Videogames and Literature: An Annotated Syllabus (Part 3)

June 23, 2018

This is the ninth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

(Spoilers)

UNIT 2: SPACE                                                                                                

When I started studying videogames as an academic subject a few years ago, one of the first essays that caught my attention was Henry Jenkins’s “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.”

As a literary critic, I liked the way he called out the so-called “ludologists” for their overly narrow conception of storytelling. At the same time, he chastised literary critics who insisted everything was a story. He argued, correctly, that there are all kinds of videogames that don’t tell stories, and we don’t need to pretend they do. (BTW, this doesn’t mean that all videogames don’t construct fictions—as Jesper Juul explains, they all do.) I also liked Jenkins’s suggestion that videogames are part of “a much older tradition of spatial stories” that includes the travel fantasies of Tolkien and L. Frank Baum and as the make-believe stories that kids improvise while playing make-believe in backyards and bedroom blanket forts.

As I’ve continued to study, I’ve evolved my understanding of videogame space, particularly as I’ve grown to know the field of New Media Dramaturgy (for an overview of NMD, see this lecture by Peter Eckersall from the 2018 Summer NEH Institute on Digital Technologies in Theatre and Performance Studies), and the work of performance scholars like Kiri Miller, whose book on dance videogames is fracking brilliant (for a taste of her work, see her lecture from the NEH Institute). But Jenkins’s essay still holds a place on my syllabi.

This unit of my course was composed of four evenings, the first of which explored and applied Jenkins’s argument. The second, third, and fourth evenings branched into broader concepts of videogame space: the “space of play” (the personal and interpersonal spaces around the videogame player) and “the space of media” (a space that networks videogame play with film, online social environments, television, and other industrialized media).

Here, I annotate the 5th and 6th evenings. Coming soon, the space of media!

EVENING 5: NARRATIVE SPACE 

What we read:

Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture”

Espen Aarseth, “Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games”

What we played:

Gone Home

Kentucky Route Zero (Act 1)

What we did:

We began the evening with a review of Jenkins’s “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” using Gone Home as our application text. According to Jenkins, there are four ways videogames construct spatial narratives:

1. Environmental storytelling. Videogames tell stories by putting players in settings. These communicate not only important narrative information (where and when the game takes place), but also tone and theme. Gone Home is an excellent illustration of this kind of storytelling. It establishes the when and where, the tone, and several themes of the game the moment we open the front door.

The house is spacious, but unsettlingly so. The foyer is full of shadows. The lights flicker. We hear rain and thunder and . . . is someone upstairs? We feel small and out of place. As both a player and character, the space feels unsettled and alien. That’s environmental storytelling.

The portrait of the Greenbriar family is inviting, but tucked in a distant corner (see it way over there, on the left?). Like us, it’s overwhelmed by space and shadow, voiceless, enigmatic.

When we approach, we are cued into the historical setting, both by the clothing and hair of the people in the portrait, but also the answering machine on the cabinet—a piece of antiquated technology. Environmental storytelling? Yep.

Now, let’s contrast the foyer with Sam’s room. This is a small space, cozy, colorful, full of varied, layered patterns. Unlike the impersonal foyer, here it’s all Sam. We read her snarky rebelliousness in the pirate flag, the detourned pages of magazines taped to the locker door. But we also see the distance she’s building between her and her parents. In the midst of all this expressiveness, there is a locked door. Sam’s hiding something from her family—and from us. But it also feel like she wants us to unlock that door, doesn’t it? You got it: environmental storytelling.

2. Intertextual storytelling. Videogames tell stories by referencing other texts. We sometimes call these “Easter Eggs.” Gone Home is full of SNES videogame cartridges, VHS tapes of classic sci-fi movies and TV series, mixtapes with tracks by Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile.

Intertextual storytelling can extend to entire genres. The Mason home is one big reference to the gothic: it’s a spooky, full of hidden passages and family secrets. Gone Home also references first-person shooters. Gone Home’s lead designer, Steve Gaynor, earned his chops working on BioShock games and that’s evident here. The labyrinthine, poorly lit corridors communicate quite clearly that there may be something big, bad, and dangerous hiding around the next corner.

