Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

INK, by Sangita V Nuli

In one or another of my reviews, I think I’ve said that what I’m generally trying to do here is look at what a game seems to be saying, then engage with that somehow; depending on the work, that might mean analyzing whether or how the game meets that goal, or talking about my personal response to the questions it raises, or whatever seems most interesting or productive to talk about. But that’s the starting point: what is the author and/or game getting at?

Where things get difficult for me is when I finish a game and I’m not sure how to answer that question. Sometimes the general gist is clear, but there’s something about the implementation that muddies things up, so that’s a reasonable jumping off point. And sometimes what’s being communicated is mostly just: this is a game, have fun with it. That’s fine too! But INK represents the most challenging category; I get the themes the author is working with, and some of how the game folds, spindles, and mutilates them through its interactivity makes sense to me. But the different pieces are stubbornly failing to come into focus for me, and I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a reflection on the work, or on the reviewer (who, having just had a flu shot, is maybe having a hard time getting anything to come into focus right now). I suppose there’s nothing for it but to jump in and describe how I experienced the game, but apologies if this review winds up even less edifying than is typical.

Starting with the basics, INK is the author’s second entry in the Comp, after U.S. Route 160 – props for industriousness! – but the focus on loss (EDIT: I previously also said they both used Texture, but my memory was playing tricks and U.S. Route 160 is actually a Twine game. Thanks @mathbrush!), the two strike me as fairly different. For one think, INK invokes poetry more than prose in how it presents its words. For the most part there are complete sentences, and only a few rhymes, but line breaks make the reader pause and engage with the writing in a slower way:

Everyone talks about starting over
but it’s all fluff and no detail
nothing about the process of
rewiring your brain

As this excerpt indicates, the story is all about a protagonist coming to grips with the death of a loved one – I believe it’s a romantic partner, but I could be misremembering whether the possibility of a family member or friend is left open. In fact the game is short on specifics – who the protagonist is, where the action is taking place, even what happened to the dead woman – which usually I dislike, but wasn’t as much of a barrier as usual for me here. That’s because while the narrative may be vague, the mental and emotional contours of the protagonist’s grief are drawn with firm assurance. The above-quoted bit rings extremely true to me, and there’s a later scene where you attend a support group that also hits hard:

You don’t look anyone in the eyes
It’s easier to pretend there’s no one listening
But the words are scraped out
And suddenly you can’t stop
You’re telling every anecdote you can find
About the wildflowers she’d find
The little flecks of green in her eyes
How she was the purest kind of kind
She lives again in the pauses between breath

The game’s inciting incident is also strong, and similarly seems to me to say something true about the experience of losing someone. The protagonist is haunted by a letter that she thinks her dead loved one wrote to her before she died; she catches glimpses of it, finally finds it at a park bench that was special to the two of them, then brings it back to her home and gives it pride of place on the mantle while deciding whether or not to read it. It’s a potent image for what we carry of those who’ve passed on before us – in the author’s notes for my last game, I talked about the joys and sorrows of having a mental model of one’s predecessors still rattling around one’s brain – and also resonates with the more concrete hope that there’s something, anything left of your dead loved one that can still speak to you, share a new word, so that the relationship isn’t completely and eternally finished.

The envelope isn’t just an envelope, though. It’s printed with a dark, menacing ink that bleeds through the paper and infects the protagonist’s thoughts, before eventually becoming concrete in a distorted image of the dead woman who takes up residence with the protagonist. This fantastical twist provides the spur for interactivity, as there are quite a lot of choices and quite a lot of branching. You can accept help or wallow in self-pity, you can resign yourself to your new living situation or try to reject the inky double.

And I confess, here’s where the game lost me, because I started to lose track of the metaphor. Is this about having one’s life taken over by the memory of your loved one, so you can’t move forward and engage with those who are still living? If that’s the case, wouldn’t the double have positive qualities that lure you away from the present, instead of the twisted parody that’s actually presented? And the endings also diverge, from resigning yourself to the horrible situation, to trying but failing to escape it, to become an ink creature yourself; again, I had trouble unpacking how to relate the incidents of the plot to the emotional core that gave the first half of the game its power.

