Saturday, January 13, 2018

Gothic 3 Sucks -- A Critique From a Longtime Gothic Fan

Gothic and Gothic 2 are two of my favorite games of all time, being two of the games that had the most influence on my young and developing mind when I first played them in the early 2000s. And yet I harbor virtually no love for Gothic 3. I've barely mentioned it in any of my Gothic articles because I don't even like to consider it part of the series; it doesn't connect to Gothic 2 very well, and the whole gameplay formula is a radical departure from what made Gothic and Gothic 2 so great. Even though it was made by the same developer, Piranha Bytes, Gothic 3 feels like a different game by a different group of people who had only a vague understanding of what the Gothic games were, and who were told to make everything "bigger and more epic" in order to compete with the likes of Morrowind and Oblivion. Spoiler alert: they failed miserably.

Gothic 3 is a classic case of a game being ruined by ambition, of a developer trying to reach beyond their own means and biting off more than they could chew. The game, besides being unfinished and under-developed, was a buggy mess upon its release, and it took years of fan-made patches to supposedly "fix" the game and make it functional. The community patch is now 1.5GB of files (the whole "vanilla" version is only 4.6GB, total) and contains numerous bug fixes and stability tweaks, and also attempts to completely redesign and rebalance the combat system. I played the game at launch (late 2006) before the community patch even existed, and again a few years later with it, and while the patch truly does a lot to improve the game's overall playability, it doesn't (and simply cannot) fix the core gameplay design and story problems, which are the real reasons Gothic 3 sucks -- not just the bugs and broken combat that the patch supposedly fixes.

Normally I'd be content to dismiss the issue and move on with life (the game's over a decade old, after all, and I haven't even played it in about eight or nine years), but I find it surprising that, even today, people still speak highly of Gothic 3. With the recent release of Elex, newcomers to Piranha Bytes games frequently ask about their previous games and which ones are worth playing, and people readily leap to defend (or even recommend) Gothic 3, usually with the caveat that you need to play with the community patch. That's sound advice, of course, but I just can't justify recommending Gothic 3 to anyone because of how bad of a Gothic game it is, and how mediocre it is, just as a game in general. So in this article I'll be explaining my opinion on Gothic 3 and why I think it sucks.



THE WORLD IS TOO BIG

Gothic 3 abandoned the tight, compact world design of its predecessors in favor of going for a massive Elder Scrolls-style world with dozens of towns and hundreds of quests. A large world isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is when it isn't filled with interesting content, and Gothic 3's world feels needlessly stretched-out. The central area of Myrtana, which comprises roughly one-third of the map, is at least decently-populated with towns and caves and monsters and so on, but Nordmar and Varant, the two areas to the north and south, are noticeably lacking in content compared to Myrtana. Varant, in particular, is just a sprawling, barren desert with huge stretches of absolutely nothing but sand. This obviously makes exploration incredibly tedious and time-consuming because you have to waste so much time just traversing the map, and in a lot of cases there isn't anything interesting to reward you for your effort or time invested in exploring this over-sized world.

Leaving the first town in Myrtana.

What's even worse is that the world is designed to be done in sequence, going from one town to the next, completing each one as you move across the map with no real need to return to previous areas. Each town is pretty much self-contained (sometimes an orc-controlled town is tied to a nearby rebel-controlled outpost), meaning what you do in one town won't affect anything in another town (except to block quests in the other, opposite town/outpost, if you take too strong of a side in the orc/rebel conflict, say, by liberating a town and killing all of the orcs within it). Once you "complete" an area, it may as well cease to exist, and most of the towns/areas only exist in the first place to pad the game with repetitive stat-grinding as you complete mundane tasks for a minuscule amount of faction reputation. Exploring the world, therefore, feels like you're categorically checking off boxes on a list instead of actually exploring the world, and it makes the world feel incredibly fleeting because you only ever really see a place once, and then move on to the next area once you've completed the previous one.

Varant: The Land of Near-Infinite Nothingness.

