Subnautica: Exploring the Depths of the Survival Narrative

by Jared Zuker

“Attention. Hull failure imminent. All personnel abandon ship.” Heavy breathing as we climb into the escape pod. “Launch in 3…2…1”. The pod falls apart as a panel hits us in the head and renders us unconscious. Everything is black. We open our eyes to see fire and need to put it out and leave the escape pod. Our ship is in the distance, but we are completely and totally alone. We look out into the infinite ocean and as survival seems a daunting prospect, we know that is the only option. 

This is the introduction to the world of Subnautica, in which the player must survive while exploring a hostile alien world. The story, I believe, can be broken down into three acts, each determined by the resources the play has at their disposal. The first act is all about Survival. The second is about exploration, and the third is about solving the mysteries and finally culminating in leaving the planet. 

In act one, as I noted before, gameplay revolves around survival; the player does not venture too far from their escape pod and their primary goal is to search for food and water. In this segment, the player becomes familiar with the mechanics of crafting, power, tools, oxygen, and basic resources. Oxygen is perhaps the most important resource as it is the one to look out for most often. The player can upgrade their O2 tank to stay underwater for longer periods of time than the original 45 seconds. This Oxygen limit is the main factor in inhibiting further exploration both farther away from the starting point (the ‘Safe Shallows’) as well as deeper underwater. 

As the player ventures a bit farther out for each trip, they uncover a scanner, the main tool of the game, and with the tool they learn about the flora and fauna around them as well as discover blueprints for new tools and upgrades. We shift into act two: exploration when the player uncovers the blueprints for the Seamoth, a basic submarine, and builds the vehicle. The quick Seamoth allows the player to effectively have infinite oxygen as long as the vehicle is not destroyed or they are not separated from it. The player is now inhibited by the seamoth’s crush limit (that is upgradeable) as to prevent the player from reaching the end game too quickly. (Though pressure does not affect the player outside of a vehicle in any other way than making O2 less efficient). 

In Act II, (or possibly Act I if the player hits certain markers first), three major events take place. The first is when the player performs a self-scan with the scan tool and is told at first that all results are nominal, but later that the player has contracted an alien bacterial infection. The second and third require the repair tool as when the player creates the tool, they fix the radio, resulting in locations of other escape pods to be transmitted to the player over the next few hours. At one point the player is contacted by the spaceship sunbeam which eventually tries to rescue them, but is destroyed by an alien laser. This then leads the player to explore the laser and discovers the remnants of an intelligent race, including a ray gun, a doomsday device, and the building being a quarantine enforcer for the alien bacteria the player contracted.These ‘precursors’ play a major role in the story of subnautica as well as the philosophy it presents but we will touch on that later.

The third event is the detonation of the crashed ship’s (The Aurora’s) nuclear engine, resulting in pollution in the form of radioactive leakage. The player is then encouraged to fix the leakage and stop the pollution in the environment. 

All these events allow for the continued exploration and uncovering of mystery in Subnautica, as the player, now equipped to travel across the surface quickly and use a wide array of tools, can travel these distances without starving, suffocating, or dehydrating. 

In the last event, that of the quantum detonation of the Aurora’s drive core, for most players, is one of the first times they hear the Reaper Leviathan’s roar. These giant terrifying beasts are lurking in the cloudy crash zone and elsewhere waiting to tear the player apart. 

Throughout the course of exploration, the player will learn to craft upgrades and new tools, as well as rooms and utilities for buildable habitats that allow the player to create a new base of operations, and possibly several. With every base, the player must use the resources they gather into making the hostile environment a bit more manageable. Though the fear of the giant Leviathans and other creatures never goes away as we venture deeper into the unknown. 

As I said before, this world is extremely hostile. Not only are you infected with a potentially terminal illness, but a large number of the creatures you encounter will attack you for being in their territory or simply because you are below them on the food chain. Reapers will hunt you down, ghosts will chase you for entering their area, crab snakes will lash out at you for getting too close to their nests in jellyshrooms, crab squids and ampeels will zap you, bone and sand sharks will hunt you, and stalkers will bite you for traveling in the creepvine. All of these creatures act independently of you and carry out their hunting, escaping, and defending regardless of your presence. Even if you were to create an extremely expansive base using loads of resources. The creatures will not be deterred by them and resources will return over time. As we see with similar habitats from a former exploration team, these bases, too will be reclaimed and will not inhibit the environment, but become a part of it. 

All of this hostility and feelings of being out of place, not in charge, and not high in the pecking order are further explored in the game in various ways. One small example is how the fish, the mesmer hypnotizes the player into swimming towards it, following up with an attack. It does this with an eerie screen effect and seemingly uses the PDA’s voice (which is the player’s only companion throughout the game) to swim closer to it. This creature clearly has far greater control even over how we perceive and move in the game than the player when trapped in its hypnotic gaze. The safety of being in a vehicle is abolished not only when the vehicle is ripped apart by a leviathan, but also when the mysterious and seemingly intelligent creatures Warpers teleport the player out of their vehicle where they are fair prey. 

The game is constantly reminding us that this is not our world, and though we can adapt to survive in this foreign environment. Others that came before could not survive long, and everything on the planet is far more powerful than us. We as the player start out with the ability to take small fish and cook them in a crafting station or turn some fish into water. This is the main method of survival in Act I until farming and water filtration almost make the earlier method obsolete. What is so important in this fact, however, is that it never changes. No matter how we upgrade our gear and vehicles, we are always in the same spot in the food chain. What I mean by this is that we are always vulnerable and never the conqueror of the planet. We grow in our knowledge of how the game functions and so the annoying crash fish that killed us in the beginning of the game is now a sign that we can collect cave sulfur. Likewise, seeing a stalker is not scary anymore, but a means of crafting enameled glass for more advanced upgrades. We do not attack this world, but learn about it. This, I think, is best expressed in how our only weapon is a knife, which is described in the game as being “the only exception” for weapons in  “standard survival blueprints following the massacre on Obraxis Prime.” Other tools that are weapon-like include the prawn suit (a mech-like vehicle that allows for easy mining and travel at great depths), the stasis rifle that stops enemies in their tracks for a period of time, and the propulsion cannon (gravity gun from half-life). Even the torpedoes fired from vehicles only serve as decoys, or some other non-lethal method of leading predators away. However it is only possible to damage creatures with the mech’s drill arm and the knife, and it takes a very, very long time to kill anything. Most importantly, there is no reward for killing a creature other than small fish for food and water. Killing a reaper or ghost takes some hundreds of knife swings and only results in the beast turning on its belly and remaining still, I would imagine to make the player feel guilty. This is very different to games like The Forest and Minecraft in which killing enemies nets loot that makes it easier to survive. 

