Beyond Arcadia: Life Is Strange Fans on the Game Six Years Later — Part 3
Beyond Arcadia is a three-part series charting the impact that Dontnod's 2015 narrative-driven adventure had on its players. We chatted to numerous fans from across the globe to find out how the game and its story affected them, both during play and in their personal lives.
Spoiler warning: this article contains major story spoilers for the original Life Is Strange, and general spoilers for the Life Is Strange franchise.
25-year-old Bella, better known as Madam Bella Cosplays, describes herself as a “cosplayer, YouTuber and gamer from the UK,” who also happens to be a fan of Life Is Strange.
She recounts her first playthrough of the game for me. “I saw the full game on sale on Xbox One and thought I'd give it a try. I was instantly gripped by the mystery behind Rachel being missing, and I love choice-based games. When the reveal of Jefferson being the villain of the game happened, it just was something I wasn't expecting at all, and I just remember having pure shock and thinking I gotta have my sister play this game,” she says.
Bella elaborates on the aspects of gameplay that made the experience so compelling. “There were a lot of themes within the game that emotionally hit me. A lot of what Kate Marsh went through with bullying and her suicidal thoughts. Despite his unpopularity, a lot of the mental illness side of Nathan Prescott also hit me emotionally, and I really felt for him as a character, as I think Jefferson used his severe illness to manipulate him when he needed help.”
So what effect did playing Life Is Strange have Bella’s life? “The game has mostly impacted me in a positive way. I actually met my partner who I've been with for almost three years through Life Is Strange and our mutual interest in Nathan Prescott as a character. I have been very lucky to make friends through Life Is Strange and have a few incredible experiences, such as even being invited to visit the Dontnod studios in France, as well as having Alejandro from the Dontnod team make a regular appearance at some of the Life Is Strange meetups I would host at conventions in London.”
It seems that the Dontnod team stand by the themes of their games at a grass-roots level, then.
“The first game still holds a very special place in my heart and others have not compared to it,” Bella tells me, but she doesn’t feel the same about Before the Storm. “A lot of the characteristics of some of the established characters like Chloe and Nathan just didn't feel right to me. I also preferred when Rachel was left more to fan interpretation rather than her being explored as a character, as I hugely disliked her from that game due to the pretty toxic manipulation she had with Chloe. I'm sure others may disagree, but I just felt Rachel seemed to be using Chloe until something better came along.”
Life Is Strange 2 also failed to strike a chord with her, and Bella only ended up playing the first episode. “I don't know anyone who's seen a family member be killed in front of them, or been on the run and slept in a forest,” she says. “As I never played further than that, I don't know if it improved. It just didn't have that connectivity the first one did. I felt the first game had a lot of characters people could relate to, as did the setting. Everyone went to school, after all, and a lot of the settings and scenarios I felt really mirrored real life scenarios very much. I did, however, play Captain Spirit and I felt that had deeper connectivity to me, as it had that nostalgic feel of being a child again, playing, and an abusive or alcoholic parent is a very real scenario I feel more people can connect to.”
Experience-wise, Bella can relate to the events of Life Is Strange, and especially what happens to Kate Marsh. “I was bullied in school and the way they captured her depression felt very real. Her suicidal tendencies I felt were relatable to an extent, too, and I do feel the mental health side of her experience was handled very well.” But she can also empathise with Nathan. “As I mentioned previously, I also felt a connection to Nathan for his mental illness. He was very vulnerable, with a severe mental condition, and I think it made him easier for Jefferson to manipulate and use. And I think for me, having a mental illness, I definitely felt they portrayed this well, as often people prey on vulnerable people and in some cases even worsen their condition.”
“I definitely think the game opened up awareness on mental illnesses and how serious they can be, and also the impact of bullying and how actions can have consequences,” Bella says.
Again, Dontnod clearly put a lot of thoughtfulness into its game, and Bella thinks so too in the way they created such a bespoke, all-inclusive experience. “I think the game being so open to the player’s choice, with Dontnod saying there is no official canon, was a great way to have the game, as it meant there was no right or wrong way to play it. How you shaped Max as a character was the player’s choice, and I did like how mysterious some of the characters or situations were, as it left a lot to the fans’ imaginations. I think a lot of games could learn from that, instead of milking a franchise until there’s nothing left, and, ultimately, people are potentially left disappointed [when] things aren't as they wanted.”
