Monthly Archives: July 2011

Dungeons and Dragons

Although wargames were sold commercially from 1954, and at least the big players like Avalon Hill made considerable profits from them, much innovation in the field was driven by a network of active, committed hobbyists who formed clubs and held meet-ups to swap stories, tweaks, miniatures, and even whole new games amongst themselves in ways not so different from early computer enthusiasts like the Homebrew Computer Club.

In 1959 a Harvard Law School dropout named Allan Calhamer self-published a game of his own design, Diplomacy, in a 500-copy run. Set in Europe on the eve of the First World War, this grand strategy game might at first seem a fairly typical entrant into the burgeoning wargame hobby that Avalon Hill had opened up just a few years before. Each player controlled one or more of seven possible countries, with the ultimate goal being the military conquest of Europe. A closer look, however, revealed a very unusual design indeed. In this game the management of armies and the mechanics of conquest were almost an afterthought. Instead the real meat of the game, as its name would imply, centered on social interactions and negotiations amongst the players. Every Diplomacy player is actively, explicitly asked to embody the leader of a European power in negotiations with his peers. Other wargames had and would continue to make superficially similar requests, implicitly and sometimes explicitly; the box copy of 1964’s Afrika Korps, for instance, states, “Now YOU command in this realistic desert campaign game by Avalon Hill.” However, playing Rommel in Afrika Korps ultimately still came down to just moving bits of cardboard around a game board; no one came to a session dressed in a German army uniform and proceeded to rant about the interference of Hitler and his cronies back in Berlin. Yet exactly this kind of theater was common among hardcore Diplomacy players. After being picked up by a real publisher a couple of years later, Diplomacy went on to become an enduring classic that is still sold and played today.

A major hotspot of early wargaming was the American Midwest, where organizations like the Midwest Military Simulation Association and the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association were springing up in numbers by the mid-1960s. A particularly active member of the former group was a university physics student and Minneapolis-area resident named Dave Wesely, who devoured not only the products of the wargame industry but also whatever literature he could find in the library pertaining to the still nascent field of game theory. In 1967 he combined ideas from a number of sources to create what was arguably the first true ludic narrative.

The game Braunstein started like a rather typical wargaming scenario, with Wesely preparing a detailed game board representing the area around the fictional Prussian town of Braunstein. At the heart of the game would be a hypothetical battle between the invading forces of Napoleon and a Prussian garrison defending the town. Its fictional rather than historical scenario was a bit unusual, but hardly unheard of in wargame circles. What marked the game as truly unique were the innovations Wesely deployed around the tried and true wargame framework, some of which he owed to Diplomacy.

In the fashion of that game, Wesely asked each of his players to embody the role of someone in his scenario. Two of these roles were obvious: the commanders of the two opposing armies, standing in for the leaders of nations of Diplomacy. Wesely, however, took the role-playing aspect much further this time, also creating roles for an advance scout for the French army; for the town’s mayor, concerned not so much with military glory as with minimizing the death and destruction the battle would visit on his town; for the local university chancellor; even for some university students of questionable loyalty and with radical agendas of their own (shades of the real-life political milieu of 1967). To facilitate all of these disparate personalities and agendas, Wesely acted as an impartial referee for the group as a whole. First he pulled each player aside before the game began and gave him a quick sketch of the personality and the goals of the character he would be play; later, during the game itself, he oversaw everything, informing the different players of what was going on from their perspective to maintain a “fog of war” and, of course, performing as judge and jury for everything that transpired. That was the plan, anyway; in the first actual play of Braunstein something close to complete chaos reigned. Sean Patrick Fannon described the scene in The Fantasy Roleplaying Gamer’s Bible:

Wesely had not counted on the imagination and enthusiasm of his players. They were almost immediately enchanted with the idea of assuming a single role with special and secret goals. Within minutes of the game’s start (in fact, even before it got officially underway, I am given to understand), players were off in various corners of the house conspiring and discussing with one another.

In a sense the negotiations and betrayals that transpired were not all that far removed from an enthusiastic session of Diplomacy. However, Braunstein was different in rooting its context in such a specific fictional scenario, and in offering the players such a smorgasboard of distinctly defined fictional personalities to play. And unlike Diplomacy, which was ultimately a zero-sum game with winning and losing sides, the goal of Braunstein was really just to play, to inhabit a character in this storyworld. More from Fannon:

When Wesely got wind of what was happening, he tried to reign it in. People would come and ask him things out of turn; when he asked how it was the University student was in communication with the advance French scout (since his miniature was still in the town), the player shrugged and said, “Let’s pretend that I swam the river and got out there, OK?” Wesely, trying to ensure everyone was having a good time, endeavored to acquiesce as much as possible.

Wesely actually left that first play session dejected, believing the structure of the game to have broken down so badly that the result couldn’t have been satisfying for anyone. In this he was mistaken; players were soon begging him to do it again. After running several more sessions, Wesely joined the Army and left Minneapolis. By the time he did, though, his new approach to gaming had infected his friends. Amongst the biggest fans of the new approach was a fellow named Dave Arneson, who took up the mantle of Braunstein and began running sessions of his own, first using Wesely’s original scenario and then others of his own devising.

Arneson was in some ways an ideal figure for the task. Unlike many wargamers, who could obsess for hours over the most minute of rules, Arneson was interested in game design only so much as it allowed him to open up storytelling vistas for the imagination; he was the prototypical context-focused gamer, in for the fictional experience being simulated rather than any fascination with the underlying game system. A similar impulse drew him to the writings of an author who was exploding in popularity during the late 1960s, J.R.R. Tolkien. His interests being what they were, Arneson gradually began to drift away from the military themes of traditional wargaming toward Tolkienesque fantasy. By 1970 he had created a fantasy realm of his own, which he called Blackmoor, to play host to a long-term campaign, in which his players could live out entire careers for their characters via a series of interconnected adventures. His players liked the idea, and loved the rich tapestry of politics and history and ecology Arneson wove into Blackmoor, but on a practical level play there was difficult and frustrating. Arneson’s strength was the soft art of world-building rather than the hard science of rules design. With no established rules to draw upon, as had been the case with his more wargame-like scenarios, he was largely reduced to making things up as he went along, a process that felt capricious and arbitrary to his players. So, Arneson and friends went looking for some rules they might adapt for Blackmoor. They found them in a little black and white booklet called Chainmail: Rules for Medieval Miniatures and in particular in its Fantasy Supplement, which featured rules for magic use and a roster of mythical creatures to battle.

