Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Game 228: Moraff's World (1991)

    
Moraff's World
United States
Moraffware (developer and publisher)
Released as shareware 1991 for DOS; updated several times over the next few years
Date Started: 4 September 2016
Date Ended: 6 September 2016
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Again, we come to the age-old question of whether it's worth spending any significant amount of time on a game that has no story or objective other than to "become more powerful and survive." We faced it with most of the PLATO games, with Telengard, with the Empire series, with some of the Quest variants, and with Alternate Reality: The City. Naturally, I'm going to have a different perspective than a 15-year-old player in 1990. That 15-year-old player doesn't have a list of 1,000 games he's trying to complete. Moraff's World might be the only game he'll buy all year. Because it's new, he might have friends who also buy the game, and they can compete with each other to see who gets the highest character level. Certain graphical elements will seem new and exciting to him; every new monster portrait is its own reward. And, of course, this 15-year-old has not yet learned how fundamentally precious time is. When school breaks in June, the summer that stretches before him seems like an eternity.

I, of course, am the opposite of all of these things. And writing from my own perspective, I can only see Moraff's World as an somewhat pointless, ugly dungeon crawler. It boasts the size and length of Fate: Gates of Dawn but with no story or quest, while offering very little in mechanics that we haven't seen in 100 other first-person games. Even in 1991, I can't imagine giving priority to this game over the Gold Box titles or Might & Magic III unless I just didn't know about them.
    
The in-game documentation admits that there's no real "point."
    
Moraff's World is an update of 1988's Moraff's Revenge, which I played more than 5 years ago. Back then, I noted that Steve Moraff's company, Software Diversions, was still selling CDs for the entire Moraff series. Since then, they seem to have taken down the RPGs and are only selling the mahjong variants. The unregistered version I downloaded might be capped at a certain number of levels, but it was enough for me to get a sense of the game.

The extensive in-game documentation boasts that it contains 5 continents, multiple dungeons per continent, and 200 enormous levels per dungeon. Each dungeon has a town level on the top with multiple ladders down, creating mazes that are both vertical and horizontal. But all this size and space is mostly wasted. No encounters occur at fixed locations, so actually "exploring" the dungeons--not to mention the wilderness and continents--makes no more sense than just popping up and down ladders and letting the monsters come to you.
   
Frequent chutes screw up your attempts to explore systematically.
   
You play a single character, chosen from 8 races--human, elf, dwarf, hobbit, gnome, ogre, sprite, and imp--each with his own averages among six attributes: strength, constitution, intuition, dexterity, wisdom, and luck. The game makes random rolls around these averages and also randomly rolls sex, age, height, and weight, though you can modify these settings manually.
    
Creating a new character.
    
There is some originality in the 7 classes: fighter, worshipper, monk, wizard, priest, sage, and mage. The names are a bit weird. Fighters are what you expect, and wizards and worshippers are the "pure" versions of arcane and divine spellcasters, respectively. "Priests" are kind of fighter/worshippers--more like paladins in the typical RPG. Similarly, "mages" are more like fighter/wizards. Monks can't have any inventory, but they come with all the game's spells already memorized (the rest of the classes have to find them, one-by-one, after successful combats), and they excel at unarmed attacks. I tried a monk for a while and they really do work quite well.

Also original to the game is the "sage" class, which the game tags as "poor fighter, poor spell caster. Good for exploring without being noticed. Gains experience just for exploring." This would be a cool mechanic if actually implemented--and if there was anything to do in the game other than fight monsters--but it's either broken or I couldn't figure it out. In 30-40 minutes of playing a sage (who wasn't notably worse at combat than other characters, despite the warning), he didn't seem to gain any experience "just for exploring."
   
Exploring the town level.
     
The game recommends an ogre fighter for first-time players but I went with an elf mage for my main character. I ultimately tried 5 different race/class combinations, and overall the game was pretty easy no matter what. The manual warns of all kinds of difficulty and danger, but that really only seems to apply if you're stupid and try to descend too many levels too quickly. Staying on a dungeon level at or lower then your character is eminently survivable. You level up and find treasure and spells quite fast. The only trouble I had was when some monster gave me a disease and I had to suffer it--losing 2 constitution points in the process--while I gathered enough money to pay a healer to cure it.

