Saturday, July 10, 2021

Perihelion: Mask Up

Per CDC recommendations.
At the end of my last entry, I was trying to solve a bunch of inter-related puzzles to get access to the lower levels of the SoulTomb Mines, where I would presumably find a boy kidnapped by lycanthropes. The basic gimmick carried on for a few more dungeons. The game's areas might be small in total squares, but you have to do a lot of things to open all the doors and access all those squares, and this in turn requires paying careful attention to all the notes and descriptions the game gives you. There's a strong adventure game quality to these puzzles, and I often find myself wishing that games in the Dungeon Master line would do more of this rather than offering puzzles that are purely mechanical.
(I should add, though, that even "purely mechanical" puzzles have a certain charm when they require logic, creativity, or experimentation on the part of the player. Dungeon Master itself excelled at these. A lot of Dungeon Master clones are less interesting, requiring only that you find a key in one place to open a door in another place.)
Until the mines, Perihelion hadn't offered anything near this level of complexity, so I blundered into it and didn't realize I was lost until I'd already passed a lot of the text I should have taken more careful note of. I thus reloaded a save from early in the dungeon and went through everything again. As this session went on, I got increasingly annoyed at the game's presentation of text in long passages scrolling at the bottom of the screen. These endless paragraphs precede just about every NPC encounter, combat, and entrance to a new area. I don't mind the text itself--I like it, in fact. It contributes to the game's eerie lore, and it makes each encounter what I call a "contextual encounter." But the method of presentation makes it impossible to easily capture, reference, and quote it.
What I don't mind on the bottom of the screen are the many atmospheric messages that provide a bit of flavor to what would otherwise be blank corridors and repetitive textures. Some examples:
  • "This very badly lit barrack makes you claustrophobious."
  • "Broken medical supplies and radiation detectors are lying on a round table."
  • "You almost stumble over the scattered equipment here."
  • "Piles of tubes and small, rusty wires cover the floors of this chamber."
  • "The walls in this section of the mine can crumble in any moment."
The puzzles begin after Corall, leader of the mutants, lets you explore the lower levels looking for Mirach. Mirach is on the mining storage level, and my natural exploration pattern brought me to several rooms on the way. In one of them, I found a mining drill. Although just a tool, it can only be wielded by a fighter type, which I suspect is why commenters told me to make sure I had at least one of those. I also found an empty battery.
I ran into a network station on the way, where the word MUTANT scrawled on a wall let me know the local netcode. One of the documents told how to use "Cobold" explosives, specifically that after you place them, you have 6 seconds to escape behind a firedoor.
I eventually reached Mirach's chambers, where the kidnapping of his grandson Algol went as related last time. I defeated the remaining lycanthropes and accepted his quest to rescue his grandson in exchange for his information about the Guardian. Mirach gave me his passkey. (It's important to grab it after talking to him, as he disappears afterwards. If you don't get the key at this moment, it puts you in a walking dead situation.) As I left the area for the only passage downward, his daughter, PearlBlood, gave me an "artificial crystal" which supposedly "brings fortune upon its possessor."
This is the only screenshot you're getting for a while because I played a DOSBox game just before this session and forgot that CTRL-F5 doesn't do anything in WinUAE.
Mirach's passkey opened the security door at the beginning of the next level. An early corridor had two doors. I was able to open the first, but the second remained stuck. I couldn't figure out what to do until I paid attention to the message I got when walking down the corridor: "Separated air-circulation system--do not decompress!" I had to close the first door behind me before the second door would open. It opened into a room containing a "strange tablet with a hexagonal hole." This is one of those cases where you have to realize that this isn't just flavor text--you actually have to do something here. In this case, the "something" meant inserting the artificial crystal.
You're afraid to believe your own very eyes when you put the gem into the hole: Strong psychical energies fill the room as the crystal reveals the contents of its information-cell encoded more than three centuries ago. A very clear holographic image of a priest of Toxic Waste appears on the front wall. Then a loud, aggressive, supernatural voice echoes down the hall: BANISH THE THEORY OF EQUALITY BECAUSE THE TIME HAS COME FOR THE MIGHTY TO RULE AND FOR THE WEAK TO SERVE. TASTE MY FURY AND REMEMBER . . . I AM WHAT I AM . . . then the hologram fades and the crystal disperses into dust.
I always like it when the game does me the service of destroying my inventory items when they've served their purpose, but pity the player who doesn't transcribe the message the first time.
In a nearby room labeled "explosives," I found several grenades, a demolition pack (the game didn't use the name, but it looks like the "Cobol" in the image), a "composite key plug," and five "dust filter masks." I would later convince myself that there must have been six dust filter masks, one for each party member, and that I either left one behind or put it in the wrong part of someone's inventory. Pursuing this belief cost me a lot of time, as we'll soon see.