Chainmail was itself a product of the Midwest wargaming scene, published by a tiny company called Guidon Games, based in Indiana. In fact, Arneson knew Chainmail‘s principal author very well, having already collaborated with him on a Napoleonic naval game called Don’t Give Up the Ship! His name was E. Gary Gygax.

Gygax was a twenty-year-old odd-jobber and sporadic university student in 1958, when he discovered one of Avalon Hill’s earliest games, Gettysburg, on a shop shelf in Chicago. A pedantic, somewhat fussy personality with little use or patience for conventional classroom education, Gygax had been throughout his life fascinated with the workings of complex systems. Had he been exposed to computers early in life, there’s a good chance he would have become a natural hacker. Since he was not, though, he did his hacking on games. Chess was his first love, but Gettysburg opened his eyes to a whole new world of ludic possibilities. Even as he married and settled down to father five children, Gygax devoted more and more energy to the hobby, not just playing regularly but tinkering with and occasionally publishing via the fan press rules, scenarios, and philosophy. In 1966 he co-founded the grandiosely named International Federation of Wargamers. In 1968 he organized the first edition of an annual wargaming convention, Gen Con, held in the erstwhile hometown to which he had recently returned, the Wisconsin resort town of Lake Geneva. By this time Gygax was one of the leading figures in hobbyist circles, especially around the Midwest.

It’s probably an oversimplification to say that Dungeons and Dragons was a combination of Arneson’s imagination and big-picture theorizing and Gygax’s attention to detail and rules lawyering, but certainly that seems to describe the general thrust of each man’s contributions. By 1972 Arneson had progressed beyond merely adapting Chainmail to his purposes to regularly meeting and corresponding with Gygax to develop a whole new system of rules. Together they abandoned the traditional wargame mechanics of Chainmail, in which every playing piece represented about 20 soldiers, to develop a game that took place largely in the imagination rather than on the tabletop, one in which every player assumed the role of a single individual in the storyworld, interacting with one another and the rest of the storyworld under the guidance of a referee. Arneson was not always patient with Gygax. (“He literally had a small book on different kinds of polearms, which I regard as the ultimate in silliness,” Arneson once said. “It’s a pointy thing on the end of a stick!”) Still, in this formative period D&D needed Gygax’s rigorousness as much as it needed Arneson’s world-building vision. In a decision he would later have great cause to regret, Arneson largely left it to Gygax to document their innovations, and to publish them under his own tiny Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) imprint in January of 1974.

It took TSR nearly two full years to sell the first 4000 copies, but by the end of the decade TSR and Dungeons and Dragons were growing together at an almost exponential pace, while Arneson was suing his erstwhile partner in hopes of getting a piece of the action he had co-created.

Whenever Dungeons and Dragons is mentioned in the popular media it’s done with a certain jeering tone, dredging up old stereotypes of nerds in dank basements with no social lives and serious personal grooming issues. It’s hard for me to really blame them because, let’s face it, it’s very hard to write about D&D without making fun of it just a little bit. The default voice of early D&D is the precise but gracelessly stilted, pseudo-academic diction of Gygax himself, channeled by others in organs such as TSR’s own Dragon magazine in long, earnest articles on such pressing questions as whether magic and science are compatible in the world of D&D, or (keeping with the theme) how magic and women interact, two subjects doubtlessly equally mysterious to most Dragon readers. (“Female thieves are the same as male except that higher level female thieves can learn some limited magic, and Beautiful thieves are capable of the spells of seduction and Charm Men.”) Another early article delivers the blow that “Gandalf was only a fifth-level magic-user,” an example of a disconcerting tendency to reduce the abilities of great characters of fiction to a set of numerical attributes. (The same article informs us that Sauron himself was “no more than 7th or 8th level,” concluding that Middle Earth must be run by a “very tough DM [referee]”, under whom it took “2000 years for a pseudo-angel to get to the 5th level.”)

At the same time, though, D&D was pretty amazing, as the first full-fledged system for ludic narrative, an engine upon which referees (“dungeon masters,” the sort of phrase only Gygax could come up with non-ironically) could craft interactive stories for their players. Gygax wrote in 1979:

At the risk of claiming too much for the game, I have lately taken to likening the whole to Aristotle’s Poetics, carrying the analogy to even more ridiculous heights by stating that each Dungeon Master uses the rules to become a playwright (hopefully of Shakespearean stature), scripting only plot outlines, however, and the players become the Thespians. Before incredulity slackens so as to allow the interviewer to become hostile, I hasten to add that the analogy applies only to the basic parts of the whole pastime, not to the actual merits of D&D, its DMs, or players. If you consider the game, the analogy is actually quite apt. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is like none other in that it requires the game master to create all or part of a fantasy world. Players must then become personae in this place and interact with the other populace. This is, of course, a tall order for all concerned — rules, DM, and players alike.

He may be insufferably smug, but Gygax is right. In fact, while we’re indulging in grandiose statements I’ll say I consider D&D to represent, without hyperbole, nothing less than the first of a whole new art form. I’d also say that its impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.

But of course that impact would not come via its original tabletop incarnation, but only once its core ideas and mechanics had been translated into computerized versions. Again, Gygax himself saw the potential:

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS can be played on a computer. Computers are most certainly a big aspect of the near future, particularly the home computer. Non-programmable computer games are already making big inroads into the toy and hobby market. They will grow still more, and soon programmable games will join this trend. D&D program cassettes plugged into a home computer would obviate the need for a DM or other players. Thus the labor of setting up a campaign or the necessity of having a fairly large group to play in it would be removed. The graphic display would be exciting, and the computer would slave away doing all of the record work and mechanics necessary to the game, giving nearly instantaneous results to the player or players. Computerization of D&D has many other benefits also, and such games would not destroy the human-run campaign but supplement game participation. This is the direction we hope to make available to D&D. Let’s see if my foresight is as keen as my hindsight.

