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The Quest problem in computer games

Tasca, Susana


(This paper was presented at the Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment (TIDSE) conference, in Darmstadt, 2003, and printed in its proceedings, published by Fraunhofer IRB Verlag)


Quests have been one of the easiest ways for game designers to introduce storytelling elements into games, so that the gameplay is entwined with a story that has the player as protagonist. The quest or mission format allows for a contextualization of the game’s actions in a more or less meaningful story, that the player may or may not feel as vital to her experience when playing the game.

We lack an overview of the different theories dealing with quests, and we still need a solid definition, which I will attempt here. This papers wants to look at quests from a mixed literary theory/game design theory point of view, in order to find out how quests function in games, what makes them interesting or boring, and how this can be related to computer games design.

1 Introduction

The idea of looking more deeply into quests springs from several connected interests. First of all, it continues my previous work on how literary tools might be useful for the study of certain kinds of games , as well as being very related to a long-term pursuit of mine, namely pen&paper roleplaying games, where the problem of how to create interesting adventures/quests/missions for the players has been crucial to the development of the genre and a central worry for gamemasters worldwide.

However, the direct inspiration behind this paper is the course “Computer Games: Designing an Online Computer Game” , taught by Jesper Juul and me last semester at the IT University of Copenhagen. In this practically oriented course, our students had to design and develop an online multiplayer game. All groups except one chose to develop roleplaying games with quests (individual or group quests) as a central part of the player’s experience. The course sessions included a “game critique” part, where students would present their analyses of existing games to the class. They were very critical with existing games, mainly in the adventure and roleplaying genres, noting that the quests in these games were often too linear, boring, repetitive and unrelated to the character’s “physical” and emotional development. Thus they set out to provide players with a more satisfactory experience in their projects, chiefly by creating better quests that would overcome some of the deficiencies they had discovered as critics. This proved a daunting task, and in the end the groups were openly discouraged by how difficult it turned out to be , so that they had to resort to the well known schemas of “take object A to place B and bring back object C to get reward”, “town leader asks you to save town killing monster X that lives in place Y for a reward Z”, and similar ones; the only difficulties being that most tasks required collaboration amongst different players in order to be completed. This is not the place to analyze each of the students projects in detail, but all groups agreed in that the quest format very often fails to meet the expectations of players and probably also those of designers. However, they couldn’t explain why this was so, and it was one of my motivations to try to understand what quests are and how they function in games, so as to work in a more efficient way next time that we are faced with such a design problem in the classroom or elsewhere.

Several theorists have explicitly dealt with the question of quests and games, particularly Wibroe, Tronstad and Aarseth among others. Their definitions of quest differ with each other and with mine, as we will see in section 3, but it is necessary to examine them in order to have an overview of the theoretical “life” of the concept. It is a word with several senses, but let us for now adopt a simplistic view based on the pen&paper roleplaying games where the initial idea of quests originates:

From the designer’s point of view, a quest is a set of parameters in the game world (making use of the game’s rules and gameplay) that specifies the nature and order of events that make up a challenge for the player, including its resolution. From the player’s point of view, a quest is a set of specific instructions for action, they can be as vague as a general goal (overthrow the evil king) or extremely precise (take this bucket to the well, fill it up and bring it back to me); after the quest has been completed it can be narrated as a story.

With this definition I want to stress that the primary intention of this paper is to define a concept and to deal with game design issues from a literary perspective, and not to participate in what has been called the fight between games and narrative.

2. Games and narrative

Much has been written about the topic of games and narrative, and it is a discussion that I do not wish to go into, as I consider the matter rather closed in that games are not narratives , although both cultural forms share certain similarities, so that some theorists might have been tempted to take one for the other. The literary tools are only useful to analyze the storytelling elements in certain games, and I emphasize certain because there are many games that have no storytelling elements at all. The genre of each individual game is a crucial factor within such a diverse cultural form, and I am here exclusively refering to games that contain storytelling elements, usually adventure games or roleplaying games (both single and multiplayer), although there are many hybrids, and storytelling elements are present in other kinds of games too. I will also avoid the use of the word narrative from now on, as it reminds us too much on the possibility of narrating events after they have happened, and this possibility of telling or interpreting our interaction when playing games is what has led people to confuse them with stories. I will instead use storytelling, as it doesn’t necessarily imply narrative in the static sense, but can also mean pre-disposition of elements, as I will explain in connection to how game designers use this concept.

