blarg?

I’m really interested in video games as narrative, and the possibilities virtual spaces open up to be examined through the lenses and terminologies of the various schools of literary criticism that are content to call anything that hits them in the eyes a text. There’s a lot of ground in that field to cover, and some of the best games are happy to give you a glimpse of the scope of the worlds they’re embedded in and the forces that shape them, a larger sense of who the protagonists are, and hint at the broad brushstrokes and hidden grammars of a story you’re barely a part of.

Portal 2 is great for this.

If you’re paying really close attention, there’s a few interesting discontinuities in Portal 2. Some of them are… maybe more obvious than they should be. The low-hanging fruit come when you’re fighting through Wheatley’s tests in the latter third of the game. When you first meet back up with her halfway up Test Shaft 9 Glados tells you that she “literally doesn’t have the energy to lie to you”; she later on she reverses herself on the claim that she didn’t stockpile test chambers when she’s called on it. Another one that might just be a continuity error comes up when you emerge from the last of the Test Shaft 9’s pumping rooms; the walls below are marked “1982”, but stepping through the door leads you to a vitrification order dated 1961. Continuity seems pretty clear, at that point, so, maybe this is nothing?

But maybe it’s something, or a hint at something. Because at the very bottom of the mine, in the doorway out of the fifties-era Aperture Science offices where the first picture of Cave and his runner-up contractor-of-the-year awards are, the sliding door is apparently controlled by a little white device, with little square lights. And if you look closely, you’ll see it inscribed with, not the 50’s era Aperture Science logo as you’d expect, but with the most recent lens-blade Aperture Science logo, the one we all know and love.
There’s no hint that I can find anywhere else in the narrative that this has any right to be there but there it is, and the implications for the story, both main- and back-, are pretty large.

I do like me some understanding a good story so self, I said to myself, why not just ask?

So I sent some email to Chet Faliszek asking him: is it there on purpose, or is that an oversight?

And I got some email back just now from Erik Wolpaw and Mr. Faliszek saying:

Mike,

As you probably know, the answer to that seemingly innocent question would necessarily include partial answers to several even bigger questions. Nice try, though. Glad you liked the game!

Erik

I don’t know that I expected anything else, but there it is, and my slow-clap processor is running pretty hot right now. Whatever it means to the story, there’s functioning, modern-era Aperture Science technology deployed at the very, very bottom of Test Shaft 9, making a sliding door work.

Geordie Tate writes:

“As you learn more, you’ll understand more, in the same way that a budding engineer might gradually grow to understand a complex blueprint. If your first instinct when you hear the word “feminist” is to say “those man-haters want equality, but they still want me to pay for everything, hurf durf!” then you currently have as accurate an understanding of feminism as a confectioner would have of a Titan II missile schematic. You know those congressmen who say that Grand Theft Auto IV is a “crime simulator” that is “training new felons?” That’s you, and feminism.

“I know you can do better.”

… as part of a much, much longer and quite excellent post. Read the whole thing.

Decrepit Controls

Exhibit 1: Eric Schmidt, on the Google+ “real name” policy.

“If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you. [...] If we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them… we could, you know, bill them.”

Exhibit 2: CNN, “Bodies hanging from bridge in Mexico are warning to social media users.

“A woman was hogtied and disemboweled, her intestines protruding from three deep cuts on her abdomen. Attackers left her topless, dangling by her feet and hands from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. A bloodied man next to her was hanging by his hands, his right shoulder severed so deeply the bone was visible.”

“Signs left near the bodies declared the pair, both apparently in their early 20s, were killed for posting denouncements of drug cartel activities on a social network.”

“We could, you know, bill them.”

“The difference between something that can go wrong and something that can’t possibly go wrong is that when something that can’t possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”

Douglas Adams

I decided a while ago that virtualizing my whole devenv was getting kind of annoying, so I’ve spent a few weeks now living in Gnome 3, the latest version of the most widely-used Linux desktop user interface and a radical departure from previous gnomey efforts. It’s not without its flaws and imma let you finish, but my initial impression was that it’s really, really good, a huge breath of fresh air in terms of elegance, simplicity and modernity, particularly when you compare it to anything else available for Linux.

