Lenten Reflections on Gaming

This was originally posted on my blog -- http://natevanderzee.wordpress.com

Last week I observed Ash Wednesday. On the Christian calendar this marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period leading up to Easter in which Christians take a look inward and reflect on their need for Christ. Christians often select something from which to fast during Lent as a way of reminding them of Christ's sacrifice and as a way of walking with Christ as he fasted for 40 days in the wilderness (the exact reasons and origins of Christian fasting during Lent are a little murky). They may fast from sweets, from meat, from alcohol or caffeine, or any number of other luxuries that we indulge in on a daily basis. Some folks even choose to fast from . . . video games. Not me, though. I have to admit I've never fasted from anything during Lent, or not that I can remember. I won't get into the reasons, but I will say when it comes around every year I briefly think about giving up video games, and very quickly dismiss the thought. Still, I have decided to take the opportunity during this Lenten season to be more introspective. To examine myself and to ask God to examine me. In light of that call to examination I do want to turn a critical eye toward my gaming habit. So, here we go!

I want to give credit to this post by Jordan Ekeroth over at gamechurch.com for inspiring this post. The article had a lot of interesting points, but mainly I'm grateful that he pointed me to an article by Dr. Mark Klein on the Escapist. You can (and should) read that one over here: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/ask-dr-mark/10177-Issues-Gamers-Should-Think-About

In the above article Dr. Klein is responding to a question about the seemingly knee jerk reaction of the gaming community to accusations that video games are having a detrimental effect on our culture and are a factor in real world violence. I, like Jordan Ekroth over at game church, believe we should react strongly to these accusations and should reasonably and passionately defend the medium. As both Jordan and Dr. Klein express, however, there are concerns with gaming that we should probably be more honest and thoughtful about. Dr. Klein points out seven concerns, and I'd here like to highlight a couple of them that ring true to me. Understand that these are not research-based concerns, but are concerns he expresses that I feel are validated by my own life experiences.

Gaming and Intimacy -- Does gaming influence intimacy with my wife? It sure can - if I let it. I have to admit that I rarely go to bed at the same time as my wife, because a) she goes to bed way too early sometimes (8 or 9 pm), and b) I stay up pretty late playing games some nights. While Dr. Klein also talks about the decrease in sex drive from excessive gaming, I have no intention of getting that personal here with you, dear internet stranger. I will note that going to bed at the same time as my wife provides at least a few minutes to emotionally connect with each other before we fall asleep. We can share anything we haven't had a chance to during the day, bring up random thoughts or questions, and I suppose there's probably something to just lying next to someone as you both fall asleep. It seems that can build intimacy. Right? Maybe? Anyway, I'm making a goal to go to bed at the same time as my wife more often, especially on nights when she's going to bed after 10 pm. I can do that. I should do that. It would be good for us.

Reality had a hard time competing with Skyrim at times.

Gaming and Pleasure – Dr. Klein asks whether or not the pleasure we derive from games might supersede that found in real world experiences. While I personally have a wonderful family, a job I genuinely enjoy, solid church community, and a comfortable material life (albeit stressful at times), I have at times bought into the lie that what I experience in games is far greater than the hum drum of my daily life. There are moments in games that can transport you and give you an amazing rush of emotion. While I wouldn’t say my experience in games makes my outside life pale in comparison and I don’t honestly think this is a huge struggle for me, I have experienced it enough and spoken to others who have that I am slightly concerned. I don’t think it’s healthy when we long to escape reality for more enjoyable virtual worlds. Games might be a meaningful and healthy escape at times, just as a good book can be, but that word escape does make me wonder.

Eastown, Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of the most walkable neighborhoods I've seen and I live right in the heart.

