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More Fangames: A first look at Pokemon Sage (Demo 2.0)

Last year, I wrote about my experiences with some fan-made games, one of which was Pokemon Uranium. One of our commenters made us aware of Pokemon Sage then, and I thought it looked promising and would be well worth keeping an eye on. At the time, I got the impression it was still in a very early state, there was plenty of concept work to look through and a short playable demo but not enough to draw any firm conclusions one way or another.

I later stumbled across discussions of Pokemon Sage again, in reading discussions of Pokemon Uranium in a Let’s Play thread by Orange Fluffy Sheep on the Something Awful forums (the Let’s Play forum is a guilty pleasure of mine, I lurk but don’t participate). People there were much harsher on Uranium than I was (I think rightly so; I do still mostly like it, but I’ll readily admit most of the flaws they tore it apart for are real and deserve the mockery), and several of them kept bringing up Pokemon Sage as an example of a Pokemon fangame that gets right the things Uranium got wrong.

To make a long story short, they’re absolutely right. But we’ll get to that.

Anyway, I was in the mood to play some Pokemon recently, and remembered that earlier this year (late July, I don’t know the exact date) a more substantial demo of Pokemon Sage had been released. I don’t normally care for playing incomplete games – I can tolerate incomplete or abandonned serial fiction, but when it’s a video game and you add to that the possibility of getting psychologically invested in a save file (which may not be compatible with future versions of the game even if it does continue to update), the frustration level increases greatly. That said, Sage intrigued me enough and the new demo had enough of it implemented that I thought it was worth giving a try, so here’s my review of Pokemon Sage Demo 2.0.5 (this version released 10 August 2017, available here) after having played it to completion.

[I won’t be contributing much to this one, I haven’t played it yet – it looks really promising and I probably will, but I also want to try and wait for the full game.] Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on October 1, 2017 in mitchell

 

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Mitchell’s Feminist Relationship Advice for Heterosexual Men (& everyone else too)

For better or worse I’ve ended up having way too many conversations about romance/sex/etc advice recently, so I thought I might as well collect my thoughts in one place (and just in time for Valentine’s Day too, sometimes coincidences are fun). It’s a good time for it anyway; the mainstream culture is always so terrible about these sort of things, and I think it’s especially important to push back against that in this age of the Sexual-Predator-in-Chief.

This is a serious post despite the snark.

I’m afraid this may feel disjointed in places, as it’s mainly a collection of things I’ve found myself saying or wishing I had said in response to things people have said to or around me, but so be it. I’m fairly certain the core ideas should still come through just fine. That said, I’m not entirely sure who the target audience is here: I’ve tried to keep this mostly at 101-level for accessibility but I’m not sure I entirely succeeded, and also I’ve tried to address various different stages here so it’s unlikely it all is likely to be applicable to everybody.

(And as this excellent piece I encountered the other day points out, patriarchal relationship norms aren’t good for men either. I think it’s always a worthy effort to undermine them.)

[I likely won’t have much to add, but I’m here agreeing with these points.]

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Posted by on February 14, 2017 in mitchell

 

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Some disorganised thoughts after the Women’s March(es)

So yesterday (21 January 2017), for anyone who doesn’t already know, the day after the tragic inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the (not-so-) United States (I will not give him the dignity of the office and refer to him as President Trump, he’s a loathsome despotic buffoon #notmypresident), was also the day of the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches in major (and not-so-major!) cities throughout the US and beyond.

Here’s the official Women’s March site and the Sister Marches page.

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Posted by on January 22, 2017 in mitchell

 

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Spoiler Review

Those of you who have been paying attention will have spotted this post that went live yesterday morning, containing photographs of notes taken by Mitchell in the cinema as we watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (IMDB). The release date allowed us just enough time to see it together before he goes back home tomorrow. Now we’ve had time to put this together, enjoy our full rambling review. Spoilers later.

It probably won’t surprise any of you that Mitchell and I had pretty different views of the film by the end. We both picked out the same issues with it – spoiler, there were a lot of issues with it – but I’m far more willing to overlook most of them than he is. I’m more forgiving of bad writing in films than I am in books, too. Though we both hated the ending.

[I don’t actually think we disagree on much of anything, except how much we’re willing to forgive. I found this film utterly infuriating overall, while Loten enjoyed it, but when we started comparing complaints we found they were pretty much identical.]

If you go into this film with the right mindset, it’s mostly a lot of fun. Just don’t expect miracles. A lot of it makes no sense, there are some bad plotholes, and a lot of it is wildly inconsistent even by the already inconsistent rules of the Potterverse. But it’s pretty, and mostly silly in a good way, and has some cute moments.

[Here’s a quick attempt at a spoiler-free review for anyone who wants that. Overall, this is the sort of film that can be mindless fun if you like that sort of thing, but definitely don’t forget to switch off your brain before watching or you’ll be heavily disappointed. The core conceit of “absentminded zoologist loses magical monsters in New York City, needs to track them down, chaotic shenanigans ensue” is reasonably fun and the creatures are visually interesting (and the way they move is mostly well done too, the CGI is pretty good). Those parts are mostly fine, and we’d have liked the film much better if they’d just stuck to that (I’d probably have still complained about it being pointless, but that’s really just a matter of CGI slapstick not being my genre). But they decided it had to have an overarching plot beyond that, so they shoehorned in political intrigue and personal drama (and cringe-inducing “romances”) and very forced connections to Grindelwald and so on, and those things… just didn’t really work, and created so many issues that could have been easily avoided.]

Spoilers below the cut: Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2016 in loten, mitchell

 

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Pokemon Uranium Follow-Up and In-Depth Review

So, about a month ago I reviewed a couple of fan-made games, among them “Pokemon Uranium”. And when I did so I was relatively harsh, or at least very ambivalent toward the game; I was not then comfortable recommending the game without heavy caveats, and said that I personally would be giving up on it. Funny how things work out.

