Raphael Sfeir’s “Other Side”

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Other Side starts with two beings floating away from the player character, and after they’ve ascended, the player walks until she finds a set of stones. The stones light up, deliver tones, but very little else. The player wanders until she finds the way.

You can play Other Side here.

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Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, and deliberate action

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A few days ago Cara Ellison wrote a wonderful piece about Tomb Raider and the difference between the earlier and later games in the series. My experience with Tomb Raider as a kid was limited to buying it in a bargain bin and having a hell of a time trying to get it to run on Windows 98. My mother tried to help me, reformatting some drives and installing mods that purportedly made the game run properly (although I’m positive that one of them just made Lara naked, much to my mother’s frustration).

Ellison starts her piece by pointing out an often-forgotten (or at least rarely-discussed) fact about the first Tomb Raider game: Lara Croft is vulnerable.

Few AAA games today let the player feel vulnerable in the way that Tomb Raider allowed. The environments were vast, cavernous, mysterious. Unsettling. Lara’s body was spindly, looked gymnastic yet somehow frail. Her bare skin was showing. The ambient sound was sinister, echoing, quietly insidious. The environments felt somehow claustrophobic and vast at the same time.

In a piece for Rock Paper Shotgun from 2012, she makes a similar point in a different context, writing that

But what was more important to my young eyes was Lara’s frailty. She looked thin and incapable, those narrow gun-toting wrists like stems of a flower. Climbing seemed a labour. She stumbled on things, bumped into things with a dramatic ‘oof!’ Every animation blend glitch evidence to me that she was panicking, breaking. She was at the mercy of her environment. The fact that she had few supplies, little clothing, and nobody to help her: these made her task even more daunting.

[note: also check out this piece she did for Unwinnable around the same time. It is very good.]

We’ve papered over this vulnerability in the history of Lara Croft, and I didn’t really understand it. She’s a badass, gun-toting murderer who slays wolves and tyrannosaurs equally; I couldn’t intuit how that was held in balance with what Ellison calls her “frailty.”

So I went to my closet and grabbed Tomb Raider for the Playstation and played for the first time in nearly two decades. (sincere thanks to William for giving me the game and thus allowing me to write this piece.)

The second paragraph of Ellison’s piece is about Tomb Raider as it fits into the general design trends of the time period when it was released. She remarks that the first game was “full of tension” and “had more in common with Resident Evil and survival horror than it does with Uncharted.” Formally, this comparison is unbelievably on point. Lara Croft’s jumps have a feel to them that have never been fully captured by a game since; they’re unbelievably graceful. Flipping through the air frontward, backward, and sideways, she moves around a primitive polygonal world. At the same time, she controls like a tank, her body plodding forward or leaping backward at the smallest push of the D pad. This body, always in excess of itself and moving more than you want it to, has an entire control scheme dedicated to limiting how much it can get in its own way: a button to look around, a button to walk instead of run.

I played through the first stage. A temple, maybe, or something stranger in the Himalayas. The game is cagey about how much it tells you, but that lack of information is important as Lara makes her way into the darkness. The draw distance is short; the path in front of you is always dark. There are paw prints leading to and from that darkness, the remnants of the wolves who attacked Lara and her (now dead) guide in the opening cinematic. Lara chases or tracks them. I can’t really tell.

The jump button requires priming. You have to hold it down a half a second before you want to jump, just a small amount so Lara can bend at the knee and launch herself a full eight feet in the air. To leap between platforms, Lara has to patiently turn or sidestep to get into position. To grab onto a ledge she has to stretch her body forward in space; to grab it from below she hangs like dead weight until she decides to climb, performing an unbelievable pullup.

I’m not writing all of this to make some kind of response to Ellison, but rather to go one step further in thinking about what I’ve been calling “deliberate action” in games. I’ve played The Last of Us: Remastered recently for review, and because of that I’ve spent a lot of time in the (wonderful) multiplayer mode trying to understand why I love it so much. A big part of my enjoyment there is how deliberate everything the player does feels. When I craft an item, it takes time; when I throw that item, the character heaves it. The animation takes time, and during that time I am vulnerable.

