So there I was, seven or eight layers deep in a dungeon, when I start losing hit points in all my party members every time I take a step. I’m not poisoned, that’s easy to tell… turns out I’ve been down there so long exploring that I’m starving. Oh shit! I check the map to see where the nearest town is, where I can buy food: Britain is due south. That’s good, I can also get free heals nearby at the castle. I take the time to mix some reagents into spells, at first because it’s faster to mix then cast X-it than to use the Y-up spells to get out of the dungeon, but then I load up on heal potions once I realize no matter how many spells I prepare it doesn’t count as more than one turn. I figure maybe, just maybe, I can keep death at bay with heal spells and end up saving money rebuying the reagents instead of spending thousands I don’t have on reviving my dead party members. It does not work. I’m running south for my life, stopping every now and again to cast heal spells hoping against hope, getting suckered into combat encounters that take 4 extra life-sucking turns just to flee while taking fire.
I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t keep my party members alive. Everyone but my main player character dies, and they’re getting pretty close too. But I make it to Britain! And that’s when I remember the Ye Olde Food Shoppe in Britain looks like this:
That’s me in the center of the image. Those dudes in blue are the problem. See, this ain’t Sokoban . There is no way for me to push them around or slip by them or say “excuse me sir, could you get out of the way, I’m dying.” No. I have to wait patiently for these drunkards, who move completely at random and often not at all, to arrange themselves into shapes I can navigate through. I only get around them and buy the food to stabilize myself with three turns until total party death.
I was laughing the entire time. Ultima 4  is a pretty good game.
That is high praise from me. Those of you who have been keeping up with the blog know that I’ve never been a fan of the video game RPG, how skeptical I was of Rogue  and how Wizardry  was, bar none, the worst experience I’ve ever had with a video game. Thankfully, Ultima 4 is, in design, much much closer to Rogue than Wizardry, and I think it actually executes on some of Rogue’s ideas better than Rogue itself. (Note: I do not think it likely that there was a conscious influence from Rogue, which was still really obscure.) I can tell that the thing that is supposed to happen in Rogue are events like I just outlined, brief but entertaining sagas of systemic collapse or surprising confluences that are called “emergent narratives.” That gun never really fired for me in Rogue though. Despite the thin corridors giving way to monster closets that should have given rise to rudimentary battle tactics, the randomized magic effects that should have uncorked chaos, the alphabetic variety of enemies with special abilities, it was just a little too thinly-implemented and things never really rammed up against each other in an interesting way for me. Ultima 4 weaves a thicker web, taking ornate pains to use literally every single alphanumeric key on the keyboard for some action, essentially as a flex. It has all these weird odds and ends, not truly too much to keep track of in your head, but certainly more than is really necessary, and they grind up against each other. It’s very much a maximalist video game, pushing resources as far as can be imagined, hewing to The Curse Of Spacewar . The lineage of the so-called “immersive sim”, and that genre’s claim to the status of an RPG even when they are plainly shooters, runs through here, to Ultima Underworld , to all the Shocks and such.
Another big difference with other video game RPGs, along similar lines of design philosophy, is how Ultima 4 handles combat. In Rogue and Wizardry, I found that staple crop of the video game implemented maddeningly monotonously, just the exact same thing over and over and over and over again. Combat in Ultima 4 gets stale eventually, but it has dozens of hours of shelf life. Why? Once again, because it has done something to enlarge the possibility space, and pretty cheaply in comparison to interweaving systems. When you battle enemies, you’re on a grid. You have to get your small war party in position such that they can attack along perpendicular lines. The enemies, with more varied angles of attack, have to also favorably maneuver out of starting position, and with the two groups in motion, it looks something like an animation demonstrating how blood cells work. But despite the similar-sized grid, it’s not exactly Chess [c. 600]. Victory is trivial, even moreso than Rogue or Wizardry. You blow through enemies like tissue paper because you can take so many more hits than them. I was never even at risk from dying in combat, only ever from status effects (like starvation) that I was not equipped to handle. It didn’t get monotonous as quickly, despite the assured outcome, because it was almost constantly presenting me with tiny decisions between many valid approaches that add up to something resembling battle tactics.