Gaming and Community – It’s really easy to get involved in gaming communities online, and it’s actually quite hard to avoid for serious gamers. But are those online communities a decent substitute for other relationships? Of course not. I hope we can all agree on that. In my case, gaming is not a hobby that is conducive to me reaching out to my neighbors. Being a husband, father, teacher, student, an active church member, and playing video games on a regular basis keeps me pretty busy. If there are any relationships in my life that suffer because of my hobby, it is likely the neighbor relationships. While other are out making sure their lawn is well kept, walking their dogs, and generally getting out around town, I’m playing video games. I mow the lawn, I go to the block party, I walk a lot of places in the neighborhood. Still, were it not for a hobby that keeps me in the house quite a bit, I might be out there more getting to know my neighbors. While I don’t intend to sacrifice my habit to get to know my neighbors better, this is a reminder for me to be more active and intentional in building relationships with my neighbors with the time I do have out on the block.

Conclusion - I think it's important for me to maintain a healthy balance in life. I must recognize that I am first and formost a follower of Christ, secondly a husband and father, and somewhere far lower on the list . . . a gamer. My prayer is that this lenten season will be one of reflection and introspection on my gaming habit. Perhaps next year I'll feel led to give up games completely for 40 days. Not so sure I like the sound of that.

How about you? Ever give anything up for lent or give up games for a time for any other reason? Do any of the above concerns ring true for you?

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Microtransactions and Path of Exile

* This was originally posted when the site was being migrated, so I'm just re-posting, as it got deleted.

Microtransactions in games have been around for a couple years now, and by the looks of it we'll only be seeing more of them in years to come. Xbox live was one of the first to popularize this model, selling t-shirts for your avatar and new themes for your dashboard. Facebook games and Apple's App Store have proven to be environments in which microtransactions flourish. While the model makes big bucks (just look at the consistent top earners on the App Store), to many of us it all feels a little dirty, perhaps even predatory. These companies are very good at getting our money, bit by bit. Frighteningly good.

This shot of the skill tree isn't even the half of it.

There are, however, quite a few bright spots in the free-to-play space.More and more actual video games are using the model and allowing gamers to have really good, complete play experiences without having to spend any money on microtransactions, and without being constantly hounded to throw down some cash for a more complete experience. To name a couple - I was thoroughly impressed by Age of Empires Online's offerings, and over the summer I had a really good experience with Tribes: Ascend. I didn't drop a penny in either game. Even more impressive to me is the game Path of Exile, an action role playing game in the style of Diablo. Coming from New Zealand developer, Grinding Gear Games, the game just entered open beta a few weeks ago. For the legion of fans disappointed by Diablo 3 last summer, Path of Exile has provided much of what they've been looking for. The game caters to the hardcore player with its darker setting, gameplay designed for hours and hours loot-hoarding and leveling up, and its utterly insane passive skill tree. Personally, I can't say I love the game. I am not that hardcore action RPG fan, heartbroken by Diablo III and hungry for a more lasting experience. Still, we're here to talk about the microtransactions, and I think that's where I find POE setting itself apart from most other free-to-play games.

Here's the description straight from POE's website:

Completely free to download and play. Supported by ethical microtransactions.

Path of Exile is completely free to play - no upfront costs or monthly fees are required to enjoy 100% of the game content.

To fund the development and maintenance costs of the project, we plan to let players purchase aesthetic perks for their characters such as:

  • Additional character animations (for example, taunts or PvP victory animations)
  • Dyes and item skins
  • Alternate spell effects
  • Social pets

We will also offer some optional paid services such as:

  • Inter-realm/inter-account character transfers
  • Character renaming

You’ll notice nothing in the list above confers an actual gameplay advantage.

So there you have it - No gameplay advantage. Obviously this is a reaction to the “pay to win” reputation of many free-to-play games. I really respect this decision, and find it refreshing that they aren’t offering an easy way out ($) for overly challenging gameplay. They legitimately want a game with a level of integrity to each character. You can’t buy your way to double XP, better weapons, or a new character class. In this world your character and loot are products of your effort, time investment, and possibly skill, and there’s no way around it.That said, they still have to make money. So, if you feel like customizing some of the look of your character they give you some options, and when and if you spring for it they get paid. Sounds good, right? Personally, I think it mostly is good. Still, I have some concerns.

