Skyrim, now with Disco Soundtrack

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Matt Barton's picture

Skyrim: Designed by John Romero and John Carmack.Skyrim: Designed by John Romero and John Carmack.Modern CRPGs are console shooters. And that pisses me off. But how did they get this way? Last week I wrote about some features I'd like to see in a classic-style CRPG. I've been thinking more along these lines, thinking carefully about all of my favorite CRPGs and attempting to isolate the elements that so endeared them to me. What I've discovered is that this exercise is futile. You cannot create a good game simply by taking out the best gameplay mechanics from different games--what's more important is how well a designer has been able to build an attractive and coherent homology. I don't much like the term, but I like how Barry Brummett defines "stylistic homology" as "the signifying system that is a style is held together by formal properties such that one could look at a new article of dress, for instance, newly designed, and identify it as Edwardian." I think we could easily do the same for individual games or even whole game franchises, assuming it's well-designed. For instance, World of Warcraft has such a coherent homology that I'm sure most players would be able to look at screenshots of a city they hadn't personally visited--such as the Undercity--and realize it was from WOW and not Guild Wars 2. If you bear with me a moment, you can also see that this concept extends beyond just artwork and into gameplay. Even before you ever played a monk in WOW, for instance, if you're familiar with the other classes then you already have a pretty good idea of how the talents, abilities, and so on will play out. I think it's the sign of a great game when you can introduce something as radical as an entirely new class and not have the rest of the game fall apart.

Unfortunately, the problem is that such coherence comes at a cost. The same factors that allow us to already have a pretty good idea of what the monk will be like are the same factors that lead to boredom and disinterest. And man oh man, am I bored with WOW and Skyrim.

Styles, Edwardian or Victorian or whatever, inevitably change as we become bored with them. A truly clever developer is able to recognize when the reigning style is growing stale, and then swoops in with something fresh (but just as compelling). As merely a critic, it is obvious to me that both Skyrim and Dragon Age II are the discotheques of the 1980s. Pretty soon, anyone who still listens to and dances to this music will feel as ridiculous as they look.

That said, I think it's always a mistake to think something radically new will appear, though that's always how it's presented in the marketing. "Revolutions" in videogames are notoriously anti-historical, refusing to even consider that what they think makes them so novel has been done many times before. I'd go so far as to say that nothing of real consequence has changed about games since the 1980s. It wasn't like kids playing Donkey Kong weren't just as impressed with the graphics or immersed in the gameplay back then as a kid today playing Halo 4 is today. Please don't kid yourself into thinking that the industry has made any "progress," or done anything else but simply go along laterally, temporarily embracing and later abandoning one fashion after another. I'm sure plenty of New Wave fans of the 80s felt that their music was more "advanced" than disco, just as some heavy metal fans of today feel their favorite bands are much "heavier" or more musically sophisticated than Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. In truth, though, there's nothing like that in the music itself, but just in our waning and waxing affiliations with different groups of fans.

If we can expect games, though, to follow a similar style cycle as clothes and music, then I expect what we're seeing now with all of these "old school" Kickstarter projects is the resurgence of 70s culture in the 90s. If my predictions are accurate, at least some of these games will do surprisingly well, and we might enjoy a brief appropriation of these older styles for awhile, though I don't think we'll get a massive shift in mainstream gaming.

I'm starting to think that MMOS and shooters are becoming more like sports than videogames anyway; at this point, the rules and expectations have solidified to the point that talking about them becoming obsolete is like saying basketball or football will be obsolete one day. Of course, there will be changes, but I expect there are plenty of people who'd be happy to continue playing (and more importantly buying) shooters for the rest of their lives. Contrast that, then, with the relatively short-lived phenomenon of fighting arcade games of the 90s, when seemingly every male between the ages of 12 and 24 were obsessed with learning every combo of the thousands of Street Fighter II games on the market. I'd be happily proven wrong on this, but I don't see shooters experiencing the same fate of being doomed to niche gaming and the occasional nostalgia-fueled retro release.

