Dark Souls: What Makes Gamers Endure the Pain?

The gamer finds themself decked out in cool armor with a weapon in hand, standing in front of their third fog gate. They’ve just spent the past six hours battling their way through a huge city of the undead. Their expectations are high; the first fog gate hid an insanely hard tutorial boss fight, the second merely connected to a new area. The player takes a swig from their Estus flask and prepares for whatever ridiculous monster the game expects them to fight next. If they were lucky enough to find it, they may even place some Gold Pine Resin over their weapon for an added edge.

It Looks So Peaceful. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
It looks so peaceful. What could possibly go wrong?

The player pushes their way through the bright white fog, and finds themself standing on a massive castle wall. Across from the player is another tower but no boss. They cautiously push forward, which rewards them with a shot in the back with an arrow. They look behind them and notice two undead archers perched atop the tower they have just stepped out from. The player finds and climbs the not-so-well-hidden ladder, and kills the archers without much effort. The boss must be coming now; this fight has to be awesome. Silence. Something is definitely off, but part of the player is really enjoying how relaxing things are. They head back down the ladder, and almost make their way across the bridge—and then it hits. The music kicks in and a massive Minotaur crashes down on the bridge. He roars, the player rolls, he swings, the player dies.

Welcome to Dark Souls.

The dreaded Taurus Demon from Dark Souls
The dreaded Taurus Demon from Dark Souls.

Analyzing the Franchise

Whether it’s rage quitting in the Tomb of Giants, Drangleic Castle, or fulfilling masochistic tendencies in Yarnhem, it seems rare to find more-than-casual gamers who haven’t played, or at least watched videos of, a game from the Souls series. Drawing from many inspirations spanning many decades, From Software introduced the Souls series to the gaming world in 2009 in the form of the game Demon Souls. Demon Souls, a Playstation 3 exclusive, quickly became infamous for being one of the most difficult games to date. Demon Souls’ developer From Software’s legacy spanned many console generations, with games like Tenchu and Armored Core, but arguably From Soft hit its stride in creating the Souls series. Since creating Demon Souls, From Soft has published 3 games: Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne. All four of these games follow the same formula: make the learning curve high and the environments and enemies look gorgeously disgusting.

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This is about the fate you can expect playing any Souls game for more than five minutes.

Demon Souls and Dark Souls did an amazing job combining some of the greatest aspects of retro and modern games. The eerie and challenging nature of retro games placed into the open and non-linear world made popular by modern games. The Souls series’ story is the devil in the details, and the details are deadly. Very little of the true narrative of the Souls series is simply handed over to the players. That’s exactly what From Soft wants: to bring to life an undead world, and just like real life the world is not explained to the players when they enter it, but only through serious observation and analysis can some sense of the great big world be made.

As great as these qualities are, however, they are certainly found in a multitude of other games. Arguably one of the most well-known games of the past decade, Skyrim, presents a large open world where the lore of the world is found in the side quests and tomes scattered and hidden through the world. Games like Shovel Knight and Mighty No. 9 are challenging re-imaginings of classic NES-era games. In fact, that is one of the greatest things about modern gaming; the people who grew up playing games, and falling in love with games, are now old enough to spend ridiculous amounts of money on them and, more importantly, create them. That is why gaming has seen such a focus on merging the old and the new; bringing old video game tropes to new gamers with modern technology. The Souls series does this spectacularly, and in a new way, but it is not alone.

The Souls Series is not Unique in its Challenging Take on Old Video Game Themes
The Souls series is not unique in its challenging take on old video game themes.

So what exactly makes the series so popular? What keeps gamers constantly crawling back for another beating? Sure, the graphics are beautiful and the game play is fun, but neither are largely unique, and can be found in dozens, if not hundreds, of other games. So what exactly makes the Souls series so addicting and original?