The main game window is also very original (though we also saw it in Moraff's Revenge). I'm going to stop short of calling it "good." It takes some getting used to. At all times, you see the views in all four cardinal directions. It took me a while to realize that these views are literally north, south, east, and west--not forward, backward, right, and left. Similarly, when you move using the cursors, you're traveling in one of those cardinal directions, not moving forward, backwards, or turning. Basically, if you want to make sure you can see where you're going, you have to match the arrow key you're about to press to the relevant view.
   
A typical Moraff window. The four views show north, east, west, and south I'm fighting a dwarf to my west. The bottom right and left panels show character stats, the upper-right shows some common commands, and the upper-left is reserved for messages.
   
I remain woefully ignorant about how game graphics are written, so I'm deferring to the expertise of other sites when I tell you that the graphics in each window are rendered in layers using the "painter's algorithm." What this means functionally is that there's a notable pause as you move and the game has to re-render each view, one window at a time. This pause is here even on a modern system with the CPU cycles cranked up to 10 times the speed of an era-accurate machine. Slowed to a speed more representative of 1991, it takes about 8-10 seconds for the graphics to render in between steps, which would have been a dealbreaker. Fortunately, the game lets you switch to quicker, more primitive graphics modes, but even they aren't exactly "fast."
  
These colors are uglier, but they render faster.
   
I do like the interface, which allows you to click on commands and on the window panes to move in those directions, or to do everything by the keyboard, with almost every letter mapped to a command. The auto-map, still rare in 1991, is stable and detailed. You can do neat things like switch to a full-screen automap or switch to a full-screen view of one of the directions. The in-game documentation is brief but complete.

I zoom in to look more closely in one direction.
The full-screen map for one of the levels. The level potentially takes up all of the space on this screen.
   
The town level of the dungeon contains banks, shops, temples, and inns, all represented on the auto-map by different colors and represented on the screen by ladders (weirdly, you go "up" to enter shops). As you start, you might have enough money for a club or stick, but basically you just want to head right to the lower levels and start killing things with your hands. The game explicitly tells you the number of experience points you need for the next set of levels, as well as the number of experience points the current monster on the screen will deliver. When you gain enough, you return to the town, sleep at the inn, and level up, gaining some extra hit points, spell points, and attribute boosts in the process.
  
Visiting the equipment shop.
   
The dungeon levels are sprawling and enormous, with sections accessible from different ladders not necessarily interconnected. But there's very little point to "exploring," since your primary mission is just to find monsters to kill, loot, and level up. These monsters are mostly drawn from the D&D manual: orcs, ogres, werewolves, apes, kobolds, etc., although you occasionally fight weird things like colored balls that always seem to have far more hit points than their experience points are worth. Combat actions are basically just fight, cast a spell, use an item, or try to run by moving to a blank square. I found that the 30-40 hit points given to a Level 0 character were more than enough to keep me alive on the first two dungeon levels for around 10 combats.
   
As I fight an orc, I check out how much experience I need fort he next level (11). The orc has 17 hit points left and will give me 42 experience points.
   
Leveling is pretty rapid. At least for the first 13 levels (as far as I played), you spend more time trying to get out of the dungeon when it's time to level up than you do fighting monsters to achieve those levels in the first place. Finding your way back to the surface is complicated by the maze-like nature of the ladders as well as frequent "chutes" that drop you back down a level or two.

Killing foes occasionally rewards you with a new spell, a special item like a Stone of Teleportation or a (sigh) Holy Hand Grenade, a healing potion (which you have to drink immediately), or one of several types of treasure. The treasure system is a bit needlessly complex, consisting of copper, silver, ivory, gold, platinum, and jewel "stones," all of which you convert at banks into "jewel pieces" before buying anything. Lower-value stones encumber you quickly, so the game offers shortcuts, when you're deciding whether to take the treasure, to only grab the higher-value items.
   
I learn the "Minor Explosion" spell after killing an ogre.
   
You spend only a little of this money on weapons and armor. I found that most of my expenditures went to the temple, to restore hit points without having to cast a dozen minor healing spells, to cure diseases or poison, or to purchase "Raise Dead Contracts" which will automatically return you to the surface if you die. You start the game with one of these already in place. This is particularly important because the game saves constantly as you move about, and death is permanent unless you periodically back up the saved game files.

The spell system is fairly original. Whether you're skilled in wizard or priest magic, you have three types of spells: those that you can cast immediately in battle ("Sleep," "Lightning," "Minor Protection," "Magic Missile"), those that take 3 minutes to cast, so you have to do it outside of battle ("Detect Level," "Cure," "Detect Position"), and those "permanent" spells that take a month to cast, so you can only cast them in town, but they allow you to do things like create magic wands and scrolls and add permanent enchantments to weapons--things that you assume someone must be able to do in the D&D universe, but never the player character.
   