The stylistic homologies I think we're stuck in now, at least regarding CRPGs and MMORPGs, is best shown by looking at Skyrim and Dragon Age II on the CRPG side and Tera and GW2 on the MMORPG. What's happened to CRPGs, at least with major releases, is an increased tendency to make them as much like the reigning genre of shooters as possible, going so far as to use the same engines. To someone like me, playing Skyrim is a lot more like playing Doom than a true CRPG experience such as Ultima VII. This shift towards shooter-ization began very early, of course, with games like Ultima Underworld (1993), Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994), and Might & Magic VI (1998). Now, of course, you can't find a CRPG that doesn't look like it's just a shooter with some grafted on "CRPG elements," and, what's worse, the console-ization of the shooter has homogenized the whole industry into one fast food joint after another. I greet the new Halo or Black Ops game with the same enthusiasm I would greet the Brand New San Diego Bacon Burger with Olives at McDonald's. Sure, it's a "sandwich revolution," yadda yadda, whatever. Yawn.

A lot of these issues are caused by fear. There's a growing fear within the industry, I think, that one day we'll reach a point where's consumers will simply be satisfied with their current consoles and games and stop buying new ones. We've seen this already on the PC with WOW. Instead of striving to make new games and hype them as something extraordinary, Blizzard took a more sensible (if cynical) route and just keeps selling the same game, month after month, to millions of satisfied fans. It seems there's a point where producing new content (what most developers want to do) is replaced by maintaining existing content (what I assume nobody really wants to do). It's like our game designers are these creative types who keep wanting to offer up new versions of basketball and football or new sports altogether, when the public is increasingly demanding that they quit messing with it.

I'm convinced that the only way WOW is going down is if Blizzard decides to do something truly stupid--which they've gotten close to several times before--and alienate their fanbase with radical gameplay changes that piss people off. I think they could keep the same engine for another ten years or more, since by now the fans probably don't even see the graphics (much like basketball players don't spend a lot of time marveling at how shiny the court looks).

Where we DO need to see more innovation, namely the single-player CRPGs, is where we get it the least. Other than the shift to shooter-ization and console-ization, I don't think we've seen anything worth talking about. The current CRPG fan, with his slavish devotion to games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, leave me wondering if any of them have bothered to play any of the classics. I am tired of playing Doom and trying to con myself into thinking it's a role-playing game. It's not. It's Doom. Skyrim is Doom. I don't hate Doom. But I do hate that Skyrim is Doom, and I can't play anything but Doom no matter how much I spend on "new" CRPGs. We're talking here about a genre whose titles are so similar that you have to get into "story" and "characters" and other bullshit that really have no business being in the game at all. At least if you're talking about how the game handles cover and shield recharges (or whatever), you're talking about something that is actually part of the game and not some pretentious "story arc" that would make a fan fic author look like Shakespeare.

Before someone starts accusing me of not appreciating good stories in the few games that have them, such as Planescape: Torment, I do. But that game is one of only a handful I can think of where the way the story unfolds is directly connected to the gameplay, and not merely grafted on. I'm talking, of course, of the death gameplay mechanic in that game and how it needs the story to justify it. That's actually an interesting application for story. A game like Mass Effect 3, though, does the opposite, merely putting us in the movie and letting us move the camera around a bit in between scenes.

Seven Samurai: Now available for Xbox 360.Seven Samurai: Now available for Xbox 360.Here's an idea for those who love stories in games so much. Watch a great movie, like Seven Samurai, with a game controller in your hand. Keep pressing buttons and moving your thumbs about during the movie. I promise you will enjoy the characters and story in this game a lot more than Skyrim.

So, I've bitched enough. But what sort of stylistic homology would I like to see in CRPGs?

First, I want us to take several giant leaps back from shooters and consoles. I do not want to play Doom, and I do not want to play a CRPG with a gamepad. If the gameplay is simplified or action-oriented to the point where it's playable on a gamepad, count me out. If you want to copy another game, I'm fine with that, but make it Wizardry or Rogue or Pool of Radiance. If you want to bastardize another genre's gameplay mechanics, please take from strategy games, not shooters. The intensity should come from the thought I am asked to put into the game, not the rapidity with which I can mash buttons on a controller.

