Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

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Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

PostPosted by verdilak » Mon Oct 12, 2009 7:41 pm

Game On: Tell me about David Gaider. He's your lead writer on Dragon Age Origins, but he's also written a prequel book set in the Dragon Age universe.

Mike Laidlaw: Dave is a world-builder at heart. He loves creating a space that feels very real and has a density beyond just "Okay, we need these answers for the game." He created a space in Dragon Age that I think goes well beyond that, and by creating the world in advance, it let him write the novel with the history in mind. He wasn't cutting it from whole cloth when he was doing the novel, in other words, so it let him explore the characters and their relationships on a level he might not have been able to if he'd had to do all the heavy lifting from scratch.

GO: You have a pen and paper version of the Dragon Age world coming out somewhere down the road by the guys who landed George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire license. Does Gaider have anything to do with that?

ML: No, Green Ronin's been spearheading that, and they've been working off a lot of our source materials and grabbing from our lore because we have extensive documentation for the entire Dragon Age property. But Dave's not been directly involved in that.

I've been working on an approvals level with the Green Ronin guys myself, and they're really excited to see how much source material Dragon Age offers them, but Dave's been focused on the novels and of course Origins itself.

GO: Will Green Ronin's system be similar to the one you developed for the video game? Or are they taking your system and doing something different with it?

ML: They're basically translating the rules set and design that drives Origins into a pen and paper format. It's a custom system, similar to what we produced when we sat down to develop the rules.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: You've called Dragon Age Origins "the HBO of RPGs," implying that you're after something much more nuanced and reality-grounded than your prior work with Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Talk about some of the fantasy genre tropes you'd like to upend.

ML: HBO obviously targets a more mature type of storytelling. They've moved away from the sitcom models and the more tried-and-true...what you think of as the mainstream network thing. The safe stuff. So to my mind, Dragon Age does a couple of things to break away from what we think of as classic fantasy, and I think some of these are similar to what George R.R. Martin's doing in his books.

Specifically, we wanted to remove the sense that the fantastic is casual, and to present the fantastic as something that for the common man, for the everyman is still very much fantastic. Almost terrifying, in fact. One of the key tropes we're trying to upend is that lightweight lack of consequences feel that can happen in fantasy. It's like "Oh, he's dead… But it's okay! Because we resurrected him!" No one ever talks about the near death experience or the tunnel of light or like in real life, the survivors going "Oh my god!" You know, we're talking an inconceivably intense experience.

While we were defining the world and game, then, we said "What are some of the things we take for granted?" and "How do we do them differently?" How do we do a darker, realistic approach? That's what we mean when we say "dark heroic fantasy" and a more mature experience as what we're after.

What if we did something different with elves, for instance? Elves are always nature dwelling, kind of ethereal, usually regarded as this pinnacle and maybe fading race. You can even go to Games Workshop's Warhammer 40k universe and the Eldar are top tier technology and stuff, but they're still a dying race. Elves seem to be elves no matter what. We said, how could we change that? How could we do that but still maintain the fact that they're elves?

So with our elves, the casualness of immortality and the idea that they live a thousand years was something we wanted to move away from, though it didn't mean it had to be stripped out of the lore. Similarly elves as these powerful, wizardly beings that control great, ancient magic didn't have to go away, but it didn't feel right for the now, for the time period we wanted to set Dragon Age in with its darker tone.

As a result, our elves had an empire, but it's fallen, and they've actually been enslaved. They've only just gotten out of that situation. They're a good three generations into being emancipated, and they live in ghettoes in the cities for the most part, except for the few that live out in the wilderness, are very xenophobic, and enraged about the crimes committed against them. They have a history of violence and betrayal that goes back, event after event after event, where the elves are almost persecuted for something no one remembers. And of course that's one of the great mysteries of the game, what exactly happened there.

