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  1. #1

    Morality/Choices/Story Shifting in Gaming= Stale?

    So, I just beat Deus Ex: HR. [minor spoilers]. You're presented with three [edit: four choices. Not three.] choices that all basically serve to give some kind of closure while providing an avenue to a sequel. In theory, I don't have a problem with this. I'm a choice guy. I LOVE having choices. But I can't help feel that allowing the player to have the choice at the end of this particular game gave the writers an excuse to cop-out.

    I don't know. Maybe it's just that I'm burnt out on my recent Mass Effect/Witcher/Deus Ex fest, but I'm sick of being given choices. Back in 2007, I was enthralled with Bishock when it gave me the good/evil choices with the little sisters (despite the fact that you earn just as much ADAM either way, so there's really no incentive to go one way or another beyond wanting to be a dick or a nice guy). But now, in 2012,It's to the point that I roll my eyes and couldn't care less if this minor villain I've spared earlier becomes a major ally or that I get 30 karma points for not burning this orphanage full of kids and kittens. I just don't care, and I've had difficulty figuring out why this sort of apathy has set in, because, to repeat, I am a CHOICE kind of guy.

    Again, maybe it's the burnt out thing. I think, in part, it's because I yearn for older days when a buddy and mine could talk about a single gaming experience. For example, let's consider Max Payne 3. Now, anyone who plays Max Payne 3 is going to have pretty much the same experience storywise. Me and said buddy can talk about the various "oh shit" moments because they're universal and it's usually competent writing (I have some issues with MP3, but that's for another thread). My buddy and I can talk about Mass Effect 2/3 and The Witcher 2, but we won't necessarily be able to talk about the same experience because choices in those games affect the course of each game in major ways. Maybe that's a personal thing.

    Still, I think giving the choice to the player has changed from being a neat gaming device that can really enhance the player's experience to being something that gives writers an excuse to get lazy as Deus Ex and ME have demonstrated--to me, at least.

    What do you guys think about Morality/Choices/Story Shifting in gaming (I group the three together because they always seem to be related in whatever games they show up in).
    Last edited by Hal Fenix; 22-05-2012 at 02:17 PM.

  2. #2
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus soldant's Avatar
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    I don't mind if a story is on rails, so long as it's a good story. When you add in choices and branching storylines generally they suffer from depth or content. Either the branches are fairly shallow because of time/content constraints or due to a need to unify them back into an overall plot path, or they're deep but suffer by limited supporting content so that they feel unfinished, or put in as an afterthought.

    The ending for Deus Ex: HR is ridiculous (it all boils down to a friggin' button press... that's worse than ME3 where it was at least still possible to fail entirely) but I don't think any of those examples created lazy developers. The problem is that the story needs a conclusion at the end of the day, and branching it off into all sorts of directions brings with it its own problems, particularly when you have to accept that you can't go on creating content forever for each branch. ME3's ending has several threads already but the point is that most of the choices games offer (particularly ME3) aren't particularly consequential to an end resolution. That's not to excuse the instance of deus ex machina there, but I don't think it's reasonable for every single choice to have its own little branch. That'd be a mammoth task.

    Arguably it's lazier to include zero choices, because apparently linear games are a Bad Thing these days. Unless they're indie. If they're indie, they can do no wrong.

  3. #3
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus SirKicksalot's Avatar
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    We're fed up with shallow choices. Their novelty (in modern big-budget games, at least) is now lost and it's clear that a shitty mechanic is worse than no such mechanic at all.
    Alpha Protocol is a fantastic example of a modern game where choice matters and is done well. In fact it ruined every other game with choices for me. But such a branching narrative is very hard to make.

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    Mechanical choice is the only kind of choice I care about. It's why I yawn at binary story paths yet get excited over having to decide which of 100+ options to commit to in a single round of combat, with the results being unpredicted by the designers. In other words, a single battle in Wizard's Crown is far more involving with more rewarding choices than the entire plot flowchart of The Witcher 2.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by soldant View Post
    I don't mind if a story is on rails, so long as it's a good story. When you add in choices and branching storylines generally they suffer from depth or content. Either the branches are fairly shallow because of time/content constraints or due to a need to unify them back into an overall plot path, or they're deep but suffer by limited supporting content so that they feel unfinished, or put in as an afterthought.