But, man, the things that it does get wrong it gets really, really wrong.

A friend of mine noted that Gnome 3 would be perfect for that intersection of people who want Linux on their desktops but who don’t actually want to customize anything, except that those people don’t actually exist. And since I’m not one of them it’s not an unconditional love, is all I’m saying.

The good things are:

  • Power management works right. I can close the lid on my laptop, and the OS doesn’t immediately lose its mind. I know, right? Maybe it’s because I’m doing this on a Thinkpad, but nobody’s more pleasantly surprised than me.
  • Window management is a lot better and less manual than it used to be. The Win7-style snap-to-fullscreen and snap-to-halfscreen is great; I wish I could do just a little bit more with it, like push-to-quadrant, but I’m OK with not having that. Wildly better than Unity, Ubuntu’s weird pastiche of antiquated UI ideas that feels like the user interface equivalent of finding out your grandmother has saved all of your old t-shirts from grade school and stitched them together into the tux she expects you to wear to prom. That right there’s a tux! But I think perhaps no.
  • I’m not sure I’m sold on their windows/applications hot-corner idea. One or the other would be a better choice, I think, but since you can fake that by putting all the applications you care about in the sidebar, it’s pretty good. Once you’ve done that, though, being able to throw the mouse up into the corner to get an expose-style view of all your windows and the sidebar is pretty great, comparable in terms of efficient navigational feel to OS X Lion and materially better than Win7, which really just feels horribly legacy lately.

A few things that aren’t:

  • The default UI widgets are unambiguously ugly. The default font isn’t great, and if you don’t like either of those things tough luck. You can’t change them. I hope you like a drunken stumble around a grayscale palette. Got a particularly high-res screen? The Gnome 3 devs don’t. Suck it.
  • Bluetooth is straight-up broken, and not “glue-the-parts-back-together” broken, but actual “mop-and-bucket-and-maybe-hazmat-suit” broken. It just doesn’t work at all. It’s inexplicably disabled by default, and there’s no way to turn it on in the UI – there’s a switch that doesn’t work because you need to restart the service, and you need to do that from the command line. The only reason I can think of that it’s disabled by default is that even after you’ve turned it all on, you discover that the UI is just about 100% brain damage.
  • Approximately zero thought has gone into the preferences window, not just in terms of how it’s laid out, but how things are categorized, how things look or how they work. It’s kind of ugly, and kind of dumb.
  • Relatedly, in regards to “Universal Access”, it’s very, very obvious that nobody with an actual disability or any accessibility expertise has had any say in this. Whatever it does well for fully able-bodied people, Gnome 3 is the creepy, bigoted great-uncle of accessible tech, telling jokes he doesn’t realize aren’t funny, just offensive, disappointing and sad. That’s not to say it’s not wholly typical, of course; failures of accessibility are one of free software’s most shameful ongoing failures. But it’s sad to see it take another decisive tumble downhill.
  • Reconnecting to wireless is tedious, taking about ten times longer from lid-open to connected than OSX, and I can’t get WPA-encrypted connections to work at all. I don’t know why that is, but NetworkManager has never been a particularly lovable piece of software. So it’s hard to blame the Gnome 3 people for that, but there it is in Gnome 3, so.
  • Multimonitor support is a straight-up disaster. It’s not possible that any Gnome 3 developer owns a multimonitor machine if it’s this bad.

I don’t fundamentally object to the idea of a computer as a just-works appliance, but if you’re going to go down that road the onus on the developer is that stuff has to just work, and lot of stuff around the edges of Gnome 3 Just Doesn’t. As great as it is in some respects, Gnome 3 has the classic Linux smell of “Works For Me On My Machine”. You get the impression you could tell what kind of computers the primary developers use by what works well, what works badly and what doesn’t work at all.