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Rimworld, by Russel A. Duderstadt

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Desolate planet, episode umpteen. Prepare dropship crash in 3...2..., January 12, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF

Rimworld is a thoroughly enjoyable though standard SF-adventure.

So, threehundred years ago, during the intergalactic war, the people of Rimworld closed off their planet from the rest of humanity with an impenetrable forcefield to avoid getting involved in the devastating fight. They were never heard from again.

Now, a diplomatic ship has been sent to Rimworld to re-establish communications. Only a one-man dropship can penetrate the atmospheric barrier: your dropship, which crashes upon entry. No help seems to be nearby.

Here we have one of my most beloved SF-tropes: stranded on a desolate planet. The initial game-area is small, simple and orderly. A bit boring even. But once you explore the outer rooms, the game-world quickly expands. Teleportation portals and different types of vehicles bring you to new submaps, some bigger and certainly more challenging than the initial map. Very good use of space and bottlenecks.

The puzzles you encounter are the usual adventuring fare, for the most part. Certainly not bad, but nothing very original either. There are two "action-puzzles", one which involves climbing and one which involves evading and killing enemies. Although there is some logic to them, they are ultimately try-die-repeat puzzles. The final endgame puzzle depends on using an object whose workings are underclued, which is a shame. Aha-moments are not so exhilarating when they are the consequence of "let's just throw the entire inventory at it and see what happens." There has to be some planning and expectation involved to give the player a sense of accomplishment.

I would have happily given this game four stars for entertaining me for a week with its puzzles, the great scenery, the alone-on-the-planet feel, but the outro bummed me out. One, there could have been at least two more playable scenes after the "boss-puzzle". Two, it left me feeling like I had just watched a no-brainer action-flick from the eighties ("The hero has put everything in place, nothing left to see here. Move along folks.") while there was certainly room for some introspection or a hint at a wider meaning. Bummer.

Still, a good adventure. Nothing more, nothing less.

World, by J. D. McDonald

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A Grandiose World, January 4, 2021
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF
After a few false starts I have finished the most-impressive World.
Before we turn our attention to the awesomeness of the game, there are a few negatives I should get off my chest:

(I played the DOS version 107)

- It is extremely easy to cut off certain paths of exploration, which means losing points, or to put the game in an unwinnable "walking dead"-state altogether. (On the plus side, you can literally walk around while dead in this game. The game tells you that although you cannot act on your surroundings anymore, you are welcome to keep on exploring if you choose to do so. No practical reason, just... fun?)

-The parser is very picky about what commands it accepts. There are no synonyms for objects, so you are condemned to type "knapsack" over and over. Luckily, "knapsack" is a funny word. The parser does not understand X, so you must LOOK AT or EXAMINE.

-I found four game-crashing bugs, all when pushing buttons. For those who do not enjoy this and would like to know which buttons not to press, open the spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show) Do not push the round button in the control room. (Well, I later learned from the walkthrough that this button makes a nearby star go nova, obliterating everything around it, including you. So maybe it obliterates your gamefile too...) Also do not push any of the buttons in the metal room except the white one.
All the important buttons work though, so this does not stop you from completing the game. (It might make some points unattainable though, but I didn't really care.)

-The version I played has only one save-slot. Once saved, you cannot go back to an earlier point in your playthrough. (DOS version 106 has multiple slots, but they behaved funny. Plus that version was in ugly bright blue instead of the soothing white on matte-black of version 107.)

There. Now that we have that out of the way, let's dive into the sheer awesomeness of World!

This is a huge and diverse and immersive piece of interactive fiction.

After noticing that surface scanners were hindered by a strange forcefield, a landing party was sent down to a mysterious planet and crashed. While the engineers work on getting the dropship operational again, you are appointed planet-explorer on a search for resources that might help them get the job done. After walking some distance from the crash site, you notice that you are caught behind a forcefield not unlike the one the mothership detected from orbit. No way back, so you press on forward. Looking down from the top of a ridge, you see a breathtaking view of various terraformed areas, all with their own vegetation and, perhaps, other life-forms. Just the job for your inner adventurer!

