Your Handy-Dandy Field Guide to “X IS NOT A GAME”

People love to talk about what is a game and what isn’t! With this HANDY-DANDY FIELD GUIDE (TM), understanding what those insistent people mean can be up to one infinity times easier!

It can also be up to two infinity times harder, if you disagree with me or are easily confused. But hey! That’s your brain, not mine, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

1) ”You and I: let’s argue, please.”

For some people, the word ‘game’ has acquired a numinal halo of strange and powerful magic. This is because the word ‘gamer’ is so meaningful and important to them! Often suffering from an inability to separate themselves from the things they love, these people will attempt to attack your identity or self-image by insinuating that you are not a Real Gamer. They may do this by suggesting that the games you like are bad, or are somehow not Real Games.

The easiest way to deal with this species of X Is Not A Game is to demonstrate your inability to care about their opinion, or your indifference towards your gamer status. Once aware that you simply do not care about being a Real Gamer, their claws will  be pulled, and they will slink sullenly away into the shadows of the nearest troll-den.

2) “I know a lot about game design!”

For some people, having a specific and well-rehearsed opinion about what games ‘are’ is part of an ongoing quest to become a game designer or a games critic. Most of the time, these people are not and will never be game designers, but harbor as their deepest wish a desire to become one.

These people are not always aggressive or hostile: sometimes, they simply want an intelligent discussion about games, but cannot find the words to initiate one properly. Other times, they are simply semantics whores. Occasionally, they are sad and angry academics (usually, the kind of strict ludologist who has written a paper about Whist, or stabbed a games copywriter in public). Sometimes, however, they actually believe that there are restrictive rules about what can be a digital game and what cannot be. These people will probably lecture you for hours. Feign overt boredom and escape by pretending to go to the bathroom.

If subject is a real game designer, do not engage.

3) “I am uncomfortable with things I do not understand!”

Some people will play art games for half a minute, back away from the computer, announce “this is not a game,” and leave the room. For whatever reason, these people are profoundly unnerved by experiences they feel doubtful of their mastery over. They may also feel that their identity as a “gamer” is threatened by mere contact with digital experiences that fall outside their comfort zone. By declaring something to not be a “Real Game,” they can distance it from themselves and handily push from their mind whatever it is that has discomforted them.

Do not worry about this one. If you can play and learn from the game which unnerves them, you have already won.

4) “I think game X is total shit.”

These people have a strong, well-defined taste in games, and they are fiercely defensive of it. Their taste in games is always highly conventional. They are bringing up the X Is Not A Game argument because they wish to knock X, or knock its developers, or insinuate that its developers have done a bad job, or that their work is not worth any attention. They use the argument dismissively, as if no further thought is necessary once one has realized the sub-par gaminess of X. They also use the argument with hyperbole, saying things like “Flower is not a game, it’s a screensaver!” with the assumption that you will laugh.

Appropriate reactions include: short, horrified snorts of laughter, silence, and if you are strong and patient like ox, “What do you think was so wrong about X?”

5) “The game we were just talking about does not have many ludic elements in it, does it?”

Some people say “X is not a game” when they really mean to say “let’s have an interesting discussion about the different elements which make this game so unique.” This specimen of X Is Not a Game should be ignored– passed over as if it were never spoken– lest you alarm your interlocutor, back them into a corner, and force them to support an argument they may not actually believe. These people know what the word ‘ludic’ means; they will agree that the digital experiences made in the “games industry” are not always ludic in nature; they can tell you what a “loop” is, in the context of game design; they may find Minecraft’s bravely persistent “&e0” a chuckle-worthy commentary on games in general. They are nice people. Don’t beat them up.

In an age when ‘what digital games are’ is changing so rapidly that none of us can truly claim to be keeping up, having a proscriptive opinion about what games “are” demonstrates that you are very silly indeed. The games industry has been producing relatively-nonludic digital entertainment experiences for at least twenty years– but we still call them all ‘games.’ We’ve got nothing else to call them that doesn’t make us sound like poncy morons.

Since we’re stuck with the vocabulary, we’re going to have to work harder to keep our brains as limber and accepting as they’re going to need to be. And they’re going to need to be super limber, guys, and waaaaay accepting. Way, way accepting.

Translations

For the past week, I’ve been playing through the original Starcraft’s single-player campaign. For the first time.

I’d attempted it five or six years ago, but I was embarrassingly awful at it and therefore hated it. I’d grown up playing many, many RTSes, mostly set in human history. My favorites were the Age of Empires games. They are slightly more forgiving to those who, like me, are awful at ‘micro,’ and while I was never very good at any of them, I could still enjoy them and not feel like a complete idiot. Starcraft made me feel like an idiot.

Nevertheless, I might have stuck with Starcraft if its single-player campaign hadn’t struck me as such an awful piece of crap. I didn’t enjoy the talking heads. History buff that I was, I didn’t ‘get’ the heavy references to the southern United States (and I still don’t). The characters were only very fleetingly sketched, and people kept dipping in and out of view, changing sides, and saying asinine things in funny accents. I never even got to the bit where a certain someone transforms into a certain Queen of Somethings. It’s not like I expected overmuch from the game—I knew that RTSes can occasionally suck at telling stories. Starcraft, though, struck me as extraordinarily bad.

But I’ve been slowly plowing through it these past few weeks, and I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve also been watching many, many Starcraft II replay videos. Together, I think they’re helping me understand something about the role that story sometimes plays in multiplayer-enabled RTSes. Both campaigns and replay commentaries serve, in part, the exact same purpose. They’re translations.

Starcraft II replay videos with commentary are fun because they transform chaotic madness into coherent stories. Alone, I can’t access the ‘conversation’ that takes place between these high-level players as they compete. That conversation takes place in a long-running strategic context of strategies and counter-strategies stretching back over years and years, and it’s a context that I don’t yet possess. Whatever’s going on, it’s not necessarily going to fall easily into an attractive narrative, or even the kind of narrative that I can understand. But humans like to see things in terms of gripping stories, so people like HD and Husky step in and, voila, the story congeals. They turn a frantic conversation in a language I don’t speak into something I can understand and appreciate; they imbue the players with a kind of character that isn’t immediately discernable to the untrained eye; with the tones of their voice, they give structure and energy to a match. They are translators. Sports commentators have always been translators.