As introduced elsewhere (Tosca, 2000a), there are a number of elements that are present both in stories and games, even if they work differently in each of these media. For a story to occur, we usually need one or more characters involved in a plot where some things have consequences and lead to other things, that is, there is causality too . This is a nearly journalistic and quite structural definition of a story (what, who, how, why), even though I am not mentioning the when or the where, that are a part of what we can call the story world, another very important component in the storytelling equation. Once a story has happened (in real life for example, as all human experience including history can be narrated, or in the author’s imagination if it is a fiction), it can be narrated, but only afterwards , as we cannot really narrate while participating in these stories and there is usually some temporal distance.

Of course the definition of plot is not straightforward either, but if we typically define plot as a narrative of events, we can view quests as a way of structuring those events . This doesn’t mean that a plot is made up of several quests or viceversa, the two terms do not contain each other, but rather refer to different things: the action and the narration, following Tronstad (s. note 6). Here I am interested in the action (as the narration is out of the game), both as it is planned by the designer, and experienced by the player.

In computer games, quests incarnate causality at two levels: a semantic one, where we understand how/why actions are connected (the character has to do X because of Y, and then Z will happen); and a structural one (the designer can plan for the events and objects involved in the quest, and also for the order in which some or all events must take place). In other words, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between the player and the designer’s perspective when considering quests. For the player, they are a set of instructions for action, as they give her a goal that needs to be solved. For the designer, they provide a structure to plan for events and describe object interaction within a comprehensible framework.

From the player’s point of view, problems arise at the semantic (information, choice) level when the instructions are not clear (the player doesn’t know what to do), or when they are too specific (the player has no choice whatsoever); and at the structural (interaction) level  when the obstacles are not challenging enough (too easy) or impossible to overcome (too hard). The designer has to balance the semantic and the structural function of quests in the game, so as to facilitate a combination of objects (as available in the gameworld) and actions (as derived from the game rules) that generates interesting gameplay. This is easier said than done, as our students had the chance of finding out. Setting up a world with objects, characters and a backstory is one thing; combining all these elements into quests that the player finds engaging is a very different one. For a game designer, creating quests is the primary way in which the different storytelling elements come together. Generally speaking, designers have a very different conception of storytelling and quests than academics.

3. Perspectives

The problem of quests has engaged the interest of game researchers, game designers, and of course the pen&paper roleplaying community. Each of these three points of view concentrates on different angles of the problem, and they are all necessary for us to understand how quests work in computer games.

3.1 Academic

M. Wibroe, K.K. Nygaard and P.Bøgh Andersen have examined quests in “Games and Stories”, where they analyse the game Diablo trying to discover why it fails as a story. They are interested in events that are tellable, according to Marie Laure Ryan’s definition of the concept, that is, events where “there is a discrepancy between the actual world and a possible world or internally between possible worlds” (Wibroe et. al., 169). For them, a really sucessful story-game would be one where the player’s actions had as many outcomes as possible (not completely linear), and also where the game world presented an illusion of complexity similar to that of the possible worlds of stories (where each character struggles to realize her own version of an ideal world). In this view, there is no good story without conflict. In Diablo, the villains just wait around for the hero to attack them, and the world feels quite static, even though the player can choose the order in which she performs the different quests.

While I am not interested in Diablo or any other game becoming a good story, their definition of quest is quite in line with the one I proposed earlier: “The quests of Diablo constitute its plot, since they are the way in which the underlying story is revealed” (p. 170). The authors’s aim is to find “remedies” that allow for games like Diablo to tell good stories, but most of these remedies point in the direction of a tremendously powerful AI that could manage totally independent characters and a world that responded to their actions in real time. However, some of their points are very valid and realistic for designers; for example, that quests should be story-functional or that the most important ones shouldn’t be introduced too late in the game (p. 178). They also describe the two basic quest structures the game is made of, in a very useful example of how to undertake quest analysis: the simple exchange (“delivering something to someone and then being rewarded”) and the breach of contract, basically a complication of the previous one (“after the deed is done it turns out that one has to fight for the reward”). The second one would obviously be more interesting as it presents conflict and is thus tellable.