We’ve already seen one example of D&D directly inspiring a seminal early computer game, in the form of the original Adventure, whose creator Will Crowther was a very early fan of the game. Adventure, however, and the many text adventures that followed it, took mainly thematic and conceptual inspiration from D&D. By the time the words above appeared in the February, 1979, issue of Dragon, others were attempting to translate the game more literally. I want to begin to look at those efforts next.



The Rise of Experiential Games

Having introduced my ideas about what constitutes a ludic narrative in my last post, I’d now like to set that aside for just a little while to consider games in another way.

I define a game as a dynamic system which, in contrast to other art forms (sorry, Roger Ebert) which are “merely” consumed and appreciated, requires active input from one or more players to make it go. I realize that such a definition excludes some things often referred to as games, such as children’s free-form “games” of pure make-believe, and potentially lets in some questionable things, such as some interactive art installations. We’ll just have to use a bit of common sense in applying this definition, and where necessary fall back yet again on good old George Lakoff.

I think we can usefully divide a game into three components. First we have the system itself, the network of rules which govern play and, indeed, which largely mark the game as a game. Next we have what Noah Wardrip-Fruin calls the surface, the player’s method of getting data into and out of the underlying system. Taken at its most superficial, the surface of a given game can often be described in a few words: a poker player uses the playing cards for both input and output, for instance, while a player of a modern computer game likely uses the mouse for input and the monitor screen for output. However, I really mean for the surface component to be taken more holistically, to be used to cover not only the bare technology of interaction but also the character of that interaction and the scope of affordance (in game-designer speak, the “verbs”) that is allowed. This seems only reasonable; a first-person shooter, for example, provides its own very distinct experience at the surface level, one that is in some ways richer and in some ways more limited than, say, a point-and-click graphic adventure game. And finally, we have the fictional context of the game, the imaginary event being simulated. (Many games are, of course, based on real-life events, but even these must play out anew in the players’ imaginations.) It’s this aspect of games that is one of the keys to my idea of ludic narrative.

The first thing to note about fictional context is that its relative importance to the experience of a game can vary tremendously. In some cases context may not be present at all. Poker and most other traditional card games, for instance, exist purely as abstract systems to be manipulated. Many other games do provide some sort of context, but said context has little relation with the system of rules, being (to use some board-gamer parlance) essentially “painted on” and quickly forgotten during actual play. The board game Monopoly is a classic example of this phenomenon that virtually everyone knows. My wife and I actually play quite a lot of board games, including many examples of so-called “Euro-games” whose elaborate themes and colorful artwork almost always have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual experience of play. I don’t mean this as a criticism; I think I could play Dominion every day for the rest of my life and not tire of it. In this blog, though, I’m obviously most interested in games that have a context that is very important to the player’s experience.

We can legitimately call all such games simulations, in that their rules systems simulate events occurring in a fictional place that exists only in the imagination of the players. They can perhaps trace their oldest progenitor to ancient China, where Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, developed a game which simulated the maneuvering of armies in order to help his students learn strategy. It is possible that this game, which Sun Tzu named Wei-Hai, evolved into the abstract strategy game Go over the centuries. Similarly, the modern game of chess, which bears only the merest vestiges of a context in the iconography of its pieces, may have evolved from some other game meant to at least semi-realistically simulate real military strategy.

That and a handful of other historical possibilities aside, the origin of the simulation game as we know it today can really be traced to approximately 1800, when a Prussian writer named Georg Viturinus developed a game he called simply neues Kriegsspiel (“new wargame”). Played on a board of 3600 squares and with some 60 pages of rules, Viturinus’s Kriegsspiel was probably the most complex game ever developed up to that point. Unlike earlier games which dealt with military strategy in the abstract only, Kriegsspiel was relentlessly specific; its game board, for instance, consisted of an accurate map of the Franco-Prussian border, while it endeavored to accurately portray the strengths and weaknesses of the various French and Prussian army units which served as the players’ “pieces.” By 1812 a military officer named Georg Leopold von Reiswitz had refined the game and begun demonstrating it to other officers, hoping to get it adopted as a standard tool for training and strategic and tactical planning. By 1824 a standard set of rules written by von Reiswitz and his son had indeed been adopted, and presumably contributed to the Prussian military’s genius for making war with cold, surgical efficiency. And by 1875, wargames had become standard tools of militaries around the world.

If these games had a very serious — indeed, a deadly — purpose, they were also to certain kinds of minds immensely appealing as intricate systems to be tinkered with, as engines of imagination. Some thus took up wargaming as a hobby, developing elaborate systems of rules which they often played out using carefully carved and painted miniatures representing armies or ships. H.G. Wells was so fascinated with the burgeoning hobby that he published his own set of house rules as the book Little Wars in 1913. Still, the golden age of wargaming began in earnest only in 1954, when Charles S. Roberts founded Avalon Hill to publish the game he had developed, Tactics, the first widely available wargame sold as a set of rules, boards, and pieces ready to play right out of the box. From that beginning sprang a hobbyist network that grew to considerable size, peaking right around the time that the TRS-80 and its rivals from Apple and Commodore were introduced. In fact, 1977 was the year that Avalon Hill released Squad Leader, the most successful wargame of all time with more than 200,000 copies sold. Alas, the trend for non-electronic war games from that point on was a fairly steadily downward one… but that’s a story for another time.

As befits their origin and their label, most of these games dealt with armed conflict of one stripe or another, simulating battles from Marathon to the Golan Heights, and wars from the Trojan War to (a hypothetical) World War III. Some, however, simulated other fields of endeavor, from business to politics to sports. Still others acted as simulations of events which had no real-world antecedents at all, portraying battles in space between alien empires or fantasy conflicts in which mages provided artillery fire and dragons gave air support.

In a wargame, the system of rules is absolutely subservient to the context; indeed, virtually all of the rules derive directly from the context. This is a fascinating and hugely important shift. Think of the rules of chess, so perfectly honed, so balanced and elegant that artists and scientists alike have found them almost irresistably alluring for centuries. Now consider the rules of a complex wargame like Squad Leader, a web of data charts and matrices, of fiddly rules with pages full of exceptions and special cases. Further, in the name of faithfulness to history most sessions of Squad Leader must begin with the deck literally stacked in favor of one side or the other, in terms of numbers, quality of men and material, positioning, etc. Taken as a game qua game, it’s absolutely terrible. Why would anyone want to bother with this mess in lieu of the classical elegance of chess? The answer to that question involves nothing less than a shift in the very nature and purpose of a game.

