148: A Wink is as Good as a Pixelated Nipple

A Wink is as Good as a Pixelated Nipple

"Games have gotten very good at guns, physics, audio and graphics that leave the real world looking low-res. Off to the side and down a few alleys, they're also pretty good at porn. I like these things, all of them, not to mention bouncing around like a prat with a plastic guitar, being addicted to World of Warcraft and those perverse Japanese cooking sims.

"But someone needs to send out a search party for sex appeal."

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Thing is, you're pushing a very specific concept of sexy here.

Personally I find Tifa's level four limit break in FFVII plenty sexy enough. ;-)

I almost wanted to offer you a tissue after that review...

The main problems are always going to be the Authority and the You factor.

Even if we do get close (And both Alyx [HL2] and Aki Ross [FF:TSW] do get close) there's still the question of taste; there's as many sexual identities out there as there are fingerprints.

The next problem is Big Brother. These things are underground for a reason, because they contain things that many adults find offensive, before you even think about children. A slow news day would mean a crucifying for any tabloid/government minister that found them.

Then, as usual, there's the problem of size. Most erotic fiction is short wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am writing, and it's so easy to do it laughably wrong. To do it properly, you have to build up an entire relationship between the two people and then get them through it. Normally that takes at least a few dates, so if your game is under 60 hours length, it won't be realistic.

You've caught this in the article though; it's the nebulous state of "Will they/Won't they/Is she a screamer/Is he capable?" that intrigues us; and that's actually easier done when it's not mentioned.

Like Horror, Sex is something better imagined from your own experience. And the one sexiest part of most women/men? The voice; and no computer is gonna be able to have the low growl of Elvira unless Cassandra Petersen puts it in herself.

It deserves a cursory mention, at least, but Fahrenheit's (Indigo Prophecy, if you will) scene where the ex arrives to pick up her stuff came to mind reading this article. Sure, the 'interactive sex' (depending on the outcome of the night) doesn't quite work, but that scene worked to capture the whole bitter-sweetness of the moment really well. Not sexy, per se, but on the verge of that desire for a more mature engagement in that emotional arena.

More generally, I'm gonna have to echo the previous sentiments. Each to their own, sexual identities galore etc. That was my initial reaction; that those ideas of 'sexy' in reference to Hollywood, reference a very particular, heterosexual, commodified, even capitalised sexuality. I'd prefer it if games didn't follow hollywood's suit in those instances.

(In which case, hooray for the 'niche' or 'underground' markets of AIF and Japanese games celebrating that diversity (even if I don't quite get them))

But, when the best we get towards a mainstream game engaging in 'sexy' and sexuality is Mass Effect, where the partner is only ever; always-already female, despite allusions to non-heterosexual encounters (although it is no new argument to say that lesbianism, as a media commdity, is as heterosexual as it gets) is it any wonder how far gaming culture and games are from even Hollywood's limited and limiting notions of sexy? The criticisms of gaming culture as masculinist, homophobic, emotionally immature loom large and are difficult to refute in these instances.

It seems the question is less about sexy, more about affectual or emotional relationships. We can relate and empathise with movie or TV characters and situations (and games such a Fahrenheit, with written, fleshed out characters) but when, as in most games, you play an extension-of-yourself, trying to engage players emotionally with characters requires such a reliance on mobilising cultural dimensions, that it's doomed not-to-work, except for certain people, in certain instances.

Great article! But I dont really have anything to add but a request for more characters as charming and independant as Alyx.

A nods as good as a wink to a blind bat!

I'll stop there before i go totally python.

Just look at the uproar Hot Coffee and Mass Effect caused, though gaming is mature enough for this now the general daily mail reading, fox watching populas really isn't and we would get crucified for their hang ups.

These are great points, and I appreciate you all taking the time to make them. Dom Camus and Cooper42, yes, in the article I'm putting forward a pretty basic, Hollywood-style version of "sexy" (AIF and Japan excluded). And it's a very, very small piece of what's possible. But my argument - at least in my head - is bigger; if games won't even explore Monica Bellucci territory, how will they ever get out into the complexity, diversity, and weirdness of real world sex appeal and relationships?

I really would like to recognise something, anything, of my own version of "sexy" in the games I play; but with rare exceptions it's just not there.