What’s interesting is I really don’t like playing combat on a grid map in tabletop RPGs, where Ultima 4 is getting this from. In my experience of tabletop play, they mainly serve to constrain and make things just that much more fiddly. You have to be at the correct distance and unobstructed in order to do certain things instead of just shrugging and saying “they’re somewhere in shooting range,” and you have to spend some of your do-things energy just arranging yourself so that next turn you can maybe do the cool thing you had in mind, if circumstances have not changed so much you can’t. You can’t ask the GM “is there a balcony or something around here,” because the environment was already fixed in place when it was drawn. Just about the only thing it helps with is making area-of-effect events immediately legible, and Ultima 4 doesn’t even have those. But in a video game, where each thing that you are allowed to do has to be specifically carved out, a grid does just the opposite thing: it increases the amount of meaningful options that you have geometrically.
“Dungeons And Dragons [1974-present] On The Computer” is the great white whale of video games. Over and over again, people try to make it happen, and it never fully succeeds at replicating its inspiration because it definitionally can never succeed. Roleplaying games rely so heavily on humans doing live improvisation with one another that the whole enterprise is too kaleidoscopic for one adaptation to capture more than a slice of the whole. The closest you can get is the cyborg Dungeon Master, a computerized client that facilitates tabletop play, like Roll20 [2012-present]… which is a success, but it’s not a video game, and it doesn’t replace the creative labor of the players with authored or procedurally-generated experiences. Nevertheless, video gaming’s failed attempts to capture Dungeons And Dragons have persistently been a site of generative friction in the form’s history. The limits of computing and the mechanisms of cross-medium adaptation means that each fresh digital D&D has a different perspective, different emphasis on different elements, and this leaves a sort of afterimage history of what different people thought was important and central in D&D throughout history, which has already generated entire and wildly-divergent genres in video gaming. Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] was heavily inspired by D&D, but doesn’t seek to replicate its mechanics, instead focusing on the dungeon’s tricks and turns. Rogue was explicitly a response to CCA, that it wasn’t close enough to how the Rogue devs saw D&D: as a combat-heavy loot-heavy meat grinder that might as well be automated instead of hand-crafted, where the dungeon was a fairly inert backdrop. Wizardry split the difference, leaning Rogue, with its meat grinder set in playfully hand-crafted dungeons. And though Wizardry was released last in this skimming chronology, it has the most august pedigree, since it’s trying to be a condensed refinement of the PLATO D&D game cycle that began in 1974 itself in the same freakin’ place that D&D itself was invented, so it demonstrates some glimpse of how D&D was originally received and played in its home territory — it’s not synthesizing the Rogue and CCA approaches, it’s demonstrating how they both came from interpretation of the same artwork.
Richard Garriott was younger than the college students and professional adults who made all those prior D&D games I just listed, and more physically distant from D&D’s ground zero than even CCA’s Kentucky, residing in Texas. He began working out his adaptation of D&D into rudimentary computerized form some time in the mid or late 70s while he was but a high schooler, and from then on was constantly refining it until Ultima 7 . Ultima  was released the same year as Wizardry, but it was yet another different beast. You can kinda think of it as the OD&D/AD&D split. It’s a approximation of an entirely different tabletop gaming culture than what we’ve seen before, the “trad” culture that’s ascendant in corporatizing D&D through the mid-80s. Unlike all those classic dungeon crawlers I rattled off, the games of the Ultima series all take place in… well, somewhere that tries to seem like a place instead of a semi-abstact maze. (Even Mammoth Cave, a real-life location, becomes nothing more than an abstract fantasy maze of logical dependencies!) In the Ultima games, there is worldbuilding lore that slowly evolves into continuity, there are characters that you can go talk to, there’s a story with events that happen during the game which unfolds about these characters, there are towns on continents with big empty spaces that you have to travel through, asserting a certain actuality to its gameworld.
Exciting stuff! To me — in the parlance of the post I just linked, I float around “story gamer” or maybe “neo-trad” — these are steps in a good direction across the board. The writing of Ultima 4 isn’t even very good by most standards. It definitely works, and the illusion of a world is compelling, but it’s pretty derivative and underdeveloped. The character classes are just The Fellowship from The Lord Of The Rings [1954-1955] with the names changed to protect the innocent. The verbose history manual included in the game box that takes hours to read is extremely charming, but the world that is built by it has an incredibly hazy, tossed-off political structure and no economy. No food exists outside of towns, certainly then no farmland, just endless rolling unsettled fields forests and foothills where there should be rural civilization. Each character that you can speak to has a very palpably limited amount of things they can say (as few as 2) and even forgiving that as a product of limitation, no character or dialogue is really of any particular interest, outside of the ghost town full of literal ghosts and ghouls and such that make puns about being dead.
