Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear – Single Player Campaign Review

Do you want to pay $20 for decent video game fan fiction? That’s the question potential players will have to ask themselves when purchasing Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. With some caveats, I think longtime Baldur’s Gate fans will feel satisfied with Beamdog’s latest outing… if perhaps barely.

The game is neither as lofty and “just” as its defenders claim, nor as poorly-written and buggy as its detractors will insist. Instead, it’s a lot of solid work on the back of an inherently flawed concept. Siege of Dragonspear serves as an interquel between Baldur’s Gate’s original Throne of Bhaal expansion and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Essentially, Beamdog attempts to knit together all the best elements of the two games and tell an original story at the same time. These dual masters create a diluted result, albeit with moments of greatness.

Some improvements to inventory management and navigation were nice to see, especially regarding quickly being able to tell which weapon or armor piece is better, or which characters can use a given item. The increased number of gameplay modes was also nice – experienced players will want to play on Core Rules mode, since normal is a bit too easy if you’re used to Baldur’s Gate.

Yes, Rasaad, Neera, Dorn and Baeloth from the Enhanced Editions are back, as are the base characters from the original Baldur’s Gate, though Imoen isn’t available to use in your party. I stuck with old favorites Minsc, Dynaheir and Jaheira, because as much as I like Rasaad as a character, he still has trouble staying on his feet in fights. Some day I’d love to see a Baldur’s Gate style game designed specifically for the monk character class, because I don’t think monks do well unless a campaign is designed specifically with them in mind. The other reason I stuck to a base roster is that there are some new characters to try out, and at least one is a winner.

My favorite new character is goblin shaman M’Khiin. Not only is she an interesting character from a concept and voicework perspective, but she’s handy in battle, capable of summoning shadow creatures and large numbers of healing and protection spells. Since Siege of Dragonspear doesn’t give characters much room to level up, I found M’Kliin to be a very necessary addition.

The other new characters didn’t thrill me as much. Gnome cleric/thief Glint Gardnersonson is cute. I liked him, but I didn’t find him useful. He’s got a cute side quest though, wrangling other members of his family.

Conversely, lesbian single mom archer Schael Corwin is SO CLOSE to being a great character, but she just misses this status due to some sloppy dialogue. It’s great that Beamdog attempted to include a conflicted, struggling, responsibility-driven single mom. But Corwin also comes across as hypocritical and jealous, wanting space to think one minute, chiding me because Rasaad the monk said something nice to me the next. Being emotionally distant while trying to control what a romantic partner does is a sign of an abusive relationship, and it creeped me out. I chose Corwin as my romance option because I was curious about the lesbian single mom angle, but there were too many shades of the batshit crazy lesbian stereotype for me.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the game hadn’t been marketed on something of a “we’ll give you your social justice and you’ll take it and you’ll like it” paradigm. Despite the staff protests despite giving Jaheira more development, she’s still very much a nag… and that’s okay, because that’s Jaheira.

This brings us to the oddly controversial trans character, Mizhena, who is an extremely minor part of the game, and altogether too big a deal was made of an extremely small part of a fairly large game. The scandal was a ridiculous shitstorm over nothing. But that being said, Mizhena’s writing is uneven to the point that she, too, seems unhinged. Though voiced as a soft-spoken and serene character, she suddenly becomes a trash-talking hardcore in accordance with the god Tempus when you actually need her to do something useful.

Meanwhile, the “female villain”, Caelar Argent, is two-dimensional and cliche. She’s no Irenicus. She’s no Sarevok. She’s another female character in video games that feints at being “strong”, but lacks depth, lacks personality, and even lacks any real evil. We never really get at what makes her tick, and once her story is told, the game takes the player on a very strange epilogue that I would have preferred was a fully-formed fifth act. THAT story interested me.

The most profound “social justice” moment in the whole game for me came about because Beamdog maintained the fact that the world of Faerun is deliberately regressive regarding race. Taking the goblin M’Khiin into your party gives you a 2 point penalty to reputation, and some NPCs will complain that she’s around. But M’Khiin is a stalwart and brave character, as well as an exceptionally free thinker. By showing, not telling, the game makes a fantastic statement against prejudice that isn’t forced down the player’s throat. That’s how you do social commentary in video games.