I repeat, this could just be me being dull and suffering from flu-shot side effects – so I’m underconfident offering an assessment or any feedback on how the game could have worked better for me. I will tentatively say that I think there might have been a bit too much choice, and a bit too much openness to the narrative. There’s a thin line between an allegory that’s too obvious and one that’s too diffuse, but when you’re tapping into something as elemental as INK is I think there’s more upside to marshalling one’s powers and pushing for the catharsis or resolution that seems most fitting, rather than frittering away momentum on too many different dendrites of story. Again, though, this could be wrong and if I’d played the game in other circumstances I might have thought it held together beautifully. At any rate, while it didn’t completely land for me, the well-observed depiction of mourning and evocative central image mean that I still found INK a rewarding experience.

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Route 160 uses the Twine engine, making these two games even more different. I wouldn’t have thought they were by the same author, so I’m glad you pointed that out!

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Oh, for the love of – thanks for the correction. I can’t even blame this on the flu shot, I had in my head that Route 160 was Texture due to the similarities between it and Chase the Sun, and @StJohnLimbo’s comment above about all the Texture games coming from the same workshop and that maybe being an explanation for the overlap in themes; my brain elided that the connection was based on INK being in Texture, not Route 160. I’ll make an edit!

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Hey! Thanks so much for this review, I really appreciate it. I loved reading it, very useful, and some great lines in there. Loved the line about ‘who does have that in their comfort zone?’, haha! You raised some great points throughout it for me to address. And thanks for adding the EDIT, where you mentioned it had some zip in its step! Thank you again!

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Your mention of the “Brechtian” review pointed me to Arno von Borries. That in turn reminded me that I still have Gotomomi on my ever more leaning to-play stack.

Thanks for the reminder. I enjoyed your story about your Brechtian flash of insight and your experience of watching anime out-of-context.

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Traveller’s Log, by Isaac (or possibly Null Sandez)?

The ur-philosophy of video games was surely Existentialism. Regardless of whatever thin veneer of plot was spangled across the decals of early arcade cabinets – Space Invaders, Asteroids, what have you – in practice the player found themselves in an endlessly repeating world, set to some cryptic task that would finish only when their patience, or quarters, ran out, the myth of Sisyphus transformed by the alchemy of late capitalism from a punishment to an amusement. True, the ever-increasing score in the top corner provided some indication that progress was possible, but assigning meaning to an arbitrary number surely takes an act of will – and while, as overclocked apes, we’re wired to be susceptible to the draw of competition, even Camus couldn’t have come up with a vision of conflict more absurd than vying over a Pac-Man high score table. And even video games’ nerdier cousins weren’t especially different: the early treasure hunts of Adventure and Zork are just more score chases, albeit with gestures towards genre tropes to provide a bit of texture. The player is nothing but the sum of their choices, starting with the choice to assign a value to success at all.

We’ve gotten better at evading this dynamic over the years – with strategies ranging from leaning into the competition angle, drawing meaning from imagined dominance, to cloaking fundamentally empty, endlessly-abnegating gameplay in ever-more-elaborate narrative disguises, and maybe every once in a while creating something that can stand alongside the best music and novels and films in claiming to get as close as possible to inherent significance as anything can in this fallen world. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, scratch the surface, and we are confronted with absurdity.

To bring this around to the point: one must imagine Sisyphus happy, sure, but after playing fifteen minutes of Traveller’s Log I’m definitely not.

What we’ve got here is an RNG-heavy RPG, implemented in Python, with as far as I can tell no goals, plot, or characterization beyond a randomly-generated backstory that wins points for silliness but has no bearing on the game itself:

You are impulsive, precise and mysterious.
You are a dragon
Your name is Zureom.
You were born and grew up in a fairly rich family in a normal village, and lived happily until you were about 4 years old. But, at that point, your life changed drastically.
You lost your parents when they left after a government takeover and are now alone, miserable and abandoned.
You now have to survive in a rough world, filled with magic and mystery.

