Blender 2.8 is coming

Unbiased rendering? Check. Realtime rendering? Check. Unified shader model? Check. Class-leading user interface. Check. Free, open source, small? Check. Blender 2.8 offers everything you want in a 3d package and nothing you don’t (dongles, copy protection, ridiculous prices, massive hardware requirements).

There aren’t many pieces of open source software that have been under continuous active development that haven’t gone through a single “major version change” in twenty years. When I started using Blender 2.8 in the early 2000s, it was version 2.3-something. In the last year it’s been progressing from 2.79 to 2.8 (I think technically the current “release” version is 2.79b, b as in the third 2.79 release not beta).

What brought me to blender was a programming contract for an updated application which, in my opinion, needed an icon. I modeled a forklift for the icon in Silo 3D (which introduced me to “box-modeling”) but needed a renderer, and none of my very expensive 3d software (I owned licenses for 3ds max, ElectricImage, and Strata StudioPro among other thins) on my then current hardware. Blender’s renderer even supported motion blur (kind of).

The blender I started using had a capable renderer that was comparatively slow and hard to configure, deep but incomprehensible functionality, and a user interface that was so bad I ended up ranting about it on the blender forums and got so much hatred in response that I gave up being part of the community. I’ve also blogged pretty extensively about my issues with blender’s user interface over the years. Below is a sampling…

Blender now features not one, not two, but three renderers. (And it supports the addition of more renderers via a plugin architecture.) The original renderer (a ray-tracing engine now referred to as Workbench) is still there, somewhat refined, but it is now accompanied by a real-time game-engine style shader based renderer (Eevee) and a GPU-accelerated unbiased (physically-based) renderer (Cycles). All three are fully integrated into the editor view, meaning you can see the effects of lighting and procedural material changes interactively.

The PBR revolution has slowly brought us to a reasonably uniform conceptualization of what a 3d “shader” should look like. Blender manages to encapsulate all of this into one, extremely versatile shader (although it may not be the most efficient option, especially for realtime applications).

Eevee and Cycles also share the same shader architecture (Workbench does not) meaning that you can use the exact same shaders for both realtime purposes (such as games) and “hero renders”.

Blender 2.8 takes blender from — as of say Blender 2.4 — having one of the worst user interfaces of any general-purpose 3D suite, to having arguably the best.

The most obvious changes in Blender 2.8 are in the user-interface. The simplification, reorganization, and decluttering that has been underway for the last five or so years has culminated in a user interface that is bordering on elegant — e.g. providing a collection of reasonable simple views that are task-focused but yet not modal — while still having the ability to instantly find any tool by searching (now command-F for find instead of space by default; I kind of miss space). Left-click to select is now the default and is a first class citizen in the user interface (complaining about Blender’s right-click to select, left click to move the “cursor” and screw yourself is this literally got me chased off Blender’s forums in 2005).

Blender still uses custom file-requesters that are simply worse in every possible way than the ones the host OS provides. Similarly, but less annoyingly, Blender uses a custom-in-window-menubar that means it’s simply wasting a lot of screen real estate when not used in full screen mode.

OK so the “globe” means “world” and the other “globe” means “shader”…

Blender relies a lot on icons to reduce the space required for the — still — enormous numbers of tabs and options, and it’s pretty hard to figure out what is supposed to mean what (e.g. the “globe with a couple of dots” icon refers to scene settings while the nearly identical “globe” icon refers to materials — um, what?). The instant search tool is great but doesn’t have any support for obvious synonyms, so you need to know that it’s a “sphere” and not a “ball” and a “cube” and not a “box” but while you “snap” the cursor you “align” objects and cameras.

Finally, Blender can still be cluttered and confusing. Some parts of the UI are visually unstable (i.e. things disappear or appear based on settings picked elsewhere, and it may not be obvious why). Some of the tools have funky workflows (e.g. several common tools only spawn a helpful floating dialog AFTER you’ve done something with the mouse that you probably didn’t want to do) and a lot of keyboard shortcuts seem to be designed for Linux users (ctrl used where command would make more sense).