This is crucial to exploring how the game views its survival narrative. We are an observer of this world. We are a passer-by who is placing ourselves in the food chain for a limited time and as we will get into soon, are actually helping the ecosystem (rather than merely fixing the created issue of radiation leakage from the Aurora). Survival is directly tied to discovery. Both of the alien ecosystems and of the alien machinery left behind. The player interacts with the underwater expanse in a number of ways that all tie in with the core goal of exploration and discovery. Survival is used as a tool in which the gameplay loop works for the purpose of making the exploration more rewarding. It is possible to play the game in a creative mode or without the need to eat and drink–simply building and exploring the beautiful ocean Unknown Worlds created, but the intended experience is survival mode. It takes time and effort to gather blueprints, upgrade your gear, eat, drink, and even learn the layout of the world. Most importantly though, is it takes time to uncover the mysteries of the aliens who once inhabited the planet, what happened to the previous crew who explored the area, and what happened to your fellow crew members from the Aurora. 

All of this leads to the final act of the story, in which the player investigates the bacterial infection as well as the telepathic messages from some more intelligent creature. In this act, the player uses all their tools to venture deep into the maze-like biomes of the lost river and eventually the lava zone. Deeper still the player comes into contact with the benevolent leviathan, the Sea Emperor in which she asks the player to help ensure the survival of the species and in the process create a cure for the bacterial infection plaguing both you and the planet. 

After this is done, it is possible to build a rocket and leave the planet, returning home and improving the planet you once resided upon for a period of time that your character is not soon to forget. 

Even with this ending, was it wrong of us to impose our will on the alien environment? It clearly was not to the level of the original survival story of Robinson Crusoe, but does this story still have the player enact too much of their will on the planet? I would argue that the player’s relationship with the planet was not parasitic as with Crusoe, but symbiotic as the player became part of the environment and learned, provided for, and was provided by the once hostile and terrifying world in which they once resided. Subnautica uses its gameplay to tell a story of survival and growth where the hero does not damage the foreign world, but in a Campbellian way, becomes a master of it, not in conquering, but in accepting their place amongst the ecosystem. 

A closer look at the paradox of Tragedy in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

By: Abdelrahman Mohamed

CONTENT WARNING
This game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted in these depictions.

Hello, who are you? …It doesn’t matter. Welcome. You are safe with me. I’ll be right here, nice and close so I can speak without alerting the others. Let me tell you about Senua. Her story has already come to an end but now, it begins anew. This is a journey deep into darkness. There will be no more stories after this one.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice opening scene

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Senua embarks on a journey through Hel (the land of the dead in Norse mythology) to save her beloved Dillion. On her quest, Senua fights monsters and gods from Norse mythology. Now, unlike every classic hero story, Senua also suffers from psychotic mental illness that makes her journey of suffering happen in the real world as well as the world constructed in her mind. Joined by her inner voices and haunted by the insulting and demoralizing Shadow, Senua powers through immense combat challenges, traumatic flashbacks, and vivid hallucinations. 

Physical Battles vs. Mental Battle (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

While Senua does indeed fight Surtr, Valravn, and Gram on her quest, Senua’s story situates itself as a journey of emotional and mental change rather than a physical one. In the end, Senua is unable to save Dillion even though she confronts Hela about it. However, Senua manages to identify the Shadow as none other than the inner manifestation of the treatment she received from her abusive father growing up. She accepted the voices in her head not as a curse but as a part of who she is. 

As one might imagine, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an intensely tragic game. One hears when Senua screams, sees her go through an emotional breakdown multiple times, and gets a courtside ticket to witness her suffering. One goes through the game and is forced to “weep for the misfortune of a hero, to whom we are attached” (Hume 260). Nonetheless, as the credits roll, one is left with “agreeable sorrow, and tears that delight us” (Hume 260).  Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is another entry on the list of tragic games that highlight the paradox of tragedy.

The tragic story of Senua (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

In Of Tragedy, David Hume addresses this essential paradox as he attempts to reason about how one can be delighted with a spectacle that tells a tragic story filled with sorrow, terror, anxiety, and grief. While Hume starts his essay referring to catharsis when he says “employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart” (258), he addresses the paradox by analyzing the role of fiction, the impact of stylistic means, as well as the relationship between competing emotions. Hume’s essay presents us with tools to analyze some of the key details presented in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Through this analysis, we look at the historic background of the game, the process that went into producing it, as well as some of the critical emotions in the story being told.

Nothing but a Fiction 

Hume argues that while the spectacle might capture all one’s attention, the spectator’s awareness that they are viewing a fictitious performance diminishes the pain and affliction. In other words, one can digest this agreeable sorrow and comfort themselves as it is “nothing but a fiction” (Hume 258). If one is to look at Senua’s story, Hume’s argument gets complicated. The game tells a story of a Pict warrior living in a village in the 8th century near Orkney, Scotland. This game setting is emphasized in the narrative and is used to construct the environment and characters to reflect the Pictish history from blue body painting and hairstyle to costume design (Adcock 0:50 – 1:30). Moreover, the game is set in a historic period full of stories of the brutal Vikings raiding the isles where Orkney now stands. This poses a question as to whether Senua’s story might have occurred at one point or another. Given the setup, the line between the fictitious and the real parts of Senua’s story becomes blurry. Hume’s point on the role of fiction in tragic stories can account for a large sum of stories like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice where Orpheus (Senua) decides to descend to Hades (Hel) to see his (her) wife (boyfriend). However, it does not explain the full paradox displayed in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

Details Inspired by the history of the Pict tribe (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

