Game Review – SteamWorld Dig

SteamWorld Dig claims to be a roguelike digging adventure. I’d call it a digging platformer which takes Terraria‘s side-on destructible terrain and elements from Spelunky in general.

Though their website only mentions Steam and the Nintendo ports, it’s available DRM-free and cross-platform from both and the Humble Store. I highly recommend getting it from the latter since the GOG extras are nothing special while the Humble Store will include the Linux version and a Steam key.

The plot is simple. In a world where everyone is a steam-powered robot, your uncle dies and leaves you his old west mine. You mine and use the earnings to upgrade yourself and a fairly simple story unfolds as you dig down. (On that note, I like the game’s choice of subtitle. “A Fistful of Dirt“)

The game’s graphics are nice. They sprites are crisp and high-resolution and the animation cycles are fluid and react well to the snappy controls. More importantly, the art style didn’t annoy me while I was playing. I’ve seen a lot of games where “art sharper than the SNES had” carries an ill-defined but unsatisfying air of “cheap smartphone-ness” to it.

The game’s music is nothing to write home about, being so forgettable that I can’t even remember what it sounded like, but I remembers that it did set the tone and it didn’t wear out its welcome while playing.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a good thing like the music from these games:

The gameplay is also engaging.  The controls are responsive and the spread of abilities (wall-jump, running, run-jump, high-jump, double-jump, etc.)  make moving around very satisfying. Almost all terrain is destructible with the right upgrade and you can upgrade the speed at which you break blocks, and the “steam punch” upgrade means that, unlike Minecraft, getting treasure in a ceiling isn’t a hassle.

It also has “caves” within the mine which have a puzzle platforming element to them. However, I can’t imagine they’d be different on subsequent play-throughs since randomized puzzles would have a very low return-on-investment compared to other things they could have done.

That’s actually my biggest problem with it: For something that claims to be roguelike, it has low replayability because it feels like I can do everything interesting in one play-through. (Trying for gold stars on speed and number of deaths is not interesting.)

I’m not a big roguelike player but I replayed FTL obsessively because, even as a skilled player, there’s a certain aspect of luck to surviving to the end and it’s impossible to unlock every ship on a single play-through. I continue to play Brogue off and on because every time I start a new level, things which matter are randomized.

In SteamWorld Dig’s case, the things that feel like they matter are character upgrades and the minimal discovery-based plot. I bought every upgrade and beat the boss on my first play-through… so why would I care if the positions of the minerals, monsters, and unbreakable rocks are different the next time?

Diablo remedied that by having multiple character classes, so you got different play styles to explore. Dungeons of Dredmor took it even further by having a lot (I believe crap-ton is the technical term) of character customization and big levels such that, even if you disable permanent death, it will take forever to exhaust all the different abilities and play styles you get… and then there are expansion packs too. (Plus, it’s hilarious)

As far as replay value goes, SteamWorld Dig is in an uncomfortable spot:

  • You get too invested in your progress for the FTL/Brogue-style “die, die again” play style that true roguelikes use and they acknowledged that by not having permadeath.
  • The levels aren’t as variable as in Minecraft, so I can’t replay for exploration value.
  • The game doesn’t force me to choose from one of several play styles or tech tree maturations.
  • The levels may be random, but the game is still too short and the single ending doesn’t help.

My verdict? I beat it the same weekend that I bought it, so I’d have waited for a bigger discount, but I like it.

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Frozen: Musical Cinema ≠ Musical Theatre

Well, I finally saw Frozen and my brother and I pretty much agreed that, while it’s nice, it does have significant flaws.

What’s really interesting, though, is the kinds of problems it has: They all fundamentally stem from Frozen being structured as musical theatre and then fleshed out with entertaining characters, rather than as musical cinema.

1. Narrative Flow

The first effect of this, though one of the more subtle ones, is that Frozen’s scenes feel somewhat disjointed when they should flow together. This is because it’s written as if constrained by the limitations of storing and exchanging sets on a live theatre stage while the viewers aren’t prepared to excuse that limitation. Cinematography and editing have advanced far beyond that and everyone knows it. (Too much influence from someone whose experience and training are in theatre rather than cinema, I’m guessing.)