That gives them an edge. It gives them something fresh. You still recognize them as elves, of course. Pointy-ears, lithe, you know, fairly dexterous, good with magic. But the fundamentals of it are such that once you get past that initial "Okay, it's an elf," you start seeing the differences. And we present them very clearly using the origin stories. That's where the game succeeds at becoming more than just typical fantasy. It's by giving you the expected, then chipping off the edges.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: You let players choose from any of six origin stories, stories you've suggested resonate throughout the play experience. How pliable or reflective is Dragon Age's game world respective of those choices? Do they change the way the entire game plays out, or just invoke the occasional narrative nod?

ML: Origins for us are such a key element of the game that we appended the word to the title. We knew we wanted to do these right and make them a hallmark of the game. We could have done a cursory approach, certainly, but instead we thought, "Okay, what's gratifying about having an origin that's playable?" That's where I think it starts--knowing that you get to experience a focused start to the game that gives you perspective and a different flavor when you're finally starting into things.

With that in mind, we made a concerted effort throughout the rest of the game to call out the different elements of your origin, the important part being that we do it at appropriate points. If the game constantly flogs it, it'd lose any sense of being special. Instead, we made sure there were moments in the game that not only point back to "Oh, you're of this origin," but actually reintroduce characters from that origin and have them iterating realistically based on how you acted during it.

It echoes forward as well, in terms of the larger plot points you're dealing with. If you come out of the mage origin story, when you eventually return to the mage tower, which is one of the things you'll be doing as a Grey Warden later in the game, characters there will remember you. They'll remember the way you acted on your way out. They'll remember the kind of decisions you made during your initial testing and react accordingly.

Where the origins system really shines, I think, is that a character who goes to the mage tower, say a human noble, can encounter these very same characters and they'll react differently. They won't recognize you. Your character won't have any interplay. So there's a level of depth and granularity that's added in when you have these secondary encounters, which occur in more than one place. It's called out multiple times. As a result, you get the feeling that your origin's not just something people occasionally mention, but also something people are reacting to accordingly, based on the way you acted and the choices you made. It's the pay off of, "Gosh, it's been 20 hours, I've finally managed to return to this place, and people are still pissed at me," or "People are incredibly happy to see me." It's not just a cursory mention, but a very specific callback to the way you forged your character in those early days.

Game On: Why the departure from Wizards of the Coast? Was it more about the money in terms of the D&D license? Or the desire to craft your own system without another entity watching over your shoulder and making sure you hewed to their rules and mythology?

Mike Laidlaw: Our relationship with Wizards of the Coast, and LucasArts as well on the Star Wars games, it's actually gone quite well, because I think there's a mutual respect there. They're maintaining their IP, maintaining their rule set of course. But watching the changes D&D has undergone, you know, second to third edition was revolutionary. Third to fourth is another huge jump. It's hard not to look at that and think, "Wow, those guys are pushing the envelope hard."

That said, at BioWare, we've very aggressively gone after our own intellectual properties. Jade Empire, Mass Effect [see our interview with Casey Hudson], and now Dragon Age are all ones we've developed internally, and what we saw with Dragon Age was an opportunity to move beyond rules that were designed for simulating combat in a pen and paper environment, as well as really taking advantage of the fact that we have a computer able to crunch numbers far faster than humans can with dice.

This allowed us to move to more of a real-time combat system, where the movements of the characters are what determine the attack rates and where animations can be adjusted on the fly. If you use something like a heat spell, or a "flurry of blows" kind of attack, you can actually see the blades come out quickly and the damage occurring as a result instead of being in a place with rounds, a number of attacks within a round, that kind of feel where there's always that six-second D&D gap. We thought, if we have an opportunity to create something new, let's create something that works better in the medium we've chosen.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: When you were pulling it all together, how much of the development cycle was invested in drafting the rules themselves?

ML: In all honesty, this kind of development is an ongoing process. Over the span of the four years we've been working on Dragon Age, there was constant refinement throughout the system. The basic system was established by doing paper and whiteboard work, running scenario combats and that kind of stuff. In the early stages we were holding the rules up to light, so stuff like "What exactly influences how accurate you are?" You know, is it just strength? Is it strength and dexterity? Is it just dexterity? So just establishing some basic tenets.