There are multiple locations such as this ridge in the game: on a hilltop or a rocky spire you can see the landscape around and below you. I love this in games. It gives you an exhilarating sense of spaciousness, and it hints at where to go and what you might find there.

From this view it is immediately obvious that this is a large and sprawling game-world. The geographical zones are neatly separated from each other, suggesting that the puzzles will also be contained within their own zones (they are, for the most part). In such a big game, there is no need to camouflage the boundaries of the map. For one, it is large enough as it is without giving the impression that it goes on even further. Secondly, the boundaries flow naturally from the whole concept of having terraformed areas. Anything beyond it is obviously inaccessible because it won't support life.
While the different areas have rather complicated maps with many paths and roads crossing and going over and under each other, the geographical zones are only connected by a few access points, providing clear limits to the puzzle-area you are in.

Puzzlewise, there are two sorts of puzzles in the game that serve different purposes.
-Maybe a bit disrespectfully, I would call the first variety "looting-puzzles". You have to locate important objects, be it for the repairs of the dropship or for the scientific mission your ship was on in the first place. Or because they are worth a lot of money...
These tasks consist of visiting locations, finding and getting objects, using objects in sometimes surprising ways and taking pictures of interesting things you come across. These are mostly limited to the geographical zone you happen to be in.
-The second kind of puzzles revolve around understanding the bigger picture. You'll want to figure out who the builders of this place are, what their intentions are. Also, you need to explore this entire map to find a way to get off this planet.
These puzzles require more technical/engineering skills, finding and combining objects from all over the map. You will also need some leaps of knowledge and insight to reason a few moves ahead and see why you are doing what you are doing. (Solving puzzle X will hopefully get me the information I need to overcome obstacle Y which in turn will tell me what the *snorf* I should do with object Z I've been carrying around since move 9.)

A little reminder: any objects (except one) you use for the puzzles are one-use-only. No take-backsies, no stash somewhere, no market, no helpful NPCs. If you give the peanuts to the elephant, you will have none for the monkey. (There are no elephants, monkeys or peanuts mentioned in this game btw...)

The majority of puzzles is fair and logical. Once you know the properties of the objects and machines and plants and... you encounter, the solutions are difficult but straightforward. (No magical thinking or huge lateral leaps.)
But... To understand the properties of the aformentioned objects, machines, plants,... you will have to experiment. And carelessly experimenting with single-use-only objects leads to...? Walking-dead-syndrome, that's right. So save everytime you think there might possibly be a slim chance of losing an object and only then carry out your experiment. Frustrating? I wouldn't call it that. I'd say it's rather suspenseful.

Since this is a game from 1988, of course there have to be some objects hidden in the most arbitrary places, far from the puzzle they help solve. Are you an explorer or what?

With all these puzzles, it is helpful to keep in mind that this whole world must have been terraformed and built by some intelligent beings. This implies intentionality in how your surroundings work. Things are so-and-so for a reason. (I really like how the author has brought in an extra layer of purposefulness this way, by incorporating in-game creators of your surroundings.)

Now, on to the characters:
-You are an essentialy traitless adventurer. I like that in this sort of game because I can feel directly connected to the adventure. It's me who is exploring this strange world, without having to think about the psychological backstory of my character.
-The NPCs, if you can even call them that, are completely unresponsive (except they kill you when you disturb their hockey game, in one case...). They do have a lot of character though. They clearly have their own objectives and priorities (like hockey, in one case).
-And then there's the robot. The endearing, helpful and a bit sad robot. Pity I couldn't do anything with him except boss him around. I like the robot.
(quick clarification on the syntax of how to boss the robot around: TELL ROBOT, GO NORTH)

The writing overall is good. It serves its purpose without drawing too much attention to itself. Some of the more elaborate descriptions (when you encounter a particularly important species or event) might be a little overdone, but I didn't mind.
The tone of the parser's responses is weirdly mixed: Most of the time it's neutral, as in "You can't go there." Sometimes it's snarky: "Ridiculous." And sometimes it just has to insist it's just a line of computer-generated text in a computer-game: "That word is utterly beyond my limited vocabulary."
Once you have an inkling of what this world you're exploring really is and what steps you have to take to move forward, the suspense takes over and the game drives itself forward, carrying you along with it. That is good writing.

