Tag Archives: The Stanley Parable

The Year in Review: GOTY 7 Through 10

The Year in Review: GOTY 7 Through 10

Okay, yeah, this is starting off with the bottom four games, number seven through ten. Why? Because I said so. Also because I didn’t plan ahead and now there are ten games to get through and only seven posting days left. Hashtag oops.

But I also think this aligns with a natural division of the list. These four games speak to me in mostly one impeccable, sizable way, but they do so in a way that trumps the breadth achieved by most others from this year. There’s something to be said for setting a goal and achieving it, and that is “hey look, you’re on this one guy’s end-of-the-year list.”

Super Mario 3D World

10. Super Mario 3D World

The Year of Luigi “ends” with a Mario game coming out on top. Yeah, Luigi is in there, but come on. This is a Mario game, and what a Mario game it is. It’s common knowledge/a commonly held conspiracy theory that there are several teams within Nintendo design games. Some act as farm leagues, building up chops on smaller titles with fundamentals while the A-team blows minds.

This is the product of the A-team, the same project group that ginned up the absolutely stellar (ha!) Super Mario Galaxy. In between, we were treated to several games that retread old ground and only marginally stepped off the path, though excellent as they were. Super Mario 3D World looks like more of the same, but it’s all about the details.

Mario has been around for so long, you distinguish new games in the franchise solely on nuance because the basics are always there; he slides when he stops, his jumps have a peculiar Bézier-shaped acceleration curve, and so on. In Super Mario 3D World, there is a host of nigh imperceptible touches that make it just a happy, scary, amazing game. Being a cat shouldn’t be so fun, and neither should be screwing over your friends, but this game does it.

Resogun

9. Resogun

Resogun doesn’t try to do a whole lot. It’s kind of like when you buy the collector’s set of The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix; you know what you’re getting (a bundle of things you like, love, and tolerate in varying amounts and intensities), but the packaging is what sells you.

And Resogun is nothing more than an amalgam of old school video game design put together with modern sensibilities on the outside. It’s Defender with a bullet hell slant and kind of makes your head spin in a very Tempest way. And it’s just fantastic.

Resogun works because it throws everything at you and you have to figure out how to deal with it. You figure out how to rescue humans, what order to pick them up, whether to throw them or fly them into the goal, boost now or boost later, save or expend your Fuck Everything laser, and so much more, all of which is roughly calculated and thrown in the wind within the span of a single millisecond. And it makes the best argument for a speaker on your controller ever.

Guacamelee!

8. Guacamelee!

Guacamelee! just gets me. Its humor could sometimes miss more than it hits and the co-op was kind of a drag, but its combat and platforming is exactly what I needed when it came out. The fighting is intricate in a way that demands to be conquered. It’s just asking for it. It is Spain, and I am Napoleon.

The move list starts out simple enough, but soon you unlock additional attacks that broaden your range of abilities and literal range of your damage potential. And then enemies start to color-coordinate themselves against certain moves, forcing you to think on your feet about who needs to be taken out first (some of those fuckers will really ruin your day if you let them), who just needs to be thrown into a corner, and who is just impossible to attack at the moment.

And then you throw in the fact that you have to deal with two realities of enemies and platforms with the world-switching mechanic. You have to keep tabs on what exists in what realm and what doesn’t, what can hurt you where. Guacamelee! is such an impressively cerebral game that it did and continues to take me by surprise.

The Stanley Parable

7. The Stanley Parable

I don’t think I’ll ever play The Stanley Parable again. I won’t have to. It gave me everything it had to give the first time because I played through it over two dozen times in one sitting. Or at least I think I did. Did I? Wait, who’s talking? WHO’S THERE?!

Honestly, I would only count it all as one playthrough. But I was thorough as hell because that’s what happens when you stumble across a diamond in the rough. You pick it up, dust it off, and hold it. You press it up to your eye and spin it around, looking through it and at all angles. It’s a curiosity, lingering in the desert, uncaring if you find it or not or whether you even give a damn once you do.

