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Archive for September, 2009

I just got finished reading from the Popol Vuh, or Sacred Book, of the Quiche Indians. It contains a creation myth, similar to that of Genesis, but it tells of fallible gods that make mistakes in their creations. They are vain and seek creations to celebrate their names and worship them, but their first efforts — the land-based animals and birds — are unable to speak their names, communicate with one another, or worship them. These animals are condemned to be killed for food. Later they try to make humans, but their first attempts fail to hold their forms and are destroyed; the gods must eventually confer and put their efforts together to create the first humans. The result eventually thrives and multiplies, but it is not successful; the first humans forget about the gods, and do not worship them. But these become the ancestors of modern humans.

The idea of a whole group of gods combining their efforts across multiple attempts to try to create people is fascinating to me. The immediate comparison is to science fiction accounts of a creator race. It is natural to imagine that many mistakes and iterations exist in the progression of their development of people. But rather than humans being the final product of this process — as you might see in real-world creation myths that explain the apparently higher intelligence and exclusive religion of the humans — what if humans were just one of a sequence of attempts, discarded on Earth as a merciful disposal site for another failed experiment? The “seeding” of human-like aliens across the nearby stars would make sense in this regard, and cultures that arise with parallels, but with unique racial twists (similar to Star Trek) would make sense.

What values would these creators have? What are they trying to achieve? What differences would humans have with the previous and next iterations of this sequence? Why were we refused? Would the earliest experiments be the most dangerous, or perhaps the most primitive or self-destructively subservient? Would they even have survived? What about the last iteration?

I imagine the final iteration in this sequence to have finally reached the objectives of the creators, and never been abandoned on an alien world, instead to have been taught directly by the creators. Perhaps they serve the creators, or act as equal partners. Perhaps the creators have moved on, and they are left with the keys this part of the galaxy, and advanced knowledge and technology. Would we admire their abilities and values, or find the ideals that they were constructed for too alien, and divorced from our own self-determined ideals and principles? As the myriad old failed creations finally claw their way up from their respective planets and are greeted by the vast and unified empire of the chosen ones, will we find peace, or war? And how do endless creations deal with the ultimate truth that they were not judged acceptable by their own creators?

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Adam, my best friend growing up, was always really into video games. He enters and wins tournaments, masters games, studies strategies and cheat codes to maximize his play, and reflects philosophically on how gaming affected him growing up. It was a truly rare thing when I beat him in a video game. He and I always thought he’d be a game designer, or a game programmer, and I thought I’d be a writer or a lawyer or something. Turns out it’s the other way around: He went into accountancy, and I went into game development.

Only in hindsight does it make sense. Adam loves playing games, and enjoys working with stories, but some of the more hands-on work isn’t as interesting to him. Looking back, it was usually me who was crafting new games. I made board games, I had Klick & Play on the computer and would explore many half-formed ideas. Even when we’d have long walks in the park away from our TVs, and we would play imagination games, we were telling stories and he would say what his character does, while I would tell him what happens next. Yes, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that Adam became a well-adjusted hardcore gamer in his twenties who comes home from his well-paying white collar job with a paycheck big enough to provide for those he loves, then goes to load up the latest MMORPG and relax, while I became the overworked game designer who spends most of his time trying to help other people to play games.

So that’s Adam. Adam’s a smart guy, as you can probably guess from the fact that he’s an accountant. Like most gamers, he has a pretty good idea of what he likes or doesn’t like in a game, and what’s cool and not cool in games. We tend to play a bit differently though, Adam and I — I’m almost always siding with the good guys, whoever I perceive those to be, while he’ll just as often play evil characters. We both like games that let us make those choices, though.

Chaotic Stupid in Knights of the Old Republic

Of course, sometimes those choices are pretty weak. I was talking to Adam about BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, and he complained that his dialogue for a dark side character was just stupid. It’s all well and good to play an evil character who is into random killing, but corny lines no self-respecting evil warlord would ever utter seemed far too common. He had some particularly incisive examples that I can’t do justice to, but from my personal experience with the game, I seem to remember such absurdities as chasing off some loan shark thugs only to extort the poor old man yourself, or shooting a prisoner for no apparent reason, after a lame off-hand remark.

