Tag Archives: Star Wars

Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

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Let The Past Die

Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I’m gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.

So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.

Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.

Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she’s already learned, and try and start afresh.

The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it’s through the story itself.

Look at the Jedi.

They’re cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren’t all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren’t the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it’s time for them to end.

The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie’s hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it’s one that these two have defined for themselves.

And that’s this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he’s taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn’t stand up, but when we take that away we’re given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.

Rey is a nobody, but she’s still strong with the Force – all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn’t swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.

What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what’s next. Kylo Ren isn’t gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn’t about to be Luke Skywalker.

And we’re better off for that.

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Long Live The Resistance

It’s really easy to see the original Star Wars as an anti-establishment film. Han, Luke, and Leia are a trio of rebels vying to undermine and overthrow the Man. And given that the movie is a product of the 70s, it just might be intentional. Empire has the Man crackdown on our plucky heroes, and Return of The Jedi culminates in the final usurpation.

Of course, within this framework, any story about plucky rebels can be interpreted as anti-establishment. Mega Man Zero is about Zero and the Resistance exposing Neo Arcadia for the dystopia it is. The Matrix has Neo fighting back against the humanity-controlling Machines. Harry Potter and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army to take on Umbridge.

But antiestablishmentarianism is in Star Wars’ DNA, and not just as an idea as in some other examples. And for that, you need look no further than the prequels.

Which, sounds kinda odd, because the heroes in the prequels are part of the establishment. The Jedi Order is in full swing and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are members. Padmé is a Queen and a Senator. On the other hand, Tatooine, a planet beyond the reach of the Republic, is a lawless land of slavery. The villainous Confederacy is trying to destroy the peaceful Republic. Ostensibly, it’s the inverse of the original trilogy’s ethos.

But the prequels are about the fall of the Republic. And it is not brought down by an external resistance: it is brought down from within. For all the fighting the Confederacy does, they don’t destroy the Republic. The Republic is a corrupt system, full of infighting that prevents anything from being done (as we see with Naboo’s blockade in Phantom Menace). The Jedi Order is all too ready to make the jump from peacekeepers to generals. The Republic is not a good thing: it is old and decrepit, and its conversion into the Empire is a product of its own failings. In the prequels, the heroes may be servants of the establishment, but the establishment is not a good thing. Revenge of The Sith has the Senate, who our heroes have been championing, capitulating to Darth Sidious. No, the prequels don’t have Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé fighting the Man, instead their loyalty to the establishment is their undoing.

The recent movies carry on this point of view. The New Republic in The Force Awakens doesn’t believe the First Order to be a credible threat and are so destroyed, leaving Leia and her Resistance to fight on. They were, to an extent, abandoned by the establishment and left to fend for themselves. Rogue One speaks for itself (if you need a reminder: ragtag team of diverse nobodies take on a monolithic empire).

So Star Wars is decidedly anti-establishment. Cool.

The Last Jedi, however, embraces this ethos with an unrivaled vigor. In the bigger, meta scheme of things, Star Wars is now the establishment. It’s no longer this weird sci-fi movie that mixes together westerns, samurai films, and Flash Gordon serials; it’s its own thing and its heroes pop culture legends. So The Last Jedi sets out to deconstruct a lot of Star Wars’ tropes, this time turning its anti-establishment lens on its own heroes. The establishment in The Last Jedi takes the form of a variety of legacies; the legacy of the Jedi, the legacy of the Empire, even the legacy of Luke Skywalker. The movie itself challenges our assumptions about these things, challenging us to ask questions about them we may not be too keen to ask. What if the Jedi should end? What does it mean to have been Luke Skywalker? Why do we care so much for legacies?

Some of these questions are answered, and some of these have no easy answer. Sure, there’s still a plucky Resistance against an indomitable First Order, but director Rian Johnson wants to figure out what Star Wars really is, and that means bringing a hammer to some stuff you’d rather not. It’s excellently done and particularly bold given how safe Star Wars usually is.

I have A Lot Of Thoughts on The Last Jedi, thoughts that I’ll need another viewing and many beer-fueled conversations with friends to mull over. But one thing that’s abundantly clear is that The Last Jedi has a very clear image of its identity, and one facet of that is as the culmination of an anti-establishment vision.