Second, I want a story that either directly ties to the gameplay or stays the hell out of my way. There's a reason why so many RPGs (paper and videogames) have cliched plots like "kill the evil wizard/dragon/witch who's brought on eternal winter to the realm." That's because the story is not important. What is important, by contrast, is how you go about killing that wizard, building up your resources, abilities, and fortunes. Ideally, that evil wizard will begin to arouse some real hatred in us by the time we get to him, at which point bringing him down with a finger of death will be extremely satisfying. You don't arouse hatred in a player's heart by showing cutscenes or dialogues that paint the wizard as a real asshole. You do it by having him affect the gameplay, taking some or all of the player's money, for instance, or something as simple as a slow spell. Imagine a game where periodically the evil wizard forces everyone in the realm (including, of course, the players) to pay a 40% tax on all their property, losing items if they don't have the money. Are you telling me you wouldn't be foaming at the mouth hysterical by the time you finally got to that asshole's inner sanctum?

If you must have characters, they should exist primarily to reinforce the achievements and failures of the player. They should act exasperated if the player sucks, making fun of him or giving advice. Even if the player is good, they should encourage him to do better. I'd love to have a Gordon Ramsey like character in the party (or perhaps as a king) that would constantly berate and make the player feel like a nob whenever they do anything stupid or incompetent. Imagine the satisfaction you'd feel as you gradually began to impress him, until at the end he's offering to make you his executive sorcerer. The key to a character like this, of course, is not giving him static screens or dialog, but tie his responses directly to the gameplay. We get a bit of this in some of the new casual games, though I still think developers are more concerned with stroking egos than setting a high bar and forcing players to rise to it.

I'd like to think that most players feel letdown by a game that does too much ego stroking or hand holding, though. I personally find it embarrassing to play a game where I'm stuck controlling a "bad ass" main character. It's degrading to me; like the designer is saying--"Hey, little wimp, don't you want to fantasize about being He-Man and stomping all those bullies who pick on you? Don't you wish you had abs like that?" I'd rather play as a party that gets its ass kicked until I finally figure out what I'm doing and still barely manage to make it to the end. I don't want you to make me feel like a real man. I want you to let me be one.

Don't think that having me kill a dragon in the opening scene of the game is going to impress me. It does the opposite. It disgusts me that you think you need to pander me, because I'm so insecure and idiotic, that I need to be patted on the head and told how "big of a boy I am!" I'd rather be locked into a 15-minute fight with a rat and barely manage to escape with one party member still conscious. Show me that you respect me as a mature gamer and have set a very high standard for me to reach. Just @$@ give us that chance and to hell with what your marketing people or focus groups or other charlatans that all we want is candy.

Would more people like basketball if you changed the size of the baskets to twelve feet across and put a targeting reticule on the ball? Yet that's precisely what's happened with CRPGs. It disgusts me, and it should disgust you. CRPGs are not the genre of the elite anymore. This is the genre of the spoiled rotten brat.

Comments

Merlkir (not verified)
oh boy

So basically, you feel you're "elite", you'd like to play miniature battles on the computer and you call this RPGs. Roll-Playing-Games then?
Your show's pretty good and I enjoy the interviews, but boy oh boy, you seem to be a bit...I don't wanna say "radical", but kind of silly? Big headed?

Anyway, amusing article. (and despite finding your hardcore view unnecessary and limiting, I did enjoy the bits about "progress" in games.)

Merlkir (not verified)
Kickstarter and innovation?

This reminds me - which way would you like for RPGs to evolve then? Or progress, or sidestep, whatever you want to call it.

Is there a direction you think could be improved, explored further, innovated in any way, possibly by a Kickstarter project?
What is there to improve upon in turn based party RPGs?

RPS made the argument recently that KS games so far mostly cater to player nostalgia rather than the proclaimed innovation and it seems to be the case. There have been a few projects though which are doing very interesting stuff with technology. (for example, something that's interesting to me - physics based movement and combat instead of premade animations. It looks funny and drunken at the moment, but keyframe animations did too all those years ago before they became the standard. Anyway, I guess that's too action-shootery for you. )

What about Malevolence? That might be more up your alley. Endless world full of monsters you can happily slay on a square grid? ;P

Cody (not verified)
Another anti-story article

Another anti-story article :-/ Planetscape Torment aside.