Yet going around talking to characters, as tentatively and vaguely as those characters may be drawn, is something that really makes the game come alive. You never quite know what to expect out of any of them, so there’s this engine of intrigue that propels you forward in giddily and greedily opening up every individually-wrapped datum as fast as your flickering fingers will carry you. Talking to characters you meet in town is, actually, the structural backbone of the whole game. See, among the things we’re encountering here in Ultima 4 that are going on to be absolutely gigantic in later games is the “Quest structure.”
Quests here are in such a rudimentary form that you don’t even get, for instance, the classic “Kill 10 Rats For Me” kind of quest, though there are sidequests. None of these quests actually give you any in-character motivation for pursuing them whatsoever, you simply do them because they are there to be done and maybe imagine a reason for yourself if you need it. Instead, quests revolve entirely around the acquisition of information. The standard pattern of all quests is you talk to a person who tells you to go talk to another person on the other side of town or maybe on the other side of the world, who when you give them the right prompt tells you to go talk to someone else, who then… well, you get the idea. It just keeps going exactly like that until someone finally tells you about, like, where you can find Nightshade. This quest-based structure is what makes the Ultima series highly recognizable as behaviorally-modern open-world games, as opposed to something like Elite , which is mainly noise onto which the player projects their own prerogatives on (though Elite does have like… 4 quests for an entire universe.)
So, here’s the list of the things that you need to do to beat the game, from Ultima Codex’s walkthrough:
The only one of these that is even hinted at when you start the game is the very first bullet point — with any of the mechanisms by which you are to become the Avatar and what being an Avatar even really means beyond “being a very good person” going completely unstated. As best as I can tell, many of these vitally-important bullet points continue to be completely unstated up to the very end of the game, and most of these things (as stated before) are really not underlined in any way as important or mattering for any in-fiction reason. What’s not even included here is filling out a whole matrix of symbolic associations piecemeal, between a virtue, a town, a shrine, a character class, a color, a mantra, and which of the Three Principles each virtue derives from. This is a narrative delivered as a database, a story practically made to be turned into a wiki. You’re playing some kind of journalist, or maybe an archaeologist who somehow works in the present, piecing together your best guess at truth step by step out of fragments and hearsay, aided by nothing but your handy-dandy notebook. This focus on discovery as gameplay dovetails with the opacity of the complex systems I begun with talking about. Like 90% of the game here is figuring out the game, with the remaining 10% maybe taking longer in runtime but mostly just being filler for friction’s sake.
Ultima 4, like the other games that demand you to take notes, wants to be bigger than it really is. It wants to leap out of the computer and onto the page and into your mind and from there into your real life. Ultima 4 actually has a whole thing with scale going on: as befits our first foray into the open-world game, it’s so inordinately massive that it’s the first game I can say with confidence is well and truly TOO BIG. Wizardry might also be too big, but it’s hard to judge when it’s miserable in small or large doses. I find Ultima 4’s components highly agreeable, but I am done with it long before it’s done with me!
It also changes scale within the game. Like ET , your viewport into the gameworld will adjust depending on situation and location, zooming in and out for the purposes of emphasis. Combat gets into the nitty-gritty of seeing and moving every member of the party around moderately-sized boulders and trees, while on the world map entire cities that you may wander around inside are represented iconographically as single tiles. These different modes of seeing are glued together effortlessly by our minds in the same fashion as stitching together comic panels. The only one that sticks out is dungeon exploration, which is rendered not top-down but in first-person, like Wizardry.
These dungeons likewise consist of right angles and monsters and traps and secret walls. But each dungeon and each floor of that dungeon is much smaller and much less populated with enemies, to the point where I often didn’t even need a map to find my way through, despite the walls being completely featureless and identical everywhere and my being generally terrible at navigating. Instead of focusing on sprawling mazes, Ultima 4’s dungeons focus instead on hand-crafted memorability, little tricks and setpieces and overarching design. There’s the dungeon where you need to get down to the bottom floor and then go all the way back up. There’s the dungeon that’s incredibly frustrating because it’s overloaded with enemies that only cast “Sleep” without doing much or any damage otherwise. There’s the straight hallway that consists of the entrance, a secret wall, four magic winds that blow out your lightsource so you have to grope forward blindly, culminating in a poison field you’ll wander into unaware. Even in Ultima 4’s dedicated abstract maze portions, it tries to be particular and memorable and a journey of easy discovery.