Secretly, a translator

Additionally, sports commentators have always been authors. They’re not necessarily telling the story of a match in the same way that the players themselves would have told it. Instead, and of necessity, they’re writing a whole new one. Translation is never perfect, but we need translations, and we need stories. Humans love to see the things we don’t fully understand as coherent stories. They help us to understand those things, even if they’re not the kinds of things that can honestly be represented by a conventional story.

One example of this is historical periodization—the division of history into consecutive and self-contained segments of time, like “The Middle Ages” or “The Industrial Age.” We do it because it helps us to understand the past, not because the past actually took place in discrete chunks. We take a bunch of stuff that happened around the same dates, point out common characteristics, give that period a name, and slap it into a timeline and—voila!— the story of human existence congeals! On one level, periodization is important, because we can’t talk about things or ideas without thinking of them as things. On another level, a philosophical one, it’s not entirely ‘realistic.’ For example, historians have recently begun to freak out about whether or not the Renaissance ever actually ‘existed.’ We may have arbitrarily imposed our conception of it as a coherent time-block because time-blocks suit us. Rendering any kind of chaos into story always involves a little bit of arbitrary re-authoring.

The Renaissance: didn't "really" "happen"

On some levels, putting a story to an RTS is like this, whether it’s the story provided by commentary or by a single-player campaign. The story re-writes the experience into something a bit more palatable and accessible, reinventing it as something that we can learn from. It’s impossible to learn from chaos, and at the first glance of an untrained eye, many RTSes are chaos. But single-player campaigns and replay commentaries each provide the translations for single-player and multiplayer play, respectively.

It should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RTS that single-player campaigns frequently exist to teach players the basics that they’ll need in order to function in multiplayer competition. By imposing careful restrictions, a mission can isolate certain skills and strategies, teaching you something that you might never have noticed in normal multiplayer play. Soon enough, you can talk the game’s talk—and, if you’re good, manipulate its mechanics as creatively as you could manipulate any language.

Similarly, the best replay commentary points out and isolates certain concepts and strategies in a way that allows players to decode the language of high-level play ’syllable’ by ‘syllable’, so to speak, teaching strategies that the single-player campaign cannot teach. While replay delivers this instruction in a simple, upfront context (“you want the translation, so I am giving it to you”), the way teachers provide translations of difficult concepts to students through traditional schooling, an RTS’s single-player translation takes the form of a straight-up fiction.

But each method uses stories, as I mentioned above. The story of a good match—say, the first clash between IdrA and Masq, and the eventual rematch—is as exciting as many of the stories Blizzard comes up with. Personally, I think they’re often a lot more exciting, mostly because the human drama is real.

At any rate, I find it interesting that RTS developers haven’t yet broadly acknowledged the similarities between these two teaching tools. They don’t provide competitive multiplayer campaigns that teach the same things that commentary does in the way that single-player campaigns teach it—with stories. Granted, for a game as complex as Starcraft, that would be incredibly difficult. You’d have to do an extended beta to test your multiplayer design, then develop a campaign around what you’d discovered, and perhaps find a whole new way to tie a translating narrative onto the top of all that. Worst of all, as the game entered its extended lifespan, strategies might emerge that you hadn’t predicted or worked into the campaign. They might even break the campaign. You might have to edit some of the creative content along with the natural act of balancing the game. You could definitely do it, though, and it could be much easier to do for a game with simpler mechanics. I’d love to see a game take some lessons from replay commentary and include a competitive multiplayer campaign with a story that reacts as the players defeat one another.

Then again, a good RTS should make it fun to learn to play competitively by simply playing competitively. That’s how I played Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology as a kid, and even though I sucked, I enjoyed it. People who currently battle for their rankings in Starcraft II ladders are having fun without a story in a competitive campaign. Nevertheless, they’re probably watching commentaries. They still want translations, and they use them often. Honestly, as a kid, I could have done with some good translations. If I’d had a few more than I did, I’d probably suck a lot less than I do now.

—–

Also: Where have Kent and I been? Well, we’ve been having the END OF THE SUMMER, and it’s busy, and will continue to be. In the coming week I’ll be moving across the country—leaving the lawless, mazelike ruin that is Los Angeles and returning to the east coast, where people are NORMAL, goddamn it. Kent is also making mighty movements across  our planet. On top of this, Kent and I have been working on a variety of separate simultaneous projects that also eat up a lot of time and energy. I, for one, have just had my thesis approved and am reading loads and loads of books and doing other kinds of quote-unquote research. But we hope to be back to our old something-on-the-site-at-least-more-than-once-a-week schedule in the “near” “future”. Interpret those scare-quotes as you see fit.

Do I control your body or your mind?

I’m going to talk about Loved now.  If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that.  It won’t take long.

I believe that all games require trust.  When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it.  To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think.  To play a game is to surrender.  We allow ourselves to be led.  We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.

Well, Loved is a game about trust.  It’s about a child and a god.  “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer.  I click on man. “No, you are a girl.”  It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction.  I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me.  Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.

“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.”  If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.”  Either way he’s taunting you.  The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game.  The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.

And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god.  I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders.  “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.”  The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path.  The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him?  I take the top path.

“Ugly Creature.”  A flash of light, and I continue.

There are two ways to play the game.  Either you trust the narrator or you don’t.  Either you obey or you rebel.  The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults.  As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again.  So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still.  I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen.  I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment.  I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red).  Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating.  It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier.  In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….

“Why do you hate me?”  No decisions at all. I can only click on hate.  The game responds, “I loved you.”

Strange.  I play a second time, and I take the lower path.  In place of insults I get condescending praise.  “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog.  This time there aren’t any colored blocks.  In fact, everything appears in black and white.  At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy.  Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.

Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one?  I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.

I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too.  Maybe art is about surrender.  Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song.  But compared to games, other art forms are passive.  Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?”   The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.

The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.

I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”

Dying in Space

I failed to restore oxygen to the moonbase.

It was devastating, at first. I knew that I was going to fail long before the moment actually came—by the time I had about 8 minutes left, I was pretty sure that the end wasn’t going to be pretty. I put it down to my inability to grasp the minigame soon enough: I wasted about five minutes dicking around with the welder before I realized what part of the circuit board I was supposed to be playing with. There was also the issue of my poor robot-driving skills. To top it all off, I also actually got lost a few times—a tough task, admittedly, since there were only about three locations on the entire map. With eight minutes left, the seconds were counting down and there was no one to blame but myself and my incompetence. My incompetence, yeah, and certain fanciful misconceptions I had developed about the game while playing it. See, I kind of psyched myself out, when it comes right down to it. Yeah. Weird. I pretty much worked myself up into a terror. But I would have been perfectly satisfied with this self-inflicted terror, however, if it hadn’t led me to make a rather disappointing discovery about what happens when you fail the game’s scenario.

Bottom line: NASA ruined their own game for me with their squeamish space-positivism.

Moonbase Alpha is supposed to be played in multiplayer mode, pretty much. But when you tackle it alone, it’s got a certain atmospheric element that I think I might have missed if I’d played with another human—a strange combination of cheery optimism and desolate harshness that strikes me as particularly odd. In recent weeks, Neptune’s Pride and Gregory Weir’s Looming have given me the pleasure, if it can be called that, of some real quality intentional hopelessness. On the other hand, Moonbase Alpha is one of those games where you can’t tell if the desolation is intentional or not. I’m not sure if it’s just in my head—a conundrum I’m intimately familiar with after years of reading ‘hard’ science fiction. Space madness! It’s like I’m part of some crazy space-horror novel, I guess, but super low-key, and without the blood running down the inside of the visor dome and all that.

Moonbase Alpha is not necessarily for the kind of small children who tend to be obsessed with astronauts. It was, apparently, inspired by America’s Army, and that says a lot about the direction it takes, I think. It’s actually quite tough on the first playthrough, and though it’s got some cute minigame mechanics, there’s an awful lot of silent trudging, drab regolith, suffocating dust, and fiddly difficulty. Playing it alone, I really did feel like a bewildered, trapped spaceman. There isn’t any music. There aren’t any people to see. It’s in the Unreal engine, but everything feels rather more dusty and much less shiny-shiny-slick-and-fancy than other Unreal games tend to look. The disembodied voices of your fellow spacemen, stuck indoors with a dwindling oxygen supply, are more anxiety-producing than they are comforting.

Meanwhile, however, we’ve got the contrast of pretty LCD panels on the outsides of all our important moon-buildings, a bright glowy UI, oddly adorable maintenance robots, and the whole euphoric people-living-on-the-moon situation to deal with. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think about the situation. If I’d succeeded in fixing the oxygen system, I doubtless would feel quite different about the game now. I’d probably be focusing more on the cute than the lonely.

See, I really did psych myself out: I was convinced, throughout the whole playthrough, that the astronauts would die, that they would suffocate to death if I didn’t save them. Dead astronauts are the creepiest things modernity has offered us in the past fifty years. Americans these days generally only pay attention to astronauts when they’re dead, or in peril of dying, and everyone loves putting them in movies and scaring the fuck out of us with them. (If you’ve seen Sunshine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) I myself have a particularly strong fear of dead astronauts. As a child I desperately wanted to be a live one—specifically, a Payload Specialist. I even got to go to Space Camp in Florida for my tenth birthday, a gift that, to this day, remains the best present I have ever recieved. Space occupied a pretty significant portion of my daily thought-load—I would lie in bed for nearly an hour before falling asleep every day and try to imagine what it would be like to do a spacewalk and repair a shuttle. I almost always had nightmares after doing that, but they were particularly awesome nightmares, so I put up with it. Only a few weeks after Space Camp, though, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I immediately convinced myself to give up the whole plan. Didn’t stop my scary dying-in-space nightmares, though.

So when the game began, I immediately convinced myself that these astronauts would die if I didn’t save them. I don’t know if the game tells you otherwise right at the beginning and I missed it, but I was sure that I was the last hope they had, and that they were all slumped in their living quarters, slowly turning ice-blue, while I hopped desperately through the rising dust like an idiot. Imagine my surprise when, the moment I fail, the trapped astronauts suddenly speak up and announce that I can go back and try again, and that my failure’s only resulted in a lost day of productivity!

Listen, NASA. We gamers believe certain things about space. We believe that space is vast, and detailed, and largely friendly; we also believe that it’s as crowded with alien life-forms and awesome laser-gun fights as Canaveral and JPL are with PhDs. Your cute little robots are a step in the right direction when it comes to that kind of propaganda. But as Americans, as science-fiction nerds, we believe other things: we believe that spacemen die, horrifically, on television, with fire in the sky and immense mechanical screeches and explosions and bits of Our Heroes The Spacemen plastered all over the continent. Children of my generation know the ISS, but we also know Disaster in Space. We’ve read the books. We’ve watched the movies. We’re fascinated with space because it’s recently become a place for robots, not for people, and we know why.

I know why you made your design decision, NASA, but for God’s sake, let your spacemen die. It’s the only way we’ll ever be excited about your digital moon.

Oh God, not THAT discussion

On this blog, I’ve been trying to keep my commentary as far as possible from the “girls and games” topic, partially because I feel like I have little that is original to add to the discussion. I am a female who plays and enjoys nearly every kind of digital game and I have never seen much merit in the idea that girls and boys inherently prefer different essential gaming experiences. I know women who love and excel at shooters and men who play Peggle and other ‘casual’ titles obsessively (I see their Steam notifications. They can’t hide from me.)