I read a great article in an Australian gaming magazine earlier in the year (PC PowerPlay) about how we shouldn't feel angry or worried about games that experiment with the interactive story mechanic at the sacrifice of gameplay. We should welcome all kinds of games and enjoy that indies are trying different things. The specific example was To The Moon, a fantastic game I'd love Matt to play because it's such a beautifully told story, but one where what you do doesn't really change what's going to happen. (Then again, how much of anything is changed in any game?)

Is it a game? Is it an interactive story? I don't care. It's something I remember so fondly that I will never regret paying for it for as long as I live.

On Friday night I finished Demon's Souls on PS3. There's a game that has a plot to it, somewhere in the background if you can find it and understand it, but has pretty much stripped out all exposition so there's no actual "story" except what you make in your head. Personally I think it's one of the most addictive and memorable games I've ever played. I wonder if Matt would like it. I've heard people refer to it as an RPG but to me it feels like something else. The only RPG interactive element is really what equipment you collect/carry, and absolute choice about who you kill and why.

All of these things concern me. What would Matt think of these games? I have no idea but I'd like to know. Sometimes I feel worried that his writing has become more shock-jock and less open/critical. But it might just be his personality running loose. I'm ok with that.

Matt Barton
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A lot of the times when I'm

A lot of the times when I'm writing these things I let my mind loose and see where it takes me. Something I encourage everyone to do, actually--take a radical idea and see how far you can go with making a case for it. The key, of course, is to remain flexible and open-minded.

Merlkir wrote:

for example, something that's interesting to me - physics based movement and combat instead of premade animations. It looks funny and drunken at the moment, but keyframe animations did too all those years ago before they became the standard. Anyway, I guess that's too action-shootery for you. )

Actually, not at all. This is something I've also been touting, since it could make miniature-looking games such as Pool of Radiance or Icewind Dale look a lot more compelling visually. I'd love to see a game where you could see wounds, swords flying out of people's hands, etc. I suppose the challenges involved are extremely difficult, far beyond the easy-peasy "upgrades" we get in consoles and even PC "evolution." As far as I can tell, physics-based movement hasn't advanced much further than the flight simulators of the 1970s.

Cody wrote:

The specific example was To The Moon, a fantastic game I'd love Matt to play because it's such a beautifully told story, but one where what you do doesn't really change what's going to happen. (Then again, how much of anything is changed in any game?)

I actually have this game sitting on my shelf and need to get around to playing it. It does have two strikes against it, though--the box goes on and on about the story, and the artwork looks like a JRPG, a genre I've never much cared for.

I'm not, by the way, saying that games shouldn't HAVE stories. I'm saying that they shouldn't TELL stories. What the player does in the game is the story, not what is told to him in cut-scenes, dialogue, or friggin' books he has to read on screen. I much prefer the vignette approach Tim Cain and Chris Avellone are so good at, where you just see the details and piece together yourself what happened. That's actually giving the player some credit and assuming he's not some moron with no imagination. Thank you for respecting my intelligence, Chris and Tim!

Even in games that have great stories, I find myself wishing they'd just have made a movie instead. If I'm really engrossed in a narrative, I don't want to stop and have to fight a bunch of thugs, then get back to it an hour later.

It's a difficult concept I'm trying to get across, but I guess I could use the analogy of breakfast cereal with marshmallows. A lot of games have pretty stale gameplay, so they try to make up for that by adding marshmallows, or stories. That way, they think, you won't notice how bland the rest of the cereal tastes.

What I'd prefer instead is for the game itself to be interesting and compelling enough that I don't feel the need for a story. How many times have you played a CIV game and thought, man, I wish they'd stop now and show me a lengthy cut scene with lots of characters and blah blah...They have enough sense to know that you're creating your own story as you play, thinking about what your people must be doing, etc. You can imagine all that on your own; you don't need some designer to spell it out for you. Instead, they just stimulate your imagination by showing you images, intriguing quotations, and other techniques designed to get you thinking about the story of your civ.