Gothic and Gothic 2 were ultimately much smaller, more intimate-feeling games. Their worlds were a mere fraction the size of Gothic 3's, but they were more densely-packed with unique and interesting content. You didn't have to run somewhere for minutes at a time just to find something remotely interesting on the horizon; there was interesting stuff everywhere you looked, often to the point that you might feel overwhelmed with possibilities, just within your immediate surroundings, in terms of where to go and what to do. As a result, they were more fun to explore because you were constantly engaged with interesting terrain and structures (as opposed to wandering across huge empty fields), and the landscapes and their overall layout felt much more memorable, partly because the worlds were smaller but also because they were far more detailed.



MMO-STYLE QUESTS

Virtually every town is filled to the brim with simplistic MMO-style quests, which consist entirely of tedious objectives meant to give you a repetitive bunch of tasks to do so that you can grind experience and faction reputation, and so the back of the box can proudly say that it has "over 500 quests" to complete. Things like "kill 5 wild boars" or "collect 10 healing plants" or "escort so-and-so to such-a-place" -- pointless objectives for random people you've only just met, who serve no purpose in the story or even in the world itself except to hand out busy work to the player, who'll become completely obsolete once the quest is complete. There's no interesting story behind these quests, no narrative or worldly context for them, and no reason to care except to satisfy an obsessive compulsion for completionism. There are no meaningful decisions to make, either -- nearly every quest follows an entirely straightforward, linear progression from beginning to end with completely mindless gameplay amounting to nothing more than cliche errand boy fetch quests.

New Quest: Harek wants some meat.

Quests in Gothic and Gothic 2 were never that ground-breaking, in the grand scheme of RPGs, but they at least gave you a reason to care about them, or a plausible reason within the context of the world for why you would be doing those things. When the farmer in the starting area tasks you with bringing him 10 turnips, it's not just a dumb, pointless fetch quest -- you need a way into the locked-down city, and he's offering to sell you farmer's clothes so you can pass as a farmer, except you don't have any money to pay for the clothes, so he allows you to work for them. It makes sense and doesn't feel like tedious busy work, even though it is just a basic fetch quest, because it serves a greater purpose in the story and gameplay. Likewise, when the farmer's wife gets sick later in the game, he sends you in to town to fetch a healing potion. There's nothing more to the quest than that, but you care about it because you have an established relationship with those characters, they're not just random NPCs you've just met and will never see again. You were also given a lot more choices, compared to Gothic 3, with often multiple ways to solve a quest or multiple sides to choose, in systems that encouraged and required your own problem-solving thought and input.



RANDOMIZED/SCRIPTED LOOT PROGRESSION

The majority of loot in Gothic 3 is randomized inside of chests. A select few items are hand-placed in the environment, but these tend to be useless junk or otherwise so rare that they barely deserve mention. Most of the time, you're opening a chest and rolling the dice to see what you get. Most chests, I imagine, are scaled to a certain value, which means you're just getting generic, interchangeable rewards every time you discover someplace new or kill a tough enemy, which isn't actually very rewarding since the reward comes down to luck whether you actually get something good or not. Every now and then you find special types of chests that are guaranteed to give specific, special rewards, based on the number of special chests you'd opened previously, ascending in value as you open more special chests. In other words, the core loot progression through these special chests is completely scripted, meaning every time you play the game you'll go through the exact same loot progression. Earning better rewards isn't a matter of overcoming more difficult challenges or discovering obscure, hidden areas of the map, but is simply a matter of grinding chests. There are no shortcuts, either -- end-game loot will always be restricted until end-game because you have to go through the entire process, hunting down every single chest in the game to get the best loot.

All the loot from all those skeletons is in those two chests.

Absolutely nothing in Gothic and Gothic 2 was randomized, or followed a scripted scaling system -- every item was individually and uniquely hand-placed by the designers. Getting good loot wasn't a matter of rolling the dice and hoping for something good, or about grinding chests; it was about deliberately pushing yourself into dangerous territory where you could expect to find more valuable loot. The more dangerous the challenge, the greater the likelihood of finding greater rewards. It felt more exciting to get a unique reward for a unique challenge, and also allowed for satisfying meta-gaming on future replays because, if you remembered where the good loot was, you could go out of your way and push yourself to achieve more powerful loot earlier in the game. Plus, there were often fun narrative and lore explanations for why you would find special loot in special places, like the legendary Dragonslayer being found in a knight's crypt, floating in blue light above a certain casket, guarded by two skeleton knights, or a dexterity-boosting amulet being found in the mountains on the decayed corpse of an adventurer who fell and met an untimely demise. You don't get that kind of world-building when all the items are randomly found inside random chests.