A very astute observation.
Co-admin and manager of the dedicated social network and website Life Is Strange Fans, Mai is from Argentina. A creative, she tells me a bit about her background. “I am a 2D artist/concept artist working for a local videogames studio, and I also make art and write for several personal projects.”
In a similar way to other fans of the game, she didn’t know what she was letting herself in for and stumbled into the experience. “I played Life Is Strange the day it came out, honestly, out of boredom. I didn't have much to do back then and the story seemed different and interesting, so I decided to give it a try.”
“I played episode one, and as it progressed I found myself enjoying it a lot and having some sort of connection with what the characters were going through on a personal level,” Mai tells me.
“Eventually, I reached the end of episode one, with that iconic scene of the snowflakes falling from the sky and the promise of more, and by then I was totally hooked on the story. I wanted more and more of what I had just experienced. Naturally, waiting months to continue the story weighed heavy on me. I remember some of my friends and colleagues playing it too, and there wasn't a day we didn't talk about the game, even if the conversations ended being about the same things. We were all very excited to see where the story would go.”
Other fans have expressed similar sentiments, and it seems that Life Is Strange was a sleeper hit for Dontnod, with those who knew about the game before or around release not expecting the level of character and world depth that was ultimately delivered.
And this is what appealed to Mai.
“I think that despite the stereotypes that have a very prominent presence through the game, the fact that the characters were so relatable in [a] unique way was what hooked me. Real struggles, real problems depicted by a game, jumping head-on into issues or situations that, generally speaking, are not talked about enough in real life, like bullying, teen suicide, mental health issues, loss and grief, was what made the game unique for each player. I personally felt compelled to keep playing as soon as more episodes were available.”
But what does Life Is Strange mean to Mai? “The game holds a very special place in my heart for several reasons. On a personal level, it helped me do a bit of introspection. I learned things about myself by experiencing the story and the game. It connected me to people in a different way. [I] made several good friends along the years in the fandom, and I do believe Life Is Strange made me grow as a person, too.”
Mai’s statement is interesting because there are those that think video games are for antisocial basement dwellers. Clearly, it’s the opposite. But it doesn’t stop there, as Life Is Strange triggered introspection in Mai. “I keep recommending everyone to play it, to find out what the game helps them see, about themselves or life itself,” she says.
“Also, as an artist and writer, it has triggered a torrent of creativity that I've experienced very few times with other media. This need to write or draw or do anything creative was one of the best things the game and the community itself awoke in me. Overall, my experience with the community has been positive. There have been some issues of course, it is the internet after all. But generally speaking I find Life Is Strange fans to be understanding, kind to each other and always willing to help out others in their struggle.”
Six years on from the release of the first episode of Life Is Strange, Mai ponders her feelings towards the game for me. “I feel pretty much the same about the game. With time, I started to see its flaws, of course, once you can look at it from the outside. In any case, it doesn't diminish at all what Dontnod has accomplished with it. I hold it in a very special place, because playing it, experiencing it, interacting with the community and, most importantly, after understanding why these characters and story resonated with me so much, it has been a before and after in my life.”
I ask Mai her opinion on how the subsequent games in the series compare to the original, and her take on Before the Storm is scathing. “I found Before the Storm rushed, lacking the spirit of the original game and actually ignoring essential bits of the original story in favour of telling the story they wanted to tell, [rather] than adding to the universe. I only played it two times and decided I didn't like it at all, for these and many other reasons. It was unfortunate because I would have loved to see things from Chloe's perspective, but this attempt felt off,” she says.
Before the Storm was, of course, developed by Deck Nine, as opposed to Dontnod itself.
Mai continues to explain why this entry didn’t hit the spot. “Rachel lost all her mystery, Elliot was an unnecessary add-on that was pretty unbelievable and the entire plot seemed like bits and pieces glued in haste to be delivered without making any sense. At some point in the story, the focus shifted from one predominant topic, Chloe's grief due her father's passing and Max leaving town, to being manipulated into committing a federal crime in less than three days by a girl she barely knew. Unrealistic at best; a hot mess at worst.”