The blender 2.8 documentation is pretty good but also incomplete. E.g. I couldn’t find any documentation of particle systems in the new 2.8 documentation. There’s plenty of websites with documentation or tutorials on blender’s particle systems but which variant of the user interface they’ll pertain to is pretty much luck-of-the-draw (and blender’s UI is in constant evolution).

Expecting a 3D program with 20 years of development history and a ludicrously wide-and-deep set of functionality to be learnable by clicking around is pretty unreasonable. That said, blender 2.8 comes close, generally having excellent tooltips everywhere. “Find” will quickly find you the tool you want — most of the time — and tell you its keyboard shortcut — if any — but won’t tell you where to find it in the UI. I am pretty unreasonable, but even compared to Cheetah 3D, Silo, or 3ds max (the most usable 3D programs I have previously used) I now think Blender more than holds its own in terms of learnability and ease-of-use relative to functionality.

Performance-wise, Cycles produces pretty snappy previews despite, at least for the moment, not being able to utilize the Nvidia GPU on my MBP. If you use Cycles in previews expect your laptop to run pretty damn hot. (I can’t remember which if any versions of Blender did, and I haven’t tried it out on either the 2013 Mac Pro/D500 or the 2012 Mac Pro/1070 we have lying around the house because that would involve sitting at a desk…)

Cranked up, Eevee is able to render well-beyond the requirements for broadcast animated TV shows. This frame was rendered on my laptop at 1080p in about 15s. Literally no effort has been made to make the scene efficient (there’s a big box of volumetric fog containing the whole scene with a spotlight illuminating a bunch of high polygon models with subsurface scattering and screenspace reflections.

Perhaps the most delightful feature of blender 2.8 though is Eevee, the new OpenGL-based renderer, which spans the gamut from nearly-fast-enough-for-games to definitely-good-enough-for-Netflix TV show rendering, all in either real time or near realtime. Not only does it use the same shader model as Cycles (the PBR renderer) but, to my eye, for most purposes it produces nicer results and it does so much, much faster than Cycles does.

Blender 2.8, now in late beta, is a masterpiece. If you have any interest in 3d software, even or especially if you’ve tried blender in the past and hated it, you owe it to yourself to give it another chance. Blender has somehow gone from having a user interface that only someone with Stockholm Syndrome could love to an arguably class-leading user interface. The fact that it’s an open source project, largely built by volunteers, and competing in a field of competitors with, generally, poor or at best quirky user interfaces, makes this something of a software miracle.

Affinity Photo — First Impressions

Affinity Photo in action

Note: if you’re interested in using Affinity Photo for processing RAW photos (i.e. its “non-destructive workflow”) you’re probably going to be horribly disappointed. See my followup article.

Affinity Photo has just come out of beta and is being sold for a discounted price of $40 (its regular price will be $50). As with Affinity Designer, it’s well-presented, with an attractive icon and a dark interface that is reminiscent of late model Adobe Creative Cloud and Apple Pro software. So, where does it fit in the pantheon of would-be Photoshop alternatives?

In terms of core functionality, it appears to fit in above Acorn and below Photoline. In particular, Photoline supports HDR as well as 16-bit and LAB color, while Affinity Photo lacks support for HDR editing. Unless you work with HDR (and clearly not many people do) then Affinity Designer is both less expensive than Photoline, and far more polished in terms of the features it does support.

Affinity Designer supports non-destructive import of RAW files. When you open a RAW file you enter “Develop” mode where you can perform adjustments to exposure, curves, noise, and so forth on the RAW data before it gets converted to 8- or 16-bit RGB. Once you leave Develop mode, you can return and second-guess your adjustments (on a layer-by-layer basis). This alone is worth the price of admission, and leaves Acorn, Pixelmator, and Photoline in the dust.

In essence you get the non-destructive workflow of Lightroom and the pixel-manipulation capabilities of Photoshop in a single package, with the ability to move from one to the other at any point in your workflow. Let me repeat that — you can “develop” your raw, go mess with pixels in the resulting image, then go back and second-guess your “develop” settings (while retaining your pixel-level manipulations) and so on.