An elevator led down to a new level, where a chamber proclaimed: "Energy cell rechargers." There were three alcoves, and in each one of them I could use my empty battery to give it a charge. What order to use them? Well, the alcoves were labeled "I," "AM," and "WHAT." If that wasn't enough, we also learn that "the ceilings are filled with ancient, ritualistic runes of the Toxic Waste." I like to think that with my extensive knowledge of Popeye lore, I would have figured it out without the vision on the crystal. But I also might have figured that you could only use each recharger once and thus tried "WHAT AM I?" or something. Getting it right filled the battery with "the necessary variants of energy samples."
"I am what?!"
The solution to the next puzzle was a bit unintuitive. At the end of a tunnel was something reading "Composite Assembling Unit." That brought to mind the composite key plug found earlier, and indeed when I used it, it "slid into the assembling slot." It was less intuitive that I then needed to use the battery to create a "composite key." But simply trying all my inventory items produced the solution.
Mirach's pass key opened another door, where a blank wall told me of a "tubular-shaped hole." Clearly, this hole wanted the composite key. When I inserted it, I got a message that the "polarity [was] disengaged." At the end of another set of corridors were three doors, the center of which would not initially open. The other two had "sensor-coordinating lasers" in them, and when I opened both doors, the laser beams met in the middle (this is all relayed by text) to somehow open the central door.
The game noted that the next door "looks like a fire door," which put the demolition instructions in mind. Sure enough, the corridor behind it ended at a blank wall where the rocks were "much more loose than anywhere else." I first tried to just blow it up with the demolition charge, but that wouldn't work on its own. I then remember the mining drill. My human used it to drill a hole into the wall in which we then inserted the demolition charge. We had to rush back behind the fire door and close it. The screen shook. When we re-opened the door, there was a corridor beyond.
I still don't see why a spellcaster couldn't use this.
Only a couple of steps into this new corridor, a reddish tint covered everything, and the game noted that "everything here is covered in choking, thick, radioactive dust." I distributed the dust masks among my party members but only had five of them. The sixth, the game noted, was being "badly injured by the radioactive dust!" This is where I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the sixth mask, even reloading an earlier save, before I concluded no, there was ever only five. My maskless character kept dying before I could reach the end of the corridors, and I started to wonder if I would have to complete the game with just five characters. I had to look at a walkthrough to find the obvious solution: just swap the masks around every few moves to ensure that no one loses too much vitality. Only about 10 moves into the radioactive area is a sixth mask, which solves the problem.
Name any game in which a red tint is a good sign.
The corridors open into a large room, where we were attacked by another pack of lycanthropes, just as annoying with their damaging wails as the first. My approach to combat is still largely the same as last time: start each battle with a volley of offensive spells, then quickly switch to "Alpha Catharsis" to restore stamina and vitality. (Enemies hardly ever cast spells or use attacks that deplete attributes other than stamina and vitality. I think only a complete loss of vitality actually kills you. If you completely lose some of the others, you can't act in combat, though.) Here, I had to start using healing spells right away because the radioactive dust had already knocked down our vitality.
One constant annoyance is when the game insists that an enemy is not in my line-of-sight even when he clearly is. I've noticed that enemies often are able to attack me at times that the game says that I can't see them. This is particularly absurd during melee combat, as in the shot below. At times like this, I have to cancel the attack, move, and re-initialize it, costing me half a round.
How is he not in my line of sight?
I should pause to say something about inventory. I'm mostly still using the things that the game started with. I think I missed a lot of potential upgrades in the early dungeons because I hadn't yet trained myself to watch the locater unit. My lead character did acquire an axe to replace his hunting knife, and another character I equipped with a "katana-blade" when his ammunition ran out. It took me a few tries to realize that the katana has to be used from one square away from the enemy, not right up against him. I've found a couple of submachine guns to replace what my rear characters started with, but I suspect everyone will be using melee by the end. Since I discovered "Alpha Catharsis," I haven't been using bandages at all, which is good because the game regularly tells me that a character has no injuries even when he does.
After defeating the lycanthropes, I looked around and found Algol in a corner. I'll transcribe the entire creepy message:
You found Algol in a small, uneasily worn chamber. He's leaning against the wall in a weird trance-like state. For a second, you're standing amazed by the radiating, unearthly intelligence of his eyes, but the wicked, malevolent voice that speaks from within the boy dreads even you . . . "YOUR UNIVERSE IS ONLY A CREATION OF YOUR MIND . . . AND YOU ARE ONLY A CREATION OF MY ABSENCE . . . WE SHALL MEET IN MY ENTIRETY" . . . and when the Unborn's presence releases the child's body he unconsciously falls into your hands. You realize that you have to hurry now before the poison starts to take its deadly toll . . .