The Stanley Parable had such a specific vision in mind and it achieved it. From soup to nuts, it grabbed me by the back of my head and shoved my face into its weird, hairy, immaculately sculpted chest of non sequiturs, simultaneously hilarious and painful meta commentary, and ability to make me fall in love with a break room. (Also, this is a bit of a cheat since this is largely unchanged from its original release, but whatever.)

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You Hear a Voice

You Hear a Voice

The Stanley Parable has been, for the most part, well-received. There’s not much I’ve heard in the way of complaints except for its cost versus length and, most notably, its use of a narrator. Having that (sometimes) omniscient voice describing things that aren’t happening, can’t happen, or just happened is vital to its commentary. Without it, The Stanley Parable would be a much stranger game indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.

Narration, however, is largely a tool that eschews subtlety. It’s one of the benefits of books; the author can guide readers to notice and not notice certain things like reactions and clues that would otherwise wreck the pace of a moving visual medium like film.

Most importantly, though, narration can let you into the thoughts of a character. If it’s a first-person tale, then you can skip all the adjectives and adverbs in describing characters as they walk and talk and instead just say what’s important: how those actions are perceived by everyone else. And if it’s third-person, you have more liberty in jumping between scenes and characters without having to force intersecting paths in the story.

Arrested Development

But when it comes to video games and television, it becomes a bit of a crutch. You know how everyone thought it was super cool when Arrested Development did the mockumentary-style of show but the slew of imitators that followed kind of soured the public on it? It’s because we realized as an audience that it’s a bit lazy in terms of storytelling.

The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation don’t necessarily have narration, but they do all have the talking head segments that are a staple of the mockumentary format, which, as all of those shows went on, eventually became an artifact of convenience rather than formative development. For the remaining moments of those shows, the camera crew doesn’t exist, gets shots that are basically impossible for documentaries, and might as well belong to a more cinematic single camera setup.

The interview segments where characters tell you straight up the morals learned, their thoughts, and what you need to take away from a joke or story or event are lazy, though the quality of those things tend to make up for the narrative crutch (hence their popularity). But they’re still kind of lazy.

BioShock

Narrators have also become something of a trend in video games, as a few critics have lamented on Twitter with the release of The Stanley Parable. Bastion most recently made it a big deal again, thought before that Atlas in BioShock and Max Payne in, uh, Max Payne both had a good run at the framework. And while I found the delightfully British voice to be essential to The Stanley Parable (oh, and LittleBigPlanet, speaking of British narrators), I totally understand where those people are coming from with narrators.

I’ve put some thought into it, though, and it occurs to me that in-game presentation of story in a video game is most like a stage play with a Greek chorus. In television and movies, directors and editors can point the audience to love or hate, trust or question a character just based on the lingering moments of a shot. What you see is all within control of the person with Final Cut.

Video games, though, don’t have that same control, or at least they don’t when you’re playing and in control. When the narration comes in while you’re wandering around of your own accord like in The Stanley Parable, it functions as a Greek chorus, a non-diegetic collective that’s part of a play that voices the thoughts and themes of the ongoing show to the audience. They do this because you can’t zoom in on someone’s face on a stage to get a point across.

The Stanley Parable

I think that’s why narration in video games largely goes without comment. We realize that they serve a purpose, so that we can maintain agency while accruing narrative information (not to mention it’s ripe for the unreliable sort, my favorite kind of narrator). In The Stanley Parable‘s case, we also get a superb performance from Kevan Brighting, but we understand that it’s a cog from another machine that fits rather well into video games. It can be lazy in most narrative frameworks, but it fits our visual and player-driven medium just fine.

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A Question of Free Will

A Question of Free Will

(This primarily concerns itself with The Stanley Parable, so if you plan on playing it and haven’t yet, maybe come back to this later because this will contain mild spoilers. Maybe. You can do whatever. You are your own man. Follow your desires, friend. Fly with your dreams.)

There are many layers to The Stanley Parable. It’s a fantastic game that operates firstly as a commentary on the tropes of the industry. Merely turning on achievements will net you your first one, as will attempting to jump in a game that relegates the space bar to a keyboard abomination.