Adam and I aren’t the only ones who think this kind of “evil” path in games is ridiculous. It’s a pretty common sentiment. Chaotic stupid — for when your main character has no apparent motivation except to do dumb antisocial things that make other people’s lives miserable, while hamming it up for the camera. And only when the level designers scripted in situations that let you do so.

I take the complaints a bit further, though. Bad writing for evil characters is bad enough, but these “moral choices” are presented throughout the game, and yet almost nobody actually chooses when they come up. Instead, they start the game, conceive of their character as a light side Jedi, and then proceed to make good choices throughout the game. While such black and white good and evil might seem to be in the theme of Star Wars, making the choice so simple and easy to carry out isn’t. Star Wars has characters’ internal struggles with light and dark — you can choose to always be good, but the dark side is easier, faster, and the light is harder to walk. Not really so in the KOTOR games.

It’s not just that the writing isn’t built to support real moral choices, but that the game mechanics penalize any sort of roleplaying beyond the simplest good or evil choice. I don’t want to choose a fallen Jedi, because all those skill points I’ve put into light side force skills are squandered due to the increasing cost of those skills as I fall from the light. Good grief! It’s like they’re actively sabotaging their own good and evil system.

inFAMOUS karmic moments

I figured this was just an early attempt at simulating morality and choice in games, and the wisdom of game developers had advanced since then, but inFAMOUS proved me wrong. Mechanically, the game penalizes grayscale even stronger than KOTOR does, locking out whole skills if you don’t have enough (or later lose) bias in your alignment. A neutral character will not only have the weakest abilities of all, but will have their lightnight powers flitter back and forth between Evil Red and Heroic Blue as their alignment dances across the midline between good and evil. Fable already demonstrated gradient appearance changes — why didn’t Sucker Punch even bother with gradient color changes for your abilities?

Changing alignments mid-game in inFAMOUS, while not absolutely prohibited, will lock out a huge proportion of the abilities you’ve spent experience on, thereby making it a nearly untenable character development option. It’s the same problem experienced in KOTOR, only worse, because it’s literally impossible to do that move anymore.

To make matters worse, alignment shifts in inFAMOUS come primarily from contrived Karma Moments, that actually letterbox the screen and display an icon to advertise “You now have an alignment choice! Choose good or evil!” It’s like if every time a moral situation came up, a little devil and a little angel popped up on your shoulders, and reminded you that your soul is riding on this next choice. Except that would be slightly cooler than inFAMOUS’s Karma Moments. Sometimes these choices aren’t even representative — one choice has a guy offering a relative pittance of a reward for a side quest, and you can either murder him and take his stuff, or accept it with humility. How about the non-murderous and quite pragmatic approach of just saying “I just saved your lame ass, you’re standing in front of a bunch of goodies, I’m a superhero who can actually use them, how about offering me some?” Well, that doesn’t fit — their Karma Moments are always binary. There’s nothing but saints and monsters in this world.

With that said, that was, to my knowledge, Sucker Punch’s first alignment system. I’m disappointed they didn’t improve on previous designs, but it’s understandable. What about BioWare, though? Shouldn’t they be doing better now, taking Mass Effect, for example?

Mass Effect’s renegade approach

Apparently not, according to most I’ve talked to. As with previous games, they pick one alignment — Paragon or Renegade — and play accordingly, always picking choices that support that alignment, always knowing the “right” choice at any juncture. It’s made super easy, because Mass Effect organizes paragon choices at the top of the dialogue wheel, and renegade choices at the bottom! How lame was that! Mass Effect becomes just another example of bad alignment systems. And it ends there, possibly with some additional comments about how the moral choices don’t matter because no in-game effects are felt for some of them.

I disagree.

I think Mass Effect is a paragon of an alignment system, at least as far as alignment systems have gone so far in games. There’s just a disconnect between what the game enables, and what players think the game enables.