Part of this has to do with limiting arbitrary risk. You cannot be shot five times in a row with nothing lost other than some health bars. Every encounter has to feel like it might be your last. TLOU‘s multiplayer does this by only allowing a player to be shot a couple times before death; Tomb Raider does it through sound design and enemy AI pathing. We know that Lara can kill the wolves, but when the wolves run around in a circle, lunge at Lara, box her into a corner at any time, it doesn’t feel that way.

Lara’s vulnerability (and the vulnerability of the nameless TLOU multiplayer characters) comes not only from the abilities they have access to in the levels they live within, but also from the microchoices we make. Can we pause here for just a moment? If I run at this gap in the floor and leap, leaning into it as much as I can, will I make it? The choice I make could destroy me, but I do it anyway.

I make a deliberate choice. I fly through the air.

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On Alastor and Ifrit

1.

A while back Oscar Strik wrote an article titled “An Ode To Objects” where he explained that the most wonderful items in games are ones that are clearly part of the game world itself. Essentially, if you can “plug and play” an item from one game to another, it isn’t doing the kind of work that Strik would like to see it doing. He cuts the argument down to a polemic near the end:

Read my lips: No more longswords +1, ever. None. Please give every single item some real flavour, some colour, some history. This can be a special in-game effect (special damage, limited use of a certain spell, and the like), or just something non-functional that makes it stand out (a backstory, a particular visual design).

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2.

I am Alastor. The weak shall give their heart and swear their eternal loyalty to me.

and

My name is Ifrit. The fool who awakens me shall pay dearly with the fires of hell.

ifrit

3.

I played Devil May Cry sometime around when it first came out. I was at my friend Tyler’s house, and we spent a full 24 hours passing the controller back and forth and pirating music from WinMX. I’m not sure if we completed it or not. After all, for a game that is about stylish swordplay and quick wits, the actual process of playing it for the first, second, and tenth time is a grueling march from point A to point Z. We died a lot, but I was fascinated with the game, not only for its gameplay, but for the setting.

The world of the first Devil May Cry is full of demons. That’s just a part of everyday life, so much that Dante, the main character, has a service for killing them. That’s his life. Demon murder. But we don’t see any of these Ghostbusters-esque hijinks. Instead, the game begins, and Dante is off to a strange island where strange things happen for no real reason other than “demons.”

There’s a creepy window with a tree that looks humanlike. There’s a castle ruin, strange in its combination of use (the bedroom) and abandonment (so much more of it). There’s a circle in the sea where giant biting heads appear to chomp on Dante. The game is just god damn weird.

4. 

Alastor is a sword that tries to kill the protagonist of the game. It appears, shoots out of a statue, and impales Dante, who survives by pulling the sword through himself. It is a moment of pure teenage badassery which is pushed even higher by Dante immediately picking up the sword and cutting the air around falling glass with it.

But that sword wanted to kill him.

The strange animacy of the weapons in the Devil May Cry universe is one of its unique features. Like the sword mentioned in Strik’s essay above, Dante’s weapons clearly have a life outside of their use-value for him despite the fact that our only real experience of them is through that use. We can imagine a world where Alastor isn’t conquered by Dante and instead consumes him, alien-like, planting demonic sword eggs in his belly that cut their way out when they hatch.

5.

All forces and flows (materialities) are or can become lively, affective, and signaling. And so an affective, speaking human body is not radically different from the affective, signaling nonhumans with which it coexists, hosts, enjoys, serves, consumes, produces, and competes.

- Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter 117

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On Timesplitters

This article was voted on and supported by my Patreon page.

Timesplitters 2 was the most significant game of my teenage gameplaying years. It is comprised of several micronarratives taking place throughout human history, and the core of the game involves the player hopping into heroic bodies in those time periods in order to defeat arch villains as well as their Timesplitter allies.

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Timesplitters are evil aliens. Or something.

In any case, TS2 really imprinted itself on me. I’ve maintained a fascination with games that try to blend weird genre work and different time periods into a single game, and Timesplitters 2 has become a weird high-water mark for me in how it managed to handle all of that complexity while giving a super-playable arcadey shooter.