Building the Community

Souls is a series that generates community in a way gaming hasn’t truly seen since before the age of social media. With every “+” players places after “new game,” they earn a new level of respect from the community. With every monster beaten, the players now have a brand new war story to share with the gaming community. The series is not the most challenging or most difficult in the world of gaming, but From Soft may have found the perfect balance between challenge and entertainment value. With a high learning curve, and enemies returning every time players die or rest, every victory feels transcendent. After dying in the same spot for the twentieth time, finally finding the perfect combination of rolls, strikes, and parries make players feel like gods and gets them excited to push forward again. Learning to beat the game is like mastering DragonForce on expert—slowly learning the right formula to get to the end, leaving players feeling proud and powerful.

dark-souls-2-invader-vs-cooperator
The community isn’t limited to existing outside the game. Sometimes they can invade yours and just kill you.

But, here is the most beautiful thing: the right way to beat the game is different for every. Single. Player. This is when the community is at its best; having a healthy argument about the best strategies for the Gaping Dragon, or whether it’s okay to cheese the Dragonrider into throwing himself off the side of the arena. Video games offer unique experiences to every player but, in this writer’s humble opinion, the Souls series has mastered this formula in a way that makes each entry the perfect combination of frustration and elation. This feeling is what most games strive for, but only some have obtained. Community and an affinity for the heart of gaming are what truly make the Souls series rise to the top.

Mastering the Formula

So how exactly did From Soft master this formula? How did they create an environment where players love to be tortured, and, more importantly, tell others all about it? Surely these discussions are found in other games, right? After all, the Souls series is not the only game being talked about out there. Shovel Knight nearly brought gaming journalist to their knees with elation with its mastery of the classic-gaming formula. In fact, it brings to the table a lot of what the Souls series does: diverse worlds, challenging and unique bosses, and an utter sense of transcendent joy that comes from beating them. Yet, as praised as it was, Shovel Knight still doesn’t come as close to the level of community discourse that any of the Souls games have brought. Hour-long discussions are still held over Demon Souls—a game that is now six-years old. While it has yet to be seen whether Shovel Knight can do the same, the Souls series is the champion to beat.

This image has the unique ability to leave gamers crying in a corner for hours.
This image  has the unique ability to leave gamers crying in a corner for hours.

It would seem, then, that it is nothing the gamers do that makes the Souls series the powerhouse of a franchise that it is today. Instead, From Soft has tapped into the secret of game-making that completely revolutionizes the way gamers play and talk about games. That magical thing that From Soft has mastered is the moment all artists strive for.

Killing the Buddha

For those unfamiliar with term attributed to Zen Master Linji, it basically means that on one’s path to enlightenment/ perfection they will come across what they consider to be the ideal version of perfection (the Buddha), and what every person must do is metaphorically “kill the Buddha.” One must strip away all notions of what perfection is before they can ever hope to reach true perfection. This is exactly what From Soft has done. The gaming community as a whole has often deliberated what the perfect game would be, and what qualities make a game the pinnacle of gaming excellence. What From Soft has done is taken these ideals and turned them on their head. Instead of a game that is easily accessible, they make games with ridiculously high learning curves. Instead of creating games that max out the processing power of modern hardware, they focus on creating unforgettable enemies and locations. From Soft has killed gamers’ Buddha, and put in its place the series gamers never knew they needed.

From Soft has not Added the Buddha as a Boss in Any of its Games...Yet
From Soft has not added the Buddha as a boss in any of its games…yet.

This moment is what separates the hobbyists from the artists. Arguing that video games are art is no easy task, but From Soft has certainly given the more academically-inclined gamers a good platform to do it from. What From Soft has given gamers is the same thing that Van Gogh gave painters, and what Nietzsche gave philosophers: artistic credibility, the thing that makes an art form truly stand out, the thing that lets those outside of the community know that they need to start re-considering what they include in their definition of art. The type of community that the Souls series has inspired is exactly like the communities that have been created by the art of great painters and great authors. The kind of art that stimulates years, and decades, worth of discussion and contemplation. While the Souls series is still in its infancy, it shows no signs of going away, and gaming has already shown how long discussions of great games can last. Since From Soft has truly killed the gaming Buddha, it is safe to say that discussions about it will last for a very long time, especially since From Soft will certainly be adding to the series for years to come.