When we think of playing a game, we still even today envision by default an intellectual and/or physical struggle against one or more opponents, with the goal being to secure victory and glory for ourselves. How remarkable to consider, then, that at the height of wargaming’s glory days prolific designer James F. Dunnigan found in a survey of players that the majority played most of the time solo, moving each side in turn. He provides some reasons for this in The Complete Wargames Handbook:

The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player. Wargames are, to a very large extent, a means of conducting historical experiments.

The attraction of a wargame is not, as with the context-less chess, found in the system itself, nor even in the proverbial thrill of victory and agony of defeat. They are rather attractive as engines for imagination, and for the reenactment and manipulation of history. Their appeal, in other words, is rooted entirely in their context; divorced from that context, the rules of Squad Leader would be of interest only as a candidate for Worst Game Design Ever. But with it, they are, at least to a certain kind of person, a gateway to history full of infinite possibility and fascination. Wargames are the first experiential games, the first to be ultimately all about the experience of their context. We play and appreciate chess strictly as an abstract system. We do not imagine a knight slaying a pawn; drama derives from the contest of intellect and will we are engaged in with the very real opponent seated across the table. Wargamers, however, use them as a window to another realm; they see the battle playing out in their mind’s eye, and the most imaginative of them even smell the blood and cordite in the air. A popular pastime of wargamers since the dawn of the hobby has been the creation of after-action reports describing particularly exciting sessions. Some of these go far beyond mere notes of moves and countermoves to get quite elaborate indeed, chock full of unusual characters and colorfully described action.

So, are wargames narrative experiences? Well, and while trying not to fall afoul of the painfully tedious academic debate between ludologists and narratologists, it’s hard for me to consider them anything else. Certainly history, at least as it’s generally presented in popular literature, is essentially a narrative. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the two non-English languages I somewhat know, German and Danish, the word for history is the same as the word for story. That said, wargames obviously don’t qualify as ludic narratives as I’ve chosen to define that term, for their players manipulate their worlds from on-high, like gods looking down into their simulated worlds, rather than actually entering said worlds to play a role there. As one might expect given their origins and their style of play, they are more akin to interactive historical texts than interactive novels. While they are engines of narrative, they aren’t narratives in themselves; more on this distinction later.

I’m (slowly) getting to the point where experiential games spawned ludic narrative, but first there’s one more historical thread I have to run down. I’ll do that next time.


Ludic Narrative née Storygame

I’m not done with this little stroll through history — in fact, I’m just getting started — but I want at this point to take a few posts to introduce some theoretical ideas that will be informing the history to come. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible… really, I will.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, the broad category of “adventure games” as covered by folks like Scorpia in Computer Gaming World was generally taken to be composed of four distinct subtypes. There was of course first the form I’ve been focusing on in this blog so far, the text adventure (or, if you like, interactive fiction), which I trust needs no further definition. There was the computer role-playing game (CRPG), a less rigid, more emergent form which focused on strategy and tactics in sending the player forth to do battle with multitudes of monsters or, occasionally, mutant humans or space aliens. There was the point-and-click graphical adventure, which like the text adventure tended to be built around set-piece puzzles rather than simulational emergence, but which replaced descriptive text with pictures and the parser with a joystick or mouse. (This form should not be confused with text adventures which happened to feature pictures.) And finally there was the action adventure, which combined reflex-oriented jumping or fighting gameplay with puzzle-solving, exploration, and an overarching storyline or quest.

So, four quite disparate approaches, no? Given that disparity, I started asking myself a number of years ago just what prompted people to see such kinship among these forms, kinship they didn’t also see in, say, a strategy game like Archon or a pure action game like Frogger. Or, put another way: what was it about these forms that made them uniquely appealing to a columnist like Scorpia, or for that matter to a young nerd like me? Clearly it wasn’t a question of their fictional context; while dwarfs and dragons may have been disproportionately represented in the group of four, there were also plenty of non-fantasy examples — not to mention plenty of strategy and action games with fantasy themes that clearly did not fit in the group of four. The answer I came up with, which I’m sure will surprise no one, was that the distinguishing feature of these forms was that they all foregrounded story in a way that didn’t really happen in other forms of 1980s computer gaming. From there, I decided to try to codify the unique qualities of these games in a way that would be a bit more definite, not to mention applicable to other technologies and eras. In the end I came up with two approaches, actually, one a fairly rigid checklist and the other based more on abstracts.

But before I defined them, I first had to decide what I wanted to call the category of works in question. At first I simply went with storygames, but lately I’ve been leaning more toward ludic narratives. I favor the latter not because it sounds more academic and pretentious, although that it certainly does, but rather because I think the narrative component of these works is of equal or even greater important than the systems of rules — the “game” part — that underlie them. But I’ll get into that a bit more in my next post. For now, let’s just roll out the definitions, beginning with the rigid checklist approach.

So, then, to qualify as a ludic narrative a work must possess the following four attributes:

1. The work must be directly and obviously interactive. When I say “directly and obviously” here, I mean that if there is any real question the work probably fails this test. Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabakov’s Pale Fire, for instance, may have a certain sense of interactivity about them in that they demand a certain sort of engaged, motivated reading, but they still carry, at least outwardly, the form of conventional, linear novels, and thus fail this test.

2. A computational simulation — a “storyworld” — must enable the narrative. It should be noted that a computational simulation does not automatically mean a computerized simulation, as a human rather than a computer can administer the rules of the ludic narrative. This simulation can run at virtually any level of abstraction, but it must be there. Hypertext literature thus does not qualify as a form of ludic narrative, as no simulation exists “behind” the links one clicks in “playing” a hypertext.

3. The player must play the role of an individual in the storyworld, experiencing events through the eyes of and in the persona of that character. Some ludic narratives may allow the player to switch roles or even play several simultaneously, but she is always immersed in the storyworld rather than viewing it from an on-high, abstract perspective. Thus a game like Civilization, which is played at the macro level, does not qualify as a ludic narrative.

4. There must be a coherent story arc, and it must be possible to well and truly complete that story. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft thus does not qualify as a ludic narrative, as it has no endpoint, and is ultimately experienced as a series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story.

