Learning opsec with Nermal

A few years back, (ISC)2’s charitable trust, the Center for Cyber Safety & Education partnered up with Paws, Inc. to create four comic books putting Garfield and friends in various educational cyber situations. The topics are privacy, safe posting, downloading, and cyberbullying. The fact that the Center for Cyber Safety & Education has, seemingly, three websites all dedicated to pushing this (one, two, three), the fact that they all demand you accept their usage of cookies, the fact that the Center seems proud to partner with Nielsen and Amazon… none of these things scream ‘privacy awareness’ to me. But I was curious just what sort of advice Garf had to offer on the matter, and I have therefore read ‘Privacy: Online Friends Are Not The Same As Real Friends’. On the off chance that you, reader, do not want to acquire this masterpiece and follow along, there is also an animation, hosted on known privacy advocacy platform YouTube (lolol). For whatever reason, the animation only covers like a third of the story, but eh it’s enough to get the gist.

Let’s get plot out of the way. Garf wants to eat a bunch of doughnuts, but he can’t because Nermal is being loud. Nermal is being loud because he’s struggling at a video game, ‘CheeseQuest VII: Attack of the Cheddar Zombies’. Some random player offers to help Nermal win, he just needs Nermal’s password. Arlene catches this and convinces Garf to care. Garf is not a privacy expert, however, so he calls everyone’s favorite recurring character, Dr. Cybrina, for help. Dr. Cybrina tells Nermal a bunch of tips for staying safe online, and then in a random act of kindness, Garf shows Nermal how to beat the game. Then he leaves to chase an ice cream truck.

All of that is just set dressing to talk about privacy, of course. So, what does Dr. Cybrina teach Nermal? Not much, really. On a single page, we learn about Personally Identifiable Information (PII)1. “Like my favorite kind of pizza?” Nermal asks. Dr. Cybrina clears this up, and lists off a bunch of examples of PII: name, address, phone number, gender2, age, and plans/location. Oddly, she lumps password in here as well, which… doesn’t quite feel right, but not sharing your password is obviously good advice, so whatever. Then, Dr. Cybrina talks a bit about how little Nermal knows about this random player as well: the distinction between screen names and real names, that the player might be a big scary adult, and of course… that online friends are not your real friends. She doesn’t say anything about sharing photos of yourself, but Garf apparently knows this and changes Nermal’s profile pic. Finally, we get several pages of quizzes, with things like ‘is a story you wrote okay to share, or best kept private?’ and ‘is it okay to play games online?’ The multiple choice questions are entertaining, with choices like ‘Nermal should only give the friend his password if he gets the friend’s password too.’ And… that’s that.

So is it any good? Well, as a Garfield tale, it adds some wild realities to the canon: we get a new character, Dr. Cybrina, destined to the pit of deep lore like Ivy or Stinky Davis; we now know at least seven CheeseQuest games exist in the Garfiverse; and we learn that Garf absolutely whips at video games. But, more importantly, it… does a fine job at explaining PII, considering it is a comic for children. But it doesn’t really talk about privacy beyond this one aspect, and it only really teaches kids how to protect PII if they’re interacting with another person, or perhaps setting up a profile online. I acquired this with the intent on reviewing it’s merits on teaching privacy; I expected it to either be horribly misguided or, hopefully, have lots of bits to praise. I didn’t really expect it to be… accurate, but utterly lacking in points to discuss. Given that, it’s honestly kind of hard to assess.

I also wonder if… well, if Garfield is the right franchise to use to reach out to children in 2016 (the year of its release), or today (since they’re still clearly pushing this). At its heart, it does what it set out to, though. One of many little quirks in Garf licensing, though in keeping with Jim Davis’s dedication to education, one with an admirable goal.

The 1st Dictionary With Attitude

2020-07-20 update: the dinguses at Viacom have shuttered garfield dot com; I had to update a footnote to reflect this.

A sort of running theme with Paws, Inc. over the years has been licensing Garfield assets to any and every taker and seeing what sticks. Browsing merch prototypes from Paws HQ on eBay shows an incredible variety of oft-freakish attempts at materializing Garf into our 3-dimensional world. StickerYou has a bunch of Garf assets available for making custom stickers. For some reason, a Canadian restaurant exists that sells pizza approximately in the shape of Garf’s head. Jim Davis is known for his support of education, which has led to collaborations like Garf assets in an educational 3D programming environment. It sort of comes as no surprise, then, that Paws, Inc. teamed up with Merriam-Webster to create The Merriam-Webster and Garfield Dictionary.