The tellable quality of quests is also central to Ragnhild Tronstad’s conception of them (2001), although in her case tellable is understood in the linguistic sense of something that can be told. As explained in note 6, quests are for her performative, they are acts, while stories (the telling of the quests) are constatives, since the quest is already solved. This distinction is important, but to my mind, her definition of quest solving is too tied to the semantic level to be completely applicable to games. She writes, “To do a quest is to search for the meaning of it” (p. 4), so that when the meaning is found, the quest is finished and there isn’t much of a point in trying to do it again. But quests in computer games are very often devoid of any search for meaning (take this letter to the merchant!), there is no meaning to be sought, nothing to be known, but something to be done. Moreover, this can be done again and again independently of the player knowing all possible meanings in advance (for example in EverQuest is it not uncommon to repeat some low level quests in order to get more experience points, since the goal is not meaning but the reward).

Espen Aarseth is also inspired by Tronstad in his “Beyond the Frontier: Quest Games as Post-Narrative Discourse” (2002), that is actually an attempt to find a new way to use narrative in order to discuss games from a more intrinsic perspective (and solve the “war” between games and narrative along the way). His article is very interesting in that it examines several games from the point of view of how quests work in them. His definition of quest is very broad: “The player-avatar must move through a landscape in order to fulfill a goal, while mastering a series of challenges. This phenomenon is called a quest.” (p. 6), and from the conclusion, “we might benefit from looking at some games (games with specific goals) as quest games”(10). He also notes that this kind of games is not so easy to define, but maybe if we look at his examples we can understand it a bit better.

-        X-Beyond the Frontier: quests are not fixed, the player is free to choose them as she discovers pieces of information (an area has a valuable resource that you could go and take). Basically for entertainment inside a simulation game.

-        Myth II: Soulblighter: the quest is quite determined since you know the objective (take the castle) and the means (use the dwarf); Aarseth decided to use him in a different way than intented, so relative freedom in the means.

-        Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Multiplayer game with two opposing teams with also opposed goals: transmit the secret codes / avoid the transmision of the secret codes. Quests would be made of all the objectives.

As we can see, the three kinds of “quests” are very different, as Aarseth seems to imply that all games that have a particular objective (beyond the desire to win) would be quest games. But even “simple” games with no visible plot/narrative content (like Chess or Tetris) would have particular goals or objectives (take the enemy king, don’t let the pieces accumulate), so that all games would be quest games except for simulations? In the first example, the quest is just a suggestion for action, in the second a quite structured sequence integrated in the game story, and in the third example, the instructions for the teams to act. In my approach, the first would be too loose to be a quest, as we will see in section 4 of this paper, the second would be more along the lines of my quest definition, and the third is undoubtedly the most problematic of them all. Following Jesper Juul (2002), I consider team-based first person shooter games as games of emergence, where simple rules lead to complex gameplay that cannot be pre-structured. Quests are a progression structure, even if emergence and progression can be combined in certain games. As Juul says: “Progression games have walkthroughs: list of actions to perform to complete the game. Emergence games have strategy guides: rules of thumb, general tricks.” (p. 328) Also for me, quests can be part of walkthroughs, and they don’t involve complex strategy.

These revealing theoretical perspectives are very useful to help us think about the nature of quests and the role of quests in games. But in order to learn how the concept works in design, we have to ask the designers…

3.2. Design

As I mentioned before, designers don’t have a problem with considering storytelling elements an important part of the design process, without confusing games and stories: “Strictly speaking, computer games do not need to tell stories. (…) but it seems that when employed properly, stories can make games that much stronger” (Rouse, 215). Richard Rouse proposes several solutions to achieve nonlinearity:

-        storytelling (branching)

-        multiple solutions

-        order (pick the order in which they perform challenges)

-        selection (not all challenges need to be performed)  (p. 126)

The two last ones refer to quests. For Rouse a challenge/quest is  “good” storytelling because it integrates the storytelling elements with the gameplay: instead of letting the player watch a cutscene, she has the chance to participate in the action that motivates the story.