Mass Effect’s Paragon is someone who follows the rules, watches out for friends, solves situations diplomatically, and sees things from the perspective of other galactic species. Mass Effect’s Renegade is someone who bucks regulations, gets the job done, solves situations by force, and sees things from the perspective of humanity first. Paragon is Princess Leia and Renegade is Han Solo. Both are heroes. They kiss in the movies. They get married and have kids in the extended universe. But they and the princess and the smuggler, and they take opposite approaches to life, to conversations, to concepts of loyalty and justice, and to conflict resolution. Many people don’t see this, and are quick to assume these represent “good” and “bad”, and that they’re mutually exclusive to the point that a character can’t be both. Not so. One is virtuous, one is viceful, and most people are a mixture of both.

In Mass Effect, alignment points to each of these go to separate pools, which only increase, never decrease. To reduce the temptation to compare their bars and see which is higher, they’re aligned in different directions and with significant space between them on the character sheet. They are orthogonal alignments in their effects on game mechanics — Paragon unlocks higher levels of charm, while Renegade unlocks higher levels of intimidate. Higher levels of Charm and Intimidate then unlock new dialogue options for getting through tough situations, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, and both are useful in different situations. These points are given out like candy, and need not be scavenged for in a metagame fashion: nearly every dialogue in the game, in addition to the usual scripted plot events, gives you the opportunity to choose Paragon and Renegade options, and it’s very easy to “keep up” with the amount of Paragon and Renegade points needed to unlock high levels of Charm and Intimidate without even trying.

Many players — even some designers I’ve talked to — don’t realize this. They build a cardboard character in their mind, push one type of point or the other to meet that preconceived character, reduce their options in dialogues to one because that’s the “right” choice, learn to charm the pants off of (or intimidate the piss out of) anyone in the galaxy, and then blame the game for this simplistic approach they’re taking. They don’t even realize it’s not the game that’s doing this; they don’t notice that the designers of the system bent over backwards to ensure that’s not how people felt compelled to play the game. BioWare thought about this and made sure you have true freedom, and the game even rewards flexible characters by offering them both skills instead of just one, and therefore the ability to get through more situations using dialogue.

But even while I don’t blame the designers of Mass Effect for people playing this way, I don’t actually blame the players either. These are people who have played BioWare’s own KOTOR, and other games with black and white, zero sum alignment systems. They don’t realize that Mass Effect’s alignment system is actively designed to not shoehorn them. Even after playing, some people don’t really understand what the Paragon-Renegade alignment system really represents — I’ve seen several people argue that Wrex is a Paragon character, despite his mercenary, shoot first and intimidate attitude, simply because he’s willing to sacrifice his life for his own people (exactly as Renegade Shepherd is unblinkingly willing to sacrifice his/her life for humanity). That’s a problem, but it’s not madness. Given how poor alignment systems have been up until now, it’s up to the game to prove that it’s different — not the player.

I think BioWare realizes this. With Mass Effect 2, they’ve talked of a story involving a suicide mission, the necessity of gathering the toughest thugs and assassins to join you, and multiple endings, potentially resulting in the permanent death of the main character and the entire party (complete with the need to roll up a new Shepherd after you import your save into Mass Effect 3). I hope — and I feel pretty good about this — that they fully intend to challenge your character to be ruthless and face true moral challenges that will force players to decide what they really want to do. They want to shake people out of their default stride, to make them stop thinking the choice is Luke Skywalker or Chaotic Stupid, and start thinking about the choice between Princess Leia and Han Solo.

I played a character with a roughly 3:2 Paragon to Renegade ratio, never metagaming, going only by gut feelings and roleplaying in every dialogue; I regretted some of my Paragon choices on big moral questions (not exterminating the alien mother), and I ordered the human fleet hold back and let the council be killed in the final battle. I did this because I approached the game by giving it blind faith that it would support me playing the game by however my gut said to go at any given time — and not only were the options sensible enough to support that, but the mechanics were too, and I left feeling that my character (female Shepherd, incidentally), and my story, was deeply personal and unique to me.

The rush to brush off

One of the big challenges in game design is to remember that you are not your audience. I don’t like alignment systems that present a sort of one dimensional zero-sum problem, with heavy gameplay effects that encourage metagaming your roleplaying. Adam’s not the same way, and he isn’t so worried about those things — he’s happy to play a fully evil character most of the time, and making abilities more experience because you betrayed your existing alignment is just a tradeoff to him. But he still wants that freedom to tell his story in the game, and to have degrees of alignment. He wants the option to play a good guy for half the game and turn evil. inFAMOUS essentially prohibits that. He wants the option to play the guy who wants to conquer the world — but is quick to save it from destruction.