Long story short, Loten kept playing because she’d still had her file, and because she and I were continuing to talk about it, I ended up getting sucked back in despite telling myself I wouldn’t. I have no willpower. I justified it to myself by saying that, as long as I was devoting headspace to thinking about the game and metagaming things (trying to work out builds and movesets that would work, etc) I may as well be playing it. Then I got addicted and basically couldn’t stop playing, to the point I ended up outstripping Loten’s progress and powering through to 100% completion (because I’m nuts). I feel a bit guilty about panning the game in my original review, and discouraging people from trying it, when after giving it a bit more of a try I ended up finding it overall a very positive experience. I do think it was worth playing and will recommend it now, although still with some caveats, so let’s do a more in-depth review.

[Loten here. I haven’t played much beyond where I was last time, free time being a myth at the moment, but I’ve been discussing it with Mitchell as he finished it, so I might interject if I have any comments to add. I’ve also played at least one game from every generation of the official franchise, so I’m a bit more familiar with those. Otherwise, this is his party.]

(Disclaimer: I really don’t like linking to Reddit, for various reasons. But I don’t have much of a choice, because that’s where the Pokemon Uranium community seems to exist right now, and where information about the game’s status and updates/bugfixes can be found, so I will do so at various places in this post.)

Before I get into the meat of the review, some housekeeping. On 21 September the game’s creators released an official Twitter statement (discussion thread) saying they were moving on from supporting the game and would not be working on it further. It is unclear whether this is due to legal action, or some other reason. That said, for some time there has been an “unofficial team” working on bugfixes and missing content, and it appears they will continue to do so though at this point it’s hard to tell what that will mean (they did mention the possibility of trying to finish implementing the missing/unfinished features and postgame content). They are also maintaining “unofficial” servers for the online content, and for now show no signs that will change.

In terms of the game’s playability, these “unofficial patches” go a long way toward fixing a lot of the issues, and I recommend anyone who would consider playing this game install those (at the time of writing, this the unofficial patches are up to version ‘I’). It’s still not perfect and there are still bugs, but far fewer, and a lot of the most glaring issues of moves and abilities just being completely nonfunctional are fixed as of the latest version. This really makes a huge difference, in my opinion; I won’t go so far as to say that the game is on the level of a finished product (it’s still beta-esque), and there are still a fair few issues, but it’s much improved and it’s a lot easier to play and enjoy without being irritated by massive errors compared to the released version. One of the patches (I think H) also added an auto-backup feature, which is very nice in light of the occasional error that can corrupt a save file (it only maintains one backup, it seems to overwrite it with your old save data whenever you save the game). I’ve still been doing some manual backups on top of this, but it’s much better than it was and would’ve prevented the catastrophic loss/corruption of data I experienced twice.

So, that helps a lot.

What also helps is that the environments are well-designed and varied, and a great deal of the game’s music is phenomenal (and atmospheric, and fits well with the areas and scenarios). From what I understand, the maps were done by JV, and the music was done by someone called ElectricMudkip and a few others; I did note that my favourites among the original pieces (Rival Theo Battle, Victory Road, Elite Trainer Battle, Nuclear Plant Zeta, Urayne Battle) were by that person (do note that if the linked videos look like they’re something else, that’s not a mistake; some of the songs have been labelled as other things, and I’m not sure if that’s because they were originally written for something else and repurposed, or if that was a ruse to keep their appearance in Uranium a surprise). The game looks and sounds very nice, and all of this combines to make the actual exploration quite enjoyable. I do think that the game has a problem in the early stages, in that the first few areas are quite boring and somewhat monotonous (though truthfully this is a flaw a lot of Pokemon games have), but around the third gym things start getting a lot more interesting and I think the game, as an overall experience, improves markedly around then(coincidentally, my first playthrough ended just before the third gym). It could also have something to do with the fact that that’s around the point there seem to be enough options for teambuilding to start being interesting. Regardless, I do suspect that may have affected my prior opinion of the game.

When the game is working (which is much more reliable now with the bugfixes), it really does play very well. It’s significantly more difficult than recent Pokemon games, and presents a reasonable challenge even if the player overlevels a bit (but enough leveling and you can mostly power through, so that option’s left open); it definitely rewards knowing your way around Pokemon mechanics and playing smartly within them. After experiencing the whole game, I really do like the mix of official and fan-made pokemon they went with (and I rather like most of their “fakemon” designs), and the distribution of type combinations makes for interesting and fun teambuilding decisions (I was really happy with what I ended up with). I also really enjoyed getting to experience some of the newer Pokemon mechanics (things like fairy type, mega evolution) which were added in 3DS games I haven’t yet played (and truthfully, probably don’t intend to play; I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of XYORAS, and still have plenty other games to catch up on before I would get to those. Loten’s the veteran Pokemon player between us, whereas I’ve only recently started getting back into them).

[He’s not kidding about the difficulty. I liked X&Y, it was fun, but a challenge it emphatically was not and I ended up deliberately trying to handicap myself to keep it vaguely interesting (and I have yet to actually finish ORAS). Uranium is hard, though in a good way; probably harder than any of the official games since the original Red/Blue/Yellow.]

The other thing I think they did really well in designing this pokedex is, while most of the pokemon seemed to be on a relatively flat power level meaning there are lots of viable choices (which is great!), they left in a few gamebreaking options to be discovered. They don’t end up being completely unfair, IMO, because they take some work to figure out, and there are enough of them any one player probably won’t avail themselves of them all (and most aren’t available until late in the game). I do think there’s some appeal in there being overpowered strategies to discover, at least in single player games; often games with a bit of unbalance here and there (or even what I’d actually call poor design, sometimes) end up being more fun to work with than games that are theoretically more fair. (At least for single player games, anyway; some of these overpowered pokemon might pose a problem for competitive battling, but it remains to be seen how much of a competitive battling scene Uranium will have and that’s for those people to work out.) Regardless, it’s fun, it’s interesting, and it feels good when you find a strategy that just keeps working. It’s not like Mewtwo who just gets handed to everyone: you can get Mewtwo level power, but you have to figure out how and assemble it yourself.