Some of the "battle" spells. I have a lot more to find.
   
Other reviews note the persistent humor in the game, but really there isn't that much of it. Some of the manual instructions are funny, such as the frank admission that there's no point in going outside. If you select the option to rob the bank, the developer asks, "Come on! Do you really think I'd let you rob my own bank?" There's an option under "Use Item" to "win game," with sub-options to "win life," "become rich," "rule the world," and "live forever," all of which instruct you to "send one million zillion dollars" to a fictional address. Beyond that, there's not much obvious humor, but Moraff does pop up with tips frequently, reminding you that it's time to level up, suggesting that you purchase another resurrection contract, encouraging you to get healed if your hit points are low, and so forth.
   
As I explore, the game strongly recommends that I go buy another "Raise Dead Contract."
   
For the really dedicated player who does make it down dozens of dungeon levels, there are occasional trap doors that allow you to skip many levels at once. To use these, you have to find a "level drainer" and kill it to get its key. I didn't go anywhere near that far.

I said earlier that there are no special encounters in the dungeon, but this isn't quite true. Every 4 levels or so is some special "shadow" creature. I fought a "shadow dragonfly" on Level 4 and a "shadow mini-dragon" on Level 8. Both took a while to find, though the game gives you hints as to the direction you should go when you're in their areas. Both rewarded me with a special item: "body armor" that, independently of my regular armor, increased my armor class by 9 points; and a magic gauntlet that increased my attack accuracy and damage. A note told me to expect the "shadow major dragon" on Level 12.

Alerting me to the presence of a special monster on Level 4.

My reward after killing the "shadow mini-dragon" on Level 8.
   
The outdoor area is just baffling. The documentation boasts of "impressive fractal-based landscapes," but I honestly have no idea what the graphics are trying to depict. Trying to walk across the landscape does not move you reliably or consistently in the direction that you push. When I reached a body of water that looked like a small pond, text informed me that I would need 10,001 jewel pieces for a boat, or at least 3-4 times what I had at my best moment in the game. Since the text promised simply identical dungeons on other continents, it didn't seem worth taking the time.
   
No idea what's going on here.
    
In a GIMLET, Moraff's World earns:

  • 0 points for the game world. Sorry, but you don't even get a name for the place or the barest excuse for why you're there and what you're doing.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. As noted, the game does some original things with classes, and leveling is reasonably quick and rewarding. If only there were more role-playing options tied to the character races and classes.
   
My final retired character.
   
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. There are no NPCs in the game. No, the developer giving hints doesn't count.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The foes are standard fantasy stock, albeit with the types of strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks you find in similar RPGs. The only "encounters" are with the special monsters every 4 levels.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. Combat is nothing special, but there is some promise to the magic system and the large number and variety of spells.
   
Blasting a "kobald" with a "Zap" spell.
   
  • 3 points for equipment. There aren't that many weapon and armor types, or equipment slots, but there are some fun special items.
    
Finding a unique equipment item.
    
  • 4 point for the economy. Though "needlessly complex," monetary rewards are somewhat stingy, and there are always things to buy.
  
Some of the purchasing options in a temple.
   
  • 0 points for no quests.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. No sound except an occasional beep. The graphics are often goofy, but they're serviceable overall. I don't care for the view windows, but the commands are easy to memorize. It deserves an extra point for interface innovations like zooming and the automap.
  • 2 points for gameplay. I guess it's somewhat non-linear, but in a game with no quest, what's the point? Mildly replayable with different classes. It's fundamentally too easy, though.

That gives us a final score of 24, well below what I'd consider "recommended," and not much better than the 20 that I gave to Moraff's Revenge. There are some promising things here, but I wish Steve Moraff had realized that content is just as important as mechanics. It sounds like the third and final RPG in the triology--Moraff's Dungeons of the Unforgiven (1993)--does have a story and plot, so I look forward to trying it out in a couple of years.

I'll get back to Fate eventually, but when I see that the next game is only going to require one post, it's just too tempting. We'll see if that's the case with Elfhelm's Bane.

35 comments:

  1. Your colour-blindness has done you a great service on this day. By choosing the highest possible colour contrast on the floor tiles to accentuate the 3d effect, he's made his dungeon an absolute nightmare to look at.

