Death To The Author: killing creators in Dishonored, Portal and BioShock


When we meet the creators of fictional worlds, we often want to kill them. Whether its Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan and his deadly Rapture, GlaDOS and the sadistic test chambers of Portal, or Kirin Jindosh and the Clockwork Mansion. The urge to destroy these builders is partly down to the nature of their constructions – deathtraps and mazes that make the architect a cruel overseer – but there is perhaps more to it than that. With spoilers for the above, Hazel Monforton investigates the role (and the death) of the author in a medium that invites the audience into the action.

For a long time, authors had an assumed authority over interpretations of their work. It’s right in the root of the word – ‘author’ comes to us from the Latin ‘auctor’, from which we also derive ‘authority’ and ‘authentic’. The work meant what the author intended it to mean. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay ‘The Death of The Author’ challenged that idea, stating that analysis should focus not on the author but on the text itself and the reader’s individual encounter with it.


In Barthes’ view, every reader has as much authority over the text’s meaning as the author of the piece. Reading is, in essence, an act of rewriting; we can bring whatever ideas, suppositions, or experiences we’ve had to the text and, through reading, reinvent its meaning for ourselves. If we look at games through a similar lens, perhaps playing becomes an act of redesigning. In a way that is almost unique to the medium, the player’s direct role in the creation of meaning contests the idea of authorship. We’re not just bringing our own interpretation to the page, we’re choosing who lives and who dies, and how characters choose to progress through the story.

Who, then, is the authority on how a game is, or should be, played? The player who ignores the main quest in an RPG and decides to survive somewhere off the beaten path, the creator of the systems that determine survival, or the author of the forgotten main questline? It can seem like every player is playing a game of their own making, with its own house rules, whether they’re aiming for a perfect no-kill playthrough, a speedrun or bringing some form of challenge to a life sim. Sometimes the challenging of the author is written into the game though and the narrative allows us to find and murder an author-figure in pursuit of interpretive control.


Plenty of games feature some level of voiceover narration — players are told what to do to progress, or are given context on surroundings or decisions in-game. In some cases, like the recent What Remains of Edith Finch, these authorial intrusions are integral to navigating and, by extension, interpreting the game’s narrative. They are a guiding hand. In other games they’re more like a coiled fist.

BioShock, the two Portal games, and the Clockwork Mansion level of Dishonored 2 all have us navigate a labyrinth masterminded by a seemingly all-powerful, all-seeing authority who watches our progress through their world with disdain and, at times, amusement. They are able to direct our path by manipulating our environment, and hinder our progress by presenting us with increasingly difficult obstacles.

These kind of narrative structures are relatively common – enough so to be gleefully and sometimes disturbingly satirised in The Stanley Parable – and the narrator characters are often one of the most memorable parts of a game. BioShock and Andrew Ryan still intrigue us a decade after we were asked if we were men or slaves. GLADoS’s sarcastic lines all became instantly quotable. And Kirin Jindosh is Dishonored 2’s most intriguing villain, after Delilah herself. We can even look back to SHODAN in System Shock 2.


These characters present themselves as the authors of the architectural puzzles in which you are trapped, and as games tell stories through this architecture, these characters become the metaphorical authors of the game experience. But as you progress, their mastery is shown to be incomplete. In each of these games, we are asked to find and eliminate these masterminds in order to take control and escape our surroundings. With the exception of Andrew Ryan, who maintains authorship even after his death, these characters are taunting and authoritative up until you begin to break the illusion of their control.

In all of these games, we circumvent the linear path laid out for us by the author-figure and find the fissures in their design. And these fissures, too, are literalized; we are allowed to crawl between the walls or into the mechanism of the labyrinth itself in order to rework it to our own ends. “What are you doing?” GLADoS asks, clearly alarmed, as we refuse to die in a fire. Jindosh will comment in a sad tone if you find a way into the spaces between the rooms or under the floors, clearly upset that you aren’t appreciating the polished facade of his creation. Wheatley, GLADoS’s rival placed in his authoritative role by your actions in Portal 2, will beg you to jump into a very deadly pit just to make his life easier (and if you do, the last thing you’ll hear is his pensive voice admitting that he didn’t think that would work). Even the EMP bomb that finally grants you access to Ryan’s offices is found tucked behind some pried-back layers of Rapture’s slick veneer.