First off, I do wonder if they’ll make it. Will people spend enough money on these aesthetic changes to pay for the the development team, years of development, and ongoing support they need to provide?I suspect it’s possible.In 35 weeks of closed beta, the team made 2.5 million dollars off this stuff (granted, you had to pay $10 just to get into the closed beta).Secondly, I’m concerned about the price of these virtual goods. Since I really did appreciate the approach Grinding Gears was taking with this game, I wanted to pay them something to help contribute to their quality work. As I headed over to the store, however, I was pretty disappointed with the offerings. 5 dollars was enough for me to buy a lavender glow for one of my weapons (the cheapest color) and … that’s it. I’ve got 21 points left, which is about 2 bucks. The only thing that will buy me is the ability to rename and re-color two of the tabs in my “stash” or buy one simple spell effect (changes the look of a spell). Thanks, but no thanks. It’s easy to spend $20 dollars on a pet to follow you around, or a cool looking weapon effect. About $8 will buy you a new character animation. You get the point. I’ve enjoyed the game so far, and I want to give the developers my money, but I’m going to find it hard to spend much more when the return is so trivial. I suppose in a way, I’m treating my contribution as the virtual tip jar.“Fun game guys. Thanks for giving it away for free. Here’s a little something for the effort.”

I think it’s great that Grinding Gears is taking such an “ethical” (to use their word) approach to microtransactions. However, it seems that by making the items for sale so downright un-impactful, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Damned if you, damned if you don’t, I suppose. I do sincerely hope this game is a success for them and I hope this microtransaction model can work. It would also be great if others took note of what Grinding Gears is doing here and began to question the less ethical ways microtransactions are being implemented in games across the industry, from EA to Zynga.

To conclude, Path of Exile is a fine game that has already been satisfying the appetites of hardcore gamers as well as more casual passers-by like myself. If I sink a dozen hours more into the game I’ll likely drop another five or ten bucks to show my support. Again, I just wish that five or ten dollars was getting me something I actually wanted. Grinding Gears has come really close to nailing the microtransaction model, but there’s still room for improvement here.

Have any of you tried Path of Exile? What do you think of their microtransactions and "crowdfunding" model? Are there other games you think really get it right when it comes to microtransactions?

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Assassin's Creed 3 Journal (part 3) - An angry rant

As usual my good intentions of having a series of blog entries languished, and I just realized I never really wrapped up this whole AC3 journal. So this will knock that out. Finality! You see? I didn't completely flake out.

As 2 and a half months have passed since my last entry, it probably goes without saying that I've finished the game. My initial thoughts were mostly positive, my second entry a little iffy, and the more time I've had since finishing the game, the more it has bummed me out. Really, really bummed me out. The gameplay was fine, and the story was moderately interesting but overall my experience felt really disjointed (as noted in my second entry). More than anything however, there were some key pieces of the game that I simply could not figure out. I’ll readily admit it my be my own fault, but in my opinion the game is either busted or doesn't make things clear enough. Here are my gripes:

A) Lockpicking. I was not able to pick a single lock in my 30 or so hours with the game. I should note I’m playing on PC with a gamepad, but I tried it with the mouse and keyboard too. After several frustrating attempts, I would get the lock moved all the way over to the unlock position successfully. I even managed to hold it in that position (kinda tricky with the analog sticks) and every time I let go it would just go back to the right. No go. This was incredibly frustrating. I watched countless YouTube videos and read FAQs, and I’m nearly certain I’m doing everything correctly. I''m left to assume it’s a bug and there’s nothing I can do about it. While unlocking chests is far from central to the game, I had enjoyed finding treasures in previous games and was unable to experience that part of the game here.

B) The homestead - This part of the game was also mind boggling, and this one I’m more ready to tack up to my own impatience and lack of effort, but I did try a couple times. What did I try to do, per se? I don’t know! What is the purpose of the homestead? Get goods from your land and trade with others to make money? I think? Anyone? Alas, I didn't manage to get any goods, and aside from the initial trade tutorial I don’t think I accomplished anything. Okay, sudden urge to revisit and try again. I probably will later today. However, I did hear from some others that homestead stuff was pretty busted on the PC. I’m not sure if that’s true or not.