Having just disqualified several games in the definitions above, let’s quickly return yet again to our old friend Adventure for an example of a game that does qualify as a ludic narrative. It satisfies criteria #1 in that it is directly interactive, responding to player inputs through a textual parser. It satisfies criteria #2 in that a simplified simulation of the real world houses the action, allowing the player to pick things up, carry them around, and leave them in other places; to open and close doors; and even to interact (simplistically) with other characters who autonomously move about the storyworld with agendas of their own. It satisfies criteria #3 in that the player interacts and views the storyworld strictly through the persona of a character in that world, the nameless “adventurer.” And it satisfies criteria #4 in that Adventure has an extant, if simplistic almost to the point of transparency, story arc and goal. Its plot even has a climax in the form of the closing of the cave and the visit to the control room. That said, it’s also true that if Adventure comes close to failing to qualify as a ludic narrative anywhere, it is here. The Oregon Trail, for example, is actually a stronger example of the form in that its story arc is much more pronounced and was much more of a priority for its designer.

Actually, speaking of “stronger” or “weaker” examples of ludic narratives brings me to the other way of looking at the subject. When I first came up with the set of criteria above, I put it in my little backpack of theoretical constructs and continued on my way, smugly sure I had “solved” this little problem of ludic taxonomy. As time has passed, though, I’ve become more and more aware that rigid categorization is not always the best approach, that it may often be better to consider ludic narrative in a gradient (“more or less”) fashion rather than as an “either/or” proposition. In doing so I’m drawing a lot from the cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Consider, to use one of Lakoff’s examples, the concept of “bird,” not as it’s understood scientifically but as it’s thought of in everyday life. Lakoff writes that, while people recognize both robins and emus to be birds, the robin is in some sense also recognized as more “birdy”: it can fly while the emu cannot, it sings while the emu does not, etc. In Lakoff’s formulation, there is some central idea of absolute birdyness (it may be helpful to think of Plato’s ideas about the Good). The robin is closer to this central idea than the emu, but both are close enough that if queried most people would recognize them both to be birds. I believe we can when it suits our purposes consider (potential) ludic narratives in the same way, in which case The Oregon Trail is “more” of a ludic narrative than Adventure, even as we recognize both to basically fit the category. Simply put, the narrative component of The Oregon Trail, the importance of its narrative dimension to both author and player, feels much more significant. There may also be edge cases which fail one of the tests, but which still have the “feel” of ludic narrative. As long as we’re reasonable about these things, it seems pointless to exclude them from discussion because of some arbitrary checklist. So, we can have our scientific definition of a ludic narrative and our instinctual definition, and mix and match and apply them as seems most useful, letting each inform both our understanding of the other and our understanding of the form.

Of course, the modern world of videogames is very different from that of the 1980s. Out of our group of four, text adventures are, at least as of this writing and with a bare handful of exceptions, no longer commercially marketed, while traditional graphic adventures have retreated from near the center of the gaming universe in the early 1990s to a decidedly niche form today. More interestingly, absolutely heaps of videogames, very possibly the majority, now fit into the category of ludic narratives, at least by our “scientific” definition. (Whether Flo’s Fix-It Scramble XXVI: Build a Cake, with the simplistic story it uses to structure its levels, really feels like an exercise in ludic narrative is another matter.) If some of the traditionally story-oriented forms of game have retreated from the mainstream, their absence is more than made up for by the piles of first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and casual tycoon games that now also want to be narrative experiences to one degree or another. One thing that I hope will emerge over time from this blog is a picture of how that happened.

In my next post I plan to work out a couple more theoretical ideas that will complement what I’ve just written and hopefully make the thrust of all this much clearer.



Microsoft Adventure

There’s a good chance that you’ve received a forwarded email at least once or twice during the past ten years or so with the photograph above and a snarky caption such as, “Would you have invested?” The picture shows eleven of the thirteen Microsoft employees as of December 7, 1978, just before the company decamped from its first home in Albuquerque, New Mexico (initially chosen because it was the home of Microsoft’s first customer, the now increasingly irrelevant MITS) for the big time in Seattle. The twelve-year-old at the bottom left is of course Bill Gates himself… and, believe it or not, he’s actually already 23 there.

Ah, what can I say about Bill? I suppose you don’t become a multi-billionaire without leaving some bruised egos in your wake, but old Bill has always had a special knack for pissing people off and generally coming off like the computer industry’s own version of Darth Vader. In the abstract, I’m not sure that he was really so much more evil than most of his peers. Even by the time this photo was taken, the digital utopianism of the People’s Computer Company and Creative Computing was beginning to take a beating from a whole lot of would-be titans of industry looking to get a piece of the new microcomputer action — people like Commodore head Jack Tramiel, who announced that “business is war” and then wondered why all of his business partners and employees were so surprised when he lied to them and betrayed them; or like Steve Jobs, who even before co-founding Apple swindled his best friend out of a $5000 bonus he had earned doing his job for him, disingenuously prattling on about hippie togetherness and Eastern philosophy all the while. Perhaps the closest to moral in this lot was the management of Tandy, who were so unimaginative and so out of touch with their competitors that they couldn’t really be bothered to actively try to wrong them.

The big difference with Gates was that he was so damned good at being evil. While everyone else wound up to one degree or another hoisted from their own petards for their misdeeds, Gates just prospered. He wasn’t so much immoral as amoral. Unlike Tramiel, who seemed to positively revel in his evil, or Jobs, who desperately wanted to be seen as the good guy whatever dirty tricks he was pulling behind the scenes, Gates seemed utterly indifferent to his image and utterly disinterested in the niceties of right and wrong. On a personal level, he seems to have inspired something between ambivalence and out-and-out dislike in everyone who wasn’t directly depending on him for their salary (or, perhaps, the latter group just couldn’t speak up about it). It wasn’t just that his personal hygiene left as much to be desired as his interpersonal skills. Nor was it just that he displayed all the arrogance of both a brilliant programmer and the Harvard scion of a prosperous family; that was to be expected, considering that he was both of these things. No, it was the sheer magnitude of Gates’s need to win and to dominate those around him that made him downright disturbing to be around for so many people. If Gates couldn’t win at something fairly, one never doubted that he would cheat. Hell, if he could win at something fairly but it was just easier to cheat, he’d probably choose the latter course there as well. But, here’s the thing: Gates always cheated smart. If ethics didn’t mean much to him, he was very aware of legalities, and always careful to make sure that even at his shadiest he stayed on the right side of that line. (Of course, he became increasingly less good at that in the 1990s, but that’s a story for another time…) Remember the blinkered MIT nerds that Joseph Weizenbaum railed against in Computers and Human Reason? Well, the young Gates fit that stereotype perfectly, with an added heaping measure of cold-blooded ruthlessness. His wasn’t a personality likely to win a lot of friends. As an investment opportunity, however…