It is extremely self-aware. There is the broom closet, one of the few doors you can actually open in Stanley’s office. The narrator will then ask you why are you in there, why are you clicking on everything, why can’t you just get out of there and get on with the story. It’s particularly incisive on the linear design staple of obvious one-off paths full of collectibles and side quests.

The Stanley Parable

Then, it is obviously a parable of the tragedies of office life, to resign yourself to spending more time in a bleak, desolate pen of gray walls than at home with your family and friends. What justifies giving up your dreams for something as philosophically meaningless as job and financial security? Giving up what makes you human in exchange for being referred to as nothing but a number is ludicrous, and yet that is the life of Stanley and so many more in the world.

In fact, that “so many more” may include you. You plop down in your seat in your cubicle, slink down, and browse the Internet until 9:30, maybe 10:00 AM. You sit and watch the clock in the break room at lunch, dreading when it counts down the dwindling minutes of your lunch hour.

Four o’clock rolls around and you watch the second hand tick away the least productive time of the day. Good thing you have a half hour commute ahead of you before you get home, eat dinner, and go to sleep before you wake up to do it all over again.

The Stanley Parable

And while that is a striking comparison to the problems of settling into the nine-to-five life, The Stanley Parable is also fairly allegorical. The parable, in fact, may be more accurately described as pertaining to the question of free will.

The narrator actually points it out in the ending where you go through the museum of the game’s development. If all the paths are predetermined in life, then the choices and the life are meaningless and without purpose. In video games, this raises especially interesting questions. Games, even the ones that contain “randomly” generated dungeons, weapons, and enemies, are all crafted with specially designed possibilities.

The Stanley Parable highlights this especially well. It is such a consolidated gaming experience; from the simplified controls to the nearly always binary choices, it is a fundamental form of modern games. Because the major beats of a game are pins that players must navigate to, the space between them are where they make the game their own.

The Stanley Parable

But when The Stanley Parable doesn’t let you jump or shoot or customize your Stanley and doesn’t let you instigate crew romances, that intermediate space where you make the game your own in Call of Duty or Battlefield doesn’t exist. The game’s design forces you to realize very quickly and harshly that you are walking a path already considered.

The narrator knows everything you’re doing as you’re doing it. When you jump out of the window and land outside, it’s a known outcome. When you fall to your death on the lift, the developer already had that planned. Clicking everything in the office, closing your office door, etc. All of it—all of it—was put there deliberately. No matter how clever you think you’re being, you’re walking a line that’s already been drawn.

It’s the illusion of free will. By offering you two doors, you think that going right is defying expectations. By choosing to turn on the mind control device, you think that you are retaining power. The Stanley Parable makes you question the merits of office life, it makes you think about whether operating inside of video game design tropes is good or bad, but it most importantly makes you think about whether your choices matter. Because they just might not mean a god damn thing.

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The Stanley Parable Review: A Masterful Choice

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is very difficult to talk about. You can beat it in less than five minutes, but by the time you’re done with it, three hours will have passed. Then in discussing any part of it, you destroy the effect of the game’s actions, though not any part of its intent. And any meaningful diminishing of The Stanley Parable is doing it a disservice, because this is an essential game on so many levels.

If you don’t recall it from years past, The Stanley Parable is a first-person narrative, uh, puzzle game that serves to be more commentary than game, though being a game is part of the commentary. It started out as a Half-Life 2 mod back in July of 2011 by Davey Wreden, though many more people have contributed to the project in its most recent and likely final incarnation. Most of the framework remains unchanged from its days as a mod, but its polish adds a lot to the game.

It adds a lot to an already substantial game. Not necessarily substantial in how much time it takes, but it lampoons, addresses, questions, pokes, and gently ribs so much you hold dear with how stories and video games work. It takes a little chunk of your time to tell you the story of a man named Stanley who works in an office doing nothing more than receiving commands and then input those commands into a keyboard. Every. Single. Day.

(From here on out, there will be minor spoilers for the game because it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the point of The Stanley Parable without bringing up its content, nearly all of which is specific and particular. If you have any inkling of playing this game—and you should—then stop reading and go play it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep going. Or do whatever you want. The Stanley Parable taught me better than to try to control someone.)