Hopefully dragons age in like dog’s years, or Zureom’s enemies could bring their adventures to an untimely end with one call to Child Protective Services.

You’re set loose into one of half a dozen different regions, with the options to “walk” – which basically means trawling for encounters – trade with some invisible, omnipresent merchants, or try your luck in a randomly-picked different region. Random encounters can be with foxes, who just provide a bit of atmosphere, handleless doors that can’t be opened, treasure chests that alternately provide a couple coins or kill you without explanation, inns that don’t do anything, and two different kinds of fights: against bandits, that never give any reward, or against the game’s one monster, a “snadwick”, which I kept misreading as sandwich maybe because I was hungry. Death has little sting, since you instantly respawn, though this sometimes will zero out your accumulated riches – that’s what brought my most successful run to an end, with 49 coins vanishing into the ether because I typed “s;ash” instead of “slash” when I attempted to attack a monster (you need to type full commands, as far as I could tell).

There’s a little more to the game than I’ve outlined – there’s a labyrinth region where you can unlock successively deeper levels, though they all seem to behave exactly the same, and there’s a map that allows you to choose which region to warp to. I also did a little bit of source-diving, and seems like some characters are born with the ability to wield magic (so much for existence preceding essence) which enables them to use spells to open those unopenable doors and occasionally zap baddies. But there’s nothing that changes up the basic mechanical gist of the gameplay – wander around, slash baddies (well, baddy), get a couple coins, repeat and repeat. As a demonstration of Sartre’s conceptualization of anguish, it’s gangbusters – and, to speak seriously for a moment, it’s competently programmed enough that the author does have the spine of what could turn into a solid RPG once more variety, story, and engagement points are added. But as is, it would take more nous than I’ve currently got handy to choose to push this particular boulder up this particular hill any longer.

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Let Them Eat Cake, by Alicia Morote

Let Them Eat Cake lulls you in with a premise that echoes the cozycore vibe of games like Stardew Valley – you’re an apprentice baker tasked with gathering the not-at-all-exotic ingredients to make a cake for a village festival in your new home. The aesthetic is homey as well, with text that unfurls across a background that remind me of my grandma’s old recipe cards, and the portraits of your various neighbors depicted in an appealingly ugly-cute style.

It doesn’t take long for things to curdle, though, since this Twine game isn’t so much folksy as folk horror. The most benign of the villagers is the one who did in her daughter’s fiancé with rat poison; it’s best not to pry into what the farmer’s prizewinning pigs have been eating to make them grow so fat; and the vibes in the mill were so bad I just noped my way out of there before figuring out the exact flavor of wrong that was going on there. It sure seems like your master has got some secrets too, and who knows what really goes on at the festival…

Well, I don’t, I have to admit, since I ran into a bug that saw me stuck in a time loop after bringing the ingredients back to the baker; he told me to make some butter, I did that and poked around the bakery, then the link to gather the ingredients together reset me back to the beginning of the scene, locked into an endless repetition that was horrifying enough but not, I think, what the author intended. Indeed, while the game nails the vibe, it’s in need of some polish beyond just bug-fixing. The prose is evocative, but has lots of typos and is occasionally awkward:

The farm is run down, as you might begin to wonder that every part of this small, hidden town is. It’s hidden, tucked away so small that it doesn’t register on any of the local maps you’ve seen, but the merchants seem to know where it is.

With that coat of polish, I think this could be a fun, scary game – the contrast between the twee presentation and brutal reality is entertaining, and each of the little vignettes was engaging, with choices that invited me to push my luck (though admittedly the fact that I’d died and restarted a couple times by the time I hit the endless-butter bug, reducing my desire to try the whole thing yet again – since there are so many endings, many of them appearing to be bad ones, enabling undo would probably have been a good idea). So I’ll keep an eye out for a post-Comp release, as I don’t think I’ve yet had my fill.