I say all of that to note that when I recently got way into grabbing Playstation 2 games, the original Timesplitters was at the top of things that I wanted to play. I had never had a chance to grab it, had never even seen it, when I was a teen, and so being a big grown up adult with big grown up money to buy games with, I decided that I definitely wanted to give it a shot. I put it in a list of different games I wanted to play and write about and made a poll on my Patreon page.

Then, to my surprise, it was chosen.

Playing Timesplitters fourteen years after its release is a strange experience. While my memories of the sequel are almost completely concerned with story, Timesplitters itself it completely absent any effort in that department. Each level allows you to select a character, after which you are dropped into a map. If you pause the game, you can see that there are objectives, and all of them are some form of “get an object in the heart of the level and bring it to the beginning of the level.” It is, by all accounts, a barebones product.

It is also hard as hell.

I have not shouted, screamed, and cursed at any piece of media in my entire life as I have Timesplitters (and I’ve recently been playing New Super Mario Bros. WiiU). Enemies can barely hit you, but when they do, they take out a chunk of health. There’s no cover. The movement is strange and jerky, and the first level introduces the dreaded Timesplitters zombie enemy, which will always get up after being shot unless you skill shot its head off. I spent three hours trying to clear the first level on medium before I shifted down to easy and blazed through it with super speed.

Why the severe change in difficulty through the two modes? There’s a version of this essay where I trot out some videogame ideology truisms and talk about how important it is that this game’s standard difficulty is incredibly difficult, placing it in videogame firmament with Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda and all of those other fetish objects that make up the breadcrumb trail behind Dark Souls and Spelunky.

That isn’t this piece though. Instead, what sticks out to me about Timesplitters, which is a fairly bog standard shooter overall, is that it is one of the last games that acknowledged that it was wasting your time.

That’s what the steep increases in difficulty between difficulty levels is. It is a mode of wasting time in the most beautiful way. In my weird semi-research project Reading Electronic Gaming Monthly, where I have been reading as much of that magazine as I can get my hands on, I’ve come across a way of thinking that permeated the 1990s: games should make you spend a lot of time on them. They should be incredibly difficult to complete, let alone master, and if they aren’t then they are not good games. That kind of thinking has extended into the contemporary period, with a lot of vitriol about time return on investment thrown at quickly-completed (but not quickly experienced) games like Gone Home.

The best time wasting games have always worn it on their sleeves. When an RPG boasted on the back cover that it had 80 hours of content, that is a claim to time wasting supremacy. You could get lost inside of that object, spend entire summer days cramming it into your brain boss-by-boss.

Short of those RPGs, though, time wasting fell out of vogue. You wanted a narrative, and narratives that featured fetch quests without the appropriate trappings of self-justification were pilloried. Without gimmicks, superpowers, and the ability to be immersed in the world, time wasting became a gross thing.

Now our time-wasters, the games that really take an inordinate amount of time to even get into, let alone master, spin themselves as developing skills in the player. By dumping 100 hours into Spelunky, you become better at understanding the system that governs that game.

Timesplitters doesn’t even allow this amount of comfort with how you waste your time. You cannot dodge bullets or use special skills or tricks to better play the game. The best you can do is memorize the specific timings of when enemies teleport in or pop out of their scripted hiding places. You cannot get better at the system, but merely at recognizing that systems symptoms. God help you if you change difficulties, though, because then both the enemies and the shape of the level changes.

Timesplitters requires you to dump hours into it, like piling sand onto a beach, only to see yourself barely passing through the levels. Your time gives you nothing more than a minor ability to navigate the space. And it does not care. It does not have any sympathy for you. It does not try to addict you, to get you to say “HEY I CAN DO THIS, JUST ONE MORE TIME.” It is entirely apathetic to you and what you want to do in the game, and you can take it or leave it.

 

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You Buy It I Write It: Karateka (2012)

This was written as part of my longform project where I play anything someone purchases for me. You can read more about that here.

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Videogames have strange relationships with time.