But one day, his coworkers disappear. And a delightfully British narrator voiced by the absolutely stellar and game-making Kevan Brighting steps in to give personality to the otherwise voiceless proceedings. Or more accurately, a narrator steps in to direct you where to go to find out what happened on this strange, empty day. You don’t pick up collectibles or even jump; you just go about Stanley’s life.

If you follow all of his implicit instructions (think of the narrator from Bastion, where sometimes he describes your actions and other times he describes the action around you), you can finish the game rather quickly. The speedrun achievement, in fact, is for a completion time of 4:22, and you will find an interesting story that comments on the pointless nature of office life and working at a job you don’t love.

The Stanley Parable

As a guy who used to work in a giant corporate office housing one of the biggest fast food companies in the world, this landed so close to home, I had to wonder if my name was actually Stanley. I’ve had countless attempts trying to subtly influence my friends to pursue their passions in lieu of job security and daily indignation (which has so far produced a man quitting his 9-to-5 to drive around New Mexico and sleep in a camper). This is the first point at which the game becomes essential.

But when you start to deviate from the script, then the game begins to show its true colors. You will end up playing through the game multiple times, each time ending up in a different predicament, but each one as poignant as the last. One ending, which you can bring about with startling efficiency, addresses the cowardice of ignoring the world beyond your grasp. Another makes you question what it means to exist in a life of predetermined paths. Though it will often have you chuckling at its words, the game will also make you think.

It will make you think about the philosophical implications of choice and existence, yes, but it also will make you question what that means inside a video game…while playing a video game. The design of the game is very linear, but its serves a purpose: its own blueprint of player interaction has been so finely tuned that when it comments on the nature of player agency and curiosity, you accept that the developer knows what he’s talking about. (It makes me wonder, though, if people less versed in video game tropes will find it equally fascinating.)

The Stanley Parable

Nearly all of your actions have been considered. You will face a choice—left or right—over and over again, and this choice will come to affect the way you view all other choices both literally through the game and through your mental considerations. And your choices will lead you down so many varying paths of defiance and acceptance. This, more than anything, is a game about free will.

Thematically speaking, The Stanley Parable is about you accepting that your choices are ultimately meaningless. It directly addresses it in one particular (and small, confined) instance, but it spreads what could have otherwise been a rote dissection of game design out into a side quest, a pulse-pounding action sequence, a parodic wink/nudge of the industry’s so-called standards, and so much more. As soon as you step away from the straight line leading you from A to B, you reject all the virtual impetus inherent in the medium, but to get anywhere, you have to accept them once more. Do you have control, or does the designer? Is that the true parable here?

It would be heartbreaking of the game wasn’t so entertaining. Of course, the moment following playing The Stanley Parable will probably be some of the most somber of your gaming career, but it’s an important experience. It’s why it’s important to read dissenting opinions of both game reviews and Supreme Court decisions. It’s why satire is just as vital to discourse as is genuine opinion. It’s why you should play The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable

+ The narrator is damn near close to perfect
+ Metaphysical commentary on choice presented in a medium based on choice is brilliant
+ There are moments where the game is truly beautiful, psychologically and graphically
+ Inspirational mainline about getting out of a drone job
+ Sobering realization that choices and life in games are meaningless

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Stanley Parable
Release: October 17, 2013
Genre: First-person narrative
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.stanleyparable.com/

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Fantastic Arcade 2013: An Island in the Sea

Fantastic Arcade 2013: An Island in the Sea

Fantastic Fest has grown into quite the film festival. It started out sizable right from the get-go what with Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse and Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News backing the entire proceedings, but it sure has grown regardless. Just look at the Wikipedia page and check out the immensely impressive list of premieres from last year.

Yet at the peak of this expansion, there is a setback. This is the first—and hopefully only—year that the event has not taken place at the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin. This year, it all takes place 17 miles north at the Lakeline location. It’s barely Austin; the northern region of the Texas capital is nothing like the bustling, manic college town most people are familiar with. Deer roam at night and everything is a chain restaurant.