Physically, the dictionary is compact-sized and lacks thumb indices. It comes in paperback and library-bound editions. It runs 816 pages, including all of the supplementary material. Textually, it largely reads like a nermal1 Merriam-Webster dictionary. It has a how-to-use section including a pronunciation guide, the dictionary itself, sections on names of places, people, mythological figures, &c., a style guide, and a list of sources. I’m unable to tell what pre-existing edition of the Merriam-Webster this is based on, but it is definitely pared down a bit to be more ‘family-friendly’: there are no swear words, giggly words like ‘butt’ and ‘poop’ lack their giggly definitions, but sexual anatomic terms like ‘penis’ and ‘anus’ are present as are non-slangy terms for sexual acts like ‘masturbation’ and ‘cunnilingus.’ It also contains typical charts like a table of the elements, and various illustrations.

There are two things that Garf up this dictionary. First, nearly every page has one definition in a callout box with Garf pointing to the definition. On the same page, there will be a Garfield strip that uses that word in some capacity. This continues through the section of names, locations, &c. The preface tells us that these strips were ‘specially chosen by Merriam-Webster editors,’ and it absolutely makes sense to me that some dictionary randos did this rather than anyone well-versed in the world of Garf. Abu Dhabi would be an obvious choice for a strip, yet that page contains no strip at all. This strip in which Jon tells Garfield his picture is in the dictionary next to the word ‘lazy’ is, in fact in the dictionary… to illustrate the word ‘session.’ There are a handful of these little things that would’ve really made for some cute in-jokes, but alas. The other Garfy bit is ‘Garfield’s Daffy Definitions,’ a three-page supplement at the end wherein words like ‘Arbuckle,’ ‘cat,’ ‘diet,’ ‘lasagna,’ ‘Odie,’ and ‘Pooky’ are defined by Garf himself. The section also includes definitions that serve as weird digs at school and teachers, presumably to make the kids feel empowered.

And that’s it, that’s The Garfield and Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It’s a perfectly useful, reasonable dictionary that would serve the average needs of adults as well as children, just… with Garfield. So why am I even talking about it? Part of it is certainly just one of the more interesting Garfield-related objects that I own, and despite being a mashup of two big brands… nobody seems to know about it. Every time I mention it, folks either think I’m joking or simply ask… why. In that sense, I think it’s an interesting object worth making known. In a sense that is a bit more dear to me… I’m worried about the fate of a lot of these odd Garf collabs now that Viacom owns Paws, Inc. There have already been some damning changes in the world of Paws; notably, U.S. Acres, another Jim Davis strip2 and one which has never been printed in its entirety in book form, was recently removed from GoComics3. This may have been in the cards before the acquisition, it may be entirely on Andrews McMeel, but… it feels like things are changing. And I can’t imagine the capitalist clowns at Viacom4 leaving all of these bizarre collaborations intact. If The Garfield and Merriam-Webster Dictonary goes out of print… will anyone even notice? Will anyone care? It won’t be the end of the world, certainly, but… I do feel some sort of obligation to talk about and document some of these oddities. And if anyone out there was looking for a new dictionary, well… you just got one more option.

Garfield Kart: Furious Racing is out, but whatever

Well, Garfield Kart: Furious Racing officially lands in the U.S. today, which means a review is in order. Not of that game, of course, but of Garfield GO – Paws, Inc.’s 2017 response to the similarly-named and certainly better-known creation by The Pokémon Company. Much like Pokémon Go, you play on a map, based on your actual location, tapping things to interact with them. Also like Pokémon Go, you can play in an AR-style mode where the objects you interact with are superimposed on camera footage of the real world around you, or you can disable this to play on static backgrounds. In AR mode, you have to rotate yourself around to find things and aim very carefully, it’s a frustrating experience just for the sake of seeing a Garf floating above your sad desk. I never enjoyed playing Pokémon Go this way either, personally.

Like so many Garf games, Garfield GO feels like a shell of a game with a half-hearted Garf theme slapped on. Even with my limited knowledge of Pokémon lore1, I knew that Pokémon Go made sense: you found cute monsters out in the wild and trapped them in tiny balls. While there’s a battle element to it and all, a core part of the Pokémon Go experience was just finding all of these different creatures and watching them evolve. The Garf imitation, on the other hand… involves you throwing food into Garf’s bowl. One of four types of food (lasagna, pizza, donut, cake); one of one type of Garf.

So if you’re not collecting different bizarro Garfs (which would have been 100% more rad in every way, tbh), what exactly is the point? Well, after you catch feed a Garf, he disappears in a cloud of smoke before appearing next to a treasure chest, fidgeting and pointing at it as though it contains the directions for defusing a bomb that’s strapped to his chest. It does not, of course; it contains coins, hats, comics, and trinkets. Which I guess I have to dive into now.