To progress, we have to enter the machinery behind the stage.

All of these villains are confronted and, in the end, destroyed. We oust them from their control and assume ownership of the architecture they had built to confound us. But our knowledge, and our mastery, renders the space inert. The tension removed, we are left with one interpretive understanding of who owns and controls the game narrative. And rather than leave it there, we replay.


Our relationship with authors will always be troubled. Our encounter with a novel or a video game is rife with interpretation well beyond whatever the creators intend. The particular games mentioned here, in fictionalizing this encounter between creator and audience, allow us to confront and unwind the problems of authorship in the medium, from metaphor to literalization to understanding. And while our agency as players drives us forward to the heart of the machine, we still love the labyrinth, despite our desire to tear down its walls.

The player might escape the confines of the designer’s intent, but this is itself a creative act rather than a destructive one. We’re rewriting rather than tearing up the page. To close off the game and to allow just one intent, one playthrough, or one interpretation is to give an author mastery over our experience — and as these examples show, that only taunts us into searching for more.

Hazel Monforton is an academic and critic, and contributed writing to Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.


  1. ohminus says:

    Would you kindly play Bioshock again? It’s certainly not true that we want to kill Ryan inasmuch as free will is concerned. What’s more, he orders his death himself. In essence, we’re just as much the tool of his suicide as of his murder.

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      Waltorious says:

      Agreed, but the main body of the article sort of addresses this when it states “With the exception of Andrew Ryan, who maintains authorship even after his death…”. Also, I’m sure that some players (but not all) may have already wanted to kill him.

      This article is interesting, but is heavy on discussion of the fictional authors within the fictional worlds and their clash with the player. I’m more interested in the questions raised early in the article, about players versus the actual authors of the game, i.e. the ones who wrote Paul Ryan and GlaDOS. I think many open-ended games (e.g. Skyrim) would be interesting case studies for this.

      Lastly, I thought I’d mention that the final level in Thief 2: The Metal Age uses the same conceit of an author figure lording over his domain, in which the player is trapped. I actually really liked that level, although I think many did not since it was a bit of a departure from the style of the rest of the game.

    • dolgion1 says:

      Ryan’s death is such a cop out. He orders the player to murder him, and of course it’s a first person cutscene and we have no choice to not kill him. “BUT hey! That’s the whole point of the game! The player has no real agency in a video game” I hear you say, but let me explain.

      Throughout the game you do have agency in that you have freedom of movement and the binary choice with the Little Sisters. Sure, the actual progression is linear and you’re funneled from one objective to the next. The kinda smart thing they do is they make the player get to all these objectives while the player doesn’t really question the motive behind it all (and couldn’t act on their conclusions anyway). Then they go all “GOTCHA! You were manipulated like a puppet! WOULD YOU KINDLY?!! HAHA!”.

      It sort of works because for a moment you’d feel played by the game. You did something out of habit and were confronted on your own behavior by the game, your guard well down. But on Ryan’s death, it’s not like that. The game literally wrests what little control you had and murders Ryan for you rather than manipulate you into left clicking on his 3D model. It feels like Irrational got lazy/ran out of time or ideas and apart from the silly boss fight is the most frustrating thing about that game.

      • Bing_oh says:

        Actually, you’re just as directly forced into every other “would you kindly” moment as you are with killing Ryan. If you never did the other “would you kindly’s” throughout the game, you would never progress. The difference is, with killing Ryan, you KNOW what you’re doing and why…the manipulation is obvious because you’ve been shown what’s behind the curtain. It may not be as satisfying when you look back and compare it to what came before, but it’s also a vital step in the plot…without it, you’d never know that you were being manipulated in the first place.

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          Grizzly says:

          In your first encounter with a big daddy, you are told “Would you kindly lower your weapon for a bit” which triggers a cutscene as well. It’s a lot more subtle, but it’s there!