    The ending for Deus Ex: HR is ridiculous (it all boils down to a friggin' button press... that's worse than ME3 where it was at least still possible to fail entirely) but I don't think any of those examples created lazy developers. The problem is that the story needs a conclusion at the end of the day, and branching it off into all sorts of directions brings with it its own problems, particularly when you have to accept that you can't go on creating content forever for each branch. ME3's ending has several threads already but the point is that most of the choices games offer (particularly ME3) aren't particularly consequential to an end resolution. That's not to excuse the instance of deus ex machina there, but I don't think it's reasonable for every single choice to have its own little branch. That'd be a mammoth task.

    Arguably it's lazier to include zero choices, because apparently linear games are a Bad Thing these days. Unless they're indie. If they're indie, they can do no wrong.
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Soldant. I also love the indie remark, haha.

    @SirKicksAlot

    Agreed. I actually played through AP recently, and thought "Wow, this game has shitty gameplay..but the story is fantastic." The choices were REALLY well done. I just wish some developer, somewhere, *besides CDProjeckt* could find some way to combine entertaining gameplay with an in-depth choice system that wowed me with its depth.

    @ Wizardy

    I had to look up Wizard's Crown. I want to try it now. Thanks for that. *sighs as he adds another game to the list*

  6. #6
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus gwathdring's Avatar
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    Hmm. Some thoughts on games with choices.

    I'll add my voice to the choir on Alpha Protocol. It followed through like so few of these games do and made decisions across the entire game come back to bite you or save you later on--there was no magic button here. What you did and said made a difference and while you had the chance to make big one-off decisions ... there was a lot that couldn't be amended or that was only made possible because you had set it up beforehand through smaller decisions. It all made sense in hindsight and I never felt like the game had tricked me or forced my hand. Characters had tricked me, but the game hadn't. It was incredibly refreshing.

    Dragon Age: Origins was a mix for me. It worked sometimes, and made me feel both like I was in control and didn't know what to expect ... but a I felt there were obvious options my character wasn't offered, or choices designed to trick me into an ethical quandary. My presence here felt arbitrary as the character in my head too often clashed with the options presented on screen but there was not pre-written script for my character either. I enjoyed the writing, the acting and the plot arcs but my interaction with all of this content felt hollow. I was unnecessary and overwhelmed with stuff at the same time.

    I felt like Deus Ex: Human Revolution succeeded in giving me a character with his own motivations and giving me a satisfying array of options within the context of that character's head-space. I felt like a lot of the choices were things that Adam Jensen would have been unsure about; I was the voice in his head that made the final call in a tough situation. Until the ending. I hated the ending ... each of the slideshow/cutscenes was well done--they did a really good job explaining Jensen's take and I liked not knowing exactly what happened next through an unbiased exposition. I genuinely wanted to hear what Jensen had to say in the little alternate universe I'd built for him during play. But the whole Eliza thing and the four buttons ... that felt so wrong.

    Interestingly, my experience with Mass Effect was identical to that with Dragon Age--despite the character being supposedly cut from a particular cloth in the same way Jensen was.
    Mass Effect's choices were almost all flat to me because they either had transparent effects on the endgame (Recruit useful party member or DIE) or they were ethical cheap-shots (Bring Down the Sky). If there were a few of either, I wouldn't have minded but these categories encompass most of the decisions.

    This leaves me with a difficult puzzle to analyze. From my experience with these four games, I am unsure what makes "choice" in a game succeed or fail. I enjoyed all four, and was frustrated by choices in half of them (but the gameplay issues in AP and the ending in HR make for similar levels of irritation all around). I am bored of games that talk about choice and then provide shallow experiences and arbitrary "Save the Girl or Save the World" caliber choices but am unsure how to offer any advice that works categorically for creating effective choice in games short of some devious plot to put mostly people who play games the same way I do on the Quality Assurance teams to my favorite upcoming titles.

    Unfortunately for Mass Effect, moral choices are more likely to be boring to me when they feel big or happen frequently and I'm always going to feel shitty when I have to decide between experiencing the game at it's best and staying true to my character. Games have to find a way to give both mechanical and narrative value to all choices so that players don't feel like they need to choose between fun gameplay and a good story.

    So that's my take on bad choices, but what about good ones? Deus Ex let me make decisions like "Do I keep the bracelet or give it to her mom?" Sure, it has an ethical twinge to it ... but mostly it's a character decision. And it's tiny. The fact that it is a choice in the first place can tell me something about Adam. The outcome says less then the decision's placement. So I'll add that to the list: for choice--and lack of choice--to be carefully placed. For player interaction to be telling part of the story just by existing.
    Last edited by gwathdring; 22-05-2012 at 09:13 AM.