That was the cue to rush Algol back to Mirach. I don't know if there was actually a time limit on getting Algol back, but there was a limit of another sort. Just before I got out of the radioactive zone, the game told me that my characters succumbed to the radioactive dust and everyone died. They didn't actually lose vitality, but I guess there's a hard limit on how long you can spend in the zone, both coming and going, and I exceeded it. I had to reload the game from an earlier save and fight the lycanthropes again, this time making sure to keep my movements efficient and my route as short as possible. I think I missed some equipment because of this.
This image says everything you need to know about this game.
We got Algol back to his family, they jabbed him with his medicine, and everyone was grateful. Mirach told us in great detail about the Guardian. I won't transcribe all of it, but the gist is that 30 years ago, the mediators of the Tower of Neon accidentally summoned a "lesser entity" into the world "during one of their collapsed PlaneShift experiments." The Guardian--I still don't know what it is, really--somehow banished the entity back to its own plane. Mirach had the Guardian while he was in the WatchTower colony, but someone ratted on Algol, who is a mutant, and the family was expelled and its possessions confiscated. Mirach later learned that the Guardian had been given to Lord Daleth, ruler of Fort NightFall, but that it is ultimately destined for the Tower of Neon, where the mediators hope to use it to banish the Unborn.
Mirach tells his four-page tale. At least I can take screenshots of this text.
Great! Someone's going to do our job for us! Why do we have to be involved? But Mirach nonetheless recommended that we go to NightFall and grab the Guardian before it's taken to the tower. Lord Daleth is some kind of bloodthirsty criminal, but the mediators have allied with him because they're desperate.
The game had one final surprise before I got out of the SoulTomb Mines. As we returned to the entrance, Corall attacked us in a fury, screaming that our missive to the emperor had come back negative, meaning that the emperor had refused to loosen the empire's controls on mutants. We could see the reply in his hand, though, and its color indicated a "yes" response, not a "no." This made it clear that the Unborn had managed to possess or fool Corall. We unfortunately had to kill him and a bunch of his mutants. He was moderately difficult, throwing all kinds of radiation grenades and bombs, but he did us a service by catching a lot of his own mutants in the blast radius.
Corall catches some of his own party members with a grenade.
After the battle, PearlBlood showed up with the sad news that the Unborn had killed Mirach moments after we left him. (She didn't specify how, but the more gruesome part of my mind thinks it probably possessed Algol again.) She led us to the exit and tearfully begged us to save the world from the monstrous entity.
NightFall featured puzzles of equal complexity, but I won't go into those in as much detail. I just wanted one entry in which you could get a full appreciation of the game's approach. Being handed a key in reward for completing a task is more satisfying than just finding it, or gods forbid having to root around for it in a lake of fire (cf. Abandoned Places 2). Opening a wall with a mining drill and dynamite is more interesting than finding a pressure plate. The games aren't really the same sub-genre, so the comparison is inapt, but you get my meaning.
Before I go, I want to call for another round of applause for the game's music. You know that I have been indifferent to, even dismissive of, game music in the past--even good game music. This is because I don't want any tune on a constant loop as I explore, no matter how good it is. (As I've discussed, I don't like background music in any setting. When I listen to music, I want that to be my primary occupation.) Playing Perihelion, I realized that I haven't made enough of a distinction between games with "background music" and games that are actually scored. By that, I don't just mean that the game has different compositions for different areas. Everyone does that. I mean that the game knows when to play and when to shut up. Fortunately, there are some videos online in which the creator isn't yakking, so you can hear what I'm talking about (thanks to YouTuber ravencrest1985 for posting these). First, note that in combat, when you're trying to concentrate, there's no music at all, just a steady industrial hum. Later, when you're exploring, you don't get some distracting melody. You get more of a mood piece that's half sound effects. (My only "complaint" there was the loop is too short.) The game saves the big compositions for major encounters or when you approach a new area. Even that one is more atmospheric than melodic; try this one, which transitions us to the next entry, for a real tune.
Perihelion isn't the first game scored this way. I probably first identified the distinction in Quest for Glory without really analyzing it. But the music in this game is some of the best I've ever heard. Credit is given to a Zoltan Vegh, who only has a small number of games to his credit: The Simpsons (1991, Konami), this one, and Theocracy (2000, Philos). I don't know whether he worked for Morbid Visions or Psygnosis. I don't know what else he did in life (searches for him are overwhelmed by a footballer of that name). I don't know if the music is all original composition or if he was "inspired" by existing compositions (if so, I've never heard them). What I do know is that he's caused me to notice game music in a way that I never have before. I think I'll be making it a bigger part of my blogging from now on.
Time so far: 21 hours