Of course, this isn’t limited to theatrical writing. This lack of coherent progression also crops up in films like Wrongfully Accused and Dudley Do-Right… which are still good comedies. The problem is that, if you think back on them, it’s harder than it should be to piece together your memories of the movie into a complete flow from beginning to end. You’re likely to either miss some or put them in the wrong order.

The key point is that it’s a problem and that, just as writing for a cinematic video game isn’t the same thing as writing for a movie, neither is writing for the theatre and experience in one doesn’t translate perfectly.

2. Role of Songs

The other half of that problem is that the songs dominate the narrative when they arrive rather than complementing it, which makes the characterization feel weaker than it should. This is actually the same thing I noticed in The Princess and the Frog and, if you’re not used to picking apart your impression of a film, it makes it feel like there are too many songs or the songs are too eager to jump in.

Look at a song like In Summer. It feels unnecessary because it feels like it just comes out of nowhere, develops something not significant enough to merit the time taken, and drags you away from what you care about right here and now. In musical theatre, that would be more acceptable because it’s acceptable for a stage show to present a story as a compilation of songs tied together by non-musical introductions, similar to an album like Tanglefoot’s Captured Alive.

The problem is that movies don’t work like that. Movies may have a visual basis in theatre, but their narrative structure has more in common with graphic novels (which explains why storyboarding is similar in nature). Look at a more cohesive Disney production like Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. Aside from being too contrived to happen in real life, the songs feel like they’re just a musical presentation of what would have been shown anyway and, if they take longer than the non-musical equivalent, it’s only because the music itself made the viewer willing to give that extra time.

Look at One Jump Ahead from Aladdin. Aside from the music, it’s an action sequence which establishes Aladdin’s and Abu’s characters, some minor characters, and their relationship to the setting. It’s basically the musical version of the chase/heist scenes you see in movies like Blue Streak to establish the main character(s). It tells you a lot about who they are and what they want in a nice, tight package and it doesn’t yank you out of the flow of events.

Now some of the songs in Frozen do do that. Let It Go would be an example of a song that does that well. Yes, it’s suddenly a song but, scene transition aside, both the content and the pacing follow naturally from what came before. Yes, it’s nearly four minutes long, but those four minutes are well-spent:

  • Conveying the isolation of the spot Elsa has fled to
  • Equating it to the isolation she’s felt for so long
  • Showing her view of a youth that, so far, had only been conveyed from her sister’s perspective
  • Showing her view on the decision she just made by fleeing
  • Demonstrating the versatility of her powers
  • Showing the degree of power and control she consciously wields when not actively wrestling with her emotions for control of the same manifestation.
  • Providing an origin story for her ice palace (while actually “building the set” in an appealing fashion. Something you could never do in live theatre.)

It also helps that it saves time and pleases the viewer’s sense of aesthetics by using the cold as a metaphor to simultaneously speak about both her relationship to the people around her and her relationship to the effects of her powers.

2. Depth of Character Exploration

Note that, “Depth of Character” and “Depth of Character Exploration” aren’t the same thing. The problem with Frozen is that, because of how much it takes influences from musical theatre, we don’t know how deep the characters are and we don’t feel what depth we can see because the movie never tries to explore them properly.

This narrative superficiality combined with the aforementioned differences in the role of musical numbers make for a style which reminds me of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (For those who haven’t seen the Goblet of Fire film, they chopped down a very long book that really should have been a mini-series and produced a movie that skims over events so much that, without reading the book, it can be hard to follow.)

Frozen isn’t hard to follow, but scenes keep feeling like they either end or start winding down just as the character-exploring aspect should be starting to get going. As a result, they feel like they should either have been longer or had more happen in the time given. I found it left me see-sawing back and forth between laughing at the movie’s jokes and a perpetual sense of anticipation… waiting for deeper character pieces which never came.

Now, I have to be honest in saying that, because I don’t watch movies that often anymore, I did read the Wikipedia summary before deciding to see it. However, I think that the contrast between what I expected and what I got is also telling.

First, the interaction between Anna and Elsa when Anna visits Elsa’s ice palace. It felt like a huge disappointment for me because of how little was actually accomplished, character-wise. If you actually look at it, the entire scene can be summarized as:

Anna: Come home.
Elsa: No. [walks away]
* Anna follows Elsa and asks again.
Elsa: I have to stay here where I won’t hurt anyone.
Anna: You didn’t know? Even here, your powers are hurting people.
* The knowledge makes Elsa lose control and she freezes Anna’s heart.