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To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1, by Anthony O

This is the last of the Texture games in the Comp, and I have to say, up until now part of me has been playing these games thinking to myself “wouldn’t this have worked better in Twine instead?” the whole time. I’m hopefully not too narrow-minded about platforms, but much of the time, I feel like the games haven’t done much with the unique aspects of Texture – like exploiting the built in “verb”/”noun” functionality the interface enables, instead of just allowing one or two choices per passage that would work better as simple Twine-style links – while suffering from the somewhat awkward way the drag-and-drop thing works on a touchscreen, or the way the lack of a scrolling feature means text shrinks as passages get longer. Finally, though, here’s one that takes advantages of the affordances!

The whole of To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 is played via a telephone interface, as a depressed protagonist navigates an interminable, hostile phone tree in search of a flicker of hope. This is another of those short games that eschews plot or characters in order to focus on presenting an allegory for what it’s like to experience a mental health challenge – like Nose Bleed, which I reviewed earlier – and I think this one works. For one thing, the slight irritation of trying to drag the “press” button onto the small numbers representing the different options fits the mood of frustration to a T, and the juxtaposition of these “press” options with the constantly-available hang-up option reflects the omnipresent temptation to just stop trying in the face of so many barriers.

Your exploration of the various options turns up surprises, too, so while the game is basically one-note, it doesn’t feel monotonous. You have an option to switch languages to Polish, for example, which rewrites many of the possible choices into that consonant-heavy language; similarly, the organization you’re on hold with is the Agency of Neverending Happiness and Clearing Out Monsters From Under Your Bed, and fruitlessly attempting to chase down information related to the second part of that mandate was entertaining. You can try to speak with an operator – but of course no one ever answers, you’re just stuck listening to the same annoying musical-hold tune over and over, until it starts to drive you mad. Or you can leave a voicemail, but the system never seems to understand your message.

These are all about how hard it is to escape from depression, of course: you try to reach out, but it feels like there’s nobody there for you, or they’re talking a foreign language. And if you do get someone to listen, you can’t explain yourself in a way that will make them understand (plus, despite how it might sometimes feel, you can’t find a monster to blame; it’s just you, and your broken brain-chemistry). The allegory isn’t especially subtle, but each bit of the phone tree is fleet enough not to outstay its welcome, and none of them are trying too hard to be coy, so overall it worked for me.

What worked less well was the endings – or basically ending, since in all of them the protagonist finally has to hang up, defeated, reflecting that despite all their efforts “everything is the same as it was. And everything is as sad as it’s always been.” Having there be no escape or positive solution is a valid, albeit downbeat choice, but since the game is entirely focused on the phone call and doesn’t set up the protagonist’s negative feelings outside of having to deal with the frustrating stuff they’re hearing on the line, I experienced a mismatch between their feelings and my own – hanging up felt like a relief to me since I didn’t have any context for the baseline unpleasant existence the protagonist must be living.

I think the game would have been stronger if it had laid more of this groundwork, but at the same time, it might have diluted the purity of the concept. Anyway if the worst thing I can say of a game that takes five or ten minutes to play is that while what it did was good, I wanted it to do some additional stuff too, well, that probably means it’s a success, even if there’s space for deeper explorations of the premise.

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I signaled the butterbug (surely there must be a beetle with this name in nature?) in my review after I encountered a variation to what you describe on my playthrough.

In my case, the option to make butter (and the whole scene around it) kept coming up in the menu after I had already churned the butter. I was free to make other choices and progress though.

Maybe something went wrong in trying to squash this bug that made it worse?