Eloquence, Genius, Art, Expression

Another way to understand the paradox presented in the game is to consider the “very eloquence” with which the game is delivered. Hume pays attention to the poetic and rhetorical elements of delivering tragic spectacle. He talks about “the genius required to paint objects”,   “the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances”, and “the judgment displayed in disposing them” as talents that allow the orator to provide the most delightful movements. If one is to map these talents to modern-day game development, then Ninja Theory (the development studio) has managed to exercise them in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This can be seen in the process of perfecting Senua’s movement and emotions through using professional actors and employing cutting-edge motion capture techniques and. It can also be seen in the authentic audio design in the game. As detailed by Ninja Theory in their developer diaries (Antoniades 0:20 – 1:53; Fletcher 0:47 – 2:12; Antoniades & Matthews 0:24 – 0:50), the game audio was built using binaural voice recording methods so players would feel the voices whispering in their ears and circling them. What’s more, Ninja theory developed the game under the supervision of professional psychiatrists to provide a detailed and immersive adaptation of psychotic mental illness. This attention to detail plays a key role in taking the emotions of uneasiness and sorrow presented in Senua’s story and converting them into a delightful strong movement as one is “rouzed by passion and charmed by eloquence” (Hume 261).

A Shift of Emotions

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes the player on an intense emotional journey as the player must face various setbacks during the whole gameplay. For example, a few hours into the game, Senua is defeated by Hela while crossing the bridge to Hel and is forced to recollect herself, obtain a new sword through the Odin trials, and attempt to go back to Hel. The tough moments for Senua do not stop here as she ends up losing Dillion’s skull five minutes after entering Hel during a chase, and the player is forced to descend into Hel to obtain the skull again. The game is full of these recurring moments where things go wrong, and the player is forced to find their way around it. Nonetheless, all the grief and sorrow from these recurring misfortunes is transformed once the player hears the upbeat notes in the ending scene and sees Senua accepting the voices in her head. 

This is exactly what Hume talks about when he acknowledges that just the mere suffering of a hero does not fill us with delight (265). Thus, a tragic story ought to end in noble courageous despair or have the vice receive proper punishment to have this transformation of grief and sorrow to delight and pleasure occur. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice utilizes this concept to its benefit extremely well. When Senua confronts Hela in the final scene, she realizes that saving Dillion is not possible and asks Hela to kill her as there is nothing left to live for. At this point, the player had gone through an exhausting journey emotionally and mentally only to be left disappointed. However, to turn this climactic grief into delight, the player gets to see Senua waking up and throwing Dillion’s head into the abyss to show that Senua is now ready to move on. The scene continues with Senua accepting the voices in her head and getting ready to tell a new story as a sequence of upbeat notes play in the background.

Senua’s story comes to an end / is just beginning (Courtesy Ninja Theory)

Concluding Thoughts

As you might imagine, Hume was not the only philosopher to discuss the paradox of tragedy. However, in Hume’s framework of tragedy, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice checks a lot of the boxes on how uneasy emotions can be transformed into delightful ones. Now, it would be difficult to attribute the paradox of tragedy effect in the game to any single element discussed above. The effect takes place as a result of the interactions between the game background, the behind-the-scenes development work, as well as the story writing itself. What’s more, the game is filled with details from the environment building to the very few voice gasps. This means that another replay of the game ought to allow for an even more in-depth analysis of the tragedy element of Senua’s story. 

Having considered all the elements, one can understand the different aspects of the tragic story told in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Senua’s story is filled with gloomy and traumatic moments that convey uneasiness, sorrow, and grief. At moments, the player is only left with unaccountable anxiety as they are one hit away from dying in a boss fight. The player witnesses Senua’s pain as she navigates her way through Hel. However, through genuine acting and formidable directing, these uneasy emotions are delivered meticulously as a part-fictional, noble, courageous story from which the player can derive satisfaction and delight. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory delivered an intense, emotional game filled with sorrow, terror, and anxiety that leaves its players with unaccountable pleasure, completing the paradox of tragedy as it has always been addressed.

Resources

Adcock, Stuart. “Hellblade Development Diary 2: Art Inspiration” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 1 September 2014, https://youtu.be/1ysfmiN-aSs.

Antoniades, Tameem. “Hellblade Development Diary 18: The Shoot Set Up” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 4 December 2015, https://youtu.be/FACTByOjqyQ.

Fletcher, Paul. “Hellblade Development Diary 12: The Mind of Senua” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 10 June 2015, https://youtu.be/zS6wHzwUDI4.

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Vol. 1, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1875. Edited, with preliminary dissertations and notes, by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose

Matthews, Dominic. “Hellblade Development Diary 15: Binaural Audio Tests” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 12 October 2015, https://youtu.be/gFdPXCzxMg8.

Last Day of June: A Contradiction of Space, Narrative, and Agency

by Jacob Briggs

Summary

Last Day of June begins with a happy couple, June and Carl, enjoying a romantic evening by the lake. On their way home, however, they get into a car crash which Carl survives, but June does not. Carl struggles with the death of his wife, but he finds a potential solution to his grief in her art studio. Carl can rewind time by interacting with her portraits and change the actions of a specific neighbor. Using this power, he attempts to prevent the car crash from happening over and over again until it is eventually caused by severe weather. Knowing that he cannot prevent the storm or the date, Carl decides to take June’s place in the passenger seat, sacrificing himself so that June and their unborn baby can live. There are some aspects of the game that suggest June never died and was instead imagining this scenario in her grief (one such example being June’s sketchbook, which shows the player’s failed attempts at stopping the crash), but the story in which the player enacts is what I’ve described. For the entire game, we’re led to believe that we’re controlling Carl, and I don’t think either story changes the successes or shortcomings of the game. The June reading is an interesting interpretation, but it is a separate conversation and so I’m going to set that aside for this analysis. If you’d like to read more about it, here is a link to Nate Hohl’s article that proposes the theory: https://ag.hyperxgaming.com/article/3202/last-day-of-june-ndash-figuring-out-the-games-ending.