This feature isn’t quite perfect. E.g. you can’t go back and second-guess a crop, and vector layer operations, such as text overlays, get reduced to a “pixel” layer if you go back to develop mode. But it’s a big step in the right direction and for a lot of purposes it’s just dandy.

This is just my first impressions, but there are some things that could be better.

Affinity Photo provides adjustment layers, live filter layers, filters, and layer effects — in many cases providing multiple versions of the same filter in different places. Aside from having functionality scattered and in arbitrary buckets, you get several different user interfaces. This is a mess, and it is a direct result of copying Photoshop’s crazy UI (accumulated over decades of accumulated functionality) rather than having a consolidated, unified approach the way Acorn does.

At first I thought Affinity Photo didn’t support layer styles, but it does. Unfortunately you can’t simply copy and paste layer styles (the way you can in Photoshop and Acorn), so the workflow is a bit more convoluted (you need to create a style from a selection and then apply it elsewhere — often you just want to copy a style from A to B without creating a reusable (or linked) style so this is a bit unfortunate).

I really like the fact that the RGB histogram gives a quick “approximate” view but shows a little warning symbol on it. When you click it, it does a per-pixel histogram (quite quickly, at least on my 24MP images).

I don’t see any support for stitching images, so if that’s important to you (and it’s certainly very important to landscape photographers) then you’ll need to stick with Adobe, or specialized plugins or software.

It also seems to lack smart resize and smart delete or Photoshop’s new motion blur removal functions. (Photoline also does smart delete and smart resize.)

Anyway, it’s a great first release, and definitely fulfills the promise of the public betas. It seems to me that it’s a more solid overall effort than Affinity Designer was when first released, and I’m probably a more demanding user of Photoshop-like programs than I am of Illustrator-like programs. I can understand the desire to provide a user interface familiar to Adobe products even at the cost of making them unnecessarily confusing and poorly organized, but I hope that sanity prevails in the long run.

Bottom line: a more complete and attractive package than either Photoline or Acorn (its most credible competitors) and better in some ways than Photoshop.

Default Folder

Default Folder in Action

Default Folder X has been misbehaving quite a bit since I started using Mavericks. I clicked the “check for updates” button in its control panel and was disappointed to discover that I had the latest version. So, I went to the website and found out that there’s a beta that addresses the problems I’ve been having. Problem solved.

I felt an overwhelming urge to give a shout out to Default Folder, so here it is. This is the single most awesome utility on the Mac and has been for twenty years, give or take. It wasn’t the first program to do what it does, but it entered a market crowded with competitors (Now Utilities, Norton’s, and others) and simply outlived them.

And in all this time, I think I’ve paid for three, maybe four, upgrades.


Default Folder is a program that somehow extends standard open and save dialogs. It used to be a “Control Panel” in Mac Classic, now it’s some kind of background app. How it works isn’t important (it works!).

It does three incredibly useful things.

It lets you change the folder an open/save dialog is pointed at to any folder open on your desktop by picking it from a menu or (even better) just feeling around for where the folder’s window is (it gives you feedback) and clicking. How often do you have a folder open and want to get something out of it or save something into it from an open/save dialog? All. The. Fucking. Time. Well, Default Folder makes it really fast and really easy.

It remembers where you were in any given folder in any given application — so the file you had selected last time is what’s selected the next time.

It gives you access to pretty much all of Finder’s functionality from inside open/save dialogs, including the ability to rename, move, and delete files, and a quick look pane that’s always open, and — in Mavericks — which provides view/edit access to tags.

That’s basically it. I use it every day, dozens of times without thinking, and every time it saves me time, mistakes, and frustration. Almost anyone I’ve shown it to can’t believe they’ve lived without it. As far as I know there’s nothing equivalent for Windows or Linux (doubly depressing since they both need it ever worse).

That’s it. $35 is quite a bit for such a “simple” thing, but it’s seriously worth it. And the developer will not nickel and dime you for compatibility updates and other B.S. No, I am not being paid in any way, shape, or form to say this.