The story of Microsoft Adventure provides a good early illustration of both the very real technical and marketing acumen of Gates’s company and its genius for ignoring ethical considerations while still staying on the right side of the law. It provides an early example of what was already becoming the company’s modus operandi, one guaranteed to piss off idealistic hackers as much as it would delight its financial backers. And, not incidentally, it also represents a very important moment in the continuing evolution of adventure games.

In 1979, fully two years before Gates’s genius stroke in partnering with IBM on the original IBM PC, Microsoft was already a very big fish in the still relatively small pond that was the microcomputer industry of the era, having built a strong business upon the solid foundation of that initial Altair BASIC. In fact, Microsoft was simply the company to go to for a microcomputer BASIC implementation; it provided not only the TRS-80 Level 2 BASIC, but also the BASICs in the Commodore PET and the just-released Apple II Plus. It had also already expanded into other high-level programming languages, producing the first implementations of FORTRAN and COBOL to appear on microcomputers. Microsoft Adventure was part of a new initiative for 1979, the Microsoft Consumer Products Division, which aimed to market games and less esoteric applications to everyday consumers. The division as a whole was arguably somewhat ahead of its time, and would not be a rousing success in the long term. (Microsoft gave up on it within a few years to focus almost exclusively on technical and business products, and, the long-lived oddity Flight Simulator aside, would not begin marketing games and applications directly to home users once again until the 1990s.) For now, though, Consumer Products was big at Microsoft. With adventure games becoming so big on the TRS-80, when an employee named Gordon Letwin said he could port the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, something of a semi-legendary holy grail to microcomputer adventurers, onto the little machine, the go-ahead wasn’t long in coming.

Gordon Letwin is the bearded, black-haired fellow at the far right of the second row in the picture above. Born in 1952 and thus three years older than Bill Gates himself, his character and background is not too far removed from that of other hackers we’ve already met on this blog. A withdrawn, almost disturbingly nonverbal personality, Letwin read non-fiction books by the dozen throughout his childhood and teen years. Upon entering Purdue University as a physics major (the same major Will Crowther had chosen a decade earlier), Letwin found his real calling in the university’s computer center. After university, he got a job with Heath Company, who were well known among electronics hobbyists of the time for their “Heathkits,” do-it-yourself kits that let hobbyists build test equipment, amplifiers, radios, even televisions. In 1977 the line was expanded to include a computer, the H8, for which Letwin designed a simple operating system called H-DOS. He also designed a BASIC of his own, but a young and aggressive Gates, much to Letwin’s chagrin, dropped in on Heath while making the rounds of microcomputer manufacturers to try to convince them to buy Microsoft’s version. Letwin did something interesting, something that few others would ever do: he stood up to Gates. In Gates’s own words:

“There are different ways to do this stuff. His had some advantages which he was pointing out to me. We ended up in this argument between two technical guys. There were about 15 people in the room and no one else could follow along. We’re talking all in terms of data structure, single representations, double scan, stuff like that… Like if you typed a bad line, his would immediately check the syntax, and mine wouldn’t. Which is one of the negative points of our design. Anyway, he was being very sarcastic about that, telling me how dumb that was.”

Deciding perhaps that the adage that no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft was true even in 1977, Heath’s management elected to replace Letwin’s in-house design with Microsoft’s BASIC. This left them with one very angry Letwin. Gates, who whatever his other failings knew talent when he saw it, poached him for Microsoft about nine months later, not too terribly long before the above photograph was taken.

Although Letwin and his wife lived very modestly even years after Microsoft had made them wealthy, he more so than most hackers always knew the value of a buck, and always wanted to get what was coming to him. A 1988 Seattle Times profile alleges that he was a major impetus behind the decision of Gates and Paul Allen to transform Microsoft from a partnership to a corporation in 1981, and to grant him and other early employees like him the shares that would make them very rich indeed by the end of the decade. I mention this here because it may explain something odd about Microsoft Adventure: it was published by Microsoft, but allegedly developed by an entity called Softwin Associates, a company that apparently consisted of only Letwin himself. It seems that Letwin developed Adventure as something of a moonlighting project, then licensed it back to his employer. Why do it that way? Well, doing so gave Letwin the ability to collect royalties on sales as an outside contractor, above and beyond his regular employee salary. That the very finances-focused Gates let him get away with such a scheme probably says a lot about his perceived value to the company.

As Microsoft claimed in the instruction manual, “With Microsoft Adventure, you have the complete version of the original Adventure. Nothing has been left out of the original DEC version.” That stands as quite a neat trick; remember that Scott Adams, himself an experienced programmer, had not even tried to do a direct port but had instead developed Adventureland as its own, much smaller game. How did Letwin manage it?

He first of all took advantage of Radio Shack’s expansion interface, which allowed the user both to expand memory beyond 16 K and to replace cassette-based storage with floppy disks. This was a bold choice in its way, dramatically limiting the potential buyers of Adventure; in its September, 1979, issue, SoftSide reported that “only a few” of its readers had yet bought Radio Shack’s $500 disk drive. Yet Adventure would have been impossible without it.