My strongest feeling of this game is one of wonderment. Like watching a long drawn out fireworks show in slow motion: a series of ooh's and aah's with each new discovery. You should really play it.

Delusions, by C. E. Forman

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
"Morrodox" joins "Skeletor" and "Mumm-Ra" in best-villain-names top three., December 14, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF
Delusions was one of the very first IF-games I played when I first discovered the medium. The puzzles were way over my head back then, but I found the setting and the slowly unfolding plot fascinating. Except exploring rooms and examining objects, I used a walkthrough for the entire game, knowing I would once try again.

And now I have come back to it. Where before I would have given Delusions five stars for its story alone, now I have more experience with IF and I might offer a more nuanced opinion. I will have to be quite vague in this review to not spoil the overall story.

The story remains fantastic. It is a reworking of a tried-and-true science fiction trope, very well told and paced. Each of the three parts of the game sees the plot of self-discovery open up some more to its inevitable conclusion. Story-wise, there are many similarities to Babel. The way the player discovers the story through puzzles is different however.

The puzzles are very reminiscent of some mini-games in Gateway. You have to build a good understanding of your surroundings and the available objects to figure out a sequence of actions that brings about the desired effect. This will undoubtedly take some experimenting, failing and retrying. You can of course rely on saved games for this, but the game always brings you back to a fixed starting point to begin anew. (In the middle game at least. The endgame is not so friendly.) It is vital to play through the introductory puzzle attentively, because it is an easier version of the puzzle in the middlegame.

For the map-drawers and world-explorers there is not so much here. However, the setting is exquisitely suited to the plot, it adds to the trapped feeling and the big puzzle is designed to fit snugly in these few rooms.

Unfortunately, being more experienced I could also recognize more flaws. The unfolding of the plot relies on examining the same objects multiple times over the course of the game, to see how they change, or, more accurately, how your perception of them changes. Sometimes an object gives a default "not interesting"-response while you should still examine it later. One crucial action demands a non-intuitive (to me) command, making it a very frustrating guess-the-verb problem: (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE object WITH TONGS does not work, you have to PUT object IN TONGS. I also found a game-breaking bug: (Spoiler - click to show)do not SET WATCH TO [time]. It breaks of the playing session immediately. Just SET WATCH wil do nicely.

So, I am not so awestruck as the first time I played through Delusions, but it is still a very clever and well-written game. Highly recommended.

Gateway, by Mike Verdu, Michael Lindner, and Glen Dahlgren

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
I like saying "Heechee" over and over., November 28, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF
The past ten days I have been playing Gateway. The moment I heard the electronic music and saw the first screen of the introduction, I was whisked back to the early '90s. I felt the same anticipation as when I had just put a new cartridge in my Nintendo-console and watched the pictures with the background story. Good stuff. Of course, Gateway is a text adventure, and I don't remember playing any of those on my SNES.

This is the first graphic/text game I have completed. The intro-pictures were great. Very beautiful pixel art. But this wouldn't be the first piece of art/craft/entertainment to blow the player/spectator/beholder's mind with an intense blast to the senses and emotions to cover up mediocre content. I was still apprehensive about if and how both inputs, picture and text, would work together in my mind.

Pretty good, it turns out. The default setting is an impossibly cluttered screen with a little picture in the top right, a little text window bottom right, and a list of every possible verb and every possible noun on the left half of the screen. Apparently, you could play this game like a point'n'clickety robot by mindlessly clicking every possible verb-noun combination.
But,...you have options. There is also the hardcore text-only option, for those who dislike pretty pictures and still think Bob Dylan should never have picked up an electric guitar.
Me, I settled on the half'n'half option: pictures and windrose on top, screenwide text below. Very handy. The pictures really add to the sparse descriptions, the compass shows exits at a single glance. What I especially liked was that clicking the pictures doubles as an X-command. So I could enter a new location and just click around instead of typing X everything. I noticed a few objects this way that I had overlooked in the text. Also, when thoroughly exploring a location or when trying out my entire inventory on a puzzle, I find myself hitting L or I every five or six turns. Here, I could just replace the picture with the room description or my inventory list. I used this a lot.