  1. It's cool to see coverage of one of these stylish looking Amiga games that feels like some kind of alien artifact.
    Just since you asked rhetorically, I can name one game where the whole screen being tinted red is a good sign. In the classic Mac space trading game Escape Velocity, the whole screen is tinted red when your ship's cloaking device is engaged. (I think to give a stealthy submarine feeling.)

  2. Come to think of it, I suppose I don't ever take account of how well a game is scored in the contextual sense you suggested. Something like the Dark Souls games are careful to only score boss fights, and maybe a stinger when you first reach an area of importance and are taking in the view, but other examples aren't coming to mind. Breath of the Wild, perhaps? You'll sometimes get a sense one of those big dragons is in the area from hearing its non-diegetic music before you see it.

    Now you've brought it up, I think I'll start paying more attention to it in games also.

    Regarding the red tint, it's inescapable with any Virtual Boy game and it's always a bad sign for your eye health if nothing else.

    1. "Name any game in which a red tint is a good sign."

      The Masquerade?

  3. Regarding the troubles you had during the playing for this entry... have you considered having a screen capture program like OBS running while you're playing each session, so that you always have "backup" video of whatever happened you can go back to? The videos will be pretty large but you can always delete them when you've finished the post.

    If you don't mind HUGE videos, you could even use a non-compressing recorder like FRAPS which can still get you pixel-perfect screenshots from the video source.

    1. Uncompressed video is a no-go for me, but a program like OBS or Bandicam should be just fine for that purpose.

      I've personally been using Bandicam for years to make gameplay recordings, but I assume OBS works similarly. An hour of video for one of these old games would be around one gigabyte, depending on quality settings; if not pixel-perfect then close enough that my eyes don't notice a meningful difference.

      I've been thinking in the past that recording could be helpful to the blogging process. It's probably been suggested before, as well.

  4. The fact that the radioactive dust tints the whole screen, including the GUI elements, all in red is a bit jarring, it should have been constricted to the exploration window.

    Otherwise it's still amazing what the art department was able to pull off with basically two different colors on a monochrome scale.

  5. Also, I admit defeat, the newsticker information feed seems to hold no advantage in practice whatsoever...

  6. This entry brings back why I loved this game so much and why it will always have a special place in my heart. I haven't replayed it in the almost 30 years since I played it (it does not really have any replayability) but I still have some of those scenes and atmospheric messages and background music/sound stuck in my head.

    It really is an amazing game. Flawed but amazing.

  7. I can't say I'm a fan of games that force you to go through deadly areas without whatever protects you from it, although it can be done decently. What I have absolutely no tolerance for is hidden death timers where you only know it's there when you drop dead. Even if it makes sense for a radioactive area to kill you, at least have a message or something to make that clear before you do it instead of being blindsided by it.

  8. Well, the alcoves were labeled "I," "AM," and "WHAT."

    If only the Big Bopper had lived, he naturally would have tried "AM I WHAT?" here. "Chantilly lace/And some toxic waste..."