Rollings and Morris’s book on game design (2000) also has a section on storytelling, and even though they don’t mention quests by name here, they have a “toolbox of storytelling techniques” (p. 110-120), that are really mostly recommendations for building better quests; as we can see in the following examples:

-        Obstacles. Uninteresting quest start should be avoided.“There is a vampire up at the castle. You have to kill it”, is boring. If the hero needs to do some research in order to get this information by herself, it is a more engaging story. (p. 111)

-        Personalization. Saving the world is a common goal, but it is much better if it is small and personal, for example saving your lost niece. (p. 112)

-        Plot points. It is also very exciting to “pivot the story around in a new and suprising direction”. “Being told you’re going with Gandalf on a quest to Mount Doom would be boring if that’s exactly what happens.” (p. 116)

Finally, they have a series of recommendations for the resolution of a story (and here we could say “quest”) to be satisfactory. The resolution should be “hard won, not obvious, satisfying (morally or aesthetically), consistent, and achieve closure” (p. 118-119). This points to solving the problems I identified earlier in quests at the semantic and structural level.

The last design perspective on quests that we will consider is that of Bob Bates, who considers storytelling as a feature of roleplaying games. Although I think that computer roleplaying games are about character advancement and not storytelling (that would be the focus of pen&paper roleplaying games), his observations are interesting for us here:

“Storytelling in RPGs is generally accomplished through a series of quests. As the player carries out the missions, he explores the world and learns more about its inhabitants and his place among them.

To deal with the never-ending conflict between linearity and nonlinearity, don´t give the player the quests one at a time. Instead, group the missions in a series of small clusters so that, although he has a choice of what he is working on at the current moment, he isn´t overwhelmed with too many possibilities. At any given time, the player should have several immediate goals, one or two midterm goals, and one final goal.” (p. 54)

Bates advocates for a three-act structure for creating plots in games, following Aristotle: problem, complications and solution. This is no doubt very simple, and it makes us aware that computer games are not such a sophisticated medium as contemporary literature, for example, where it is entirely possible to have a plot without a solution, or even to try to do without a plot.

These three designers’s perspectives have been extremely useful for our students, who preferred to get practical tips such as these rather than to enter discussions about narrativity. They have criticized and refined their initial versions of quests according to this kind of advice. They have for example planned for a non-linear combination of quests (that is, the player can take them in different orders or drop some), tried to involve the player’s personally (if he has to investigate some evil, it is because his father has been killed, not just for money), tried to include surprises, treasons and plot turns, and also planned for quests that can only be solved in groups of people with different skills to promote social exchanges within the game world, etc.

As we can see, the three design books take for granted that the reader understands what a quest is, and they just set out to offer practical examples of how to make them better. This is useful, but we need to complement it with a discussion on the nature of quests, as will be undertaken in part 4.

3.3. Pen&paper roleplaying

The function of this section is to stress the fact that the idea of quest or mission as an organizing structure for meaning and action comes from pen&paper roleplaying games. It has been incorporated particularly to the computer game genres of adventure and roleplaying, in single or multiplayer versions. Roleplaying games have a core book that describes how to decide upon all possible player behaviour (physical, social, mental, etc.), how to build a character, and what is the game world like (usually game worlds are inspired by other kinds of fiction, like literature or cinema). All this is quite a complex and comprehensive set of rules that serves as the basis for all interaction, and that usually cannot be changed by the players or game master (unless all agree for example that one rule is stupid and they won’t use it). If we consider the rulebook as the hard structure in roleplaying games, we can see the typically called “adventure modules” or supplements, as the soft structure . These are usually sold separately from the rulebook, and contain a particular story or instructions for a quest in the game world. These instructions typically describe places, objects and people in detail, and the nature of the players’s quest. Depending on the game, these quests will be more or less open; typically, early games like the first Dungeons and Dragons, are much more linear than later ones, like Vampire. The Masquerade. A linear adventure book might for example describe an orc lair in all detail, showing what the players will encounter step by step; the mission will be described like this: your players are sitting in an inn and the major asks them to save the town from evil orc raiders for a sum of money. A less linear adventure book will contain the description of a city and its most influential characters, will have a few notes on important past events or relationships between characters and their plans, and will suggest a few themes and conflicts that might interest the players, but it is then up to them to run around and find their own mission. For example, the book could suggest that the prince acts in a suspicious way, and then the characters might decide to investigate this, later uncovering a conspiracy, etc. with a feeling of having created their own story (which is true to a certain extent, since the gamemaster controls it all).

