Another Set of Choices

by Dan H

Dan displays unusual loyalty for a Ferretbrain reviewer
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We have a bit of a tradition here at Ferretbrain. We like to encounter things, squee like crazy over them, then come back to them a little while later and decry the fact that they went shit.

A little while ago I reviewed the debut outing(s) of Choice of Games, an indie game company which manages to be completely unpretentious. I'm seriously not sure how they manage it, I suspect it involves corrective surgery. They've released two more new games since my last review, and have published several more fan-creations.

Having been burned by Popcorn, Soda … Murder? I decided to give the fan creations a miss and go straight to the official games.

These games were Choice of Romance (a multiple choice court intrigue game) and Choice of the Vampire (a multiple choice vampire game, duh).

I played through both with Kyra, and we both thought Choice of Romance was brilliant, while we found Choice of the Vampire to be rather less so.

As ever, spoilers abound!

Choice of Romance

Choice of Romance is a game of courtly intrigue set in a fantasy kingdom with a vaguely Italian feel. You play a member of a noble family, heir to some small land, some small income, and some small magical power (it's one of those “all the nobility are mages” settings).

Like most Choice of... games, it's pleasingly non gender- and non hetero- normative. You get to pick whether you play a male or female character, and whether your character is homosexual or heterosexual and much as with choice of broadsides, the norms of the setting flip to match your character's gender and orientation. Even more interestingly, unlike Choice of Broadsides, which regendered its setting to allow a female protagonist to play in the masculine-defaulting sphere of swashbuckling adventure, Choice of Romance regenders its setting to allow male protagonists to engage in the female-defaulting sphere of securing social and political advancement by making an advantageous marriage.

This last point is one of the most striking things about Choice of Romance. One of the largest but least visible manifestations of sexisim in the games industry is the way in which video games focus on the fields of endeavour traditionally dominated by men (war, sport, more war) and ignore those traditionally dominated by women. Of course this is in large part because gamers of both sexes like to blow things the hell up, but it's also because narratives focusing on women and the spheres associated with women are considered boring, so it's remarkably interesting to see a game which not only focuses on court intrigue from a feminine perspective, but gives you the option to do it with a male protagonist.

What really sold me and Kyra on this game was a scene about ten percent of the way in. We had started off fairly so-so. Okay, we're a noblewoman. Okay, we're going to court. Okay, we've defined our sexual oritentation (we were a lesbian by mutual acclamation). Then we got asked to take part in a masque. It turned out that somebody had dropped out, and we were to play the part of Virtue in a masquerade representing the triumph of Perseverence and our job was to be rescued from a tower by the hero (or rather heroine, since we had chosen the non-heteronormative setting). Hang on, we thought. This sounds a bit familiar.

Then we were told that on the night of the actual performance, the role of Perseverence would not be taken by the young lady we had rehearsed with, but by the Queen herself.

Hang on, we said, this sounds very familiar.

It was at that point we realised that we were playing a lesbian wizard Anne Boelyn.

Suddenly we realised how clever the game had been. Without telling you anything more than that you were a noblewoman (or nobleman) going to court to find an advantageous marriage, the game had put you into the shoes of one of the most famous women in English history without even realising what you were doing (and again, remember that the game gives you complete control of your gender and orientation so it's entirely possible that you could be playing Anne Boelyn as a man which feels strangely subversive). Suddenly everything started to slot into place, the brash combative queen whose sole heir was illegitimate, our ambitious uncle who kept encouraging us to cultivate the queen's affections, the poor but ardant young suitor who kept writing us poetry.

You didn't need to understand anything about the history to play the game, but if you did everything fell together into this fantastic “aha” moment which was genuinely delightful. I was even more pleased when we managed to discredit the King-Consort by playing on the queen's frustrations at his inability to provide her with an heir.

We got the crown, by the way.

Mechanically, Choice of Romance returns to the simpler style of Choice of the Dragon. You have six stats, Booksmart, Charm, Subtle, Magic, Wealth and Reputation, which are easy to track and relatively straightforward to work with. We were big on Subtlety but weak on magic, and our reputation tanked early on because we were rather above ourselves. The stripped down system made it easy to see where you were going and what you were doing, and we always felt very in control of the game.