If any relationship is central to the film, it’s theirs and, just by how the dialogue was phrased, it ruled out a whole continuum of easy ways to explore it. Possibly worse, aside from recognizing Olaf, the movie is never clear about whether Anna has regained any of her memories or inferred that they’ve been changed.

If only Elsa had just said something like “I already hurt you once. I won’t do it again,” this scene could have had a much deeper interaction between them. Even without some more time between Anna’s arrival and Elsa losing control, that would have made for a much more satisfying scene.

(Speaking of which, of all the contrived plot devices, that’s probably my #1 most hated: When a story relies heavily on a character remaining silent about something when there isn’t sufficient reason to believe they would. Given how often it pops up in stories that are otherwise OK on that front, I think it’s probably the worst kind of “the plot is obviously driving the characters when it should at least appear to be the other way around” mistake.)

As is, we’re left with a film where one of the central focuses of the film is the least explored. Even if we stick to the extraordinary and avoid ordinary human interactions, we don’t even have a clear idea of what Anna thinks of Elsa’s powers without her childhood memories, let alone their origins. Given how monumental it would be if I discovered that my memories had been tampered with, I can only assume that she didn’t get them back and thinks Elsa’s powers manifested spontaneously on the day when she was hidden away and the castle closed to visitors.

Another similarly strange piece which I found underwhelming after reading the Wikipedia summary is Olaf’s origins. Aside from the brief cameo during Let It Go when Elsa is showing off her powers to the viewer, he just comes out of nowhere. It would make much more sense from a storytelling standpoint if she’d built him after the ice palace as a way to have someone to talk to.

Making a “Wilson the Volleyball” provides an easy way to drive home that her apparent joy in isolation stems from being “too relieved to grieve” (Let It Go, credits version), not from truly wanting to be alone. However, it would also give a chance to show the nuanced nature of her powers. She gives Olaf form out of a desire for a companion but then she’s surprised when her powers act on her emotions and give him life. Most importantly, it would set the foundations for her realization of how to control them in the end.

Speaking of which, that is another scene that could use work: Elsa’s realization of how to control her powers. The more I think about it, the more I’m reminded of the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” from prose writing. Whenever the characters’ actions are “plot” rather than “flavour text”, they are much more likely to “just do” something without adequately exploring the thoughts and emotions under the surface which drive that action.

…which brings me, finally, to Hans. I didn’t notice this initially, since I was enjoying the movie enough to not see it at first, but, if he just wanted to marry into the crown by killing Elsa anyway, why did he put so much effort into saving her at the ice palace? Was he that driven to have her approve of their marriage before he killed her? Did he think that “Elsa falls to someone else’s crossbow bolt, he consoles Anna and eventually marries her” had too much risk of Anna changing her mind while mourning? Regardless of what his motivations were, his reveal feels too abrupt. Again, it feels like he’s being driven by the plot rather than by complex scheming. (In which case, until the plot called for it, he literally was a good guy. Hence the surprising disconnect.)

Given how our tribal gossip-seeking instincts drive us to care about people, all of this makes for a film where it doesn’t feel like much was accomplished along the way to the resolution because the viewers don’t have strong associations between the events and the characters’ thoughts and emotions.

(Even in stories that are clearly about the setting and the humour, like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, we need an uninteresting everyman character like Arthur Dent to give us a frame of reference, act as a lens, and tie things together. Even in stories with no people, we require characters so strongly that we must ascribe human characteristics to things like the wind.)

The end result is a movie that, when you finish it and look back, feels like you were watching for thirty minutes rather than an hour and thirty.

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QuickTile 0.2.0

As of yesterday, QuickTile requires the Python bindings for libwnck. What advantages does this bring? Well, here’s a changelog for the more significant of the recent commits:

0.2.1 (changes made not long after this post):

  • Redesigned the help output with better explanations of what the commands do.
  • Bugfix for toggling horizontal/vertical-only maximization.
  • Added commands for:
    • Switching workspaces (virtual desktops) or sending windows to them.
    • Toggling various common window states like always-on-top/bottom.
    • Triggering keyboard-driven move/resize.