Then of course you have to get it in the game to see how it really plays and feels. Our approach was to start with the basic "How does attacking work as a mage?" "How does it work as a rogue or fighter?" And great, good, we can swing a sword or shoot things from a staff. Now what about archery? How does that work? So there's constant permutation in the rule set as you start to implement real combat, real dungeons, real pacing and flow to the game. You start to realize what elements of the game aren't holding up, say archery, as in "Archery could use a boost, because right now an archer doesn't feel quite as effective as a melee warrior, and I want it to be a valid choice for all players, so how do we fix that?"

Well, you sit down with guys who live and breathe rule sets, and our systems designer was a fantastic guy to work with. He would say "Here are three approaches we could take to do it." We'd pick one, implement it usually in a test shard, and play with it for a day, going hands on with what we were trying to accomplish. Even in the late stages of development we were implementing changes. Archery's a specific example where we ended up adjusting the base attack rates. Archers now draw a little faster. They shoot with a bit more accuracy. And those change just integrated better.

GO: What's more fulfilling, designing your own rule set from scratch? Or using something ready-made like the D&D system, but where you had to be mindful of hardcore D&D fans?

ML: It's interesting, because yeah, there is only so much permutation you can do with someone else's system, but the process of a good adaptation results in something that holds true to the rules while doing so in a way that complements the medium.

For us being able to design from the ground up I think did give us some advantages. It definitely gave us some boosts we wouldn't have had otherwise. But to put it up against the implementations of, say, Neverwinter Nights…there, what I think we did was create a very effective simulator for the D&D rules, in that we had the number of attacks increase, we had visualizations of things like dodging and parrying, kind of that combat shuffle, and all of that felt very good to me as well.

I'd say it's an apples oranges thing. With the D&D rules what you're trying to implement is a faithful adaptation that people understand...how it works, how it's interacting, where players can see all the die rolls and let the computer do the heavy lifting, but still understand exactly the mechanics of what's happening.

With us, we're using different mechanics that aren't ported over, that don't have that legacy of history from D&D third edition. At the same time, they also don't have the "Oh man I rolled a 20!" kind of feel that D&D gives, where people reminisce about the time they rolled all sixes. You have pros and cons with both approaches. Ultimately you have to make choices that match the game experience you're after. With Dragon Age, we decided to start with "computer first," which led to "What does that really mean?" which in turn led to stuff like combat timing, with animations as a bigger driver. I think having animations that match battle tactics results in higher fidelity for combat. It just looks that much more spectacular.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: Playing under certain constraints--"linearity" as we like to say--gets a bad rap from gamers who see open-ended "sandbox" play as sort of a progressive mandate. Is Dragon Age more of a directed game, or an open-ended one?

ML: In a single play-through, I'd say Dragon Age is around the 60 percent sandbox mark. In terms of its total potential space, meaning the possibility space of all play-throughs, it's probably more like 75.

Linearity to me is an important tool for storytelling. It's the only way to maintain a narrative drive, to give your character a goal, to give your character a raison d'etre. As a result, even games perceived as completely sandbox still have core storylines that drive them forward. The balance is making sure that the freedom you give players feels appropriate to the setting and the space you've created.

If the player is going to be capable of wandering around, the ideal design involves somewhat arbitrary objectives with payoffs like "Oh good, you've been doing all this wandering, so guess what, someone's going to benefit from that." A good example of this would be in Bethesda's Oblivion, harvesting nirnroots, finding them, and hearing them in the distance as they emit that low hum. It's really a function of wandering to find those, and yet there's someone who collects them and uses them in a quest. So there's a linear nature there as well.

In Dragon Age our approach has been to have a bit more linearity, because we are story-driven. I mean, BioWare's riding on the legacy of story-driven games, after all. We want to make sure the player understands the context of what they're doing. I think that's doubly important when you're creating a new world that people don't know, where there's no history behind it.