Bloodborne the Newcomer

So, with the newest iteration of From Soft’s franchise do these principles still ring true? Absolutely. Selling over 1 million copies since its launch in late-March, it is hard to find a gaming-themed forum or group that is not still talking about Bloodborne. Players begging each other for tips on defeating Rom, or day-long discussions on what exactly happened in the story. While not technically a Souls game, it would be hard to argue that Bloodborne doesn’t fit in perfectly with games like Demon Souls and Dark Souls. That perfect combination of challenge and enjoyment, and certainly the community surrounding it, make Bloodborne an undisputed successor in the successful Souls series.

From Software's Newest Game: Bloodborne (PS4)
From Software’s newest game: Bloodborne (PS4).

From Soft has already stated that there will be downloadable content for Bloodborne, which will ensure that players will be returning to its punishing Gothic world for months to come. From Soft seems to have found their niche, and shows no signs of slowing down. Gamers have yet to show any signs of tiring of these games, and From Soft has yet to disappoint its ever-growing fan-base with an unfinished or broken game. The Souls series has certainly dominated the minds of players for six years (nearly an eternity for gamers), and has only begun to truly hit its stride.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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62 Comments

  1. I tried Demon Souls a couple years ago and died very quickly. Now I think I’ll be able to tackle it.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I was the same way. I died so many times very early on, but after about a year I finally got a handle on the gameplay. Good luck!

    • I had the same issue several years ago when I first got Demon Souls. I ended up playing Dark Souls 1 and 2 though and grew to love the games. I recently went back and played Demon Souls and was able to beat it as well this last weekend; excellent game.

  2. From Software was pretty mediocre until the Souls games.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I have to agree. As much as I love Tenchu and Armored Core, neither are particularly outstanding. They definitely came into their own.

    • richard
      0

      I disagree. The Otogi games were amazing for example. I think they just didn’t get the exposure that other games got. Lots of casual gamers have never heard of Platinum games which is sad considering how great Vanquish and of Bayonetta are. I think a big part of it comes down to the type of game being made. Good to see gamers embracing the Souls type games.

    • Lost Kingdoms had it’s own sort of magic that can’t be discredited. Although you’re right; they certainly weren’t leaders of any packs, but I think “mediocre” might be a little strong.

  3. So I’m not really a big RPG player, in fact its probably my most neglected genre as i’m an avid gamer. I’ve played a couple final fantasies, the mass effect series, and parts of other games, but i’ve never been the type to play a baldur’s gate or demon soul’s. I think Bloodbourne’s art, environment, and combat look awesome, but I really don’t know if this game will be for me. The combat looks cool but I wonder if it’ll be too stiff more my tastes.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I’m completely the opposite, but I’m glad to hear you’ve played Mass Effect!
      Bloodborne is certainly a great game with a great art style, but if you’re just entering the series I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point. I would say that Dark Souls II is probably the best for new players to the franchise, it has great variety and still looks beautiful, and has a great story. Oh, and not the “scholar of the first sin” edition, that one is insane, even for someone used to the series.

      • I’d argue that Bloodborne is a great game, regardless of whether you’re a fan of the Souls games or not. Bloodborne was my first foray into one of From Software’s sadistic little creations, and I had no trouble spending the time to master it. It’s probably a bit tougher unlearning the tricks from the previous Souls games with their shields and slightly clunkier movement animations, and going to a Souls game after Bloodborne is likely similarly disconcerting, but I see no real reason to dissuade someone from starting out with Bloodborne.

    • AAAsher
      0

      This game plays more aggressive than souls. You still need a calculated offense mind you but it feels faster and more offense focused. I don’t know if that helps but I can say from first hand experience it handles like a dream. I’m also a souls fan so if you haven’t played those it will be an adjustment from, say, god of war

  4. Kristian Wilson

    The Souls series’s learning curve reminds me of F-Zero, but I still love the games. I hate that Bloodborne is Sony-exclusive.

  5. Souls series is pretty much the HD upgrade/3rd person revamp of their old King’s Field series in terms of difficulty and concepts. In my opinion, Souls series’ success is significant for From’s persistence with the core concepts and finally making it attractive.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I definitely agree. I thought about bringing up King’s Field in the article, but I’d probably end up rambling about it instead of Souls.