This strange “best of times, worst of times” mix repeats itself technically and artistically throughout the game. The game music is sometimes just far too loud, drowning out all of the voices. The voice work itself, however, is usually excellent, with the return of Jim Cummings as Minsc being especially stand out. Except for that one “ethics in heroic adventuring” line that made me very sad, Beamdog nailed the depiction of Minsc, which was no small feat. Boo even gets a unique moment to shine talking to a rat to find the source of a plague. Minsc is a definite highlight of Siege of Dragonspear, and there’s lots for Minsc fans to love.

On the other hand… and it breaks my heart to say this, but… shoehorning David Warner into events before Jon Irenicus is an official part of the Baldur’s Gate story doesn’t work. While it’s believable that Irenicus may have done surveillance on the Hero of Baldur’s Gate before capturing his or her adventuring party, the amount of direct interaction that his character, here called “The Hooded Man”, was retconning overkill. Warner’s voice is too delightfully distinct, and Irenicus is too physically unique, for the hero to not immediately recognize him after being captured in Baldur’s Gate II. Worse, we really learn no more about him, his past, or his inner thoughts, through his inclusion in Siege of Dragonspear. Less would have been more regarding “The Hooded Man”.

In another strange turn of events, Jaheira’s new lines are not given a voice actor. My understanding is that this is because Beamdog couldn’t get the original voice actress back, and they didn’t want the new voicework sounding too different, but Jaheira has entire conversations with other party members where only one side is speaking. Perhaps this would have been a good job for Biff the Understudy?

Regarding graphics, I found the game quite dark, and couldn’t for the life of me find a brightness control. I had to turn on the option that revealed transversable portions of the map to be able to see all of the different winding halls in some of the darker dungeons.

And finally, we get to the story itself, which is similarly uneven. There are enough very good side quests to make the game worth its twenty dollar purchase price, especially a brawl with a cult of wizards that seemed impossible until I figured out the strategy for victory. There are also great little class based moments, and I enjoyed being able to talk my way out of some situations in good halfling fashion.

However, the main quest itself is unsatisfying, and in places, it’s a downright hot mess. Some weaknesses in the journal details and some outright broken quests had me extremely frustrated in places. The high point is a series of battles where you get to head up a larger squad of fighters, as well as the fight to take the castle itself… well, at least that would have been great if it hadn’t crashed on me twice, making me redo twenty minutes of fighting each time.

But on the whole, Siege of Dragonspear displays moments of legitimate talent regarding its ability to tell a good Baldur’s Gate story far beyond what Beamdog has shown in the past. It suffers, however, from a lack of play testing, which would have caught many of the bugs and clunkier story moments. Furthermore, it needs to get better at treating characters like characters, instead of soap boxes. Overall, I’m left hopeful that with Bioware alumnus David Gaider joining the Beamdog team, the best of Baldur’s Gate may still lie before us, once Beamdog gets the confidence to start telling its own stories, instead of inserting chapters into pre-existing ones.

As for Dragonspear itself, I think it’s worth a whirl once it’s patched. It feels less fan-fictiony in the side missions, and it was pretty fun to play someone else’s extended D&D campaign.

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Some links to stuff referenced in today’s Gamer’s Guide to Feminism

The video is here!

The study on occupational feminization.

A New York Times article on the phenomenon of the pay gap that references the study if you want something that’s less dense.

And since the comments about Roman baking were well received, here’s an in-depth series of articles on the history of bread

Also, Voldo.

Voldo

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Additional Thoughts on #Baldursgategate

200px-Minsc

Forgive the hashtag joke.  I’m trying to lighten things with humour.

In the follow up to today’s Youtube video…

Someone linked me to a very salient point made by a trans person with the screen name Jinx, who was upset that every time a game dev puts a clunky “inclusionary” character in a game, real life trans people get caught in the middle of an uproar.

This is a very important thing for developers to consider.

Controversies like this, the Tracer butt thing, the various “tropes” debates… they’re not just about video game characters.  They’re about the real people looking for representation from these characters.