  9. There's something incredibly unnerving about this game.
    Something? everything!
    Again, I remember only a few parts of this game through a haze of two and a half decades that went by since, And I thought, maybe I was just an impressionable kid and this game wasn't as eerie, creepy and menacing as I thought.
    But it seems like it really was (and is).
    The sound is definitely a major part.
    For example here:
    The Demon you've mentionen bursts into your screen after a deafening screech and accompanied by some tense, sombre music. It does this after a quick "analyzis" screen which already fills you up with dread, and after that this "thing" just stares you down while the "flavor text" nervously flies by at the bottom, imitating an alarm that just went off.
    It's kind of beautiful, to be honest.

  10. Yeah, nobody ever seems to think about the fact that the player will be forced to listen to the repetitive music for hour after hour after hour. It's because they don't play the game - they just assemble the parts, put "play music" in the code and think no further of it. I'm like our host - listen to the music for the first hour or two of the game until it gets grating, then turn it off.

    That said, there are people out there who are immune to this phenomenon. They can listen to the same tune over and over and won't even notice. There was this rare obscure DOS game that I finally found a youtuber who played it (I tried playing it myself but I couldn't deal with the tedium of the interface and the micromanagement) and he kept the music on the entire game. It's about a 3 minute tune that repeats endlessly. As much as I liked the game and wanted to watch, I just couldn't put up with the music. When I complained about it in the comments he seemed surprised and somewhat put-out. To this day he still puts out videos for that game and the same music is still on.

    1. I'm a bit like that, if there's a jingle it fades into the background and I would actually miss it if it weren't there.

    2. I know personally I've found a lack of background music to be genuinely unsettling on occasion, but I'm also the sort that outright needs to have multiple things going at once to function properly

    3. I never turn off the music, even if it gets slightly annoying. The only time I ever turned it off was when it was genuinely hurting my ears with its penetrant noise, but I don't remember what game it was.

      I prefer well-scored games that use music appropriately to games that just spam the same five tunes everywhere, but no music at all is even worse.

    4. I'm fairly sensitive to music use.

      My coding partner literally doesn't notice. When he's debugging something, he'll leave the game running with a short track on constant loop that I can hear from the next room until I come over to yell at him about it. Sometimes he'll even have two copies of the game running different music loops at the same time! Argh, my ears.

    5. Not only do I not mind listening to the same music for hours as I play a game, I'll even put on video game soundtracks as background music as I work. Just hearing some themes is enough to bring back all the fond memories I have of that game.

  11. "I don't know what else he did in life (searches for him are overwhelmed by a footballer of that name)."

    It's amazing how often this happens.

  12. At one point contextual music was the "big new thing" and considered a big innovation at the time. For the life of me I can't remember the first game that got acclaim for using it.

    1. LucasArts used their iMUSE music system to great effect, but I don't think they were the first to do it.

    2. Monkey Island 2 (1991) and its iMUSE system might be a good candidate.

    3. (sorry, Raifield posted as I was writing, so I couldn't see their contribution)

    4. Monkey Island 2 and its imuse system is still unmatched to this day, mostly because MIDI is so flexible compared to using recorded orchestra tracks.

      The town of Woodtick had a general theme and several variations on that theme based on which building you were in. The music would seamlessly transition between these variations whenever you moved from one place in town to another. Michael Land composed several little transitional tunes and Ron Gilbert coded the imuse system to insert these transitions smoothly into the music, so you'd have a seamless transition as soon as you entered the new location.

      Ron Gilbert recalled in an interview that this was an insane amount of work and he never wants to do anything this complex ever again.

    5. It probably isn't easy to determine the actual first game to use music in "contextual" manner and games like Forbidden Forest (1983) and Pitfall 2 (1984) both use music at least partially contextually - especially Forbidden Forest, which may reflect the developer's background as a musician.

      In case of iMUSE apparently the major feature was the ability to synchronize music to the rest of game and to make smooth transitions between different themes and their variations without interruptions or pauses in the playback. I wouldn't be surprised if this was heavily reliant on the particulars of the contemporary MIDI technology.

      On the other hand, Lazy Jones (1984) for Commodore 64 already had at least seemingly smooth transitions between different themes and it used computer's native SID hardware for music.