If the VHS tapes and mixtapes help to communicate themes and give insight into character, the references to the gothic and FPSs do something more subtle. Ultimately there isn’t anything supernatural in this house and there’s not a monster to be shot. But there is a lot of fear: fear of Sam’s sexuality, Terry’s abuse, of a family in danger of falling apart. The fear we feel as a player in this gothic FPS space rhymes with Katie’s fears about her family. As our feelings change about the space, so do Katie’s about her family. When we complete the game, the house is fully explored, no mysteries remaining, no ghosts or monsters found. When Katie finds the final journal entry, she realizes that Sam, Terry, and Janice are going to be all right.

3. Embedded storytelling. This is storytelling created with in-game texts that require a player to discover them: letters, audiologs, and other in-game objects that a player has to discover and activate in some fashion. Gone Home is festooned with these: Sam’s audio journals are the most obvious. We hear these when we click on specific objects the pocket of a jean jacket, a cassette tape, a photograph, etc. If we don’t find them, or if we find them but don’t click on them, we don’t hear the journals.

4. Emergent storytelling. Videogames are a temporal art form. When we play, we first do this, then we do that, then we do that other thing, then yet another thing. Our actions move the story forward. In some games, this can be quite linear—we’re on “rails.” However, we often have freedom to decide which path we’ll take. If we choose to take the path on the left versus the path on the right, our story will be different. If we choose to treat an NPC kindly or cruelly, our story will be different. If we choose to be a wizard or a warrior or a rogue, our story will be different.

In Gone Home, we can choose the order in which we explore the rooms, and this will affect our understanding and experience of the overall narrative. For example, the first time I played it, I didn’t discover the secret room tucked behind the staircase in the foyer until quite late in the game.

Now that’s environmental storytelling! This is a creepy little room! If I had been a more industrious clicker, I might have found it, and what I saw in that room would have colored my experience of everything that followed. The suspicion I had that the house was haunted would have been turned up to 11.

One of my favorite moments of spatial narrative in Gone Home combines all of these.

When I first entered the room, it was dark, so I turned on the light. Immediately, I recognized it as a bathroom.

And then I turned and saw the crimson splashed across the bathtub. My first assumption was that someone had attempted or succeeded at killing themselves (oh, jeez). This is environmental storytelling.

As I approached, I was relieved to discover that there was no body in the tub. And I noticed a small bottle on the floor. When I picked it up, I discovered it was a bottle of hair dye—red, like what was on the tub.

When I picked up the bottle, I triggered one of Sam’s audio journals, which describes the night Lonnie helped dye her hair. That’s embedded storytelling. (And I might not have picked it up at all, simply noting that it was hair dye. That would be emergent storytelling.)

This was the first time the game clearly signaled to me that my feelings as a player about this space were connected with my character’s feelings about Sam and Sam’s sexuality. Why was I afraid? Why was I assuming this would all end badly? I realized I needed to adjust my attitude and needed to stop moving through this house in fear of ghosts, worried about jump scares, watching my sixes.

Allegories of space

Espen Aarseth’s essay “Allegories of Space” isn’t as accessible or obviously useful as Jenkins’s, but it’s worth a read, as it alerts us to one of the unique but analytically challenging characteristics of videogames as a medium.

Building on the work of philosophers Anita Leirfall and Henri Lefebvre, Aarseth argues that videogame space is always symbolic space, but it’s symbolic in two ways. It’s symbolic in the sense that it represents a space that is recognizable to us. We play with a farm, a stack of blocks, medieval Florence, a grid filled with words, the sprawling landscape of Skyrim, a maze with four ghosts and lots of dots, etc. We can call that “representational space.”

We also play in another kind of symbolic space, a code space, a space of rules, algorithms, mechanics, and procedures. We can call that “system space.”

Anyone who has ever played an open-world videogame and run into an invisible wall that won’t let you climb that enticing mountain has run into the difference between system space (the rules that govern where we’re allowed to go) and representational space (the landscape that invites us to explore).