BORING, BROKEN COMBAT SYSTEM

Combat in the first two Gothic games was ahead of its time, being one of the first fully three-dimensional, third-person combat systems in an open-world action-RPG. Those games had some issues, like the somewhat cumbersome, idiosyncratic tank-like control scheme, but the combat played at a pretty satisfyingly fast pace with quick animations and response times, while still following a grounded, realistic tempo that had a good back-and-forth rhythm to it. The system demanded precise timing and positioning, with you having to time each and every attack, block, and dodge just right else you'd stutter in your attacks or get hit. You could also string attacks together in different ways, chaining forward-momentum attacks with left and right swipes, and the attack animations changed and improved as you gained better training with your weapons. Doing well in this system required a high degree of skill, both in terms of learning enemy attack patterns so you knew how to exploit their movesets, but also in terms of having good hand-eye coordination and reflexes, with being able to execute the controls just right, at the right time.

The brawl in the first town.

Gothic 3's combat is complete rubbish. Attack animations feel slow and awkward, like the hero is spreading butter on toast with a giant sword, and the recoil from being hit is obnoxiously excessive. You no longer have to time your attacks or blocks, as you can just spam the attack buttons or hold down the block key indefinitely. The stamina meter, meanwhile, does practically nothing as you can still block and perform most attacks even with no stamina. The game adds a distinction between light and heavy attacks, but there's no real reason to use heavy attacks because light attacks will stunlock enemies better, and the special attacks (which consume stamina) tend to be absurdly over-powered, like the 360-spin with polearms. There's no more upgrading movesets, and enemy AI is so painfully miserable, with every fight against humanoid enemies turning into a one-on-one where you spam attacks against the one enemy, who's powerless to interrupt your infinite combo, while everyone else stands around watching. There's no innate skill threshold, whatsoever. The community patch helps the combat, to a certain degree, but it adds whole new problems of its own and ultimately doesn't change the core system enough to make it any more fun or exciting -- just slightly less broken.



NONSENSICAL ENEMY HEIRARCHY

In Gothic and Gothic 2, there's a very clear hierarchy for enemies; as you get stronger and work your way up the ranks, you know what's beatable and what's not. Perhaps more importantly, you feel like there's an intuitive reason why a shadowbeast would be more powerful than a snapper, or why a lurker would be more powerful than a field raider. Gothic 3's enemy hierarchy doesn't make a lot of sense, because different types of enemies are randomly much stronger or weaker than they would seem. Never mind that the same enemy types get recycled with slightly different names and skins, further blurring those lines (ie, is an aggressive wolf more or less strong than a roaming wolf?). Ironically, orcs (who should be the main threat per the story) are some of the weakest enemies in the game, while boars (unpatched) were far more devastating enemies than skeleton warriors or any other tough enemy, just because their attack animations were so ridiculously fast. Every fight is a crapshoot because you rarely know how strong you'll actually be against a certain type of enemy, just because of how inconsistent they are.

A cave full of zombies.


SLOW, STAGNANT CHARACTER PROGRESSION

Getting stronger and progressing as a character doesn't really feel that satisfying. Similar to the game world being stretched too thin, it's like the progression system is stretched so thin that it takes long chunks of time and leveling (ie, grinding) before you make any kind of noticeable progress towards actually getting stronger. With the scripted loot progression you're forced to get stronger in small increments at a time, while end-game gear isn't really that much better than some of the starting gear. The game world is also designed to be conquered in sequence, starting on the east coast of Myrtana and working your way west, so while the game's enemies technically don't scale with your level, they tend to get stronger as you work your way further west; unless you veer really far off the game's intended path, most enemies in an area will likely be within your level range as you reach them. Then, after a certain point much too early in the game's overall length, you become insanely over-powered and leveling up any further then becomes pointless. The community patch addresses this, but "solves" the problem primarily by slowing your progression down even further while limiting your skill points to such a degree that you're forced into picking one specialization and sticking with it for the entire game, which isn't exactly a great solution in my mind.