There are some balance issues that are less ideal, namely with the starter pokemon. Eletux is generally considered the best choice, having slightly better base stat total, really good typing that remains useful throughout the entire game, and a great mega ability that changes how it will play and leans toward broken strategies. Orchynx isn’t bad, it has a great defensive typing and durability, and a decent movepool that fit its stats well, and functions well throughout the game, but its mega evolution is boring and basically just means bigger numbers (and in the important story battles against nuclear-typed things where its steel typing might come in handy, they tend to be given powerful fire moves just to screw it over). But it’s also a green kitty, so it gains some points with me for that. [Me too, though I went with the safer option in Eletux.] Raptorch is fast and powerful, and has a good offensive typing, but its movepool is an absolute mess – it learns mainly physical moves, and is ostensibly a mixed attacker statistically, until the mega evolution gets huge gains in special attack that it struggles to make good use of. It does have an advantage in a few boss battles, thanks to its ludicrous speed, but that’s about it. I don’t think any of them are really bad, but they aren’t equal by any means. Then again, in the early Pokemon games the starters weren’t balanced either – why hello there, Charmander – so in a way this is a return to form and I don’t really mind it. [Though it’s worth noting that the remakes of the first games updated the move pools and made Charmander a more viable option.]

In my previous post, I also panned the game for its writing; after seeing all of it I think it requires a bit more nuanced consideration. Considering it in a vacuum, I honestly still can’t say the writing is particularly good. There were moments I liked, and some bits of decent characterisation even, but a lot of it was also over-the-top, clunky and melodramatic in execution. And (more on this later) I think there’s a lot of missed potential, and some fairly simple rewrites to e.g. the villain’s dialogue would be an enormous improvement. There are also a fair few typos, which I’ve forced myself to ignore; that sort of thing is understandable for a fangame when the text is clearly not their main focus. That said, I’ll just put this out there: if the creators or the unofficial team want to get me a text dump or show me how to access and edit the text data, I’d be happy to copyedit it all for you. It’d be a trivial effort for me, honestly, and the result would be worth it. [While most of them are understandable errors, some of the ones I’ve noticed could have been caught just by using spellcheck. To me, that’s allowable in an early beta version of a game but should be fixed by the final release.]

What I mean by requiring more nuanced consideration is this: between my last post and now, I went and reread several Let’s Plays of official Pokemon games by Farla (and friends), which reminded me just how awful the writing is in the official games and how bad their sexism problems are. [So very, very true.] Compared to that, Uranium is honestly an improvement in many ways, and (amusingly) some of the worst things in Uranium were inherited directly from the official games. That is not to let Uranium off the hook, just to put it into context. (I also made an error in my previous post, saying there were zero female rematch trainers. In point of fact, there are two, out of thirteen total. So the numbers are still very skewed, but it isn’t the total erasure I made it out to be before.) As an example of sexist things being inherited: many of the generic opposing trainer sprites were lifted from the official games (I think mostly Diamond/Pearl/Platinum) and those are by far the worst offenders in terms of sexualisation; when you look at the original characters (gym leaders, for example), they’re wearing realistic/appropriate clothing (within reason, anyway; some wear themed costumes that are a bit silly, but the clothing choices make sense given the theme) and generally just look competent. Even the swimsuit one was something of an improvement (though having a gym leader in swimsuit at all isn’t a choice I care for, plenty of the official games did it). They also have a fanservicey male character in Tiko, the fire gym leader, who wears nothing but a kilt and is themed as a dancer.

This does not mean I intend to give Uranium a pass: there are still a lot of sexist lines (mainly, as I mentioned in my prior review, in one-off NPC and trainer dialogue) that were completely unnecessary, and do form a sort of background radiation of sexism. And at times, unfortunately, the dialogue goes out of its way to make sure you can’t ignore it.

I talked about the first gym last time, but now let’s talk about the sixth. The sixth gym is themed around theatre and masquerade, with an opera mask motif throughout. Many of the trainers quote random lines from Shakespeare. It’s vaguely cute but gimmicky (and I did like the end gimmick where you fight an impostor gym leader before falling down a trapdoor to meet the real one), but this culminates with the gym leader explaining that women weren’t allowed to be actors, so she did a crossdressing gambit, became famous for her acting and then revealed her gender, forcing society to acknowledge it and change the rule. Okay, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that trope… except in context. This is placed in a modern setting. There are televisions and Wii U game systems in most NPCs’ homes. We actually see women in positions of power (the player character’s mother was the administrator of a power plant, there are several female gym leaders and scientists, etc) so this ends up being extra sexism written into the setting for the purpose of saying something vaguely against gender discrimination? It’s weird, it’s clunky and heavy-handed, and ends up drawing more attention to the sexism more than anything else just by how out-of-place it is; more than anything else, it’s just utterly unnecessary and I’d have suggested the speech be cut entirely.

There are also a few moments where I think it’s clear that the game is written with male as the default (despite offering an androgynous, gender-unspecified option for the protagonist). Almost all of the dialogue is unchanged regardless of player choice and uses singular ‘they’ as pronoun for the player, which is fine as far as it goes. But because the dialogue is unchanged, it ends up being more noticeable when, even if you choose the female avatar, female (and only female) NPCs occasionally say vaguely flirtatious things, or a male trainer says “you’re more manly than me” upon being defeated, and so on. Truthfully, I think this might have bothered me more if I’d continued to use the male avatar, but I decided to play a female trainer the second time (and I think for whatever reason it feels more palatable that way if I try to pretend the male option doesn’t exist). [I picked the gender-neutral trainer, so between us we’ve covered all the options.]

While I’m talking about the writing, let’s talk about the plot, the villain, the conclusion, and the rewrites I think are needed.

(THE FOLLOWING WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS, IF YOU CARE)

The plot begins with the player character’s mother, Lucille, going missing when there’s a reactor meltdown at the power plant she administers. The father, Kellyn, who is a Pokemon Ranger (something like law enforcement), is understandably affected by this, and responds by shipping his child off to live with his aunt and throwing himself into his work. (Surprisingly, they actually do a decent job of character development with him and the parent-child relationship with the player character.) The game picks up with the character taking on a job as a pokemon trainer and researcher and leaving home (pretty typical Pokemon fare).

