Deathless Prose: Permament Death

By Kieron Gillen on December 4th, 2009 at 3:17 pm.

I'm sure there's a three-letter acronym for this kind of writing. Let us never speak of it again.

I’ve talked about Ben Abraham’s Far Cry 2 permadeath play through before. The point, of course, isn’t about playing in Iron Man mode. It’s about playing in Iron Man mode and then writing about it. And Ben’s gone far further into this terrain than anyone else. His twenty-hour playthrough is immortalised in a 400-page, lavishly illustrated PDF complete with an intro from Far Cry 2′s head-chap Clint Hocking. I’ve yet to read it, but this is clearly the product of true obsession as well as a monumental monograph in games journalism. Between this and Alice & Kev, it’s proving quite the year for large-scale experience-orientated games writing.

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86 Comments »

  1. Brian says:

    Well, I’ll be. This blog was the very one that inspired me to pick up Far Cry 2 in the first place- at the very least, it’ll be interesting to see how this experiment turned out.

  2. Psychopomp says:

    Out of curiosity, why do you consider this a big deal? At the end of the day, isn’t this just an extremely well done Let’s Play, with added ironman?

    • Vitamin Powered says:

      I’m not sure about how easy a read it’ll be, but the point of informing us about this (and Alice and Kev) is to show us the different experiences and experiments that can be done with PC gaming. Could you really do something like Permanent Death or Alice or Kev with a book or TV series, changing the parameters of play to create something more personal?

  3. Shalrath says:

    Hour 1: Got to the first respawning guard post.
    Hour 2: Two guard posts later…

    Hour 6: Wow, they really do respawn fast at these guard posts.
    Hour 7: I wish I could just play this damn game and not fight these goddamn respawning @*(#@…. (‘article’ trails off into obscenities)

  4. Petethegoat says:

    Should have been Stalker.

    Still, downloading now.

    • CMaster says:

      It wouldn’t have been very long then.

    • Erlam says:

      I dunno, my first death in my last playthrough (without cheating, yes) was when you get to the military base you have to steal the documents from. I made it OUT of the damn place too, I just didn’t notice a guard until too late.

    • Muzman says:

      It wouldn’t have worked with Stalker, I don’t think. Well maybe. But whatever you think of FC2 the game (I have it and its ‘feel’ doesn’t grab me yet) the thing about this is FC2s dynamic story and morality stuff.

      It’s way too early to mention this but I’m doing a blog on Stalker at the moment, but I still have to write up all the damn entries and do the screenies etc. Let’s just say it’s not predicated on the idea that you’ll survive very long (currently on playthrough number 16).

  5. Turin Turambar says:

    Should have been whatever not-mediocre game.

  6. Petethegoat says:

    CMaster, are you referring to difficulty or length? I assume difficulty?

    • CMaster says:

      Difficulty. Considering STALKER starts you out with very little ammo for a pistol that can barley hit the broadside of a barn and sends you off against 8-10 bandits armed with a mix similarly useless pistols and shotguns that one-hit kill you from close range along with no healing gear. That said, sneaking up behind them and knife secondary attacking them works pretty well.

    • Spd from Russia says:

      I tried to play Stalker Iron-man style on max difficulty and w\o mods, after so many retries i got as far as agroprom but that was it, I got really tired of replayinig 2 first lvls just to loot ammo\stimpacks\money

    • CMaster says:

      Actually, just fired up my Steam Version today. They’ve smoother off the early difficulty a lot from v1.00

  7. Tei says:

    Next books:

    “How I quit my pills adiction playing Pacman”.

    “How I dealt with a Obsesive Compusion Syndrome playing WoW”.

    “My experience playing Quake3 while driving a scholar bus”

    “Hot sex with your wife playing Pokemon Gold”

    “Playing ‘Desert Bus’ to help Childrens”. ( I think here I have jump the shark… )

  8. ChampionHyena says:

    Should have been hargle blargle hurgle durgle.

    Did anyone, like, read this, or are we already on the judgment train today?

    • AndrewC says:

      I read the first installment waybackwhen and it was a fairly dry and uninvolving ‘I did this and then I did this’ recap of what had happened with little comment on how he felt or interesting anecdotes.