C) Final chase scene - This was awful. I’ve never been more frustrated in an Assassin’s Creed game. In addition, the games ending kind of caught me off guard. After the sequence with Juno, I felt certain I was going to have to make one last visit into the animus for some reason and was looking forward to a bit more. Then the credits rolled. That’s it!? Maybe my investment in this series over the past few years was bound to end in disappointment. Wrapping up a trilogy of games in a satisfying manner for fans has proven to be a difficult thing. Still, I hoped for much more, and the whole game experience has left me wanting.

Conclusion - As a very cheap guy I regret making this the one game I pre-ordered and spent full price on in 2012. I should have gone with Dishonored, Far Cry 3, or maybe XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Or maybe I should have bought the PS3 version and that would have addressed the frustrating bugs. There were lots of other frustrations I didn't mention, and quite a few really enjoyable sequences, but overall I just get angry the more I think about this game. Still, I will revisit some of the homestead stuff to give it a fair shot, and the very unique multiplayer is a nice thing to have access to if I get the hankering.

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Assassin's Creed 3 Journal (part 2) - spoilers

Been playing AC3 on the PC here and there for a few days now, and I just got to the part where Desmond gets the first "artifact" and Connor gets his robes. So far I'm still really enjoying the game (despite the multiplayer giving me the stone wall - come on Ubisoft!!) Here are some more thoughts.

A) I ran around a bit with Connor in his Assassin garb, and it felt great. I think part of the reason it gave me goosebumps is that they take such a long time in getting the story to that point. The anticipation got to me, and man it feels good to finally be the real deal (and have the white hood to prove it).

B) I’m loving the Animus entries by Shaun. Hilarious, witty, and sarcastic. Perfect. I literally have laughed out loud at a couple of them. I don’t have that often in games.

C) Dialogue with Rebecca, Daddy, and Shaun is also really good. I’ve enjoyed going back to see what they have to say, and it’s been a great way to flesh out the story.

D) So far Connor’s bit feels really disjointed, but that’s probably because I’m at that point in the game where I’ve seen a lot of the different parts of the game but haven’t been able to play any of them more than once. I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together. The premise, though (on paper), seems a bit ridiculous - A half native American who becomes an Assassin, runs a homestead and makes trades and business deals, stalks wild animals, stabs dudes in the face in an epic conflict, and takes to the high seas to engage in naval battles? Ha! I’m having trouble seeing it, but maybe it’s all so fun I’ll forget how ludicrous it is. Right? Yeah, probably. :) Again, I’ll give it a chance to impress me. Brotherhood also loaded on the mechanics and systems and was a little overwhelming at first, but that one turned out great.

E) As I said above, this game is just plain fun. I really enjoy leaping around from branch to branch, trying to air kill critters. The naval battle (I’ve only just had the first one) was also WAY better than I thought it would be. It felt really good, actually. I've been hearing people say that for months now (gaming press), and I personally didn’t think it looked that cool, but actually playing it was a blast.

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My Assassin's Creed 3 Journal

I just got the PC version of Assassin's Creed III from Steam as it released yesterday. I'm a few hours in now and I've decided to jot my thoughts and impressions down as I'm going through. SPOILERS will be found throughout.

- The theater sequence was really cool. It just looked gorgeous and did not seem like anything I've ever seen in an AC game before.

- Haytham's little romance - really!? One minute she says "I'm never going to trust you", the next she's in love and wanting to jump in his pants? I'm not buying it. Shoddy storytelling if you ask me. So, I guess I'll expect lots more narrative holes from now on.

- Hopping around on trees, hunting, and all that stuff was FUN. I'm excited for more of that.

- Multi-player not working. Aghh!!! I'm really frustrated. It seems to be working for some people, but it says "Ubisoft services are not available" every time I try.

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Monday night plan

I'm going to start blogging my plans for Dark Souls once in a while just so that I can stay focused and spend time on areas I can make most progress. This is mostly for my own benefit, but feel free to comment. I'm not very far yet, and I'm not very good :)

My main character is a Wanderer, currently about level 15, with the basic wanderer armor except for leather armor on torso. Currently using a spear +1, short sword (but mostly the spear) and a hollow warriors shield (I think that's what it's called- the big dull brownish greyish one).