True, most western AAA video and computer games are marketed toward adolescent males. Their art, themes, and stories promote or at least embody the fantasy of masculinity treasured by that particular demographic, and they’re created by an industry where a majority of the producers, designers, artists, and management are themselves male. It is from this that the notion that girls can’t be ‘core’ gamers derives: ‘core’ games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and God of War all work hard to satisfy those culturally-reinforced male fantasies. This makes them a bit awkward to play if you don’t share in the fantasy, regardless of what your gender is. Anyway, games really have no trouble providing us with fantasies if we don’t bring our own to the game; most ‘core’ games are simply providing fantasies that are deliberately very exclusionary to females.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t enjoy them. I still love games, and I still love the medium, and I still love shooting digital people in the face, because it’s exciting and challenging and because I have strong nostaligic memories associated with the shooting of digital people in the face. But I’m also hyper-aware that the AAA industry doesn’t usually give a shit about people like me. This is part of the reason why I love indie games so much: most of them are directed at fulfilling basic human fantasies, not adolescent male ones. They don’t adhere to the same bullshit aesthetic of ‘gritty realism’ that those AAA games do, and they often tackle very mature issues on a symbolic level. I appreciate this maturity more than I appreciate the posturings of maturity found in many AAA titles.

At any rate: games and girls. I bring it up now because I’ve had a number of strange games-and-girls related interactions over the past two weeks.

The first occurred at E3. A female friend of mine—actually, she’s a game tester—and I were eating lunch at the food court area when two heavyset older gentlemen seated themselves at our table. Space was tight at the food court, so it made sense to share. As we each carried on our separate conversations, however, my friend and I suddenly realized that the conversation these middle-aged guys were having right next to us was infinitely more interesting than our own.

“But girls don’t like that,” one said.

“Oh, you guys are doing it all wrong,” the other replied. “See, what girls don’t like is senseless violence. If it has a purpose, fine. They like that, if it has a point, like if it does something good for the world. But they won’t play it if it has senseless violence.”

I don’t remember what else they said. I and the woman I was talking with left shortly after this comment. I wasn’t able to see what the names on these two guys’s tags were, and I still don’t know whether they were designers or marketers or executives. But they were somebodies.

“Girls don’t like senseless violence,” the other woman muttered to me as we walked away.

“It was interesting for me to learn that,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I find myself enjoying shooting dudes in the head.”

I enjoy meaningless, senseless violence in games as much as the next gamer. What I don’t enjoy is always having to be a man whenever a game lets me commit senseless violence. Or always having to be a hyper-sexualized woman whenever a game grants me the privilege to be a lady while I kill dudes. Part of the excitement of games is the ability to “be” somebody else, to explore a story from the perspective of a new character. It gets depressing, though, when an entire industry seems to have decided that you, people like you, and the fantasies and perspectives that you have, are not fitting material for games. Generally, in order to experience a AAA game, a woman will have to ‘be’ a man. Only culturally-masculine fantasies are worth immortalizing in games, it seems.

Okay. Whatever. They’re still fun.

I’ve moved to Los Angeles for the summer and am living in an apartment with three other female students about my age. All three are actually from a very different cultural background than my own: they’re all of Pakistani heritage, and they’re all very ‘Californian,’ while I’m a very east-coast Irish Catholic. We have very different expectations when it comes to socialization, food, dress, and so on—mostly due to the east-coast/California divide, not the Pakistani/Irish one. But all three grew up with N64 or Super Nintendo consoles in their homes, and loved Zelda and Donkey Kong Country—so games are, surprisingly, one of the cultural elements that we absolutely share.

So I thought, anyway. I think it still baffles them that a girl can care so much about games and devote as much time and intellectual energy to them as I do. While eating dinner a few days ago, one of them asked me, rather aggressively, what I thought about violence in games. I tried to give her a reasoned explanation of my feelings on the subject—parents are responsible for the media their children ingest, so to speak, and they must use ratings responsibly and control purchases themselves. She told me that she’d seen a sociology study proving that little boys who play violent games are more violent; I told her that no such thing had been actually proven. She told me that the study had actually proven that they were more tolerant of domestic abuse against women. I had no clever answer for her, as I’d never even heard such an accusation before.

She then went on to ask, rather slyly, what I thought of CounterStrike. She demanded that I explain why “perfectly good, intelligent boys” can be so engrossed by the game that they “get sucked into it for hours.” I told her that ‘game addiction’ hasn’t been proven to exist, that people who can’t control their play time probably have different, underlying troubles. Like depression. This offended her—or her concern for the unnamed CounterStrike player, I suppose.

The conversation degenerated.

Just thinking about it over the past few days has absolutely infuriated me. I will not be held accountable as a kind of gender-traitor because I care deeply about the world’s newest and most important modern artistic medium. I will not allow the fact that this medium is currently controlled by industry, not artists—that the strings are being pulled by the kind of fat, middle-aged businessmen who, while stopping to eat lunch together at E3, decided between themselves what it is, exactly, that this medium can deign to offer women—I will not let this kind of thing control what people think about me. Or the medium. The medium is most important.

Which is why I will use indie games to educate my roommates, over the next few months, about what exactly it is that games can offer the world. Just to be controversial, I’m starting with Hey Baby.

I’ll keep you posted.

Is Deus Ex 3 a movie or a game?

Because it looks like it would be one hell of an excellent movie. I haven’t seen a cinematic trailer this long, plotty, or robust in a while.

I mean, I’m totally aware that cinematic trailers can be like this. I didn’t expect gameplay footage or anything. But usually when we see these kinds of things, they’re only fifty seconds long. Just a short clip of characters pumping shotguns and saying “Let’s roll!” in Clint Eastwood voices, or giving the camera heavy-lidded angst-eyes while titles and release dates flash by, or talking about why they love Commander Shepherd, or things like that. Clearly prerendered, but framed in such a way that we know we’re talking about a game, here. Even the ME2 cinematic trailer was just a list of squad members presented flashily. The launch trailer was also a list of squadmates, and it even had some in-game sex-scene footage in it. It had the framing logic of an RPG. When we start talking lists of recruitables, we know we’re talking about that kind of game. The Deuz Ex 3 trailer doesn’t have any of that framing logic.