I don’t spend much time playing hardcore games these days, but there’s a special place in my heart for the Grand Theft Auto franchise (even though I never finished any of the PS2 versions — there was always some mission where I simply couldn’t finish owing to my incompetence or the horrible controls, depending on how you look at it).

Here, in a nutshell, is what I love about GTA games:

  • driving a halfway decent car (or motorbike) simulator around a halfway decent virtual city at insane speeds is just fun
  • always breathtaking (by the standards of the time) rendition of the real world
  • cheap but often hilarious cynicism and dark humor pervading the world
  • more-or-less free-roaming world with at least somewhat interesting stuff to do
  • quasi-emergent behavior in the form of the way other drivers work, people on the street, and so on
  • constant pushing-of-the-envelope in terms of game mechanics
  • totally organic and usually not annoying cut scenes

GTAIV added to this mix:

  • the best implementation of cover mechanics I’ve seen in computer game

Indeed, missions involving a lot of gunplay went from being horrific (in Vice City) to usually a lot of fun (in San Andreas, which had improved aiming but no cover mechanics) to perhaps the most fun part of the game (in GTAIV). The designers of GTAV clearly consider the gun fight mechanics to be a sufficiently positive feature to make huge set piece running gun battles a central piece of every major mission in GTAV.

Incremental Improvements

Los Santos View

GTAV represents perhaps the least significant improvement in the game engine and scope over a predecessor in the series. Although many have commented on the less realistic (and thus better or worse depending on your point of view) car controls (and I assume that they’re right, which may be generous, but I haven’t gone back and played GTAIV to check), I didn’t notice a change. I could drive around Liberty City at insane speeds in GTAIV, and I can drive around Los Santos at insane speeds in GTAV. That said, was able to pretty effortlessly drive a stolen car out of a multilevel carpark (if you’ve finished the game you probably know exactly which car I’m talking about) in GTAV — an impossibility in San Andreas, but I can’t remember how tough it would have been in GTAIV.

You can switch between characters, which is interesting (and I guess lets you decide for yourself who the main character is — but if you don’t think it’s Franklin you’re wrong).

There’s underwater stuff (including a submarine and SCUBA sequences), more minigames, skydiving (is that new? can’t remember) and — my favorite — interactive hallucinations. The setting is bigger, but not overwhelmingly (not like say San Andreas vs. Vice City). I think (but haven’t checked) they’ve made the missions finer-grained with respect to recovering from failures (so you generally don’t lose much progress when you screw up). But, nothing much else.

As with previous installments — it’s very well written, great voice acting, good motion capture (including facial expressions and eyes in some cut scenes). One thing I did find was that the radio stations weren’t as funny as I remember (especially compared with the PS2 games — I was just replaying San Andreas on my Mac and the original GTA3 on my iPad).


helicopter approaching FIB

The main characters are two middle-aged former bank robbers and their young protege, a former gang-banger who is trying to better himself — legitimately or otherwise. Twenty years ago, the two older guys would have been Vietnam vets, ten years ago they’d have been Iraq vets, but today they’re just sociopaths. What does that say?

Of the three characters, the most entertaining is the disgusting and reprehensible Trevor, a slouching, crazy, drug-fueled, murderous, Meth-distributing, gun-running, unwashed thug. Trevor’s endearing qualities come down to his yelling frequently hilarious epithets and taunts during combat, and — reminiscent of Vyvyan in The Young Ones (for those few of you who might remember that BBC sitcom) — his bouts of ethical lucidity. The problem is that he is just as likely to enthusiastically torture someone as to help them escape execution at the hands of their torturers.

More interesting to me is that this is a series of games that tends to deal with older characters (CJ, in San Andreas, is the youngest protagonist I can recall, and he is returning to the ‘hood after spending time in Liberty City) — GTAV has a younger character in Franklin (the ex gang-banger) but he is something of a blank slate. The dominant personalities are Michael — an ex bank-robber, now living the high life under corrupt government agency protection, with teenage kids and a wife who pretty much hates him (a bit like Tony Soprano) — and Trevor — an ex bank-robber turned meth-dealer and wannabe arms dealer with major mommy issues (think Walter from Breaking Bad, with a bit of Tony Soprano mixed in, played by Jack Nicholson).



