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From First Act to End: A Comparison of Video Games and Feature Films
by Altug Isigan on 10/16/10 04:00:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Three-Act Structure is one of the most common tools in setting up a successful narrative. It is used heavily in cinema. However its usefulness in game writing is still under dispute. In this article I will have a look at the basic concepts of this approach and discuss its usefulness in regard to game design. I will first outline what is meant with Three-Act Structure and how it is commonly applied in mainstream cinema. Later on I will take a look at the structure of classical arcade games to draw some conclusions.

Three-Act Structure: An Introduction

Mainstream cinema typically makes use of the three-act structure in narrative design. This is the classical notion of a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Another typical feature of mainstream cinema is a standard used in proportioning these three acts: The content will often be presented in four quarters of which one is allotted to the first act (beginning, or introducution), one to the third act (end, or final), and two to the second act (middle). Expressed through a diagram, the three-act structure built around four quarters looks like this:

A diagram that shows the typical three-act structure used in mainstream cinema

The two quarters in the middle act are usually reserved for two secondary lines of action which are causally connected to the main plotline and gradually carry the story to the final act.

An example would be James Cameron's feature film Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991):

Quarter 1 (First Act): Set up of the plot, introduction of characters, planting of middle acts.

Quarter 2 (Second Act): The first of middle acts, in which the goal is to free Sarah Connor from the clinic in which she is being held.

Quarter 3 (Second Act): The second of the middle acts, in which the goal is to destroy Skynet and its infobase.

Quarter 4 (Third Act): Build-up to the climax, resolution and denouement.

We can speak of a variety of goals for each of the acts (and quarters). See the diagram below:

 

This diagram lists the goals and function of each of the acts in a typical three-act structure narrative

 

The first quarter aims at catching the attention of the audience. A very common method for this is to use a teaser. This quarter's main goal is to set up a conflict and lock it onto the protagonist. This will put her in a position where she has no other chance than dealing with the problem. Another important task for the narrative designer is to create identificiation between the protagonist and the audience.

The middle act with its two quarters functions like a bridge between the set-up and the final act. The main goal is to increase the initial tension by carrying forward the plot, meanwhile putting the character through a series of tests. Each of the two quarters end with an important moment for the character; first a deep crisis (low point) , then usually an awakening (peripetie, or turning point).

The final act is reserved for the climax. The way to the final enounter with the enemy is paved. The climax brings a resolution to the conflict. This is followed by the story wrap-up or denouement.

A more detailed picture of the dramatic structure of a typical movie would look like this then:

This diagram provides a birdsview of how plot, character and secondary storylines are developed along the four quarters in a typical three-act structure narrative

In this diagram, plot-related scenes/sequences are colored green, character-related scenes/sequences are beige, and secondary plotline related scenes/sequences are blue.

A typical thing in this kind of story structure is that an important turning point in the plot  is always followed by an evaluation and reassessment of the new situation by the characters that have been infuenced. During reassessment the character will try to understand his current situation and then decide on a new course of action. We have usually three such moments of reassessment, plus a denouement at the end of the story, which will see us the protagonist state what she has learned from all this and how she's going to spend her life from that point on.

It's also important to note that the first two reassessments will usually lead to courses of action that will launch the secondary storylines (quarter 2 and 3) that make up the second act of the story.

 

Three Dynamics: Plot, Character and Secondary Storylines

While the diagram above list a number of functions and tasks for the narrative designer to deal with, it would be helpful to group these tasks around three intertwined dynamics that cut across and develop along the whole narrative structure. These are

1) Plot

2) Character

3) Secondary plotlines (middle acts)

Let's have a look at them seperately.

 

Plot

Plot development requires us to do some heavy work in the first quarter. The problem must be thrown up, interest for it must be created, later on it must be intensified and finally turned into a conflict (an inescapable fact that the protagonist must deal with).