There’s the time-to-complete, which is a measurement of how long it takes to get from arbitrary point A to arbitrary point Z. Evolving from that is the speedrun, the quest to find the fastest time between the those two arbitrary marks.

There’s time in relationship to labor in at least two forms: in the role-playing game (Japanese or otherwise) sense of how long it took you to grind up to a certain level; in the massive online game sense of how long it takes to get to an item level that seems to equate to how much time you’ve sunk into the experience. And there’s time-to-value, the literal translation of hours into something useful – playing Team Fortress 2 for crates or idling in games for cards.

Those are all concepts of time that rest in the macro. Karateka works in a smaller, more fine register, being a game totally focused on the micro. The core of the game takes place in that microscale. The player, controlling a martial artist, responds to attacks with button presses.

An enemy approaches. The enemy attacks, and with each hit, you press a button, blocking punch or the kick. You block three, five, seven in a row, and there’s an opening. You wail on the buttons as fast as possible, delivering a flurry of blows, ending in a powerful one that often sweeps the enemy off his feet.

This goes on until you fall. Then someone comes to replace you.

Simon Parkin writes about this replacement in his review of Karateka:

But should one of the scores of guards get the better of you, your limp body will be thrown from the cliffs, never to return. This death is not the end of the quest; you may continue to fight from the place Mariko’s true love fell. But you now must do so as a new suitor – and a less desirable one at that.

Parkin makes a number of amazing points about the centrality of this core narrative feature of the game, suggesting that the replacement of the suitors provides a complex narrative structure for a fairly simple game. As the plot goes, you are attempting to rescue a damsel in a trope-ridden way (and this is a remake of a game that helped solidify that trope in videogames.) Your ability to perform at the game determines which suitor reaches the damsel Mariko. Therefore, for Mariko and for Parkin, the difference between the suitors is one that truly makes a difference — the True Love is the fulfillment of a classical tale (that tale being highly critiquable), the Monk a strange pairing, the Brute an awful moment of possession (also riddled with fatphobic and ableist imagery, the whole thing is awful).

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But there are also things that don’t change between the three characters. There is a fundamental microphysics that suggests that there’s a universalism to the way that fighting occurs in the Karateka universe. There is violence followed by rest, a call-and-response nature that constantly returns to a similar small structure. No matter who you are, fighting operates the same way; there’s a rhythm undergirding all of this visual and narrative difference.

There isn’t much to say about this other than pointing it out. Perhaps the strength of this way of creating the game (and therefore the pleasure it produces in me) is its pure simplicity. There’s a way of imagining this game being made today that gives you three characters with different stats, fighting styles, and ways of blocking. They might get progressively easier to use, but each one is controlled in start contrast to the others. Worse yet, you might have to unlock them, or level them up, intentionally failing early missions in order to use the “backup” players. Or there is “energy” to raise previous characters from the dead. There are a thousand ways to get it wrong, to lose the core gameplay in the name of procedural generation or engagement or the dreaded return on investment.

Karateka purposefully chooses to stick to its simple roots, and it is better for it. It flattens itself, and gives into its arcade-inflected heart, forgetting all forms of time except for its own. It measures itself in micromovements, in enemies defeated, in points systems.

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On Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – The Animus

This essay is in a longform series of posts about the Assassin’s Creed series. It is supported by my Patreon page.

1.
The Assassin’s Creed series up to Revelations all follow a pattern of nested interfaces: you are a player controlling Desmond Miles who is strapped into an animus machine that allows him to access and live the memories of family members far back in time. For the most part, this line of interfaces is clean and un-interrupted, a neat line between the playing human and the memory of ancestors.

Revelations breaks this pattern, introducing an immense amount of noise into the system. The story goes this way: at the end of Brotherhood, Desmond is left in a burnout coma after being possessed by an Apple of Eden, a technological artifact of immense power left over from the First People. The aftermath of this possession has left Desmond’s mind in a collapsing state, and all of the genetic memories that he can or could theoretically access are collapsing into him at once — he is becoming all of his ancestors simultaneously.