As I said, the pictures add a lot to the sparse descriptions. And the help is more than welcome. The writing isn't bad, but I wouldn't say it's got any real literary qualities, like some other games that excel in two-sentence gems to grasp the feel of a room (Metamorphoses comes to mind...). But this criticism is about the small-scale writing. Gateway does excel at the big-picture writing: plot, pacing, overall structure...

In Chapter One, you have won the lottery and go to an enormous space station built by an ancient alien civilization, the Heechee. There, you will be trained as a pilot and get the chance to go find alien artefacts all over the galaxy. You will be payed a handsome sum for everything you bring back. The puzzles here are good, nothing too hard. They are important in setting you up for some harder puzzles in the later portions of the game. You can actually solve all of the puzzles on the space station on your very first evening there. Should you not do so, then know that at some point in the game you will have to re-explore the entire station. My biggest gripe about this first chapter is that it feels too small. You are supposedly on a huge alien satellite, but the writing does not succeed in bringing across that feeling. This is not about the number of accessible rooms, but about the very confined boundaries of the playing area. It would have helped to hint at other areas of this great space station while prohibiting the PC from ever entering there. (Turbolifts that go higher than the accessible three decks to regions where the PC does not have clearance come to mind.)
The boundaries of the storyworld on the other hand are very wide. There are some devices in the game that give you the news from earth, tell you about the history of the station, and even show personal messages from other prospectors (looking for a drinking companion or a date...). This makes you feel in touch with a much bigger society.
Also in this chapter you go on the first few missions to other planets. Nothing noteworthy though, just a teeny tiny taste of what's to come.

What does come next in Chapter Two is amazing. You visit four alien worlds to carry out a very specific mission. Each of these worlds is one single puzzle, contained within a handful of locations. Two puzzles in particular ((Spoiler - click to show)the spider-anemones-octopus-snake sequence on planet 2 and the Sasquatch on planet 3) were beautiful in their logic and simplicity.
Each of these worlds is also a magnificent new ecosystem, making one wonder about what the rest of the planet would look like. Here, the small size of the map does not impinge on the feeling of a bigger world at all.

Of course, just when you think you have completed your four-part mission, it turns out there is a fifth obstacle to be overcome. The three related problems in Chapter Three hearken back to your trainee days when you had just arrived at the space station. If you payed attention at the beginning of the game, you should grasp the principles of the solutions immediately, if not the practical execution. The idea behind these final puzzles is a classic and very well played SciFi trope. Unfortunately, one of the puzzles also involves "Paradise as seen through the eyes of a hormone-overdosed, raised-on-misogynistic-movies fifteen-year-old boy". No matter how good you may find the puzzle, this part is bad. Really bad.

That's really a shame, and the fact that it comes right before the end of the game doesn't help. For me at least, it tainted the final WIN-sensation.

If I excise that bit from my memories with my imaginary memory-scalpel though, I'm left with the experience of an overwhelmingly good game. Very entertaining, very emotionally engaging at times ((Spoiler - click to show)the Sasquatch again). It may be linear, "on rails" as they say, but it's one heck of a rollercoaster ride.

Must play, if you can stomach that bit-that-will-not-be-mentioned-again.

Finally, I'd like to come back to my favorite puzzle of Gateway.
I have read several reviews and interviews where Emily Short talks about the complicity of the player in commanding the PC, especially when immoral actions are needed to advance the game. She comments that through the years, it has become more of an emotional burden for her to just do whatever it takes as an adventurer to get the proverbial Magic Crystal.
In my years as an adventurer, I have happily stolen stuff, sedated and drugged NPCs, broken all kinds of furniture or laws. I have even killed a good number of guards that happened to be in my way. All without a moral hiccup.
When I first came across (Spoiler - click to show)the Sasquatch however, I found myself very emotionally involved. From the start, I hoped I wouldn't have to harm it. In the end, I did have to treat it in a way that I wasn't comfortable with (although it was not unbearable), and it was a very powerful experience to find myself caring so much about what would happen to this creature. This is where IF done right can truly shine, through shared responsibility between the player and the character.
(Actually, come to think of it, something similar happened when I played LASH, but that game had a twisted player/PC relation at its core that was aimed at just this strange complicity. Gateway is a more traditional adventure in this respect.)