Anyone who has ever wondered why their character can’t simply jump up on that box understands the difference between system space (we’re not allowed to jump) and representational space (but the box is shorter than we are!).

In sum, “spatial representation in computer games is ambivalent and doublesided: it is both conceptual and associative” (163). In other words, it both a system space and a representational space. Typically, that doublesidedness is either smartly reconciled by the designers, and players hardly notice it. Other times, it’s not, but that’s okay, that’s just part of playing games. And still other times, the designers want us to be aware of it—want the ambivalent, doublesided nature of videogame symbolic space to inspire critical thinking.

That’s the case with Kentucky Route Zero. The relationship between system space and representational space is one of the game’s main themes. KR0 tells the story of people damaged by the systems—historical, economic, psychological, ideological—that shape their lives. It tells the story of individuals and communities traumatized by the collapse of the coal industry, by the degradation of the brain’s memory systems, by the takeover of neoliberal economic policy. And it communicates that theme by continually shifting the kinds of spaces we play in—shifting both the representation of space and the systems that determine how the player moves through them.

Sometimes, we control a humanoid avatar and guide them through spaces that look like gas stations, abandoned coal mines, lonely stretches of highway, museums, repurposed churches, and so on. We move through those spaces by pointing and clicking. Wherever we point and click, we see a little horseshoe ring around a stake (such a cool little touch!), and our avatar will move there. Many of those spaces contain objects that we can click on and gain information about the space or our relationship to it.

Sometimes, these spaces are displayed frontally, appearing more or less two-dimensional (as is the case with the picture above).

At other times, these spaces are shown to us in isometric view, providing a more three-dimensional perspective.

And at other times, those spaces are presented through text. We explore these spaces by clicking on one of several choices, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. These spaces are not represented visually but textually. They are also “system spaces” in the sense that our exploration of the space is determined by a limited set of textual options. If we ignore what we read in each line and consider only the system of line choices, an abandoned building . . .

. . . is identical to the space of a poem . . .

. . . is identical to a conversation with a friend who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimers.

These are all conceptual spaces.

There are other kinds of representational/systemic spaces in Kentucky Route Zero. We sometimes play non-humanoid avatars; for example, a wheel that represents a truck moving across a map of part of Kentucky. As with our human avatar, we move the wheel by pointing and clicking on the map. But this space is abstract, more obviously a system space. It looks like the maps we find in a navigation app. The roads have numbers or names. Landmarks and locations appear as our avatar approaches. These are represented as icons.

We move a similar non-humanoid avatar through the transdimensional road system known as “Route Zero.” This map works differently. Landmarks are symbolic in nature (The Bottle, The Still, The Crystal, The Pendulum), and instead of turning north or west, we move clockwise or counterclockwise, a bit like opening a combination lock.

We also move a giant eagle, which represents Julian, the brother of Ezra. Though we travel across the same map as we do with our truck, we look at that map in a very different way. Rather than looking for roads and intersections, we look for natural landmarks—lakes and rivers.

Finally, we sometimes move across the map with our ears. In one of my favorite parts of the game, we are tasked with traveling to a location that is revealed to us not by any visual cues, but by sounds emitted by our in-truck radio.

Again, Kentucky Route Zero is about systems: the systems of economic inequity, the systems of roads and wiring, the systems of memory and forgetting, and the systems of videogames themselves. When we enter Mammoth Cave in Act 3 and discover a computer, and we then play a game on that computer about being in a cave playing a videogame, we’re not just encountering a twee bit of postmodern ironic self-referentiality (though it is definitely that). We’re also confronting the tension between the vulnerable, corruptible, beautiful, banal stuff of our lives and the deep systems that commodify, consume, appropriate, and destroy it.

Aarseth wants us to recognize “spatial representation in computer games [is] a reductive operation leading to a representation of space that is not in itself spatial, but symbolic and rule-based” (163). And in Kentucky Route Zero, that reductive operation hurts.

Aarseth teaches us that, if videogames tell their stories in spatial terms (through environmental, intertextual, embedded, and emergent techniques), they also tell their stories in terms of rules and systems. And if we don’t know the rules of the game, we’re not playing the game, the game is playing us.