The only real downside to Choice of Romance is that it's a “part one”. Perhaps I'm not giving the Choice of... crew enough credit, but since the company is not (last time I checked) a full time job for any of them I don't really expect them to keep to anything like a release schedule, and on a more practical note I don't quite see how they expect you to import your old game information into the sequel.

Basically what you get in the game is the first season of the Tudors. Once we'd worked out who we were (or who we were based on) we stuck to the script, as it were, fairly closely, and we had the crown by the end. Presumably the challenge from here is to avoid getting beheaded, but the game finishes before you get that far. The ending feels a little abrupt, but abrupt endings seem something of an occupational hazard with these sorts of games (I found that Broadsides had the most satisfying denoument) and I still thought that Romance was their best outing yet.

Choice of the Vampire

Interestingly I got an invitation to the beta for this one (didn't get one for Cataclysm, but I got one for this) and so I actually played it through a couple of days before release. I wasn't entirely sold, although I did go back and try a couple of different pathways, and there are some interesting differences early on.

I then asked Kyra to play through it with me. She … umm … hated it so much she made us stop halfway.

As you might remember from our Edinburgh podcasts, Kyra and I have something of a mantra for things we don't like but don't consider to be irredeemable piles of putrified bat intestines, which is “Well at least it wasn't as bad as Shafted.” Choice of the Vampire is not as bad as Popcorn, Soda … Murder, and I am willing to accept that a lot of what I thought was iffy and Kyra thought was unplayably terrible about it comes down to questions of personal preference, but here at Ferretbrain we generally like to lay out in great deatil why we think our personal preferences are right goddamn it.

Let's start with the writing. The writing in the previous three games has been simple, clear and to the point. It hasn't been remarkable prose of mind expanding beauty, but it's been sharp, witty, and got the job done. The writing in Choice of the Vampire is … well … to say it is more ambitious would be euphemistic. It's laboured, it's overwritten. It never chooses to express itself in a manner which could be considered precise, direct or succinct if it can instead employ some florid, flowery, or redundant turn of phrase which uses nine, ten or even eleven words where one or two would be entirely sufficient.

For example, when you start the game you are given a choice of potential “Makers” (or “dominuses” as they are later called). Here is how your memories of that first meeting are described:
You remember his gaze--bypassing your skin and your sex as being irrelevant--eating its way through to your soul. You know that in the world, these things are not irrelevant, and yet he judged you on some criteria which you could neither perceive nor understand... and when he was done, he spit you out again, altogether lessened by the experience.

Now again I should say that this is a question of personal preference, and some people have actually praised the writing for “creating a sense of alienation” - so perhaps the writer is doing something I just don't get, but to me that whole thing just looks clunky and inarticulate. It mixes its metaphors (“eating through” does not sit naturally alongside “spitting out” despite their shared oral component) it repeats itself, it's heavy handed. Gah.

I think Kyra gave up at about that point.

It then gets you to pick your gender, whether your dominus chose you for teh sexxorz or for some other function, and then gets to the “character creation” questions, where you explain what was unique about you that attracted the vampire's attention. You get a large number of different background options here, the exact choice varying depending on your choice of gender, dominus, and whether they wanted you for sex or assistance which is an admirable flexibility but comes at the expense of both clarity and – paradoxically – of player choice. Why, after all, should your choice to play a particular type of character be contingent on your having chosen a particular dominus? It creates the impression that the designer is more concerned with the consistency of his creation (apparently there are only three possible tasks which he feels “West” could want a woman for, for example) than with giving the player the freedom to create their own story.

One of the biggest flaws of Choice of the Vampire is what seems to be an unwillingness to let the player experience the game for themselves. The text is constantly telling you how you feel and what you think about things. When you are given a choice those choices often either feel, or turn out to be, purely cosmetic.

Worse, it puts words into your mouth, and does so with such frequency that there is always a sense of the game being played for you. For example, your behaviour towards your maker is consistently polite and subservient, there are long, non interactive scenes in which you interact with your maker in a subdued, subservient manner, acquiescing to all of his demands and calling him by his full title as he requests, with no option to challenge his authority or show him disrespect. This goes on for long enough that by the time you finally get the option to choose your own reply (“I am ever your servant” or “I have better things to do”) the defiant option simply feels inconsistent with the character that has been presented to you.