So - Monday night plans:

- Go to the bottom of the tower I just unlocked near Solaire of Astora (the first place you meet him). I think that's the undead burg. I unlocked this tower (can't remember where I got the key), and ran down to the bottom. This area was a really neat burning, boarded up, and chaotic city street. I killed a bunch of zombie attack dogs, and torch zombies, but those undead thieves worked me over. Must go back for revenge and find out if I missed any goodies.

- Go for the Bell Gargoyles. I manged to figure out how to summon Solaire of Astora to help and it went better the one time I tried, but still died. I think my problem is I have to keep a better distance and just run away when they both get too close. One up close I can manage, but when they cluster up I just need to get out of there.

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How I accidentally beat Demon's Souls - the long version

DEMON'S SOULS SPOILERS - WATCH OUT!!!
Last May a friend of mine convinced me Red Dead Redemption was going to be awesome and enticed me with his plans of getting a posse together and roaming the west in some multiplayer action. We both pre-ordered and got the game, and I started playing it right away. I loved the game and played it all summer long. However, I didn't see him online much at all, and after about three weeks of him not even logging on to XBL I started getting a little worried/frustrated. Had his wife finally had it and thrown the console out the window? 
No, no. He had bought Demon's Souls about the same time, and the game basically sucked all his time. When I got my PS3 several months ago, I knew I had to check this game out. I started playing off and on and was really digging it (still am by the way).  As for my friend, he said he was really stuck on the last boss and was taking a break from it.  A couple months ago as I was getting closer to the end he said, "hey - I'm going to hold off on the last boss until you are closer to my soul level. That way I can summon you and we can beat the last boss together!"  Great plan - sounds awesome!  One problem - I accidentally beat the game tonight.  Okay, so maybe I didn't so much beat the game, as the phantoms I summoned. Oops!  ;)    
I'd been playing the game for a few months without ever summoning other players, and I'd never been invaded up until this week. (I almost always played in soul form).  But after trying the Penatrator on 1-3 several times, I decided to try for some help.  That's what the feature is there for, right?  So I pulled a guy into help and just like that the Penatrator bit the dust. Then I went on to face the black phantoms in the next section. Archers down, no problem. First phantom down, no problem. Second phantom (pesky archer) gave me a little trouble because I got too close and pulled in the third phantom (big dude). After a few times dying and breaking my sword and shield on that guy, I decided to try for some help again. I summoned two phantoms and just like that the phantoms were down. Now, that's where I should have turned around. Instead I ran along behind these guys as they cleaned up.  And I cleaned up the loot!  One of them left at the dragon, but the other one led me all the way to the final boss (false king) and I am not lying when I tell you this guy beat him in less than thirty seconds.  I managed to get in four hits with my sword in a quick combo when he had his back turned, and just like that he was down.  I went on the end game, thinking the big hard boss must be coming up soon. But no - killed the real king (slug thing).  Even after that, I was still so sure that there must be more ...

 Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's it. Now I'm in NG+.  Cracks me up - my friend won't be too happy, but neither was I when he didn't posse up with me this past summer. Haha!  Still, I can't help but feel I got robbed of the final boss experience that should accompany any action/rpg.  I can still remember the days spent trying to beat Ares or Zeus on hard in the GOW games, for example. Or even the hours poured into the Maneater and Flamelurker in Demon's Souls.  The sense of triumph and near disbelief that I actually did it, standing in my living room with my fists pumping the air while my neighbor out smoking on her porch gave me weird looks.  None of that tonight. Just me on my couch, thinking, "that's it?"  Oh well. That's what I get for summoning I suppose.
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revisiting dragon age: origins

