Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

Right. Okay.

Please hold my beer while I go murder the English language! :rofl:

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…which means it does actually rhyme with “bade”, which outside of North America sounds the same as “bad”.

But of course it doesn’t rhyme with “said”, which rhymes with “bed”.

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Thanks for playing and for the review! You’ve given me plenty to think about. I will endeavor to pay closer attention to details like ass-squeezability in the future.

I confess that while writing the game, I consumed a massive quantity of the seminal Swedish doom metal masters, Candlemass. The subject matter of their music rarely matches up with what I wrote, but I’m sure that I was greatly influenced by their dramatic attitude.

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LAKE Adventure by B. J. Best

There exists senseless suffering and death. This is a truth so momentous that we usually cannot bear to think on it. Of course what we want most is happiness. But when happiness is not on offer, we will settle for meaning. Yes, it is terrible that this person died, but …

… they brought it on themselves through carelessness.
… they died for the fatherland.
… their struggle against the disease is an inspiration for us all.
… they will live again in the hereafter.
… that’s what happens in such countries.
… their works live on.
… God had to create the world with the greatest possible diversity.

Any ploy, no matter how desperate, is deemed too bad to use. Anything that allows us to believe

to quote Tennyson, who ends this poem by stating that he is an infant crying for the light, and “with no language but a cry.” Of course that’s a lie. He does have language. Quite a lot of it, in fact. But it is precisely in using this language to set out so clearly the hope we want to have, that he forces us to hear the cry underneath – the cry of knowing that so much walks with aimless feet, that every day, life upon life upon life upon life is cast as rubbish to the void.

There exists senseless suffering and death. A five-year old girl dying from leukaemia. Why? What’s the point? For no reason, and there is no point. Of course what we want most is happiness. During the terrible months that she is in the hospital and that our mother is, quite understandably, mostly with her, we write a nice little game about our sister’s birthday party, a game we can play with her when she comes back home. But she does not come back. And so we settle for meaning. Or rather, we’d love to settle for meaning, but there is no meaning. The fantasy of the birthday party is now hollow. So we change things up; we tell a story about how we punish the bully who mocked her. But that is even more hollow. It cannot fill the gaping hole left by death.

It’s a smart game, LAKE Adventure. When we play old text adventures of the more amateurish type, we are often struck by the meaninglessness of what we are doing, the deadness of the worlds. Whoever programmed them must have thought them cool, but to us it’s just a series of locations, some under-clued tasks, nothing that generates coherence or meaning. To take that experience and connect it to the meaninglessness of death is brilliant. Of course the game meant something to young Eddie. It’s about his friend! It’s about his wish to have a boat just like his friend does! It’s about having fun with his sister again! It’s, a little more darkly and no doubt less consciously, about having his friend experience some hurt by having her be his sister. So the game starts out as meaningful. But then his sister dies, and his friend drifts away, and the game becomes empty. So he adds the bully. And it’s still empty, even more so. So he adds the memories. But they don’t give meaning. They just pose, again and again, the question of meaning. Why did this happen? Why did she have to die? And there’s no answer.

And now what are we to do? And the horrible thing is – there’s no answer to that either. Oh no, B. J. Best is not going to give us closure. We’re not ‘glad that we still have our memories’. We’re not ‘certain to see her again in Heaven’. And we certainly didn’t ‘grow as a person through this episode of sorrow’. There is no sense, meaning, closure. There can’t be, because there exists senseless suffering and death.

I would have liked the game to end after the end of the text adventure. Perhaps even before the futurity sequence, but certainly before our daughter came to get the computer. That “does ancient history matter?” scene was just too obvious about something that the game had made plenty clear. And among the things that become pretty clear is that reliving the past solves nothing; that all of this is still just as bad now as it was before. Nothing has healed.

My favourite lyric poet is Emily Dickinson, and one of the reasons for that is her ability to express this truth, this hard truth, the hardest truth of all. Here is she on the incurability of pain (this is from the middle of ‘I measure every grief I meet’):

It’s presented as a question, but it’s not a question. No, it would not give them any balm. Yes, they would go on aching still, through centuries of nerve. There is no consolation; nor should we want consolation if it were offered to us. For there is senseless suffering and death, and we must, my friends, we must revolt against that, and never accept it.

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Eat the Eldritch by Olaf Nowacki

This game is interestingly similar to Assembly. Both feature Old Gods and weird cultists who are summoning them, and both combine this with a very mundane setting and a main character who just does fairly mundane things. Assembly is brilliant in its use of IKEA instructions as a metaphor for both ritual and puzzle, and its best puzzles are better then those of Nowacki’s game. But Eat the Eldritch is funnier, and perhaps, in the end, that gives it a slight edge for me. (I’ll score them exactly the same, I think, so we’re talking minor differences.)