  • Applications like Wine and OpenOffice/LibreOffice which change the window gravity no longer mess up positioning. (Fixes #3)
  • QuickTile now announces itself to the window manager as a pager-like utility. (Probably removes the need for a workaround for #5)
  • Lots of code pruned out since it’s now handled more cleanly by libwnck.
  • A cleaner internal architecture (though there’s still work to be done)

0.1.6 (in testing since last weekend):

  • Proper handling for desktops where panels or monitor sizes render the usable region non-rectangular. (Fixes #4)

This should also mean a much faster rate of development because…

  • It was becoming prohibitively complicated to use python-xlib to reinvent functionality already present in libwnck.
  • Each piece of libwnck functionality reinvented via python-xlib was an additional hurdle to eventually supporting Python 3.
  • libwnck offers Glib events like window-opened which should greatly simplify some planned features.

Plus, given that QuickTile is a GTK+ app which deals with window management and libwnck is the GTK+ library for building such apps, I really should have been using it from the beginning anyway.

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Game Review – FEZ

Since I managed to find time to make a lot of progress toward beating FEZ before the Humble Indie Bundle 9 finished, why not a review…

FEZ is an interesting mix of a game. On the upside, it’s a very pleasant puzzle platformer:

  • The art style is enjoyable and the intentional pixellation reminds me of a lighter, more whimsical-feeling Cave Story.
  • There’s a wide variety of environments. (Though a level editor would be appreciated.)
  • The concept is excellent and the levels tease some very clever 2D-3D rotation-platforming puzzles out of the game mechanics.
  • At times, it even gets touches on artsy.

However, on the downside, the creators don’t seem to have fully grasped the distinction between “puzzle platformer” and “platformer containing puzzles” so, if you want to complete the game rather than just get the ending which becomes available at 50% completion, it gets downright cryptic in a somewhat ill-fitted way:

The regular cubes are collected using the “interact with 2D projections of a 3D world you can rotate” mechanic (as is how it should  be in a puzzle platformer with this mechanic) and it works very nicely indeed but the anti-cube puzzles really have nothing to do with platforming. (They’re still fun if you’re the right kind of person –which I am– but they’re still an odd thing to see in a platformer.)

For example, out of the 32 anti-cubes, I’ve collected roughly half a dozen by recognizing that certain environmental elements form a substitution cipher, finding the primer in what you probably dismissed as greebling, and then keying in the decoded “message” wherever I see the cipher. (Thankfully, the map does give you a clear readout of where there are still things to find and what type.)

Another three are QR codes that, when scanned, give you a sequence to key in. (And if you don’t have a smartphone and don’t want to use a walkthrough, you’d better hope you know how to feed a screenshot into something like the demo app for libdecodeqr.)

The clues for the puzzles I haven’t yet solved are similarly cryptic, probably also involve pressing sequences of buttons that don’t necessarily move your character, and may require me to wander the world with a sketchpad in order to pull all the clues together enough to make sense of them.

As for the stuff which can fit naturally into a platformer, there are also a couple of flaws I’d like to point out:

First, the owl scavenger hunt, while not out-of-place for a platformer, is made much more annoying by the fact that owls only show up at night and you can’t fast-forward the day-night cycle, so you’re needlessly slowed in your quest to find all of them.

Second, I feel that it gave an inappropriate first impression since the introduction starts you off in a village where you can talk to the NPCs and have some light but effective characterization and storytelling but, once you get out into the game proper, that’s just dropped, giving you a pure platformer.

Still, for all its flaws, I obviously like the game, given how I’m still working my way toward 100% completion… I just wish they could have saved the clue-collecting, cipher-decoding puzzle action for something more along the lines of a later King’s Quest or a SCUMM game so they could’ve more fully explored the potential of the perspective rotation mechanic.

Also, the ending I got without 100% completion was a bit too demoscene for me to enjoy it when, moments ago, I’d been playing an interactive game with a bit of a narrative at the beginning… but whatever. I found the movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey slow and boring too, so what do I know?

If you like puzzle platformers and can find it cheaply enough to take a risk (eg. by beating the average on the Humble Indie Bundle 9), definitely get it… just don’t expect to fully complete it without help unless, as a kid, you loved cryptic stuff like those Usborne Puzzle Adventure books or early computer adventure games.