No one wants to be treated like a prized pony.  No one wants to be singled out as different.  What has made Bioware’s best work great is that they seamlessly integrate the “diversity” element of their games into their game worlds.  Instead of speeches, they create magical places where things are possible that can open our minds.

We don’t need lectures on non-binary gender in Mass Effect because we have the Asari, an alien race with only one gender.  In Dragon Age: Origin, there was a brilliant bit of dialogue where Sten determines a female Warden must be male, because she doesn’t fulfill the social role of a woman.  These are subtle fantasy elements that much more effectively present the idea of gender as social construct as opposed to biology.

Meanwhile, over in Deep Silver’s Saint’s Row games, you can give your character a “male” body, but give them a female voice and have them wear dresses. The character customization doesn’t lock you into a gender binary.  The game allows a gender nonconforming person to express themselves in game if they choose.  Other people may have a male character running around in a dress just for fun.

This is the power of video games.  They allow people to try on new concepts at their own pace.  When a game company shoves a concept down a player’s throat through dialogue, it becomes less persuasive.  The player becomes conscious of the “lesson”, and becomes less open to it.

I don’t personally have an issue with the “speech by a trans character” in Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate expansion Siege of Dragonspear because cheesy “let me tell you who I am” speeches are part of that isometric RPG tradition.  I can, however, see why some trans people are upset by the uproar around it: for the rest of us, it’s a game.  For a trans person, this is their life.  Every person wants the right to define their own experiences, and not be told that they’re somehow “maning” or “womaning” wrong.  It’s hard for me to stay calm when someone tells me that I’m “slutty” or that I’m not “naturally” good at tech or video games because I’m a woman.  I reject both these assertions.  I am an individual.

For trans people, this definition of identity becomes much higher stakes.  Even a transwoman using a public restroom is considered to be a violation of “real women” by TERFs (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists).  Could you imagine being told you were doing something wrong just because you wanted to pee and perhaps retouch your lipstick?  Then of course, there’s the extremely high likelihood that a trans person will be assaulted or sexually abused during their life.  Trans people live with an awareness of those realities.

But at the end of the day, a trans person is like any person in that they’re an individual, and they deserve stories of transgender characters who are treated like individuals.  Many of the people upset about the character in Siege of Dragonspear don’t have the slightest objection to the inclusion of transgender characters. They’re objecting to the way this one was handled.  Whether you agree or disagree with their analysis, artistic critiques are totally within the realm of fair criticism, and these critics shouldn’t be demonized for their opinions.

Are there some legitimate transphobes hiding in those ranks?  Of course.  But to label any dissent on this issue as automatic transphobia is a knee-jerk response.  It’s precisely this sort of instantaneous, thoughtless reaction that’s at the core of all bigotry.  To adopt a progressive stance is to stand for progress.  It’s not about retreating into a bunker mentality because of some yelling and scary words.

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Midnight Special Spoiler Free Review

Midnight Special

You probably haven’t heard of Midnight Special.  And that’s okay.  If you’re a fan of comic books or 1980s science fiction films, you will.  I first became aware of it because of a random TV commercial that ran during NCIS.  Yes, I liked this movie so much, I just admitted to watching NCIS.

Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon as Roy Tomlin, a simple Southern father with a very exceptional kid.  The kid is so exceptional that Shannon’s character has to kidnap him away from a religious cult, to get him to a specific destination for reasons unknown at the start of the story.  I say “story” with purpose.  Midnight Special is not a film you see for the visual effects or the water cooler cred.  It’s a film you see to go on a journey.  It makes you believe.

Belief is the central theme of Midnight Special.  It is, essentially, a film about the agnostic condition for belief: if physical evidence of a higher power is presented, an agnostic will believe.  Now some would claim that this is, in fact, not belief at all.  Belief is what occurs in the absence of facts.  Midnight Special defies this simple binary.  The characters are all given an element of proof that something beyond the mundane is happening, but they all contextualize it differently.  They are presented with proof of things beyond their ken, but what that means is up to both the characters and the audience to decipher.