Cheers

Colin

I personally find annoying when they put sex in comic books and video games because I fell like the games/books are mocking me.

Pseudonym2:
I personally find annoying when they put sex in comic books and video games because I fell like the games/books are mocking me.

I agree with that.

I think there will be a growing market for this kind of thing. With divorces on the rise, new marriages on the fall, and more and more people deciding that seeking relationships isn't worth it, more people will want to get gratification from it.

I'm totally with you on the Monica Belluci factor!

In terms of sensuality and sexuality, while not quite hitting the mark with either, The Darkness features a section that I found mirrored the intimacy of a real relationship more accurately than any other game I've seen. You go up to your girlfriend Jenny's apartment and she has bought you a birthday cake as a surprise, you blow out the candles and she suggests that you relax and watch TV with her. She sits down on the couch and you sit next to her. If you wait a while she leans over against you, nestling her head on your shoulder. If you wait longer your character puts his arm around her and you watch the intro to 'To Kill A Mockingbird' on the TV. Wait even longer and she leans in and you kiss (which they still haven't quite nailed in digital form) and you get an Xbox achievement (just like in real life). This is all done in first person, which adds a sense of realism to it.
Also at other times during the game when you see her, Jenny seems genuinely happy to see you and will talk enthusiastically about this and that. Your relationship with her seemed very "natural" and I think it added to the game as a whole.

As in so many other games over the years, from King's Quest to KOTOR, the relationships were an exact calculus of button-pushing - "if I click this, then this, then this, she'll take off her Star Trek costume!" Not that I didn't click. It's sex with a blue-skinned alien. Normally takes $50 worth of paint and a Real Doll to get that far.

I've always felt that games do combat so well because combat *is* about button-pushing. Our controllers over the years have even morphed to include triggers. Guns have always been center stage because gun combat translates so well to controllers, while something like swordplay doesn't. And as soon as a controller *does* look like it can do swordplay--the Wii--immediately everyone started thinking about Lightsabers.

I don't think it's an accident that everyone loved _Ico_ so much because the act in the game of taking the Princess' hand was reenforced by the rumble of the controller. You got a little bit of that visceral connection that makes the Xbox triggers so good for FPSes, racing wheels for driving games.

Also, maybe part of it is that the 'lack of reality' that makes sex in games unsatisfying is *exactly* what makes violence in games so awesome. You wrote "Something that would bridge the gap between, say, Monica Bellucci with that look in her eye and a harshly lit, bump-mapped Real Doll in a spaceship." That makes me think three things:

One, about how any illustrated dictionary should have a picture of her next to the entry on 'sex appeal';

Two, the connection between Monica Bellucci and pedestrian walkways that travel around active motorways...

and Three, that _Gears of War_ works better than _Mass Effect_ exactly because we *want* that distance in a game involving violence that is so frustrating in games involving sexuality. I don't really have any desire to shoot sentient creatures in real life, even invading aliens. I *like* that distance between what I imagine it must be like to take a sentient life and shooting half the other team through a wall with an LMG. I *don't* like the distance between having my hands on Monica Bellucci and having my hands on a piece of plastic, no matter what the look in the eye on the television.

I hate to be this un-PC and crude, but, I think the problem with sex and sex appeal in games is the same problem with fishing games: I eventually want to be able to put my hands on my catch.

Heh... I got the entire Buffy and Angel DVD box sets this past Christmas (finally got to use those old VHS tapes for something else), and just got to the episode in Season 5 where Spike first realizes he has a crush on Buffy, so that mention really struck a chord. Right as rain about the "angry self-destruction" remark (did I mention I'm a total Whedon fanboy enough times today yet?). But anyway...

Cheeze_Pavilion:

As in so many other games over the years, from King's Quest to KOTOR, the relationships were an exact calculus of button-pushing - "if I click this, then this, then this, she'll take off her Star Trek costume!" Not that I didn't click. It's sex with a blue-skinned alien. Normally takes $50 worth of paint and a Real Doll to get that far.

I've always felt that games do combat so well because combat *is* about button-pushing. Our controllers over the years have even morphed to include triggers. Guns have always been center stage because gun combat translates so well to controllers, while something like swordplay doesn't. And as soon as a controller *does* look like it can do swordplay--the Wii--immediately everyone started thinking about Lightsabers.