The whole thing has the difficult feel of a not-very-well-run Vampire: the Masquerade campaign. There is always a sense that player agency is limited to defining things about their character, and even then those things are treated much like character background in the stereotypical roleplaying campaign, stored on a sheet somewhere and forgotten about.

A particularly egregious example of the way the game asks you to define things about yourself, then ignores them comes when one of the other vampires asks you to describe your preferred prey (which you get to pick from a very large list, some of the options on which will be greyed out if the game deems them to be “out of character” for you) and having said “I like to feed on children because I am a sick bastard” or “I exclusively feed on animals because I am all tortured” the other vampire tells you to go and try the blood of some random french dude because it apparently has a “unique terroir”. And then you do. Despite the fact that you have just directly and explicitly described your character's feeding habits, you immediately head off to chow down on M. Hebert. Your character's preferred prey is occasionally referenced in passing and is of course dutifully recorded on your stats screen and repeated to you at the end of the game, but there are no scenes in which you actively hunt, in which you demonstrate your choice of prey through in-game actions.

While you are feeding on Monsieur Hebert, you encounter a young voodoo priestess named Clotho. The text immediately tells you that you are attracted to her. And your options for the next three choices are essentially “pursue a romantic relationship with Clotho” or “do not pursue a romantic relationship with Clotho” (you do not get the option to pursue a relationship with Herbert, any more than you got the option to stay away from him in the first place). If you do pursue a relationship with her, events seem always to pan out the same way (there is a particularly annoying sequence where you uncover a threat on her life, but if you try to rescue her it turns out that she had everything under control all along – which is all very empowering I'm sure, but I'd much rather you found a way to show me this character was strong and independent without railroading me.)

As part of your very linear introductory conversation with Clotho, she idly threatens you. At this point you get precisely two options, one being a line of typically overwritten dialogue (“You could no more harm me than a lamb could harm a lion”) and the other being to physically attack her. Not only do you get no other choice, no option to let the threat slide, no option to apologize, no option to do anything but be a dickbag or a slightly different sort of dickbag (again it feels like the writer had a very clear idea of how he wanted your relationship with Clotho to play out, and the only options he bothered to write in were options to break it off early) – not only that but if you do choose the option to physically attack her she actually takes you down. Because apparently her clothing is lighter than yours (I am not making this up), and that makes all the difference. I don't think I've ever felt less like an immortal bloodsucking fiend in my entire life. That time I couldn't open a jar of salsa, and then it exploded in my face and I got covered in chunky tomato pieces? Still made me feel more like a vampire than that part of the game.

And that was my biggest problem of all with Choice of the Vampire: It just doesn't make me feel like a vampire. Now again, this might be deliberate, the writer said in a recent post on the Choice of Games blog that:
I’m not writing this story so we can imagine ourselves as fabulously beautiful, wealthy and emotionally tortured teenagers. Rather, I’m interested in what it means to be immortal, what it means to watch the world pass you by, and what are the compromises we make to get what we want in our lives. Just as you make choices in life, so too must you make choices in the game.

(Clearly he missed the surgery)

This, once again, reminds me of nothing so much as the stuff you'd get in the GM advice section of White Wolf games. Being a vampire isn't cool. Being a vampire isn't about being powerful. Being a vampire is about serious issues to do with the torment in the human soul. Being a vampire is a curse and you shouldn't enjoy it.

By the way, here's our NPC list of awesome sexy rich fantastic people.

Playing Choice of the Vampire doesn't feel like being a vampire, it feels like reading somebody's unpublished novel about vampires. I've made three full plays-through of the game, and several incomplete plays-through to check options and I can honestly say that there is nothing in the game which allows me to explore what it means to be immortal, there is nothing that allows me to explore what compromises we must make to get on in our lives. There are, however quite a lot of fabulously beautiful, wealthy emotionally tortured teenagers (there's even a scene where your broodmate humiliates a rival by making her think he fancies her, then dissing her about it), but I'm not allowed to live in their world, because I'm just the player.