  7. #7
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus gwathdring's Avatar
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    Edit: Nevermind.
    Last edited by gwathdring; 22-05-2012 at 09:13 AM.

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    One thing that makes choice'n'consequence a bit more boring to me than when I first encountered Deus Ex is the realization that, if you're going to have more than a couple of choices in your game, the overall effect of a particular choice is not going to actually do much. It might give you a cutscene and a plot point like "Person X is still alive", but these consequences are just minor rewards for your choice rather than anything that is going to massively effect the game. Any attempt to have lots of consequences all with meaningful outcomes is just not compatible with the way that video game stories tend to be presented (unique voiced dialogue for every situation, with a carefully-determined overall plot).

    Indeed, I remember a few years ago I tried to write an open-world gamebook with meaningful choice'n'consequence. Even though I knew that this would become complicated and so prepared myself well for planning and documenting all the possibilities, it quickly become totally unreasonable to thread all the plot lines together.

    The only way out is for the developers to cede a lot of control over the plot and the story, allowing the world to organically respond to your choices, actions, and character skills. Of course the downside of this will be that the individual bits of the story will be more generic, and also there'll be good chances of crazy occurrences that make no sense. We'll never know whether these disadvantages are worth it, since nobody will ever make a game like that. But wouldn't it be great to see people on the official forums whining that their game is broken because their choices conspired with their character skills and the random number generator to create a world where they had no hope of success?
    Irrelevant on further examination of the rest of the thread.

  9. #9
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Drake Sigar's Avatar
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    Oh I know you ain't praising Alpha Protocol without me! It was the perfect blend of attitude-based timed dialogue trees and in-game actions built around the kind of spy you want to be. The perks were a stroke of genius and emphasised that there were no right or wrong choices, just choices. I still haven't played a psychopathic Thorton though, a real shame because he makes Shepard look like a choir boy.

    Last edited by Drake Sigar; 22-05-2012 at 09:10 AM.

  10. #10
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus thegooseking's Avatar
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    I wrote about choices a while back. It's not a piece of writing I'm particularly proud of, so I won't link it, but I'll share the conclusions I came to.

    Firstly, there's the question of how the choice is appraised. Is it appraised authorially? This means some choices are 'good' and some 'evil' because the author decided they should be that way? Fable III is a good example of getting this wrong, where good and evil were inconsistent and conflated with popular and unpopular towards the end and so on. Mass Effect got it wrong to a lesser degree: it was a little unclear what Paragon/Renegade was meant to be. But even when it's done right, it's pretty boring: if the author/designer is telling me which choice is 'right' and which is 'wrong', then where is the choice?

    Or is it appraised on a per-character basis? Dragon Age was a step in the right direction (though not perfect: the choices were insufficiently motivated, and the other characters' feelings could be gamed by playing on their rampant materialism. DA2 fixed both of those issues to some extent), but it wasn't the first game to do it. Deus Ex: Invisible War did this and failed massively because your choices ultimately boiled down to trying to please the characters you found least unlikeable. There was no reason to care what those characters thought of what you did, leaving the choices empty and hollow.

    Fallout: New Vegas was a little weird because it had a good/evil karma meter and faction reputation. Personally I think it shouldn't have bothered with karma and just appraised your choices entirely by faction, but that might be because I don't like the concept of universal good/evil to begin with.

    And that's before you even get to consequences. Consequentiality is something that's difficult to implement in a scripted narrative. One of the reasons I'm working with Emergent Narrative is its benefit to consequentiality. There is still room for big decisions there. People often think you either have some choose your own adventure branching or emergence, like it's a binary proposition, but that's just not true. The problem with branching storylines is combinatorial explosion, but that's only true if you need a new node for every decision. If you have a few nodes at a high level of abstraction with the details filled in by emergence, you don't have too many nodes for branching. If you're working with emergence, then contextualisation and consequentiality are carried through the tree by the autonomous agents, not embedded in the tree, which allows your tree to be a much simpler shape, but even then there are still benefits to using a tree because it can guide the direction of the story. You branch based on the broad outcome at each node, not on individual choices. (I'm not actually using branching in my work per se, but it would be very easy to adapt it to branching; it's just not necessary for my PhD.)
    Last edited by thegooseking; 22-05-2012 at 11:56 AM.

  11. #11
    Lesser Hivemind Node Keep's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hal Fenix View Post
    You're presented with three choices
    Well there's yer problem. How often in real life do we find ourselves in that situation, and is it ever fun?