Exactly, that's why conversation in games is limited. Combat is about button pushing, but conversation is not. Now, in an effort to resist the temptation to go into the whole "this is why women are better at it because men were trained for combat" minefield, I'll just remind everyone about processing limits and all that stuff.

This is the same debate, if you recall, that raged between Razzle Bathbone and Seldon (and me) in one of the endless "JRPGs vs. WRPGs" arguments that have been plaguing us since Yahtzee's Mass Effect review. Razzle complained that JRPGs were too linear and scripted, and Seldon and I said that we'd prefer either the entire thing to be scripted or the entire thing to be unscripted and organically grown.

And as of right now, our gaming software just isn't powerful enough to handle that. We can't create an artificial GM, and until we do, there will be no substitute for the pen & paper RPGs played with real-life friends.

It's the same thing with dating. For the moment, all we can do is the simple dialogue trees and scripted sequences, we can't do more than that because games, for the moment, can't handle an organic storyline.

The alternative is to create a linear storyline with a lot of drama and interesting events scripted and ready to follow... and get trashed for making the game too linear and with too many cutscenes. I believe you mentioned not wanting to make games similar to movies?

But I do hear you. Granted, I personally hate seeing "realistic" relationships in fiction (because that's what real life is for), but I understand the appeal. Keep in mind, however, that gaming is still a relatively new approach. For the first several decades of the motion picture industry (which got started way back in the 1890s), no filmmaker ever dreamed of depicting any "realistic" drama onscreen. This was partially because of the tech limitations, but it was also because movies were considered a very "escapist" (hardee har) medium (ever seen the movie Sullivan's Travels? I highly recommend it, partially just because it's a great movie but also because it really illustrates the rationale behind this method). The first notion of "drama" in movies didn't come along until well into the sound era. The twenties were called the "laughing twenties" because that was the period of comedy, and not just in Hollywood. A lot of Japanese dramatists started out making silent comedies. Yasujiro Ozu, who would go on to direct some of the most depressing movies I've ever seen ("great art," of course) started out making some of the funniest silent shorts ever to grace the art-house theatre in Madison, and I kind of forgot where I was going with this...

Oh yes, I meant that gaming is still a young medium. Full of dumb show and hungry for attention. In time, who knows, it just might come true. As soon as we make computers that can truly handle an artificial GM engine, video gaming might just become the most profound, touching, thought-provoking art medium the world has ever known. In the meantime, we're still in the Laughing Twenties.

"For the first several decades of the motion picture industry (which got started way back in the 1890s), no filmmaker ever dreamed of depicting any "realistic" drama onscreen."

Yes, this is exactly where the original (longer) version of the article headed. Films were also hassled for being a shallow, immature medium, with very similar arguments to those brought against penny dreadfuls in the 19th century, pop music in the 1950s and now video games.

I'm not arguing for realism so much as depth, range, and recognition, though others' mileage may obviously vary.

Thanks very much for such an erudite post.

Cheers

Colin

Well done, Programmed_For_Darr, you beat me to a mention of The Darkness.

The reality of the relationship and the ability to interact with the protagonist's girlfriend in somewhat believable, lighthearted conversation, in however scripted a fashion, induced a convinced affection.

The Darkness made you care for.. Jennifer, was her name? They knew what they were doing and they did it well.

As for sex appeal in games.. Tss. This is something I think will be primarily the realm of the MMO for a while yet, convincing sexual repartee and varied bodylanguages is beyond the grasp of AI presently available to the game industry.

I'm sure we'll see something crop up in the indie realm long before it hits mainstream, though.

I too rarely come across 'sexy', Bellucci or otherwise, in games. Then again, it's not that often a Hollywood blockbuster hits that spot either. It's a skill I hope game developers will eventually acquire.

Which is where the gaming industry may be too immature, like films and television before. Whilst we are pushing graphics to extremes, and there are some amazing developments in game mechanics, mobilising story telling and narrative, character development, setting in a theatrical sense - the traditional means of emotionally engaging an audience - are skills gaming seems to lack, or at least be poor at integrating them into gameplay (c.f. Levine I guess). Whatsmore, where they have been engaged with, it's largely through borrowing from movie styles.