The second and third quarters develop the plot further via secondary storylines, but it is crucial that at the end of each of the middle quarters important milestones are reached in regard to plot. Quarter 2 usually ends with a low point: the protagonist loses his status, gets injured, cheated etc. His first attempt to overcome the conflict put him into even worse conditions. Quarter 3 usually ends with a turning point which will open a door to the build up of the climax. Once more the protagonist was in an attempt to overcome the problem, and once more she failed, but this time she makes a discovery that might bring things closer to a resolution.

The fourth quarter usually consists of a build-up to the climax. The plot development reaches its end with the culmination of the climax.

 

This image shows how stages of plot development are distributed among the quarters of a narrative

 

Character

Character development often takes place as the character reacts to change in her situation. This is a reciprocal process: The plot influences the character and forces her the reconsider her situation. The character then decides on a new course of action which will turn into plot.

Usually we come across three moments of reassessment of which all three come after the important turning points in plot development. The final stage of this change in character is the denouement, where the character draws a general conclusion for herself on what it meant to go through this plot and how life would be for her from now on.

Quarter 1 lays the character foundations. We find out about the traits and motifs of the characters and we are provided with the reasons to identify with the protagonist.

The first reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 2, when the conflict is established and locked onto the character. The character must face a dramatic change in her situation and decide on a new course of action. Her decision will provide the bulk of action that makes up the first of the middle acts.

The second reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 3, when she failed miserably in her first attempt to overcome the conflict and is now in even deeper trouble. Again she must make a decision to change her situation and the course of action she decides to take will form the bulk of the second of the middle acts. 

The third reassessment comes at the beginning of quarter 4, when she failed once more in her attempt to overcome the conflict but has disovered something that might be useful in her next attempt. The course of action she decides for after her evaluation of the situation will usually pave the way to the ultimate encounter with the enemy, the climax.

The final reassessment is the Denouement. Since the plot has culminated in a climax and a resolution has been reached, the characters will state what they have learned from this experience. They will decide on a new course of action, one that reflects their learning, and then go on their way. 

 

This image shows the distribution of character development stages among the quarters of a narrative

 

Secondary Plotlines

The secondary plotlines make up the middle acts of the story. Usually each of the quarters that make up the middle will deal with one central issue.

Quarter 1 lays the foundation for the two middle acts. We call this planting, since the seeds that will lead to those acts are places into the story structure early on.

In quarter 2 and 3 each one of the seeds will grow and form the bulk of significant action.

Quarter 4 will often result in the secondary plotlines being connected to the climax.

 

This image shows how middle acts are prepared, developed and connected to the final act of a narrative

 

It's the narrative designer's task to intertwine all these three dynamics in a proportioned way that creates pace and rhythm. Further important concepts here are unity and increasing tension.

 

Structure and Dynamics in Classical Arcade Games

Despite many people arguing that games aren't stories (or narratives), we see that game designers deal with issues in structure and dynamics similar to that in three-act structure. However, the medium as well as the business model might cause certain changes in the game designer's approach.

Let's have a look at the typical structure of a classical coin-op arcade game:

This image shows how a classical coin-op arcade game is structured

 

Most of the time we are tempted to see game levels as the basic dramatic units. This might hold true for certain genres. However a closer look at coin-op arcade games reveals that what really counts iin these games is "life".

A player can go through several levels with a life. This means that levels can be regarded as secondary goals to the primary goal: to achieve the best with the lives at our disposal. Each one of the lives can be regarded as an attempt to overcome the conflict (similar to the attempts that shape the quarters in the three-act structure). As our attempts fail and our lives run out, we come closer to the climax, the final act of the game.  The last remaining life is usually perceived as the final act of the gameplay session. The pressure we experience here can be regarded as the equivalent of the climax in the three-act structure. The middle act of the game will often be prolongued by extra lives that we earn during our struggle. This makes it rather difficult to speak of a proportioning of the narrative around quarters. Yet it is not so useless to see a structure of three acts in this.