EVENING 5: THE SPACE OF PLAY

What we read:

Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas, “Queering Human-Game Relations”

Hugh Howey, “Select Character” (PS2P)

Austin Grossman, “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” (PS2P)

Robin Wasserman, “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” (PS2P)

What we played:

Porpentine, With Those We Love Alive

Device 6

What we did:

When I teach students to critically read a literary text, I always start with the text itself. We meticulously inspect the thing, identifying its various formal features—its metaphors, themes, image patterns, narrative structure, and so on. But we never stop there. Understanding a text’s form is just a start. From there, we move into context and ideology. We don’t let that literary text exist in its own special world. I believe that literary texts are intertwined in layered, multifaceted, sometimes difficult-to-detect ways with other texts (sometimes intentionally, as is the case with “intertextual storytelling”), as well as with ideology, history, institutional discourses, the identities and literacies of readers, and so on.

Every text, to recall French critic Julia Kristeva, is an “intertext.”

Some videogame critics don’t like this idea. For these, any talk of history, ideology, politics, gender, or race is a distraction from the thing that matters: understanding how the game works as a game.

Formalism isn’t always intentional. For example, Jesper Juul’s concept of “incoherence” (which I discussed in the last part) is incredibly useful if you’re interested in relating videogames to their players and the wider world in which play occurs. But Juul himself doesn’t explain how incoherence might be approached in terms of, say, gender or class or place.

Just like I do with novels and plays and movie, I believe in a broader definition of the videogame. I believe effective videogame criticism must start with the game itself, but must take into account the contexts in which games are made and played.

This evening was dedicated to mapping the space of play in terms of the ideological, personal, technological, and political forces that shape the experience of videogames. First, we explored how games gamify the physical and social space around the player. Second, we explored how games are embedded in our emotional, ethical, and interpersonal lives. And finally, we utilized queer theory to expand and complicate what we had developed into a more comprehensive, speculative, politically engaged conception of play space.

The object in our hands

We began with a discussion of Device 6, a cool little phone game created by the Swedish developer Simogo. Device 6 is a mash-up of a visual novel and a puzzle game. We play as Anna (well, mostly as Anna, because sometimes the game makes the player part of its fiction), a woman who awakes one fine day, minus memory, on a mysterious island reminiscent of the 1960s television series The Prisoner. We explore the island, encounter various puzzles, some of them head-scratchingly devious, solve said puzzles, and proceed, attempting to solve the big puzzle: Who is Anna and why is she on this island?

To begin, what makes Device 6 a useful entry into an expanded concept of videogame space is the way it gets us to play with text. We don’t just read the text. Sometimes, the text is a path. Sometimes, it is code. Sometimes, it is an object that must be manipulated in some way. (If you want to get a sense of what this is like but can’t play it on your own device, check out this video.)

Device 6 also makes us aware of the device in our hands—the phone or pad. We swipe the screen, rotate the device this way and that, at one point holding the phone up to a mirror to read backward text. We don’t just play the game on the device, we play the device itself.

And it makes us aware of our position within networks of power and information. At the end of each chapter, Device 6 breaks the narrative frame and directly addresses the player. We are asked to take a brief survey, for example, or asked to divulge personal information. The game makes us aware of our phone’s interconnectedness with larger networks of power and information.

      

Ultimately, Device 6 gamifies the spaces of videogame play: the space defined by text on a screen, the space of our bodies interacting with the videogame device, the space of data and social networks.

Literature about videogames

Having established the ways a game might incorporate spaces outside the game text itself into its rules and procedures, we moved onto a discussion of three short stories from one of my favorite collections of videogame literature, Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams’s Press Start to Play.

Hugh Howey’s “Select Character,” Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” and Robin Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” are about videogames that exist in uneasy and uncertain relationship with the worlds of those who play them.

Stories about the blurred boundaries between videogames and reality are common in videogame literature, so common it’s cliché. We see the trope in the first videogame literature (Tron [1982], Wargames [1983], Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash [1992]) and the most recent (Westworld [2016-present], Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle [2017], Video Game High School [2012-present], Ready Player One [2011]). Why this trope is so common is a subject for another time.