The majority of the player’s time is spent exploring the town as various characters. As Carl, the player learns about his history with June and acquires new portraits. As the townsfolk, the player searches for tools and areas that will create new timelines for each neighbor, potentially stopping the accident. With each new character that becomes playable, finding the correct timeline becomes more and more difficult. Characters will have to remove obstacles that the other neighbors cannot overcome, and the player will have to alter what some characters do in order to open new pathways for the others. For example, if the boy is playing soccer with the dog, the hunter will be unsuccessful in chasing down the bird, which causes the accident. At the same time, if the boy doesn’t play with the dog, he will use the rope which the woman needs to secure her moving boxes, which also causes the crash. These complications are solved as the player explores new areas and discovers new items, such as a second rope. The other motivation the player has for exploration is acquiring memories, which reveal the stories of each of the side characters. They aren’t required and don’t unlock a secret ending, but they provide context for each of the neighbors’ actions.

Successes

Navigation and narrative are the two driving forces behind Last Day of June, and they are closely intertwined through the game’s setting. To understand how the game utilizes its space, it is useful to consider Murray’s idea of the Violence Hub and the Solvable Maze. She describes the former as a game which tells the story of many different characters, all linked to a single, tragic event. The player of such a game won’t finish with a perfect, clear-cut explanation of what happened, but rather “the retracing of the situation from different perspectives leads to a continual deepening in the reader’s understanding of what has happened” (Murray 136). Witnessing the same event through many different positions gives the situation nuance, and this model is somewhat present in Last Day of June. By finding the memories of the neighbors, we get to understand their own histories of grief and develop a rich understanding of the town. However, I struggle to call this game a true Violence Hub because none of these side stories complicate the accident. In fact, collecting these memories is completely optional, so the player never has to delve into the lives of the townsfolk to learn the full narrative of Carl and June’s relationship.

It is more accurate to describe this game as the Solvable Maze. Murray describes these games as those in which “the story is tied to the navigation of space. As I move forward, I feel a sense of powerfulness, of significant action, that is tied to my pleasure in the unfolding story” (Murray 132). This is a fitting description for Last Day of June because the player’s motivation and reward for exploring the town is to progress the narrative. The bulk of gameplay is spent navigating the town in order to create different outcomes, and this is the same goal that Carl has in cutscenes throughout the game. The map itself is also mazelike, with branching roads and areas that aren’t immediately available to the player. The reward for going off the beaten path and fully exploring the town as each character is the aforementioned memories, which expand the story of the world. What’s most impressive about how the game handles space, though, is how the player rediscovers the town.

The way in which the player explores the town changes in various scenes, redefining our relationship with the space. When the player controls Carl, we see his memories with June in the exact spot at which they occurred. For example, we see them setting up the scarecrow in front of their house, or June painting in the gazebo. The order of these memories also tells a brief story, such as June’s first miscarriage and Carl’s attempt to help her cope with that loss. Even the player’s ability to navigate is different since Carl uses a wheelchair and cannot access the town’s stairs. New boundaries are presented to the player as well as a new mode of delivering narrative, and we see this pattern repeated with the old man. Towards the end of the game, we control an old man who delivers a present to June, which is what sparks her idea to go to the lake. We repeat this delivery again and again, with June trying to stop us by creating uncrossable rifts throughout the town. These rifts act as new barriers that change how the player moves through the world. They also provide a role-reversal: instead of the player trying to change what the game deems inevitable, the game tries to stop us from enacting that same outcome. Last Day of June’s ever-changing delivery of navigation and narrative was quite effective, but it is spoiled by what Murray calls the “drawback to the maze orientation: it moves the interactor towards a single solution” (Murray 132).

Shortcomings

This drawback ties into one of Murray’s most pressing questions: “Could a digital narrative offer a higher degree of agency while still preserving the sense of tragic inevitability?” (Murray 178). In other words, can the player make meaningful choices despite the narrative’s conclusion that none of those choices mattered? I don’t think that Last Day of June accomplishes this feat, and I think the single solution is only part of the problem. No matter which twists and turns you take in the maze, you must ultimately take a specific path in order to progress to the next section. If you want to get the boy out of the street, he must fly the kite; there is no other option. The woman will not help the hunter out of the hay bale, even though she has a rope to lift him up. Last Day of June presents a problem, forces the player into a single solution, and then tells us that the ending is inevitable.

I had a hard time believing this outcome because I was never shown why my ideas would fail. For example, instead of switching places with June at the end of the game, why not have Carl refuse to drive home until the weather clears? Or drive so slowly that the weather won’t cause them to slide off the road? I could picture scenarios in which these decisions might fail, but the game never gives the player enough agency to test whether or not they would. A fair counterargument to this critique would be that Last Day of June has a specific story to tell, and that providing a nonlinear experience isn’t one of its goals. This is all true, but it still conflicts with the gameplay and narrative premise. The map is not designed as a left-to-right sidescroller with an obvious endpoint; it is a fully explorable town. The reward for exploring beyond a specific path, however, is irrelevant to the main narrative. The story itself centers around the concept of going back in time and making different choices, but the game doesn’t accommodate the choices the player might wish to make. The design of Last Day of June seems perfect for giving the player agency, but instead limits them to tell a linear, illogical story.

Works Cited

Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet On the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York : Free Press, 1997.

Elsinore: The Tragedy That Never Ends

By Ella Nagle

At its most simplistic description, Elsinore is a click-and-point adventure game where the player embodies Hamlet’s Ophelia. As the game unfolds, your abilities as a player expand. At the start, you learn that you are living through Shakespeare’s tragedy but you are able to interact with it by clicking on the characters around you and either following them or talking to them. You can only talk to people about information that you gather from others, stored in your electronic journal as “hearsay.” You also gain hearsay by following characters and listening in on their conversations. One of your main sources of agency in the game comes from your ability to distribute information to characters that might change their course of action— something we often long for as viewers of tragedy, when we want to warn Romeo that Juliet is simply sleeping or tell Hamlet that it’s not his uncle behind the curtain.

Screen grab of Ophelia’s journal, here is the tab where all your “hearsay” is stored, when you are talking to another character you choose from this list.