Accordingly, Midnight Special doesn’t hold the audience’s hand.  It presents its narrative in simple, stark, bare bones terms, and expects that the audience will pick up little things here and there without having the dots deliberately connected.  Therefore, the interpretation of the events of the film will be different for everyone.  My personal takeaway was a combination of ancient astronaut theory, quantum entanglement, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial.   Your interpretation will be different, because it’s all about what you believe happened, not an objective canon.

After the churn of “be all things to all people” superhero films, Midnight Special is a glorious breath of fresh air. All the performances are excellent, with an eerily profound performance by eleven year-old Jaeden Lieberher being a standout.  Joel Edgerton also turns in a meaningful everyman performance as Lucas, the closest thing the film has to a skeptic.  But it’s Michael Shannon who carries the film, as a tired, overwhelmed, terrified father on the edge who can’t show the son he loves more than anything any of those emotions.  He steps into the shoes of a father whose child is beyond his understanding, but who is still a child, reading comic books by flashlight under a bedsheet.  He’s the parent ever nerd wishes they had.

Fatherly love is often shown as a miserable, distant task, but many of Midnight Special‘s pivotal moments take place with father and son locked in tight embraces.  It’s a metaphor for parenting in the digital age, when you have to let your child find their own way in a world beyond your experience, and hope love is enough.  Possibly the most masterful moment in a film full of wonders is the ending, which is satisfying without being syrupy.  Again, however, the message of that ending is found in what the audience infers in the wordless expressions and gestures the actors exchange.  Those silences are where Midnight Special finds the transcendence that only the most lovingly crafted films manage.

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US Presidential Candidates v Nintendo characters: A Side By Side Comparison

Every election cycle, much of the public goes into a defensive posture like a Koopa retreating into its shell. Why? Because chances are some politician is going to come along any minute and jump on us with robocalls, attack ads, and door knocking! But what would these politicians look like in Nintendoland? As it turns out, some of them already have counterparts!  Here are the mainstream candidates, and their similarities to Nintendo’s cast of equally colorful characters.  

See? Video games make everything better!

trump bowser

Donald Trump – Bowser

Bowser, like Trump, is defined by his quest for power, hostile takeovers, and repetitive dialogue! But a more direct similarity is that The Donald and the koopa king have the same hair! Okay, sure, we could say this about Legend of Zelda villain Ganondorf as well, but Bowser and Trump also share a pattern of drama involving blonde women. Advantage: Bowser.  

Both Trump and Bowser possess fiery tempers, spikey attacks, and oddly stubby fingers for their respective sizes.  And the Trump campaign has a lot in common with Bowser’s driving style in Mario Kart: high top speed and a lot of weight to throw around, but he’s going so fast that he keeps driving over banana peels and spinning out of control!

hil samus

Hillary Clinton – Samus Aran

One wears pantsuits, another wears armor.  Both fight as well as the guys.  In fact, I’m pretty sure Hillary’s at the point where some people don’t notice she’s female, just like Samus in the original Metroid!  Both these ladies have long histories in the public eye, and some of that history has been connected to controversy — Hillary has Benghazi, Samus has a bikini!  As Secretary of State, Hillary spent most of her time fighting threats the Chozo… I mean the US government… unintentionally created.

The other thing these two ladies have in common is that some people are more hung up on their clothes and shoes than their achievements. Neither Samus or Hillary can be all things to all people, and they’ve had some missteps along the way – Hillary’s email debacle was her Metroid Other M.  But at the end of the day, they both tend to be the most competent, if not the most popular, option available when you need some heavy artillery.

bernie kirby

Bernie Sanders – Kirby

Bernie Sanders’ greatest strength, like Kirby, is that he keeps taking everything in and grower stronger for it. He’s a plane! He’s a tank! He’s a submarine! And he’s strangely cuddly!  Sadly for Kirby and Bernie, they don’t have the deep corporate pockets of their brand-mates.  Clinton and Mario are both better funded and get more media attention.  But Bernie and Kirby have a “hipster” status that is part of why their fans love them! Bernie and Kirby fight for the little guy, and they aren’t too proud to admit they’re stronger with the help of others.  Maybe we should call Bernie supporters “Waddle Bees”?  