It doesn't help that the game is incredibly overambitious. It bills itself as telling a story covering two hundred years, but the actual game as released starts with the Battle of New Orleans (1815) and ends with the Siege of New Orleans (1862) meaning it only actually covers forty-seven years (about as much as Choice of Broadsides), at which rate it's going to take four full instalments just to bring it up to the modern day. And whereas Choice of Romance at least feels like a complete story (it ends with your marriage more or less) Choice of the Vampire just stops after the Civil War.

Similarly, the vast number of character backgrounds you get to choose from at the start of the game seem to lead to very little. Aside from shuffling around some of your (enormous number of) statistics, your background is rarely referenced in the game. Kyra and I tried to play as a priest, I played as a Scots-Irish washerwoman, a slave of both sexes, a free person of colour, a Germanic lady of warrior ancestry, and a French aristocrat. The game dutifully wrote down all of the details I gave it, but I always felt very much like I was playing a generic video game protagonist. The game makes quite a big deal out of race and gender but I found it made very little difference in practice. Ironically this might be because unlike the regendering in Courtesan or Broadsides, where social norms shift to fit your character which results in some genuine and observable differences in gameplay Choice of the Vampire is set in a world where perceptions of gender and race are concrete, which means whenever your character's sex and ethnicity are ignored, instead of feeling like the game has subverted your expectations, it feels like the game has just forgotten that you aren't a white man.

The romance options in particular feel strangely normative. Your relationship with Clotho consists entirely of you running around trying to save her from things and being invited to meet her family (who don't seem to care if you're a woman) while your relationship with Silas the Soldier consists of you sending him delicately perfumed letters and waiting for him to return from the war. Both relationships contain references to the fact that a homosexual relationship is unusual in the setting, but I still felt that my character was “the man” in my relationship with Clotho and “the woman” in my relationship with Silas. Similarly regardless of my character's ethnic origin, I very much felt that my attraction to Clotho (an attraction I could not choose not to have, only to act on or not act on) seemed to be based on the fact that she was mysterious and exotic, even if I had chosen to play somebody from the exact same culture.

A lot of the flaws of the game can be traced back to the necessary restraints of this overambition. Race and gender were big freaking issues in nineteenth century New Orleans, and while I respect the writer's attempt to engage with those issues, the only way to do it properly would be to write a completely different game for every character background you chose, because in that kind of setting people are going to treat a Choktaw Native completely differently to a Catholic Priest. The backgrounds are sufficiently specific, and sufficiently diverse, that they create an expectation on which the game can not deliver. If I am playing a Catholic Priest, seduced away from the church by my sadistic master then I expect faith, the church, and my struggles with my religion to be the central focus of the game. If I am playing an interpreter of the Choktaw people, I expect to interact with the Choktaw people at some point.

The game tries to do too much, and as a result winds up doing nothing. It keeps telling me that I have the option of pursuing all kinds of interesting things: seeking the truth about the origin of vampires, searching for a love that will transcend death, acquiring wealth or power, and so on and so on, but you get no option to pursue any of these goals in the game. Instead you get taken on a whistle-stop tour of forty-seven years of New Orleans history, with the primary focus being not your character's personal journey into undeath, but real historical events in nineteenth-century America, more Choice of the Civil War than Choice of the Vampire. Indeed most of the vampire segments involve no choice at all, and the game glosses over the business of hunting and feeding almost entirely. Instead it focuses the majority of its attention on questions like “does your character support the Union or the Confederacy”.

The thing is, it might get better in later instalments. The elements of the story which are sold to you as important (finding out the origin of vampires, achieving redemption, attaining wealth and power, experiencing the cruelty of an immortal existence) might be explored more fully in part two or three but the game as it currently exists is incomplete and unsatisfying. It has ambition, but lacks execution.

Conclusions

Having played all of the Choice of... crew's games thus far, my current ranking is Romance, Dragon, Broadsides, Vampire.

I can only speak personally, but I think that the games which work best are the ones which focus on telling a simple, clear story without trying to over-define or over-mechanise things. Broadsides suffers a little from having more statistics than you can easily keep track of, and Vampire suffers even worse from the same issue. There simply isn't enough space in a short multiple choice piece of IF to adequately explore all of the themes that a more ambitious game might want to explore.