Some players and gamemasters prefer more fixedly structured quests, others prefer open ones, and the market caters for all. In my experience as a game master, it is quite hard to keep a balance between a good structure and players’s freedom, as it is easy for them to feel like they have no choice in the first case, and like they have no idea of what to do in the second. But there is a crucial difference with computer games that applies to both cases, and that is, not everything is predetermined. This might seem a banal observation, but it is very important to consider that pen&paper roleplaying games have a human gamemaster that constantly adjusts the adventure to the players’s actions, acts as all the non-playing characters showing their personalities with real-time dialogue, and can even change the hard rules if something is not convenient for the adventure. In computer games, we need to prepare the quest events in a much more fixed way, place all objects, and even write the dialogue for the non-players characters. The result is less lively and immersive, as in pen&paper the series of quests can have many more open spaces than in computer games. To my mind, the success of pen&paper games is precisely in the common creation of a story, that springs from the hard rules and soft adventure guidelines but that depends on all participants being human and changing the script constantly.

Paradoxically, this is what cannot be reproduced by computer games, but we can still learn something from pen&paper games in order to create better quests, specially about the design of the soft rules or adventure modules. This is a better inspiration for designing quests than literature, as there are no possibilities for confusion of games and narrative; in roleplaying games, everything is active storytelling .

4. Quests

4.1. Quest background

Even though this paper doesn’t deal with the literary concept of quest, or rather, epic quest, it is not pointless to also remember that the epic quest had a great importance in ancient literature, and particularly in medieval literature. The idea of quest as a search with a trascendent meaning (as in “quest for the Holy Grial”) is part of the everyday use of the word and no doubt has some influence in the way players and designers look at them. As Rollings and Morris advised game designers, it is annoying that many games give players the quest of saving the world. This has become so pervasive in our culture (also in mainstream films), that the theme has been emptied of its meaning and become something banal. The word quest evokes the dreaded great narratives, and maybe that is why we should be careful when using it, although it seems that, at least in the game design field, it has come to stay.

We could ask if these ancient quests can inspire us for creating computer games, and this is something that has been tried before, with games about the Odyssey or the arthurian legends. However, this is more a question of adaptation from one medium to another, and as such is beyond the limits of this paper. In relation to quests we could wonder if the game is a thematic adaptation of the story, a reproduction of the story-world where other stories can take place, or if it tries to follow the exact same sequence of events so that the player has a “similar experience” to that of the characters in the book or film. It would be interesting to wonder at which levels does this adaptation work, and why, as the migration of certain stories from one medium to another (it also happens in the opposite direction of game to film) is far from having been thoroughly examined, and it has nothing to do with the usual “book to movie” path.

Apart from literature, quests have been a matter of interest for researchers of mythology and popular culture. Possibly the best known example is Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948), where he explains myths from diverse cultures under the assumption that they are all versions of the same universal archetype. It also contains a model for all human experience: the quest. The hero’s journey or quest is a sort of explanation for human action and change in three steps or parts: the call (in which the hero learns about the quest and has to leave the known world behind), the journey (which includes initiation, transformation, revelation, struggles, the final big battle, etc.), and the return (where the hero comes back home and brings something for his community). This could be applied nearly directly to computer games quests (it is also very similar to the aristotelian three act structure proposed by Bates), and it can even be quite inspiring for designers. However, Campbell’s quest is really a pattern that, like narrative, can be used to make sense of any kind of human activity, even a human life, without telling us anything specific about computer game quests.

4.2. Definition

I earlier defined quests as a way of structuring events in games, and explained that they incarnate causality at two levels: a semantic one (how/why actions are connected); and a structural one (plan of actions, interaction of objects and events). The two levels can be perceived by both the player and the designer, and if the quests are well built, they will contribute to create some kind of emotional engagement as part of the player’s experience, as they can be the glue where world, rules and themes come together in a meaningful way.