So we sacrifice a bit of open-endedness to maintain narrative drive. But then there are points in the game, really vast points in the game, where the player is given a clear objective, like "You need to gather an army to defeat the blight." Then how you do that is completely left up to you. You're simply thrown into a world map and it's just like "Go…proceed from there."

Game On: A Theory of Fun author Raph Koster argued single-player gaming was doomed back in 2006. He went on to clarify that he meant games in which "only one person [is] making decisions." That pretty much describes games like Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and now Dragon Age coming out three years after his pronunciation. Your response?

Mike Laidlaw: I think the glory of stories--and I think this is something computers are only now starting to be able to participate in--is that stories are shared experiences. It's the shaman telling the tale of whatever around the campfire, the boy scouts with the flashlight under their faces. All these things are primal ways that we as a people communicate, share experiences, and quite often, share wisdom and growth. Before written communication, before the printing press, and before computers certainly. Lore and legends were often wrapped up as fables and parables, for the purposes of sharing experiences.

So to my mind, the most valid story is one that can be experienced but also shared, that can have moments that really resonate with you. And in an ideal world, we're looking at playing to the strengths of computer gaming, and making the game and story reactive, but also enabling people to share that story and say "Look, I did this, and then this, and then this," and feel like an experience happened to them that they want to relate to others. That is where gaming transcends where it's been in the past.

I don't think a single-player experience means you have to do it in isolation. I think that's where the fallacy lies, the sense that by firing up a single-player game you instantly shut down your messaging utility, destroy your Facebook account, and close your Twitter account. These things don't happen. People want to post about what's happening to them, and you're seeing games now that'll for instance allow you to post a Twitter update from inside the game.

We're actually developing something for Dragon Age called the Social Engine that allows you to share the experiences and growth of your characters. Even though it's a single-player game, you'll be able to hold it out for people to take a look and go "I can see what you're doing there, and how you're doing it." One of the big strengths of Dragon Age is that by the time you finish playing, we hope players don't feel like they experienced the story we wanted to tell them, but that they played through their story. We're using specific techniques to guide the experience, to make it so you're not lost and wandering completely disengaged, but within that there's substantial choice and variety. At the end I think it all comes together and you're like "This feels like something I did, and I want to tell people about it."

Dragon Age Origins

GO: What kinds of ethical level does the game operate at? Is it broad stroke "with us or against us," good versus evil, Clash of the Titans stuff? Or more like a mythic version of The Wire?

ML: The strength of shows like The Wire, which is fabulous by the way, is that the ethical dilemmas you face are ones that resonate with you. Because you can understand--and I think The Wire does this better than other attempts--that it's showing you people in relatable situations, and it shows you how they got there, and why they're still there. You can empathize and sympathize, even with the guys doing really bad things. You can empathize with the corrupt cops. You know you can really sink your teeth into it because you can see that deep down they're also people. You can understand how people could end up in these scenarios. It's easy to look down from your perch and go "Oh, that would never happen to me," but The Wire shows that in its particular reality, it's the only way to survive.

Where Dragon Age falls into that spectrum is…it's kind of halfway between the two, because The Wire, to use it as our touchstone example, deals very much with the kind of mundane, the smaller day-to-day stuff, whereas Clash of the Titans deals with issues that are so gigantic it's almost impossible for us to conceptualize without thinking metaphorically. You know, fighting Medusas and things that are completely off the hook. Somewhere between those two, I'd put Dragon Age, where the characters and interactions you have are ones that--especially if you go digging and read the lore and ask questions of the characters you meet--you can understand the motivations behind what seems to be apparent villainy, and you can rationalize how someone could end up there.

That's where I am very excited about our villains. Because they aren't just moustache-twirling "I'm here to destroy the world." They're people reacting to things that happened in their past, things that happened directly to them, and they're responding in the only way they feel is reasonable.