      But then again the very nature of these things makes them more interesting and intense the more they go along – maybe the simple act of trying to read all 500 FUCKING PAGES will add the necessary sense of epic, desperate survival.

    • AndrewC says:

      400 FUCKING PAGES.

    • AndrewC says:

      I GOT IT WRONG THE FIRST TIME, YOU SEE.

    • qrter says:

      I had the same criticism, at the beginning – it was a bit too much “and then, and then, and then”. But Ben really picks up his writing during the project, it becomes a lot more involved.

      My one bit of criticism of the project that still holds ground for me, is that the idea was better than the execution – this comes mainly down to the difficulty level Ben chose to play at (which was ‘normal’). It sort of ‘neutered’ the danger the game can contain, making the whole thing a lot less exciting (and interesting) than it could’ve been, I feel.

  9. Petethegoat says:

    In my defence, it is taking ages to download. Besides, I would have thought that the openness of Stalker would have made it inherently more interesting.

  10. Ian says:

    I enjoyed all the entries of this up to the point where he said he was just gonna complete the thing and PDF it rather than continue in the same format.

    Will undoubtedly forget to get around to downloading it.

  11. Warth0g says:

    After about two hours play through, I flogged it on ebay.. at least I made some of it back.. I’m still bitter at PC Gamer for their review of that one.. you dogs!

  12. Zyrxil says:

    Couldn’t he have played something fun? Would be less of a chore, both for him and readers.

  13. MacBeth says:

    Someone should come up with a snappier name than “experience-orientated games writing”…

  14. Vinraith says:

    I’ll never understand all the Far Cry 2 bashing, it’s easily one of my favorite games of the past year (yes, I know it’s from 2008, but I didn’t play it until this year) and trivially my favorite FPS of said year. I’ll take a massive open world playground of destruction over some linear 5 hour scripted drama-fest like MW2 any day.

    • skalpadda says:

      I agree, and I also picked it up only recently. The only issue I have whatsoever with the game is that the checkpoints respawn too fast, but most of them are avoidable and the shooting is fun enough that it’s more of a mild annoyance than anything game breaking. I think people need to lighten up a bit.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yup. About the only criticism I can completely agree with is that it’s absolutely criminal that this game doesn’t have a mod tools set. Can you imagine what an active community could make of this game and engine? Plus they could tone down the respawn rates and allow people to tweak those aspects of the game that bother them, so even for “vanilla” play it’d represent a nice level of customization.

    • Psychopomp says:

      You know how the internet is. Popular game, with a few glaring flaws? Worst game of the year.
      Game from a small studio, that’s buggy as hell, and has many glaring flaws? GOTY, all years.

      And this is coming from someone who’s played through Far Cry 2 once, and SHOC five times.

    • El Stevo says:

      The fact that no mod tools were released for Far Cry 2 is one of the great travesties of our time (on a par even with Shenmue 3). All the promise offered by Dunia going untapped.

    • Dominic White says:

      One thing I found especially baffling about the FC2 hate going around is that ‘It’s just an FPS and it keeps sending dudes to kill you’ was one of the most repeated complaints.

      Apparently people weren’t expecting anything like Far Cry (go figure – it was closer to the original game than anyone could have predicted, although Crysis is still closer in spirit), and instead had visualized a hybrid of Deus Ex and STALKER in a nonlinear RPG world, and were upset to discover that it was just a game about shooting dudes in a pretty environment.

      I liked it though. It was basically a long string of open-ended gunfights, and what gunfights they were. Spectacular exchanges of fire as explosions tear through camps and fires ravage the landscape. No encounter played out the exact same way twice. Also had pretty great AI, although people bitched about that too because they can actually see you (SHOCK!) if you’re crouching in foot-long grass in plain daylight just fifty feet away.

    • Psychopomp says:

      “(on a par even with Shenmue 3)”

      One day :(

    • pepper says:

      I had mixed feelings about FC2. I really liked the first character i met(Paul) But after that it felt very unnatural, since they all acted the same. But you kinda make your own story, the guy lost in the desert just trying to survive.

      One thing that could have tremenduously increased the gameplay was making the respawning at gaurdposts happend different, but having a car with reinforcements drive up to it, and how more you kill it, how more it gets reinforced, so that killing them actually hurts, obviously they should also have some sort of random abandoning in them. Could have made it much more enjoyable.