In order to know what computer games quests are, I would like to borrow the terms I used earlier for describing roleplaying games, and to draw a distinction between the hard and the soft rules of a game. I propose that the hard rules are the rules making up the game-world, namely, objects properties and behaviours and gameplay dynamics, including the final goal of the game. The soft rules would in this approach be the concrete objectives in smaller strings of actions, in a way, how the hard rules are particularly implemented in short sequences that the player can take individually. Examples of hard rules would be the properties of water (you drown, your weapons do not work) or the system that calculates damage in combat. Examples of soft rules would be the requirement that the player kicks a door three times before it can be opened, or that she finds a letter in a drawer in order to go on to the next level. One could also say that hard rules are general, and soft rules are particular. Strategy plans (in Jesper Juul’s terms, emergent) have to do with hard rules , whereas problem solving activities have to do with soft rules (for Juul, progression). 

But not all soft rules are quests, since soft rules can also be puzzles or action feats, that is, they can very well be devoid of any storytelling content. A quest, as we said earlier, brings some or all the storytelling elements (characters, plot, causality, world) together with the interaction, so that we can define it as the array of soft rules that describe what the player has to do in a particular storytelling situation. Let us take a simple quest example: an exchange. The soft rules defined by the designer determine that the player has to take a certain object (a bucket), explore the world to find another object (a well), combine them according to the hard rules of the game world (fill it up with water), and take it back to the non-player character (more exploration and object exchange). The designer also scripts the conversation lines that will let the player learn about the quest (by asking the non-player character if he needs help, for example), and plans for an appropriate reward (experience points, a good sword).

In the player’s experience, this quest takes the form of a set of instructions that have to be completed. It is so simple that the level of uncertainty is very low, maybe the only thing that presents a challenge is finding the well in the game-world.

Quests can have several variables that we can use to distinguish between different kinds, for example and not exclusively:

-        Linearity. They can be extremely fixed (like the missions in Grand Theft Auto III: go here, beat this man up, steal his car, bring it back), where you even have an arrow pointing at your objective and a point in the map to drive there efficiently; or more open (like the player’s task of getting rid of the replicants in Blade Runner, that can be done in a number of different ways, including making friends with some of them)… Linearity is a requirement for quests in all cases.

-        Duration. In time (a big quest that is the whole game and is made up of smaller quests), in number of actions needed to be completed (the exchange quest can be completed in two, the breach of contract quest adds more complications).

-        Single/Multiplayer. The multiplayer element introduces uncertainty and strategy elements, since a designer can never be sure of exactly how the group will solve it (for example grouping in EverQuest to slay a dragon).


Whatever their variety or the name we give them (quests, missions, adventures, exchanges, errands, tasks), quests are the chance for the game designer to bring the storytelling elements into play. And if there should be any general recommendation for designers, it would be that they try to entwine structure and story as much as they can in their quests.

The necessary continuation of this work would no doubt be a thorough examination of different kinds of quests in order to propose a typology that could be used both for analysis and design. I would also like to consider in more depth how the game genre affects the way that quests work, for example if quests are essentially different in adventure and roleplaying games, or if the genre distinction plays no role when considering quests.

5. Conclusion

Even though the importance of the concept of quest has been recognized for some time and several authors had dealt with it from different perspectives as examined here, we lacked an overview of the different understandings of the concept and how it can be defined in relation to computer games. In this paper I propose such a definition, derived from game design experience as well as from a discussion of the main theoretical positions surrounding the concept of quest. Explicitly, I wanted to challenge certain widespread ideas such as: quests equal linearity, quests equal goals or objectives, or that they are only a feature of single player games.

As stated, the quest concept is the primary way for game designers to implement storytelling elements in games. For academics, it raises some important questions about the relationship between narrative and games, and for some it is even the source of the frustration of storytelling expectatives when playing (Wibroe One of the questions at the beginning of this paper was why quests are boring or can feel as meaningless for the player. Now we can answer this by examining the level at which the quests in a particular game can fail (semantic or structural), or by trying to evaluate if quests are integrating the storytelling elements in a particular game: if they feel disconnected from the plot, the game-world or our characters, chances are that the bridging of the semantic and structural levels hasn’t suceeded, and we have to reconsider the elements that made up our quests and how they are presented to the player.   

There seems to be a fairly fixed and small number of typical quests that many games repeat (the exchange, the breach of contract, the discovery of the traitor, save the kingdom, etc.), and we might ask ourselves if it is desirable to explore new lands and devise new version of these quests or search for entirely different ones.


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