Update: Having finished FEZ (admittedly, with a little help), I have two more things to say:

First, some of the puzzles were designed to use force feedback on the Xbox (and apparently don’t warn you if you have it turned off) and the compromise in the PC port is… flawed. They changed it to use sound instead but, even if you are playing with headphones, the stereo separation is so terrible that, even after I googled for instructions that told me to use headphones, I still couldn’t localize the sound enough to solve the puzzle myself… which was very dissatisfying since I love solving puzzles!

All in all, while I enjoyed both facets of FEZ and I admire their attempt to satisfy the kinds of minds who love classic hard games like Zork, it doesn’t work when it’s schizophrenically mashed together with a puzzle platformer because, when I’m in the mood for a platformer, I’m not in the mood for Zork and, when I’m in the mood for Zork, I’m not in the mood for a platformer. (Plus, I’m kind of surprised that they’d release something like FEZ on Xbox first, given the demographics involved.)

In summary, while fun, FEZ really should’ve been two separate games: A puzzle platformer based on rotating the world, and a Myst-like adventure game.

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The Most Important Epiphany I’ve Ever Had

If there’s one experience I would wish on everyone above all others, it’s the chance to feel your conscious desires become so at odds with your instincts that, in one brief moment, it snaps into clarity that, whether or not you feel that your rational mind is “you”, you are not your emotions either.

For me, this happened while I was taking a course on the programming language, Prolog (a language very different from the half-dozen or so I already had experience with). I was working away at the assigned exercises and frustration was building as I tried to figure out how to reconcile what my program was doing with what I thought it was supposed to be doing.

I started to lose motivation and to feel that the endeavour was “stupid” because “I already know several perfectly good and very versatile programming languages, such as Python”. I struggled to continue on despite this and, in a flash of insight, I realized that I was simultaneously holding two conflicting viewpoints: On a purely conscious level, I was still fascinated and my desire to expand my mind by internalizing the mindset embodied in the language had not waned but, on an emotional level, I considered it a waste of time.

With that revelation in mind, I found a renewed sense of motivation and was able to more effectively dismiss the emotional desire as simply a product of an instinctively lazy neurobiology trying to save precious calories, much like the desire to give up when you’re engaging in physical exercise.

I still do backslide from time to time, which is unsurprising given that the conscious mind evolved merely as a pathfinding program subordinate to the goals set by our instinctive desires, but, whenever I do manage to recall this revelation and the mindstate which accompanied it, it never fails to bolster my resolve.

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My Little Pony Fics and Songs For Non-Bronies

Since my last mention of the subject, I’ve grown somewhat attached to the fanfiction and songs coming out of the My Little Pony fandom. I still wouldn’t say I’m into it enough to be a brony but I appreciate good content. (After all, not everyone who watched Star Trek on TV was automatically a trekkie)

As such, I thought I’d offer some links for fics and songs that, by their quality and their focus, are most likely to be enjoyed by people who may only know the MLP characters from their Wikia pages. If you’re willing to give good characterization and good humour a try, regardless of its source, give them a look.

The Fics

The Wizard and the Lonely Princess by Harry Leferts (Also on
More a Harry Potter fic than a My Little Pony fic, this explores what might happen if a Freaky Friday wish for a friend lead young Harry Potter to meet Princess Luna during her thousand-year exile on the moon.
This fic makes an excellent entry point to the fandom because, in addition to being familiar territory in a less controversial fandom, it puts a lot of work into fleshing out and exploring Nightmare Moon as her own interesting character (Showing that a villain is a person with believable motivations tends to make for a good story in general) and the interactions between her and Princess Luna.
Also, who can resist the image of Hermione Granger debating whether H.P. Lovecraft is a good author with a possessed plush doll?
Shinji’s Nightmare by Harry Leferts (Also on
While absorbed into Unit 01, Shinji Ikari comes to the attention of the banished spirit of Nightmare Moon. What results is a rather unique character-centric fic where Shinji loses his humanity, but gains so much more and Nightmare Moon mellows out a bit as she realizes that she’s gained the one thing Celestia and Luna can never have… a son truly her own.
Arrow 18 Mission Logs: Lone Ranger by AdmiralTigerclaw
It’s the future and scientists on Earth realize that, rather than orbiting a black hole as previously thought, one of the stars they’ve been observing is actually orbiting what appears to be an Earth-like planet. Unfortunately, politics end up whittling the crew of the resulting mission down to just one guy.
What makes this fic so special is that, rather than just being an ordinary “Human in Equestria” fic, the writing style and tone of the story make it feel more like someone took a sci-fi story and wrote a crossover. It follows the perspective of a main character who does not have a Universal Translator and casts the artistic differences between realistic depictions of horses and the cartoon’s art style as actual, in-setting differences. The end result of all this is a very satisfying “apolitical first contact” story.
…and so on
Since I had to register an account on to receive e-mail updates for new chapters, I’ve decided to maintain a curated list of good stories on my user profile page. If you like what I linked above and want more, that’s where I’d suggest looking next.
The three thumbnail boxes list the top 5 fics in each category while the “Runners-up” box contains anything else that I’d rate highly.
My one warning is to avoid the site’s dedicated “Favourites” tab on my profile. It’s rather useless because the site forces you to “favourite” something in order to watch it for updates. (But gives you the option of skipping the e-mails on something you’ve starred in case you want to favourite something but opt out of e-mails.)