In order to counter this effect, the other Assassins plug him into the Animus. Due to some technobabble magic, the Animus parses out the identities and keeps them from collapsing into one another. Desmond lies in a coma but he is stable.

Trapped in the Animus, embroiled in a storm of memories and identities, Desmond lives. And it is there that the game begins, on “Animus island,” some sort of weird debug zone for the Animus itself. Subject 16, a previous Animus-user, is there too, ready to pal around and explain what’s happening to you.

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It is important to linger here, to think about the Animus. It is a full-body computer system that somehow reads and writes mental and physical data to translate Desmond’s real world thoughts and actions into a simulation of Renaissance Italy or the Holy Land in the High Middle Ages. Before this game, we’ve been given to understand that the Animus is a pure interface with seamless connection between user and content; we’re told that the Animus 2.0 is “better” to account for differences in AC and AC2, but that “better” is never quantified or explained.

Revelations‘ Animus Island, a weird asset dump and debug mode, structures the entirety of the game. It is the rendered-real of the interface, the acknowledgment that there is a procession of processes between Desmond’s body and the action that we see on the screen.

On one hand I can produce trite insight from this: mediation happens.

On the other, there’s something to be gained when a series like Assassin’s Creed, wholly concerned with interfaces, steps back from itself in order to point out the parallel aesthetic events that are constantly occurring within the series (refer to this graph by Brian Taylor for a small sampling of the layers in the series).

2.
The Animus is a machine that highlights the mediation process as process. It points out that the act of touching media is not a subject operating on an object. Instead, it is like standing between two mirrors — a frame and an illusion of self stretch into infinity, tightly nested within each other, the slightest movement in the originals echoes through each small replication.

What does the Animus do? It parses abstract data into concrete structure in which a body can move. It takes genetic memory, this ephemeral nonsense concept, and pieces it together into a cohesive geometry that Desmond interacts with. It is a worldmaking machine. It creates a coherent system in which Desmond (and therefore the player, but that’s another reflection in the mirror) can have full reign — it positions itself as encompassing, as having no limits other than self-imposed ones (“this section is not available at this time”).

Another way of saying “worldmaking machine” is “ideology.”

At first glance, Revelations is a wonderful moment of self-effacement, of ideology revealing itself as ideology. “Here is the system in front of you,” it seems to say. It shows the fractures: time periods are clipped together in a daisy chain of free association, making Animus Island a strange hub world that enables Desmond to access both his own past and the pasts of Ezio and Altair equally. The revelations alluded to in the title are not plot-oriented. Instead, they are about the Animus. Now you know how the genetic memory sausage is made.

Except that every time we get a little closer to understanding, we’re pulled further away.

We’re told that we’re on some sub-level of the Animus, but we’re not living Neo’s life, seeing the encoded structure of the world. Instead, we are on a neatly crafted island, a “physics test” area. We can run. We can jump. We can punch. We are in some version of a vertical slice, a perfect encapsulation of the limits of the world of Assassin’s Creed.

The creed: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. It depends on the conditions of the Real; it is a statement about the nature of reality.

Revelations shows us the heart of the worldmaking machine. A vertical slice of things are true. Mechanics are permitted. Memory and experience are bounded by budget and scope.

A finite set of things are true. Very little is permitted.

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On Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – City

This essay is in a longform series of posts about the Assassin’s Creed series. It is supported by my Patreon page.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a departure from the previous games in the series in that it takes place almost completely within the city of Rome. The very tail end of Assassin’s Creed 2 had protagonist Ezio Auditore invading the Vatican in order to kill chief antagonist Rodrigo Borgia (recently-named Alexander IV). For reasons that are at best murky, Ezio spares Borgia’s life, and so the plot of Brotherhood takes us back to Rome and the Vatican in order to destroy a recently-resurrected Borgia plot to take over Italy (and the world) with a magical/technological device known as the Apple of Eden. Honestly, the plot of Brotherhood is labyrinthine, so I suggest reading this page or watching this 30 minute video to get totally caught up for this piece.

Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed 2 have particular kinds of relationships to cities. Both have what we can consider a “home base” alongside a few different metropolitan areas where the assassin character does assassin stuffIn the first game, this is Masyaf, the enclave of the assassins; the second game has Monteriggioni, the ancestral home of the Auditore family and the critical center of assassin activity in Italy. These cities are central to the plots of these two games, but they are not central to their spaces. You spend a minimal amount of time in these enclaves, returning only to get new skills or increase your general income. Most of your playtime is spent bouncing back and forth between conspiracies and missions set in the prominent cities of the Holy Land and Italy respectively.

Brotherhood ditches the model of an assassin traveling between cities and instead takes place almost entirely within the walled confines of the grand (in sense of scale) city of Rome. This shifts the entire understanding of space in the game. Whereas in the previous games you had home (the assassin enclave) and out there (whatever city you happened to be in at the time), now you merely have arbitrary locations within the vastness of the city.

The fundamental core of the game shifts with this basic change in the understanding of the game world. Fights over individual cities in previous games were battles in a larger war, and the act of playing the game was mostly about playing in these cities as if they were battles. Each was a single instance that did not, by itself, determine the outcome of the entire conflict.

The focus on Rome means that we are denied the context of the war. Instead, we are drilling down into the microphysics of a single one of those battles; we are not just looking at the outcomes of specific events, but with supply lines, troop morale, and the leaking of information. These sorts of quests make up the bulk of what you do in Brotherhood. You manage this small world until a specific constellation of events aligns. Ezio acts. The game is over.

One thing not-so-apparent that gets managed during Ezio’s time in Rome is the community itself. I’ve written about the individual subject and how the Templars and the Assassins conceive of that subject before, but this is a question that forks out from that one: how does a community like the Assassins’, which prides itself on individual liberty, understand corruption? In other words, how can the Assassins speak of solidarity?

To state the question a third way: how can a heterogeneous city speak of itself?

I mean this both in the sense of architecture and the population that crowds around that architecture. The game takes place in “Rome,” but what is called Rome during this time period is a strange collection of farmland, urban areas, and villages spread out between the seven hills that mark the boundary of that place. It is all in various stages of decay and development, new overriding the collapsing old, and yet it is still united in its commanding place-name: Rome.

The groups of characters we meet in Rome have this same strange experience. They are united under a single banner–they are Assassin’s in the sense that building and ruins are Rome–and yet there is a constant anxiety over whether someone will turn on the others (which we actually see happen in a later game).

A crucial set of missions in Brotherhood are built around the possible betrayal of the Assassins by Nicolo Machiavelli, their chief political strategist. At a critical moment where half of the order has decided to kill Machiavelli, Ezio realizes that there is a totally separate spy in their midst, a mere “worker bee” in the group who happened to be in two places during two bad times. Ezio kills the traitor, the anxiety is alleviated, and the game continues on.

This exact same concept is mirrored in the gameplay of Brotherhood. Rome is split up into several pieces, and each of those pieces are in various states of decay. They are dominated by Borgia militias; their shops are closed. Ezio, with his blades and money, cuts out the infection, the rot, and reinvigorates these areas. Much like the case of the traitor in the group, he eliminates the anxiety by turning these unpredictable, unmappable, unfriendly areas into ideologically-aligned zones of commerce and safety.

If this sounds out of line with the previous games, it is because it is. AC1 and AC2 draw a clear distinction between the methods of the Templars (smoothing, making homogenous) and the Assassins (prickly, preserving difference). Brotherhood seems to actively ignore all of that, and places the idea of brutal repression at the core of the Assassin’s order, seemingly misinterpreting the Creed of “nothing is true, everything is permitted” to mean that the Assassin’s can do whatever they want to one another as long as they feel personally justified in doing so.

There isn’t an easy answer here, but it does land back at the centrality of the name of community, of city, of Assassins. It is an easy claim to say that the act of naming “as a whole” is the homogenizing violence. A more difficult but more rewarding claim might be this one: the moment that the writer decided to write “as a whole”/”on the whole” rather than in specific character events, scenarios, plots–this is the crucial moment that caused Brotherhood to betray its forebears.

 

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