The Darkness was interesting in this regards, in that it didn't neccessarily rely on movie formats. It was as much about setting as scripting, naturalism and romanticism, Jennifer's couch to Alyx's hand-pressed silently-against-the-glass-of-the-elevator. Both worked on an emotional level, to some extent, sexy or otherwise.

Spike and Buffy's tryst might be possible, and not something out of place in an engaged RPG (Bloodlines?). It the subtle sexuality - the wink - which is going to be the most challenging. I also think (hope) we might see some incredible talent which manages to achieve that with the tools available to game makers. We don't necessarily have those minutae of facial expressions, highly controlled camera movements and finely choreographed, scripted performances. If someone manages to pull of a subtler form of sexuality with the tools of gaming, it's gonna be something impressive. I just hope people keep trying, and that people keep writing stuff like this to show there are people out there who want a bit more than bouncing boobs.

I think what's most disappointing about video game sexuality is that it's an exception. The range of experience and emotion in games is generally very good. If you name an emotional experience or a sentiment, there's probably a game that's done it -- and done it well! From serene detachment to incoherent rage to tender protectiveness to warm comfort, there is a game that has made us feel that. For all that we sell games short, for all that we feel they can (must!) do better, the proof is out there that games can get these things right.

But this otherwise quite impressive palette is missing an entire chunk of the color spectrum, and I don't think it's unreasonable to wonder why Sex Is Different. Is it just the cultural/embarrassment factor? Is it the ratings organizations and the resultant timidity of the studios? Is it an age/demographics issue? But each of these you would expect to be as much an opportunity for independent developers as it is a hurdle for the big studios. Nor is it immediately clear to me that this is a matter of the medium -- maybe it is, but I don't think that's been proven. I think there's a genuine enigma here.

Shameless self-promotion: the post which broke my blog nigh two years ago!

[Insert "going out with a bang" pun here]

Cooper42:
Which is where the gaming industry may be too immature, like films and television before.... It the subtle sexuality - the wink - which is going to be the most challenging.

I agree. I raised a related question a while back in my Escapist 132 piece about Weta Workshop - many game dev studios still seem full of young men with design and comp. sci degrees. Is this a population likely to be good at subtlety, sexy or sexuality? My experience of film production people (and book authors, and comic writers, for that matter) and is that there's a surprising variety of ages, backgrounds, and life experiences among them; my limited experience of game dev outfits is that they seem a lot more monochrome...

Only a thought and I got flamed for it last time :-)

Cheers

Colin

subtleness is a lost artform, a certain jenasaqua to just letting the imagination fill int he blanks.

There is nothing wrong with sexyness persay its the overuse and overt tones thats not always needed.

When I think of "a wink", I think of the Alyx character from HL2 and the following episodes. Because that character managed to rub off just enough a sense of intimacy onto my character, I actually cared when she was in danger or especially at the end of Episode 2, when she cried, I admit I actually teared up. Even now I feel something just remembering it, I think the voice actor (and those responsible for the animations as well) for that should seriously be given some sort of award to represent that her performance had such impact.

IMHO, Alyx is the sexiest female character I have encountered in a game experience so far.

Honestly (I think I'm just too tired to be reading this) I had no idea what the point of this article was, but the title is pretty amazing!

I find it amazing that in a conversation about video game sex no one has mentioned Leisure Suit Larry games. No, not that Magna Cum Laude abomination from a few years back - I am talking the originals from the 90's. LSL games were perhaps the only games in the history of gaming that remained "real" games (as opposed to casual flash games, or second-rate, under the table porn simulators), while still being unequivocally adult games. They had the balls to focus on sex front and center without becoming one the above mentioned porn similators, and did so with a sense of humor, fully realizing the limitation of computers, but also appreciating the power of the human imagination to fill in things that 2D (and later 3D) animation couldn't handle. And they were actually a lot of fun.

So I hereby submit to you that we don't need super advanced technology to do Monica Bellucci in a video game. We just need to pay a little bit of attention to human psychology. Hell, if we wait for the day when CGI can produce a realistic kiss in full resolution (we can hardly do hair, for chissakes!), we'll go to our graves as unsatisfied as we are this day. Think of the movies: a lot of the time your juices start flowing just at the IDEA of the resident sexy mama touching someone - indeed, you may never even see that desire materialize before the film ends, and yet sexiness has certainly been accomplished. Games are no different. You just have build your "sexy engine" with the same amount of forethought that you put into your combat engine.