      The environment is great, the and characters felt like they could have been more then they were. I loved it. My game of 2009.

    • Krondonian says:

      I concur too. One criticism aside from respawing was that the guns themselves sometimes felt a bit flimsy. I played FC2 straight after Crysis, and for me the latter nailed the plain shooting better than Far Cry.

      The incredible variety of weaponry though (especially with the Fortunes Pack) really did make up for it though. A silent makarov, the first bolt action sniper and and the single shot grenade launcher are my favourite weapons from an FPS in a long time.

    • skalpadda says:

      Also had pretty great AI, although people bitched about that too because they can actually see you (SHOCK!) if you’re crouching in foot-long grass in plain daylight just fifty feet away.

      That sneaking actually requires you to be very careful is what makes it fun for me in FC2, and I normally dislike stealthy playing in FPS games. Here it’s more like an exciting game of hide and seek.

      I’m wondering though, when I got the game I hadn’t read all that much, so what I was expecting to get was a very open shooter with good combat and slightly annoying respawns and that’s exactly what I got (I wasn’t quite prepared for how amazing the environments would be though). Reading back a bit now at what was hinted before release, things like more civilians and an actual morality system, and Clint Hocking’s admissions that some things just weren’t clear enough (buddy system, main plot), maybe it’s not so strange that some expected a little more. I’m still happy with it for being the remarkably fun toy world that it is.

    • Tei says:

      “You know how the internet is. Popular game, with a few glaring flaws? Worst game of the year.
      Game from a small studio, that’s buggy as hell, and has many glaring flaws? GOTY, all years.”

      Or maybe people dislike Farcry 2 because was a bad game? I like the multiplayer, is fun with friends. The engine is nice. But the gameplay break the GTA-ish mold of sandbox exploring and gatering stuff in a lame way. Theres not even some satisfaction driving vehicles, as you can’t move farter.. you get another road control, longs of curves, and another road control and lots of curves, and another road control, and more curves, and anotehr road control. This, FC2 in a nutshell, some depresing serie of curves and road controls, that get you nowhere.

      Is sad, especially because the game is brilliant in other areas. Hell.. I think this popular opinion is mirrored by some journalist reviewers. I am a nerd, and I hate wen people disaprove opinions of other people as “nerd rage”, like behind a nerd is like behind something less than a human.
      Yes, we, the nerds, get angry at some things, but we have our very important reasons to get angry, like other people have his reasons, damnit.

    • Tei says:

      note to self: I need a spellchecker. Sorry.

    • Psychopomp says:

      Okay, I know English is your second language, and I can normally figure out what you’re trying to say. This time I’m fucking stumped. The hell is a road control?

    • TeeJay says:

      road control = road block

  15. Kelron says:

    This gentleman is well known in the X community for his in-character permadeath stories (link to pdfs in his sig). They probably won’t be of interest to anyone not familiar with the games, but they make for a good read if you are.

    • Kenny says:

      I near enough stopped playing X3:TC because i was having more fun reading Nuclear Slug’s exploits than playing the game myself.

  16. Stijn says:

    I appreciate the concept, but having read a bit of it it really isn’t all that well-written or interesting. The “death is instant” rule doesn’t shine through in the writing all that much, save for the occasional “I could die here and then it would be really over” bit. Basically it’s a normal playthrough of a game with lots of screenshots to go with it.

    Now if there were lots of thoughtful reflections or clever observations that would be nice in itself, but it’s really mostly “I did this and then that happened and then I did this”. Which is a shame, because again, I suppose this could in principle be a really interesting endeavour. Maybe Far Cry 2 really doesn’t lend itself much to this kind of stuff.

    • Stijn says:

      (I haven’t played Far Cry 2 myself, but this piece doesn’t really make it look like a very interesting game)

    • Kelron says:

      I like the game, but opinions are very mixed. It definitely doesn’t make for interesting reading, and I’m not convinced it’s a good candidate for a permadeath game anyway – I can’t recall ever dying properly, only ever being ‘rescued’ (after falling off a very high cliff, of course).

      One of the reasons I like the X3 stories I linked above is because they take dedication and thought. It’s a game where it’s very easy to die if you slip up, and the writer imposes additional rules on himself to keep things interesting.