Even though I just got a PS3 about 2 months ago, it has been sadly under-utilized. Demon's Souls is calling me, haunting me, and MGS4 is sitting in its case somewhere wishing I'd finish it, but lately I've been playing more 360 and PC.  The main focus has been beating Dragon Age. 
So I picked the PC version about a year ago now, and played it, loved it, but then got stuck on a couple tough boss fights and basically gave up. Yes, I had the game on easy (I think), but I'm thinking the problem was I just hadn't built myself a very useful character and did know which party members to pick or how to level them up well.  Since then I've done quite a bit of reading about strategy. I'm now a mage instead of a warrior and I've got a pretty good party around me so that while I'm still playing on easy, I pretty much never die unless I'm up against a real badass or I'm just getting lazy and not pausing enough.  Yes, I know -  I really must suck if I'm on easy, but honestly at this point I really just want to see the game through to the end and don't want to have to retry certain parts multiple times.  It's amazing how much easier it's been this time through. One of the bosses I got really stuck on last time (probably last March or April or so) was the Brood Mother.  I could not beat her!  This time through I beat her on my first try. Yipee!  So I guess playing on easy is just the way I'm enjoying the game - it works.  Anyway, not sure if I'm going to get into any of the DLC, but Dragon Age 2 does look pretty enticing. 

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Metal Gear Solid 4 - initial impressions

 I'll probably be blogging about this game a few times as I get into it, mainly because I've been drooling over it for a couple years (I think it came out a little over 2 years ago). I first played MGS2 when I got my PS2 in 2007, enjoyed it quite a bit, got MGS3 - loved the hell out of it, but then made the fateful decision to go with the 360 for my next console (not a move I regret in any way). So; now PS3 day one, and these are my impressions after 2.5 hours of playing.

Graphics- they are great, but not quite as good as I expected. I suppose this is due to the fact that they were much more exceptional when the game first came out, and I was so amazed by them at the time. But, that was 2 years ago and other games have had time to catch up.  Also, while I started thinking "hmm . . . this really doesn't look much better than Snake Eater" ... I really had to catch myself on that one.  How quickly we forget how bad past graphics were (for the record - MGS3 was a good-looking game). We've probably all had those experiences where we go back and play an old game and realize our recollection of how good it looked was much more favorable :)  I'm quite sure MGS4 is a huge graphical improvement; maybe I'll go back to 3 and confirm. 
Gameplay – Still lots of cinematics in this game, that sure hasn’t changed. In the first couple hours I’m wishing there was more gameplay, and the times I am playing the game I kinda wish it were more clear what I should be doing. Maybe it’s because I started on the higher difficulty level, but I find I’m having to figure things out for myself. For example it told me how to ready and fire a gun, but for the longest time I didn’t figure out that I first had to go into my weapons inventory to equip the gun (assign it to a weapons slot). Also, have CQ take downs been removed? Because all I can seem to do is walk up to a dude and slash him with my knife. Then he turns around and shoots me. J Lovely.   While I’m sure part of the issue is just a need to put in more time and let Otocon explain things to me as they arise, I also remember that gameplay has never been my favorite part of MGS. The gameplay is decent, and enjoyable for the most part. But I always loved the crazy and intricate storylines in the MGS games, and the grand scale of saving the world Solid-Snake-style.  

So far so good here; but if I remember correctly, these games take a while to go from good to great. I’m confident some of my initial disappointment will be well worth it once things pick up.
EDIT: One AMAZING  thing I forgot to mention.  You can pause those ungodly long cutscenes. I usually play for 5-10 minutes before my toddler son or my wife need my help with something, so pausing is a must and would've been a gamebreaker :)

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PS3 on the way!!!! (at last)

I've been wanting a PS3 for a couple years now (basically ever since MGS4 came out), but I just haven't been able to justify it. Mainly because I have a wife, a kid, and bills to pay, and I already have a 360 and a decent gaming PC.  Still, it hurt to be left out in the dark on some dang good exclusives for the PS3 over the past year or two.  Now, I've finally decided to take the plunge. I got a good chunk of change for my birthday and last night I placed the order on Amazon.  The only thing that sucks is I selected the free super saver shipping, which is 5-9 business days. Oh well, I've waited a couple years, I think another week or so won't kill me.
Games I'll be buying - MGS4, of course!  I've got a friend who has Demon's Souls and both Uncharted games so I'll definitely be borrowing those in the near future.  Eventually I'll need to get God of War 3 and LittleBigPlanet (2?).  Oh man, I'm so pumped - how will I get anything done in the next week?

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