Gameplay is great, but far from perfect. People tell me that the car controls are more forgiving than GTAIV (which I had no big issues with at the time) — it’s probably true. (Landing planes on Trevor’s runway is another matter entirely.) It’s very easy to do things that I’m pretty sure were hard or impossible in GTAIV, and on top of that the specialist driver has a “bullet time” ability that gives you totally superhuman abilities in a pinch. (I didn’t find Michael’s combat bullet time ability one terribly useful, but Trevor’s rampage mode could easily turn a fight around.)

The Cover Button

The biggest flaw in gameplay is the way cover works. I don’t know if it could be much better, because the cover system seems to be dynamic rather than manually set up — almost any nook or cranny in the landscape that looks like it might work as cover pretty much does, versus — say — Mass Effect where cover objects are quite clearly manually placed by level designers. The problem is that hitting the cover button can send you running across an open field to the wrong spot and gets you killed a lot. I’d say that about half of my ~30 deaths in the game came from the cover button doing something annoying. (That said, I didn’t die very often.)

On-the-job training

The second biggest flaw in the gameplay is the “just-too-late” instructions. Probably my second biggest source of mission failure after the cover button was being told how something works just as I got shot to death or failed the mission owing to lack of time. It’s funny how some critical controls are gently introduced before the fact while others are on the screen for the first time as everything goes tilted and grey (signifying a mission failure). Again, I don’t know if this could be much better. Introducing mechanics a little bit earlier every time would spoil a lot of storiees, and introducing them much earlier would probably just lead to greater consternation as they’d be forgotten before the critical moment.

Interactive Hallucinations


Probably the single standout feature of GTAV is the playable hallucinations. It’s a shame these mainly occur early in the game (as far as I can tell). Mike’s drug trip (infinite psychedelic freefall) is visually amazing as is his alien invasion. Trevor’s rampages and clown attack likewise. The pro-legalization-of-weed guy giving out spiked joints is involved in a series of missions that appear to just taper out — I’m not sure if I missed something.



Speaking of hallucinations, instead of just randomly inserting rampages into the landscape, as in previous instalments, they’re now missions specific to Trevor, which makes more sense and doesn’t defile the other characters. (It’s hard to create sympathy for a person who randomly goes on killing sprees.) Perhaps my favorite example is when Trevor is set off by someone he interprets as making fun of his “slightly Canadian” accent. (Trevor being a Canadian is one of the game’s running jokes.)

Utter Lack of Resource Constraints

One fairly big difference between GTAV and any previous GTA instalment as far as I can recall is that you don’t spend very much time being poor. To begin with, each character starts with their own car that magically follows them around, and it’s a pretty damn good car. (In fact, it didn’t occur to me to buy any car mods until I was forced to by a mission, despite having plenty of money and having had the car mod shop rubbed in my face by an earlier mission.)

Similarly, Los Santos features three high end shopping malls, and top-of-the-line vehicles are there for the taking at any time. And soon two of the three characters are living in upscale neighborhoods and can literally steal a neighbor’s Ferrari or Range Rover surrogate without a thought. Incidentally, I don’t know how realistic this is, but my opinion of Range Rovers is greatly enhanced by GTAV! (I recally being quite happy to find an upscale neighborhood in GTAIV and making special trips to it to score nice cars before driving missions.)

After the first heist, you’re floating in cash with all three characters and never really have to stint on anything (you basically just walk into Ammunation and buy the works for every character after the first heist, and still have plenty of money left to play the stock market and do some insider trading). This undermines a lot of potential game play because, for example, Trevor’s rather difficult weapon drop missions (at $7000 a pop) don’t really seem worth bothering with when you can make a quick $200,000 on the stock market and have $450,000 in the bank, or, for that matter, score $5000+ from an opportunistic armored car robbery that is over in a matter of 30s. Indeed there was an early mission where Trevor makes a big score but then needs to spend most of it almost immediately that made me think resource constraint would be part of the game, but no, money is never an issue.