    Players don't want choices. Players want a) an absence of barriers, and b) consequences to their actions. That achieving those implies making choices doesn't mean the player wants choices.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wizardry View Post
    Mechanical choice is the only kind of choice I care about.
    Boom. But there's a narrative path of me interacting with the mechanics. That shouldn't be ignored.

    Quote Originally Posted by thegooseking View Post
    If the author/designer is telling me which choice is 'right' and which is 'wrong', then where is the choice?
    I've always thought, if you're going to implement it, "Evil" should mean parts of the game are easier/more fun/lazier, and "Good" should mean no rewards beyond personally feeling you did the right thing.


    Quote Originally Posted by thegooseking View Post
    The problem with branching storylines is combinatorial explosion, but that's only true if you need a new node for every decision. If you have a few nodes at a high level of abstraction with the details filled in by emergence, you don't have too many nodes for branching. If you're working with emergence, then contextualisation and consequentiality are carried through the tree by the autonomous agents.
    Interesting stuff as always dude. With branching storylines, I often feel the writer wanted to tell One Story, but was forced to compromise and offer alternative choices after people ask things like "Why do I have to team up with this guy?" There's never really an emphasis on consequence because there's only meant to be One Story, and what consequences appear from doing otherwise are only the minimal "What will it take to just shut this branch off (without just shutting it off)?"

    So I think that's where the idea of "choose-your-own-adventure OR emergent rules" comes from: because the goals of the people behind each tend to be so different.

    But they don't need to be.
    Last edited by Keep; 22-05-2012 at 12:48 PM.
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    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Sparkasaurusmex's Avatar
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    I've always felt like I had more to talk about in games where my friends will have different experiences. "That's not how I did it. Here's what I did..." can be more interesting than, "Did you kill that one boss? Man he was hard." "yeah..."

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sparkasaurusmex View Post
    I've always felt like I had more to talk about in games where my friends will have different experiences. "That's not how I did it. Here's what I did..." can be more interesting than, "Did you kill that one boss? Man he was hard." "yeah..."
    Yeah, it can lead to good conversations. Since most of my friends were boring perfect-playthrough-ers for Mass Effect, they were all interested to hear what happens when you've allowed the body count to pile up throughout the series.
    Irrelevant on further examination of the rest of the thread.

  14. #14
    Lesser Hivemind Node Bobtree's Avatar
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    TLDR: Choices without consequences are meaningless.

  15. #15
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Cooper's Avatar
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    The best outcome is that rare beast of a game whereby "mechanical choices" translate into some kind of direction to the narrative.

    This is more than chosing an elf for certain stats and finding everyone is racists, however...

    Edit: Reply fail; this was Re: Wizardry.
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  16. #16
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Sparkasaurusmex's Avatar
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    I was trying to make a list of games I felt had good choices which impacted the game. I gave up when I noticed my list was basically strategy games. Some do that very well, but all in sort of a limited fashion. Though I would say strategy games offer much more meaningful choices than any RPG type game.

    I do really want to play an "emergent" narrative type game. I think Football Manager actually comes closest to this, but for (perhaps not so) obvious reasons I want it in a game that isn't based around sports franchises. Civ IV sort of had an idea, but I never felt like the other leaders where really characters.

    The game I REALLY want to play is an adventurous RPGish procedurally generated epic narrative in a world that grows and changes like Civ, with decisions about everything from finances to what you say to have variety and impact the way they do in Football Manager and somehow still characters that I can love and hate.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cooper View Post
    The best outcome is that rare beast of a game whereby "mechanical choices" translate into some kind of direction to the narrative.

    This is more than chosing an elf for certain stats and finding everyone is racists, however...

    Edit: Reply fail; this was Re: Wizardry.
    I know it's primitive but something like: messing up a difficult combat encounter, being forced to head back to the nearest town, then on the way back being attacked by some bandits, losing a character and surviving by the skin of your teeth, reaching town but not having enough money to pay for a room at the inn, stealing money from some townsfolk, getting caught by the guards, breaking out of jail, stealing horses and riding out of town. This is the sort of primitive emergent stuff you could do in the 80s to craft your own stories. But if you look at something like Dragon Age: Origins today... you can't even do that! You can't get thrown in jail other than for a story moment, you can't get guards to attack you by being caught steeling, you are never forced to head back to town after a difficult combat encounter, you can't lose characters permanently in combat, there is no such thing as sleeping at an inn and you can't ride horses.