As far as X-Com goes, I really enjoyed it and wish a CRPG designer would rip it off. I don't think it'd be much of a step at all to turn that engine into a kickass CRPG. All you'd really need to do is change the "hire soldiers" into a character creation screen at the start. How hard would it be to change the rest into fantasy fare, replacing laser guns with magic missiles and so on? I even like the idea of having a central base, perhaps a small village kingdom that your party could expand into a large kingdom as you acquire more land and resources.

I thought Pool of Radiance's basic story had a lot to do with its appeal. The idea was you were part of this resurging city of Phlan, which was just being re-settled. Your party got to go out and explore--and they got to keep the riches they found! How could that not appeal to a good capitalist like me? Of course, it also helped that the designers were wise, and knew better than to give you thousands of magical items after your first battle. Nope--you felt like a god when finally found a short sword +1 for your thief. Cloak of displacement? Whoa!!! Save, save, save!

I actually thought Curse of the Azure Bonds, which did introduce a lot more story, was a weaker entry than Pool. The Silver Blades game just bored me. I think the problem was that they did such a good job with Pool that you didn't really need sequels.

As far as the story in MMOs goes, that is by far the least interesting thing about them to me. I don't give a frack about panda politics and why the horde hates alliance of any of that stuff. All I care about is leveling up my character, getting better gear, and getting in a position to better exploit the resources in the game world. The less quest text and cut scenes I have to watch, the better. I'm trying to do the "story quests" in Guild Wars 2 right now and, again, these are some of the worst parts of the game. Big disappointment. What's really fun in that game? Figuring out how to get up to the vistas. That's the most fun I've had in that game yet.

I'll say it again. I want to be the story, not have it told to me. Games are the only medium where you can let the player do that, so why the hell are we settling for less? Why do you want your game to be like a novel or a film? Make it like a game, damnit!

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Merlkir (not verified)
playing the role

So, would you say you'd like games to rely more on emergent gameplay and open sandbox possibilities? This is probably the most important draw of the TES games, imo (certainly for me anyway), so it's interesting you dislike Skyrim so much.

I enjoy both sandboxy games like that and linear story-rails, like Spirit Engine. In that game you can't really influence the story and you go through it in set stages, but the characters are fun, it's well written, the combat system mostly works and as you say - you learn about the world from conversation and events, not through too much exposition.

Still, I've burned the most hours in the Mount and Blade series of games (hundreds and hundreds). And that's pretty much a sandboxy medieval knight sim. Somehow the lack of cinematics, cutscenes and an overall plot allows for wonderful player-inserted roleplaying. That NPC is just that, an NPC for you to talk in few generated sentences. But if you've perhaps met him before and got beat up by him, you start to assign character traits to him. I sometimes caught myself talking about what was happening in the game, narrating. Yeah, this kind of game I like very much and I'd prefer if there were more games like this, rather than cinematic shooters. Sure.

Matt Barton
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It's a complex issue. There

It's a complex issue. There are plenty of games that have brilliant stories that draw you in and keep you there. On the other hand, there are very few games that are able to keep the story and gameplay tightly related, working with each other rather than against. I think one reasons why stories work better in adventure games is that the expectations of the audience are different, but more importantly the style of gameplay allows you to adapt to many different situations. In bad examples, the puzzles have nothing to do with the story and just distract from it--and vice versa. In better ones, it's clear that whatever puzzle you're trying to solve is also part of the story.

In a CRPG, most of the gameplay consists of combat and exploration. It isn't always obvious (or possible) to adapt those conventions for the purpose of telling a story, particularly if your story goes beyond "kill evil wizard" or "rescue damsel."

If my only issue with Skyrim was with the story elements, I'd be quite happy with it. I did a podcast earlier about why I didn't care for it; you can listen to that here: http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/4417

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Alan (not verified)
"I'd love to see a game where

"I'd love to see a game where you could see wounds, swords flying out of people's hands, etc."
THIS. I'm no mathematician, but it doesn't seem like it would be THAT difficult for a game to detect when a sword makes contact with an enemy torso, and *stop the sword swing there to show you've made contact*. Has ANY game bothered to do this?