  6. i really like DS 2…maybe its because it was my first Souls game…

  7. Really enjoying From company’s work, and am all in for Bloodborne.

  8. Yong Lyon
    0

    I finally went back to Dark Souls after the windows live nonsense got fixed.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I’m glad you went back. PC has always seemed to give From a bit of trouble, but hopefully they’ll only get better at working in that space.

  9. HANCOCK
    0

    Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls are Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back. Bloodborne is the Return of the Jedi.

  10. Vue Media
    0

    Good article. They lost a bit of touch with DSII’s map design -even more when compared to the genius that was DS’s world- but still, it’s an absolutely amazing game and along with Armored Core and Otogi, a testament to how amazing this company can be. The Souls series still remains as one of the best gaming experiences I had in years. I’m yet to find a modern game that is able to convey the same level of lore, world design, gameplay and atmosphere as the souls games.

    • G Anderson Lake

      Thank you! I have to agree with you about DSII’s map design. Dark souls had a pretty consistent theme, and bloodborne definitely does. But I can’t sell I minded the lack of a consistent theme in DSII, I liked exploring the diverse landscape.

      I haven’t played Witcher 3 yet,but it definitely looks like it may be a good contender in terms of lore and world depth.

  11. Such an amazing developer. Truly the ‘Naughty Dog’ of Japan.

  12. Westmoreland
    0

    From software had been making best games long before Demon Souls, anyone who played armored core should know what I’m talking about.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I loved the Armored Core series, and they were definitely great games. Unfortunately they never reached the level of popularity that the Souls series has.

  13. cant wait to pick up a PS4 and Bloodborne next week!

  14. Apolonia
    0

    Looking forward to playing bloodbourne, would like another demons souls next

    • G Anderson Lake

      I would love if they would release another Demon Souls, or an HD remake so I could play the first, however they just announced that Dark Souls III will be their next game.

  15. Jake Pavao

    These games have never let me down, they are always great. You really don’t need another reason to pick up a ps4.

  16. Kyle Levy
    0

    Bloodborne is the game of the year.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I thought so too until I began to play WIthcer 3, and I have to say Witcher is by far one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time.

  17. Any conversation I enter in regarding “artistic” video games eventually must come back to the Souls series, on par with such gems as MegaMan X. I think the real talent here comes from addressing more than just the bottom line, but instead taking a specific, intentional idea and making it central. “Struggle” would be my imprecise, top-of-my-head word choice. It pervades the music, the art, the gameplay, and more; even more importantly, this word exists in such a way that could not be replicated in any other artform. You are not witnessing the struggle, you are not examining the struggle, you’re not even feeling the struggle. You /experience/ the struggle. From Software took this idea and ran with it. While they’re not the first to catch on to this idea of the experiences available in video games but nowhere else, they’re bringing that discussion to the forefront, and that is absolutely key to the advancement of the industry to art.

    • G Anderson Lake

      The concept of utilizing the experience of the struggle is brilliant. You really hit the nail on the head as it were. I think there really is that feeling of perseverance that lends itself to feeling so satisfied with each minor victory.
      Even when you beat Dark Souls, it instantly thrusts you back into a harder version of the same world, really hitting home that the struggle never really ends.

    • I think you nailed it right on the head. When discussing whether or not a game qualifies as a work of art far too often people turn to its visuals for proof. There’s nothing wrong with that and there is plenty of room for discussion about the aesthetics of a game, but in the end it is a little bit limiting.

      The Souls series embodies the theme of struggle much the same way that a Rothko painting might embody despair, or a Futurist sculpture captures the essence of movement and forward thinking. That isn’t to say that for videogames to be considered art they need to be analogous to traditional art in terms of theme and topic. Art is more complex than that and so are videogames. Rather the Souls series makes an argument for a more sophisticated understanding of games as art, one of many, that promotes appreciating a game for what it is, not what it aspires to be.

  18. Joseph Manduke

    Just started this series. I was very drawn in.

  19. Coming originally from an art and design background this article certainly supports the notion that video games are an art form just as film was once pooh-poohed as art as were daguerrotype photographs. An engaging and persuasive read.

    • G Anderson Lake

      I appreciate the kind feedback. I definitely agree with you. I’ve been trying to convince everyone I know that video games are a new and unique art form, and it’s certainly an uphill battle. I think games like Dark Souls, Journey, and Last of Us really help the discussion.