It’s a stark contrast to the usual setup because now, everything is centralized into a single theater due to some, uh, poorly timed demolition. This, unfortunately, includes the Fantastic Arcade portion, an incredibly tiny and intimate affair of indie developers from all over the world hanging out, drinking, talking, and playing games.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

Last year was an absurdly small show, which was rather commendable. The entire event was squeezed into the back room of The Highball where a stage, tables of demo stations, and a few full cabinets were housed. As I sat at a booth table (this was, after all, a restaurant as well), developers came by and showed off their laptops chock full of in-progress games.

Just one table over, Phil Fish of Fez fame sat and roused a lot of rabble. It was just fantastic, especially considering it ended with a house party of drunken indies playing games, projecting stuff onto the side of the house, and juggling fire. The entire weekend felt like hanging out with your cabin at summer camp, except everyone wants to talk about video games at high volumes.

This year, Fantastic Arcade got an entire theater at the Alamo Drafthouse where dev talks and tournaments took place. In the lobby of the building, between the concessions and the branching pathways to the other screens, there was a row of anchored PlayStation Vitas and a smattering of standup cabinets. Stuck along the back wall were two laptops from Devolver Digital showing Shadow Warrior and Luftrausers as well as a table where video game wares were being slung.

Panoramical

One of the cabinets was a somewhat of a non-game called Panoramical from Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga. It’s an installation piece where you move sliders and turn knobs to control a continuous sound mix, which also changes the visualizations flowing in front of you. (It’s also the thing that was being projected on the side of the house last year.)

For the most part, it looks a bit like Proteus but with a sound deck. It looks like you’re flying over foggy mountains, but as you change the mix, flowers bloom into trees and sun-like orbs flit in and out of existence. The sky pulses with color and rhythm while stars streak in as it fades into night.

People would come by, stare for a spell, and keep walking. But those brave enough to put on the headphones and venture into the pastel-colored unknown began to figure it out. Few people futzed about for more than a few minutes, but they would always tweak things as they saw fit. Some loved the faster tempo and dizzying scroll of the peaks below while others loved seeing stars lazily bob past over a slowly undulating plane.

And then they would linger. They would hang around or walk away and come back, tempted to always see if other passersby would appreciate their creation. Place in the midst of hundreds of movie-watchers milling about, this was perfect. Watching people go through the entire cycle of intrigue, confusion, accomplishment, and pride was utterly entrancing.

Samurai Gunn

That is, of course, if you can look past the gaggles of people standing together playing Samurai Gunn. Developed by Teknopants, the pen name for the singular fellow Beau Blyth, it’s a super fast side-scrolling multiplayer brawler. Each character has a sword and a three-shot gun and dies in a single hit.

Jumping in, the surface level seems very simple. Don’t get hit by bullets or swords and hit other players with whatever you can. But then layers emerge.

Button mashing the sword almost always ends poorly; timing the swipes maximizes your chances for surviving an encounter. Keeping track of the shots fired by other players informs whether or not it’s safe to jump over them. The edges of the stages connect Pac-Man-style, so you can surprise unsuspecting players from looping vantage points. Two players slashing each other negates both attacks, arousing a Bushido showdown sensation.

Samurai Gunn

There’s actually a showdown situation that can occur, too. It’s the first player to 11 kills that wins, but ties are settled with a one-on-one battle against a low-hung sunset. And it is predictably tense. There were never sweatier hands.

The speed of the game informs the design and it all comes together to make a quick and aggressive game of yelling a regret. Many deaths come at the hand of poor decisions. “I shouldn’t have jumped, dammit, I knew he had another bullet.” “I can’t believe I got baited into the middle of the stage.” It’s a game as much about creating opportunities as it is about capitalizing on those presented to you.

Starwhal: Just the Tip at Fantastic Arcade 2013

Just on the other side of Samurai Gunn is a game called Starwhal: Just the Tip, a four-player, neon-drenched game by Jason Nuyens. It has a real Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon look to it with four space-bound narwhals that can only be described as, well, floppy. You point your horned sea mammal with the left stick, propel yourself with the A button, and direct sharpened end with the right stick.

Each narwhal has a heart, and each round starts with the bright and explicit directive of “pierce the heart.” You have a certain amount of hits you can take, and the last one standing wins the round.