In the process of exploring, you eventually learn about disasters occurring at the various nuclear power plants throughout the region, and explore them (encountering pokemon and environments that have been changed by radiation). Late in the game, it’s revealed that these disasters are being caused deliberately, by a mysterious masked figure calling itself CURIE and their pokemon Urayne. The player has several confrontations with CURIE, who is written as a stereotypically cackling villain and generally chews on the scenery, until the final confrontation at the end of the game. You defeat Urayne, CURIE surrenders, and reveals they were Lucille (the player’s mother) all along. Shocking! (everyone guessed it.)

[True. I first suggested to Mitchell that that’s what I expected the ending to be after about five minutes of gameplay. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – the plot in the original games doesn’t exactly leave you in awe of the storytelling skills; these are games for people who want to make imaginary animals spit fireballs at each other, not visual novels. But if you’re going to create a detailed plot spanning the whole game, you need to try to do it well.]

The game then goes into a long flashback and explanation – which includes Urayne talking – which explains that Urayne was an artificial creation made by Lucille and her team, and CURIE was an acronym for something and was the name of a mental interface used to communicate with it (I forget what it stood for; I couldn’t decide if I thought the acronym cute or heavy-handed). Anyway, the big reveal is that the original meltdown was actually part of a conspiracy to destroy Urayne, or something, by the less ethical members of the research team (apparently creating artificial life is illegal and they wanted to hide the evidence, or something), and Lucille hid away with Urayne in a magical stasis device, only to escape recently. They were actually attacking the plants to acquire nuclear fuel [it’s best if you don’t question this; it’s not like the science alluded to in the official games made any more sense], which Urayne needed to survive (until, in the ending, another legendary pokemon came along to do a deus-ex-machina thing so Urayne wouldn’t be so dependent on fuel any more, and can join the player). It’s not the most coherent thing, and there’s magic involved at several points, so I won’t complain too much.

What does bother me is Lucille/CURIE being a cackling cartoon villain who just wants to DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY until this reveal comes out at the last possible moment to make everyone sympathetic and the backstory entirely tragic. They try to paper over this by saying that being in the stasis tank and connected to the CURIE interface and Urayne for ten years drove her insane (and I can well believe that would have disastrous mental effects), but I don’t really buy that excuse. So many games (and bad stories in general) use insanity as a convenient excuse to not figure out why their villains are doing things, but it doesn’t work that way. Mental illnesses tend to have specific effects, and to the extent they cause people to do otherwise inexplicable things it’s because the person’s view of reality is skewed and it makes sense to them (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia). “Insanity” of the sort that crops up in fictional villains isn’t really a thing, per se.

What gets me about this is that it’s just completely unnecessary. Yes, allow that Lucille’s become mentally unbalanced. But focus on the motivation you actually gave her – she cares about Urayne and wants it to have a life, and they need fuel for it to feed on. The conflict can come in from the fact they have to steal the fuel to keep Urayne hidden, and have a hard time extracting it, so they’ve been destroying the plants accidentally. Then as the Rangers and the player character start getting involved, she’ll get more desperate and start escalating the violence in the hope they’ll stop pursuing her (this isn’t the most sane or rational approach, but again, she’s not entirely in her right mind, she’s mentally connected to Urayne, and they’re both desperate enough not to care they’re setting off environmental disasters). This way we keep the family drama of the reveal that it’s been the mother all along, but doesn’t have the problem of the inexplicable cartoon cackling villainy. With the right kind of rewriting, all of the previous confrontations could remain just as tense (a lot of the tension was created and maintained by the area design and atmospheric music, which need not change) and the actual events don’t need to change at all.

Even the bit where she takes Theo hostage and puts him in the stasis tank can be salvaged: justify that by saying she needed him out of the way and he wasn’t wearing proper protective gear, but she didn’t want to kill him. As it stands, the way it was actually written the best I can tell is that they needed Theo to get into stasis so he could exposit about it later, otherwise it’s hard to explain why CURIE/Lucille would do it (so plot over characterisation, basically).

(SPOILERS END HERE)

It really wouldn’t take a lot of rewriting, all things considered, and the end result would be so much better. For the most part, I actually liked what they tried to do with the plot, it just still feels like a rough draft and would benefit from some serious editing (including but not limited to the above). I’ve just gone through the broad strokes and focussed on the villain here, because I think that would be the most important change, but there are plenty of other places where I thought there were good ideas that fell down in execution as well.

So overall, what is my opinion of this game? If you can deal with occasional typos, mentions of incomplete features, and flawed writing, the gameplay experience is actually really good, and it’s not hard to get sucked into enjoying it. I ended up logging more than 60 hours of gameplay on my completed file. I found myself pretty impressed by the end, and it ended up being a really good Pokemon experience, honestly. If you like Pokemon games at all, and especially if you like a bit of a challenge, you will probably like Uranium and I will actually give it a pretty strong recommendation (just hold your nose through the worst of the writing), because gameplay- and audiovisual-wise it’s really solid. If you’re on the fence and/or if the lack of polish puts you off, then maybe give it a miss.

[I concur, for the most part. It’s a fun game, the patches have made it playable even if not everything works, and unlike a lot of fan-made things there’s no sign that the creators got bored – they invested a lot of time in making this, and it shows. But I do think it was overhyped, and that even just a few more weeks of polishing before release could have made a real difference. Most of the problems with the writing are issues that exist in the original games, and I think they missed an opportunity to improve on them instead of repeating them. It’s a shame they’re not going to continue it any further, because in my opinion it isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s still good fun.]

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2016 in mitchell

 

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hypocrisy, thy name is rowling

It may be a bit late to discuss this; Loten brought it to my attention a week or so ago.

The article is titled “JK Rowling Goes Off on Homophobic Haters and Shares Theories on Stopping Internet Trolls.” Here is what she is quoted as saying on Twitter:

“Can’t decide which is more offensive in this tweet, the stupidity or the spite.”

“It’s an arguable point, but I think this focus on how the bigot/troll/bully feels is odd, I’m afraid. Not all ‘trolls’ air their views purely for attention. They want to hurt. They want to intimidate. And the victims get driven out of what should be safe spaces by their venom. If we all challenged hate, social media might feel a much nicer place for minorities, and women and gay people.”