          There are a few games that pull this trick, and I feel that Bioshock playing it’s cards straight before you commit murder (assisted suicide?) is a bit better then other games that pull something similar but only let the reveal happen after the most critical events have already transpired. Bioshock’s “You don’t have a choice” feels a lot better then the “Well, you could have just stopped playing” that other games pull

      • ohminus says:

        It’s not lazy, it’s the very realization of what Ryan states in that scene – a man chooses, a slave obeys. Ryan chooses to go down with Rapture. The protagonist can only obey. There would be no way to “trick” the player into killing him, the player could always simply go out and get a cup of coffee, watch TV etc. In this situation, there was no other way than to go through with it.

  2. titanomaquis says:

    This is really an interesting article, and I hope to see more from this author on RPS.

    I’ve thought a lot about how one might adapt certain Lit Crit Practices in Video Game Criticism, and This is a compelling, interesting take on the authority of “authorship” in video games.

    Sometimes I watch speed runs of games, and I’m always amazed at how these players are able to push the games to their breaking points, finding unintended exploits and “emergent” game elements. I tend to think, “well, if this were me, I would not be having any fun doing it this way.” But the article puts that a little bit in perspective. These players are interpreting the game in a unique way.

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    Drib says:

    Similarly, more than being creators, these three are all taking control away from the player.

    Kirin by building those obnoxious robots that don’t get so easily throttled as a guard, GLADoS by locking us in a series of boxes, and Ryan by… literally taking control away.

    Maybe it’s less about them being creators, and more about them being antagonists, jailors, and controllers?

  4. Lacero says:

    I will read this on Sunday like I do all the good long stuff, but I just got to the clockwork mansion and I was just overwhelmed by how much of a love letter to Constantines mansion it is. And also the mansion in the metal age with the secret passages.

    Anyway. Looking forward to having time to read the article later.

  5. Dogshevik says:

    This reminds me a bit of Richard Cobbett´s musings. (Which are missed.)

    Not sure about its last paragraphs and the notion that there is a creative process involved in tearing down or mastering the author´s creation.
    Usually you are not replacing one machine with another or give it a new purpose. Also you can´t replay and choose not to look behind the curtain. As a rule, when you are done, the machine has stopped working. It is broken. The illusion gone. Sometimes this might even be bitter-sweet, if it was a particularly magnificent one.
    But the process itself is one I would describe as inherently destructive. In terms of agency you could say it is liberating or emancipating as well. That might actually be a big part of the appeal. We love the labyrinth, as the article says, but only because we know the labyrinth´s sole purpose is be torn down by us in the first place.
    What happens after all that might have a creative momentum, I agree, but then this is the start of another story entirely, isn´t it?

  6. Shinard says:

    Jindosh is an interesting example. I didn’t feel that enmity towards him – if anything, I felt respect for creating such a wonderful playground. Glados, Ryan, Shodan, definitely, but maybe that’s because you’re very much slaves to their whims and you only escape near the end. Jindosh, I broke into the walls pretty much immediately, and I could always leave, so it felt much more like a competition than a rebellion. I shift the mansion, he comments on my skill. I dice up his soldiers, he’s impressed. It was a fine rivalry.

    I did end up killing him, though. I had a perfect no-kill run up to that point, but I couldn’t bear the thought of lobotomising him. I would quite happily have let him go after getting to him, showing my superiority, as tribute to a worthy opponent and to let him create more wonder. But there was no option for that. I think he would have rather died and been remembered as an independent genius than lived as a slave, so I honoured that. Still, I wish I could have let him live.

    I don’t know if I just took to him differently than most, but he certainly affected me, so I thought I’d mention it. Interesting article!

    • Arcanestomper says:

      I felt the same. I felt genuinely bad about my options dealing with Jindosh. Here was a man who was revolutionizing his world, and maybe he hadn’t made the best allies, but I knew that by killing or lobotomizing him I’d be dealing a real blow to the overall progress of the world.

      Also I think I had a pretty unusual experience because I went out of my way to be completely stealthy in that level. He had no idea I was even there. Which would make it worse to be suddenly assaulted out of nowhere I think.

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        Grizzly says:

        Being able to circumvent the level to the point that he doesn’t know you’re there is one of the best parts of Dishonoured 2 for me.

        However, I didn’t feel particularely remorseful about lobotomizing Jindosh. It’s certainly inhumane, but Jindosh has left notes about how he has plucked multiple people from the street and put them in the machine, lobotimizing unwilling test subjects. It’s made very clear that he has absolutely no respect for human life (He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom). Does that justify it? No. But it’s a bit of poetic justice, even if it is harsher then what most of the other characters get.