    • qrter says:

      I think it’s a great game and it lends itself very well to permadeath playing – I’m loathe to use the term ‘emergent gameplay’, but it does apply here. Lots of unforeseen stuff happens, which also means there are many unforeseen and surprising ways to die (also some mundane, dull ones – it’s give and take..).

      At the same time Ben started his project, I was one of the many people that joined in on our own Far Cry 2 permadeath adventures (although I didn’t blog about my experiences but tweeted instead).

      I ended up restarting a total of 8 times because of characters dying (I became slightly obsessed about getting beyond the last point of departure..).

      One of the more interesting ones was my character blowing up an arms truck, watching it flip high through the air, suddenly realising it was actually plummeting towards me, going “ah SHI-” and being too late to evade the burning wreckage, which landed squarely on my character. Nice.

  17. DMJ says:

    Bah. It isn’t Iron Man until you pass 20,000V through your brain when you die.

  18. Heliocentric says:

    I’m was planning of doing some after action report style writing to Sword of the Stars progression wars, it easily lends itself to chaptering what with entering new galaxies at regular intervals.

    Iron man oblivion or morrowind could be great, anything open world. Space rangers 2 great also.

    • Vinraith says:

      I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

    • panik says:

      “I find your ideas intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.”

      Bet you were wearing an “all your base” t-shirt when you wrote that.

    • Vinraith says:

      I was never an “all your base” fan, myself, but Simpsons references shall never die. And anyway, I figured it was about time that old chestnut made a comeback.

    • Krondonian says:

      ”Iron man oblivion or morrowind could be great”

      NONDRICK. If you haven’t read it already, http://livinginoblivion.wordpress.com/ is a gem. My favourite game diary ever. Such a shame that actually playing the game that way was a lot duller than the writing it produced, which lead to there not being an update since May.

  19. Butler` says:

    2 hours was about my limit as well

    i’m glad i’m not alone!

  20. DMcCool says:

    He really, really should’ve played on a higher difficulty. The amount of boasting he does about how he normally plays it harder and how almost every single kill is described as “easy” ruined the tension for him, and us. It just reads like a normal playthrough; what is the point of Ironman when theres no realistic chance of you dieing anyway?

  21. 1stGear says:

    This. Normal is normal, thus deaths aren’t going to happen frequently. If he claims he’s good enough to play at Hard or Infamous, why didn’t he? Might have made the whole thing a lot more intense and actually resulted in him dying at a point where just playing to the end would have been unfeasible.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yeah, I don’t consider myself to be very good at FPS games and even I found normal to be on the easy side. I ended up playing through the game on hard, but there’s no way I could have made it any distance (certainly not on to the second map) without dying at least once on that setting.

    • Optimaximal says:

      That’s what ruined it for me.

      It just played out almost identically to my playthrough (proving that all the shouting about random events was just marketing, not reality) and the cop-out of dying during the ambush at the end prevented him having to write up the moral quandry of the final decision.

      That said, 100 pages could have been saved by avoiding all the quasi-existential crap with Hakim.

  22. Risingson says:

    2 cents: Far Cry 2 is a fascinating game at first, but the respawn really kills it. Anyway, it has one of the most unique athmospheres of recent gaming, and sometimes is so beautiful that it hurts a bit.

  23. neems says:

    When he started the permadeath run, various other people reading his blog followed suit. One of them was playing on the hardest difficulty – and apparently was generally very good at the game – and his run ended about 10 minutes after he started. Apparently you can’t get rescued if you get sniped in the back of the head :-)

    • Kelron says:

      “Permadeath” is just a formality if you’re not playing a challenging game. To make these stories interesting, they need to be doing something the average player doesn’t have the dedication or skill to do. If playing on hard means the story ends early, then so be it. That’s the whole point, otherwise it’s just recounting a story of playing the game normally.

  24. Justin Keverne says:

    For anybody interested I interviewed Ben about his Perma-Death experience.

  25. KillyBilly says:

    One aspect of Far Cry 2 that doesn’t get enough attention in my mind is the glorious map editor that comes with it. I waited until the game sold for $15 on Steam to pick it up, and I still haven’t played the actual game because it’s so much fun playing with the editor! It’s great fun placing explosive barrels up and down hillsides and watching the physics taking place while blowing them up. It helps to have a good sound system with the volume UP! Tip – dig a big hole in the ground and fill it with explosive barrels at the bottom. Then throw a fire bomb in. I know, I’m easily entertained…

  26. Taillefer says:

    Best part of Far Cry 2 was driving through the plains, looking over my shoulder at the herd of zebra running alongside me as the Sun sets in the background. Rest of the game, not so good for me.