  20. I’m really interested in playing all these games, and this is coming from someone who’s bad at video games!

    • G Anderson Lake

      They are definitely great games to play, and even if you don’t think you’re good I think Souls has the perfect structure to help you learn along the way!

  21. Cojo

    The thing about the Dark Souls is that it seems to be a series for people who have been playing games for a long time. Its enemy placement, level design, UI and a lot of its skills like Miracles or Pyromancy are all set up for someone who has been playing lots of games to understand easily, even with very little explanation. The game somewhat assumes you’ve got a pretty good grasp of what these things are and how they work, and creates an experience for you based on those ideas. There’s no need to go through a long tutorial explaining the difference between magic and miracles, or that enemies beside traps will set them off if you get to close, they assume that the player understands this and they craft a game that is built around that understanding.

    • G Anderson Lake

      You raise a great point. I’ve found more and more movies and games that lend themselves to people who are “tuned in” to a franchise or medium, and they are definitely great, but may suffer from distancing themselves from a larger audience. Games do this more often than not I think; gaming has been around long enough that every game has a certain level of assumption.
      I recently played a Call of Duty game with a non-gaming friend who wanted to try it out. He was having a very hard time not staring at the ground and spinning in circles. That made me realize that even the most simple games carry a lot of assumptions on part of the developers.But Dark Souls definitely takes it to an extreme. Even Scholar of the First Sin is a game for people who have been playing Souls for a very long time, and would be a terrible place for a new-comer to start.

  22. It is amazing to think it has been six years since Demon Souls. Great food for thought, well written article and seriously: Souls for life

  23. Although I agree that structurally Bloodborne is closely related to Souls games, I feel that the regression in the variety of stats/weapons/spells is actually a step back. Do you believe that the variety in those factors is something defining to the Souls franchise? Or is it really the difficulty/world building that is most important?

    • G Anderson Lake

      It’s interesting that you believe it is a step backwards. Certainly Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and now Bloodborne are their own series, and will lend themselves to be different in some regards, while retaining that From Soft feel. I believe that the variety in content and items is unique to the Souls games, yes, but with Bloodborne it was very clear that From Soft had a very clear vision of what that world was supposed to be.
      I think gamers too often criticize what they consider to be a lack of content. What I saw in Bloodborne was a consistent and extremely well thought-out world design. The addition of more, specifically varied, content would only serve to distract from that world design, and may even feel unnatural to the player. So while Souls lends itself really well to that variety, I think Bloodborne was smart not to include it.

  24. tylerjt
    tylerjt
    0

    I really enjoyed reading this article since all I am hearing is all of the praise around From Soft’s games. This article might be the nail in the coffin telling me to get Bloodborne. I have seen very in depth discussions on gaming from Extra Credits on Youtube and they have recently started a series called Side Quest and they are looking at all of the aspects of Dark Souls both big and small. I suggest any fan of the series to go watch them and give your support.

  25. I really hope From Software will reboot the King’s Field series, especially with VR headsets going main steam, I think it would be such a great atmospheric experience.

  26. I think the Dark Souls franchise speaks to the idea that gamers have not grown tired of the old-school game design standard of difficulty curve. The game is extremely hard from the outset, and continuously punishes the player. Think Contra in 3D, with a sword instead of a gun.

  27. Dark Souls is difficult, but while this isn’t something you’re guilty of, the media in general seems to be painting it as an unfairly challenging game–one which kills you without warning and for no reason. In fact, the game’s placement of traps and enemies is extremely logical. If an area looks like it would be a good location for an ambush, there’s probably something waiting for you there. If a normally aggressive opponent is running from you, be prepared for a trap of some kind to be waiting in whatever location it’s leading you to. If you’re expected to walk down a narrow tunnel in a location that has been loaded with traps, check for pressure plates before you charge forward. This is something that most video-games do; either they leave ambushes and trap triggering up to random chance, like in Darkest Dungeon, or they don’t bother hiding them at all. People don’t expect a game like Dark Souls to require them to think about the layout of the area before moving forward, so they get angry when they get caught in traps or shot in the back by an archer on a tower.