After each loss of life, a reassessment will follow. Often this will be an evaluation of the player performance: Calculation of kills, combos, bonuses, clean streaks, sector records and other progress indicators. Such reassessments between lives create rhythm and pare a way of pacing the game.

The acts and reassessment intervals are enveloped by a Demo and a High Scores screen. While the High Scores screen will function similar to the denouement of a movie, the Demo screen performs a lot of functions similar to that of the first act in a feature film: It will try to catch our attention, introduce characters and settings, foreshadow part of the gameplay action etc.

Another difference here is in regard to planting middle acts. Oftentimes such games make repeated use of the same game mechanisms. In other words it is difficult to speak of sequences specifically scripted to reach low points or peripeties. For example a game like Centipede or Asteroids! doesn't have specifically designed middle acts. It's basically the same type of system that revolves around us, just faster, or with new enemy types replacing others as the game proceeds. In other words, the need for planting as it is necessary in feature films does not exist here. We would rather encounter a demo screen that hints at the various types of enemies we will face during gameplay.

 A major difference between feature films and video games is the need to introduce the player to the player vocabulary and allow her to adapt to controls. This is were the interaction element in games creates a task that narrative designers might not be acquainted with. This also brings with it the problem to get the player locked into the conflict without putting too much pressure on her since she needs her time to get used to the interaction requirements. A teaser in a feature film can push up the tension quite early and put the protagonist under big amounts of pressure right at the beginning of the story. Game designers must be much more careful when they push the player into the conflict. The task of the demo is often to show gameplay sequences in order to give the player a glimpse of what needs to be done. The first few levels will often be designed in a way that enable the player to learn to carry out the basic actions that the game demands to be played thoroughly. These are all tasks that are rather foreign to a narrative designer.

This image shows a list of tasks of the various acts in a classical coin-op arcade game

 

Conclusion

In this article I compared feature films and classical coin-op arcade games in regard to plot development, character growth and the planting of middle acts. I tried to understand in how far three-act structure as being used in feature films is useful in the design of video games.

In the context of the classical arcade coin-op game we found out that we can speak of a three act structure consisting of a cycle of acts and reassessments build around "lives". However, the interactive nature of the medium as well as the use of the game system make it difficult to speak of proportioning build around quarters. The middle act, depending on the players performance might differ significantly. Further, we cannot really speak of scripted middle acts that culminate into carefully planned low points or peripeties. Often the game system will care for increasing tension by using the same mechanics in ways that are more difficult to cope with.

Also most of the functions and tasks that we see in three-act structure are distributed among video game-specific elements such as the Demo and the High Scores screen.

The most important difference however, especially in regard to the first act, is the need for an introduction of the player vocabulary. The player must be introduced to the affordances provided to her and given space to adapt to the interaction requirements of the game. This is a task that narrative designers with a background in film and TV writing will probably not be familiar with if it is their first game writing project.


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Comments


Altug Isigan
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Just a little reminder: I don't want anyone to think that all feature films are structured exactly in the way I have diagrammed it here. You should read this "formula" with a degree of flexibility ;)

Mark Venturelli
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An interesting breakdown of the hero's journey model, but frankly the bridge to video games felt very forced and a little pointless.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Mark,



I think that one of the goals of this article is to understand whether a bridge to video games can be established at all. I believe that there are certain connection points and I tried to illustrate them. But I also tried to put the differences.



I'm glad you liked the breakdown of three-act structure. But I feel a bit sad that the second part seems to have failed to deliver the goods.



Thanks for taking the time to read and comment :)

Matthew Anderson
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idk, I feel like there have been successful integrations of the 2 structures. Maybe not in classic arcade games per se, but there are of plenty of games that present the narrative prologue or intro as a training sequence that allows the player to learn the controls. And i'm sure i've played a few games where the final boss shows up early and throws a wrench in the protags progress.. Maybe the new Ninja Gaiden's.....or Metroid Prime (doesn't Ridley like...eff with you a few times before the final battle)



But yeah i think the important thing is to integrate the games structure/devices and narrative. The easiest example being like...leveling up or getting the better weapons, or the classic low point of having your inventory taken away. Again these examples are trite and overused, but the game designers had the right idea.