    The problem is that many games have traded in game mechanics with enough depth to at least craft your own primitive stories for more branches in a plot. If the last 20+ years were spent evolving in the right way then we could be seeing some Dwarf Fortress like stuff in mainstream games. The Elder Scrolls series, even though it's shit, at least keeps the old elements ticking over.
    Last edited by Wizardry; 22-05-2012 at 06:35 PM.

  18. #18
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Nalano's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by NathanH View Post
    Yeah, it can lead to good conversations. Since most of my friends were boring perfect-playthrough-ers for Mass Effect, they were all interested to hear what happens when you've allowed the body count to pile up throughout the series.
    They don't pull their punches to break your heart if you dithered in previous games.

    As for the OP, no, it's not getting stale. As with anything, Sturgeon's Law is in effect. For every game that tugs at your heartstrings, there's five that give you meaningless distractions from a real story. Frankly, I don't think we've played our hand with choices at all: Strip away the games where choices are largely cosmetic, and strip away where the "morality" choices are binary and obviously right/wrong, and strip away the games where choices have immediate results such that you can just quickload and choose the other, and you don't have very many games left at all.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sparkasaurusmex View Post
    I do really want to play an "emergent" narrative type game. I think Football Manager actually comes closest to this, but for (perhaps not so) obvious reasons I want it in a game that isn't based around sports franchises. Civ IV sort of had an idea, but I never felt like the other leaders where really characters.
    I still don't think "emergent" narrative is the answer, consequently. Not for a looong while. And you already stated why, when it comes to how the characters aren't characters.

    As for sports franchises, the manager games don't go anywhere. You play a season, and it doesn't matter who wins. To me, the interesting parts of sports franchises are things manager games simply couldn't depict. Like, for NY, it'd be subway series rivalries ("wait 'til next year"), the general hatred of O'Malley, the breaking of the color barrier, "the Bronx is burning," and everything else ancillary to the game itself.
    Last edited by Nalano; 22-05-2012 at 06:42 PM.
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  19. #19
    Lesser Hivemind Node fiddlesticks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cooper View Post
    The best outcome is that rare beast of a game whereby "mechanical choices" translate into some kind of direction to the narrative.
    I agree with this. The problem I often have with stories in video games is that they feel so disconnected from the gameplay elements. What you do has little to no impact on the actual narrative. You're in control as far as actually playing the game is concerned, but whenever the plot decides to show up you're suddenly relegated to a bystander.

    Ideally a game would give you many options in resolving a particular situation and then base the subsequent narrative on whatever option you decided to pursue. The player shouldn't just react to the events of the game, the events of the game should react to the player. Obviously the concept of free choice is somewhat illusionary since you're always confined to the choices the game actually offers you, but I still feel there are some games who pull off this illusion quite well. Alpha Protocol has already been mentioned. Arcanum is another good example, as is the original Deus Ex (can't comment on Human Revolution).

  20. #20
    Secondary Hivemind Nexus Sparkasaurusmex's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nalano View Post
    As for sports franchises, the manager games don't go anywhere. You play a season, and it doesn't matter who wins.
    Oh it does much more than that. For one thing you play many many seasons (don't know how long you can go on for) and it has two types of rivalries... those "emergent" ones, where I'm constantly competing with another team, and game recognized (historical) rivalries, and these games will bring more ticket revenue, players that do well or poorly in big games will be impacted on both sides, and past games are considered therefore future games are already being affected by the rivalry game. Also the ability to play multiple seasons really adds a lot to the game, and does sort of let it "go" somewhere. The most fun to be had in FM is to take a bad lower league team and get them promoted.

    The choices in FM are fairly standard usually, but the variables they impact are wider than normal. Deciding to renew a player's contract doesn't just keep him on the team longer... other players might react to his new salary, and this will depend on other variables, like if the other players like or dislike the player you've signed. It will impact ticket revenue depending on how the fans like the player. It will impact the player's agent's feelings toward doing business with you. It will impact other signings and how you value your other players. Your gameplan... etc. Each variable affects so many other variables and many of them are hidden. So it's gamey, but it becomes an illusion of this procedurally generating narrative because instead of making decisions thinking, "so what variables will this effect," you have to think more along realistic lines...or behave more intuitively to get the desired results. Sometimes you can guess at the consequences to your choices, but some will be surprises, and some you will not be able to actually connect to the causal choice.
    But yeah, it's a football game in the end...

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