The other type of cinematic trailer we see is the type where everything is patently cutscene footage. But the Deus X trailer feels like it was taken from a larger story, from a whole movie’s worth of story, not from just a few cutscenes. It feels like I’m going to want to play this game in a huge empty room with a bucket of popcorn and an Icee on hand. Which is, of course, kinda tough, right?

Here’s the thing: I’m starting to think that part of the reason we’re so skeptical of game movies (and I haven’t yet seen Prince of Persia, so I could be totally wrong about this) is that it’s not wise to try and make players feel the same way about a game character the same way we feel about a movie character, and vice-versa. Obviously, different strategies are involved in the characterization and the world-building, and so on. The kind of player-character that appeals to people in a game is often flimsy enough to be inhabitable, while simultaneously characterized enough not to feel like a sock puppet. Action-movie heroes are also vehicles for self-insertion, but in a different way: we spend more time regarding them from the outside than from the inside, so they’re shinier on that side, so to speak.

From what I see of these characters in this trailer, they’re the kind of people I want to regard from the outside. Or—I mean—they’re the kind of characters I don’t yet feel like I can regard from the inside, they’ve been polished up so hard.*

What do you guys think? I mean, when it comes to trailers-what-make-me-feel-excited, I think this is right up there among the best. But it doesn’t feel much like a game trailer.

*Except for that giving-orders guy  near the end. His voice acting just screams VIDEO GAME

POST-PAPERS EXHAUSTION POST!

All of my writings for school are done.  My brain hurts, and migranes have inflicted me with temporary blindness. I wrote 35 pages in two days and read over a thousand pages in one weekend to prepare myself for the process. Now I cannot focus my eyes more than five feet in front of my face, and I have a headache. Hooray!

So I wrote this frivolous thing. It is a list of all possible definitions of the ‘Second Person Shooter.’  See, most of the random web searches that get directed here are phrases like “definition second person shooter” or “example second person shooter.” People out there want to know what a second-person shooting-people video-game would look and feel like. And they think we know? Pah! We don’t.

Frankly, we’re curious, too. We picked the name “Second Person Shooter” basically because it sounded interesting. Our excuse: we were despairing. We’d just spent over an hour combining random nouns in the hope that something would click, but we’d only come up with monstrosities like “Antelope Rapture” and “Black Hole Church.” (I still think either of those would have been awesome. Perhaps we can sell them to nameless indie-rock bands.) At any rate, we are definitely not the experts on what a ‘second person shooter’ would look like. I myself don’t think that a second person shooter would be any fun to play, unless the idea was approached with a certain amount of drunken levity.

1)      A GAME WHERE YOU ARE EMBODIED, AND CONTROL A DIFFERENT GUY WHO SHOOTS A GUN

In this game, you have control over yourself, in a first-person perspective, and over another individual, the shooter. It would be a little bit like that one team-building exercise where blindfolded people team up with non-blindfolded people who shout instructions at them while they and navigate mazes or throw yarn balls at one another. Have you ever done that? I did it once at a summer camp staff training, and it was horrible.

Anyway, for this game, I’m thinking of things along the lines of the robot segments from TLC’s Logic Quest. Remember that one? You had to program a robot-like boxy-man painted up to look like a king or a knight. He was always inside this weird kind of spacious jail cell, and you would have to program him with a set of commands that would let him unlock the cell. Anyway, this variety of second person shooter would require your embodied digital self to either 1) program or 2) directly control a separate individual who has a gun. Objective: shoot dudes without getting you or your puppet-man shooter shot. It would be INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. There would be WAAAY TOO MANY CONTROLS. Basically, this setup would translate poorly to the kind of moment-by-moment excitement of a shooter— it would be awesome, but only for five minutes. After which point every player would either tear the game directly out of their hard-drives with the brute psycho-magnetic force of their unholy rage, or commit pathetic, despairing suicide in the drippy corner of their local basement. That’s what I did after a few sessions of Logic Quest. Yep.

2)      A GAME WHERE SOMEONE DESCRIBES YOU IN SECOND PERSON AS YOU SHOOT PEOPLE.

Such a game almost already exists. It’s Night of the Cephalopods: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess, a lovely bit of indie freeware from 2008. In it, you, the terrified Lovecraftian protagonist, run through a foggy forest while squidly-face monsters chase you. You shoot them. EVERY TIME YOU DO ANYTHING, the narrator describes it. There aren’t too many variations in the voiceovers, so you’ll quickly reach the extent of your amusement with this game—but for its length and complexity, it’s brilliant. It would BE  a second person shooter, except the descriptions are phrased in first-person rather than second.

3)      A GAME IN WHICH OTHER PEOPLE SHOOT YOU

I’m thinking of something in the style of The Onion’s ‘Close Range’, but instead the player is the guy who gets shot. And dies. Over and over. Or maybe the player never dies, and just stands there while he or she gets shot again and again for no reason. Not sure which would be more effective. Basically, though, that’s the bottom line: you watch as someone shoots you over and over and over and over again. Infinitely. Not much else to say about this idea. Maybe the environments would change? In one level, you’d stand there while people shot you in a jungle; then there’s be an ice level, and every time you’re shot your body would physics-slide all around the map, ragdolling against barriers? No idea. Not even sure where player action would fit into this game.

(Also: the staff members of the embarrassing college humor magazine I write for consider Close Range to be one of our favorite-ever videos. New recruits sometimes have a hard time understanding why we love it so much. But we do. It is sublime. And I love the Max Payne references.)

4)      A GAME IN WHICH YOU MUST SHOOT THE SECOND PERSON OUT OF EVERY PAIR

Pros: Would teach our children the important moral binaries they will need in order to navigate the modern, adult cultural world.

Cons: Would be very short. Also, very easy. Too easy.

5)      …GOD OF WAR?

