Sunday, September 30, 2012

Der Standard Interview

I had previously posted this in the blog's header, but a few readers pointed out that the header information doesn't appear on mobile readers or in RSS feeds.

An interview with me has appeared on the site of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. The author, Rainer Sigl, posted an English translation on his blog. As Rainer points out, the English "translation" is actually the original, so I don't mind directing people to read that instead of the original.

I want to expand upon one of my answers, which has an unfortunate typo. I meant to write, "Because so many CRPGs are set in fantasy worlds, I don't think they serve well as reflections of their times." But I accidentally left out the "don't," completely obliterating my point.

Even fantasy literature is, of course, a product of its time and myriad surrounding influences. It's hard not to see Hitler in Sauron or the trenches of World War I in the "Dead Marshes." The latter books of Terry Goodkind's "Sword of Truth" series draw so heavily on Ayn Rand that she ought to have been credited as a co-author. I recently read The Last Rune series by Mark Anthony (I didn't think it was very good), which features several gay relationships that would have made the novels unpublishable a few decades ago.

But I see fantasy games as slightly different. Compared to novels, the plot is usually pretty threadbare, and there aren't a lot of words in them. It's much more difficult to find cultural influences on Ultima V than it is The Lord of the Rings. I'm not saying it's impossible; just more difficult. Because of this, there's little about Ultima V, other than the level of technology with which it was created, that screams "1980s!" This is why I concluded that, "Most games, especially fantasy games, tend to be fairly timeless." Contrast this with, say, Scavengers of the Mutant World, which is such a product of the Nuclear Age that it seems almost silly today. I think that this might explain why I have less of an affinity for science fiction and post-apocalyptic RPGs; they're not as "escapist" as fantasy RPGs.

I really like my answers that begin "It's just nostalgia" and "What we've lost"--particularly the second one. Playing The Magic Candle has really driven home the amount of effort that players used to have to put into gaming. Earlier today, I wandered into a sleeping god's chambers, but because I hadn't written down the chants correctly, I couldn't wake him up. No game developer would dare do something like this today. Skyrim probably wouldn't even let you into the dungeon containing the chamber until you already had the chants. Then it would just show the proper chant on the screen instead of making you type anything. You can't convince me that this is better gaming.

50 comments:

  1. Games seem to be getting more and more political recently. It's a real turn off. I, too, appreciate the timelessness of fantasy games that aren't a thinly veiled political morality tale (one reason I could never really get into the Star Trek TV show). Don't get me wrong, I want a rich story... but badly done allegory isn't story, it's just sermonizing.

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    1. Like everything else it is more about the quality. To do political commentary within your game you need to do it well, otherwise it is much better to leave it out altogether. And since most games have trouble having good writing and story in the first place it is pretty unlikely that games do well in the political commentary department (outside of games that more or less exclusively are political commentary).

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  2. One of my favourite fantasy games is Ultima VII, and that had quite a bit of politics and religion in it (not even getting into the obvious jabs at EA who had just purchased them). The politics might be because of its sometimes less-than-fantasy subplots (drugs, racism, etc.). Then again, there are references to then growing exercise crazy (with books similar to Kathy Smith workout videos), and dozens of then-modern-day references. I didn't mind those references, but there's a popular example of a great CRPG that, if you dug a little, screamed early 90s.

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  3. I can't recall an rpg that seemed to specifically reference a particular (geo)political scenario. I also don't think Sauron was intended to be Hitler.

    I think most tropes have real-life examples so it's basically impossible to write a story without someone drawing such comparisons.

    The only time I hear people complain about overly 'political' gaming is when they're getting uppity about same-gender romances. In that case I think the purported objection is simply running interference for their actual objection.

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    1. Grandia II had a really fun combat system. But its plot was largely an invective against organized religion. And a badly done one, at that.

      So there, now you can no longer say that the "only" time you've heard someone complain about it was related to same-gender romances. Although, pushing one's socio-political objectives through a hobby I use to escape that stuff is just as annoying.

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    2. I just finished Phantasy Star II. The ending contains an overtly geopolitical theme that feels contrived just to make its point. No reading between the lines necessary.

      Of course, if you really wanted to, you could probably read a theme into any game if you tried hard enough. Like Tetris being propaganda for socialism, as it's best to fit in with the group than to stand out for the betterment of all.