The skills and stats window.



THE REALLY LOOSE FACTION SYSTEM

One of the coolest features of the original two Gothic games was how both of them forced you to pick from one of three different factions to play as, which would change the way you played the game by unlocking unique skills, equipment, and even quests. This not only gave you a more uniquely personal feeling of playing the game, but also allowed for some good replay value since you could replay it and experience a whole new perspective on the same game. In Gothic 3, you never really join a faction -- you're sort of a freelance hero the entire game, doing whatever quests for whatever faction you want, whenever you want. Even though you might pick a side in the orcs versus rebels conflict, doing quests exclusively for one side, you never actually join them. Although the reputation system can unlock rewards with each faction, as you complete quests for that faction and improve your reputation with them, it feels more like an abstract number -- a stat, if you will -- than actual faction membership. Plus, you can work with multiple factions simultaneously, until a certain point, so your gameplay decisions about how you build your character are much more independent of faction alignment.

Quest log showing faction reputation; one more stat to grind.


NO REGARD FOR LORE AND BACKSTORY

In Gothic and Gothic 2, orcs were a primitive tribal society. They used crude weaponry, wore minimalistic gladiator-style loin cloths, lived in teepees, ate from their bare hands around campfires, believed in arcane gods, practiced spiritual mysticism, and spoke a guttural beast-like language. They were incredibly tough warriors and felt genuinely intimidating. In Gothic 3, they all suddenly speak English, they wear normal human-looking clothes and armor, live in normal human buildings, use human weaponry, eat at dining tables on plates with utensils, and have a full organized societal and military structure. They look and sound kind of like they were made by Dreamworks, and most of them are push-overs in combat (it's easier to kill an entire platoon of heavily-armed battle-trained orcs than a couple wild animals). They're almost completely different, and utterly ruin the fearsome aesthetic of the orcs in the original games by becoming ordinary, mundane humanoid enemies in Gothic 3.

These orcs are much too regimented.

At the end of Gothic 2, the nameless hero set off from Khorinis (and subsequently Irdorath) with a boat full of friends and allies. At the start of Gothic 3, suddenly Lee, Lares, Vatras, Angar, and assorted other NPCs are all inexplicably missing. Your friends like Diego, Milten, Gorn, and Lester all look and sound different than they did before, and they even act differently. In Gothic 2, you're said to be the avatar of Innos and Xardas becomes the avatar of Beliar, and suddenly in Gothic 3 those roles are inexplicably switched to King Rhobar and Some Hashishin Guy, respectively, while the gods themselves (Innos, Beliar, and Adanos) seem to be worshiped completely differently than they were in Khorinis. Throughout Gothic and Gothic 2 you keep hearing about the mainland being a war zone with the orcs on the cusp of winning and enslaving all of humanity, and then you get there in Gothic 3 and it seems like a relatively peaceful stalemate with the orcs are content to let you -- a random human -- wander freely through their occupied cities. Basically, it feels like they started from scratch with Gothic 3 and tried miserably to tie it in with the established lore of the series, since very little in Gothic 3 feels "right" from a Gothic and Gothic 2 standpoint.



THERE'S NO MAIN STORY

Gothic 3 is basically just a fantasy sandbox game with a very limited scope of what you can actually do in its huge open world. Whereas most games of this sort (e.g., The Elder Scrolls) give you a main quest line to follow which is ultimately optional and should by no means be your main focus in the game, Gothic 3 pretty much skips the whole concept of a main quest altogether -- there's no main story and hardly any main quest line to pursue, even if you wanted to. There's an opening premise about finding Xardas (your necromancer friend turned badguy) accompanied with the general suggestion of "pick a side in the orcs versus rebels conflict" and that's basically it. You spend essentially the whole game on a giant side-quest (liberate orc-controlled cities or destroy rebel outposts) for your own reasons (improve your character by gaining experience and better gear through factions) and because it's really the only thing in the game to do besides wandering around killing random enemies. Then you find Xardas and it turns out you have to do that stuff anyway, for some reason, so you finish it if you haven't already, do a few simple quests and then the game abruptly ends. I really must stress that there's no actual story element to this, and hardly any quest line to follow -- it's just a bunch of random, arbitrary tasks until the game eventually ends.