Part of me wants to applaud her for saying this. This is a genuinely nice sentiment, and a needed one, and I don’t actually think there’s much if anything I disagree with in there. I’ve been observing the phenomenon of hateful trolling and harassment on the internet for a while (it’s hard not to if you’re involved in atheism, for instance, or anything remotely to do with feminism and gender; I haven’t personally gotten a lot of it aimed at me, but that’s because I’m a small-time blogger and don’t write much), and this is more or less accurate. Even if not entirely conscious (because the people doing this aren’t generally paragons of self-awareness), that does seem to be the motivation and certainly is the effect; if you’re not aware of how bad things get, go read We Hunted the Mammoth or one of countless other blogs that documents the worst of the internet. Anyone who can push back against harassers and bullies should do so, because the alternative is ceding our spaces to them.

That said, Rowling is saying this?

The same Rowling whose gay characters are closeted until she decides to out them years later (outside the text) for attention? (And which, taken in context, seems to imply that “love” makes you evil unless it’s heterosexual or parental love, in which case it’s powerful deus-ex-machina magic?) Or endorses a play which baits a homosexual relationship between its leads and decides to force them into heterosexuality (via sexual harassment apologism, no less) at the last possible moment?

The same Rowling who claims to be feminist but struggles to depict women outside of the roles of love interests, wives and mothers? Who, again, endorses a play which uses sexual assault for laughs? [And who depicted rape and its aftermath in The Casual Vacancy in such a disgusting way I literally threw the book across the room and have never forgiven her for it?]

The same Rowling who has no problem with bullying as long as the bullies were placed in the proper arbitrary categories, and repeated this pattern so often that an acronym (IOIAGDI, “it’s okay if a Gryffindor does it”) needed to be coined?

The same Rowling who essentially says that unless bigotry looks like Voldemort, it isn’t bigotry? (I present for your consideration Arthur Weasley, who considers muggles curiosities to gawk at and appropriate material culture from, or Ronald Weasley, who doesn’t hesitate to renege on his word and try to cheat goblins, who considers himself above muggle law and uses magic to cheat a driving test, amongst other things. And the “Harry Potter Prequel“, in which the loathsome James Potter and Sirius Black are shown abusing muggle police for fun.). Paternalistic racism is still racism, unintentional racism is still racism; not all racism looks like the Klan or the Nazis. Rowling’s universe desperately needs a Muggle Lives Matter movement.

[The Cormoran Strike books are also full of racism. And sexism. And ableism. And… It’s also worth pointing out the lack of anyone who isn’t white in most of her work. HP has, to my recollection, one explicitly black character and three explicitly Asian characters, and a couple more were later revealed offscreen to also be people of colour. The Casual Vacancy had one family of Indian stereotypes. And the less said about the Strike books, the better, particularly since they’re set somewhere as diverse as London. Not to mention the extremely poor handling of Native cultures more recently with all the Ilvermornay nonsense.]

The same person who wrote all of those things, and many more besides, expects to be taken seriously when spreading an anti-bullying, anti-bigotry message? Truthfully, I find it hard to believe the same person wrote her oeuvre and the quoted tweets. I suppose one could try to argue she could have learned since writing the Harry Potter books… except that, as we’ve learned from examining the Cursed Child play and the Cormoran Strike books, she’s still writing things that are problematic and insensitive at best. Loten speculated to me that Rowling could have outsourced her Twitter account to somebody else; I’m willing to be slightly more charitable, and say that maybe she’s a skilled parrot who repeats arguments without understanding them.

I’m going to make a horrible comparison here; I honestly think this might be like the respondents in Lisak and Miller, and similar studies. Plenty of men will admit to rape as long as you describe it using other words (“no I’ve never committed rape, but yes I have had sex with a woman by force when she didn’t want to”). Perhaps this is a similar case of not connecting a word to its definition – Rowling may know “bullying” and “hate” and “homophobia” are wrong but not necessarily what those words actually signify?

Plenty of us have internalised biases and bigotries, that’s inevitable when living in kyriarchy; it’s difficult to fight against those forces unless we’re able to identify and try to correct it in ourselves wherever possible. There’s an old saying (ironically, from an ancient book full of bigotry) that says to tend to the plank in your own eye before the speck in another’s. It’s good advice, and maybe Rowling should follow it.

I don’t necessarily want her to stop saying these things, because they’re good things and people do need to say them. But it might be nice to see a bit of self-awareness and reflection.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in mitchell

 

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Fan Games (Metroid, Pokemon and More)

Given that we spend a lot of time talking about fanwork and writing about it on this blog, and several fan-made games have been going viral recently (or at least within certain subcultures), I thought it might be worth talking about these. This post may end up being a bit disconnected, as there are a few different games I want to talk about and they’re not really related to each other in any way.

This is primarily a review of “AM2R”/”Another Metroid 2 Remake” and “Pokemon Uranium”.


Firstly, there is “AM2R” , short for “Another Metroid 2 Remake” (a fan-made remake of the 1991 “Metroid II: Return of Samus” for Nintendo Game Boy), by Milton Guasti aka DoctorM64. It was apparently in development since 2006, finally released this year on August 6 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Metroid (and was immediately threatened with legal action and taken down, though it continues to circulate on the internet and isn’t hard to find if you look for it). From what I understand it was highly anticipated, although I only heard of it recently after its release. Honestly, it’s a fantastic piece of work and I cannot find enough good things to say about it; if you have any interest in platform games and Metroidvanias at all, or more specifically the Metroid series, it is definitely worth tracking this down and giving it a try.

The creator somehow managed to combine the best gameplay elements from the 2D games (the visual style and sprites draw heavily from Zero Mission and Fusion), with the worldbuilding and lore of the 3D Metroid Prime series, and while I won’t claim to be an expert on the story and lore of the series, everything they added seems to fit in seamlessly and matches the style very well while fleshing out the Metroid II setting. At the same time, the updated versions of mechanics unique to Metroid II make it feel distinct from those and like its own thing (unlike, say, the myriad Super Metroid romhacks which mostly focus on remixing the level design and could never hold my interest). The music is also fantastic, combining remixes of tunes from the original series (including but not limited to Metroid II itself) and original pieces that fit the tone and atmosphere well.