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    3. Sometimes the characters fight the prevailing religion, sometimes it's a supposedly benificent corporation or government. They're stock enemies. Every time they're used the story will feature ye olde 'open your eyes to what's really going on and stop swallowing the BS' lines.

      As for "pushing one's socio-political objectives", not having same-gender romances in a game is pushing just as hard as having them. If PC games were being made 50 years ago guys would be complaining about how so many games included tough women.
      "There's no need for tough women in games, games were fine before there were tough women in them, get your feminist politics out of my games."

      Even if games aren't being used as social commentary, they will necessarily reflect the social attitudes of their writers.

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    4. "not having same-gender romances in a game is pushing just as hard as having them."

      Thhat's not actually true. At all. But this is NOT the blog for arguing that topic, so I'll drop it here.

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    5. Is the claim being made here that reinforcing the status quo is not a political act? Because that's a crazy claim.

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    6. I'm not sure what all the arguments being made here are, but I don't see offering the option for a same-gender romance as pushing a social agenda. It reflects the reality of the world in which we live. More important, it enhances the "role-playing" aspect of the game for the player. Restricting romances different sexes makes about as much sense as offering only white male protagonists (which, of course, many of the games of the 1980s, including The Magic Candle, did).

      I think if people have a problem with it, they can simply see it as another "evil" choice that you can make in the game. I mean, most modern CRPGs allow you to murder and pillage innocent populations, so even if you think same-sex romance is immoral, it's pretty low on the immorality scale compared to bludgeoning hookers.

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    7. Oh, on the Sauron=Hitler thing, I just made it up, but a quick Google search turns up hundreds of pages and articles exploring the possible connections. I mean, it seems pretty obvious. Tolkien wrote the book during WWII, and it features a villain rising from an eastern kingdom and raising an army to cover the world in darkness. I think I'd have to call that allegory fairly blunt. But people who've actually read the book are probably more qualified to comment.

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    8. Chet: I'm not sure how much he was inspired by it, but I do know that his writing very much reflects the prevailing moral views of the time, such as that good men must make sacrifices to stop evil, and there is a clear line between good and evil. None of this modern conflicted hero stuff.

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    9. One of my college assistant professors was convinced that the conflict between the free peoples of Middle-Earth (the Western world) and Sauron's armies (from the East) was a parallel to the late 40s - early 50s growing fear of a clash between the free Western world and the communist Eastern world. He also mentioned something about the forced industrialization of Eastern Europe being paralleled in the LoTR and how the orcs can be seen as a metaphor of sorts for the 'new man' that communism was supposed to create.

      I don't know how close to the truth he was or how far off, the subject he taught had nothing to do with literature or fantasy, it was just something he brought up in class one time; but it shows how much a work like this is open to interpretation.

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  4. My favourite "reference" is that the zombies from Night of The Living Dead were actually supposed to represent the Vietnamese. What?

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    1. I'm pretty sure that wasn't Romero's intention.

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    2. Of course not, it's just a popular interpretation of the film.

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  5. Everything these days seems to be turning to fluff.. Movies are all just reboots, games copy each others ideas and do not try to innovate.

    Sometimes this is nice when you want to come home and put your brain on veg after a long day.

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    1. I think maybe your two statements are in conflict, though. Reboots and remakes are the perfect "veg" material. One of the things I love about firing up a D&D game, for instance, is that I don't have to re-learn the game world, monster characteristics, class restrictions, spells, or any other aspect of the logistics. I can just play and drool.

      The question for me is not whether movies, books, and games are overwhelmingly regurgitated drek, but whether there's enough original stuff to have a unique experience if you're really seeking it. I think there is. In the bleakest years for films, I still never see every Academy Award nominee, ann in the most derivative year for books, there are hundreds of prize-winners that I never touch.

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    2. Now is the same true for games? That, I can't answer, because in the last 20 years I don't think I've purchased more than 5 games in the same year that they were released.

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    3. "Computer Gaming World printed a preview of Pool of Radiance in its July 1988 issue, in which the reviewer noted a sense of deja vu. He described the similarity of the game's screen to earlier computer RPGs. For example, the three-dimensional maze view in the upper-left window was similar to Might & Magic or Bard's Tale, both released in the mid-1980s. The window with a listing of characters was featured in 1988's Wasteland; and the use of an active character to represent the party was part of Ultima V."