Altug Isigan
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I believe that many functions and tasks of the classical three-act structure are counting in video games as well. However, differences in medium, business models, and mode of production result in these functions and tasks being carried out differently.



In this article I started with coin-op arcade games, but I'm planning on other articles that will focus on other game genres.



Thanks for reading and the comment, Matthew :)

Alan Jack
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This is a really great breakdown of narrative structure, and a good lesson for anyone who hasn't heard of it before.



I think where it feels like you're forcing the game analogy a little too much is the focus on "lives" - themselves something of an outdated concept in my opinion.



Edit: On reflection, a lot of what you discuss here is, I think, a result of old-school gaming phenomena that aren't really conscious design choices at all, rather than just "the way things were done back then" - demo screens, high score tables, lives, and back-to-the-start failure are all things that I feel were perhaps implemented as a result of technology restraints, or a lack of understanding of how to develop video games. Even puzzle games tend to allow you to tackle a stage at a time, rather than attack one after the other until you fail and have to start over.



I've always viewed the analogy between classic narrative structure and game structure as something a little more basic.



A basic platform game, for example, will give the player a simple jump or two to make on the first level. Ideally, these aren't death-trap jumps, but are perhaps done for some kind of bonus, or to avoid a hindrance to the player.



Super Mario Bros, to some degree, did this well - your first couple of jumps are just to collect coins and a mushroom. Then enemies are introduced: easy to to jump over, but with the optional incentive to stomp them, requiring greater control and precision. This all acts as foreshadowing for the later task of jumping to and from moving platforms. The player doesn't realise this, in the same way that Scott Pilgrim doesn't realise that defeating Ramona's evil exes might, in fact, lead him to overcome his own insecurities.



Everything, right down to my go-to analogy of Tetris, follows the same pattern. At the start of a game of Tetris, you have a nice, clear field that you can easily experiment a little with. By the time the game nears the end, you don't have the time or the space to play around. Even if you clear the playing field, the tone has changed, because you know now what lies ahead.



The problem in marrying this with a cinematic narrative is in the halting of progression until the player has learned the appropriate lessons. If Super Mario Bros had stronger characters, dialog, and a real sense of urgency to find the princess, the player might not see the necessity to perfect their jumping technique at all, and suddenly the repetitious task of gameplay becomes a hindrance to the player's experience. Clint Hocking described something similar with the term "ludo-narrative dissonance", which I think fits pretty well.



My favourite cinematic trick is when you don't see the denouement coming - the central character seems unable to surmount his dilemma and instead engages in actions that seem fruitless and empty, and only in the final stanza is it all brought together, and we see the real lesson he has learned from his actions.



I am curious as to whether this can be done in a game at all, or if perhaps the ideal trick with games is to do the opposite - give the player a series of seemingly meaningful actions, and in the end have them learn something that might originally have seemed unrelated.



An example of a game that very nearly did this was the second-to-last Prince of Persia. Had the game ended the way I wanted (and expected) it to, I would have spent the whole thing trying to save the Princess and learn to be a great hero, only to leave her behind and return to chasing my donkey across the desert, having learned the value of a simple life.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Alan,



I'm glad you liked the part on narrative structure in feature films.



I think it would have been wiser if I would have only left it with that part for now, as sort of an introduction for a series of articles. However, I thought that leaving it that way would have resulted in the "game" element missing. That's why I decided to add my observations on classical coin-op arcade games as the second part of the article. I studied other genres as well, but I hadn't diagrammed my findings yet, hence I decided to use what I have. If I would have used an analyses of an FPS such as Medal of Honor, the connection wouldn't be looking that much forced.