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Zero Chance of Recovery, by Andrew Schultz

It’s a funny coincidence that the Comp randomizer picked the alphabetically-last game as the final one in my queue (as mentioned in the first post of this thread, I’ve been skipping over the ones I’ve tested and will review those later). Zero Chance of Recovery is a nice bit of comfort-food to end on, too. I’ve played and enjoyed Andrew Schultz’s three previous IF chess puzzles, with his endgame-focused entry in this year’s ParserComp, You Won’t Get Her Back, being my favorite of the trio. The present game is quite similar to that one: again, there are only a few pieces on the board – in this case, white and black each have a king and pawn apiece – with the outcome hinging on pawn promotion. And again, the presentation and interface are very slick, with multiple options for how best to display the chessboard (there’s also a screen reader mode), intuitive syntax for how to direct your pieces, and a host of help screens to orient you to the challenge.

One point of difference from the earlier game is that You Won’t Get Her Back actually boasts three different scenarios, based on the different strategies the black side can adapt – roughly, whether it prioritizes moving its own pawn down the board, threatening your pawn, or striking a balance between the two. This initially wrong-footed me, as black’s freedom of movement meant I wasn’t sure why it was making some choices instead of others, but it only took a little bit of trial and error to work out a potentially viable approach; once I solved the first scenario, the others were significantly easier, which was satisfying since it felt like I’d figured something out!

There’s a final bonus challenge, too, which ties in with the conceit of the plot, because just as in Schultz’s earlier chess games, there is a story here. This time out it’s a rather slight thing, with an inciting incident where your king is waylaid by mercenaries hired by black, providing the justification for the whit king starting off on the far side of the board. It works well enough to set up the action, but I confess it wasn’t as engaging as the political satire of the Fivebyfivia and Fourbyfourian games, or the unexpected relationship pathos of You Won’t Get Her Back – these narrative riffs are fairly superfluous to the core mechanics of the puzzle, I suppose, but I missed the extra allegorical heft they provided to the initial trio. For all that, the writing here continues to be well-done and entertaining, hitting a breezy tone that provides some well-considered nudges in the right direction, and boasts a surprising level of detail (the descriptions of the different pieces shift depending on where you are and what they’re doing, which is delightful).

My only other complaint is that the aforementioned bonus challenge did stymie me – I’d made one assumption based on the hints the game was giving, but managed to get the wrong idea entirely (I understood that I needed to “cheat” by getting the black king in trouble with the mercenaries, who he was only going to pay once the black pawn promoted – but I thought that meant that I needed to prevent the pawn from promoting so that the angry mercenaries, cheated of their pay, would go after the opposing king. Instead, you’re supposed to let the pawn get promoted, but only then take the queen and force the draw; the idea is that only in those circumstances does the king need to pay up). It’s plausible enough once I knew the trick, and provides a fourth distinct way of getting to stalemate, but for whatever reason it just didn’t click, robbing this one of the “aha” moment I felt in some of the other games.

I’ve spent a lot of time comparing Zero Chance of Recovery to those previous three games in this review, because there really isn’t anything else like it and because it’s very much of a piece with those. But for all that I’d say it’s my least favorite of the now-quartet, I still enjoyed playing with it – the high production values and attention to detail make it fun to fiddle one’s way through the puzzle, and as I said at the top of the review, it very much felt like comfort IF, as though I were sinking into a warm bath at the end of the Comp.

zero chance mr.txt (78.0 KB)

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And that is the lot, save for the nine games I tested! I’ll write those up too, with a level of detail somewhere between quick impressions and a full review – I find it hard to do in-depth critical analysis of games I’ve tested since my first experience of the game was a very self-conscious one where I was usually trying to break things, and it’s challenging to set that aside and re-engage with it in its new final form wearing the critic’s rather than tester’s hat. But I’ll do my best to tease out what’s interesting about this last set of games, especially since there are some great ones on this list.

After that I need to decide whether to go back to my Cragne Manor thread, or swap over to doing at least some EctoComp reviews – decisions, decisions…

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Congratulations on reviewing and/or testing everything in the Comp!

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Congratulations on such a Herculovean achievement!

no, this isn’t going away, not for a long while…

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Congratulations on completing another great review thread! It was wonderful to hear your insight, wit, and ebullient candor on such a wide array of experiences. I appreciate all the hard work and passion that went into this.