Matt Barton
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Good ?
Alan wrote:

"I'd love to see a game where you could see wounds, swords flying out of people's hands, etc."
THIS. I'm no mathematician, but it doesn't seem like it would be THAT difficult for a game to detect when a sword makes contact with an enemy torso, and *stop the sword swing there to show you've made contact*. Has ANY game bothered to do this?

That's a good question. I know there are people here (Bill!) who could answer this better than I could. Surely there must be a fighting game, for instance, where they have convincing combat physics. For my part, I've yet to see anything even remotely realistic-looking in CRPG combat. It's usually just the same animation over and over (sometimes comically not even touching!), or the usual magic explosion or blood spurt to cover up where the contact would have taken place.

It amazes me that even though most gamers are absolutely obsessed with graphical realism, no one seems to care about the physics. About the only genre where I've seen attention to this sort of thing is racing games, where you can damage different parts of the car or get rammed right off the road. I suspect a lot of that has to do with the fact that many of us know what it feels like to drive a car, and they have to get that right--whereas few of us have ever been in a sword fight, thus they can fudge that and keep it abstract as hell.

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Multi-headed Cow (not verified)
DBTS
Alan wrote:

"I'd love to see a game where you could see wounds, swords flying out of people's hands, etc."
THIS. I'm no mathematician, but it doesn't seem like it would be THAT difficult for a game to detect when a sword makes contact with an enemy torso, and *stop the sword swing there to show you've made contact*. Has ANY game bothered to do this?

Not in any RPG that I can recall, but the action game Die by the Sword did that for the most part. Even left little bloody polygons on the character models where they were hit.
http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/die_by_the_sword_expansion
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41UyXgofO3o

Used a goofy system where you either used your mouse movements to swing your weapon arm around, or used the numpad on your keyboard. Pressing 6 then 4 would be a slash to the left, pressing 7 then 3 would be a diagonal swing to the lower right, etc. Had removable limbs on most all characters in the game so there theoretically was some strategy involved but it mostly boiled down to swinging like a maniac and hoping for the best.
Still, played it a bunch.

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
The Bilestoad, DBTS, GoldenEye, etc.
Multi-headed Cow wrote:
Alan wrote:

"I'd love to see a game where you could see wounds, swords flying out of people's hands, etc."
THIS. I'm no mathematician, but it doesn't seem like it would be THAT difficult for a game to detect when a sword makes contact with an enemy torso, and *stop the sword swing there to show you've made contact*. Has ANY game bothered to do this?

Not in any RPG that I can recall, but the action game Die by the Sword did that for the most part. Even left little bloody polygons on the character models where they were hit.
http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/die_by_the_sword_expansion
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41UyXgofO3o

Used a goofy system where you either used your mouse movements to swing your weapon arm around, or used the numpad on your keyboard. Pressing 6 then 4 would be a slash to the left, pressing 7 then 3 would be a diagonal swing to the lower right, etc. Had removable limbs on most all characters in the game so there theoretically was some strategy involved but it mostly boiled down to swinging like a maniac and hoping for the best.
Still, played it a bunch.

I agree. The Bilestoad for the Apple II was probably the first with the flying limbs thing and featured a complicated control system. Die By the Sword used an even more complicated control system - something that I think was it's only real failing for me (though it was advertised as a positive feature) - and used "real" calculations for the damage modeling. Certainly today with the prevalence of rag doll physics we could easily have a third generation of the concept and one that does it ultimate justice.

It's probably not being done because of the high difficulty of the implementation, and, frankly, the controversy it would generate. Sad, really. Certainly one reason why I loved the Nintendo 64 classic, GoldenEye, was the simple touch of being able to target specific bodyparts and even knock hats off of heads. When you go too far with the real world physics, you get a "Jurassic Park: Trespasser" type disaster, but just the right implementation (just enough--favorite core gamer linchpin "Angry Birds" is a good example) improves things immensely.

I remember very distinctly when I was playing the SSI classic, Phantasie III, it had a limb-based damage system. Limbs would get lopped off perhaps a bit too regularly - and it was only a turn-based game - but it certainly did add something to the experience. The point is, there are plenty of examples pointing the way to the rights and wrongs of implementing this...

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