I've learned my lesson from this mistake.



You share some nice ideas in your comment btw and I'm happy to see that my concern in regard to introduction of player vocabulary as a main difference in game narrative is being understood.



Thank you very much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

Jonathan Lawn
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I think it's important that you took that "step to far". No point in giving this forum the education on film unless you establish where you think the link to games might be, even if it may be a stretch!



As for my take on that link, I think the problem is pacing. The three-act structure is "ideal" because it suits film viewers well. It happens that three lives suits arcade games well. Threes are good for lots of things. However, I'm not sure arcade games have the same idea of narrative (though I liked your ideas about the demo and high score table) and I'm not sure that the AAA FPS has this sort of pacing, even when it's just trying to provide 10h play for a primarily multiplayer game, let alone when it's a proper 20h story.



What does seem useful is an awareness of the pattern of assessment,action,crisis/peripetie though. Using that more could provide a better feel of character development to games that otherwise feel like just a series of events. I suspect the AAA FPS would want a lot more than two parts to its middle act though.

Altug Isigan
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Thank you very much, Jonathan!



It's great to hear that it was worth to take the risk. I agree with you that pacing lies at the heart of this issue. In my following articles I will try to point out how concepts like reassessment, planting of middle acts etc are used in other game genres such as FPS and RPGs.



In a previous article I wrote already about FPS and other genres having longer middle acts compared to feature films. You might like to read that article. (it's titled "Proportion in Narrative Design" and was featured earlier here on gamasutra)



Again thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

Rob Solomon
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The narrative breakdown is excellent, one of the better summations I've read. I even learned a new term today (peripetie) and I've read quite a bit on cinema.



I have to agree that the arcade comparison is a little forced... the time when games moved to a "quest" model where you had to put in additional quarters to continue (rather than starting from the beginning) might be a better starting point for this approach. One might look at the Continue? countdown screen as the crisis for the player and the completion of each stage as the peripete. :-)



But never mind this nit-picking... this post brings up some very interesting ideas in my brain, so I thank you for that.

Altug Isigan
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Hi Robert!



I'm really happy that the part on narrative structure was useful to the people out here.



Again, what I can say on the "forced" part is that it was probably wrong to start with coin-op games. I should have started with the FPS genre, that would have made the usefulness of the concepts more visible.



But anyway, I'm glad that I could inspire you to interesting ideas, and that is what counts most to me.





Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! Good luck! :)

Xavier Antoviaque
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Hi Altug,



Nice article - very interesting explanation and comparison. It makes me want to learn more about the way mainstream cinema structures the scenario and movie. Do you have any interesting links or books on this subject?



Thanks!

Xavier.

Altug Isigan
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Hello Xavier,



thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I'm glad the article made you ask for more!



There are a lot of books on the topic: I can list a number of authors here, but you probably have to order their books from amazon.com or so. Unfortunately, I never came across a truly helpful source on the internet, that's why I started to write and share my own articles.



So, here are some authors (some of them being quite from the past, but classics, if you ask me):

Constance Nash & Virginia Oakey,

Eugene Vale,

Lewis Herman,

Dwight V. Swain,

Sid Field,

Tom Stempel,

J. Michael Straczynski,

Michel Chion

Irwin R. Blacker,

Eric Paice,

Wendell Wellman,

William Miller...



Personally I favor the books of Michel Chion, William Miller and Irwin R. Blacker. But then, that's also a matter of taste.



Unfortunately, none of the books above really provides any diagrammes the way I do here. I'm a bit of a guy who likes to visualize things, and the lack of diagrammes was (again) another reason why I started to draw and share my own.