  7. Mouse_of_Dunwall says:

    Really interesting article. One of my favorite things about the Clockwork Mansion is how Jindosh comments on specific things the player does. I replayed that mission last week, and destroyed a Clockwork Soldier without waking it up. There was a specific line of dialogue for doing that.

    Also, a question for the author – what parts of Death of the Outsider did you write?

  8. dragonfliet says:

    I’m sorry, what? Why is it that people always credit Barthes with the death of the author, as if the formalists (both of the Russian, and New Critics variety) had discarded the conception of authorial control literally decades before Barthes essay. While Barthes is great, and the essay is good, the challenge had been made against the author in the 1920s, and he merely reiterated it in his own words (and his concept of disentangling the text is pretty great). It’s not like saying that formalism discarded conceptions of authorial control out of the window, and that Roland Barthe’s essay has become a symbolic piece of that is somehow too complicated.

    But aside from that, I’m left with the other, bigger, more glaring hole: how is authorship challenged here? Because you “chose” to destroy an author-figure? Is our understanding of authorship so miniscule that a linear, constructed relationship where you “undermine” the structure, by following, exactly, the structure, exerts some sort of control? In fact, through the seeming “control” of gameplay, and the seeming “choice” of eliminating the authorial figure, the player is led to believe that they are granted power over the system, while they are merely playing within a system that entirely controls them. It’s such a classic Althusserian joke that I’m speechless this was written with seriousness.

    Authorship is a very complicated and interesting subject. Games do very interesting things with that in their own right. But to claim that authorship is somehow destabilized because someone pushes x to kill a digital puppet is like claiming that the government is overthrown when you tear a bill note in half.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I’m smirking right now just imagining one of those addlepated simpletons scratching their heads in confusion at this.

    • Tally says:

      [Intro] I’m glad to see some one else immediately caught this ridiculous contradiction, bothered to write a response, and did so in a well-articulated way. The “authorial” characters killed or overthrown are only antagonistic strawmen and jailers, as Drib mentioned. Games are generally spaces for play, expression, and fantasies of power or control where gameplay mechanics undergird the player’s interaction and levels and their characters structure the field of play. These “author” characters are merely scapegoats for the system as a whole, against which the player is encouraged to discharge the tension the narrative has created. If the goal of a game is to allow the player to feel that they have power, control, and moreover to have earned it, the invention of a creator/jailer NPC for the player to usurp is only natural and their demise is almost inevitable within the medium. This in not in principle necessary but the pressure for video games to play out fantasies of freedom, power, control, and talent in order to be marketable is another problem entire.

      [Re: Bioshock Infinite] Having been put off the first Bioshock for reasons incidental to the game, my experience was principally with Infinite, which is a particularly miserable example of this overwrought narrative tripe. A model of an abhorrent society with a figurehead at the end of your daddy revenge fantasy while allowing only one form of interaction with this system, violence, which the writing then has the chutzpah to berate you for is exceptionally poor and self-obsessed even for a videogame. Then its endgame conceit sacrifices any commentary on the cruelty of systems (including those of its own game design) and instead attempts to justify the stricture of its narrative and mechanics. If you had not been forced to play as you were, the context in which you did and the strawman against which you struggled would have almost no reason to exist. True, the engagement of an escapist player who wishes to have his engagement justified is the originary problem, but a dozen hour long compusory righteous massacre fantasy the punchline of which is “You’re the problem” is itself a repulsive answer. Ultimately the only choice worth making in regard to the game is to not play it; all others are hollow, cyclical, and self-loathing.