While it may seem like a small thing to some people, the other thing I absolutely loved about AM2R is that the ending graphics were tastefully and respectfully done. So many of the official Metroid games end up resorting to sexualised images of Samus (see Anita Sarkeesian on “Women as Reward“) in the tradition of showing her outside her suit, which I always thought was disrespectful and untrue to the character. This game chose instead to, while still acknowledging and continuing the tradition, show her relaxing and drinking beer in a realistic pose while reporting on the status of her mission. I also appreciated that they went with the older version of her character design (which I described flippantly to Loten as “more muscles, less boobs”, though that’s actually a serious point, a badass athletic warrior who spends most of her time heavily armoured is not going to look like a 1950s pinup girl). This is how you do it right, game designers; are you listening?

It was that, more than anything else, that motivated me to actually attempt speedrunning the game to qualify for the best ending (most Metroid games do this, the “better” endings – which usually meant Samus removing more clothing and/or posing more sexily, sigh – are given for faster times and better item completion percentages), which was never something I bothered with before. Once again: game designers, are you listening? Feminists like me are more likely to put more effort into playing your game if you make an effort not to be stupidly sexist and objectify your female characters. I’ve already done three full playthroughs – my initial one, 100% on hard mode, and a pathetic attempt at a speed run (2 hours was the time limit for the best ending, I ended up barely managing at 1:59:12 with 67% items). I’m not particularly good at Metroid, but I wanted to pull it off out of appreciation for their treatment of the ending images, and was pleasantly surprised I was able to.

Overall it was an absolutely fantastic experience: it’s immersive and addictive, it’s easy to pick up, and I can’t recommend this game enough if you like the genre. (There were a handful of bugs, including one that was gamebreaking if you had certain graphics cards, but these have been fixed in the 1.1 update.)

Unfortunately, while it is a fantastic game, I can entirely understand why Nintendo were quick to assert their intellectual property rights and have the official download links pulled (though thus far it doesn’t seem like they’re pursuing legal action further than that). The game relies very heavily on Nintendo IP, from game mechanics to setting and lore to many of the actual sprites and visual assets used. And while it’s distributed for free and the creator does not seek to earn profit from it, it’s still beyond the scope of Fair Use laws. Like so many good fanworks, it would be impossible to do a “Fifty Shades of Grey” and file the serial numbers off, it’s far too closely tied to the source material. Transformative works tend to be. (For what it’s worth, the creator himself has encouraged people to purchase the Virtual Console version of Metroid II from Nintendo if they liked this game to show that there is still an appreciation for the series.)


The other fangame that’s been going viral this month is “Pokemon: Uranium Version” or just “Pokemon Uranium” (Official Site, Wiki). This was made by a two-person team and was in development for a similar length of time, something like nine years, and is a very ambitious project. Like AM2R, official download links have unfortunately been pulled after legal threats were issued, but the game can still be found without too much effort.

(I’m playing this one too, so I can have an opinion here, unlike the previous game.)

It’s a standalone Pokemon game, set in an original region with a cast of mostly-original monsters (I counted 34 that are actual official Pokemon, and nine ‘fake’ new evolutions of official pokemon; it contains 200 pokemon in total). It seems to be designed for veterans of the Pokemon series: the game difficulty is significantly higher than especially the recent games, and the ‘fake’ pokemon generally place a bigger emphasis on dual types (including a lot of type combinations that still have yet to exist in official games); I think the selection of monsters in this game looks like what a lot of players always wanted, or may not have realised they wanted. Building a team in this looks like it should be challenging and nuanced.

The good first: this game really looks and feels like a Pokemon game. Aesthetically it’s very pretty, the sprites are well-drawn and colourful (I’m pretty sure the style is based on the “4th generation” Nintendo DS games), and the original ‘fake’ pokemon look like they could fit in naturally with Nintendo’s official offerings. The music is fantastic, again mixing remixes of classic tunes (mostly from the original red/green/blue/yellow games, for nostalgia factor) with original offerings (including original battle themes, which are quite catchy and might be my favourite tracks so far). The creators definitely did their homework. Most of the menus are comfortable and intuitive, despite being original designs rather than lifted directly from the official games (although some of them still need work).

The bad: I said earlier this game was ambitious, and I think it may have overreached a bit. The version currently extant as I write this is 1.0.1, which they claim is a “full release” (there were prior beta versions, which I shudder to contemplate), but the truth of the matter is that it is still quite buggy and feels much closer to an early beta than anything. Now to a certain extent I realise that, in today’s world where “release early, release often” is a dominant software design framework, it’s fair to release something and fix bugs as they appear. And as the creators are only two people and fairly young, it’s harsh to expect a perfect product from the get-go, or bugfixes to come quickly and frequently. But the way this was being talked about and heaped with praise, there was next to no awareness of just how many issues there were, and I do not think there was any beta testing phase at all before they went public with the “full version” (the impression I get is that previous “betas” were demos in which all the content had not been fully implemented, and I don’t want to imagine what those might’ve been like to play). I think I would have been much happier with this game if I’d been able to go into it knowing that.

Also, I see signs of bloated/inefficient coding, perhaps a consequence of the RPG Maker XP engine they built it in: the game is subject to a lot of lag and slowdown in places. This doesn’t help, especially when the natural pace of the game is already quite slow: I think the battle animations in this are even slower than the slowest of the official games, which gets quite tedious at times.

(The lag can be very painful. It can also cause you to run into event flags before you’re ready. And once you realise how buggy and crash-prone the game is, each lag spike is a moment of fear.)

It could be worse; for the most part, the game is playable, and when you’re lucky enough not to run across bugs or lag it really is quite enjoyable. But at the same time, there are a large number of moves and abilities that just don’t work or don’t work correctly, there are frustrating cosmetic issues with several menus and such (some of these have been fixed in an unofficial patch), and there are quite a few game-breaking bugs which can completely ruin your file. I ran afoul of one of these after 12 hours of logged gameplay time and lost everything; suffice it to say that if you’re going to play this, you need to back up your save file regularly. I had just been starting to get into the game when that happened, and it was frustrating enough that I’m seriously considering giving up on it entirely.