It’s a very simple game, but when you have such ridiculous and imprecise controls with three other people next to you laughing and yelling, it’s a ton of fun. The game slows down when killing collisions are imminent, adding drama to the proceedings and absurdity to almost every lunge.

Four floppy neon whales stacked on each other, slipping in and out of time warp as the person on the bottom futilely waggles its horn up and down with the faint hope of scraping a hit out of the dog pile. (Whale pile?) There’s not much more you can ask for from the video game medium.

Wasteland Kings at Fantastic Arcade 2013

Among the other cabinets was Vlambeer’s Wasteland Kings, which continues to be amazing. It’s a post-apocalyptic top-down shooter roguelike wherein you play as a mutant—selected from many with different attributes and abilities—fighting for the throne (presumably bearing the title of Wasteland King).

Played with the WASD keys and the mouse, you fire off your weapon to eliminate all of the enemies in the stage. Your weapon can range from your base starting pistol to a laser gun to a sledgehammer, each one with its own strategy associated with it. You can carry two at a time and open chests to find new armaments or ammo, which is essential because running out often lands you in a pickle.

When you’ve cleared out all of the baddies, which can be desert bandits or giant mutated rats that spew out more rats or tiny little maggots, you’re sucked into a portal and thrown into the next arena. In between, you select a character upgrade like faster movement speed or upgraded special ability (like a dodge roll or crystallized shielding) or just a restock on health and ammo.

It’s a frantic game and forces you to judiciously use your resources and plan around being under-equipped. The crossbow especially forces you to consider your attack since it fires so slowly. The challenge is that you and the enemies move so quickly that taking that time is often a bad idea, so you have to toe a line between being methodical and being reactionary. It’s simply fantastic.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

There were also two Ouya games shoehorned into arcade cabinets: No Brakes Valet by Justin Smith and TowerFall by Matt Thorson. No Brakes Valet is still ludicrous (it’s about trying to park cars without using the brakes, natch) and TowerFall is still absolutely manic fun. In fact, those two adjectives can also be applied to the other cabinets as well: Stephen Ascher’s breakdancing Q.E.D. and TheCatamite’s strange anti-dungeon-crawler dungeon crawler Goblet Grotto.

Just as interesting as all of these weird experiments in busting a move and flopping sea creatures are the talks going on just down the hall in theater nine. It’s easy to miss, but just a glance will point you in the right direction as a Devolver Digital banner grabs your attention and laughter lures you in like a siren’s song.

Through the four days of Fantastic Fest, developers and players would get a chance to get up in front of everyone and do their thing, which is either talk or design or play (or maybe all three). Davey Wreden walked us through the indescribable and perfectly honed nonsense of The Stanley Parable while Steve Gaynor described what it was developing the narrative of Gone Home. Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman did live development for Wasteland Kings while a cabal of indie developers and organizer Wiley Wiggins did dramatic readings of Choosatron Deluxe Adventure Matrix, a box that allows for choose-your-own-adventure stories to unfold and be printed out via four buttons and a receipt printer.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

And when the talks winded down, daily tournaments for Pistol Cat and VideoHeroeS would take place, as would daily challenges for Spelunky (with commentary!). There were always activities planned for attendees, keeping those from all over Austin, the United States, and the world entertained. And all within a couple thousand square feet.

If you turned any direction, you would see someone playing a game or talking about a game. If you were lucky, you’d see some sitting down with a laptop to pull up code and show what they were working on next. But it never felt as safe as it did last year. Unless you were looking for it, you would have never found it in that little bowling alley.

But within the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, even those dedicated to maximizing their movie-watching schedules found time to stand amongst the nonsense in our little digital alcove. Few wandered back into the theater, though. Fantastic Fest attendees walked out in the light, perusing menus of movies and games and libations.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

Theirs was a process of consumption, waiting to be fed another serving of cinema. In our little cave, we interacted, created. The kiddie table of raucous laughter and buzzing chatter, the island of misfit toys where ideas and people that don’t fit into holes made for square pegs go to be appreciated. Ignore the schemers in the corner. Talk over their wide-eyed optimism and stomp around their blooming possibilities. No, don’t mind them. They’re just changing an industry.

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