Heist Missions

Speaking of heists, when I read the Ars Technica review of GTAV, I assumed that you’d do a lot of heists and that setting them up might be tedious. In fact there are not very many heists and setting them up is no more tedious than any other kind of mission in other other GTA game. (Why do you do anything in GTA?). Heists seem like a great mechanic, and it would be awesome if smaller heists were generated randomly as part of the sandbox rather than simply being a fixed set of missions. Perhaps something along this line was planned but abandoned due to time constraints (since I imagine it would be technically difficult).


The depth and breadth of minigames in GTAV is something I’ve yet to fully explore. The tennis simulation is impressive, and I assume golf is too. Darts was OK in GTAIV, no reason to assume it wouldn’t be at least as good in V. Sky diving is awesome, mountain biking is kind of horrible, and the triathlon is likely to cause repetition strain injury. Unlike earlier GTA instalments street racing is pretty much sidelined (I won one race early on with Franklin, who has super powers when it comes to racing, and then simply saw icons on the map if I wanted to do more races, which I didn’t).


Warning: slight spoilers.

The basic arc of the story is that a gang-banger-turned-repo-man who is trying to either go straight or at least be a smarter criminal hooks up with an aging former bank-robber with major impulse-control issues and a serious mid-life crisis. As a result of losing it one-too-many-times, the robber suddenly needs to raise a ton of money, and gets back together with a former colleague to plan a major heist. This leads to uncontrollable and violent former friend figuring out that he’s still alive and tracking him down.

You play the three characters — aging ex-bank robber, aging meth-fueled maniacal ex-bank robber, and talented newb as they proceed to engage in higher and higher stakes heists each intended to solve problems created by earlier heists and/or the older characters’ tendency to piss people off with little or no provocation.

The fact that any single one of the crimes the characters commit (and quite a few random incidents) would lead to an unrelenting international manhunt and quite possibly the formation of new federal agencies is par for the course for GTA.


Organic Encounters

There’s an interesting mechanic that sets up interesting encounters on-the-fly (I think there are similar things in earlier games, but it’s not as explicit). Your sat nav flashes and a blue or blue/red flashing dot indicates something you can intervene in. Armored Cars are one of my favorites, since you can let off a little steam by killing a couple of guys, blowing up an armored car, and then fleeing the police for a couple of minutes. The most elaborate one I saw (and the game tells me I’ve seen them all) is the No Country for Old Men scene where you find the aftermath of drug deal gone bad, with a bunch of money sitting in the middle. Pick it up (of course!) and chaos ensues.

Most of the encounters are simply annoying. E.g. man or woman is robbied, you pursue the thief (who usually turns out to be heavily armed — the first time I chased on I got killed), run over them repeatedly (or shoot them once you master shooting while driving, but that tends to attract a lot of police attention, and I feel a little bad shooting innocent bystanders while returning a wallet to someone — $100,000 in property damage is fine, of course). More annoying still are the people pleading for help who’re trying to ambush you. It would have been nice for at least some of the organic missions to not be totally stupid (if only to make you more likely to not simply ignore them or shoot the person).

E.g. after being ambushed a couple of times, I’d simply pull out a pistol when asked for help, and when their reaction revealed they’d actually planned to kill me I’d shoot them dead and walk away.

Not quite in the organic encounter moment, but the owners of gun stores say pretty sarcastic things to your characters when you pop in for a purchase. I had a serious laugh-out-loud moment when I visited a store with Trevor after his first big score (the filthy, meth-addled, often semi-naked psychopath) and as I left (carrying a huge supply of weapons, explosives, and kevlar) the store owner said “And I bet you’ll be using that stuff right away” as I walked out. Sadly, it turns out the store owners turn out to be equally likely to say the same thing to the other characters, who look perfectly reputable.