      [Re: The Dishonored Series] The Dishonored series is an especially interesting case for discussion of writing for the player empowerment arc followed by most games. The title games both follow a similar structure where the privileged player character is overthrown and forced to start over (as the player is assumed to be and is by entering a new game), allowed to acquire power and mastery, and ultimately is permitted to retake that which was stolen from them (control of the narrative). Dishonored, in the tradition of the games we’re discussion, also provides as the final target a character that was the author of your downfall and your actions in response to it. The second one doesn’t do anything so dramatic, but an endgame choice to a accept or reject the past of a character that has been directing your actions is a similar concession to allow the player a feeling of ownership of the narrative. This typical narrative, combined with moral pressure on the player as a character apart from and the only real agent in a miserable world, made me really dislike the story in both. The success of the story in The Knife of Dunwall is emphasized by its contrast. It is, instead a meandering story that could be of either reparation or devil-may-care violent indulgence of a character with actual history and place within the world. I have related hopes for Death of the Outsider (to which I know Monforton means to bring our attention) but its use of the “kill the antagonizing author” trope worries me.

      [Conclusion] All that to say, the creator/author/jailer character is rarely better than a token recognition of the desire by players for a creative place within the game. It fuctions merely to give the player a false structure to “break out” of and a creator they can displace so they can feel good about their own activity and that they have, by eliminating or overthrowing a competitor, become the preeminent creative figure in the gamespace. This is a corruption of the potential of games more than any maturation of them. It’s an acknowledgement of the desire players have for an expressive and engaging space and gives them a a non-speaking part in a puppet show about the very systems that are a problem. The writers only hope is that the player doesn’t notice the outer walls and their hostility to meaningful engagement.

      [Other Thoughts] The two interesting ideas suggested by Monforton, that the neutralization of the authorial figure renders the space inert and actual co-authorship of their own experience by players, are what I’m more interested in. Regarding the first, is it because the falsity of the character is exposed and the force of the world evaporates with it or is it the inevitable vacuous end of another dialectic that imagines its confrontation will produce satisfaction and synthesis when such negative forces with can only produce inversion and negation? If it is only a natural consequence of the discharge of the narrative tension, what does this say of us as players or designers? Are our best games problems in which to exhaust ourselves without noticing their artificiality? (Probably.) Regarding the second, the role of players as co-authors of a game experience is a question, ultimately about the artistic potential of games as a medium.

      I suppose this is fertile ground for analogy to and criticism of social systems as well.

      I’m tired of proofing this. Thanks for reading if you did.

  9. honkhonkgoose says:

    For all those who enjoyed this article as much as I did, I just discovered and read another fantastic piece by the same author – link to, written late last year for everyone favourite cheerful RPS fanzine.

    If you’ll excuse me, I have to go and play through Dishonored 2 again now.

  10. distantlurker says:

    Mentioned the other day over on EG that I was enjoying their new RPS-style off the wall editorials.

    Now we’re getting long form think pieces this side of the fence.

    This deal is getting better all the time.

  11. Crusoe says:

    I can’t say I agree with the given examples much, when it comes to wanting to slay the author.

    I badly wanted to meet Andrew Ryan. Though Rapture was his mind child, there were more factors involved in its downfall than just that one man.

    I wanted to defeat Kirin Jindosh. He was an arrogant bully, who met an appropriate fate by my hand. Killing him would have been a brash insult.

    Glados made me giggle and laugh. Appropriate, given that Portal is a comedic puzzle game. She was corrupted and insane. I was trying my best to escape.

    But that’s just me.

    Interestingly, ‘Death of the Outsider’ stats currently show that more people have taken out the Outsider using non-lethal methods than lethal. That seems relevant, given that he orchestrates the events of the entire series. But his motivations and backstory – weak as the character is – speak to a more interesting situation than ‘bad guy needs to be stabbed’.

  12. AyeBraine says:

    «Who, then, is the authority on how a game is, or should be, played? The player who ignores the main quest in an RPG and decides to survive somewhere off the beaten path, the creator of the systems that determine survival, or the author of the forgotten main questline? It can seem like every player is playing a game of their own making, with its own house rules, whether they’re aiming for a perfect no-kill playthrough, a speedrun or bringing some form of challenge to a life sim.»

    I would argue with that. I’d say that people playing games are even more keen on re-connecting with the human author(s) behind the game. And I suspect it’s because of the discovery mechanic that underlies all games. And that’s because you get the most fun from discovering things that someone else lovingly crafted and hidden. Text wall below.