Eat the Eldritch plays it so cool. As a player, you recognise extremely soon that you’re in a Lovecraftian horror scenario, while the protagonist remains completely oblivious, obsessed with getting a good meal while evidence of the occult piles up around him. Then we literally bump into Cthulhu. But, and this is the brilliant part, the game does not switch to real Lovecraftian horror. We just double down on the idea that we’re a captain of a fishing vessel and our only concern is to get fish sticks. And so we turn Cthulhu into frozen packages that will bring joy to kids all over the world. And our cultist shipmates happily join us. For all we know, the company brought them on board with this exact scenario in mind.

With good writing, a great comedic scenario, and solid puzzles, Eat the Eldritch was a delight. The only thing I didn’t like as much was the dream sequence. It seemed the only thing that didn’t fit the keeping-it-mundane style of the rest of the work, and also involved the only illogical puzzle (which I didn’t manage to solve, precisely because it didn’t fit the tone of the game).

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Kaboom by Anonymous

It’s anonymous. Of course it’s anonymous, although you have to play to the very end to find out why it had to be anonymous. It is a sad thing that this game has to be made, and another sad thing that it had to be made anonymously. “But at least we have the game!” Yeah, well. That’s true, and it’s a fine game, which is very nice to have and be allowed to play. But we know that this niceness pales in comparison to the horror and grief that made the game necessary. And the author knows it; and the game is also about that, in its own small way, at the very end, without being ostentatious about it. Which is exactly right – this game is an apology, and an apology does not want to be ostentatious.

So, we play a stuffed hare, and when we wake up after a nightmare, we find that the little girl who is our mistress is bleeding and in mortal danger. Also, the house is not in a good shape. These two facts, together with the knowledge that the game was translated from Russian, made me guess what was going on almost immediately, so in so far as Kaboom might depend on later revelations to create a bigger emotional impact, it didn’t really work for me. But I’m not sure it needs those revelations.

Our aim is to get people inside the house who can help the little girl. Her parents aren’t responding, so it’s up to us to do something. The puzzles are traditional object manipulation puzzles, not too hard, but made slightly tedious by the fact that the game hasn’t been streamlined very well: we need to click far more often than is necessary, e.g., to reveal room descriptions and to get back to the object we are working on. But thematically, I liked them. We use old toys that have been in the family for some time, and other objects that mean something to these people. It’s a powerful reminder that the physical destruction of a home is also the destruction of meaning. Many of the puzzles also require us to somehow dirty or hurt ourselves – the very first one has us cover our front paws in blood, and we’ll also get glue on ourselves, get burned, and suffer other indignities. We are indeed sacrificing ourselves; but it also seems to me that it is not an accident that the hare, being the fictional character through which the Russian author is living the fantasy of being able to help a Ukrainian girl, starts with bloodstained paws. At the end the hare dreams of being found and cleaned and perhaps given to a new family – but, he thinks, cynically, “Stuff like that only happens in fairy tales.” Forgiveness, cleansing, the restoration of bonds; it is too much to hope for.

The ending sequence is brilliant in another way as well. Strictly speaking, it is only once we hear the rescuers say words in Cyrillic script that the game becomes geographically located. These words are translated for us, except for one: on finding the girl, the rescuers drop the word ‘сиротюка’, which the hare reflects he has never heard before. You cannot find out in-game what the word means. You have to leave the fairytale and go to your online Ukrainian dictionary, and then you learn that, yes, it means what maybe you feared it meant: orphan. Her parents are dead. Of course in fairytales the girl does not get rescued in order to then find out that her parents are dead. But as the very act of having to look up the word outside of the story reminds us: what this story is telling us is very much not a fairytale, but all too fucking real.

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yea, honestly I’m worried about the author, personally I think that this entry should remain an anonymous samizdat, at least for now …

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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Thank you very much for the wonderful review!

I played “Assembly” myself just a few days ago and after 15 minutes I had the strange and cozy feeling that it takes place in the same universe as “Eat the Eldritch”. Like two siblings who are different in many ways and yet very deeply connected. But there are some uncanny parallels too: The screwdriver, for one. For another, they both have a puzzle in which a cable/rope that is tied up in one room has to be pulled through an opening into another room.

(@bkirwi I should add that I think “Assembly” is great!)