But all of that design talk isn’t why I’m here talking about Ultima 4 instead of Ultima 1 or, say, Ultima 3 . After all, the game design is the product of iterative refinement and growing ambition, a process that by no means has coalesced here in Ultima 4, though it does seem to serve as an encapsulation of the original trilogy, especially since the graphical style is going to see massive overhauling in future entries that it doesn’t here. But Ultima 4 is nonetheless a standout entry, and the pivot point of the entire franchise. The reason why we’re here is that Ultima 4 aspires to being a work of moral philosophy.
There’s this game I tried out for the blog but was not sufficiently inspired by to lend a full post to, so here’s a mini-post inside a maxi-post:
Deja Vu 
Deja Vu  is an impressive technological demo for drag-and-drop windowed computing interfaces first and foremost. It’s interesting, then, that the adaptation of the Macventures line that it inaugurated was likely most widely-played and thus influential through its Famicom/NES ports (especially of Shadowgate ) that refit it with a more Portopia Serial Murder Case -styled interface. It speaks to not only the continuity between the “graphic adventure” and the “visual novel,” but also some underlying strength of fundamentals under the technological exercise.
It’s funny, too, because Deja Vu is much closer to Portopia and the then-popular-in-Japan detective games it begat to begin with. Yes, yet again, some step forward in adventure gaming is accompanied with a mystery narrative, in part because I like mystery adventures. This time the flavoring is an unambiguous film noir pastiche — I love noir — complete with the opening amnesia that’s a hallmark of both classic-period noir and (eventually) video game narratives. The Macintosh’s one-bit black-and-white display facilitates that high-contrast noir look and the game, more than any game I’ve yet played for the blog, is pretty.
A pity that otherwise, the game is profoundly ugly.
You play a trenchcoated private eye, but the riff isn’t on the more familiar world-weary likes of Philip Marlowe but Mickey Spillane, the pulpier-yet dimestore detective who solved problems with his fists and liked to intimidate innocent bystanders for information. He’s a cruel character, as is our ex-boxer protagonist Ace Harding, and the game sinks to this level. Mean-spirited jokes about women and the fat are a standard part of the narration’s approximation of witty noir patter, and violence (atypically for an adventure game) is often the solution to problems. This often means shooting out locks instead of hunting for keys, in a clear declaration of intent to be a white-knuckle action narrative. It’s actually less of a detective story than Ultima 4. The solution to the mystery is actually just that Ace already knew the solution to the mystery, and the player’s goal is actually essentially to go around collecting then destroying evidence that implicates Ace. In the early second portion of the game, you need to shoot an alligator, punch a mugger, and knock out a prostitute then loot her purse, likely fairly close to a police station. It hits differently than Death Race . It’s more unsettling, the game’s whole misanthropic (and misogynistic) vibe made me outright uncomfortable. Maybe because its words and deeds are less ridiculous, maybe because it’s got a greater graphical fidelity, maybe because the wider presented array of potential actions outside of violence made the choice to indulge in violence strum a stronger chord. It’s not aloof and amoral, it’s actively immoral, intentionally indulging in crime grime to get a gritty tone, while not really amounting to much in the way of plot and theme, unlike Portopia which has scuzz and brutality but ends up saying something about that.
Ultima 4 
Richard Garriott, so the legend of this self-mythologizer goes, read back some of his fanmail on earlier Ultimas before embarking on the inevitable fourth installment. He was horrified as he pieced together from the players’ testimonies that to do well in an Ultima game was to roleplay the classic tabletop archetype of the amoral “murderhobo,” killing and stealing your way through the world. (This is the same central observation about the RPG genre that Undertale  was still responding to 30 years later! I don’t know why more people do not make this connection and compare the two. I will do so when I get to 2015.) Garriott decided that the next Ultima would have no evil wizard to beat, and would instead be a morally-educational work with a spiritual bent. He poured himself into major works of world philosophy from Aristotle to the Buddha with all the zeal a 23-year-old can muster, and when he took his nose out of those books after a few months, he had it: the complete, systematized solution to all the thorny problems of human morality. Now the hard part: programming a video game to be its holy text.