Bernie will fight off the grabby invisible hand of Capitalism like the weird floaty hand in Kirby and the Rainbow Curse! And that’s the problem: some people won’t see Sanders or Kirby as anything but a pinko.

cruz dedede

Ted Cruz — King Dedede

Some voters love Cruz when he drops the hammer!  Others think his ideas make him the King of Dreamland.  Both leaders’ zaniest edicts are mostly ignored by the general population.  Both of these guys aren’t really taken as a serious threat until you have to fight them one on one.  Then you get annoyed by the button mashing.  

Although neither Cruz or King Dedede is terribly popular, and both are accused of being greedy, you can’t take away from them that they’ve managed to reach great heights harnessing the power of inhaled air.

kasich bobomb

John Kasich — Bob-omb

Most people perceive John Kasich as a generic also ran, and there are rumors that if you get to close to him, you risk being in a blast radius.  But Kasich, like Bob-omb, actually creates a path forward if you direct him properly, especially when it comes to clearing obstacles.  

Unfortunately, Mario handling Bob-omb runs the risk of his temporary ally blowing up in his face, which is probably what Kasich voters outside of Ohio struggle with too: sure, you can use him to break down that next wall, but that might bring you face to face with Donald Trump… I mean Bowser!

Edit: Someone on twitter asked me who the Libertarian and Green Party candidates matched.  I said the Donkey Kong family, because they’re the monkey on the back of the political press!

(Note: This comedy article was considered too controversial for corporate gaming media.  If you want more content like this, please consider contributing to my Patreon)

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Five Ways Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Would Be a Better Movie If It Were More Like A Game

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice appears to be a financial success and a critical disaster. Fans are divided, the critics hated it, but it made a ton of money anyway. This begs the question: how much better would it have done had it been less flawed?

A video game would never have been allowed to have been as sloppy as the Batman v Superman film. Games get a bad rep, but they pose greater design challenges than films. If Zack Snyder had thought more like a game developer, Batman v Superman wouldn’t have been the confused, bloated, humorless wreck that has become Hollywood’s biggest nerd tax. Here are five things game design could have taught the kind of, sort of, kick off to the Justice League.

(Some spoilers ahead)

1 – If you design an asset or a mechanic, use it more than once, and be consistent.

So many expensive toys were designed for Batman v Superman that only got used for a single scene. This ultimately feels unsatisfying, since the film careens wildly between ideas without ever settling on one. The human brain doesn’t like useless information, and a lot of stuff happens in Batman v Superman that never gets applied again later. We know from game design principles that if something doesn’t feel meaningful, it’s going to frustrate the people paying to be entertained by it.

A video game can’t get away with the ever-changing rules regarding kryptonite that have plagued modern Superman films. Superman Returns was mocked for having Brandon Routh’s Superman lift an entire island of kryptonite, but Batman v Superman similarly plays fast and loose with kryptonite’s effects. In one scene, even the dust makes Supes instantly weak and in pain. He can’t fish the kryptonite-tipped spear out of fifteen feet of water without being overcome. But only moments later, he’s flying through the air with the damned thing, stabbing Doomsday for all he’s worth. He even gives it an extra shove after he’s mortally wounded.

In any game setting, that would be considered power gaming, and that’s bad form.

It was also a missed opportunity to show Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as that DC Trinity. Doomsday being slain by a weapon made by Batman, designed for Superman, and wielded by Wonder Woman would have woven the characters together doing what they do best: fighting. Even the spear’s design seems most naturally connected to the Amazon. Why the hell did Batman make a spear? It’s an unwieldy, low-tech weapon when kryptonite shards fired from some distance would make greater tactical sense — which is exactly how it was handled in the comics.

In a video game, the film’s approach would be considered bad gameplay design all around.

2 – Limit the moments where the action doesn’t dominate

In a video game, this focuses on cut scenes, but in Batman v Superman, it’s about the sheer number of moments in the film that have nothing to do with Batman fighting Superman. We don’t care about congressional hearings in a movie that promises one superhero punching another superhero in the face. We definitely don’t want to see lectures on fascism when we’ve paid to see two superpowered meatheads spar. Character motivations are important, but there are ways of including them that are incorporated into someone making something explode. Action genre products are called Action for a reason.