While checking over this post, Kent suggested to me that the famous from-the-victim’s-perspective death scene in GoW III is a second-person death scene. A shooter version of that, he posits, would be a second-person shooter. So: like idea number 3, but instead of playing the silent victim, you’d shoot yourself. Gosh! So  crazy!

I would only play this game if there were a bit where time slowed down while the bullet flew towards your face, and you had to contemplate the philosophical profundity of your self-capping act.

Logical Journey

In 1997, I made a new best friend.

He was the son of an incredibly famous person, but I didn’t know this at the time. I actually remember my parents being rather shocked when they met his mother—as I learned much later, she’d been all over the news for reasons related to Bill Clinton’s government appointments. For some reason, they moved to my area just before September 1997, and now her son was in my school. Let’s call him Ricardo. He was in my third-grade class for a single year.

Ricardo was absurdly charismatic. He had twelve kinds of Napoleonic complexes, claimed to have read Hamlet, and showed off his family’s wealth with a shameless, mesmerizing kind of pride. He spent nearly every Reading Hour arguing with the teacher about whether or not he was permitted to spend the period reading the dictionary. He started a club “about Egypt.” He started another one “about Rome.” He got half our entire grade to sign the membership lists. He wore little polo shirts instead of t-shirts or turtlenecks. Despite not being Hispanic, he had a haircut like a novela actor, and he pulled it off. For whatever reason, we all thought he was awesome.

And he wanted to be my best friend. See, we both played the same computer games: we were absolutely hooked on edu-games made by The Learning Company. There was Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, Treasure Mathstorm and Treasure Galaxy, all math games; then there was Reading Rabbit and its bland successors. Additionally, we loved Broderbund’s The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a logic game he and I both begged our parents to buy out of that year’s book fair catalog. We were obsessed. We’d go over to each other’s houses and sit for hours to watch each other play. We solved math problems together. We discussed secrets and strategies. He had a computer of his own, and it was in his room. He was the smartest and luckiest kid I knew. But he was new in school, and his friendships were all nervous alliances of awe and mistrust, and I was pretty awkward and lonely myself. So I guess we were good for each other.

There’s one day in particular from that year that I still remember. I arrived at his house sometime in the early morning; we ran upstairs to his bedroom, where he still had Zoombinis running from the night before. I plopped down in the chair next to his and was rather horrified by what I saw happening on the screen.

“What have you done?” I asked.

Ricardo settled down in the rolling office-chair his parents have given him, crossed his legs on the seat, and gave me a look. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.

“But you have two of each Zoombini,” I said.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a selection of logic puzzles which focus on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and deductive reasoning skills.  The chief elements of each puzzle are the Zoombinis themselves—little blue fellows, a bit like punk-rock Mr. Potato Heads, each with a different arrangement of facial features, nose colors, hairstyles and limbs. Many of the puzzles involve arranging the Zoombinis in series or matrixes according to which facial features they have in common. Failure usually results in one or two Zoombinis getting left behind. Run out of Zoombinis, and you fail.

You’ll have to work quickly to get them through the puzzles and out of harm’s way: as players progress through the difficulty levels, not only do the puzzles get harder, but they begin to incorporate timers, penalties, and three-strikes-you’re out mechanics. I remember feeling the difficulty level increase, as if the air around me were filling with smoke, or some frantic kind of fear-gas. As a kid, I felt these logic puzzles viscerally. I began as a logic-starved whelp : by the time I began to tackle the highest difficulty levels, I could tell that I had grown mentally. I’m pretty sure that my brain was actually altered by this game.

The genius thing about it was that your own choices—the Zoombinis you designed for your team at the start of each play session—were one of the primary sources of difficulty. The more diverse you made them as a group, the tougher it got to solve some of the puzzles, particularly the ones that required you to arrange them by shared elements. You’re not supposed to have two of each Zoombini. You’re supposed to be battling against the clock with a crowd of misfits. Against all odds, even self-imposed ones, you’re shepherding them across this puzzle-studded wilderness to safety at the end of the overworld map. The final destination is Zoombinivile, and the Zoombinis, in fact, are refugees. The plot is: you’re rescuing these refugee Mr. Potato Heads from a dark and stormy prison-island with the righteous power of pure logic. It’s glorious.

So, having two of each Zoombini is cheating, I thought. Unquestionably. I could feel in my bones that it was a shortcut, an unfair advantage, and an unforgivable sin. Having two of each Zoombini makes each puzzle twice as easy.

I could not express my horror. Ricardo just smirked. “You know, if you double-click on the ‘make Zoombini’ button when you’re designing them at the start of the map, you make each Zoombini twice,” he said. “You get two of each instead of only one.”

“But that’s cheating!” I exclaimed.

“No, it isn’t. Why does the game let you do it if it’s cheating?”

He had a good point, but my world was falling apart. We argued for a long time about what constituted a ‘fair’ game of Zoombinis. “You have to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter,” I proclaimed. It was a garbled version of a phrase I’d just learned from my father, and I thought it sounded dramatic.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ricardo told me.

I suppose it makes a kind of symbolic, cosmic justice that the first gamer friend of mine to play a game with shrewdness and corner-cutting slyness, the first of my friends to take confident possession of an exploit, was Ricardo, the son of United States politicians. But that’s a trite and useless observation for me to make, really, and I feel kind of stupid making it. Ricardo didn’t teach me how to cheat; he taught me how to think about games. He taught me when to take my head out of the game-world and look at it from the outside. He taught me when to mess with the system and when to play by its rules. Before our argument about Zoombinis, I’d regarded games as rigorous but entertaining exercises passed down to me from some higher power, totally immune to my criticism or critical thinking: I’d perform the required actions and receive fun, like a hamster in a laboratory cage. After my  Zoombinis revelation, I began to look at my games with suspicion. I began prodding at them, manipulating them instead of letting myself be manipulated by them.

At the end of the day, I went home and started up my own copy of the game. I started a new game session, beginning at the Zoombinis’ home base. As I put a new team of them together, my sister ran up to watch.

“How do you do that?” she gasped.

“Do what?” I asked.