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    1. Ha ha, I popped in here to make exactly that observation. Moraff was always an experimental graphician looking for some practical application for his rare genius.

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    2. I actually had a line in an early draft that said, the developer "wields colors like a weapon." I was thinking less of the floor tiles than the text colors, but glad to hear it applies.

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    3. Yes - I like the Christmas themed floor the most. No fixed encounters is the worst thing.

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    4. I liked the coloured text, but agree everything else is ugly. I do wonder if some of that is due to the number of graphics modesc supported, each with a different colour palette. I used to play in VGA mode, but it might look better in one of the super VGA modes?

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  2. This was the first shareware I paid to register as a kid. I probably put 100 hours into this game.

    The core thing it did really well is (a) give you limited tools to kill things wayyyyyy out of your league (b) reward you exponentially for doing so.

    The gameplay reduces to diving dozens of floors deeper than you should be able to survive in, buffing like crazy with Power Weapon and other spells, and then killing a level drainer for literally billions of XP. (The downside is that level drainers or disease monsters can seriously mess you up.) Then you have to somehow survive making it back to surface, where you are rewarded with 10-20 experience levels.

    Little did I know that this would set me up for a lifetime addiction to harder roguelike games with the same qualities. Thanks, Steve Moraff.

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    1. I also played this as a kid off of a shareware disk my Dad bought. Don't think I put that much time into it. Also didn't map so most of my time was getting lost and trying to get back to the surface.

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  3. (Sorry, I was the previous anonymous poster.) Unforgiven is basically the exact same game as MW, but with a few added features that add a lot of needless friction to the core gameplay that made MW so addictive. There is no plot to speak of. I don't imagine it will rank much differently than this one did.

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    1. Hmmm. Okay. I was relying on MobyGames for that. Their summary of MDotU starts with, "Dungeons of the Unforgiven is Moraff's World and Moraff's Revenge with a story."

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  4. OK, last one I promise :) There are actually sort of 4 "quests" in the game -- every 25 or 50 floors (I can't remember which) there's a "superboss" you can kill that will give your character a permanent special power. All of these are extremely useful. The game "ends" when you beat the final boss (who I think is a red dragon king?) but you can continue playing past that.

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    1. Are you talking about MDotU or this game, because that's kind of implemented here, just (it seems) every 4 levels instead of every 25 or 50.

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    2. I think there are major boss monsters (majorer than the minor shadow ones you mentioned) at much coarser intervals. You don't really find out about them until you kill the first one, and then it always foreshadows the next one iirc. It's been awhile :)

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  5. The raise dead contracts remind me a lot of DocWagon contracts in Shadowrun.

    Otherwise I have to say that I find the dungeon views extremely off-putting and unappealing, no temptation in the least to give this one a spin.

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    1. You can customize the floor tiles to something less offensive. I always just put them as a solid color IIRC.

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  6. "The famous Floor Slosher" is certainly an interesting name for a piece of equipment.

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    1. Doubly so considering it is likely a mop. The Janitor class would have gained EXP from cleaning dungeon tiles, but alas, it was never implemented.

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  7. Pools of Darkness is coming up! Excellent choice to give you something to look forward to very soon!

    I started it a few months back but it didn't really catch with me so I went on to play other things. I may pick it back up seeing that you'll play it soon.

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    1. I've been sitting on a good guest post that talks about the Gold Box games, so I thought it was time I put one in my rotation.

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  8. I remember wondering where magical items in D&D universes came from, and then I played Troika's The Temple of Elemental Evil. Since there's a harsh level cap, many players spend all their excess XP creating powerful magic items. I was drowning in the things come the end-game.

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  9. I don't know what it is, but something about this one tickles the imagination a little. Maybe it reminds me a little of Dragon Warrior, with a character that can fight but has a slowly growing spell collection as well. The multiple classes certainly sound like they should have potential, even if they're implemented less well than they could have been. The sage in particular, getting XP from exploring, would make for a very different sort of game if it actually worked. (Is it Legend of Grimrock 2 that has a character class who gains XP from eating food? It's that kind of orthogonal development path that could really add replay potential, if only there was an actual quest, etc.) There seem to be a lot of interesting seeds here -- every now and then one of the games you review calls to the game designer in me and says its core principles might make for an interesting reboot, if you started with the interesting pieces and then filled in all the gaping flaws.

    That's why I appreciate reading about even these throwaway games, where 6-hours-and-out is totally appropriate. Even that much of a review can stir up some imagination.