The main story collect-a-thon.



SO WHAT'S ACTUALLY GOOD ABOUT GOTHIC 3?

I would be remiss to not give Gothic 3 credit where it deserves. Gothic 3 isn't all bad, it's just mostly bad. So here are some things for which I feel like it actually deserve some praise.


TRULY OPEN-WORLD, NO LOADING SCREENS

Gothic 3 was released in 2006, and the world is absolutely huge. What's most impressive about that is that it has absolutely zero loading screen, beyond the initial load. Unlike Oblivion, for instance, which came out around the same time and forced you to sit through a loading screen every time you used a door, Gothic 3 lets you go everywhere on the map, from one corner to the next, and even inside buildings, loading everything in the background as you go. It was a major resource hog at the time, of course, but is still an impressive feat considering newer games, even today, still divide their playing areas into smaller loading zones. And it is a truly open world, with completely non-linear exploration and questing and complete freedom to go wherever you want from the very start of the game.

Waterfalls in the distance.


GREAT SOUNDTRACK

Kai Rosenkranz is one of the few video game composers whose name I actually know, and that's entirely because of his work with the original Gothic series. I liked his soundtracks a lot in the first two games, being perfectly atmospheric to set the mood for those games' environments, while having just enough melody and musical structure to keep it interesting, without having too much of that stuff to make it stand out or become repetitive. His soundtrack for Gothic 3 features a full orchestra, and his compositions and the performances by the musicians are all just so powerful and impressive. Gothic 3 received a ton of negative backlack from professional reviewers and gamers alike, but the soundtrack was one thing that everyone unanimously praised. Tracks like Vista Point and Exploring Myrtana have become emblematic of the game itself. I also like Ominous Woods, Trelis Liberate, Castle of Faring, Sad Strings, but seriously everything in the full soundtrack is great.


GOOD VISUALS AND ATMOSPHERE

The level designers and artists at Piranha Bytes have always been great at crafting outstanding-looking environments, and Gothic 3 is no exception. Though hampered by performance issues with having such a large view-able area, parts of the game looked truly beautiful at the time, if you had a rig powerful enough to render everything in high detail and longer distances. Other things, like character models, armor, and animations weren't so good, but the overall look and general aesthetic of the environments (combined with the great soundtrack) make Gothic 3 pretty satisfying just walking around and taking in the sights. The atmosphere of being out in the wild is pretty strong, just from an audiovisual standpoint alone.

A picturesque castle in the mountains.


ARCHERY AND MAGIC

Archery and magic in the first two Gothic games were never that great, and I always recommended against those playstyles for new players because they weren't very fun and were also difficult to make effective. In those games you were heavily restricted by limited ammunition and mana supplies which made it tough to specialize early on, but the actual gameplay for archery and magic amounted to simply locking on to your target and pressing attack to automatically shoot the enemy. There was no aiming and enemies made no effort to dodge. In Gothic 3, you finally have to aim ranged attacks manually, which makes them so much more engaging, especially when you have to lead targets and compensate for gravity's curved trajectory of an arrow, plus magic is a much more accessible and viable option from the beginning of the game than it was in the previous two games.


SOLVING QUESTS BEFORE YOU PICK THEM UP

As boring and tedious as the quests are, it's nice that you can actually complete most of them before being issued the quests from the quest-giver. If you've already gathered the items they need, or killed the enemies they want killing, you gain the experience the moment you finish the objective, and then if you stumble into an NPC who asks you to do something you've already done, you can say so then and there and collect your reward immediately. Not the most exciting thing, but a nice quality-of-life thing nonetheless.