      Most things can be described by referencing the superset of whatever group they hail from. Whether something is just another cheap knock-off is determined by the care that goes into crafting the product. There are more and more varied rpgs released per year now than in 1992.

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    4. Really?
      More varied than Ultima Underworld, Darklands, and Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant?

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    5. I do enjoy it when a game clearly takes its inspiration from the outside world rather then previous games (Bioshock and Anne Rand, Deus Ex and cyberpunk)

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  6. Modern gaming has sacrificed intelligence for accessibility. Making a game that smart people love is no longer prioritized. Instead, we see game publishers forcing developers to dumb their games down so no one would ever get confused, even if they aren't even paying attention. I've heard that most people like that, but for me it just makes all the games devoid of any actual challenge. Turning Skyrim up to the hardest difficulty was the only way to make it challenging. Then you were FORCED to plan ahead because running into combat blindly would get you annihilated.

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    1. A couple exceptions I highly recommend for anyone who actually WANTS a fun game that requires tactics and strategy:

      1) Mass Effect 2 on the hardest difficulty (on the second playthrough, which it definitely warrants). You can skip Mass Effect 1.

      2) Dragon Age: Origins on the hardest difficulty becomes a GREAT game that forces you to micro-manage stuns, abilities, tactical postioning, and all the healing/shielding capabilities.

      Interestingly, they took all that out of Dragon Age 2 in order to make it more accessible. I was pleased to see that the result was as follows: They disappointed all the people who loved the first game's intricacy. They also failed to win back the people who thought DA:O was too complicated. DA:3 is said to be incorporating more of the strategy back into the game.

      3) Fallout 3 is definitely worth playing. New Vegas is interesting but not as good a game tactically.

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    2. I would like some sort of "Realistic Mode" for Skyrim, where a couple sword slashes can take down any bandit, but also the player as well. Unfortunately with the vanilla game either the player is a god, or everyone else is :/

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    3. I agree, but I suspect there are independent CRPGs that preserve some of the old-style gameplay. I'm not very versed on modern independent games, though.

      I couldn't imagine playing Skyrim on anything but the highest difficulty. The game gives you too many options to justify anything lower. With Dragon Age, you can't even escape combat, so if you find yourself in an unwinnable fight, you're screwed. With Skyrim, because combat and other gameplay aren't distinct "modes," you can flee, run, hide, sneak back, chug potions or eat food, summon something to help, lead your enemy to a cliff and shout him off, and a hundred other tactics that, with a lot of work, allow almost any level of player to defeat almost any enemy.

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    4. DIY tracking has its pros and cons. It should probably be optional in modern games rather than not catered for. I wouldn't call it more intelligent, but for some it's certainly more satisfying.

      I think a combination of difficulty levels and player-devised restrictions cater for most of the issues raised. Fallout 3 required me to play on the hardest difficulty and ban stimpacks before it became interesting. Even then I didn't find it tactical, just a case of going places in a sensible order.

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    5. I'm going to have to disagree with you all here. When I get home from a job, having spent all day working in a lab, carefully documenting everything I do so it can be reproduced and published latter, the last thing I want to do is take notes. I want to sit down and have some fun.
      Am I dumb? Well, I was just offered a job doing uranium and thorium chemistry, I've worked in nuclear physics in the past, and I've gotten Dean's Honour list...3 times I think? Might have been 4, I'd have to check.

      I think you should also examine your assumption of what makes a game 'harder'. There is a thing about old console games being really hard ('Nintendo hard'). They were hard because you needed to rote memorize the order enemies attacked in, had no saves or respawns, and possibly one life. Where they hard? Yes. Did you have to be a better gamer to play them? Well, do you define a gamer as someone with no life and an entire summer to kill playing the same game over and over again?

      Here is my experience with games that don't note anything down for you, specifically Dragon Warrior II and Golden Sun: The Lost Age. What happens is I make good progress, get half or more of the way through the game. Then I set it down for 6 months or more, and of course loose any notes I had. Then when I go back to play it, I have no idea what I was doing and have to either stumble around until I find it, read a strategy guide till I see something I remember, or start over. Typically if the guide doesn't work, I put the game down and go play something else.