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Thank you! I haven’t played yours yet, but as a fan of Wry, I’ve been looking forward to it…

Oddly enough - originally I meant for Assembly’s gods to be whatever the builders of Scandinavia’s megaliths would have believed in, but it turns out very little is known about it. I also tried a version with more Norse-flavored gods, but that ended up being an awkward fit for various reasons too. So I ended up with the current mishmash of Lovecraft and solar cult and spacetime weirdness… a bit syncretic but seems to hang together!

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Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head by The Hungry Reader

After finishing this game, I learned that the title Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head comes from a song by a band called ‘They Might Be Giants’, which was also the subject of an entire interactive fiction collaboration project called Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album. I wonder what the connection is between this band and interactive fiction, given that I have never heard anyone mention it in any other context? Nor can I recall ever hearing their music. I’ve quickly skimmed the band’s Wikipedia page, but it doesn’t answer this question for me. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

Anyway, that is incidental to this review! Because what we are going to do is put our hands in puppet heads. But maybe we should first talk about puppets, because it took me a while to get into the same puppet headspace as the game. When I think of puppets, especially puppets that you put your hand in, I think of classic puppet theatre. It’s Jan Klaassen en Katrijn, Punch and Judy, the Italian commedia dell’arte character cast. Or maybe princes and princesses, dragons and wolves, your classic fairy tale stuff. Now those are not the puppets we will meet in Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head. They are much more elaborate and idiosyncratic. So for a while I was thinking of some of the greatest works of visual art that I know: the puppets Paul Klee made for his son. The first time I was in Bern, visiting the Zentrum Paul Klee, I was blown away by his paintings; but perhaps even more by these incredible puppets. However, I didn’t have an easy time understanding how artistic puppets like these could be the subjects of television series and movies, and a sort of theme park. And then, at one point, the game mentioned the Muppets, and I was like… ah, wait, that’s the kind of puppet I’m supposed to think of. I don’t know the Muppets very well. I know the Swedish Chef Meat Balls sketch, I know there’s a weird muppet called Animal who plays the drums, I know the memes of the two old men who always complain, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Muppets Take Manhattan as a kid. The only muppet I know really well is Kermit the Frog, because he’s a recurring character in Sesame Street – or at least he is in the Dutch version of Sesame Street. And then maybe characters like Bert and Ernie also count, even if they’re probably not from The Muppets? I slept under Bert and Ernie bed sheets when I was a kid, and I could totally see myself as a kid going to a little theme park dedicated to them. Anyway, that seems to be the kind of puppet we are to imagine in this game. It took me about an hour to understand that.

Which didn’t really matter! The strong suit of Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head are the loving and detailed descriptions of the puppets, the conversations you can have with them, and an entire history of how they came to be, who played them, what they were used for, and so on. The author has poured a lot of love into this fictional world, and one easily gets caught up in the enthusiasm. I’m kind of eager to see one of these puppet shows, which is a great sign. Perhaps the number of characters was a little too high; I found that I could keep the seven main puppets straight, but during the epilogue so many people were introduced that I lost my bearings. But that’s a minor complaint. The idea of setting a piece of interactive fiction at an abandoned puppet show is very original, and to execute it with so much care and detail and inventiveness is simply great.

Unfortunately, my experience of this invented world was made far less enjoyable by basic design decisions in the gameplay. The idea is that we explore four buildings in search of puppets. This search is not very engaging: one simply moves through all the rooms and clicks ‘search’ in every room. After a while, we collect a few puppets that can help us solve puzzles, but I believe that only two puppets are actually used this way – one to open certain locks, and one to fix certain machines. This makes the puzzle element extremely trivial: broken machine? Check. Unable to find the right key? Check. There’s no sense of achievement here.

That by itself wouldn’t be so bad, but three other things about the game make exploration and puzzle solving an enormous chore. First, navigation through the world is cumbersome. I haven’t counted it, but going from a room to your van, taking off one puppet, putting on another, and then going back to that room, could easily take you twenty clicks. Not fun. Second, there is an extremely harsh inventory limit of two items (or actually one item, because if you have two puppets you won’t be able to pick up any new ones), which means that you have to move back and forth between your van and the rooms lots and lots of times. Third, all the buildings are haunted by horrifying security puppets which randomly grab you and steal your puppet.

Playing the game basically goes like this. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Search. Go north. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go north. Search. Find and take a puppet. Go south. Go east. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. See a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Still see a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Go east. Go south. Go to exit. Go to Quadrangle. Go to van. Manage puppets. Remove puppets. Wear puppet. Re-choose the puppet you were already wearing. Leave puppet management. Leave van. Go back to Quadrangle. Re-choose building. Enter building. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait… It’s really Not Fun! And it seemed totally unnecessary. Give me a backpack in which I can store the puppets I found, remove the guard horrors, and I would have enjoyed this game so much more.

So Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head makes me a bit sad. There was so much great content, and yet I spent most of my time being frustrated. Maybe we can get a “no enemies” mode post-comp?

To end on a happy note, let me share you this great puppet scene from Sesame Street. Some friends of mine, knowing how much I loved it, once made me a doorbell that played the sound of this video from around 2:39 when somebody pressed the button. One of the best presents I ever got.

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Thanks for the review! I’m sorry the gameplay didn’t work for you, but I had a pretty specific game idiom in mind and it’s really more than just a scavenger hunt!

I’m very glad you liked the characters, even if they’re not your go-to idea of puppetry. I had heard that the Swedish Chef is a huge success in Scandinavia and the Netherlands— it’s very funny to hear it confirmed. Obviously this is all from a very USA-centric perspective, though; Maybe I should have taken more inspiration from Augsberger Puppenkiste?

Anyway, I feel I need to address everyone who has PYHITPH on their list of things to finish and hasn’t done so yet: before you cast your vote, ease up on that undo button! Losing puppets, and getting them back, is a major part of the game! You’re missing out on a lot of content that way!

Maybe, rather than a monster-free edition, I should put out an undo-free edition…

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Oh, that was not a problem at all! It would be boring if everything I read used my go-to ideas of things. :smiley:

Hm… Okay, so let me tell you what would have happened to me if you had made an undo-free edition. I would have played the exact same way, except that I would have used Save-Restore instead of undo, thus only adding to my frustration. I’m not the kind of gamer who can easily bring himself to accept suboptimal outcomes! If I play a shooter, I’m pressing that Quick Save button all the time and restoring immediately if I lose too much health. I probably won’t need all that health. But it’s psychological.

Only two things would get me to explore what happens if I lose puppets. The first is roguelike saving, which makes it impossible to do Save & Restore to get back to earlier situations. But it’s unlikely that that’s what you want for this game. The second is: being shown that losing and regaining puppets is going to be fun. As I experienced Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head, it seemed to hint very very strongly that losing puppets is a bad thing that you need to avoid. You’re told to be careful, the enemies are described as terrifying monsters, on losing a puppet you are not given a hint that it might be possible to regain it… everything suggests that losing a puppet is a bad thing! And so of course I hit undo. Maybe it would be nice if the an early puppet loss is unavoidable, so that the player is always going to experience the search for a lost puppet?

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Tricks of light in the forest by Pseudavid

We’re a 12-year old girl getting up real early to go to the forest alone. Our aim is to find good samples for school and make nice photographs. While we’re not exactly forbidden to go into the forest, we also didn’t exactly ask permission, and it’s clear that our parents are wary of the landscape and don’t want us to turn too far.

Tricks of light in the forest has an interesting, ahem, trick when it comes to navigation: instead of using compass directions, we choose between ‘home’ and ‘forest’. This makes a lot of phenomenological sense. Behind us is the known and safe; in front of us, the unknown and potentially dangerous. It’s one of several ways that the games makes us feel apprehensive about the journey. Sure, it’s a nice walk in a lovingly described environment. We get to feel things, make photos, put pieces of moss in our collection, enjoy a drink from the stream, feel the dead leaves with our bare feet… what’s not to like?

But at the same time, the game gives us hints of danger. Impenetrable fog. Narrow tunnels. Bullet shells on the ground. Warnings by our parents. Noises of some large animal. The success of the game depends to a large extent on balancing these two moods: one of enjoyment, one of apprehension, which together make up the mental state of our protagonist. And I think it works. The player is constantly left guessing as to what is coming, as to what the mood of the piece is, is supposed to be, will turn out to be. Is the disaster with the boar a real disaster? Are monitor lizards really dangerous? Is this world more post-apocalyptic or more solarpunk?

And then we get to a torture and murder cabin, strongly hinted to be a left-over from a time when climate change denying conservatives were killing progressives, and we… don’t really understand what is going on, are happy with finding some earrings (who knows, they could be our grandmother’s, maybe our grandmother was murdered here!) and use the bleach to defeat some lizards. There’s a huge gap between us and the protagonist here; shades of Adrian Mole (where the main irony is that we understand things that Adrian is too young to grasp). But the balance remains. Maybe nothing much happened here. We’ll never find out, not in the game, at least.

An intriguing piece; a mood piece; but it takes a lot of cunning to craft a mood like this.