Another large source of agency comes at the end of Saturday (the story of Hamlet begins on a Thursday morning) after Hamlet has mistakenly killed your father, a hooded and masked figure simply titled “The Spy” (who you’ve likely heard about from listening in on royal meetings) walks up to your character and murders you. A black screen with a small animation of a lily pad and skull pops up and offers that you try again. You wake up in your bedroom as Ophelia on Thursday morning before all the tragedy has transpired. 

Screen grab of Ophelia’s room where you wake up after the reset, in the top left corner you can see the pause button, journal button, timeline button, reset button, and the clock button which you can press to speed up time. In the right-side corner you see the map.

You realize that you are somehow moving outside the flow of time and you gain the ability to both fast-forward time and to reset the time loop. The timeline feature that the player is introduced to in the first cycle suddenly takes on a new meaning. As you hear about events in the future or even set them into motion you will see them pop up on your timeline, if you want to jump ahead to this event you can simply fast forward your time to it. If you set something in motion that is unlikely to occur (perhaps it’ll be after the Norwegian Army invades or your father won’t go to a meeting because Hamlet will have killed him at that point) a faint blue X will appear on the timeline, indicating to the player that if you really need this event to happen, you’ll have to try again after a reset.

In addition to having a timeline, your character also has a map that you can click on at any point and see where all the characters are. If you haven’t overheard someone talking about an event that’s about to transpire you might be able to find out it’s happening by seeing a collection of characters meeting at a location and go there and listen in. The map allows you to go to virtually every space in the game, however, occasionally you will need to convince people to let you into spaces, for instance you are not allowed to leave the castle walls and go into town until you catch the guards gambling at night and basically blackmail them into letting you come and go as you please. You cannot enter the Queen’s chambers until you do a favor for one of her ladies and they tell you where the key is hidden. 
Seven-hundred words later, it’s obvious that the mechanics of this game are complex. However, the even more complex part of the game might be your character’s objective. One helpful way to unpack the objective of Elsinore might be through some of the various lenses that Janet Murray writes about in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.

Elsinore as a Contest Story

When you are first murdered and the game resets, the natural conclusion is that you are now playing a contest game. Your obvious adversary is the spy who killed you, so now, to save yourself from dying and presumably win the game you need to eliminate the spy. However, once you find and eliminate the spy the game doesn’t stop. You are able to arrest the spy and live to the next day but time keeps looping. Moreover, Peter Quince, who is the playmaster who Hamlet invites to put on a replica play of his uncle killing his father in order to get him to confess, moves from a background character to the foreground. After your first reset it’s revealed that he is also moving outside the flow of time, and he often discusses tragedy and how to craft a tragic story with Ophelia. After you finish the time loop where you get the spy arrested and evade your own death, Quince appears and says he’s bored of that plot line and eliminates it, meaning that the spy is no longer trying to kill you. He then gives you a new objective, to find the Book of Fates, and in order to do this you must befriend your old murderer, flipping the idea of the contest story on its head.

The horrifyingly creepy face of Peter Quince, who’s name is from a character from Midsummer’s Night Dream that is sometimes thought of as Shakespeare inserting a character of himself.

You could also view the game as a contest story in light of the original play. Hamlet and his allies being the good guys versus murderous King Claudius, and you as Ophelia can try to warn everyone in the castle of Claudius’ misdeed or even get him killed. However, this isn’t your only option. Murray writes, “We need to find ways of drawing a player so deeply into the situated point of view of a character that a change of position will raise important moral questions” (Murray, 147).  Indeed, you have the agency to switch sides, to seduce King Claudius and even marry him and become the Queen of Denmark, and the more you conversate with him and listen in on him you realize that his brother he murdered was not innocent or even benevolent, thus further complicating the idea of a bad opponent and a righteous hero in a contest. Every character is dynamic and has both moral and immoral qualities. 

Elsinore as a Kaleidoscope Narrative 

When explaining the concept of kaleidoscope narratives Murray compares them to an interactive dinner theater, one where you are sat at the table of the actors and are able to hear their different stories. In many ways, this is exactly what Elsinore is: a play made to be interactive. The key difference is that in a dinner theater the actors are still ultimately going to proceed with the same ending regardless of your interaction and in Elsinore you have the ability to change what will transpire. 

Murray also writes about how kaleidoscope narratives require the viewpoints of multiple people to understand it fully. She writes, “In order to find the whole story, they have to take the trip again, making different choices” (Murray, 159). Obviously the time-looping features on Elsinore not only make this possible but requires it, in order to get some information you might need to be in a scenario where someone dies but is alive in the next time loop.The reset is imperative to finding out others motivations and discovering the full narrative. 

Elsinore as a Rhizome

Murray also invokes Gilles Deleuze’s rhizome model of thought where all the points are connected. Elsinore undoubtable fits into this category, mainly because there is no end. There is a way to get a credit roll, if you are able to find the book of fates you can choose one you lock into it and stop the time looping, but the game doesn’t restart after that. If you want to keep playing you don’t restart Elsinore but rather return to it, and while you are returning Hamlet’s father’s ghost keeps warning you not to come back and not to reopen the book. You could, however, play out each of the 11 possible fates, or try different secret endings like burning the book or killing Peter Quince, but if you wanted you could just keep living in time-looping Elsinore Castle for eternity. 

Murray writes that, “As we navigate its tangled, anxiety-laden paths, enclosed within its shape-fitting borders, we are both the exasperated parent longing for closure and separation and the enthralled child, lingering forever in an unfolding process that is deeply comforting because it can never end” (Murray, 134). Indeed, as a player it can be both frustrating that there is no tangible objective in sight, no complete and satisfying narrative end, but there is also comfort in the rhizome. The game itself often nods to this, after it’s necessary for you to, for instance, let your father die in a time loop, Ophelia will often say to herself something to the effect that she’s sorry but it won’t matter for long and that she’ll see him in a couple days. The deaths lose a lot of their gravity that they have in Hamlet because you watch them happen over and over, but it always resets. 

Elsinore as the Ultimate Tragedy Game

Screen grab from when you return to the game after completing a fate.