And btw, sexiness does not need to be interactive. That's an addiction that we gamers have - we want to touch everything. But sexiness should not be touched - you will, in fact, probably ruin it the minute you are allowed to put your digital paws upon it. Sexiness should SEEM touchable - but remain out of actual reach. Any woman worth her salt will tell you that much. And that's why Leisure Suit Larry games were 1000% sexier than Mass Effect - Larry never got the girl.

That one little thing is what makes our challenge in video games much greater than that of the film industry - the movies are non-interactive by nature, and run no risk of overstepping that subtle boundary. Games, on the other hand, have the (frequently exercised!) power to ruin the moment before it even starts.

Oh and one more thing - we've got to get more women into game development. Because most of us men have no idea how to reproduce the Monica Belluccis of the world (in digital format or otherwise!) - even if we do spend most of our lives chasing them.

The more I think of this, the more I think the problem is mechanic versus reward.

In most games violence is the mechanic, and if you're good enough at it sex (implied, generally) is the reward. There are variations -- sometimes the mechanic is conversation, or puzzle solving, or whatever, sometimes the reward is something more general or vague. But it is pretty much never the case that sex is the mechanic and violence is seldom the reward.

The question that must be answered before you can get decently sexy games is, how does the sexiness advance things toward a different, non-sex goal? Because until sex is an instrument toward a different goal, it's just going to seem like "pay the user off with pornography." Sex shouldn't be the climax, so to speak.

Of course, put that way it sounds almost sociopathic -- using sex to manipulate things toward some other objective. But I'm not sure it's any more sociopathic than slaughtering one's way through a few cubic kilometers of landscape to reach the castle and rescue the princess.

vaga_koleso:
...fully realizing the limitation of computers, but also appreciating the power of the human imagination to fill in things that 2D (and later 3D) animation couldn't handle. And they were actually a lot of fun.

So I hereby submit to you that we don't need super advanced technology to do Monica Bellucci in a video game. We just need to pay a little bit of attention to human psychology....

Hi vaga,

Great post. This is the keystone of my argument - the ability to suggest rather than show. It's great that so many people on this thread are leaning in the same direction; once again, the much longer original article touched on this, though my example wasn't Larry but another Sierra game, and you'll laugh your a** off at the choice:

[snip]

The Colonel's Bequest is a 1988 Sierra Adventure game written by the saccharine Roberta Williams. You're in an old plantation house with murderous houseguests and 16 colour graphics. There's a French maid, Fifi (of course!) who spends half the game wandering in and out of rooms, serving food and giving you the odd glance. Then you spy her undressing behind a wooden screen. There's no nakedity, no possibility that you'll get anywhere with her (the main Colonel's Bequest character is female, and Roberta's games just don't swing that way). All she really does is deliver one pixellated wink while pulling on a nightgown.

But damn that cheesy, awkward, sexy moment stuck with me a long time. And no game since the 3D graphics revolution has had quite the same effect.

[snip]

Cheers

Colin

Great read. When developers get the idea that sex appeal=/=boobs, then, well, it'll be interesting to see what happens.

CanadianWolverine:
When I think of "a wink", I think of the Alyx character from HL2 and the following episodes. Because that character managed to rub off just enough a sense of intimacy onto my character, I actually cared when she was in danger or especially at the end of Episode 2, when she cried, I admit I actually teared up. Even now I feel something just remembering it, I think the voice actor (and those responsible for the animations as well) for that should seriously be given some sort of award to represent that her performance had such impact.

IMHO, Alyx is the sexiest female character I have encountered in a game experience so far.

I'll second that. Alyx was a realistic character who I, and it seems many other gamers, felt a pull towards. I'd say the same for Meryl from MGS. If you want to save her, you have to make it through the torture mini game. Considering the build-up toward the end, I think that the "wink" (in this case, our pair driving off into the distance) is a much more fulfilling, sweeter ending than cheap sex.
Great article, by the way.

Ok, I've re-read, and I'm refueled with energy, and damn is this something developers need to learn, Stompy said it in very simple terms:

"boobs =/= sex appeal"

hell, not just game devs. could learn from this - a lot of people could.