Which is pretty neat.

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The Economy (Again!)

Star Wars Battlefront II is a really fun game. It course-corrects a lot of the problems of the first one and throws in some fun turns. Dogfighting in an A-Wing and charging through Hoth feel plain fun. But Battlefront II also has a seriously screwed up economy, one that’s intrinsically tied to how the game plays.

A lot of contemporary multiplayer games have progression systems, the more you play, the more experience points you get which in turn can unlock new weapons or buffs for your character. There’s usually a great deal of balancing gone into this, where that shiny new gun plays differently, but not usually better. Key thing is, this is all tied to you playing the game.

Not so with Battlefront II. Improving your character or class isn’t done through experience, but rather through accumulating Star Cards by buying loot boxes (or crates, in the game).

Loot boxes are a thing that have been in games for a while, though are only recently crawling into AAA games. They’re a ‘box’ you buy with in-game currency that include a random assortment of gameplay items. They can be cosmetic items, like hats and skins, or gameplay things like buffs and weapons. In a good game, like Uncharted 4, they’ll be new ways to play without upsetting the competition. For something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, they’re cool new toys that reward you for playing.

But in Battlefront II, they are the only way to improve. You can clock over a dozen hours as the Assault class, but unless you buy a crate, you won’t get any of the buffs or different weapons. This isn’t a case where you can level up a certain buff by playing with it a lot (as in other games); the only way you can get a buff – and these can be some serious buffs – is from loot boxes. Randomized loot boxes, mind you. Buying a box doesn’t mean you’ll get a Star Card for the class of your choice, you could get one for the Infiltrator you never play as and a power up for Darth Vader, who you haven’t unlocked yet.

Which, even alone, would hardly be so bad – if these crates were remotely affordable. The Trooper Crate, which contains Star Cards for the infantry you usually play as, costs 4,000 credits a pop (Starfighter and Hero Crates will run you 2,400). For reference, a single match, which can last 15-20 minutes, only gets you 200-300 credits. Optimistically, that’s a little over three hours of gameplay for one randomized pack of cards. A randomized pack which, again, mayn’t even have anything of use.

Now, you can bypass this by buying the boxes with real money (at around $2.50 a pop), but after a lot of outcry publisher EA has suspended that. But improving your characters is still a massive time investment. And no one’s really happy about that – this is a $60 AAA game, not a free iPhone app. The outcry on the internet has been cosmic, prompting EA to suspend those real money microtransactions and slash the price of heroes like Darth Vader (from a whopping 60,000 credits to a more manageable 15,000). There’s also the promise of more adjustments to come, but what those are is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, the economy of Battlefront II is completely in the lurch. We’ve already seen the price of some heroes drop by 75%, and though credits can’t be bought outright, they can be obtained through crates. In light of that, there’s (my) hope that EA will cut down the prices of the crates, so it’s less of an outright grind to improve characters (either that or tie progression to actually playing the game, but what are the chances are that?). The problem is, in the meantime, what becomes of your credits?

I’ve bought a couple Crates since the game came out, but I’ve also been stashing a lot of credits (I never dip below 10k, if I can help it [which I can]). Because if EA adjusts their economy (and at this point it’s inevitable), I don’t want to have ‘wasted’ credits. If they slash their loot box price from 4,000 to 1,000, my purchasing power quadruples. If they adjust credits from a match, well, I’ve a backlog (and they’d have to readjust milestone earnings – another thing I haven’t cashed out on yet because, again what if it changes?). And if they leave it as is, well, still credits in the bank.

But no matter what happens, adjusting EA’s economy’s gonna screw someone over. Maybe it’s someone who’s played for hours and suddenly realizes had they waited their money would be worth more. Maybe someone bought the crates before EA suspended microtransactions and just saw their dollars get undervalued. And no matter what, there’s the chance that it’ll happen because, again, they did cut the price of some heroes by 75%, so there’s a chance for another deflation. I don’t trust EA’s credits.