Dating & Guys’ Nights Out

Unlike GTAIV, there’s not only no pressure to go play darts with your pals or date women, it seems to be quite difficult to do. (I didn’t go on a single date or mandate — towards the end (as Franklin) I tried the “Hang Out” menu option on Trevor (since I had just been told I had to kill him) and he replied “And you call me a creepy stalker!” and hung up.

Similarly, the constantly enraged Mike accidentally ended up jogging with an equally enraged and age-appropriate woman, who I thought would be a perfect fuck buddy for him, but while she appeared in his contact list afterwards, I could never get through to her, despite entering and winning a triathlon. I’m not quite sure what went wrong there.

Social Commentary

Midlife Crisis

Midlife crises are a bit passé today, but they’re fairly unusual in computer games. Michael’s family situation at the beginning of the game seems reminiscent of Tony Soprano’s at the outset of The Sopranos. His midlife crisis drives some fairly important plot elements, but it’s one of the weakest elements of the game, and isn’t funny. His wife and children are so repellant, that his desire to keep his family together stretches credulity, and the whole Hollywood movie producer subplot is neither funny nor biting.


Like Tony Soprano, Michael is in therapy, but his therapist is a guy (played by some fairly well-known actor whose voice I recognized — I think maybe the guy who played Monk’s psychiatrist). I think this is also supposed to be funny, but pretty much falls flat, with the main joke being how greedy the psychiatrist is. (I did amuse myself though — playing Michael, I left my second visit to him in his Porsche-analog.)

Sexism — definitely an issue

It’s easy to complain about sexism in the GTA series. Of course, there’s scarcely single positive female character in the story (There is in fact one good female character in the story.) — but then there’s no positive male characters either. At best Franklin, say, is not a murderous sociopath and stands up for his friends. But the portrayal of women is both shallow and often mean — Michael’s wife seems like a flat-out bitch, and his daughter is even more shallow and useless than his son, who is at least self-aware and ambitious enough to have a stab at starting up his own pot-dealing business. (Spoiler Alert: wait until you see Trevor’s mom!)

On the one hand, the other pop culture sources on which GTAV feeds (and which in turn feed on it) are just as bad — where are the positive female characters in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad? But the fact is that GTA could easily have strong and complex female characters (indeed, the best computer hacker among your heist crew options is a woman who all but doesn’t appear on screen or say a word). Yes, GTAV is ultra-macho, but I think they could pull it off and still have a strong female character or two. Even the incidental female characters, such as the loser who sends Franklin on towing missions to fill in for her drug addict boyfriend and his ex-girlfriend are simply pathetic and loathsome.

Perhaps Rock Star is to be praised for not inserting positive female characters just to check off an item that critics complain about, but I think it’s just lazy. Oddly enough, there’s a tough female cop arresting someone in the loading graphics, but as far as I can tell, she never appears in the story. I seem to recall that Rockstar foreshadowed the Liberty City Stories expansion content in the credits of GTAIV; perhaps there’s an expansion with a tough female cop character in the wings.

Racism — not an issue

You can’t really accuse GTAV of being racist. (Plenty of the characters in the story are racist, of course.) It’s definitely not color-blind, but the portrayal of race in the game seems completely organic and reflective of society. The black-on-black dialog seems, to my ear, to be completely authentic (but what would I know?)

Homophobia — not an issue

There’s a great line where Michael’s son is telling his father off and says he’d call something “gay” but he has gay friends and it’s uncool now so he’ll settle for lame. Homosexuality doesn’t really come up aside from this comment (and Trevor’s tendency to snuggle up with men he shares beds with and — spoiler a nasty comment made by his mother).


The treatment of drugs in the game is so casual as to probably cause great alarm to anti-drug moralists. The fact that drugs are illegal or that meth labs are prone to explode is simply treated as being a logistical issue. There is no portrayal of drugs as being a moral hazard or even having real health impacts, but merely that trading in drugs and using drugs presents practical problems. I think this is correct, but I suggest it should be very alarming to anyone who would like prohibition to continue. It seems clear that as a cultural artifact showing gen-X/Y/Z talking amongst itself, the whole drug debate is over.