    6. Serves me right for writing the reply without refreshing the page. ;)

    7. I know Microsoft made a big deal of promoting it as a feature of DirectX (DirectMusic, specifically) in the late '90s.

      Deus Ex (2001) has a pretty well-executed version of dynamic music, with smooth transitions between each area's explore, combat, and conversation music, plus flourishes that play when leaving a level or when dying. The style of the soundtrack and the structure of the game is really well suited for that, though, in a way a fantasy RPG's music might not be.

    8. 1993's Chaos Engine had a more upbeat version of that level's theme as you approached the exit.

      1990's Super Mario World has contextual music, sort of, in the extra percussion that starts when you're riding Yoshi. You could argue that the entire game has contextual music because it has one tune which is remixed depending on what level you're playing, but that's probably stretching the definition to breaking point.

    9. I was going to point to the Mario series, the newer ones go as far as to have individual sound effects and even enemy movement be timed to the music (although that last one can be kinda annoying if you're playing with the sound turned off...)

  13. Hi!
    First time poster and long time reader here - Perihelion is one of mine all-time favourites, so I decided to chime in with
    some insights about inspirations for Perihelion art style and music.

    Art style, particularly red-gray palette, was inspired by single painting of British SF illustrator John Harris called Microdrive II. This helped to give game more smooth and realistic feel because of small number of colors in "normal" (not HAM) Amiga modes compared to VGA - Perihelion uses only 32 colors, 16 shades of both gray and red.

    Intro music and whole tone of soundtrack was inspired by pioneers of Florida death metal scene, band Nocturnus. Nocturnus used lots of atmospheric keyboards (rare in death metal genre even today) and their lyrics were focused on SF - galactic empires and similar concepts(even rarer).
    Composition Empire of Sands and its intro is specially mentioned as big influence.

    From these inspirations, one could assume that Morbid Visions were into SF and metal music, as these artists are not widely known out of their genres.
    It is interesting how much style and originality from these pieces Morbid Visions(typical Amiga "power trio" - coder, gfx, sfx) extracted - usually sign of talented people.
    I still remember how I was blown away by this game that came out of nowhere - it was kind of technical marvel at time on Amiga.
    It is sad that later they went to do console games, so we never got sequel with more polished experience.

    Edvard Toth, one of the authors, has these informations and more on his site.

    1. This is really interesting, seems like they were pushing the boundaries on what was expected back then, and put together a talented band of avant-gardistes...

    2. Early days of game development were more niche, completely different from today mainstream status. So there was lots of interesting people - "weirdos" and "freaks".
      Amiga scene was no different.
      Border between game developers and hacker groups was often blurry, and many developers got their publishing contracts via some Amiga demo on copyparty.
      Also, Amiga and Atari scene were tightly connected with raise of EDM music in 90's.
      So, yeah, bunch of artistic dudes.

    3. Amigas have something called Extra-Halfbrite mode, which doubles the amount of colors to 64, as long as the colors are just darker versions of the 32 colors defined. It looks fantastic as it is, but I wonder what they could've done if they used that as well.

  14. As a metal fan, I can officially validate their metal street cred :) Nocturnus is a seminal underground band but strictly underground. Morbid Visions is a 1986 album by the band Sepultura. While they would eventually reach mainstream success, at that time that album was thrash/death metal and deeply underground. It is also very raw and poorly produced - only the dedicated would appreciate it. Also, looks like Perihelion is the name of an unrelated Hungarian metal band from the 2000s

    1. That is true - I have listened to Death, Morbid Angel and rest of early death metal in the 90's , but Nocturnus was obscure. Heard about them years later.

  15. This game sure looks great (that one screenshot with the boy and the red tint IS a work of art), and it sounds amazingly good for a Psygnosis game... About the only obnoxious thing is all that CamelCase stuff. OK, it may have been innovative back then (at least outside of programmer circles), but it makes me wince a little each time.

  16. At first I thought it would be difficult to name a game in which a red tint is a positive sign. But then I remembered Doom, in which the "berserker" power-up, which restores your health to 100% AND makes your punches 10 times stronger, tinges the screen red for a minute or so.

  17. Daleth as the Hebrew letter and the word Eheieh which means "i am what i am" have both substantial meanings in Kabbalah


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