As I mentioned previously, there is no real ending to Elsinore but there are 11 different fates from the Fate Book that you can choose to play out. These fates all have one thing in common, they are tragic. Every fate is structured as a trade, for instance if you choose the path of marrying King Claudius the fate is called “Trade Innocence for Power”. Even if you opt out of the Fate Book endings, the secret endings still have tragic ends. In Murray’s imagining of the ultimate tragic video game she writes that by the end, “The reader would have both enacted and witnessed the decision and feel the sense of understanding, inevitability, and sorrow that we call catharsis” (Murray 177). Indeed, this is what every (non)ending of Elsinore provides, the agency of choosing your own fate and still experiencing a kind of tragedy. 

Works Cited

Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet Horowitz Murray, The Free Press, 1997, pp. 126–182. 

“You Can’t Please Everyone:” Identity Formation and the Procedural Rhetorics of Signs of the Sojourner

By Abigail Henkin

Signs of the Sojourner uses its deck-building structure as a jumping off point for creating a procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic, compassionate communication. Players can only succeed in conversations–and therefore receive the items they need to complete goals and the information to unlock new paths–by forming matches with characters. In order to form a match, players have to recognize the right-hand symbol of the other character and mirror it. In order to set up a subsequent match, the player must introduce a new symbol that corresponds to the kinds of symbols the character they are talking to is likely to have. There can only be a match when characters listen to each other and recognize their partner’s conversation style. And in order to do this, players need to intentionally build a deck suited to the characters they want to talk to.

A mismatch occurred because Klaus didn’t have a card that could match with mine. 
Mom provides an explicit instruction to connect and overcome differences, as well as to base conversations on characters’ past conversational modes. These instructions are reinforced through the game’s processes. 

Deck-building games originated with Dominion, a game in which players add cards to their decks and try to gather victory points. Dominion is a competitive multiplayer game. It spawned numerous other deck-building games, some competitive and some collaborative. Signs of the Sojourner is a more collaborative one. In most conversations, both participants want a positive result, but may be constrained by cards in such a way that they cannot reach it. Unlike many other deck-building games, including Dominion, Signs of the Sojourner limits how many cards can be kept in a deck. It also forces players to switch out a card at the end of each conversation, with the new card mimicking an attribute of the conversational style of the character to which the player just spoke. In game, this is described as gaining experience and forgetting old memories. Characters literally rub off on Rhea (the playable character), so that their conversational style and identity shift based on the people they meet. Conversations, whether positive or negative, are incorporated into Rhea’s personality in a way similar to how in a bildungsroman, “only by stringing together ‘experiences’ does one build a personality” (Moretti 48). 

Dominion was the first deck-building game. 
Switching out cards is framed as gaining experiencing and forgetting parts of the past. 

To maximize the number of successful conversations, players eventually need to choose certain conversational traits (symbols) for Rhea to specialize in. This is another procedural rhetoric: it’s impossible to connect to everyone, and it’s okay to prioritize certain people that you want to build relationships with. Characters in different regions of the map tend to have different styles of speaking. For example, characters further east tend to be more industrious and direct. This can disincentivize players from travelling to different regions in which the speaking styles may be radically different, and players might not have the right cards for successful conversations. Adopting a different conversation style may also make it harder to connect with characters back in Bartow, who tend to be empathetic and diplomatic. Many of us noted that our conversations with Elias, our childhood best friend, became more strained as we acquired more diverse cards that made matches with him more difficult. We also noticed that talking with him often forced us to take cards that were weaker than the ones we had acquired through traveling (although according to the Wiki, he is the only player who can provide Accommodate cards, one of the most useful). We felt like we were drifting away from him. On the other hand, characters like Nadine who also traveled tended to diversify their cards more, like us, over the course of the game. The cataclysm introduces a new set of symbols, the distressed ones. When Rhea acquires several of them, it can make it harder for them to talk to characters who don’t feel similarly distressed. It seemed odd to us that the orange “empathetic” symbol couldn’t match with distress. According to the game’s logic, only people who actually share distress can relate to each other. 

Nadine and then Elias reiterate that it’s impossible to please everyone. 
Different conversational traits in Signs of the Sojourner (the top should read “empathetic” not “emphatic”).

The card effects mimic conversational styles in clever ways, furthering the impression that the game mechanics are a good imitation of conversations. It makes sense that “Clarify” would allow you to go back into an earlier part of a conversation, and that it usually has a positive effect, and that “Chatter” would allow you to place two cards. We liked using the “Chatter” card to quickly advance conversations, although it seemed a bit in tension with the procedural rhetoric of empathetic listening being necessary for a conversation’s success. Still, as the game’s Wiki notes, playing “Chatter” is not always advantageous, since “Chatter” chains cannot lead to accords and may use up matching cards, forcing the player to draw less useful cards. The Wiki also emphasizes the power of “Accommodation” cards, even claiming that “a run can be accomplished while succeeding at over 90% of all conversations by working towards a deck filled entirely with Accommodate cards” (although it does not provide evidence for this claim). This privileging of “Accomodation” fits with the procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic listening. 

Like in an archetypical bildungsroman, Rhea moves from a pre-modern world (Bartow) to a larger, more modernized surrounding world. As they travel, they encounter not only more urban settings, but technologies like railroads and humanoid robots. With these industrialized technologies come industrialized problems, like the Rilkers’ cruel treatment of the robots eventually leading to a strike in Tosende Canals. (The antagonistic Rilkers are mentioned several times in Signs of a Sojourner and were enemies of Rhea’s mother, but from the Wiki it does not seem like Rhea ever directly encounters them.) Different endings complete the process of Rhea’s identity formation in more or less satisfying ways. In one ending, Rhea fails to convince the caravan to continue coming to Bartow, leading to the town’s abandonment. This seems like it would be a “bad” ending: the player/Rhea did not complete their goal. However, this ending is not framed negatively. Rhea and Elias move to Aldhurst, where they run a more successful business. This arc seems fitting for a bildungsroman. It is a happy ending, in which Rhea has incorporated their trials into their development and found stability in their new life. In contrast, the supposed “good” ending, seems to be less satisfying. Bartow is stable, but there is still a restlessness to Rhea as other characters encourage them not to get stuck in the town. In a third ending, Rhea starts a revolution in Old Marae, cementing a new identity as a revolutionary.  