The unsettling meows of a Garf

This post is about the 2007 Nintendo DS game, Garfield’s Nightmare. While it would not be terribly off-brand for me to review a 12 year old video game based on a syndicated comic strip, I don’t really plan to do that. Because honestly, there isn’t much to review. It’s a serviceable platformer with very little in the way of challenge. There are some hidden things can find, some very lightweight box-moving challenges, some enemies to stomp on. It’s a simple game, and, you know… it’s fine.

Gameplay is actually extremely similar to the developer’s earlier GBA games based on the Maya the Bee franchise: Maya the Bee: The Great Adventure and Maya the Bee: Sweet Gold. The developer in question is Shin’en Multimedia, a studio made up of – I shit you not – a bunch of current and former demosceners. This makes more sense when you look at, say, their first GBA game, Iridion 3D which is incredibly impressive from a technical standpoint, or even their recent F-Zero-esque Wii U/Switch title, Fast Racing Neo/Fast RMX. Aside from demos, the Abyss1 group dabbled in games early on with Rise of the Rabbits and Rise of the Rabbits 2 – both, of course, for the Amiga. They developed Rinkapink for the GBC. While it doesn’t appear to have ever been published2, it seems they used bits of it for Ravensburger’s Käpt’n Blaubärs verrückte Schatzsuche. A promotional brochure for Rinkapink seems to be selling their demoscene experience as a company that can avoid “bad programming, flickering graphics, and awful music”, which… makes a lot of sense! You don’t win at demo parties without knowing how to make the most of a given system. Abyss was and is particularly known for its music, at the time largely done by Manfred Linzner, the lead programmer on Iridion 3D, Maya the Bee: Sweet Gold, and, yes, Garfield’s Nightmare. They developed trackers and audio toolchains for the Amiga (AHX) and Gameboy (GHX). They’re still releasing audio demos.

What does any of this really have to do with Garfield’s Nightmare? Likely not much, but it sure is fascinating. If anything I think it explains how technically competent this game is while also being a pretty sub-par Garfield experience. Which brings me to something that I highly doubt was intentional and can only imagine was a byproduct of a team of highly-skilled demosceners having agreed to take on a licensed title about a syndicated comic strip cat: Garfield’s Nightmare is actually fairly nightmarish. Not in a blatantly scary, horrorish way, but rather in its completely disquieting approach to what Garfield’s world is. The basic premise is that Garfield ate too much (shocker) before going to bed, and is now stuck in his own nightmare. But throughout the game, he really doesn’t seem concerned himself. Either he has good enough lucid dream control abilities to will himself into perfect calmness, or else he’s just oddly resigned to being in this nightmare world that he is, of course, ostensibly trying to escape. It doesn’t make any sense, and the disconnect that it presents as perfectly normal is more and more discomforting the more one thinks about it.

This isn’t the only weird disconnect. Aside from spiders (which Garfield does canonically hate)3, none of the enemies are things that bother canon Garfield, or even things that exist in his world as we know it. They seem like entirely generic platformer enemies (for instance, turtle thing with a cannon built into its back) yet they’re in a very specific licensed setting. I’m sure the studio just didn’t want to cough up the handful of dollars to license a sound bite or two of Lorenzo Music’s voice, but Garfield meows when he gets injured in this game. It shouldn’t be unsettling to hear a cat meow, but I assure you it is extremely so to hear what sounds like a sample of a real live cat coming out of Garfield. There’s no lasagna in sight; pizza stands in for health points and donuts are akin to coins. There are hidden doors that lead to brief minigame reprieves in the real world, but this version of the real world is cold and empty, it feels like the Garfield who is in the nightmare has himself fallen asleep and is experiencing a nightmare version of the real world. Even the box-moving puzzles feel planned and placed, which… Obviously they were, by Peter Weiss of Shin’en, but it makes the nightmare feel like an escape room situation that someone has built for the sole purpose of torturing Garfield. On the surface it’s almost certainly just a bunch of half-hearted design decisions, but it adds up and makes for an unnerving, uncanny experience.

So, should you play the game? I don’t know. I mean you can grab one on eBay for like six bucks, and if you let your mind really take in the nightmare world, it’s… weird. It’s fascinating to think about how the developers, active demosceners, got into the DS development program and got shit on for making a Santa Claus demo that they couldn’t link to because of licensing violations months before releasing this oddity. Everything about Garfield’s Nightmare is just weird, and that in itself is worth quite a few donuts to me.