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My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition by Bez

Watching someone else’s holiday photographs is surely one of the most excruciating activities in the world – and I suppose one of the few blessings of social media is that people now simply put such pictures on their Facebook and you can ignore them. But what it makes it so terrible? Sure, those people and places have no meaning to you. But what’s worse, they have no meaning to them. It’s just some stuff they passed through on their 17-day organised trip through Java and Bali. Maybe they have a few nice memories, maybe there are three good anecdotes to tell, but otherwise, these photos are just patches of light.

It’s different if someone shows you their carefully curated photo album, maybe one of long ago, and tells you why these photos matter. It’s still somebody else’s photos. But by having someone explain their meaning, a little of that meaning can rub off on you. The photos becomes little windows into someone else’s life.

And of course all this is very different from watching a photo exhibition in an art gallery, where the photos themselves must carry the meaning. Vivian Maier is not there to explain her street photography to you; and of course there is nothing to explain, in a sense. She’s just an observer, just like you.

With this classification in mind, we can state that My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition belongs squarely in the second category. Its exhibits are not meaningful in themselves, but also not just random pictures of the world. They are meaningful to Bez, and he is going to talk us through them, explaining each piece, and stringing them together in a narrative about his mental health breakdown and his long, long journey through mental healthcare. It’s very personal. And if at the end it’s still somebody else’s photos (notebooks, stickers, toys, and so on), at least they’ve all been made into little windows that show us Bez’s life.

The period that Bez tells us about was really, really tough. It starts with – some reviewers say a suicide attempt, but I think it was – strong suicidal tendencies. of course we know that Bez didn’t commit suicide, since the game exists, but I was nevertheless glad that the game quickly diffuses some of the tension. This piece is not meant to shock us with big emotions or unexpected horrors. It’s talking to us. It doesn’t want to make us uncomfortable, or comfortable, it just wants to talk us through a period of a life. We get to know something about Bez, and something about how transgender people are treated, and something about how the US health care system works (and doesn’t work, but overall the vibe is relatively positive), and something about Bez’s family… but it’s not a didactic or activistic work. It doesn’t have a message. We’re just here, and Bez is talking to us.

I liked it. It wasn’t super powerful as art; but it wasn’t really trying to be art. It was us being there and Bez talking to us. Showing us some stuff. Giving us an update. Being honest. Some parts are more interesting, others are less interesting, but you know, being interesting isn’t really the point. The point is being real. Creating those little windows, and showing us something of that life.

On a personal note, I’m really glad that Bez is doing all right. I saw a little bit of the despair leading up to this period on Twitter, where we were following each other, and I thought more than once the impotent thought: “I really hope there are some people actually there, with Bez, who can take care of him.” Thank God there were.

And talking about God: the most shocking thing in the piece for me were the early passages where one of the reasons that Bez doesn’t commit suicide is a fear of Hell. I mean, I’m really glad they didn’t commit suicide. If the fear of Hell had that effect, thank God for the fear of Hell. But in every other respect: let’s all get rid of this most evil, most depraved, most horrible of all thoughts that human beings have ever had: the idea that a good and loving God would create a place of eternal punishment. It’s an affront to God (and I feel this even though I don’t really believe in God), an affront to man, and an affront to logic. I highly recommend the book That All Shall be Saved by David Bentley Heart, a respected Christian theologian. In the meantime, here is George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, on what a blessed person in Heaven would do if there were still someone in Hell:

Which, shorn of the theology, seems a pretty good message to take from My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition, even if we are all so limited in the performance of this universal duty.

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Like the George MacDonald quote!

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I think this topic is now public? Enjoy the reviews. :slight_smile:

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Is it? The private forum is opened after the comp?

Then I won’t post something that was intended to be very private…

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No, I specifically asked the moderators to move my topic to the public part of the forum! (And I announced that I would do this in the first post of this topic.)

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Oh thank God. I noticed this thread unread and had a moment of existential vertigo - “how did I miss AN ENTIRE REVIEW THREAD???”

So, now MORE backlog.

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From what I’ve seen of the reviews, I would hazard the guess that nobody found out how to get puppets back. There seemed to be two classes of players: ones who (like Victor and I) used undo or save/reload to avoid getting puppets stolen, and ones who lost puppets and never got them back.

As a game design thing, Victor’s already talked about how everything in the game pushed you to view ‘losing puppets’ as a terrible thing that must be avoided. But if you wanted people to lose and regain puppets, I think it would be necessary to put ‘losing and regaining a puppet’ on a critical path through the game. As a random brainstorm: a room that always had a guard in it, who only left you alone to do something in that room if it had stolen a puppet from you. And then, I dunno, a room after that where you needed that puppet again?

It would be tricky, and I actually feel like the game most people played where they assumed stolen puppets were lost forever, was a perfectly fine game! But maybe something to keep in mind for your next game?

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