  27. yns88 says:

    Deus Ex is fun to play in Iron-Man mode. I got to the end of the third mission when an NSF agent shot me in the face with a sniper rifle. It was a good time though, and improvising ways to survive my mistakes was great (at one point, I fell off the roof of a building, found myself legless and cornered by enemies, then miraculously saved by an AI glitch – one of the NSF guys pulled out a LAM and dropped it at his feet, blowing them all to bits but somehow leaving me unharmed).

  28. Harbour Master says:

    I thought the blog was interesting in the beginning when Ben was anxious that This Might Be It, Game Over Man whenever he was close to death, but at some point that fear waned. And so did Ben’s enthusiasm. The blog then turned into an embellished narrative of a playthrough which, to be honest, embellishes the game with more charge and emotion than it actually carries after you’ve ploughed through a good chunk of Far Cry 2.

  29. Bhazor says:

    All this is essentially Kieron’s fault.

  30. Fergus says:

    Well I read the whole thing, and while I agree that it could have done with being played on a harder difficulty, I still enjoyed the work. Not too sure about how I feel over how he chose to end it, the final ‘chapter’ felt as if it was overdoing the point about the cheapening of game death. But few things work better than different coloured piccies.

  31. Lanster27 says:

    Woot go Aussies and their FC2 obsession.

  32. TeeJay says:

    Things I didn’t like about FC2:

    The malaria, the limited stamina, having rusty, limited-carry/limited-selection guns, the map and the car windscreen obscuring most of your vision, the enemy AI’s suicidal use of vehicles, the insta-respawning, the invisible walls on ever mountain, the “buddies” and their garbled too-fast talking, the ‘diamond finding bleeper’ instead of proper searching, the lack of objects and locations to search or variety or usefulness in things to find, the story (why did I want to kill someone who was nice enough to spare my life right at the start? why was I working for all these horrible rebel/mercenary groups? why were they all attacking me on sight? why did the arms trucks drive round and round in circles? etc.), not being able to select several missions at once and string them together as I moved around the map, that although set in Africa it didn’t seem to have the vast number of suffering civilians or any of the real gritty nastiness from modern african wars – just an empty landscape full of ‘sef afrikan’ and other strangely-accented mercs (didn’t really remind me of any of the 13 african countries I have been to, or any of the contemporary conflicts I have been following), the lack of SDK meaning no user-tweaks or mods, stupid bugs like the screen resolution resetting itself every time I restart the game…

    Things I like about FC2:

    Nice graphics, pretty environments, OK gun-play.

    • TeeJay says:

      …so all-in-all not much reason to want to read 400 pages of someone playing through the game, unless someone can convince me there is something especially interesting about it?

    • blah says:

      Plus: no prone, no armor, can’t repair/maintain weapons (but you can with vehicles using a wrench…), enemies take a lot of bullets to kill (did they have armor?), lack of options to bypass check points (lying, bribery, etc…), underuse of buddies, the repetitve beat music (off with that!), …others?

      FC2 is in my top list of worst AAA (?) games of all time.

  33. bill says:

    Farcry2 is that FPS where everybody complained because there were too many bad guys to shoot right?

    Does anyone else get annoyed when blogs post things like “I haven’t read it yet, but…” or “I haven’t played it yet, but…” or “I haven’t been able to get it to work yet, but…”.

    I know it’s about spreading news, and I’m being picky… but it just disproportionately bugs me. It kind of seems like a newspaper movie reviewer saying: There’s this new movie coming out, I haven’t seen it, but it might be good. Doesn’t seem to have much added value. I’d rather wait and hear about it once you have read/played it and if you then feel it’s worth it.
    zzzzzz.

    • MD says:

      Yeah, I know what you mean. Just depends on what you want from a site really — personally I don’t really care about keeping up with gaming news, at least not via RPS specifically, so I could happily lose all of the purely informative posts. Some probably enjoy being able to use RPS as a one-stop-shop though, so it’s all good.