It’s good that alignment systems and morality in games are such a popular subject for designers, then. It’s a field with a lot of untapped potential. But in the rush to point out the many valid flaws of existing efforts, I feel that many people — most that I’ve talked to, even — are too quick to overlook Mass Effect’s tremendous advances in this area. BioWare is pushing the envelope on moral choice and alignment in games, and getting precious little recognition for it. They present an alignment system that supports the freedom to play all Paragon, all Renegade, or anything in between. I want them to communicate that better so that players realize they really have the mechanical freedom to roleplay their hearts out in every dialogue, but even if that’s clear, not all players will use the opportunity, as some want a strong good or evil character that fulfills one of these alignments to the maximum.

In the end, one of the goals of alignment systems — a major selling point — is the freedom to play how you want to play, to make the character you want to make. Mass Effect gives you the freedom to do that. In our criticisms and rush to brush off the bad approaches, I want to take this moment to respect one of the often overlooked and underrated good ones.

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I’m enjoying history class, just as I hoped I would. The instructor is dynamic and enjoyable, and the class focuses on the fascinating why and how of history, in addition to the traditional who, what, where and when.

We aren’t even out of the Ice Age yet — yet reading the first chapter of The World: A History by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, and the adjoining lecture on the same time period, I’m already struck by the way of life of hunter-gatherer societies. Working only about 2 to 4 hours a day, they were able to live in nearly every climate with the most stable social model in history. But then — perhaps related to the Toba supervolcano and near-extinction of humanity? — the a Great Leap Forward led to abstract thought, planning, innovation, and symbolic behavior. Humans started to think in new ways, create symbolic art, strategize, and invent more advanced tools. Tens of thousands of years later, they would only then come to begin to specialize and develop unique skills, gathering in larger groups.

And of course, all this is replete with inspiration for game development. Take the image of a disaster or other event nearly wiping out humanity, forcing the rest to learn new ways of adaptation and thinking, and then leaving to few thousand surviving humans an open world with abundant resources. Transplanted from the Ice Age history to a futuristic setting, one could imagine a nuclear holocaust or alien invasion nearly extinguishing humanity, and leaving the rest to develop new concepts of innovation — a great leap forward in thinking that would leave the previous age of humanity nearly unrecognizable to those who came after. Perhaps they practice aggressive genetic engineering, have a psychic awakening, or some other paradigm-changing advance that forms a foundation for gameplay. The world is nearly empty — artifacts and resources from the previous age are seemingly infinite, and civilization is few and far between. With this beginning to the story, there are an infinite number of possibilities, moving forward from there…

I’d like to challenge myself to post something each week reflecting on history class and how it can connect with games. The challenge isn’t in making the connections, that’s something I do automatically. It’s that I want to start recording some of these thoughts on a week by week basis. This record would be interesting to me — and, I hope, to you as well.

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Reading and Discipline

I read a lot of blogs, forums, and news stories, but not so many books. That’s not to say that I mind it, but books tend to be a very large time commitment, and I tend to not have the patience to allocate many hours to sitting and reading on the same subject, by the same author. A good novel may occasionally capture my attention, but I’ve long believed that merely having started reading a book is no excuse to actually finish it.

I take this somewhat shallow and flighty approach to learning in general, when given the freedom. Larger tasks, like learning a new programming language or tool, I will generally not attempt, because I don’t have the patience for them. Smaller ones, like reading Wikipedia articles, I will embrace in endless quantities. While this does not inhibit me from developing an instinct and intelligence, it does limit my ability to develop high levels of competence in fields that I’m not already pretty decent in. For example, while I might continually refine my knowledge of US History or programming in C++, I will probably not freely become anything approaching an expert on the Ming Dynasty, no matter how interesting that may be.