EDIT: and **** it I'll throw in my "Game character that I wish wasn't a bunch of pixels" - and that would be Ada Wong from RE4 - she didn't have to wear a bikini made of strings to catch your eye.

and yes, I also like Alyx because she is a more realistic character who actually has some human qualities to her (and is fully clothed but her pants still kinda sag a little...yay, realism!) - hell, we could probably find someone just like her in the real world, and I'm not talking about Cos-Play.

Sylocat's post got me thinking. Film has the advantage of photorealistic portrayal and the potential to perfectly capture the subtext of sexual tension between characters, and this is the basis of its immersive capability when it comes to romance. Judging from the comparisons made between various moments in film and games, the more suggestive and less overt, the more enthralling the result because if we want to get the most out of the moment, we have to use our imaginations a bit and do some inferring. I agree with this concept in general, because it contains a few good suggestions for creating sexually tense and immersive moments, as far as the writing and cinematography of games goes.

But, I was disappointed to see only a few passing mentions of comics, cartoons, graphic literature, or whatever else you want to call them. I believe that evolutionarily, there are better comparisons to be made between comics and games. In an art form's path to general acceptance, there is a period of adolescence where there are two commonalities; one, it is subject to scorn and criticism, two, it mimics the art form that was established as art prior to its conception. Photography had a long internal struggle about how "painterly" it wanted to be, motion pictures initially mimicked theatre, and comics originally relied on film for guidance. It wasn't until comics had existed for some time that comic artists started doing things that film cannot; they altered the shape and arrangement of panels, fiddled with the placement, size, and style of text, and learned how to unify or fracture spreads, and thus affect the entirety of the work. From this experimentation, they gained control over the momentum and overall structure of their art form, and then they could apply that mastery to enhancing the emotional impact in an inimitable fashion. Even though the layperson and the art critic may very well not yet consider comics to be on the same artistic level as film, comics have nevertheless developed their own method of maximizing immersion.

Games currently exist in that period of uncomfortable adolescence, and while they have been looking to film for general guidance, games have been around long enough that developers realize what they have that filmmakers don't. Gamers can lay their hands directly on the action happening before them. It would sensibly follow that developers have an advantage over filmmakers in the natural immersion of their medium, so they can spend their time crafting a more involving storyline, sending a more powerful message, or making their game more mechanically innovative.

For all of the attempts at making the most of games' unusual form of immersion, the people that make, sell, and play games all seem to be most concerned with the two strengths that film will always have over games. One, it is photorealistic. Human beings are pretty good at picking up on the nuances of a facial expression or body language, and there is no better way to portray those subtleties than a picture-perfect presentation of a real person. Two, it features the visages of real people, not just their voices, and it will frequently be easier to connect with a real person than a virtual representation. Maybe this concern is what places better graphics at the top of many a developer's list, and why we currently laud games that play like interactive movies.

So while they worry about their greatest weakness, developers are also trying to capitalize on their greatest strength--interactivity. I believe that this is why sexuality in games is approached without grace or subtlety; it is hard to make a suggestive wink interactive, and developers want to find stable ground for gaming to stand on that no other art form can claim. It hurts subtlety more when you consider that game structure is inherently mechanical, so a natural, human theme like sexual tension and romance requires some manner of translation--unless you're going to confine it within cutscenes, in which case you might as well make a movie. As a result, we get interactive sex games and "Hot Coffee" fiascos which make the romantic relationships that we get to develop in KOTOR and Mass Effect seem stellar in comparison when, really, so much work remains to be done.

Rowsell's article ends on the right note by simply "expecting more" and avoiding the recommendation that games should head towards or away from films or any other artistic influence. But, I don't know if the kind of sexuality that is right for games is going to be the same sexuality that is right for film. There are a lot of kinks that will have to be worked out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the coy wink that the love interest tosses to the hero is never captured in games as well as in film. Romance in games will be, and ought to be, something else entirely. But if games are going to be their own art form--immersive relationships, romance and all--I imagine we'll have to deal with all the misdirection from inside and out along the way. Comics provide a positive example of an art form coming of age, and it is that self-realization that game developers, the people that sell them, and the people that play them should hope and strive for.

All I have to say is I had forgotten about Phoebe Cates. Let's just say I've uh, lost more than a few minutes of my life to that scene.

 

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