctively and naturally to what people said. In multiplayer, having to pause for five seconds every time there’s a dialogue choice or a story crossroads so that everyone could vote really broke the flow, for me, and made it harder to invest.

You can go back and replay a scene to see what else might happen: how your daughter might respond if you take a tough-guy approach rather than trying to minimise the violence for her sake; what would have happened if you’d simply tried to run away; whether a character could have been saved. This is mildly interesting, but there’s so much repeated material that it doesn’t feel massively appealing to sit through the 80% of dialogue and scene-setting that you’ve already seen to discover the 20% that’s different, especially when this is a narrative that operates mostly on tension. That tension’s gone when you know how a scene ultimately plays out. Most often, all that changes is how you get there.

It’s also clear that many of the significant decisions you make in the first hours of the game don’t really play out until the last 20 minutes, meaning that you really would have to replay the entire game rather than individual chapters if you wanted to see big-picture changes. That’s a lot of repetition to sit through. And speaking of the ending: the arcs for most of the game’s characters are tied up neatly and finally, however they work out, but for me one of the stories ended in an unsatisfying cliffhanger that seemed to set up a final chapter that never came.

As Dusk Falls comfortably exceeds the standard of its genre when it comes to plotting, characterisation, performance and the impressive malleability of the story. It’s a story about trauma and what it takes to overcome it, really; reluctant teen criminal Jay Holt stayed with me, particularly, touchingly innocent despite what he’s been exposed to in his life. Narrative games exist outside of gaming’s old technological arms race, now, and because we’re not focusing so much on how realistic they look, they’re free to tell much better stories.

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US offers $10m reward for info on five Conti ransomware members

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Rewards for Justice shared a photo of someone it claims to be an associate of the ransomware gang and is offering a reward to identify him and four others.

The US Department of State is offering a $10m reward for any information on five malicious cyber actors who are believed to be high-ranking members of the Conti ransomware gang.

The US has been offering rewards for information on this ransomware gang since May, including a $5m reward for any intel that leads to the arrest of anyone conspiring or attempting to participate in a Conti attack.

Yesterday (11 August), the department’s Rewards for Justice programme shared an alleged photo of an associate of the ransomware gang. The department said on Twitter that it is “trying to put a name to the face” and believes the individual is the hacker known as “Target”.

Illustration showing an image of a man with four figures next to it. A reward offer for information on the Conti ransomware gang.

A request for information by the Rewards for Justice programme. Image: US Department of State/Rewards for Justice

Conti, also known as Wizard Spider, has been linked to a group believed to be based near St Petersburg, Russia. The US has labelled it a “Russian government-linked ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group”.

The group’s malware is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 ransomware operations targeting critical infrastructure around the world, from law enforcement agencies to emergency medical services and dispatch centres.

In May 2021, the Conti group was behind the HSE ransomware incident that saw more than 80pc of the IT infrastructure of healthcare services across Ireland impacted. It was said to be the most serious cyberattack ever to hit the State’s critical infrastructure.

The US Department of State previously said the Conti ransomware variant is the “costliest strain of ransomware” ever documented. The FBI estimates that, as of January 2022, there had been more than 1,000 victims of attacks associated with Conti ransomware, with victim payouts exceeding $150m.

When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Conti group declared its allegiance to the Russian government. Shortly after, a Ukrainian researcher took the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages of the ransomware gang.

Raj Samani, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, said the latest reward offer is just “the tip of the iceberg as enforcement agencies make “considerable strides” through public-private collaboration to hold cybercriminals to account.

“Announcing a reward and revealing the details of Conti members sends a message to would-be criminals that cybercrime is anything but risk-free,” said Samani.

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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