All three stories for this evening explore the blurred boundaries between real life and game life, but map that blurred boundary within troubled emotional and interpersonal spaces.

“Select Character” is about a new mother who ekes out a bit of daily self-care by playing her husband’s first-person military shooter. “What I liked about this game is that you could do whatever you wanted,” she tells us. “Except play as a woman, of course” (490). On a whim, she decides not to follow the game’s macho military narrative, following instead a path of non-violence and generosity, a challenging task in a game designed to reward headshots. On this particular afternoon, her husband discovers that she’s been playing. He’s thrilled, but when she shows him what she’s been doing, he’s confused. “You know the purpose of the game is to score points, right?” he asks (493). What she plays, instead, is “the game within a game. My little solace. A walled-off courtyard with five raised planters. And inside each one, a mix of flowers and vegetables. My flowers. My vegetables” (497).

Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” is an enigmatic little narrative, intertwining the story of a player character in a post-apocalyptic interactive text game with the story of a young man attempting to survive the inexorable, bruising decline of his family, friendships, and hope. I like how Grossman frames his tale: the narrator found the game Fresh Prince of Gamma World “rattling around the mainframes of Somerville Community College” (412). The game has no historical value, no connection to a larger gaming community. “Written in outdated PASCAL, the code base was just a bunch of data and a homebrew parser for input, eccentrically architected. The game itself is uncredited” (412). Indeed, the story the narrator tells is a story of playing the game in the past. He no longer has access to it and when he searched for it, he tells us, “all I could recover were code fragments posted to a defunct Usenet board devoted to retro games and a user named go4it69 who did not respond to subsequent emails” (412). I also love way Grossman uses the space of the page. The world of the game is represented in one font, the “real world” of the player in another.

As Grossman intertwines the two narrative threads, he also intertwines these font shifts, and when the story ends, we are left with this enigmatic landscape.

“The Fresh Prince of Gamma World” delves deep into the fantasies of masculinity that underwrite so many players’ passion for gaming—and the melancholy that so many players work hard to avoid and deny.

The protagonist of Wasserman’s “All of the People in Your Party Have Died” is a lonely, self-isolating woman who falls in love with a fellow female instructor at a private high school. The story is set in 1988, and the protagonist, Lizzie, is struggling with becoming an adult, with the loss of her liberal optimism, and with pain she feels about the friends she has lost to HIV-AIDS. The sci-fi twist of the story is that the game of Oregon Trail Lizzie plays in order to spend time with her lover without causing undue suspicion is causing actual illness, injury, and death to her students, family, and friends.

Wasserman’s story is an excellent example of what I call “procedural adaptation”: The duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc. In this case, Lizzie’s efforts to win the game mirror her increasingly self-centered, instrumentalist attitude towards those around her. In the same way that she denies the humanity of the people in her in-game pioneer party, she denies the humanity of her students, her family, and, ultimately, lover. “This is what it feels like to survive, Lizzie told herself. It felt lonely, but it was what she’d chosen, she thought, so she must have wanted it that way.”

Our discussion of these stories marked the moment when we began to think seriously about why literature about videogames is as important as videogames themselves. Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman map the shadowy, shifting spaces in and around videogames the way only fiction can. They map spaces of memory, consolation, jealousy, and rage. They map spaces of sharing, desire, betrayal, and regret.

And they remind us that, while not all videogames tell stories, every videogame player has a story to tell.

Queering human-game relations

To review, this evening started by exploring how games gamify the spaces around us by talking about Device 6. We then delved into how games insinuate themselves into our lives—and vice versa—by discussing the short stories by Howey, Grossman, and Wasserman.

It was time to tie these ideas together, and to help us in that, we turned to Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas’s essay “Queering Human-Game Relations.” I can’t recommend this essay strongly enough and urge you to read it or watch the live (and unabridged) recording of their keynote to the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference.

Clark and k (merritt k is now her preferred name) investigate how videogames function as representational systems, how players relate to games and other players, and how videogames replicate and complicate normative ideologies of gender and sexuality. To accomplish this, they explain how games can be “queer” and how players and play communities can engage in “queering” practices.

NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the terms “queer” or “queering” as they’re used by academic critics, the first thing to know is that neither term should be used casually, especially if you’re straight (which I am). Even in the LGBTQ+ community, the term can sometimes be controversial, even though the “Q” in “LGBTQ+” stands for “queer.” I’ve been chastised on more than a few occasions for using the word, usually in situations where I was unable to provide a full background on the term or failed to alert my audience to the hazards of using it casually. I proceed here with semantic caution.

Typically, when we call a game “queer,” we speak to the game’s content: the presence of LGBTQ+ characters, for example. While Clark and k agree that queer content in games is important, they don’t want to stop there. As Clark explains, “Queer is a word in a constant process of mutation, inherently unfixed.” Further, “it’s inextricably bound up with the idea of resisting dominant, naturalized narratives and categories . . .” Storylines and characters are important, yes, but videogames are much more than storylines and characters.

It’s relatively easy to identify a queer character or a same-sex romance, but “it’s not as easy to pin down what exactly a queer mechanic looks like.” As k explains, “Taking a mechanical or rules-based approach to queerness is harder than looking at narrative . . .”

They build on the work of Miguel Sicart, a game scholar who argues that playing a game is an inherently ethical activity, especially when it involves, in Clark and k’s words, “playing with, testing, and perhaps even rejecting” the premises and processes of the game. Designers can do that, too. Clark and k cite the work of Paolo Pedercini and Avery Alder, who design games that make us aware of the way games reinforce dominant, damaging values. They cite Edmond Chang and Robert Yang, who are concerned with “how rarely conversations around queerness and difference in games delve to the level of code.”

That’s where Porpentine’s gorgeous, creepy, and deeply moving Twine game With Those We Love Alive comes in. I don’t want to give too much away. Go and play it. It’s free and doesn’t take long. You can find it here. While I love the story that Porpentine tells, what I love most about it is the way the game pushes against my desire for progress. The first time I played the game, I felt stuck. There were periods where I just kept doing the same thing over and over. I wasn’t progressing. I was getting bored, frustrated. Then I realized that that was the point.

In a sense, the game glitches both the narrative of heroic overcoming and game mechanics that treat the gameworld like a puzzle. The world of WTWLA is not a puzzle to be solved, but an emotional situation to be endured.

I also love the way WTWLA incorporates my body into its mechanics—it literally asks players to gamify their breath and their flesh. We’re asked from time to time to draw on our skin, to inscribe sigils that memorialize significant moments in the game. You can see a gallery of player sigils here. There is something intensely embodied about drawing on our own skin. And there is a thrill to walking out in the world with these enigmatic sigils on our hands and arms and legs. We bring our experience in Porpentine’s world into our world.

WTWLA is a perfect example of a “queer” videogame. It reminds us that, if we’re going to talk about how games represent gender and sexuality, we need to talk about content (storyline, characters, themes, dialogue, settings, etc.), but we also need to talk about mechanics (choice, movement, leveling, agency, etc.) and player performance—what players do, what they imagine they’re doing, who they’re doing it with, where they’re doing it.

Clark and k want us to think about how power works in games. They want us to think about open-world games like Skyrim and Minecraft, worlds players “are almost completely free to modify at their whim, one whose only other inhabitants are violent monsters and animals whose bodies can be used for various purposes.” They want us to think about the ways games reward goal-oriented behavior, what Paolo Pedercini calls the “aesthetic form of rationalization.” They want us to question the idea that games teach us that failure is okay—that when we fail, we must try and try again. They remind us, “For kids on the receiving end of losses, especially kids made to feel incapable in other realms, the experience of failure isn’t one of freedom or escape. It’s a reinforcement, a reminder.”

Clark and k want us to be open to different kinds of games but also to different ways of playing games: “Mutating, breaking, and twisting games are valuable actions insofar as they help make visible our assumptions about play. As Pedercini puts it, this is a ‘slow and collective process of hacking accounting machines into expressive machines.’” If we can do this, then maybe games really can help us play our way out of game space into a better future.

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