The Songs

In addition to the songs I already mentioned in Trifles Make Perfection, there are a few others I’d suggest…

Winter Wrap-Up and This Day Aria
Both of these songs from the show itself are ridiculously catchy and have a surprising amount of work put into them.
For example, in Winter Wrap-Up, listen to the chorus. There’s clapping in the background from the beginning, but it gets louder each time and you only really notice it the third time the chorus plays… to excellent effect.  Also, I really like the counterpoint between Applejack’s voice alone (1:57) and the backup chorus at the end of her verse (2:12). Finally, it’s not every day you see a song in a children’s show which has enough poetic awareness to use a grammatical construct like “tough task ahead I face” to maintain its rhyming structure. (2:29)
The cover by ponyphonic is also very nice.
As for This Day Aria, the main detail I really appreciate is how well the singer managed to put two distinct characterizations into the same voice. (Especially given how Queen Chrysalis’s use of Cadance’s voice brings to mind some self-absorbed “queen of the high school”)
Nightmare Night by WoodenToaster and Mic The Microphone
Focused around the episode in which Princess Luna drops in on their Nightmare Night celebrations (the in-setting equivalent to Halloween), this song is technically rap, but with much more work than usual put into the non-lyrical elements.
I found it extremely catchy and, if you feel you like the instrumentals more than the voice, the YouTube video’s description contains download links not just for the song itself, but also for an instrumental-only version, a MIDI file, and sheet music for the piano intro. There’s also an orchestral-styled cover by StormWolf.
Discord (EuroChaos Mix) by Eurobeat Brony
A catchy, upbeat song focused on the original defeat of Discord, a Sealed Evil in a Can villain who once ruled over Equestria and, when he escapes again, proves that it is very appropriate that he happens to be voiced by John de Lancie).
Luna (DREAM MODE) by Eurobeat Brony
This was actually the first MLP song I ever discovered in the form of this crazy-mode StepMania playthrough of the dubstep remix.
Rainbow Factory by WoodenToaster
A catchy, dark techno song which paints a darker picture of Cloudsdale. It has spawned a fanfic, but I haven’t read it.
etc. etc. etc.
As with the fics, I maintain a list of favourite music on my FIMFiction profile if you want more. (Plus a list of favourite fan art.)
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The Infectious Foolishness of GNOME’s Save Iconography

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an increasing trend for Linux icon themes to follow the lead set by the Tango and GNOME icon themes in using a naked internal hard drive with a downward-pointing green arrow to indicate “Save” rather than a diskette. The problem is that doing so does not provide any benefits and actually makes things worse.

Let’s start by exploring what criteria are actually used to evaluate the appropriateness of an icon. I’ve identified three:

  1. Visual Consistency (Does it fit in with the rest of the theme?)
  2. Learnability (How long does it take for the user to memorize the icon’s meaning?)
  3. Visual Distinctiveness/Acquisition (How long does it take an experienced user to pick the icon out from a field of other bits and bobs?)

Visual consistency within the theme isn’t relevant to this argument, since we can safely assume that any popular Linux icon theme will have it. However, the “arrow to a drive” icon loses to the diskette on both of the other points:


If you don’t give it much thought, it seems to make perfect sense that, now that we don’t use diskettes anymore, we shouldn’t use them in our iconography. However, over 95% of users have never seen a naked hard drive, so that component of the new look is, on the face of it, equally disadvantaged.