The benefits of expanded memory were obvious in allowing longer and more complex programs, but those of the floppy disk were both obvious and more subtle. On the obvious level, the floppy was superior to the cassette in every way, allowing users to store much more data on a single piece of media and to save and retrieve it many times faster and with many times the reliability. But another attribute of the floppy would be key to the implementation of major games like Adventure given the still tiny amount of memory 32 K actually is. Unlike the cassette, the floppy was a random-access storage device, meaning the TRS-80 could be programmed to load into memory chunks of data from all over the disk as a program ran. By comparison, reading from the cassette required that the user manually position the tape in the correct position using the player’s counter, then press play… and then, of course, wait, for up to 20 minutes just to load one of Scott Adams’s simple adventures. With a disk drive, then, Letwin could leave all of that text that was stored in an external file even in Crowther and Woods’s original on the disk, loading in only the bit and pieces that he needed as they were needed. He needed only pack the core code of the game itself into his 32 K — not that that was a trivial task in itself, requiring as it did that Letwin port the original FORTRAN code into Z80 assembly language while optimizing everywhere for speed and size. Letwin’s pioneering use of the disk drive as a sort of auxilliary memory would soon enough be everywhere, refined to something of an art by companies like Infocom. Countless classic games would have been simply impossible without it.

The arrival of disk drives also brought with them another, less welcome innovation: copy protection. Every computer has a standard format in which it arranges data on its disks. To simplify rather extremely, locations on the disk are broken down into track and sector numbers, with a master directory stored in some standard location that records all of the files stored on the disk and their location by track and sector; this allows the computer to locate and retrieve files as they are requested. Most early disk copying programs assumed that the disk being copied would be laid out in this standard format, and would simply attempt to copy each file they found in the master directory over to the new disk one by one. It was, however, relatively easy for a program like Adventure to replace the standard disk format with one of its own devising — one that it knew how to read, but which would completely flummox another program expecting a standard format. By later standards, Adventure‘s copy protection was relatively simple, just rearranging the numbering scheme used to identify the different sectors on the disk. It was also relatively kind in allowing at least those with two disk drives to make a single backup copy by entering a special command within the program itself. Later protection schemes would get much more sophisticated, and much less kind.

Microsoft Adventure also points toward the future in its packaging. It shipped in a real box with real, professionally produced artwork and a multi-page, glossy manual written by Dottie Hall. Contrast this with the packaging of the early Scott Adams games, constructed from a plastic sandwich bag, a business card, and a baby formula liner. In 1979, Microsoft was one of the few software companies with the resources to give its products a professional presentation. As the games industry grew more professional and profitable, however, packaging would become a huge part of the whole experience of adventuring, reaching glorious (some might say absurd) heights of lurid artwork, lengthy manuals, included novellas or even novels, elaborate maps (sometimes from cloth or parchment), and evocative physical props (“feelies”).

Microsoft Adventure also started another, related trend that became almost as prevalent: its artwork has almost nothing to do with the actual game it represents.

I certainly never imagined the jokey response to “KILL DRAGON” (“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS!”) playing out quite like that. Although, I guess with sufficient imagination…

Having dwelt on the original DEC versions at length, there’s not really that much to say about the actual playing experience of the version of Adventure that Letwin developed. It is exactly what Microsoft claimed it to be, a slavishly faithful port of the original, minus only such PDP-centric niceties as “cave hours.” I suspect that most of the in-game text is literally the same as that on the PDP original, being the original’s external data file simply copied over to a TRS-80 floppy. Interestingly, Letwin does make an effort to ease some of the original’s more nonsensical puzzles. In the original, for instance, one could earn the “last lousy point” only by dropping the Spelunker Today magazine at Witt’s End, a completely unmotivated action; in Letwin’s version, reading the magazine yields the vital clue that “ITS ADDRESSED TO WITTS END!” Even better, the richly described but previously useless “Breath-Taking View” now has a purpose of sorts, for Letwin adds a single line that helps out with another notorious puzzle: “WORDS OF FIRE, APPARENTLY HANGING IN AIR, SAY ‘PLOVER.'” What a guy!

Nudges like that aside, Letwin makes just one addition, the “Software Den.”





Messing with any of the computers results in:








Talk about your delusions of grandeur…

But now we come to the elephant in the room: the question of credit. At no place in the Microsoft Adventure program or its accompanying documentation do the names of Crowther and Woods appear. We are told only that “Adventure was originally written in FORTRAN for the DEC PDP-10 computer,” as if it were the result of a sort of software immaculate conception. Needless to say, Crowther and Woods were never contacted by Microsoft at all, and received no royalties whatsoever for a program that by all indications turned into quite a nice seller for the company; it was later ported to the Apple II, and was one of the programs IBM wanted available at day one for the launch of its new PC in 1981. Because Crowther and Woods, immersed in old-school hacker culture as they were, never even considered trying to assert ownership over their creation, Microsoft violated no laws in doing this. However, the ethics of cloning someone else’s game design and lifting all of their text literally verbatim, and then copy protecting it (the irony!) and selling it… well, I don’t think that calling it “ethically dubious” is going too far out on a limb. In his famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” of 1976, Gates asserted the moral right of the creators of software to have control over their creations. How to reconcile that stance with Microsoft Adventure? Incidents of commercial co-option of free software like this one are what eventually led to the creation of licenses like the GPL, designed to make sure that free software stays free. If you’ve ever wondered why so many in the open-source communities are so obsessed with the vagaries of licenses, maybe stories like this one will give an idea.

Be that as it may, Gates now seems as dedicated to doing good in the world and giving away his money as he once was to crushing his business competition and amassing it, to which I give a big hooray. I’d say that saving a single child makes up for the dubious aspects of Microsoft Adventure many times over. Gordon Letwin, meanwhile, also stayed with Microsoft for many years, going on to head the ill-fated OS/2 project before retiring on all that stock in 1993. He now also devotes himself to charity, specifically to environmental causes. A second hooray there.

Ironically, Microsoft Adventure is such a perfect clone of the original that it is now the ideal choice of anyone who wants to experience said original in as authentic a form as possible without building a whole virtual PDP-10 of their own. I’ve made a TRS-80 disk image of it available here, which will stay up as long as Microsoft’s lawyers don’t come after me for pirating their stolen 32-year old software and talking bad about their “non-executive chairman,” but for an easier time of things you might want to hunt down the IBM PC version on an abandonware site. If you do go with the TRS-80, you’ll have to play it using the SDLTRS emulator rather than the MESS version, as, due to the on-disk copy protection mentioned earlier, the disk image has to be stored in the “DMK” format — a format that MESS unfortunately cannot read. Really sorry about that!

I’ll be looking at text adventures in 1980 — a very exciting year — soon. But next I want to make a little detour into some theory and then into another genre of story-oriented game.