Gynoid Maya organizes a strike. 

One constraint that Signs of the Sojourner puts on its conversations is the Fatigue cards, which accumulate as Rhea takes longer trips between towns. These cards, which mismatch on both sides, are never useful to play and make it less likely to get more valuable cards. There is a maximum time constraint on Rhea’s trips (50 days), but these cards provide another constraint: accumulating too many forces the trip to end. These cards mean that trips need to be chosen thoughtfully and that exploring specific regions is easier than travelling across the map. They also have a procedural rhetoric: it is harder to communicate well when you are tired. Fatigue cards can make it even harder to connect with Elias after longer trips, further distancing Rhea and him. There are some ways to get rid of Fatigue cards, including interactions with Thunder. Still, we found them to be a frustrating and perhaps overbearing constraint on gameplay. Perhaps having less of them could have had a similar effect but allowed players to have more interactions before having to return to Bartow. Another suggestion that came up in class was to reduce the hand size as the journey progressed instead of diluting it with the fatigue cards. Our frustration with the fatigue cards raised a larger question of how to balance a game that uses its mechanics as heavily for storytelling as Signs of the Sojourner. Most of us agreed we were invested in the deck-building gameplay only in so far as it let us explore the larger narrative. 

Fatigue cards make it difficult to communicate. 

And explore does feel like the right verb–as Jenkins discusses, this is a story that’s told over space. Characters are tied to specific spaces, although they, like Rhea, may migrate as time passes. The depth to which we know certain characters may change depending on our route. I deviated from the caravan as early as my second trip, so I didn’t meet Lars, the farmer from Tosunde Canals, until he relocated to Aldhurst after the cataclysm. At that point, he didn’t want to talk to me (I didn’t have the right cards to match with him, but he was grumpy anyway). I didn’t understand his backstory or why he was so distrustful of other humans (if you meet him earlier, you learn this is because he lived among robots at Tosunde Canals and rarely interacted with humans). As Jenkins discusses, although Signs of the Sojourner progresses literally, much of what Rhea comes to learn is about the past, including about their mother. There’s a depth to the story world through its history. The game progression is also grounded in time. Each trip has 50 days and events happen at specific times. You can miss certain interactions if you miss characters on certain trips. And you can strengthen or weaken relationships depending on if you visit or skip. I missed Pachenco on my fourth trip and came back on my fifth to find the Marques blaming me for Tomas’ leaving (even though Tomas and I were on good terms). 

Nameless discusses his past with Rhea’s mother and the Circle. 

Through its deck-building mechanics, Signs of the Sojourner persuades players of the power of conversation and that they should use it compassionately. While it may not be beneficial for every conversation to have a positive result (like when you catch Lil’Basilio trying to steal from you if you fail a conversation with him), the majority of the time the game processes encourage connection. Positive conversations are the only way to acquire objects and learn useful information. The game processes also suggest that identity formation comes from these kinds of connections and the people we choose to relate to. The game’s processes reveal how socialization develops identity. 

Sources:

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. The MIT Press, 2007.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. The MIT Press, 2004, pp. 118-130. 

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. Verso, 1987. 

https://signs-of-the-sojourner.fandom.com/wiki/Signs_of_the_Sojourner_Wiki

Environmental Storytelling in Gone Home

By Shahrez Aziz

Introduction

The tug of war between narratives and interactive gameplay elements and how to balance the two is a heavily contested issue when it comes to the conversation about video games and their narratives, with many narratologists arguing that video games can inherently not be narrative experiences due to their interactive nature. However, as Henry Jenkins brings up in ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’, statements that pit interactivity against narrative by labeling them as opposites may be ignoring some nuances in favor of more rigid definitions of storytelling being very heavily controlled by an author rather than have any level of input by the player/audience. In presenting some middle ground between the two camps, Jenkins presents the notion of environmental or spatial storytelling, whereby he describes game designers as not simply telling stories, but as designing worlds and sculpting spaces. He categorizes them into four major types, which we will explore using The Fullbright Company’s game, Gone Home.

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Friday the 13th: The Game

By: Alan Countess

Asymmetric Gaming Structure

Asymmetric game structure can take many forms. At its core, it involves giving players different abilities or rules, and often involves a different set of objectives that pits players against each other. Games like Overwatch and League of Legends are popular examples of games that revolve around characters with different abilities. These characters fit into specific roles and as a game is optimized at a high level, there becomes a standard ratio of roles present on each team. Outside of these examples where players have the same objective (destroy enemy team, capture a zone, destroy a base), asymmetric gaming can also give players on opposing sides distinct objectives. For instance, search and destroy is a common game mode in many first person shooters. In this setting, characters often have the same tools and abilities, but the game creates asymmetry through goals. One team must plant a bomb or destroy the other team while the other team must prevent the bomb from being planted, or diffuse it once it is planted. This structure forces players to act with unique strategies based on which side they are on. 

Even outside of video games, asymmetric structure is often used to generate excitement. Games like mafia and werewolf are very popular group games, and in the board game realm, games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and Scythe rely on asymmetries between players to create unique playing experience and various clashing strategies. Clearly there is something exciting about this type of game structure. With the recent rise in popularity of Among Us, we have seen how a simple game can capitalize off of the asymmetric structure of gaming to draw in players.

This brings us to Friday the 13th: The Game

Friday the 13th: The Game embodies many of the features asymmetric games can include. In this game, Jason is a playable character that is randomly selected out of the 8 players in the lobby. The remaining 7 will play as camp counselors on a team against Jason. The counselors can win by various means of escape, such as: escaping by boat, escaping by car, calling the police and reaching them once they arrive, and by waiting until the time limit of the game expires. The characters in this game win individually as they either escape or are killed whereas Jason’s objective is to kill as many counselors as possible. The game places tools around the map for the counselors to use. These tools can heal them, allow them to attack and stun Jason, or craft one of the means of escaping the camp. 