It’s frustrating. Because there are these features of a game I paid $60 for that I don’t get to experience just yet, or I won’t without some serious time investment. And the shame is that Battlefront II is such a fun game marred by a horrendous, random progression system.

So hopefully it’ll get fixed. In the meantime, I’m sitting on my credits like a crazy old man theorist on gold waiting for the markets to crash.

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On Visceral’s Closure

I like Star Wars. I also like video games. So naturally I was very excited back in 2014 when it was announced that Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the first three Uncharted games was heading up a new Star Wars game. And not just any Star Wars game, this was gonna be a big single-player action adventure, the likes of which we hadn’t had since 2010’s lackluster The Force Unleashed II. We’d been teased years ago with the announcement of 1313 but that was canceled when Disney bought Lucasfilm and shuttered LucasArts, so this new game seemed like them making up for that. And again, this was gonna be a narrative-driven action-adventure game by the woman who directed Uncharted – a series that codified what a good narrative-driven action-adventure game is.

And it’s been cancelled.

News broke on Tuesday that publisher EA was shuttering Visceral Games, the studio working on the game. The assets were going to be repurposed for a new project and the creative team are in limbo at best. EA’s given reason was that it wanted to focus instead on games that “keep players coming back” which, given the publisher’s recent output, sounds like multiplayer games with plenty of space for moneymaking microtransactions.

In any case, Amy Hennig’s Star Wars game, which it turns out was codenamed “Ragtag,” is dead in the water.

Which bums me out and pisses me off.

Because we’re not getting a Star Wars game. And because this is another point in the trend away from my beloved linear, narrative, single-player games.

There aren’t a lot of major single-player games being made. Sure, Call of Duty may have its campaign, but that’s really just a thinly veiled vehicle for the far more popular multiplayer. And the games that do feature robust single player, Mass Effect Andromeda, the Assassin’s Creed series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Grand Theft Auto, to name a few, all feature open worlds with space for the player to explore. Catered, intentional single-player experiences are few and far between, with Uncharted 4, BioShock Infinite, and Dishonored 2 being the few that come to mind. These are games that aren’t open world, but rather games with a deliberate structure designed for the player to experience a particular narrative. But it seems like major studios aren’t willing to take a chance on these games, even with a fantastic creative team behind it.

It’s frustrating, because the same thing happened a couple years ago. Via a terrifying demo, it was announced that there was going to be a new Silent Hill. Not only was this established horror franchise getting a new (and long awaited) game, but it was being headed up by frickin’ Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima, the man behind Metal Gear Solid and a developer that deserves to be called an auteur. But partway through production, publisher Konami decided it wanted to shift focus to mobile games that were cheaper to make and had higher profit margins. Kojima, with his elaborate single player games, was laid off, Silent Hills was canned, and now there will be no horror game headed up by del Toro and Kojima.

That “Ragtag” was canceled is not reassuring for me and my love of these catered experiences. It’s hard to overstate how much of a sure thing the game seemed: you had a proven director working with a proven studio to make a game based on one of the most iconic franchises of all time. That EA has decided that the game is not bankable enough and wants to instead use the assets on another project is a mindbogglingly huge vote of no confidence. Again, this is EA, a company who hasn’t before let a game being bug ridden or devoid of much content prevent it from being published. “Ragtag” was in production for three-and-a-half years when EA pulled the plug, a decision that by all accounts seems to have caught Amy Hennig and everyone at Visceral as off-guard as we were. It’s disappointing, and honestly kinda heartbreaking, that EA doesn’t want to follow through with a game that had so much going for it.

But then, EA is a company, and one of the biggest video game publishers at that. Based on their recent output, they want cash cows they can milk through micro-transactions and buyable add-ons. A solidly paced game, where encounters flow into another and finally reach an absolute resolution with little room for later made content or padded sidequests? Who needs that when you have loot boxes that let players pay more money to be more powerful?

Maybe whatever “Ragtag” morphs into will end up being a good game. Maybe other studios like Naughty Dog and directors like Ken Levine will continue to show that these linear, narrative-focused single-player games still have a place. But no matter what, we won’t be getting this Star Wars game headed by Amy Hennig.

And that really sucks.

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Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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