Lookback: My Review of Deus Ex and a World that is Conspiracy by dan turner

The following is something I wrote for the late, great Feed.com. Unfortunately, it's only archived sporadically on the Wayback Machine (get on that, Brewster, thanks). But it's probably not totally obviated, sad to say.

THE BAROQUE PLOTS and fetishistic icons of conspiracy theory -- the grassy knoll, unmarked helicopters, Roswell -- have, over the past few years, been moved from samizdat, passed between the trembling hands of true believers, into the common pop-cultural vocabulary. Oliver Stone followed the money in JFK; the WB populates Roswell with its regular cast of coifed and limpid-eyed teens; and, most recently, Deus Ex, a role-playing/action game from Ion Storm, mixes up a potent pop Molotov cocktail by linking together nearly every known paranoid fantasy, worldly or otherwise.

The vaguely cyberpunkish setting for the game is the near future, when a separationist movement has grown from its Pacific Northwest roots (the real-life land of both Microsoft and white separatists) to a national force, taking advantage of technological, ecological, and political breakdowns that have fractured the federal government. Since what's left of the government as we know it has its hands full managing a plague of mysterious origin, most civil control has been ceded to the United Nations and UNATCO, its antiterrorism unit. That’s where you get involved: in Deus Ex, you are a nanotech-augmented agent of UNATCO who discovers, in true paranoiac fashion, that All Is Not As It Seems. You spend the rest of the game navigating lies wrapped in half-truths wrapped in secrets. For example, in your first mission, the leader of a terrorist cell berates you for your political naïveté -- "Haven't you ever heard of the Trilateral Commission? Didn't you know the UN was built on land donated by the Rockefellers?" Later, the head of FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is, as all real-world cryptologists know, empowered to suspend the Constitution for such feeble excuses as tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes -- emerges as one of your arch enemies. Majestic 12, black helicopters, the Templars, Echelon, televangelism, the Illuminati, and Area 51 all turn up along the way, as well. (Thankfully missing are the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.) In the game, as in life, conspiracies are a fractal belief system: Examine one closely and you'll only find more jagged edges, more places for other, more fantastic theories to latch on.

It's telling, though, that Deus Ex guts one of the legendarily major players in the worldwide game of shadowy manipulation: the U.S. government. The game posits a world in which the federal establishment is not just shattered, but reduced to a tool of the real players: the conspiracies and covert governments. It's an alarmingly familiar echo of the attitudes so effectively fomented by post-Reagan pols and pundits, who tag government as inherently impotent (except when shackling industries with regulation) and clownishly inefficient.

Which is perhaps what makes Deus Ex such a compelling narrative: It marks the beginning of a new mythology. With the old order of monolithic geopolitical powers gone since the Soviet Union's implosion and the American political war against Big Government, we may be seeing the beginning of a new pop conspiracy cycle, one in which the feds don't even rate as evil conspirators.

First Protopie Test by dan turner

Protopie is a new (another!) prototyping tool for building and testing interactions and animations. Here's what I threw together in about 15 minutes. The value in building interactive prototypes to test? Made it the more obvious that I had had the Username and Password fields in the wrong place initially!

Outside by dan turner

Came back from voting to find this outside the window.

Came back from voting to find this outside the window.

(Note to all, again: I have no relatives at Stanford, nor do I excuse or condone crimes committed there recently by students. Please support your local rape crisis clinic and/or Planned Parenthood.)

Goodbye Darwyn by dan turner

Image: DC Comics

Image: DC Comics

According to a post by his family, Darwyn Cooke has just died, at age 53, after a short fight with cancer. His work was clean, hopeful, moving, and perfectly balanced between framing action and highlighting character. From his work on the Parker graphic crime novels, to his own "New Frontier" Justice League, dark and light still came out feeling, well, somewhere we could live in style.

In recent months, DC offered alternative covers to its regular comics from Cooke; these covers brought into high relief the cheer that the age Cooke so loved – of Jet Age and Googie design, of short ties, porkpie hats, and cateye glasses – even as we live with "gritty, realistic" in superhero comics today. For example, one of Cooke's covers showed Superman and Batman not in a "v" death struggle, but relaxing and smiling after they'd defused a bomb together.

To his credit, Cooke did not paper over the problems and inequalities of the times he represented, making text rather than subtext the struggles of women and non-white populations. It was in some ways a patch job, but one in the right direction.

According to his family, donations in his memory can be made to the Canadian Cancer Society and the Hero Initiative.

Prototyping in Comet (now that it's out of beta...) by dan turner

I was lucky enough to be in on the alpha and beta of Adobe Experience Design CC (the design and prototyping app formerly known as Comet, which... just seems cooler).

This is a quick prototype, done within an hour or so, of an idea I've been working on. So far I haven't found a good, non-code-based tool with which I can show the key interaction of moving and pairing list items, and I'm discovering limitations of Adobe XD (which I hope will be removed as they further develop the application) – but the act of making and prototyping gave me some insights into how the interactions could work better for the user, and some feature ideas that popped up in the process. So, cheers to prototyping! (Click image to go to interactive prototype.)


Joining the DesignerHangout.co Team! by dan turner

I'm glad to be able to share that I'll be joining the good people at designerhangout.co as a volunteer moderator for the #topic_ethics channel on the User Experience Design Slack channel. It's a great resource and all hails to the admins and creators. See you there!

More Persona Faces by dan turner

Max of 10 minutes each, one per day. Though that enabled me to learn a new way to use the Grid tool (for eyebrows) and play more with vectors and perspective. I especially liked how some simple changes could transform a suit to a hoodie.