      Taking notes doesn't make you SMARTER. I know bad chemists who take amazing notes. It makes you more detail focused. That can be fun; I like playing detail based games and spending ages tweaking inventories and such (Ogre Battle 64 for example). But I get pissed when people associate 'more work' with 'smarter'.

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    6. Most of my NES games were actually pretty easy. Our household went from that to the N64 which I found to be on average, more difficult. There are a handful of well-known, brutally difficult NES games but the vast majority were short and in my opinion, comparatively easy. Obviously, YMMV but I expect most people who read this blog are better at platformers, beat-em-ups and racing games than me.

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  7. I've been playing a mixture of new and old recently. (New being a mech first person game still in beta, old being the remakes of Phantasy Star 1 and Final Fantasy 4, and really old being Bard's Tale 1 on the Kindle Fire.)

    Honestly I LIKE the modern accessibility to some degree. Self mapping? Suuucks. Endless grinding? Suuucks. Not having a real clue as to what to do and having to write down notes? Suuucks. Bad interfaces? Suuuucks.

    I never liked that back in the day.

    I don't want hyper linearity no choice either mind you but... in game note systems? In game automap? Puzzles that aren't designed to sell clue books? (Or in my day, the Quest for Clues books or a Questbusters subscription. Maybe Enchanted Realms...) Not letting you screw yourself over to the point of having to restart an entire 20-100 hour game?

    I don't miss those bits at all.

    Having to open a damned manual to type in spell names and both spells and equipment not bothering to tell you what they do, who can use it, and how?

    Don't miss that.

    Relaxed inventory management where you know if a new item is in fact better than what you have and WHY, allowing you to buy, equip, and resell the inferior bit if you choose for a single button?

    That is awesome.

    There is a REASON why my favorite first person turn based RPG is Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land on the PS2. It pretty much is the old Sir Tech Wiz 1-3 and 5 without all of the hateful abuse. It kept what was FUN about those classic "blobbers" and removed all the nonsense like permadeath, negative stat gains, and so on while still keeping it challenging.

    I recently was working through a Wiz 1-3 playthrough of the translated Win 9x version released only in Japan. Beat Wiz 1 with gobs of grinding, even going so far as to turn an Evil Cleric with all spell levels into a Ninja and then giving him the alignment shift over to Good.

    Transported them to part 2. Finish most of the first floor. You need to teleport to get into level 2. Well.. that spell was never translated. I guessed at the coordinate system. My party was wiped clean from the game having teleported a good 200 feet in the air, lost forever. With some of the Knight of Diamonds gear.

    Couldn't even bring them back over from Wiz 1 as the transfer DELETED THE ORIGINALS.

    Permadeath wasn't fun. Its why in the 8 bit days nearly everyone had backup disks and we all cheated the HELL out of it all. Duped parties, popped the disk out in case of PC death (Ultima 3 would save a character's death!), make repeated copies of magic items, new PC gold cheats, and so on.

    Much of the user unfriendliness has been removed in the modern era because outside of the few folks who revel in the difficulty, the majority did NOT.

    This is why the JRPG pretty much took over from 85-2005 for most people. They were much friendlier to the player in almost all respects than their western counterparts.

    Now sadly we have gotten to the point where while games are user friendly they are also designed to get as many possible people playing which means dumbing down and going lowest common denominator.

    Luckily having a PC and the indies market helps there. Legend of Grimrock is easily my Game of the Year. And its basically Dungeon Master perfected.

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    1. There are things within your list that I agree with you on, and things that I don't, but of course every player has his or her own preferences.

      I guess what I would wish--and I covered this somewhat in my "difficulty" posting--is that modern games would allow you to set various difficulty options at the outset so players could preserve some of the things they enjoy about the old days. I'd like an option to have no quest log in Skyrim, for instance. You can say, "Well, just don't use it," but I don't even want the temptation. I don't want the option to adjust the difficulty slider in the middle of combat. I don't want the difficulty of a game to be dependent on my own willpower. Offering these kinds of choices would satisfy everyone.