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Two Adventuring Cultures

By the time that Adventureland had its first anniversary, adventure games on the TRS-80 were already amongst the platform’s most popular software offerings. And now, thanks to Scott Adams’s portable adventure engine and the fact that virtually all non-Adams adventures were still written in relatively standard BASIC, they had begun to pop up on other microcomputer platforms as well. A new art form was on the scene. As early as its June, 1979, issue, SoftSide published an “Engagement Announcement” between the TRS-80 and “Fantasy”:

The staff of SoftSide is eagerly anticipating the birth of a new art form as a result of this match. We feel that one of the most creative art forms of the future will be the participation novel, in which you assume the role of a character and alter the direction of the story by your own actions, instead of simply reading what the original author conceived and wrote.

Right now, creative people who’ve been writing elaborate simulation games are working on computer adaptations. The progress they’re making is exciting, with greater things to come! In our December issue, we presented Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio, breaking new ground in simulations on computer. [Written by Reverend George Blank, Paravia was an adaptation / expansion of Hamurabi, a resource management strategy game dating back to 1968 and eventually ported to BASIC by David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing magazine. As the first computer game to explicitly ask the player to play a role in a storyworld of sorts, Hamurabi is of great historical and theoretical significance in its own right.] In May we presented you with Dog Star, bringing us one step closer to the electronic novel. We foresee the time when elaborate simulations of high literary and artistic quality will captivate the leisure hours the way television does today, in much the same manner that television replaced radio drama, and radio drama led to a decline in reading for pleasure.

In March, SoftSide was contacted by the publisher of The Dungeoneer and Judges Guild Journal, two magazines specializing in the simulation game Dungeons and Dragons. In a copy of The Dungeoneer we were surprised to find a list of sixty-one other magazines also specializing in fantasy, war and simulation games. We also discovered that many of these people are starting to use the TRS-80. [I’ll be exploring this linkage between the nascent computer-game industry and the rapidly expanding world of tabletop role-playing games very soon.] Once the creative work they’re doing is suitably married to the computer, the electronic novel will be born! We’re certain the day is not far off, and we intend to be part of it!

Shortly afterward, SoftSide began using the rather awkward term “compunovels” to refer to these new works, the first of many attempts by writers, commentators, and players to get away from the somewhat limiting labels of “adventure games” or (a bit further on) “text adventures” to something reflective of more literary aspirations.

Of course, the idea of the “compunovel” was more aspirational than it was reflective of the reality of 1979, when the Scott Adams games with their childlike diction, “weirdly errant grammar” (in the words of Graham Nelson), and merest stubs of plots were the class of the adventuring field. Indeed, for many contemporaries these claims for literary grandeur must have seemed downright delusional given the reality of the time. It’s to the great credit of the writers at SoftSide that they could see the potential of the new form once freed of the technical constraints of 16 K of memory and cassette-based storage, and of the artistic constraints imposed by programmers attempting to get by as writers.

Still, there was another culture that was largely free of the first if not the second set of constraints: the institutional hacking culture that had birthed adventure games in the first place. By 1979 the big machines hosted quite a variety of them: Zork at MIT; Stuga, the first adventure game created outside of the United States and the first in a language other than English, at Stockholm Computer Central; Acheton at Cambridge University in England; Mystery Mansion at (of all places) the Naval Warfare Engineering Station in Keyport, Washington. Meanwhile others, free of the commercial considerations that were already coming to dominate the microcomputer software market, set about improving and expanding upon the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, creating a dizzying number of variations that have come to be referred to by their maximum possible score. The original game, which offered 350 potential points, is sometimes called Adventure 350, while its successors include Adventure 365, Adventure 550, and many others, finally many years on culminating in the inevitable Adventure 1000. Even Woods himself created an expanded 430-point version before leaving adventure creation behind for good.

The most immediately striking characteristic of all of these games today is their sheer size; they still remain some of the largest text adventures ever constructed in breadth if not depth, boasting hundreds of rooms each. Their scale was a byproduct of the culture that created them. In the hacker ethic, no program was ever considered truly finished; there was always room for more tweaking, more features, just more. Since these games were not commercial endeavors, there was no necessity to declare them done and ship them out the door at any given point. They therefore often remained in a sort of playable development stage for literally years, growing in fits and starts as the interest levels of various contributors waxed and waned. (Another thing which distinguished these games from their microcomputer counterparts, and indeed from most IF of today, is that they tended to be team efforts.) Zork, for instance, first appeared on MIT’s computer system in May of 1977, hot on the heels of the Adventure phenomenon, but was not finished until February of 1979. Even at that point, the game was not really done in any thematic or design sense. Its creators had simply managed to fill up even the cavernous one megabyte of memory on their DEC machine, and thus were physically unable to continue to build yet more new rooms.

If you’re thinking that such a development model might ultimately be as limiting to narrative possibilities as were the absurd hardware limitations of early home computers, well, you’re pretty much right. The team that created Zork, for instance, contained some genuinely talented writers, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the adventuring world of 1979. Yet their best efforts were continually undone by the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome, with descriptions of real imagination and elegance juxtaposed with others of a Scott Adams-like terseness. And the design itself is similarly sprawling and unfocused, with great ideas layered upon less great ones in seemingly random fashion. Zork and other, possibly even larger games like Acheton are vast and chaotic almost to the point of incomprehensibility. In this light the technical constraints of microcomputers, which forced authors to create games that were thought-through, structured designs rather than random sprawls, don’t look quite so bad. Or, to put it another way: bigger is not always better. It’s telling to note that none of these games had a narrative arc anywhere near as tight and coherent as that of The Count.

Still, TRS-80 owners working their way through the constrained environments of Adventureland, Dog Star Adventure, and The Count might be forgiven for casting some jealous glances in the direction of all those rooms, all those objects, all that space for text. It was therefore kind of a big deal when the daddy of all those institutional extravaganzas, Adventure itself, first came home. If Adventure could be made to run on a TRS-80, it seemed reasonable to think that other larger, more ambitious games should soon be possible on microcomputers as well — which was of course exactly what ended up happening. Indeed, within a few years adventure-game development on the big machines would pretty much dry up entirely.

The name of the company that first brought Adventure home via the TRS-80 might just surprise you. More on that, and them, next time.


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