IN CONCLUSION

Gothic 3 isn't really so bad as to warrant the "Gothic 3 Sucks" title, but it's a game that's so thoroughly mediocre and generally underwhelming, while feeling needlessly bloated and excessively long, that I can't recommend it to anyone in good conscience. There's some good stuff to enjoy in Gothic 3, and it still has some of that unique Piranha Bytes charm, but it's all buried under tons of bad design choices and horrible execution, and the good stuff just isn't good enough to justify sifting through all the bad stuff just to find it. And while some people insist that it's a fine, decent, or even good game with the community patch, the patch is simply that -- a patch, a bandage over a huge gaping wound that stops the bleeding but doesn't suture or disinfect the wound. The community patch, while admirable and definitely worth using, only goes so far as to make the game playable by fixing so many of the glaring bugs and tweaking the combat enough to bring it up from "completely broken" to "at least functional." It doesn't (and cannot) change things like the core combat mechanics, or the boring, tedious quest design, or the bland and shallow world design, or the almost complete lack of a main story. It's just not a very good game, and it's a horrible conclusion to what was, until Gothic 3, an utterly brilliant and masterful series.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you.
    The story of the most disappointing game of all time.

    And I have played it 5 times anyway hahaha. Magic is the fun way.

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  2. Great review, thank you!
    How would you rank all Piranha Bytes games from best to worst? Which ones aren't worth playing other than Gothic 3?

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    1. From best to worst, top to bottom:

      Gothic 2
      Gothic
      Elex
      Risen
      Risen 3
      Risen 2
      Gothic 3

      I think Elex is technically a better game than Gothic 1, but I always like to pair Gothic and Gothic 2 almost as if they're one game, because they're direct sequels that run on the same engine with virtually identical gameplay, in the exact same setting with the same characters and everything; if you play one, you need to play the other. And since Gothic 2 is clearly the top dog in this hierarchy, I'm slotting Gothic 1 right below it.

      Elex is a fantastic game, and I think with more polish and a few extra ideas, it had potential to compete with Gothic 2 for the top spot. It comes up a little short of actually competing with Gothic 2, though.

      Risen 1 and Risen 3 are interchangeable; I go back and forth between which one I think is better. Risen 1 is the most like the first two Gothic games, so that's a big plus, but I remember it being really frustrating and having a weak second half. I haven't played it since 2009 so my memory is a bit fuzzy. Maybe I'll replay it sometime in the near future.

      Risen 3 is a much smoother game and I liked it a lot when I reviewed it, but it still has a little too much of the Risen 2 influence and was, at the time, way too easy. Maybe with the patched-in Ultra difficulty, it might be better than I remember.

      Risen 2 was so bland that I couldn't even bother to write a review for it. Almost like Gothic 3 they felt the need to change everything going from Risen 1 to Risen 2, and basically every change was for the worse. Everything about it felt subtly wrong, and it didn't feel like a Gothic, Risen, or even Piranha Bytes game.

      Gothic 3 takes the bottom spot just for how disastrous it was at launch and for how much it soured the Gothic trilogy. I was super hyped for this game and came away so disappointed. If you put a gun to my head and told me to replay either Risen 2 or Gothic 3, or else I'd be shot, I'd probably pick Risen 2 because it's at least shorter and has a more unique theme/setting. Gothic 3 is just too long and bloated with repetitive filler content for me to tolerate any more.

      Put into tiers, I'd say Gothic, Gothic 2, and Elex are all top-tier (the best of the bunch, absolutely worth playing), Risen and Risen 3 are mid-tier (not as good, but still worth playing if you enjoyed the tier 1 games and want more), and Gothic 3 and Risen 2 are bottom-tier (can and probably should be skipped, even by hardcore PB fans).

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    2. Thank you! It's good to hear, that Piranha Bytes was able to reach Gothic 1-2 heights with Elex.

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    3. I agree with your list of PB games with a minor detail: I would put the original Gothic on top and Gothic II second. Yes, Gothic II was the better product, with more maps, more stuff in general, and more polish, but Gothic I had more heart in my opinion, and was a more immersive game. The atmosphere on Gothic I was unique because of the setting, in I you don't get to experience real cities, you only experience prisoner camps, which adds to the sense of dread, and the feeling that you are trapped in a strange world. I dunno, i just loved Gothic I more.

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  3. I must commend your patience. I could not for the life of me get past the first forest area of the map without eventually uninstalling. It was too much of step back from 2.

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  4. Nick, do you plan to write a Baldur's Gate 2 review or top 10 favorite RPG list (like the previous top10 FPS and horror list)? Of course any article is welcome, but these would be especially exciting for me. :)

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    1. These are both back-burner projects. They'll be done eventually, I just don't know when.

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