So for instance, and I think this is a major theme within the game, there is very clearly an evil on the horizon. There's a storm cloud a-brewin', and that is The Blight, the Darkspawn, and they're coming. But at the beginning of the game they're not fully formed, they're on the way, but you've got people questioning whether the stuff that's happening is really portentous. "It's been 400 years, is it really going to happen again?" That kind of…it's almost denial. Later you can see how characters reacted to the fact that they weren't sure, that they didn't know, how that indecision or perhaps ambition drove them to attempt something because "Oh look, everyone's distracted, I can get away with this right now," and so on and so forth. As a result you can get into a space where you can understand our villains and yet still have this big looming wall of evil heading your way, which I like, because it means there's something you can be opposed to even while feeling sympathetic for characters that have fallen into some sort of depravity.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: It's where Tolkien dropped the ball in the Lord of the Rings. Why did the orcs and trolls sign up? Why do they care? Why fight to pulverize the topography? There's no insight into that stuff, into these other presumably nuanced ethnicities, who are of course going out and dying in untold numbers for some faceless Big Bad's sociopathic desire to put a wrecking ball through the world. It's not that we have to be sympathetic with what they're doing, but at least tell us why they're doing it, and be honest about its complexities.

ML: Well in Dragon Age, we certainly have the Darkspawn and The Blight, which is that force of evil, though you get the sense that there's something behind even that as you're playing the game. The nice thing is that when you do have this opposing force, where it's kind of like "I see the arch-demon is rallying the Darkspawn behind him," but as you encounter people who've been touched by the corruption of the Darkspawn, you start to realize things about their motivations. It's like, these things are bestial and evil, but what's really going on here?

Then when you're dealing with the more visibly human forms of villainy, it's definitely not of the moustache-twirling variety. It's very much a comprehensible, almost sympathetic kind of evil.

GO: I spoke recently with Mass Effect 2's Casey Hudson about the way your choices interplay with other characters you meet and change the story in meaningful, non-trivial ways. Is their overlap between your design approaches?

ML: I think it's the strength of our whole studio, that all of our writers and all of our storytellers fall in love with the characters that join you. We celebrate them, and we love their stories and histories. The more texture we feel we can give them, the more we take an element of the game that could be workaday, like "Oh he's the guy who hits things for me," and turn it into "He's the guy who's around all the time, he's the steady part of my party, he's part of my experience," and what can we do with that? It's why people love character generation and face generation and hairstyle choice and that kind of stuff. It's because you're always with these characters, always looking at and interacting with them. So we say, let's expand that to the party and talk about what we can do to bring them to life.

It's giving them things like consistent willingness to jump in and interject. One of our characters is notorious for his wry asides as you go through the adventure. And then you take that a level deeper and slowly make it more apparent that what he's really doing is coping. He's up against some very bad things. He's a Gray Warden, he's taken an oath to defend the world against The Blight and that's finally happening, so this is his coping mechanism. It's not just "the guy who's there to be funny." It's the guy who's being funny because of what he's dealing with. That's where it starts to shine.

Then you add more layers to it, with characters that interact with each another, where your party is quibbling back and forth as they explore. Internal rivalries and such. I remember a sequence where one of my party members was teasing another one for being a big softy. What that does is take moments that might otherwise be "I'm just traveling across this level to go back to that store," or "to pick that one chest that my rogue is now good enough to open," and makes the characters part of your adventure. It makes them part of your story. It gets rid of the mundanity. It replaces it with something that can be amusing, or startling, or insightful--something that can grow the characters. And of course as characters start to feel approval or disapproval for your leadership, their reactions change. They'll challenge you and ask you "What the hell are you doing?" if they disapprove. If they approve, they become inspired. Sometimes they unlock new plots, or new parts of their history they want to explore with you because they trust you enough.

And then you go to the final step where there's subtle cues, like clicking on a character that has high approval for you, and they'll tend to respond briskly and positively. Or click on a character with low approval and they'll respond with exasperation and annoyance. It's adding a layer of texture to the game. If this is a primary mechanic, having a party-based game, why shouldn't it be a party-based experience?