    • Dominic White says:

      “Farcry2 is that FPS where everybody complained because there were too many bad guys to shoot right?”

      Yep. Just look at this very thread. At least a dozen people have complained about there being regular combat in an FPS. Apparently they’d rather play some kind of sightseeing simulation.

      Did nobody play Far Cry 1? I know it’s by another studio altogether, but it was ALL ACTION. Why did anyone expect some kinf of complex multifaceted action-RPG instead of an FPS? WHY!?

    • blah says:

      “Yep. Just look at this very thread. At least a dozen people have complained about there being regular combat in an FPS. Apparently they’d rather play some kind of sightseeing simulation.

      Did nobody play Far Cry 1? I know it’s by another studio altogether, but it was ALL ACTION. Why did anyone expect some kinf of complex multifaceted action-RPG instead of an FPS? WHY!?”

      The point is FC2 wasn’t promoted as being a regular FPS, whereas FC1 didn’t delude itself to be more than it was: an FPS game.

      I didn’t mind the Trigens in FC1, at least it altered the gameplay somewhat with a different set of enemies to shoot (*stares at BioShock*).

    • Oak says:

      Yep. Just look at this very thread. At least a dozen people have complained about there being regular combat in an FPS.

      No, theyre complaining about regular combat against enemies who, for all intents and purposes, don’t stay dead. I think very highly of Far Cry 2, but it’s totally understandable (if a shame) that this undermined a lot of players’ will to continue.

  34. Pl4t0 says:

    I actually LOVED Far Cry 2, and I completely agree with PC Gamer’s review. I get that people criticize it for being repetitive, but what most people don’t realize I think is that it’s only repetitive if you PLAY IT like it’s repetitive.

  35. Serenegoose says:

    I really liked Far Cry 2, with one, tiny, tiny exception. Mortars. Those things single handedly ruined the game for me, because of their psychic pinpoint accuracy. It’s like you get to a certain point in the game, and then suddenly you’re not allowed to ever stop moving ever again, because if you did, you’d get mortared and then you’d die.

    So sometimes I load the game up, and I play until mortars start appearing regularly, and it’s a lot of fun. And then I stop.

  36. Sebmojo says:

    Tch. Permadeath playthroughs begin and end with Irene the Infirm. Hardcore Sorceress with no skills, statpoints or gear. That’s right – she punches everything to death.

  37. Psychopomp says:

    “The point is FC2 wasn’t promoted as being a regular FPS, whereas FC1 didn’t delude itself to be more than it was: an FPS game.”

    Name one game, one, that wasn’t played up like the second coming of christ. Judge it for what it is.

    • Dominic White says:

      Thank you. Almost all the hate for FC2 comes not from comparing it favourably or unfavourably to FC1, but rather to this imaginary super-game that never actually existed, and reality will ALWAYS lose out to imagination.

      I mean, whoop de doo! You’ve imagined a game you’d rather be playing… okay, well, is there anything like it on the market that you could fairly compare this game to? No? Well, then you’re just being absurd.

    • blah says:

      “Name one game, one, that wasn’t played up like the second coming of christ.”

      BioShock.

      More like expectations vs. reality, fed upon through hype. Ken, why don’t you frequent ttlg anymore?

    • Muzman says:

      It’s not being compared to the greatest game imaginable though. Well, surely it is in some minds, but that’s not the point. The game was trumpeted as being open and dynamic in a way that applied to everything. That’s the sort of thing that’s going to attract fans/dreamers of big persistent world games. It hits many of those realism and complexity marks, to its credit. That’s what makes the inclusion of regular respawning a problem.
      They’re trying to have it both ways, clearly. They know shooter fans would be driven nuts by half the game being driving/sightseeing/planning and no one to kill (and they’re right, judging by shooter fans I know) and the guns are pretty lightweight and gamey. So they’ve got to keep a certain portion of the likely audience happy, or try to.
      The criticism is a valid one though, for the more cerebral exploratory player those guys shouldn’t be back yet and the friend/foe mechanics could stand to be more complex. But two worlds are colliding here, that’s all it is.
      It’s still, on a mechanical level at least, got more claim to the title of Shooter 2.0 than Bioshock could dream of. As mentioned up thread, it’s a real shame that there aren’t any mods. A few small changes could make all the difference.

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