But I already knew what she was going to ask. “How do you have two of each Zoombini?”

I shrugged like it was nothing. “You double-click the ‘Make Zoombinis’ button each time you make one. It makes two instead of one.”

“Oh.” She stood there for a while, watching as I assembled a team of lifeless clones. “Doesn’t it make the game too easy?” she asked. “Are you still, like, doing logic?”

I was still doing logic, yeah. Just… a different kind of logic.

Games are Dreams

Okay, bear with me for a bit. I’m going to pull some crazy literary theory shit.

There’s this one famous footnote that Freud added to one of his books, Interpretation of Dreams, years after it was originally published. The gist of the footnote is this: “Hey, everybody, quit assuming that EVERYTHING in dreams is a symbol for something!” Freud thought that dreams had two layers of meaning: the obvious meaning (what was going on in the dream, on the surface) and the ‘latent’ meaning, which is all the stuff that is symbolized on the dream—the meaning under-the-surface that we always think about when someone says ‘Freud’. Freud said we should, basically, quit getting so overly-Freudian on our dreams. He said that we should try to find the ‘dream-work,’ or the combined meaning of the surface and latent elements of the dream. Instead of just saying, “oh, this obviously symbolizes this,” we should say, “when we take all the surface elements into consideration alongside the symbols, what does the whole of this dream actually mean?” I like to think of it in terms of vector math:

So, dreamwork is what you get when you add the rest of the stuff together equally. It’s what the dream is pointing at.

Now, the only people in the universe who still take Freud pretty seriously are literary theorists, and they don’t even take all of him seriously. I have an awesome professor right now who studies comics, and he uses dream-work to understand comics and graphic novels: “When we combine the effects produced by both the surface and the symbolic aspects, what’s the work of this comic? What is it actually pointing at?” It works very well because comics are filled with icons and symbols, and are very fertile grounds for both latent and obvious meaning.

I like to think about games this way, too. When you combine all the stuff that is in a game—the obvious stuff, like the art and the script and the mechanics, and then all the ‘latent’ stuff, like “how does this control scheme influence the way I think about the game?” or “what’s special about the actions the game makes me perform?” or “what does this game assume about its audience?” or “how did the game’s creators establish its tone and mood?” and so on, it helps you to get a more complete and holistic idea of what’s actually going on in the game you’re playing—what’s special about it, and what it’s doing to your brain. And because games are a bit like dreams, the comparison works.

Anyway: have you ever had a moment where you feel particularly conscious of a game’s latent content? The moment I would cite is probably when, while playing Don’t Look Back for the first time, I suddenly became hyperconscious of the way I normally play platformers, and realized what DLB was doing to force me to change that. The nuke moment in Modern Warfare was also pretty effective in this way. It made me suddenly conscious of what kind of agency I expect to have in a FPS, and, in taking that agency away, attempted to express its political message on a kind of subconscious level. What else could have made me want to shoot those renegade Russians so badly? They’d killed me, Anakin-Skywalker-style, once already!

And what about the gamework—have you ever tried to explain the essential essence of a game to a friend, only to get caught up stumbling over words because games are actions, not words, and it’s hard to heal that breach? I feel like the writers who are best able to talk about a game’s work are the ones who write artistically– who try to articulate gamework through the language of metaphor. Tim Rogers’ recent God Hand article does this brilliantly: the final paragraph is so clever that I cannot read it without being ashamed of myself. There are some NGJ pieces out there that I think really make a serious grab at expressing gamework, too—Quinns’ piece on Wurm Online was scary as hell. It made me feel that through this game I could suddenly understand the essential wickedness of man or some shit, even though I hadn’t even played it yet and don’t believe in the essential wickedness of man.

I wish that I’d have been able to articulate this concept back when I’d been studying games for school. It would have solved so many pointless arguments about what the ‘most important part’ of a game is, or ‘what makes game X different form game Y,’ or ‘what is the point of game genre X’—those are all ultimately very rocky ways to think about games. I feel like we should be encouraging each other to look at what games are pointing at, too. Games are like prefab dreams—which is simultaneously awesome and pretty spooky.

Distilled to a purer substance

Have you ever played a game where the minigames or secondary goals were more exciting and compelling than the rest of the entire game?

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Through extensive research (asking my friends), I’ve found that this varies in a highly personal way. I had a friend in high school who could never get enough of KOTOR’s Pazaak, which I hated. Whenever I played that minigame I was just dicking around with extra credits, but he had a real strategy and everything! Gosh! And while I absolutely adored the underground mining game in Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, I know a number of people who thought it was incredibly stupid. Kent loves scanning planets in Mass Effect 2; I’ve only done it for maybe twenty minutes, and I find it dull. On the other hand, I found hunting for arrowheads in Psychonauts to be pretty entertaining—I mean, I spent as long a time amassing a grossly enormous fortune in that game as I spent trying to beat the Meat Circus level. And Meat Circus is a crazy.

Why do we do this? I suppose if the satisfaction we get from doing ‘trivial’ and secondary tasks in games is high enough, and if the effort it would take to ‘play the game properly’ is too excessive, we’ll all just sit around and do the trivial stuff instead.  Which sounds a bit cold and mathematical, but there you go. It’s not too much of a mystery why these things happen. I could wax philosophical about the nature of these appealing little secondary games, but they’re not really so mysterious either: they’ve got highly appealing sunk effort/returned reward ratios. And all that jazz.

I think the real question is: why don’t we have games for these trivial things, if we enjoy them so much? Why do they need to be secondary? I mean, narrative, pretty pictures, and man-shooting are clearly no longer the hallowed characteristics of ‘real successful games.’ What if we could take these big-name games and reduce them down to their secondary objectives– what if my friend could have a game of just Pazaak? What if I could take all the games where I’ve ever been distracted by a crazy secondary objective and imagine new, ridiculous games out of them?

Er, I can imagine that. Here they go.

Oblivion becomes: Herbalist Adventure

The most compelling thing about Oblivion is the alchemy.