Dragon Age Origins

GO: The quality of your relationships actually affects your party's battle performance?

ML: That's right. There's an approval rating that…it's the closest thing we have to a morality index in the game. The people who are closest to you have their own opinions about how you've acted and interacted with them and with others. Their approval can lead them to become inspired, which is a mechanic in the game whereby they receive boosts based on their feelings about the way you lead.

And of course the party is bigger than the group you take with you immediately. What I find with many players is, they decide on a tone for their Grey Warden, often based on how their origin story played out. Some of the sterner origin stories, take the city elves for instance, tend to lead players toward a more hard-nosed approach. Players then tend to build a party that reflects off that origin story, that feels right for their particular character.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: Fable 2's Peter Molyneux told me the hardest thing to accomplish in a game is, you do all this work, and getting people to notice and appreciate subtle but important things without forcing them to look, is far and away the most challenging thing.

ML: There's a point at which you have to accept there are subtle graces that are best if they're part of a holistic experience. You don't necessarily want to call attention to them. You almost want the player to not notice them, but to kind of lose themselves in the flow of the game. Things like a character who disapproves of you reacting with exasperation instead of nicer tones should feel like a product of the way you're playing and a product of the adventure you've been having. By doing that, I think really good orchestration and really good painting...there are subtleties to it that your eye doesn't necessarily pick out unless you're looking specifically for it. It's like the sound you don't hear until someone points it out. But as soon as they do, you realize it's been part of your surroundings the entire time.

So there are parts where I think that subtlety isn't something the player necessarily notices, but something that helps the player engage and lose themselves in the world, in the game, in the entertainment they've chosen for themselves. The more you can make someone step outside of their head and feel like they're saving their homeland as opposed to "that guy on the screen is saving the world," the more the game is meeting its goals.

GO: Thanks Mike.
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"I'm imagining Kiera Knightly, Katherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina and Meg Fox sitting around your map wearing bandanas vigorously shaking fists full of d20s." - Aval Penworth, in regards to a map I made
"We're talking about the GM that made us fight giant Fruit, Verd is totally unpredictable." - Nikurasu (one of my players)
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Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me."--Ferris Bueller, 1986
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Re: Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

PostPosted by NulSyn » Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:08 pm

I watched the series of gameplay trailers they released a few weeks ago. This game is going to rock.
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Re: Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

PostPosted by verdilak » Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:21 pm

Yeah, I can't wait for it to be released, and I just heard about it today c:_winkgrin
ImageImage
"I'm imagining Kiera Knightly, Katherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina and Meg Fox sitting around your map wearing bandanas vigorously shaking fists full of d20s." - Aval Penworth, in regards to a map I made
"We're talking about the GM that made us fight giant Fruit, Verd is totally unpredictable." - Nikurasu (one of my players)
Everyone is an atheist about some gods, we just went one god further. - Richard Dawkins
Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me."--Ferris Bueller, 1986
To the human body, a spoonful of flour and a spoonful of sugar are identical.
"Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It is where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more." - Terry Pratchett, Pyramids
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Re: Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

PostPosted by Lexi » Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:28 pm

I'm drooling. In my pants.
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Re: Dragon Age: Origins interview w/ lead designer Mike Laidlaw

PostPosted by verdilak » Mon Oct 12, 2009 8:58 pm

:s_omg
ImageImage
"I'm imagining Kiera Knightly, Katherine Zeta-Jones, Angelina and Meg Fox sitting around your map wearing bandanas vigorously shaking fists full of d20s." - Aval Penworth, in regards to a map I made
"We're talking about the GM that made us fight giant Fruit, Verd is totally unpredictable." - Nikurasu (one of my players)
Everyone is an atheist about some gods, we just went one god further. - Richard Dawkins
Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me."--Ferris Bueller, 1986
To the human body, a spoonful of flour and a spoonful of sugar are identical.
"Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It is where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more." - Terry Pratchett, Pyramids
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