School challenges this. Intense focus on different areas impresses upon me the necessity of learning large chunks of knowledge. This is fine, since it’s usually in small bites, but one thing does burden me somewhat, and that’s all the reading my courses assign. I’m two days into this semester of college, and already I have roughly 110 pages of reading assigned, and a short 1000 word essay. I can and easily will fulfill these requirements (in fact, I’m about 50 pages into the reading already), but I usually don’t read so much from the same couple books in that amount of time. I’m usually just not that focused.

Towards the end of high school, I actually left to homeschool and drove my own education, then got my GED. But as much as I’m able to learn in my free time, the “large” skills I’ve learned that have taken more focus and effort than I usually apply alone have really made the difference between where I am now and where I was then. I am made grateful, and humbled, by the institution of higher education.

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Fall Classes

The fall semester has started here at DigiPen, and I’m taking four classes:

HIS 100 – Introduction to World History I
GAT 211 – Game Mechanics II
GAT 250 – Two Dimensional Level Design – Introduction
ART 310 – Architectural Spaces, Design, and Lighting I

I have a few thoughts on each of these.

HIS 100: To my knowledge, this is the first semester DigiPen has offered a history class. We’ve had study of mythology, but DigiPen is a vocational school, and until recently has offered as little general education as it could get away with. One of the motivations I had in transferring into the design degree was the hopes of getting a broader range of studies, beyond just endless computer science, math, and physics, as much as I enjoyed those subjects. This is a subject I’m interested in, and I’ll be taking history this semester and next semester, so I hope it proves as interesting and thought-provoking as I know history classes have the potential to be.

GAT 211: DigiPen just got two new game design instructors, and this class is being taught by Mike Pondsmith. This is, to my knowledge, his first time teaching a college course, but he’s clearly an experienced and knowledgeable voice in his field. Over the last year, which was the first year that DigiPen offered a game design major, I noticed that each instructor in the department seemed to emphasize different aspects of design depending on what their experience taught them. One goal I’m beginning to think is worthwhile is to simply take at least one class from each person DigiPen brings into the game design department to teach; I think this diversity of influence and exposure to such an extensive base of experience in people with the drive to share their knowledge will do as much or more to further students as designers as the core design curriculum could.

GAT 250: Due to transferring into the program, I’m tacking the design track quite out of order; I’ve already taken two courses on 3D level design and two courses on 3D modeling, yet only now am I getting to 2D level design. Go figure! The assigned book for this class is The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. This book looked interesting when I first saw it, and subsequent to that first impression I’d heard it was very good, perhaps one of the best books on game design written to date. As far as I’m concerned, having it as assigned reading was just an excuse to get it and start reading. I’ve finished three chapters so far, and I’m enjoying it. I love a book that gets me to sit back and reflect at regular intervals — and I love being forced to pick it up again and keep reading, because it’s mandatory. More on that in my next post.

ART 310: I haven’t had my first class in this due to labor day, but this is another class I’m taking out of sequence. Architecture was supposed to come before 3D level design. This is an interesting subject for me, and I’m sure my mom will approve of me taking it, as she’s an architect. I once promised myself I wouldn’t get a desk job or be an architect like her. The irony of my chosen career really came to a head sometime last year when I found myself sitting in front of Valve’s Hammer editor, tweaking a map for Half-Life 2, and I realized that I’m likely to spend a significant chunk of my career sitting at a desk using CAD-like programs to design buildings and environments for people to be in. I’ve merely become the gamer version of an architect. But hey, at least it’s a very broad field, so it’s not like I’ll only be doing that.

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As I walked up behind her computer, my mom’s scout class hero was retreating behind a group of her own buildings, while an enemy army closed in to slay the hero. When the other player somewhere across the Internet took his turn, he cleverly decided to seal the exits, trapping my mom’s scout back here in hostile territory, where she had no escape. With little health and a line of forbidding pikemen facing her, she couldn’t survive charging the enemy lines. Mom explained the situation to me, and I suggested destroying of the buildings — the other player had treated them as impassible terrain, but because the buildings were owned by my mom, they could be quickly dismantled to enable her scout to slip through past enemy lines and toward safer areas, before the pikemen could close in. The maneuver worked — by sacrificing a single non-critical building, she escaped and her scout lived to scout again.