Well, okay. You gotta admire the gumption, but obviously this not gonna hold up against nitpick.
As philosophy goes, Ultima 4 is all assertion, little argument. The eight virtues, the thing that everything really hinges on, mainly go unexamined. There’s a tidy little morality tale about a town that was literally destroyed by the Gods for their pride, and this is pretty much the closest you get to an actual explanation of why one should act virtuously. The Gods definitely exist, and Spirituality is like The Big Virtue that encompasses all other virtues (which is, mm, problematic to those who are godless like myself,) but they otherwise don’t really have a presence. Aristotle, a big name in the thing called Virtue Ethics, makes an appearance only to say that “Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in deserving them” — he gets associated with honor because that’s the word in that quote even though he’s probably talking more about humility and pride there. (Also he’s a paladin, which I’m frankly not even remotely sure what RPGs think is. And this is completely irrelevant, but Shakespeare also shows up and he’s a wizard instead of, y’know, the Bard, which is also one of the character classes. The Buddha gets to just be called a philosopher, because there is actually no need to give real dead celebrities RPG character classes in this game.)
The virtues are just taken on face value — whatever you already think it means to be, say, compassionate, or sufficiently humble, is just exactly what it means. The most you get by way of explication is something like “Justice is truth in action,” which more serves to show how it fits into the neat and tidy internal logic of the system (truth being one of the three principles.) It’s a very conventional morality, with dominating Christian overtones despite the incorporation of Eastern thought, that’s not really gonna challenge anyone with any preconceptions at all. At best, it’ll remind the player of what they already know deep down, that it is in fact good to be good, to be honest and just and compassionate and such. If it wasn’t so overcomplicated with its hierarchy, it would be mostly common-sense.
Of course, this is a game, not a book. Instead of telling you about virtue, it can show you, or better yet compel you to act virtuously within its virtual borders. So to the standard retinue of RPG stats like Dexterity or Intelligence, Ultima 4 adds 8 more “karma” stats that track how virtuous your behavior is, docking you for certain behaviors and giving you points for others. It was apparently an idea whats time had come, since Xanadu  implemented a similar but much less ornate system. One thing that is confusing about the whole process of becoming the Avatar is that it’s supposed to be about becoming the most virtuous person, but actually being the most virtuous possible person and being able to answer questions about virtue is not enough by itself — if you check that list of requirements, virtue is proven mainly by doing strikingly arbitrary fetch quests in octocate.
Ultima 4 doesn’t let you have immediate feedback on how you’re doing on the path to righteousness. Instead, there’s a mystic NPC you have to go visit with who converts your numeric score into a fuzzier verbal assessment, to obscure the mathematic nature of your karma credit score. However, well… while it is possible to obscure the specific mechanisms by which the math is done, it is entirely certain for a player who knows literally anything about computers that under the hood morality must be calculated. All things that happen on a computer are quantified somehow. The underlying foundational problems of a hastily-implemented utilitarianism being the guiding rails of morality entirely by default remain a source of philosophical discomfort, and if you do happen to look under the hood you can question say, if solving quests really should be worth more Honor Points than giving to the destitute.
More significantly though, if something is a statistic and that statistic is a target, then it can be juked and cheated. Ultima 4 is a game with a lot of systems, but the most central and important system of all of them is comprehensively broken. Grinding for money became a bore of a chore, so I stopped and took the easy way out: theft, exactly the thing the system is meant to dissuade. I would steal from Lord British’s treasure room, walk 16 steps over to the staircase, go back down, and raid the now-replenished treasure room all over again. When it was over and my karma was bottomed out and I had bought everything I would need for the rest of the game, all I had to do to make up for it was buy some cheap reagants and overpay when purchasing them one at a time, fifty times in a row, ultimately putting me out 100 coins — a bargain for eternal salvation AND earthly riches, you must agree. I never reached the endgame for this article because I started fleeing combat just because I didn’t need anything from it and it was getting real monotonous — only to find that this tanked my “valor” stat to 0 when it needs to be maxed out at 100 to enter the final dungeon, and that the only way to regain valor was to kill monsters for a random chance at getting 1 point, so I was staring down the barrel of anywhere from ~200 to ~400 new corpses since I don’t know what the probability is… and I just gave up in the face of building such a charnel house when I was already bored of killing.