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Amazing, Mike! And wonderful.

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Thanks all for the kind words! It’s really appreciated, as I’ve really enjoyed the reviews y’all have written too and they’ve been great motivation for me to up my game :slight_smile:

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Just catching up. I misread this at first as “porno horror story” and was like HOW MUCH OF HOUSE OF LEAVES DID I SKIP??

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Well there is the whole “longest unzipping of my life” bit with Gdańsk Man’s girlfriend, which later got turned into an incredibly awkward sexy music video by Poe (awkwardly so because she’s the author’s sister - I actually came to HoL via her album about the same themes, Haunted, rather than vice versa).

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Thanatophobia, by Robert Goodwin

(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)

There are various origin points for what we’ve come to call IF – Adventure, most obviously, but you can also trace choice-based games back to the print Choose Your Own Adventure series and its own early-20th-Century antecedents, and Aaron Reed defensibly started his 50 Years of Text Games series with the initial, purely-text versions of Oregon Trail. There is an eccentric uncle in the attic nobody really likes to talk about, though – or rather, aunt, since I’m speaking of the chatbot ELIZA. Viewed now as little more than a parlor trick – though how could it have been anything else, given the hardware constraints at its 1960s inception? – AI tech is finally catching up to the possibility of having a computer that can engage in a dialogue with you, even if the Turing Test is in no danger of falling anytime soon. So it makes sense that authors are now attempting to re-cross the streams and make a chatbot into a game, rather than something for pre-teen boys to feed dirty jokes into.

Of the runs at this idea that I’ve seen, Thanatophobia seems the strongest. I’m not equipped to evaluate the back-end of what makes it feel reasonably responsive, but there are some design parameters that are cannily set up to paper over the inevitable infelicities that will come up when trying to speak English to a robot. For one thing, the interlocuter character is set up as someone disoriented and not in their right mind, so the occasional odd interjection doesn’t seem too mimesis breaking. For another, the game’s built around a mystery with several pieces, so it’s less likely the player will spend so much time on one topic or area that they start trying increasingly-odd questions or statements. The author’s also done a good job of fleshing out various non-essential bits of backstory so that there’s room for the player to explore without quickly seeing the difference between the hand-tuned, critical path content and generic chatbot oatmeal.

The story being told here isn’t especially novel – there’s a little bit of a twist, but plumbing an allegory to discover someone’s hidden trauma is well-trod territory in IF by this point, albeit it does act as a clever homage to the psychoanalyst-aping roots of the chatbot conceit. And the characters inhabit well-worn archetypes without doing much to distinguish themselves. But for a formal experiment, keeping the narrative tame is probably the right call. Similarly, while the expected chatbot-friction is reduced, it’s definitely still there – but I do wonder how much of that would be smoothed if there were more uniform player expectations about how to interact with such things, much as there are by now for traditional parser games.

All told I found Thanataphobia a success, perhaps more intriguing for the directions it points to than for what it accomplishes in itself, but an entertaining way to spend an hour nonetheless.

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Interesting. I agree with what you say about Fallen London (which I was never able to get into), but I didn’t have the same experience with the William Dooling games (Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines). For me, the problem with getting ‘a hidden secret’ in Fallen London is that the game’s prose consistently hints at some meaning that will soon be revealed to you… and then doesn’t deliver. It’s always being mysterious and coy and full of the promise of revelation, and then it doesn’t follow through. Being given a ‘hidden secret’ item then feels like they added insult to injury.

With Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines, on the other hand, the items are in a sense just the treasures at the end of the pirate adventure. Nobody cares about the treasures. (No readers; only the characters do.) We care about the adventure itself. Dooling’s games unapologetically bill themselves as pure adventure, and they never hint at a narrative pay-off that then fails to materialise.

(Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies fall somewhere between these two groups, I think, but I can enjoy them because of the relaxing sailing that breaks up the narrative parts.)

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