Life Is Strange 2, however, struck a more relatable tone for Mai, with its themes of discrimination and intrafamilial relationships. “It had its differences in essence with the first game for obvious reasons. The setting and the situation was completely different. Yet, in its own way, it managed to convey something very powerful,” she tells me.
“The bond between siblings is something that is not usually presented in games, and Sean and Daniel made a very believable and relatable pair. I have a younger sibling, so I deeply relate to Sean and his struggles. It is also the only game I've seen that bravely tackles the rampant racism and systemic issues that are a discussion topic nowadays. I related a lot to the brothers because I am Latin American, too. Representation was beautifully done in this story and highlighted political/life situations that many of us see happen all over the world, especially in America. We need more games like Life Is Strange 2; that's basically the bottom line from me.”
Relatability to its characters, events and settings seems to be the keystone of why Life Is Strange fans remain so invested in the series. Mai explains her experience with this to me. “I find many events in Life Is Strange very relatable. Depression and anxiety being two very deep concepts. Anger, too. I personally relate a lot to Chloe. Depression and loss can manifest in a million different ways. Chloe's way to deal with it is being angry and I saw myself in her on many occasions.”
Mai also feels the game caused her to introspect on her life. “I also related in some fashion to Kate, despite her having a very different personality. One of her lines resonated with me so much that it actually gave me pause and made me wonder why does this strike me like this? Is it something wrong with me, too?. The line was ‘I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up, unless I put myself to sleep.’ Anyone who has suffered from chronic depression has thought exactly that at least once through their time enduring it, but sometimes we need an exterior source to make us realise we are actually in need for help.”
Life Is Strange deals heavily with sexuality, and this also aided Mai. “In terms of gender, sexual orientation and such, it helped me understand and accept myself. I had a very long journey coming to terms with my own ‘tag’, and honestly I still am not fond of it. Love is love, and that's the bottom line. I am very thankful for Life Is Strange and other media representing LGBT+ people, whatever tag applies. Seeing yourself represented in the media is a game changer for many of us. It's powerful.”
Mai’s story is compelling, and it’s one that shows the power of video games as art; as an experience that appeals on a deeper, primeval level.
“As an artist, storyteller and game developer, I admire deeply what Dontnod has accomplished with their two games, and with the franchise as a whole. They are the prime example of how powerful videogames can be to tell a story, create bonds with people and prove it's an adult medium that can respectfully tackle heavy and taboo topics in today's society. They created two wonderful experiences in their own unique way that have helped a lot of people around the world in different ways.”
And Mai leaves me with some insightful wisdom that should be heard by more.
“[Dontnod] took a risk by representing people whose voices are not heard as much as they should be in mainstream media, whether it is people of colour, Latin people, LGBT+, struggling people, bullying victims. I'm going to repeat myself here, but we need more games like these. We need more games like Life Is Strange.”
“I live in a small village in Germany with my mum, and I turned 18 in February,” Nanna tells me at the start of our interview. “I’m still going to school until next year to do my A-levels.” She also tells me that she’s a “huge nerd” and loves story-based games, as well as cosplay. Life Is Strange meant so much to Nanna that she even plans to get a tattoo “as soon as possible, due to the huge impact it had on me and my life.”
Like others I’ve spoken to, Nanna’s first experience with the game came when she watched a YouTube video of someone playing the game back in 2015. “Back then I was only 13, almost 14, and at that time I honestly had no idea how much this game would mean to me today. I just thought that the graphical style, game mechanics and the story were pretty neat.”
When she bought a PlayStation 4 the subsequent year, 2016, Nanna finally got her hands on the game for herself and discovered that she could relate to a lot of what was taking place on-screen. “The moment that stuck with me the most when I first experienced the game was probably the whole storyline with Kate. I myself felt suicidal back then, and therefore that struck a nerve, and I saw myself in some of the things she said.”
The community that sprung up around Life Is Strange also helped her deal with real-world issues. “The experience with the community has been very positive. It was great seeing so many people come together and share their experiences. I saw that there were a lot of people like me that also could relate to Kate, and that honestly made me feel a lot better and helped me get through a bad time.”