“Hey wait a second,” the implied reader of this post says to themselves, “this game wants to be about morality, but it’s all-in on killing for killing’s sake as inherently moral?” Yeah, kinda! It has a similar impetus as Undertale but it’s very much not taking those instincts into the same pacifistic direction as Undertale. Ultima 4 (and Xanadu alike, actually!) make a fine distinction between “good” and “evil” assailants — you are to spare all non-evil creatures, and kill all evil creatures.
“Hey wait a second, what’s evil?” Glad you asked! The answer is: Ultima 4 doesn’t really know or care! Forget all the little nitpicks I just outlined, for my money this is the flaw in Ultima 4’s conception of morality: there’s just a big hole where evil should be. In its rush to consider virtue, there is even less accounting for where evil comes than there is for why good things are good. It just comes from The Abyss, a big rocky chasm that spews out both demons and pirates it seems, demons that carry no metaphor. Evil is definitely not, just from reading the manuals, predicated on evil behaviors, it’s just an inherent quality of the bad guys that makes them virtuous to slaughter. Crusader morality.
It bleeds over into the worldbuilding. That stark division between the towns and the entirely uninhabited wilderness areas actually pull double duty as the sharp border lines between all-basically-good human townspeople and the realm where all evil resides. It’s kind of a hyperintense mutation of fairy tales that make a big deal about the dangers of wandering through the woods. To make it all the braver to go on an adventure, the wilderness is essentially ruled by pure evil. The emphasis on discovery as the driving force of Ultima 4 actually gets tied to its moral qualities. Within the lore manual, something being unknown is shorthand for it being evil and dangerous, with the obverse being that study (figuring out that whole matrix of hierarchical associations) is what manufactures goodness. Evil is natural and surrounds us, and good is hard and civilized.
Which brings up the question: if the natural world is ruled by evil, in what capacity does Lord British rule Britannia? He seems to only rule the towns, not the entire continent. According to the big Ultima 4 history manual, he just… becomes the emperor, overriding all previous political structure, after a major continental shift. It’s just kinda tossed off, comically so — you’re meant to think of Lord British, for certain, as a gentle and benevolent ruler. Perhaps you are simply meant to surmise that he asked nicely for power, or that the geographic crisis threw human society into such disarray that there was a complete lack of opposition to his consolidation, that honestly seems more in-keeping with the overall tone than the more-realistic bloody civil war, but there’s no actual answers provided, there’s this acute reflex away from actually inspecting his stature and what it is based off of. Ultima 4 Ultima 5  in fact commendably takes as its starting point “what if this good empire was evil,” but that formulation actually comes out as “what if there was a Bad Emperor and we had to restore the Good Emperor,” a statement against corruption of a fundamentally-good system instead of against a system where bad emperors are inevitable. (Either because of statistical inevitability or structural features that make all emperors bad, depending on your disposition.) All of the subsequent Ultimas, actually, are going to take what Ultima 4 has established and poke at it, subvert it, question it. But the author here likes systems, in all the respects of the word system. Virtue itself has to be a rigid, bureaucratic hierarchy, you have to go around collecting forms of ID so you can authenticate a form that you have to fill out 8 separate times. Richard Garriott’s ideology can be easily diagnosed: he is a prime specimen of the material base of the Democratic Party, the well-intentioned “self-made” multi-millionaires who the Democratic Party likes to get funding from. He’s sweet-hearted, but he’s not really going to deeply reflect on things like power structures or greed being engines of injustice, otherwise he would have never become a multi-millionaire. The way I personally stooped to stealing because the consequences were negligible and getting the money honestly was a waste of my time has more to say about where bad behavior comes from than the actual game and its text. That would only be explicitly addressed as part of the evolving discourse on virtue within Ultima in, I believe, Ultima 8 .
Big thanks to Matilda “Dalm” Dow again, who read the lore manual with me and watched me play while throwing out her own ideas in conversation, and to Brendan “4xisblack” Vance, who knows a lot about Ultima and was also a good conversational partner whose ideas probably bled in all over the place here.
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