In constructing these features, the game creates a completely different experience and style of play depending on the player’s role. Jason can interact with very few of the things players can interact with. He can not utilize or damage tools or travel through windows as the other players can. Furthermore, counselors are limited to inconveniencing Jason (it is possible to kill Jason but requires far more coordination and luck than you would expect to see in a game played by humans) while Jason has a very high chance of killing a target he is near through use of his abilities. These asymmetric elements make a large contribution to why people enjoy playing the game, but an even larger factor in this is the way the game capitalizes on fans’ nostalgia for the Friday the 13th movie series. 

Friday the 13th as a tribute to the movie series

Much of the player base for this game are, unsurprisingly, fans of the Friday the 13th movie series. Fans who have watched these movies and enjoy horror movies in general enjoy reliving the movie through the game itself. Rather than recreating the plot of the movie, the game makes an attempt to create similar emotional elements that fans would experience when watching the filme. Being in the horror genre, a large focus of the movie series, and thus the game revolves around how fear is created. In the movies, there is a distinct soundtrack played when characters are in danger, or when the movie is meant to invoke fear. Often the music begins when Jason is nearby the counselors. The music adds to the rising suspense as characters are unaware of the mounting danger they are in. The game chooses to share the classic music track from the film series. Additionally, to create the same mounting suspense as the movies, players will hear the in game music become more dramatic and louder as Jason is closer to them. This is an interesting way for the game to produce the sensation that danger is close at hand without the character knowing where exactly Jason is and if he is even targeting them or another close by character.

In the following clip, you can hear the changes in music as the distance between Jason and my character changes. Additionally, you can see Jason use an ability to travel closer to my character without his movement being seen.

In addition to the use of music in this scene, we can see how the game recreates jump scares that appear in the movies. Jason is able to move very quickly off screen. His movement is not human and gives him a terrifying sense of power as he can always appear from just out of frame. The game recreates this by giving Jason the ability to teleport in a few ways. One way he can do this is to choose any location on the map, and instantly teleport to that location. Additionally, Jason is able to enter an invisible and very fast moving form in which Jason’s player moves in first person point of view. This camera effect is very similar to what is known in film as a killer point of view. The camera angle is directly from the perspective of the killer, you are unable to reverse, and you move towards victims without their knowledge of where you are. To avoid breaking the immersion of Jason literally disappearing from the players view when he uses this ability, the game produces a static effect on the screen for nearby players which has a similar effect to a character in a movie briefly looking away and losing track of Jason. These abilities to move in an inhuman manner around the map well replicates some of the fear tactics employed by the movies and gives characters a fun way to get a feeling for what it might feel like to move as Jason. 

When players are moving around the map within the game, they spectate their character from a 3rd person point of view with the camera looking over the characters shoulder. This has a few interesting effects on how the player relates to their character compared to how they do in the movies. First person point of view and third person point of view are the two primary options when designing the camera angle for a game. First person point of view will give the player more of a sense that they are the character, as their view is identical to that of the character’s. Although the camera angle is not first person, this effect is still well achieved from the over the shoulder shot. In this situation, the character and the player have a very similar point of view. However, the third person shot also creates somewhat of a sensation that the player is a viewer, similar to how they would relate to a character in a movie. This choice helps recreate the movie feel of character association while creating a relationship with the character that is conducive to fear. 

Some additional ways that the game indulges the nostalgia of fans of the series are through the customization options in the game. The game allows for characters to play as different versions of Jason. These versions match the appearance of various versions of Jason throughout the movie series. Additionally, the game allows players to customize the kill animations that Jason will use when they play as him. The player can choose some of their favorite kills from the movies, or simply pick ones they enjoy and use them when they get the role of Jason in a game. 

In this final section, I would like to highlight some areas where I felt that the game diverged from the movie feel. One such way is that in the game, all of the counselors are immediately aware of the threat they face. While the movie plays on the information gap between the audience and the characters, the game is dealing with players who know Jason is hunting them. Because of this the game chose to introduce Jason with an initial cutscene that all of the players and characters see when the game starts. Although this is not true to the story in the films, I didn’t feel that this detracted from the gameplay experience. Additionally, chat is open with the random other players you are in the game with. This can lead to some fun banter, however, this can also lead to a much different atmosphere than the game tries to create. Through players and opponents not taking things seriously and joking around, the tension created within a game can quickly be cut. An additional way players can change the gaming experience are by playing poorly or being afk (away from keyboard). In these situations, a player purposefully killing teammates or not killing anyone as Jason can change what makes the players feel threatened when they play and lead to things such as music cues not creating fear as they are intended to.

In the following clip, you will see an example of some friendly banter that cuts the tension of the game followed by the player with the role of Jason being afk. You may notice how this contrasts with the earlier clip shown.

Thank you for your time and attention!

Rule of Rose and the Tidiness of Unreality

Ian here—

Whoops! I made sure to give myself enough time to finish this video by Halloween … but then I neglected to post the announcement here! Happy belated Halloween, everyone.

I really relished the opportunity to talk about Rule of Rose, one of my favorite odd little games that I’ve never written about in any fashion before. Unfortunately copies of the game have become real collector’s items over the years, and it’s sad to praise a piece of media that so few will have access to. But hey, I also write about experimental film, so I know the feeling.

Script below the jump.

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Return of the Obra Dinn Commentary and Critique

The slow march of my video series on detective games continues with this, its fifth entry. For awhile I was afraid there was no reason to do this one, as I wouldn’t be able to top my students’ posts and videos on this game after I taught it last spring. In the end, I went with sheer length as my own particular angle.

Script below the jump.

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Untitled Goose Game: The Hjönkening

“Hjönk.”

Stylishly late project summary by group leader Shé Edwards

Untitled Goose Game is a colorful, charming game about the delightful antics of one of life’s most devastating antagonists. The game was developed by House House, an indie game developer based in Australia composed of just four people: Nico Disseldorp, Jacob Strasser, Stuart Gillespie-Cook, and Michael McMaster. Fun and lighthearted slapstick seem to be their forté, as the studio previously released a multiplayer game of a similar cute and cartoonish style named Push Me Pull You. Their most recent release became a hit for casual players and content creators alike, combining simple mechanics and character archetypes with entertaining puzzle-like objectives. The player waddles about the colorful world completing tasks, fulfilling the well-known power fantasy of being a particularly awful goose.

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