It also offers online play – as I said, this game is very ambitious – for trading and some forms of battling, but right now the server(s) are plagued by “hackers” distributing glitched monsters that can corrupt your file. On top of that, the interfaces for all of the online content are among the worst in this game; we found them clunky and awkward to use, though with enough trial and error you can eventually muddle through.

And then there’s the writing. Oy vey.

In fairness, it’s not all bad: they’re attempting a more serious plot than many of the official games manage, which is honestly something that would be nice to see in a Pokemon game if done well. I didn’t get far enough to see how it all played out, but there were some nice touches (such as the opening, in which your character is actually explained as taking a job as the professor’s assistant, which gives a justification for many of the random tasks you’re asked to do). And it was very refreshing to see a gender-neutral/androgynous player character option being given in addition to the typical male and female (I was initially even more impressed that they used ‘they’ pronouns for this character, until I realised that actually they used them for every character so as not to need to rewrite the dialogues. Laziness or inclusivity? You decide!). There are also some genuinely cute nods to the original games, such as a running gag where characters talk about playing the Red and Blue versions (which apparently exist in-universe as a simulation of the real battles that also go on); it’s a tad clunky, but I’ll take it. And there are a couple of fantastic puns in the original pokemon names; we both laughed out loud at Daikatuna, for instance.

We also really appreciated the design of one of the legendary pokemon, Seikamater, which is flavoured as a queen of several related bug pokemon lines, and you have to obtain by killing the previous one (it cannot be captured, though I suppose that might annoy people who think any wild pokemon should be theoretically catchable) and receiving a royal jelly item that will allow you to evolve a juvenile into a new queen. That’s genuinely original and clever, and feels like a good fit for the Pokemon universe. Although we found it strange that they made the queen unable to breed, rather than having it produce juveniles of all three lines as the writing surrounding it suggests it ought to be able to.

On the other hand, oh gods the sexism. The first gym leader scenario is cringeworthy (she’s a former champion who retired to become a gym leader, but doesn’t want to do the job; you have to convince her to return to the gym by getting a house key from her stalker and literally breaking into her home while she sleeps). To be fair, it doesn’t present stalking as a positive thing, but at the same time it came across to me as being played for laughs. Neither of us were amused, to say the least. And it gets worse.

If I wanted to be charitable I’d speculate they were doing this as a nod to the original Red/Blue/etc, where it was also depressingly common, but in any case the vast majority of female trainers you fight talk about stereotypical feminine things (boyfriends, clothes, that sort of thing) in a really cringeworthy way, while the male trainers/NPCs have more varied dialogue (until you get near the beach town, where all of them start talking creepily about how there are “hot girls” everywhere and how attractive the female gym leader is, metaphorically rubbing their hands together about skimpy swimwear, etc). It’s gross. And so far all nine of the rematch trainers I encountered were male, and I’ve read documentation that suggests that trend continues through the entire game. I reiterate: there is apparently not a single female rematch trainer in the entire game. This game has a sexism problem. This game has lots of sexism problems, which is even more disappointing when you consider one of the two creators is female. (Turn on the Farla signal!)

The rival, Theo, is an amalgamation of the worst aspects of rival characters in the official games: the arrogance of Gary/Blue (without his competence to justify it), the irritating hyperactivity of Barry, and the incompetence of Bianca, with a veneer of whiny entitled child to finish it off. It’s incredibly irritating and downright painful to read. In fairness, I think this might’ve been a deliberate writing choice (and if they were trying to annoy the hell out of us they undoubtedly succeeded); I just don’t think it was a good one. Small favours, at least they didn’t make the incompetent moron a girl this time?

(Thus far Theo has been the worst part of the game for me. I haven’t progressed as far as Mitchell has, so outside of the stalking subplot of the first gym I haven’t seen as much sexism yet – it’s a treat yet to come, lucky me – but I want to punch Theo’s creator every time he shows up. The player character is stated to be somewhere around 12-13, and Theo is meant to be at most a couple of years younger than that, but he comes across as 6 or 7 years old and spoiled to boot. He literally cries every time he loses, constantly whines about how unfair everything is, and has terrible pokemon so there’s no challenge whatsoever. He is honestly worse than Bianca, who is definitely the low point of the series.

This has been an issue in every game since Generation One, honestly. Gary is the best rival, without question. He was genuinely difficult. You had to work to beat him. His dialogue acknowledged that you’d won but shrugged it off saying you got lucky and he’s totally going to beat you next time (which he might do). Rivals since then have been getting progressively easier and more one-dimensional and forgettable, to the point where I don’t even remember most of the names of the group of ‘rivals’ in X and Y and the ones that I do remember were bad.)

The originals also benefitted from not having a female rival or player character, honestly, because the sexism in these games is ridiculous. Every female sprite is sexualised, including the trainer classes meant to be young children, to the point where everyone greeted the short-lived trainer customisation in X/Y with OH THANK GOD I CAN WEAR LITERALLY ANYTHING BUT A MINISKIRT AND CROPPED LOW-CUT SHIRT NOW. The dialogue changes more than you’d think when you play as a female compared to a male, and never positively. Mitchell linked to Farla earlier and she’s done a few comparisons.

I’m wandering off the point. Uranium has improved slightly on some of these issues, but one suspects by accident more than design. Some of the sexism vanished because they didn’t create separate dialogue to acknowledge the player’s gender, and I’d like to think this was a conscious choice but I suspect it was lack of resources, given that they found plenty of ways to include it elsewhere. Some sprites are better, though many have just been taken from the originals. And while Theo is weak and one-dimensional, he’s not forgettable, though frankly he ought to be.)

There’s a subplot with the common fanfic device of a prototype “translation system” that purports to interpret what pokemon say into English. Except, conveniently, it only works when talking to specific NPC-pokemon who are plot-relevant or sidequest-relevant, which raises so many more questions than it could possibly answer. I think this device could potentially work in a prose story, where you can craft the story around it and treat every pokemon as a character, but in a game where the player apparently possesses this device and yet cannot use it to talk to your party or any of the random pokemon that attack you in the wild? It’s just an enormous plot hole, and I don’t think you can paper over that with the excuse that “well, it’s a prototype, it doesn’t always work”. I think they thought they were being clever, but this should seriously have been cut, because it wreaks havoc on any sense of immersion.