So yeah, Choice of Games, still going strong. Not a big fan of their latest.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 09:37 on 2010-08-31
ROCKIN' ARTICLE NUMBER, DUDE! /makes sign of the Horns.
Wardog at 09:46 on 2010-08-31
AMG!
Wardog at 09:54 on 2010-08-31
Just to expand, as Dan says I really hated Choice of the Vampire. I've played about to the halfway point three times now before giving up in frustration. It reminds me of a badly GMed Vampire: The Masquerade game. It offers you about million ways to determine the minutae of your character and then no way whatsoever for these to impact the game - other than to arbitrarily close off options.

Also you can't get any sweet sweet manlove if you're not compassionate enough - whut?!
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 11:19 on 2010-08-31
Is there some way that The Choice of Romance addresses the whole lack of legitimate heir thing, or do they pass it by? Not criticize the scenario in the game, I just wondered if how they resolved it, through magic, legitimizing the illegitimate one or something?
Wardog at 11:40 on 2010-08-31
Hehe, you should play it and see - it only takes about half an hour.

It's actually rather clever - they use light/dark magic to subsitute for gender and inheritence issues (a light mage has to inherit the throne after a dark mage), and apparently light magic makes it possible for same sex couples to have children.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 11:48 on 2010-08-31
Oh yeah, I noticed the link just now. Very quick of me. It seems awesome, although I guess I won't findout until later, after I've played it through with a character that's so blatantly a dream image of myself it almost hurts. By the way, I got more of a spanish feel from the names, but I don't know.

I don't know whether I'll try the Vampire thing, I haven't really bothered with the glamour vampires after reading Anne Rice and I always preferred the more monstrous take on that, but I guess I'll try.
Dan H at 13:16 on 2010-08-31
If you take the designer's comments at face value, he shares your preference for "monstrous" vampires.

I feel a little bit bad for laying into CotV as badly as I did, because the folks at CoG are generally very sweet and responsive. For example, they seem to have changed the way your initial meeting with Clotho is presented in response to a couple of comments on the blog from people saying they felt pushed into it. I don't think it makes a huge difference, but I think it makes *some* difference.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 13:31 on 2010-08-31
I wonder if part 2 of the Choice for Romance will have continuation for the other storylines as well. For now, only the Boleyn Plot has reference to part 2.

But the game itself pulls the player very deep into the plot and even if it is rather short, you get very involved with the character. Are there more games of this kind around. As good as this one is, one starts to wonder how a game with a larger scale with even more plot affecting choices would be like. Of course it would take huge amounts of effort to create something like that, but one can dreram, I guess.
Dan H at 13:47 on 2010-08-31
I'm not sure if there's anybody else doing exactly this choose-your-own-adventure style of game (although there's always old-fashioned gamebooks) but there's a ton of text-based games out there (Kyra knows more about IF communities than I do).

It's worth pointing out that Choice of the Vampire *is* much larger and more complex than their other games, and I think a lot of its issues come from exactly that. Check it out for yourself if you're interested, I know Kyra and I hated it, but a lot of people have responded very positively.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 14:07 on 2010-08-31
I'll do that next. And judging from your review, I can guessthat the problems are the inflexibility of the plot and that the choices you make don't influence it enough. This would require a considerable amount of effort to correct, I guess.
Dan H at 15:00 on 2010-08-31
The plot is actually more flexible than it seems, if you tack /scenes/ onto the end of the URL you can look at the source code and there's a lot of different paths you can go down.

It's just that unfortunately a lot of them are either locked off unless you manage to max out your stats or else or else require you to make decisions that the game strongly hints are bad ones.
Jamie Johnston at 08:34 on 2010-09-01
Just finished Choice of romance (as far as it currently goes) and found it jolly enjoyable.

I tried it before reading on to the substance of the review, so I was taken by surprise by the way the flexibility of gender and sexuality worked itself out. Having glimpsed the big bold reference to Anne Boleyn I assumed from the outset that I was a woman, so when I was asked to choose I confirmed that, and set up a reasonably Boleynish character but with a bit more of an interest in actual romance. But when I got to the choice of sexual orientation I was a little flummoxed.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the way you're asked to choose is that you're at a party and you're flirting, and the game asks you to say whether you're flirting with the girls or the boys. Well, I say to myself, I'm a woman who's aiming to work every angle to get myself advantage and if possible a bit of romance too. But, you see, I'm at this point assuming that the game-world (though not the game) would be approximately as sexist and heteronormative as the Renaissance Spain that it clearly nods at. So I felt I pretty well had to pursue the men, didn't I? And the game had carefully asked me who I was flirting with, not who I was actually interested in, so my choice was based on my character's strategy rather than her inclination.