“For me, the first game will always be something special,” Nanna says when I ask what makes the original so unique compared to the rest of the franchise. “Overall, I was able to relate more to some of the characters and what they were going through. That said, I still loved Life Is Strange 2, but just for other reasons. I loved the story, the characters and the topics it addressed, even though I couldn’t fully relate to Daniel and Sean’s situation. What I could relate to is the feeling of loss and how you have to keep going no matter what happens in order to protect those you love.” Nanna goes on to share that she thinks Before the Storm was a good way for players to glimpse Chloe’s motivations going into the original and what she had to go through.
Courage and catharsis are other things that Dontnod has given Nanna through Life Is Strange. “My father suddenly died when I was 15 in 2017, only a few weeks before Before the Storm was released. And when I started Before the Storm and rewatched a let’s play of Life Is Strange beforehand, I could see myself in Chloe 100%. She was kind of suppressing her feelings, shutting herself off from the world, wanting to be left alone. That was the same thing I did when I was going through that loss. I felt just as alone as she did, and I could understand why she acted the way she did; why she was kind of harsh to other people.”
This only continued when the bonus episode of Before the Storm was released. “I felt super emotional again. Seeing Chloe during her last happy moments reminded me of how the situation was when my dad died. She seemed so innocent while playing with Max, and suddenly her carefree childhood was over and she had to grow up too fast, and that was the same with me. I think that that is the biggest aspect in which Life Is Strange has impacted me and my life, and because of that, the first one and the bonus episode in Before the Storm will always be something special for me.”
Powerful stuff. But the franchise not only gave her this catharsis and connection, but it gave her the courage to speak out, too. “The way the first game handled Max’s sexuality, and that topic in general, kind of helped me find the courage to come out to my mum as bisexual back in 2016.”
23-year-old Vanessa is a transgender woman from western Ohio.
“I first played the game after my friend showed me the game on his PC when it first came out,” Vanessa says after I ask her about her initial Life Is Strange experience. “I was still in the closet for a lot of things I didn't even know yet until playing Life Is Strange, so the emotional impact from the game was rather impactful for me. I played the game all at once when I got my hands on it. What grabbed me at first was the relationship Max and Chloe had, until more and more of the story was introduced with the heavier material near the end, then relating to the tragedy of the characters and wanting to fix it became precedent.”
Vanessa is another person whom Life Is Strange has managed to affect in substantial ways. “I have changed for the better after playing Life Is Strange. I used to be a super-angry teenager before the game, but now I have good control over my emotions and have become a better person because of it. I have picked up photography again thanks to the game, but I can never find a functioning classic Polaroid camera. The Life Is Strange community is a very wonderful place where I have met very wonderful people. It's just that the friendships were never lasting. Online friendships barely work for me.”
Talking about the themes of each game in the series, Vanessa gives me her thoughts. “I still replay the [original] game to this day and am actually doing another run through so I can note down problematic scenes for a streamers run through for pride month.”
“Before the Storm and Life Is Strange 2 feel different in their approaches but are still good in their own way,” she continues. “Before the Storm is a reflection on how a person can change your life for the better and then be gone the next day. It's an important message about [the] loss of love and how to deal with grief, though Chloe doesn't deal with it in the most helpful way. Life Is Strange 2 is also good for its approach to not only familial bonds but also the state of America and the xenophobia that plagues a majority of [the country], despite the brothers being naturally born in America.”
Vanessa empathises with Chloe’s character and the way she deals with grief over both her father and Rachel. “I have lost a lot of people in my life and I have acted rebelliously because of it,” she says.
“I'm in a better space now thanks to friends still being there for me, like how Max was for Chloe. I have also transitioned because of this game because it made me realise that I didn't have a crush on Chloe's character, but rather I wanted to be like Chloe's character at the end of the game. I have been doing so for about three years openly, two years before that behind doors.”
The reach of the franchise is clearly very real, and it’s great to bring experiences such as this to light. We so often hear how video games create violence, but not how they facilitate acceptance and healing.
And Vanessa has a final message for those that feel marginalised.
“I just want every LGBTQ person that reads this interview to know that what they feel for their sexuality, gender, and/or romantic attraction is 100% valid, no matter how much it changes as they figure out who they are and who they want to be.”
My next interviewee is named Eira, and I ask her to tell me about herself. “I am a 24-year-old transgender girl from Norway,” she says. “I stream on Twitch and am currently planning on starting to study as a paramedic. I’ve also been working as a security guard for the last year.”