    The author’s function in the game is rather unconventional. It’s to create – to craft – recognizable, engaging moments. I can be anything ranging from a long-winded conversation in a rigid questline, to a random pun, to a creature that feels shaggy, to a ballet-like combo, to a satisfying sound of a clanging crate. The only reason players keep playing is to keep discovering those very much crafted moments. To be surprised and excited by them. And the source of surprise and excitement always stems from them being crafted by the author: in this way, a player who constantly feels like settling into a contained, fictional, mechanical universe of the game, bumps into something undeniably human – something custom-made specifically to challenge the world’s artificiality.

    Of course, whereas in linear fiction these moments are set up in succession, a game give the agency to the player. So, uniquely, a necessary element of the game is also a free space, an interconnecting void that exists between those moments. This free space can be very small, almost non-existent (like in many adventure games) or enormous and filled with emergent or random elements (like in some open-world games). Regardless of the case, I think it is there solely to facilitate, and expertly stage, that DISCOVERY of CRAFTED moments. Yes, you could argue that the player co-authors the piece by playing director, by setting the moments in motion by their own hand. But the real reason they even bother to do it is to discover the suprises and novelty that their co-author, the developer, crafted. To constantly get reminded that there IS an author behind it, and that author is always smarter than the player’s expectations of the game.

    If a gamer wanders off the main quest and is able to entertain themselves for hundreds of hours, sure, this means that the free interconnecting space between moments is loose and empty enough, and the mechanics are impersonal enough for emergent situations… But it also means that the crafted moments that support the excitement are peppered so dense that the player can literally walk for hours and not get bored. He will keep combining and recombining them, and more importantly slowly discovering new ones (however small and trivial). The mere knowledge that these moments can be found in a most random fashion, in the remotest parts of the game (geographically or mechanically), secreted away or hidden in plain sight, give people the excitement that inspires them to “live” in the game and hence become its “co-authors” as you argue.

    Not the greatest examples, but still. A single, rare unarmed suplex finisher (a purely cosmetic, but quintessentially “crafted” element) in Fallout 4 causes completely disproportionate excitement in people, which apparently revives the urge to wander the wastelands that began to feel stale and repetitive, and glues them to the game for ridiculous amounts of free time. I, personally, could ride for hours in a Mako ATV in Mass Effect 1, not so much because I as a player re-crafted the game into a desert pilgrim simulator, but because Mako has that weird, ridiculous, satisfying suspension, rocket jets, and a DANG-CLANG-ing cannon, and the planets are so quiet and serene, and each pathetic discoverable location still had a crumb of unique, crafted text to it. The game gave me a courtesy of free space, and filled it with re-combinable crafted moments.

    • punkass says:

      I found what you wrote very interesting, but I worry you’ve confused what excites you about games with what excites most/all people about games. I think saying that the Mako sections of Mass Effect 1 was something you loved definitely puts you somewhere outside what most people vibe off.

      One of the things that excites me about games is the different space for enjoyment that they provide. Some games are purely about systems, some are more crafted tales where recognising authorial intent could be a boon, and some are immersive worlds where detecting some outside human intention can break the spell and be annoying.

      I would say that the fact that most games come from teams without one omnipotent ‘author’, and the fact that, for me, most coders have very different interests, references and passions from me (hey, some of my best friends are coders!), means that I often find the interference of the authorial hand distracting and unwelcome.

      Portal is probably the only game I would describe as genuinely funny, and Bioshock one of the few I have regarded as thought-provoking, though like some of the previous posters, I’m not sure it helps kill the author in video games, but rather makes you aware of the limits of your freedom. I can’t think of many more where I’ve been grateful for recognising the hand of an outsider – whilst Spec Ops: The Line was interesting, it felt a little manipulative and ultimately unsuccessful, despite falling just short.

      When the utterly tedious argument of whether video games are art comes up, I of course think they can be, but I often see them as movies rather than films. I think the joy often comes from suspending your disbelief and getting swept up in them, rather than interacting with authorial intent.

      Of course, what excites me about games may be different from that which excites most/all people about games.

  13. TheGameSquid says:

    Well, I certainly didn’t kill Kirin Jindosh, a cutscene made me kill Andrew Ryan (he could have stayed in his city at the bottom of the ocean for all I cared), and I didn’t really want to kill GLaDOS (I mean, I love her!), but she stood between me and the exit and the game didn’t give me much choice in the matter.