I’m assuming that GNOME is following Apple’s lead here, since MacOS X also uses naked hard drive iconography, but there’s a significant difference: On a Macintosh, users are trained by experience that their files live inside the naked hard drive icons on their desktop, whether or not they understand the nature of what they are looking at. Most Linux desktop environments don’t offer this convention for accessing partitions and, even on those which do, it’s an optional feature. As a result, a critical link in the learning process is absent.

Also, nobody learns in a vacuum. For decades, we’ve built up the diskette, not just as a storage medium, but as something that can be used as an abstract glyph for “Save” and, in older websites (where the two functions are often equivalent), for “Download”. (This is probably a large part of why the original concept () for the language icon failed. It looks like a pictographic representation of a diskette.)

Because of this effect, a generation has grown up recognizing diskettes as “Save”, regardless of whether they’re old enough to have used them. This effect is bolstered by the tendency of Windows and KDE icons to still use them as such.

Finally, while I wasn’t able to identify the exact page, I distinctly remember one of my old textbooks1 saying that, once a user has learned an icon, their performance is unaffected by the affordance of having the icon resemble something familiar.

Visual Acquisition

Once you’ve grown used to an icon, the most relevant question is “How quickly can I find this when I want to click on it?” This is where GNOME’s choice fails multiple tests (some of which Apple’s implementation also falls short on).

First, it has poor visual contrast. Gray and green are very common colours to be used in popular icon themes, so it is difficult for the eye to quickly distinguish a save icon from other gray/green icons on a background that is often also gray. (Remember, even if light-on-dark is a common choice for GNOME-based desktops, these icon themes are also used in other desktops which have chosen to remain with the traditional dark-on-light for a default color scheme.)

By contrast, very few icons use the combination of red and blue traditionally used for diskette icons. This helps to compensate for how the ability to perceive variations in color and shape decreases as you move away from the center of our field of vision. (I have to stop and search for a drive icon if I haven’t become habituated to its position in the window. The diskette leaps out at me with no trouble whatsoever.)

Second, it is very common for green downward-pointing arrows to indicate “download” and “next page”. These two uses aren’t usually a problem, since these two uses rarely occur together in the same program and the meaning of “down as next” is disambiguated by the color of the nearby upward-pointing arrow.

However, having download and save in the same program doesn’t benefit from those same advantages. This forces the user to dedicate more of their attention to determining the meaning of the icon, slowing them down.

Finally, the icon is visually ambiguous in less-than-ideal circumstances. At small sizes such as 16×16 and 22×22, which are commonly used in toolbars, when the user is tired, has poor vision, or isn’t looking directly at the icon, it can be confused with either the Download icon or the Print icon (something I’ve encountered among less tech-savvy family members).


While I have said consistency within a theme is not relevant, consistency between themes is an issue since, even now in 2013, not all applications properly use the system icon theme.

Old applications, some 3rd-party applications, and KDE applications which need to provide icons outside the standard set still sometimes produce diskette-based icons which are not (or, in some cases, cannot be) replaced by the user’s chosen icon theme.


I am honestly curious what motivated the GNOME and Tango developers to choose drive-based iconography, given that the only advantage it seems to grant is consistency with Apple’s proprietary operating system and the single-platform applications within.

Not only does it highlight theming inconsistencies to users who might otherwise not have noticed, it throws out years of real-world experience in developing related metaphors.

For example, one derived icon which is often necessary is “Save All” or “Save Project”. With a diskette-based icon theme, this can be represented intuitively and at very small sizes as a cascade of diskettes. I have yet to see a viable metaphor for this operation when using disk-based icons. Most icon themes I’ve examined don’t even include such an icon.

As a result, this often results in toolbars for IDEs and other such programs presenting a cascade of diskettes to the right of the “hard drive with an arrow” save icon, harming the user’s ability to identify consistent metaphors.

In summary, I get the impression that the individuals involved in designing this iconography have little professional training in user interaction design and simply copied certain surface elements of MacOS X in hopes that some of Apple’s good juju would rub off on them.

1. Human-Computer Interaction, Third Edition by Alan Dix, Janet Finlay, Gregory D. Abowd, and Russell Beale

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