I got my mom a glass of water (no ice) and attended to other matters, until I heard her call my name. I came and she said “Dude, look at this.” Her scout hero was coming up behind her opponent’s hero as they explored a new area. Here were two unique buildings — a unique mine that produced double gold, and a unique logging yard that produced double wood. Both were neutral, and could be captured or destroyed by either player. Together, they were virtually game-winning, if they could be held. Suddenly, by some chance of the map generator, this little forest nestled up against impassible mountains had become a major point of contention.

Her opponent’s hero was not a scout however, and didn’t have the sight range to detect pursuit. The opposing hero charged up and siezed the mine, then proceeded past the two buildings up to the base of the mountains to pick up a one-shot resource pickup that was one of the many placed randomly in the map to further reward exploration. Mom wanted to capture this area too — but she had only that scout hero in play, and it couldn’t go face to face with the more combat oriented opposing unit in a straight fight. She asked what I thought, and we agreed on a cunning plan…

Mom rode her scout up to capture the other building, then immediately constructed a fort in front of it. While her opponent busied himself just out of sight range with collecting resources, she used the one-turn reprieve to construct a hasty army, built from all of the gold she had left in her reserves. Two units were more powerful, level 2 combat units, while the rest were level 1 combat and utility units. She needed to build a mixed army that looked more scary and effective than it was. From here, she spread them out in a line, and trapped the opposing hero against the mountains, using her opponent’s unique mine building as if it were impassible terrain. As the opposing hero quickly returned to face this assembling host, we worried he would judge the army and scout to be insufficient to stop his hero, or that he could break through where priests or peasants were all that held the line and thereby escape. Instead, he fell for it — destroying his own precious double efficiency building, he fled the area, repeating my mom’s earlier maneuver and leaving the lumber yard to her to capture and fortify.

When we saw the frustrated message from the other player indicated he was nearly ready to rage quit over the degree to which he was getting outmaneuvered by that measly scout, my mom literally laughed out loud. She said she had no sympathy — his hero could have easily broken through elsewhere in the line. I agreed. The whole maneuver could have collapsed as he brought in reinforcements before we could retake the mine, and with little money left, we wouldn’t be able to reinforce from the fort. He lost this corner of the map because he didn’t play the best game he could, and because he fell for a trick designed to get him to use a maneuver demonstrated earlier in the game, even though using it here was to his detriment.

Mom was on her way to winning the game when I suddenly woke up from my afternoon nap. I realized that everything I’ve said in this post so far was a dream — and that the game my mom was playing was as fictional as her opponent. I studied dreams and dream interpretation in high school, and am blessed with frequent, memorable, and vivid dreams of my own. This particular brand of dream, in which my subconscious designed a significant proportion of a video game that doesn’t exist in the real world, then has me play it, first happened to me in middle school — and today’s dream was the second day in a row that I’ve had one.

I’ve been told I’m very creative, but I think that often means that I work hard on making the few ideas I actually have presentable. It’s like the famous Thomas Edison quote about genius being one percent inspiration and ninty-nine percent perspiration. Even so, that flash of inspiration at the very beginning is still necessary. Thinking of the PAX 10 this weekend, whether it’s DigiPen’s own Tag or my roommate’s Closure, these games win recognition and admiration because of the flash of insight, the kernel of the idea that bore them, not the months and months of labor that were absolutely necessary to make that idea into a reality that could impress people.

When I think of creativity, I’m thinking of ideas. I’m thinking of the inspiration that has the potential to give birth to amazing new things. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough of that… and at other times, I feel reasonably confident. I dream about games that are conceived and designed in my sleep, by my subconscious. This dream explored emergent possibilities and tactics, first strategizing and then judging courses of action; it included unit types and power comparisons; it even brushed across the underlying world creation mechanics.

I do have plenty of ideas. And as long as new ones come to me in my dreams, I always will.

I hope anyone reading this will consider commenting on this post in particular — I’m interested in hearing if other players or designers have similar experiences in your dreams, coming up with new ideas. If you’re an architect, do you design buildings in your sleep? If you’re a musician, do you compose music in your sleep? Do you ever write down or otherwise record these ideas? Do you ever act on them?

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