One point of contention between video game creators, publishers and their audience is whether letting content creators make videos of your game reduces sales, especially in story-based games. In case you haven’t seen enough evidence so far, Eira was also someone who ended up buying the game because she watched someone play it.
“I played the first episode of Life Is Strange a few days after its release, after someone I follow on YouTube started a let’s play of it. I watched the first 15 minutes of the game and immediately [bought] it. Since I bought it so early, I had to wait between the releases of the episodes, and it was the first game where I found that to be something good. Having that wait between every cliffhanger made the waiting something special, while it was fun to read and discuss theories of what would happen next.”
Eira found the game resonated with her emotionally and structurally. “Personally, I really related to Chloe, as a fellow high school dropout that has struggled with being lonely, having friends leave, and not staying in touch. And even having blue hair. I also definitely empathised a lot with Kate Marsh, as I’ve been suicidal myself,” she tells me. “The one thing that really stood out to me with Life Is Strange was the time travelling aspect of it. I’ve always liked the ‘Telltale genre’ of games, but being able to see the short-term consequences of it and then go back and change if you want was a truly amazing piece of design.”
I go on to ask Eira whether she feels the game impacted her life and how. “Oh, yeah. Life Is Strange definitely impacted my life. During 2015/16 I attended a folk high school (a sort of Scandinavian boarding school that allows individuals to try out different fields of study), and there I met others that had also started playing. So, for me, being socially awkward, it was a great way to find friends in my class. In addition, cosplaying Chloe when attending conventions in later years has been a joy and a conversation starter. I early on got a tattoo saying ‘this action will have consequences,’ and that too is a great way to find fellow fans of the game.”
We turn our talk towards the game’s developers and community, both of which Eira only has glowing appreciation for. “Another fun story regarding Life Is Strange happened during Gamescom 2018, where I attended as a journalist and got the chance to interview Michel Koch, Raoul Barbet, and Jean-Luc Cano. Me, having blue hair, Chloe’s necklace and the aforementioned tattoo, had an awesome talk with the guys, and it felt like they really cared about those of us who are fans of their game.”
She continues. “Regarding the Life Is Strange community, I have only positive things to say. It’s one of the friendliest communities I’ve ever been part of, and, at least in my experience, everyone is welcoming and wants to help newcomers to find friends and have someone to discuss the game with.”
Eira thinks the original title has a special something six years later, even though she also enjoys the rest of the series, too. “I am for sure still a huge fan of the original game. I’ve played it countless times, like, to the point it starts getting a bit embarrassing,” she admits. “According to Steam I have used more than 1000 hours in-game. And then I have the PS4 version and iOS version as well.”
“I do still prefer the original Life Is Strange. It was something special with the story, the time-travelling, and just the whole new level of a game in the Telltale genre. That being said, I absolutely love both Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, where playing as Chloe and meeting Rachel Amber was just an amazing thing, and Life Is Strange 2, which very accurately portrays everyday racism and the struggle of being a minority person in the US. And, of course, Cassidy was a huge plus for that game too.”
The game’s exploration of relationships and sexuality — platonic and romantic — appealed to Eira in a deep way, and helped her accept herself. “As a transgender girl — as in assigned male at birth — who’s also panromantic, Max’s struggle with finding herself and the whole LGBT vibe of the game was definitely a huge part for me to accept myself, and dare [to come] out to friends and family.”
“I can see myself and my story so much in [Chloe], with a lack of friends and feeling lonely and abandoned,” she continues to tell me. “Although neither of my parents is dead, I also completely got her hatred towards David, since my dad remarried after my parents divorced, and his new wife and I had a very similar relationship as Chloe and David; constantly fighting, me not fitting into a strict nuclear family setting and the whole despising of her living with my dad.”
When working as a journalist and video game reviewer, Eira had the opportunity to catch up with some of the game’s voice actors. And it seems that there’s only good things to say about anyone who worked on this series. “I was fortunate to talk with Katy Bentz, the voice of Steph Gingrich, and Rhianna DeVries, the voice of Chloe in Before the Storm. It was such an amazing experience to get to know them, and to this date I still feel like we are friends.”
And Eira leaves me with this.
“So not only did the Life Is Strange series help me get friends at school but, in fact, across the globe, with people I would never have heard of or talked to without Life Is Strange.”