A classic well worth playing (again).

Inevitable, by Kathleen M. Fischer as Timothy Lawrence Heinrich

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Blue Flash!, November 17, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF
I stand in awe. This game is so good...

Top fighter pilot during the past war, you now find yourself accompanying the Ambassador on a tourist trip to a place he slashed into submission from orbit just twenty years ago, while you were down there on a mission of your own. A heavy storm forces you to push him into his spaceship to take him to safety, leaving you alone and stranded on the surface with your storm-damaged plane. You might be able to fix it should you find your multi-purpose tool that you lent to the Ambassador. Maybe he dropped it somewhere during his escape?

As you search the area, you get re-acquanted with the strange towers that stand on the points of a great triangular field, and the massive Ziggurat that stands in the middle. Soon, driven by memories and an only half-understood inner urge, you find yourself unraveling the mysteries of these perplexing structures.

Inevitable takes place on a smallish map, readily memorized and easily accesible. You can oversee much of the area from several locations, making it feel bigger while at the same time tying it together into one big site. The descriptions are evocative while not overloading your brain with too much information.

Actually, the writing overall is extremely good. When exploring the different towers and examining scenery and objects, the text is efficient and to the point, almost cold in places. However, entering certain locations or finding certain objects brings back memories of your last time here, memories you would have rather forgotten. When remembering these, the writing becomes softer, even hesitant.

At its core, Inevitable is a puzzle game. It is actually one big puzzle with tightly interconnected sub-puzzles. Once you understand the overarching problem, the nature of the towers and the Ziggurat, the function of the sub-puzzles becomes clear. (Not their solutions however...) In this way, instead of other IF-games, Inevitable reminded me most of two point-and-click games I bashed my head against in the early 2000s: Chasm and Archipelago. (Ring a bell, anyone?)
The solutions to the obstacles are all logical, which does not make them any easier. I certainly needed some nudges along the way. (Thanks!)

The coding and implementation is top notch. Wrong attempts get helpful replies. You can GO TO locations if you don't want to traverse the entire map. The game starts in Default mode, but you can type EASIER or HARDER at the start of the game, depending on how masochistic you are.

What lifts Inevitable head-and-shoulders above other hard and smart and clever puzzlers is the dramatic backstory revealed in the memories. I felt strongly sympathetic towards the protagonist (I imagine it to be a woman, although the game doesn't say either way.) when she was reliving the final moments of the war through short but heartwrenching flashes of memory.

Extremely good game.

Worlds Apart, by Suzanne Britton

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
My First Love., November 2, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Fantasy, SF
Some fifteen years ago, I came across this strange gameplaying/storytelling -medium. They called it Interactive Fiction. I thought it sounded interesting, but it turned out to be confusing, frustrating. I did not feel welcome in this world.

Then I came across "Worlds Apart". Thank you, Lady Britton, for "Worlds Apart".

For days on end I lost myself in this game, this story. Outer and inner worlds entwine. Exploration demands diving into ocean and mind alike.

Since that experience, I've played a lot of good, even great IF, but...

"Worlds Apart" will always be my first love.

Hibernated 1 - This place is death, by Stefan Vogt

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
"It is what it is.", October 27, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF
Edit: It has been brought to my attention that what I called "retro-gameplay feel" is actual sparsity due to the limitations of the Commodore 64 on which Hibernated 1 was originally written. I therefore added a star for "tight programming in small nooks and crannies".
More in the comments.

"Hibernated 1" is a pretty straightforward sci-fi game with cool electronic engineering puzzles and an abandoned alien ship to spend a few cool hours as a space heroine.

That is, it could be, were it not that the game overdoes its retro-gameplay feel by quite a lot of notches for my tastes.