Yes. I actually believe this. Out of the nearly 100 hours I have spent playing Oblivion in the past year, about 50 of those must have been spent entirely on collecting and combining plants, herbs, fruits, and bits of dead foes into potions. I don’t think I’ve ever gone past the bit in the story where you’re on the snowy mountain where the Blades are at. I did that part only once. All the rest of my characters are soft, pasty fellows with ridiculously good alchemy levels and backpacks full to bursting with every possible kind of plant. I once camped out in the basement of a townhouse, hidden in the shadows while the occupants ate dinner mere inches from my face, waiting for them to leave so I could steal their potatoes and make potions of shield out of them. It was my most epic heist ever, even beyond the Thieves’ guild!

Furthermore, I don’t even use the potions I make: I just carry them around. There’s a character from a famous Jack London short story who hoards insane quantities of food: he basically sleeps on a mattress of biscuits. See, I imagine my Oblivion characters sleeping in glass nests made up of glimmering bottles. The moonlight on the bottles, the strange cordials and elixirs sloshing about with the tiny movements of sleep, and all that. I mean, he’s got to protect them somehow. And it’s picturesque, no?

Herbalist Adventure would be my favorite game of all time. You’d be practically helpless: a weakling lost in a VAST world (let’s make it much bigger than Oblivion; make this a Just Cause-sized world, a huge thing with a million different kinds of plants). Your only skill: the ability to turn flowers into juices. All combat—what little of it there’d actually be—would be enabled by the crazy cocktail of stimulants and steroids you’d chug before every encounter. See a kobold? DRINK THAT POTION OF STRENGTH! DRINK TWELVE! While you’re at it, drink fifteen potions of shield, a potion of accuracy, a potion of Learn to Swordfight, and a Potion That Gives You a Magic Sword. Boom. All ready to go. You’d spend most of the time just skulking around in the bushes, gathering plants, admiring the scenery, researching and cooking up batches of Magical Buff Stew whenever you find a safe place. You’d cook amazing potions—potions that let you fly or run at a million miles per hour or clone yourself or breathe in lava or eat whole trees or tame bears or summon Panzer tanks or talking whales. But mostly it would be beautiful and calming—mostly it would be zen, my friends. It would be gorgeous.

Pokemon Diamond and Pearl become: Magic Dwarf Crystal Garden Tales

I already mentioned that I adore that mining minigame. I also adore Dwarf Fortress. I also adore Minecraft. It all makes sense: I must secretly want to play a game where you adventure in tunnels and grow crystal gardens. Yes. But not like those silly crystal gardens we used to have in the nineties: those are shit. I mean: great caverns of dagger-sharp gems! You’d have to travel around and water them with magic chemicals or whatever and harvest them later. Like Farmville with its guaranteed success, I suppose—but I wouldn’t have any of that schedule-your-life-to-the-game nonsense.

No, I’d have giant cave spiders or sand worms or goblins instead. So: the Pokemon mining game mixed with survival horror. Occasionally, you’d have to craft weapons out of the gems and protect your farms from the invaders with cunning traps and desperate barricades. Multiplayer play could be a Garden Siege Mode, or something: people would try to invade each other’s magic underground wonderlands with some kind of stealth mechanic.

Yes. Just take the whole Pokemon overworld away. I want my gem gardens and I want my secret bases and I want my capture-the-flag games. I want my silly underground time-wastey tomfoolery, please, but more awesome. Can that happen?

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 become: My Alien Girlfriend 1 and 2

Okay, I don’t actually want to play this game. But I know people who would! I remember when ME2 came out, all sorts of people were twittering things like “JUST NAILED ALL THESE ALIEN LADIES, WOOO” and I kept thinking things like “Oh my god, Bioware are such a horrible bunch of dicks! They’ve destroyed love! With a video game!”

But it’s not true. They haven’t. The universe continues to be not such a terrible place after all. What it needs, though, is a game where this absurd repressed sexual tension can be truly exploited.

What we need is a game where the whole point is for Man-Shepherd to have sex with alien chicks. Apparently, for maximum success, it must actually be Man-Shepherd in the title role. Not a new IP! Either that, or we need a spinoff of Fable 2 where the whole point is to marry people and then have sex with them. Admit it: you have a lady/man/both in every town in that game, don’t you? I’m under the impression that most people do. Is it too tempting? Is that what the deal is? Anyway, clearly we need a western game specifically for this kind of stuff. The Japanese have already got this shit figured out, guys.

Team Fortress 2 becomes: My Hometown Haberdasher

Hats. Whole game is: receiving hats. You run around in a big room with every other online player and trade hats with each other. You can hang out with guys who have the same hats as you. Or maybe you can do a fashion show while wearing a neat hat, or design your own hat? I don’t know. Just hats.

Hats. Whole game is wearing silly hats.

Alternately, we could be talking about a game I suggested in the comments to my last post: a game where you simply customize characters. Like the Spore Creature Creator, the whole point would be to give you extensive control over the appearance of some in-game avatar. People love messing around with that stuff: I hear stories from friends who take forever to design the perfect Sim, or the perfect Fallout character, and so on. Clearly, we need more games which make this obsession with avatar appearance more central– games which transform it from petty fiddling into an actual game mechanic. I remember that a young friend of my family’s used to be hugely into Gaia online, and from what I saw of it, that game seemed to tap into this customization desire pretty well: the whole point was to get points to buy clothes with, I think. So: games like that, but not totally stupid. A MMO character creator crossed with Spore? Can it happen? I think so.

The mechanics of this imaginary game would revolve around this appearance: you’d have to manipulate it to defeat your enemies. The game I suggested in the post comments was a professional wrestling game where the point was to design a stage presence that would resonate with fans. Best resonance would make your agent cast you as the winner in the staged fight: the better you fine-tuned your look and style to your target demographic, the more often you’d be the winner. Look terrible, and you’d be the heel. You’d spend hours in the editor before every match, fiddling with hair and clothes and catch-phrases and things like that. There could be epic campaign modes, people.

Or could we have something like that with just hats, though? Please?

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