Bradley, 19, is from Swansea, Wales, UK. His first Life Is Strange experience came from watching a YouTube video of someone playing the game, too, and it’s one he likely won’t forget anytime soon.
“I didn't play the game myself until after seeing the full game on YouTube, but from just watching it I became emotionally invested in everything going on as if I was a part of it. I was rooting for Max and Chloe to find Rachel and was heartbroken when you find out the truth.”
He then goes on to recount more of what he remembers and how it affected him.
“I was left feeling horrified seeing Kate up on that roof. I felt happy just seeing Max and Chloe reunite their friendship as the game went on. And then when I got to the ending, when I saw it for the first time, I cried. I cried so hard like I had never done before for a video game. In fact, I think Life Is Strange is the only video game that has made me cry, and that's because Dontnod did a fantastic job of creating great characters you connect with and a great story you find yourself getting invested in. Even when I played the game and knew what was coming, it didn't change a thing, as I still had those exact emotions from start to finish.”
Like others before him, Bradley has felt the effects of Life Is Strange more than he expected.
“I've made some amazing friends who I would never know existed if it wasn't for this amazing game. For hobbies, the Life Is Strange series helped me explore my creative side with making edits on my YouTube channel, EverydayGeek. I just loved the game and its characters so much that I watched other people's edits on the characters [and] that made me want to do the same.”
Before the Storm and Life Is Strange 2 have the same sort of feel to Bradley, albeit dealing with different topics, but he still holds the original dear to his heart. “I still very much love the original game six years later, and still find myself talking about new things about the game even after all this time. There is just so much to the original game I love that makes it special to me. From its story to its characters; the world the creators made to the wonderful soundtrack of the game, it's all special to me and has this great feeling of nostalgia every time I replay the game.”
The feelings of loss and finding your sexual identity are themes from that game that Bradley connects with. “There are aspects to the game that do relate to my life and that I feel many other people can relate to. There have been moments in my life when I've questioned my sexual orientation, which I believe is something Max Caulfield also questions in Life Is Strange. I also understand Chloe and how the loss of someone can have an effect on you and your life, as I have also changed a bit with the loss of someone close to me a few years ago.”
At the end of our interview, I ask Bradley if there’s anything he wants to share.
“I just want to thank Dontnod for creating an amazing game that, while both being entertaining and having this sci-fi feel to it, isn't afraid to touch on real-world themes and issues that I feel a lot players can relate to in some way or another.”
Closing Thoughts — the Dontnod Magic
One thing I haven’t discussed in this series is my own journey with the Life Is Strange franchise, so I’ll leave you with some insights and commonalities. I’ve played each entry, and while they all have their merits, I’ve replayed the original numerous times due to its characters, world-building, and life lessons. And that’s how these interviews were born: to see if others had been captured by the Dontnod magic, too. What I wasn’t expecting was the depths to which the Dontnod tentacle reached; bringing to the surface the daily struggles of so many.
It helped many come to terms with their sexuality and beliefs, while it helped others with bullying and dark times. It’s a game that promotes acceptance and community for all, no matter your age or gender or sexual orientation, and everyone I have interviewed has felt that in some way. Sure, there are some bad eggs, as there are in any community, but the overarching message is that it’s fine to just be you. And clearly it has endured for all these years, with the Life Is Strange community still going strong.
Another through line is the way many of the interviewees of this series came to know about and play Life Is Strange: through content creators primarily on YouTube. There has always been a subset of individuals who believe allowing others to stream or make videos of a game leads to fewer sales. What we’ve seen is a definitive rebuttal to this notion. Seeing a game being played actually leads to more interest, and people will still go and buy a game even if they have seen all of its narrative play out. Game developers: take note.
At the end of this long, and frankly arduous, process of putting this three-part series together, I’m still glad I did it. People opened up to me more than I could have imagined, and gave me their time and support. So, to everyone who took part: thank you. I’ve also come away with a deeper appreciation for Dontnod as a studio, going out of its way to support their community, even inviting them out to their studios in some cases. Where other game developers have shied away from making their games overtly political, Dontnod has embraced it. Where others are sucked into conglomerates so big that they lose touch with their audience, Dontnod has tried to stay in the trenches.
Life Is Strange is more than a product to both its fans and creators, and it has genuinely bettered people’s lives — a true testament to the impact the medium of video games can have.
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