Although the basic descriptions are good, sometimes even great, implementation of scenery is almost non-existent, making it hard to get a feel for the spaceship you're investigating. Even more frustrating, implementation for needed objects is also very minimalist, leading to exchanges such as this:

It is what it is. A closer examination does not reveal any new insights.

Is the glass slab lying on the floor or standing upright? Is it the size of my head or taller than me? Is it clear and transparent or milky and opaque? These "new insights" might give an inkling as to how to use this thing.

Oh, talking about that verb: due to the two-word parser, you need to USE objects. In the right place, and , very importantly, at the right time. If you do not, the response is unforgiving.

That is not an option.

Even though you really do need to use those parts in that location, only there is something else that has to be done elsewhere in the ship first. So, no helpful responses to tell you you're on the right track.

Well, since you're carrying around IO, a semi-sentient robotic tamagotchi to assist you, you'd think that helpful feedback would be provided by simply:


but unfortunately, 99% of the time you get:

That is not an option.

Because of all this, it is clear at every moment that you are not a female spacecaptain uncovering the secret of a lost alien spacecraft. You are you, sitting at your computer taking a stab at the right sequence of commands to type to make something happen to the gamestate.

That being said, once you've come to that agreement with the game and with yourself, "Hibernated 1" is a fine "logic-in-the-dark" puzzle. Just don't expect too much back from it, like feedback and stuff...

Fragile Shells, by Stephen Granade

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Space Station Escape, October 19, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Escape
This, ladies and gentlemen, is good work!

"Fragile Shells" is an excellently made text escape game. It consists of a series of interconnected puzzles, all of them solvable by using logic, common sense and a ready knowledge of basic physics.

Maybe too easy for some, but I found that the layering of one puzzle onto another, linking their solutions together into one clear chain from the givens to the conclusion was very satisfying indeed.

Just about every command I tried had a meaningful response, a very friendly game indeed.

Add to this an exciting backstory remembered in bits and pieces by the protagonist to frame it, and you get a short and delightful IF-gem.

Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, by Steph Cherrywell

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Good Golly Miss Molly!, September 27, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Comedy
A good story-driven game with easy puzzles and a menu-based conversation system, so nothing gets in the way of defeating the Brainguzzlers and saving your 1950s American Smalltown.

I really liked the game for the first half hour of play. After that the caricature of 1950s scifi horror, and of 1950s American society began to wear me down. I began half expecting The Jetsons coming down in a UFO of their own to drop off the Fonz who would then save the day.
I also doubt that "Jeepers!" would last long as the swearword of choice during an alien attack.

Technically, the game is very well put together. The scripted conversations are perfect for an uptempo story like this. Intro, middle and endgame are well paced. I would have liked some more implementation of scenery, but that would have slowed the game down, so it's understandable. What did bug me, and slowed the game down is the lack of synonyms available. A fast-paced story-game like this would have benefited from a wide choice of different names for your items so you didn't have to stop to remember how something was called in the description. I hated that in a scifi setting such as this, "blaster" was not recognized.

Probably best played in one go, straight through to the (slimy) ending.

City of Secrets, by Emily Short

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Large, engrossing,... and somewhat lacking., September 21, 2020
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: SF, Adventure
Emily Short is one of my favourite IF-writers, and when I found this big story-game with her name under the title, I pounced on it!

And it is good. Apart from being an immersive adventure and a detailed exploration of a fine city, deeper themes also shine through.

Truth above obscurity, even if truth also means complete transparency?

Creativity above strict order, even if creativity also means chaos?

The writing is top-notch, the NPC interactions feel real, the city and its history hold the interest, but in the end, the game misses something.

Is it because the game is so good that I raised the bar impossibly high?

Finding an outdoor café where there were no interactive NPCs and where nothing story-moving happened disappointed me.
Finding out that a little nook in the gameworld, about which I dreamed up many possibilities, didn't play a role in the story didn't feel like a red herring, it felt like a let-down.
Finding out that certain information I found about my character didn't matter to the game was a pity.

But those are nitpicks, and very personal nitpicks at that.

This game is very very good. Just not as amazing as I really really wanted it to be. And that's on me.

So play it.

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