There’s a torture scene in GTAV (in which you, as Trevor, actively participate). It seems somewhat poorly integrated into the overall story, and then ham-fistedly used to insert actual social commentary (from Trevor, no less) into what is generally an apolitical and amoral story. I’m not sure what the writers were trying to achieve, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t achieve it.

The War on Terror

Aside from one of the major villain groups being Merry Weather, an obvious Black Water surrogate, frequent references are made to the government starting unnecessary wars, and the War on Terror merely being a pretext for federal agencies to pad their budgets. (Indeed, this is a major component of the arc plot, and at one point seems to be the arc plot.)


If I recall correctly, Trevor makes a comment (in one of his lucid tirades) in favor of socialized medicine, and then someone says he sounds like a Canadian. Then again, Trevor wryly suggests that hunting liberals might be a fun pastime for his “friend” Cletus.

Summing Up

GTAV is a fantastic game. It’s extraordinarily ambitious and manages to do everything it sets out to with aplomb. If I have any criticisms they would be some weak plot elements (e.g. Michael’s family life, midlife crisis, and Hollywood storyline), and lack of interesting dynamic content (gratuitous missions removed, and nothing much has replaced them — I was hoping for a random heist engine).


Artboard in Action
Artboard in Action. This ugly image demonstrates that Artboard supports complex compound shapes (the word “Artboard” is a unioned spline), booleans, and translucent objects.


I’ve moved this caution to the top of this mini-review lest it be seen as an endorsement of ArtBoard. Since first using ArtBoard I’ve encountered a series of bugs that render it close to unusable and which have yet to be fixed. I’ve since switched to iDraw (which is not without issues, but a fine and usable piece of software) which I still plan to review.

The good news is that ArtBoard seems to be under active development (unlike several other Illustrator-wannabes which border on abandonware). But, right now, I’m finding ArtBoard to be very buggy (as several have noted this in App Store reviews as well, so it’s not just me). I’ll amend this post with further information as it becomes available. I can report that the developer is responsive to posts in the forums, but also somewhat in denial. My experience is leading me to look for more alternatives… next up iDraw.

As you know, I’ve been on a multi-year quest to find alternatives to Adobe software. Every time Adobe does something that makes me love them again (e.g. CS5) they follow it with stuff that drives me nuts (CS5.5, and then CS6’s upgrade pricing).

My latest misadventure involved trying to get Adobe Director 11 to work on my new Mac Pro (it claimed my license was in use because I’d moved a hard disk from one Mac Pro to another, the former no longer in my possession). In a nutshell, in the process of getting the problem “fixed” by Adobe tech support, I not only didn’t get Director 11 working, but my old copy of Adobe CS3 stopped working too. Awesome.

Be that as it may, to my mind there are several compelling Adobe products each of which needs replacement if one is to live without Adobe.

  • Acrobat — Preview.
  • Photoshop — Acorn / Pixelmator / Photoline for casual use; for professional use, Photoshop is mandatory.
  • Premiere Pro — FCPX.
  • After Effects — Motion perhaps, but you may need After Effects.
  • InDesign — Pages for casual use only.
  • Fireworks — does anyone still need it? or similar for UI elements in an HTML5 world.

And that leaves:

  • Illustrator —

In my experience, Inkscape is free and highly functional, but requires X11 and (last I checked) wouldn’t work properly in Mountain Lion; Intaglio is pretty nice but over-priced for what it does; Lineform, ZeusDraw, VectorForm, etc. etc. are all pretty much broken.

Complex compound splines
Artboard does a good job with complex compound splines

So, I was on the verge of buying Intaglio (trying to remember the url of the developer’s site) when I came across a reference to ArtBoard ($30 in the App Store). It looks to me like ArtBoard represents base functionality for a more special purpose cartography program the developer also sells — in any event, I hope that the economics are such that ArtBoard continues to be well-supported because, as of right now, Artboard kicks the asses of every other pretender out there, and in many respects Illustrator itself. Bravo.