    I think VaatiVidya explains this better than I did; he’s somewhat flippant about it, though.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oYLhAZvjvU

  28. Sounds like they’ve successfully tapped into Flow psychology with a bit of social exchange in their game design. It’s a winning combination.

  29. Good article! I find the “Killing the Buddha” section quite refreshing. The Souls series has definitely disrupted the modern gaming industry by bringing back the challenging aspect of retro games. I think modern gamers are so spoiled by casual games that they have forgotten the fun of beating a tough challenge – a quintessential element for gaming. Thank you From Software for bringing that back.

    • Well I think it’s a little unfair to assume that challenge alone is what should define a game. By definition, games are meant simply as a pastime or activity designed to provide amusement, typically following a set of rules or regulations to abide by.

      I love the Souls series, and am usually a masochist when it comes to a lot of games, but in the end it should be about having fun. The fact that people like us find the challenging aspect of such games fun is only just an extension of our own personalities. As popular as the franchise is though, there’s a reason why it pales in comparison to other game franchises on the market. And I think most people would be lying if they said they didn’t find themselves becoming frustrated at least a few times during their journeys through the Souls series.

      For some people, the idea of becoming frustrated in their off time – typically when they’d rather be relaxing – probably isn’t their idea of a good time. I’m STILL trying to get through Master Ninja in NG2, beat the mode in Dead Space 2 where you can only save 3 times, etc. etc. And that’s great, because that’s what I’m in to. But to say that games need to be hard as nails and follow the old models of retro console games is probably not the answer. There’s definitely a market for those games, but I also think it’s fair to say that many or most of those old NES games were difficult but unrewarding, arbitrarily prohibitive and extremely poorly balanced.

      But good article nonetheless. I love the Souls series mainly because it’s difficult but never truly feels completely unfair. (The games all have a few balancing issues, and they can be highly unforgivable in certain aspects, but hey.)

  30. Dark souls is infamous for its difficulty, but defined and distinguished by its fairness. You can feel every movement, and the stamina bar which dictates how many actions you can consistently make holds you to account. This for me is what keeps me coming back even years after.

    What further renders the ‘Miyazaki circle’ of games, ergo excluding DS2, is its level design. As the difficulty curves and arcs into that slope off of Ninja Warrior, a shortcut would emerge, granting a spurt of adrenaline and a contextualised sense of progress. This opposes DS2’s regular use of Bonfires as a legitimate albeit contextualised checkpoint is simply less exciting, and does little to help internalise an otherwise memorable area.

    That said, I believe you are correct in that the community and the message system very much cements the series as a longterm commitment. Theres this sense of solidarity; he did it, so I’ll do it eventually.

    Yet, if I may be so bold to say, the main quality of Dark Souls, the analytically converted story and artistic license by which it is told is simultaneously its downfall. The recent effort of Bloodborne is more coherent in its wider story, the original DS and DS2 bearing many inconsistencies in their vagaries. E.g. Where Dragons are immortal, yet somehow have descendants. Nitpicky yes, and could infer a more complex narrative. Yet the Souls formula does little to grant solidity to much fan theory, and easily brings out the cynic in all of us once noticed. Alas, for another argument.

    I did enjoy this article, and thank you.

    – Jake.

  31. The thing I find is the case with many of these viciously difficult games (Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and so on) is that they don’t actually teach you mechanics. They tell you how to move, and how to attack, and let you do the rest. Many of the deaths at the beginning of the game is discovery. Learning how to utilize a roll, or a way to use your environment against your foes- and as you learn this, the beginning areas of the game become much simpler. Then, you’re thrust into the more difficult areas of the game, where you’re forced to hone your skills more and more, using repetition to learn the way your enemies move- going step by step until you finally manage to make it to the next challenge. Then, you die again- and continue to fight your way through the area.

    It keeps us hooked because we feel like we’ve learned- that now we’ll be able to get past that minotaur on the bridge- that we’ll be able to jump over that next obstacle. We’re hooked because we’re confident in ourselves- and that’s the beauty of this game. I leave the game thinking “Wow- I’m really good at games”, even after having died more times than I could count. It’s fantastic design.

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