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    2. The game Obsidian are currently kickstarting will have a modular difficulty setting. You'll be able to turn on and off certain bits you like/don't.

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    3. One thing jumps out as inconsistent with what your saying Cpt. Rufus. In my experience JRPG are all about grinding, so I don't think they have gotten much friendlier to those of us who don't want to fight the same thing over and over.

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    4. I remember playing games with auto map features and still mapping them on graph paper. Something about making those maps felt like I was accomplishing more. Plus, many auto-maps didn't indicate any notes or features and were useless for subsequent plays.

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    5. I don't know if its more lazy or more work but I have always just kept things in my head. This does not work as well for me anymore since I play sporadically and after a month, where may have a few Saturday drinking nights, I jump back into the game and forget what I was in the middle of doing let alone where I have explored.

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    6. I like automapping a lot. Games can then have non-90 degree angels in its passages. Circular rooms, oval rooms, hexagonal rooms. You can have lots of movement between levels, which is a pain to map.

      Fallout 3 is a great example of a game that would be a pain to map by hand (Also, a rather useless automap, which wasn't fun, lots of running in circles making sure I'd found everything).

      Here is an example: http://guides.gamepressure.com/fallout3thepitt/gfx/word/1656216859.jpg

      How about a map from DOOM? It was all on one level (Well, nothing overlapped): http://www.classicdoom.com/maps/d1maps/e1m2.htm
      Try mapping that by hand. (Yes, I know it is an FPS, but there is no reason you couldn't use the same map in a RPG).

      I've encountered this in tabletop RPGs a lot, where you have highly irregular maps and somehow have to put that onto graph paper.

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    7. CRPG Addict: Suggestion: Play on PC. Install one of the *dozen* mods that accomplish this. Want to be forced to eat every X hours? Sleep every Y? Carry 1/2 as much loot? Not have a quest log? Have the log, but no quest arrows? There are mods for all of these, and more.

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    8. @canageek

      In my tabletops I allowed PC with cartographer to have the printouts I worked with if I was running from modules. Otherwise I'd allow them to access my materials at the appropriate time.

      I have been looking at a few of the online campaign helpers but haven't used any yet, have you?

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    9. UbAh: Depends on the game. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance has 0 grinding, as enemies don't respawn, and it is annoyingly easy to hit the level limit with some characters.

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    10. UbAh: Sorry, should have replied to both posts at once: I've used Maptools and quite liked it. A bit of work to learn it, but very powerful even without the marcos.

      Dad used to use Dunjinni, but it doesn't work on Win7 and hasn't been updated. Also seems to be a worse version of Maptools.

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    11. I'll do that eventually, CG, but for the sake of my blog, I promise you don't want me wasting any more time on Skyrim.

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    12. Someone should have told the guys at Bethesda that the pipboy UI was a cute idea but actually horrible to use. The local maps, by god they were painful.

      I spent most of my time in Doom running around in circles. I don't remember whether I didn't or couldn't use the map.

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    13. Addict; Morrowind has a good mod community. You should hit that a few years before Skyrim ;)

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  8. I'm currently playing The Witcher 2, and about half of the quests don't give you a quest arrow or a specific "This is exactly how you do this quest!!" It's frustrating at times, but when you figure something out, it's sooooo fulfilling.

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    1. I could see a nice compromise, where you have a quest log that records details, but doesn't have an arrow to the exact point. Perhaps to the town, or a fuzzy circle, but not the exact person. Or you get underlined words in the quest log that zoom you to that point on the world map.

      "Quest: Kill the bandits at /Raven's Folly/, then take proof to /Admara/ at /Castle Hargrove/"
      When you click the links to takes you to a description of the person, or the map, something like that.

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  9. I'm really out of touch with modern gaming. However, my kids are really into Wizard101 so I have been playing that with them. Reading these posts I'm surprised to see that many of the game's features which I had thought were there because the game was aimed at children are actually standards of modern CRPGs!

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  10. Hi CRPGAddict,
    fyi: In the german version of your interview Rainer Sigl wrote that you have a kid

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  11. In German, I do have a kid. The intricacies of languages are fascinating.

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    1. @Chet - Does Irene know about your 1/2 German kid?

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    2. This just made me bust out laughing, which makes me worried it somehow is not actually a joke.

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