It isn't a complaint, really, because it's such a short game that I can just play it again with a different set of choices. But if I could give it a couple of little tweaks based on that experience I might make the social mechanics of the world clearer before those choices need to be made, and also make it clearer that the flirting choice determines your actual preference and not just what you happen to be doing at the time. In fact it would be nice to be able to pursue both women and men with the same character. But in any case I'm quite intrigued to find out how the game differs if you play as a man, so I might try that next.
Dan H at 12:31 on 2010-09-01
I actually like the fact that it's presented as a statement of action rather than intent, because it's not just about defining your character's orientation, it's about defining the entire way the world is set up. It's possible that your character is actually a heterosexual woman, but flirting with the women because all of the most powerful people at court are female.

I think it's possible that the team assume you've played /Broadsides/ and so have a general idea of how CoG sets these things up.
Furare at 14:20 on 2010-09-01
I wonder if part 2 of the Choice for Romance will have continuation for the other storylines as well. For now, only the Boleyn Plot has reference to part 2.

I'm pretty sure I got a reference to part 2 when I completed the game by marrying the rich merchant and becoming the queen's lover on the side. It's possible that you have to be involved with the monarch to progress to part 2, which I guess makes sense.

I actually played the "traditional" Boleyn story with a heterosexual guy, which amused me - it was fun to play at being a scheming "kept man". I think that, even if you're straight, there are a couple of references in the text to the fact that not everyone else is, which I thought was nice.

Oh, and the "run away with your impoverished lover" storyline is fun, too. I want to find out if it differs if your Booksmart skill is low; maybe you can't work out that s/he is not as smart as s/he thinks s/he is if you're not all that bright. Game basically begs to be replayed, doesn't it?
Jamie Johnston at 13:52 on 2010-09-02
I actually like the fact that it's presented as a statement of action rather than intent, because it's not just about defining your character's orientation, it's about defining the entire way the world is set up. It's possible that your character is actually a heterosexual woman, but flirting with the women because all of the most powerful people at court are female.

Yes, and that's kind of what I thought was happening, except that in the end I think it's fairly clear that the game doesn't accommodate any divergence between your tactical flirting targets and your personal inclinations. Once I'd told it I was flirting with the boys, my romantic options were the king, the rich boring guy, and the fun but not desperately charming libertine guy. And the libertine guy's the give-away, surely. Because he's positioned as the guy you hook up with if you want to turn your back on both power-seeking and conventional security and just have a good time. There was no libertine girl I could hook up with to just have a good time, and that's got to be because I'd told the game I was flirting with the boys at my birthday party and it took that to mean I was a raging heterosexual.

I think it's possible that the team assume you've played /Broadsides/ and so have a general idea of how CoG sets these things up.

That's quite possible, and quite possibly not a good thing if they want these games to spread beyond a core of loyal fans. But if they're only doing it for fun then I guess there's no particular reason they should mind if that doesn't happen.
Dan H at 14:36 on 2010-09-03
There was no libertine girl I could hook up with to just have a good time, and that's got to be because I'd told the game I was flirting with the boys at my birthday party and it took that to mean I was a raging heterosexual.


I don't think it's so much that. I think the game takes your statement that you're flirting with the boys as evidence that within the context of the game, you are interested in pursuing heterosexual relationships.

Essentially, from what I can tell, you read the "who do you flirt with" question as asking "are you flirting with the boys, implying that you are either heterosexual or homosexual and pursuing men for social advancement, or with the girls, implying that you are an overt homosexual in a patriarchal, heteronormative society."

What the game doesn't implement is the option to be gay in a heteronormative society, and I'm actually okay with that. It means that you get the option to play a gay character without it being your character's one defining feature.

I can see that the heteronormativity selection could have been more clearly flagged (again they did this better in Broadsides where they make it quite clear that if you choose to play a woman, you're not cross-dressing and running away to sea, you're living in a world where gender roles are reversed).
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