Batman and Superman glower at each other plenty for the first half of the film, but their first opportunity to go toe to toe on the docks ends up as nothing more than the two heroes growling bad dialogue as they stand so still they look like their game glitched.

3 – Effective tutorials are essential

A film’s first scenes are essentially their tutorial levels. They should give the viewer some key information that’s going to come in handy later. Batman v Superman sacrifices its early moments to force film audiences to watch Batman’s parents die AGAIN.  There are other things a non-comics-reading audience should have gotten much more exposure to before they had to apply it to the action, like what Wonder Woman’s bracelets and lasso do, and that Wonder Woman’s abilities essentially come from magic so Kryptonians are vulnerable to them. My brother-in-law is originally not from North America, and he had no idea that Wonder Woman had a magic lasso, so the best fight in the whole movie left him kinda confused. My sister, on the other hand, had not seen Man of Steel, so she didn’t understand why Kevin Costner suddenly appeared in a scene with Superman.

And the Flash warning to Batman is a totally random WTF moment without knowledge of Flashpoint, a Flash story arc that’s already being retold with much more skill on the Flash TV show.

Similarly, the film introduces Doomsday, a critical Superman villain, with very little explanation.  This minimizes the threat Doomsday posed. Doomsday’s original origin is a complicated one, and the whole point of the character was to create something that could offer Superman raw physical challenge. Superman fans knew why Doomsday’s arrival on screen was inherently ominous – he’s the character that killed Superman in the comics — but no one else knew why it was important, so the outcome of that fight confused most of the theatre I was in, which brings me to my next point.

4 – Main character deaths should matter.

Fail states are important parts of a video game. They have their origins in the arcade era, when exhausting your lives meant you had to put more money in the machine. Now that game consoles are the dominant way people play games, savvy game designers have gotten creative regarding how to handle playable character deaths.  Death and permadeath, for instance, are different things in gaming.

The death of Superman near the end of the film was so disingenuous, and the prolonged twin funeral scenes so drawn out, that it felt like an over-long load screen. My gamer brain was imagining a respawn timer counting down to when the audience could collectively get back in the game. Then I heard the woman sitting next to me say “He’s not dead”.

Of course he’s not dead! So why pretend that he is?! Stop making copies of The Empire Strikes Back, film directors! The equivalent of Han Solo doesn’t have to end a second film in carbonite.

5 – You can only make one game at a time.

We know what happens when an action adventure game suddenly drops in Real Time Strategy elements: bloated disasters like Brütal Legend. Batman v Superman meets a similar fate for identical structural reasons: it tries to be too many things at once. Elements from the comics pulled from The Dark Knight Returns, The Death of Superman, A Death in the Family and The New 52, as well as some moments cribbed from the Injustice video game, are all mashed together in one film, even though any one of those arcs has enough content for a solid movie on its own. The resulting script was morbidly obese.

But the overkill goes deeper than that. I never thought I’d see Arkham City Batman and Lego Batman on the same screen, but Batman’s power armor look is so evocative of the kid-friendly Lego brand that I giggled despite myself through that thoroughly boring fight.

The problem with that suit design is that upon seeing the film I promptly warned my friends with kids that the suit is a lie: it’s not a kid-appropriate movie. It’s too bleak, too cynical, too angry, and too slow. Making a film kids will enjoy isn’t just about bloodless battles. It’s about telling a story a kid can understand.

Any film involving Superman should be kid friendly: a failure to understand that is a failure to understand the appeal of Superman.  As bleak as the latter Harry Potter films were, even they understood that you can’t off the hero.

The full title of the film: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, indicates the split personality that drives the film into narrative psychosis. On one hand, it’s supposed to be a long-awaited big screen clash between DC’s two most popular characters. But it’s also expected to serve as a backdoor pilot for the Justice League. The result is a crappy Lex Luthor who would have made a great Riddler and a series of Diana Prince/Bruce Wayne scenes that are interchangeable with the dynamic of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The movie never finds its feet… because it’s a centipede.

Games have to manage their budgets more wisely, and playtesting would have caught these mistakes.

So perhaps we should stop sneering at movies that remind us of video games, and realize that video games have many things to teach action films.

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