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    1. I always did enjoy the simplicity of the first Dragon Quest -- it's pretty much the only JRPG I can think of where you have a single character who's a jack-of-all-trades. Something similar with more content would be nice, I think.

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  10. Unrelated to the post, is there any patreon or PayPal account for the crpgaddict? I wouldn't mind to invite him to a gimlet now and then.

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    1. As far as I remember he once said that he does not want or need any donations.

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    2. When I think of it, I'll post a link to a charity or something. I appreciate the thought, but getting "paid" wouldn't make me work any faster or harder--it would just make me feel guilty when I didn't.

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    3. I wouldn't consider it a payment, but a friendly drink invite to keep the bard talking about his latest adventures :)

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  11. Isn't this the game that, when you leveled up, told you something like "Congratulations, you are no longer a complete newbie. Now you are just a newbie."? Or was it the sequel? It *has* been a long time ago...

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  12. The nostalgia...I put quite a few hours into this one back in the day. Yes, it's horribly ugly, but the gameplay found just the right balance to be addictive. It's unfortunate the sage class was never implemented properly (I've seen official confirmation of that somewhere) because that would actually provide some limited justification for the huge levels and multiple dungeons.

    I think chutes are supposed to be visible once you discover them (they were in some version, anyway), but in the version I spent the most time on, they were always invisible. So I memorized a safe route to descend deeper and always took the same route down. I had a favorite place to descend, located just a couple steps from both a bank and a store, and I still remember bits of the maps near there. But I couldn't help exploring and expanding the map, because having it reveal itself based on line of sight was as addictive as the leveling for me (alas, no sage...). Getting lost if you explored too far and ran into a chute was just part of the game.

    By the way, those permanent spells reduce magic points permanently. So there's a bit of strategy to deciding which enchantments are worth sacrificing a few magic points, especially with the monk, who can use them all from the start.

    It's too bad there was no story or quest content and the special encounters were so rare. These mechanics with better graphics plus story quests and achievements would maybe be a good game instead of just a time sink.

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    1. Thanks for the note about the magic points. I cast a few occurrences of the spell that increases hit points by 3, and I was wondering why I shouldn't just do that indefinitely. I didn't realize my max spell points were going down.

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  13. "Even in 1991, I can't imagine giving priority to this game over the Gold Box titles or Might & Magic III unless I just didn't know about them."

    Which is probably why I still had fun with it back it the day. I picked up a CD that had their old DOS stuff *and* several newer programs like the Mahjongg on it back in the day. I've gotten to the Fountain of Youth in Moraff's Revenge and killed the Red Dragon King in this game and had fun doing it, but yeah, it doesn't quite hold the same weight as a Might and Magic.

    The sage "experience for exploring" thing was never implemented as far as I know, as you probably gathered. And yeah, I never understood what the deal was with the wilderness. Why bother if it's just going to erase all of your maps for the current dungeon seed?

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    1. There's a "red dragon king," huh? That sounds suspiciously like a main quest...

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    2. Except I don't think the game tells you about it until much later. It's just the deepest of the special encounters, as far as I know (I never got that far). You saw how the game just tells you about the current one when you get to that level, and the next one after you defeat one.

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    3. The Red Dragon King is the main quest. Once you kill it, you can still keep playing forever. It only tells you about the major bosses when you kill the previous one.

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    4. I didn't have any commercial fantasy RPGs until a few years later, probably due to religious hangups installed by my parents. Shareware was a different story, however, as I was allowed to start exploring local dialup BBSes unmonitored starting around 1990 when I was about 12. As a result, I spent a fair amount of time with mediocre titles like these Moraff ones.

      The main fascination that Moraff games held for me at the time was the SuperVGA support, as we basically upgraded the family 8mhz 286 clone from EGA to Paradise SVGA around 1991.

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  14. The Painter's Algorithm is pretty simple - you draw everything in the world that's with some fixed range, starting with the most distant. Nearer objects get drawn on top of more distant ones that they block. There are no fancy checks to calculate whether one thing blocks another - you just draw everything in the right order.

    You may have seen it in action in PC golf games from the 1990s, in which they usually drew trees using that algorithm but showed the intermediate steps, so that a wave of trees would seem to be coming at you from the distance as a new scene was loaded.

    I remember playing this or one in the same series in the 80s, but with primitive wireframe graphics. Even for the time, the ability to spend mana permanently to make scrolls was pretty unusual.

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