(You can’t talk to any of the pokemon sprites you encounter in towns either, unless they’re plot-relevant.)

And then there’s the setting, and the ‘radioactivity’ subtheme that’s laced all through this. It’s not all bad, and I’m not completely averse to e.g. theme naming based off the periodic table, but it feels forced in places and you can kind of tell the creators were thirteen when they started working on this. The game adds a “nuclear” type to the Pokemon type chart, which is basically super-effective against everything but itself (and steel, I think; both of those resist it) and weak to everything but itself. (Which also means it will do 4x damage against dual-typed mons, which are the vast majority of things in the game.) It reminds me of nothing else but young children on the playground who are convinced they’re brilliant for adding nukes to rock-paper-scissors and completely trivialising the game balance in the process. But at the same time, gameplay-wise this might actually be interesting (whether or not it’s actually good game design; sometimes bad/unbalanced design decisions on paper still end up making for good gameplay, I’ve thought that for a while).

(If I manage to get through the game without it breaking, or if Mitchell forgives the corruption of his save file enough to start again, we’ll probably do an updated post about how the rest of it pans out. Most of the story is yet to come, I’m not even at the third gym yet.)

So overall, I’m not sure what to say about this game. It’s ambitious and working from some promising ideas, and the good bits are very, very good. But it’s buggy as hell and the writing is problematic in so many places, and I find several of the design choices questionable at best. I’m not entirely comfortable recommending it, but I won’t warn people away either; just go in with your eyes open and don’t let great expectations and hype get the better of you. I do feel a bit guilty being so hard on this game, because I can tell it was a labour of love, the creators are still quite young (from what I understand they’re early twenties now), and there are definitely a lot of good and creative ideas there. It’s definitely better than a lot of fanworks and romhacks I’ve run across, though that’s not necessarily saying much. And perhaps I’m being harder on it because of the contrast with AM2R, which was damned near perfect and happened to come out at the same time; that has occurred to me. I also think I may have been deceived a bit by the insane levels of hype Pokemon Uranium was getting, and felt more let down as a result (in contrast, I went into AM2R with barely any expectations at all, so all the surprises were pleasant).


While I’m at it, over the past few years, there have also been a lot of fan-made games for the Mega Man series. I don’t necessarily want to go into a lot of detail about these, this post is long enough as it is and I wanted to focus on the recent fangames, but quite a few of these are fantastic. There is Megaman Unlimited by “megaphilx”/Philippe Poulin, probably my favourite of them (though also quite challenging and definitely aimed at series veterans), in addition to Megaman: Rock Force, Megaman: Super Fighting Robot, and Street Fighter x Megaman (the last of which was even officially endorsed and supported by Capcom, though ironically it’s by far my least favourite of them). These all are quite faithful to the series and I enjoyed playing them.

In terms of actual writing, I think Unlimited is the most successful, by actually placing itself within the official series and trying to fill in gaps in the storyline; it ends up feeling the most polished to me. Although there’s also something to be said for a game that knows what it is and doesn’t even pretend to care about storyline (for example: why is Mega Man beating up Street Fighter characters? Why are those characters lurking in Megaman-style levels? Because both games were having an anniversary and someone thought it would be fun, of course; it’s not supposed to make sense, so just play the game and don’t think about it). As far as gameplay goes, I think all of these ended up feeling superior to Capcom’s parallel attempt to return to their roots in Megaman 9 and Megaman 10; not that those were bad, but these were better.

Youtuber RoahmMythril (whom I like) has also done Let’s Plays for all of these, if anyone is curious but wants to look before touching.

I think Megaman fangames end up working especially well because the original series was so formulaic (some might say repetitive), which makes them more straightforward to replicate, and by definition the target audience for fangames is the people who liked the original formula. Of course there are still twists to put on it, but I do think that plays a role.


One thing I do find interesting about these fangames is that, while there are a lot of surface similarities to fanfiction, the multi-media nature of video games ends up requiring a lot more to come together to make these things work (e.g. visual aspects, music, level design, etc in addition to worldbuilding/story/writing in general), and to be successful it’s important to be stylistically faithful to the original in all of these areas. So it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that they often fall short in at least one (which seems most often to be writing/storytelling in my experience), and when they don’t it’s usually because they’re made by teams bringing together diverse skill sets. A great deal more work ends up having to go into these things than the average fanfiction, I suspect, but there’s definitely something to be said for fanwork that takes the same form as the original medium of whatever it’s imitating.

It has also been observed in various places (I can’t claim credit for this insight), that by dint of being produced by fans, these kind of games end up being better-attuned to what the fandom of a particular series actually want, and as such are better received by the fandom than official games. It’s especially obvious in the case of AM2R, when there has not been a proper Metroid title since 2007 (excepting the insulting, sexist and demeaning Other M in 2010), or arguably 2004 if you’re talking about 2D titles. Whether that means they are superior to official games is an open question, because appealing to longstanding/hardcore series fans is a very different thing than appealing to a general audience (and not necessarily a good business decision for a company seeking profit), but there is definitely a niche audience made very happy by these which does not tend to be served as well by traditional, commercial offerings.

At the same time, there are obviously legal issues. Even when distributed for free, a fangame which eclipses official offerings and satisfies fans is going to negatively affect the company who owns the IP, because those fans will be less willing to pay for lacklustre official IP (though the same sort of thing can be argued for fanfiction as well). The cultural popularity of many video games may make them feel like public domain, but they certainly are not and there is really no argument to be had against a company that wishes to shut these things down. In terms of maintaining goodwill with their fans, I might argue that (for example) Capcom’s approach of accepting the existence of, and even adopting or endorsing, fanworks is the right strategy, but that cannot necessarily be the only consideration.

So while I think a lot of these are really impressive works that engage well with the source material and provide positive experiences for fans, it’s hard to find fault with the companies for not appreciating them. (Though one could argue that these companies should be trying to learn from them. If your fanbase are gushing over something made by amateurs, your R&D team should be playing them to find out why and perhaps even offering the creators jobs, because clearly they’re doing something you aren’t.)

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in mitchell

 

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