Btw, I must admit that my true teacher was James Cameron :) I really started to learn something about structure when I sat down and watched his films, scene by scene, taking notes during the process, and eventually diagramming the way he put it all together. When I went on analyzing other films (Braveheart, Ghost, Schindler's List, other blockbusters), the "three acts in four quarters method" with the detailed breakdown of quarters became very apparent to me. Of course one has to watch out for nuances, but the basics are often the same. But I needed to read most of the books I mentioned above first, before being able to analyze the movies the way I did. Without the conceptual basis, I wouldn't have been able to "see" anything.

Rayna Anderson
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This reminds me a lot of Story by Robert McKee that I'm reading right now. I think that a lot of games could learn by taking a more technical approach to building stories. With the right foundation a lot of games could be a lot stronger, story-driven or not.

Altug Isigan
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Hello Rayna,



thanks a lot for reading and the comment.



I think the same here: although I like theorizing and experimentation a lot, I believe that at some stages of writing/narrative design it is very helpful to maintain a very clear-cut technical approach, especially when you work on the macro level, where you are busy with the broader lines of the narrative. To me, this is like having a very objective checklist of important things which you can later on verify and modify through the reactions that you get from readers/players.



I think the thought that games aren't stories makes people neglect the usefulness of narrative approaches. I often find myself thinking that on a higher level the principles are the same, but that you have to watch out for the idiosyncracies of the medium while you apply them.



Finally, I find it very important that you say "story-driven or not". I second the way you are thinking here. For me, this is really about structure, not story or games per se. I think it's important to be able to look beyond "story" or "game" and focus on the concepts that seem to be valid in any process of communication.



Again, thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

Kirill Yarovoy
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Thats what i call "Cliche thinking" or "Cliche design"...



Also, whats the point to compare feature films with coin-op arcade games ???

How many coin-op arcade games have had something that could be called acts or something that could be called a script and could be compared to film script?

Can you name any?))) Pac-man, anyone? Tekken 3? House of the Dead? Mortal Kombat 3? LOL



Arcade games in most cases (like 9 of 10) are about absolutely pointless action, they all about quick and intensive gameplay and high scores, there is no place for narrative touch... even if it exist it just a quick briefing in beginning and some pathetic conclusion in the end.



Should i remind you that people cant play arcade games (especially coin-on) 5 - 20 hour, and usually gaming sessions limited 30-60 minutes and mostly there is no save-games, so what the point to compare narrative structure of movie to non norative gameplay and ui structure of ancient arcade games?



Until you will clearly explain me "what the point", i will consider this article as most pointless gamedev article i ever saw!



This comparison sounds same as comparison of Car blueprints and Horse anatomy "because they both moves, and people can ride them" could sounds like if someone would ever try to do such an odd comparison :-)

Altug Isigan
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Thanks for reading what must have been a complete waste of time for you.



Some design elements of the past become victim to our ideology of progress and the resulting nostalgia that diminishes every item of the past to a cute but stupid little thing.



What you call a quick briefing and pathetic conclusion were crucial elements of the design vocabulary of the past, and to a certain extend, they still are. In the arcade days, it would have been perceived an unfinished product if you would have presented a game without these. 30 years ago these were design *and* narrative elements consciously used to create a fully rounded experience and presentable product. They were tools to set up a universe and to create a sense of narrative, even if we think today that it didn't really matter.



You might not find it useful to understand what structuration efforts went into an arcade game that seems so different from feature films, but for me it is important. I'm interested in how they set up acts and how they exposed characters and settings etc. I'm interested in how the business models and mode of production shaped the presentation of the content and enforced the use of certain narrative and stylistic devices. And I'm interested to find out whether certain concepts from narrative approaches (from as far branches as feature films) were borrowed or not, consciously or unconsciously.



You do not think hard enough. The people in these days paid up to 100 dollars to buy cartridges for their home consoles. For exactly these games with the now *laughable* Demo, High Scores Screen and absolutely pointless action, as you call it. Can you imagine at all that there were times in which they were industry standards and part of the users imagination of what a cool game is? Can you imagine that people were not hired to work on games if they thought about these design elements the way you think about them now?



Get yourself a sense of history.


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