Interview: Nick Doerr (Undead Darlings)

Haris Odobašic, 20. April 2016

Interview: Nick Doerr (Undead Darlings)

Zombie Waifus and Localisation Woes (Original)

Das ist die komplette Version unseres Interviews mit Nick Doerr. Wer keine Lust auf Englisch hat, findet hier die deutsche Fassung, welche nur die Highlights enthält.

I'll be the first to admit that I have an irrational dislike of Western developed "JRPGs". I firmly blame Sudeki, a game on the original Xbox and Microsoft's ill-fated attempt at developing their own JRPG to make up for the lack of titles in the genre on their console. But then I came across Mr. Tired Media’s Undead Darlings and the idea just appealed to me. A hybrid between a visual novel and a dungeon crawling RPG might seem like an odd combination, but having played games that have mixed those elements previously I have to say that it just ends up meshing very well together. Considering how intense the challenge posed by a typical dungeon crawler can get, having elaborate story moments can feel quite refreshing and provide some much needed balance.

So curiosity got the better of me, I took a look at the game and immediately I was struck by the quality of the dialogue, which was not only well written but also brimming with humour. Genuine humour, none of the referential humour we often see used as a substitute to elicit some easy laughs. The characters were just so charming that I really wanted to see how they would interact over the course of a full game and how their conversations would play out. But what impressed me even more was just how Japanese the writing felt.

Now, I get that this is a rather ridiculous notion. How could a game written by an American developer end up feeling Japanese? But when we in the west consume Japanese media, it's already a somewhat distorted version. The nature of Japanese language and diverging cultural undercurrents as well as localisation processes mean that any product released over here is bound to be an interpretation of the original that might or might not be an accurate representation. Most of the companies that localise games tend to develop their own distinctive style which colours their work. So when I say that it "feels" Japanese I am drawing a parallel with the writing in this game and how Japanese games typically read after they have been worked on by many US localisation companies.

That Undead Darling elicits this particular response in me is no mere coincidence however. Nick Doerr of Mr. Tired Media, the main developer behind the game and its script writer, used to work with NIS America for multiple years, localising titles such as the Hyperdimension Neptunia series. So in case you wonder who is most to blame for the Neptunia fandom and the ridiculous amount of memes spawned by those games, fingers should be pointed straight at Nick. I had the opportunity to steal some of his precious game dev time to ask him questions about Undead Darlings but also about his work in the localisation industry, Hyperdimension Neptunia and even everyone's favourite idol anime Love Live!.

Haris: Undead Darlings is offering one of the weirdest takes on the zombie genre I’ve seen so far. I mean… zombie waifus!? How did you come up with the idea for the game and what’s the development history so far?

Nick: Zombie waifus for everyone! We know there are a ton of zombie-type games out there, and we wanted to make something that would stand apart from the horde while winking and nodding at the people tired of the usual zombie-related entertainment. Myself, Ryan, and a few others were having lunch together one day and we came up with the concept of “cute anime zombie apocalypse dating sim.” We talked about it more and more, narrowing the design style and general story content, and then realized it had a lot of potential. We hired the artist Hitsukuya to bring our characters to life, moved our office to Seattle, WA, and expanded the scope of the game to a dating sim and dungeon-crawling RPG hybrid.


Haris: After your first Kickstarter missed the mark despite some good early momentum, why did you decide to go down the same route again? What made it seem like a better option compared to funding methods like Patreon or an Early Access release on Steam?

Nick: The first Kickstarter was a good learning experience and told us a lot about what we needed to change and focus on moving forward. The timing wasn’t great and the game was too rough to have shown off, but we had hit a big financial roadblock and wanted to gauge interest in this idea. When our game was Greenlit on Steam in just seven days, we could conclude that demand for the idea is there, but what we showed off was not polished enough to pledge to with confidence.

So we want to try Kickstarter again because we’ve learned from the first time, and when asking people on Twitter and our Prefundia page to weigh in on their platform of choice, Kickstarter came up the most often.

Patreon is a valid alternative, but having a game funded in full via Kickstarter means we can pay everyone to work at the same time, instead of monthly budgets going toward one or two items at a time. Basically, with Kickstarter we can get everything done in a more efficient manner and get the game out sooner!

Rather than have an Early Access on Steam, we’re aiming to have a prototype demo playable during our Kickstarter campaign. Whether we’ll be able to make it in time is subject to change, but that’s the plan. How it’ll be distributed hasn’t been decided, but this way anyone can give the concepts we’re working on a try. I’m hoping to have the same prototype demo available on PS4, but that’ll depend on if the game ports without issues. If we can’t get a prototype demo out, I’ll become rather active on Twitch so you can see the development process and watch as we play what we DID get done.


Haris: Looking back at your first Kickstarter, the word count for the game was at 80,000 words and you had an estimate up that the final game would be around 100,000 words. Now half a year later it’s like you went a bit crazy with the copy & paste function considering that the game script clocks in at 300,000 words packing the amount of content you’d expect from a novel and I am talking George R. R. Martin or Leo Tolstoy here. So what lead to this explosion in content and how will it impact the game?

Nick: Yeah, it kind of exploded. Our word count back then was based on the length of a single chapter, without realizing just how large some of the later chapters would be in terms of text and choice-based dialogue. Interestingly enough, not much copy/paste going on! Every dialogue branch has its own unique conversation, so when you set out to write a scene with three choice points (1, 2, 3), each with three dialogue branches (1: a, b, c; 2: a, b, c; 3: a. b, c), it grows exponentially.

Can I rant for a minute about why that happened? We created pretty intense backstories for each of the characters, so when you write dialogue for these characters for weeks and months on end, you start to really enjoy the conversations they come up with and let them play out organically. Maybe it’s something only other writers can identify with, but there’s a strange point where the characters almost dictate what you type, and not the other way around. Scenes became even more fun and vibrant, packed with energy and fascinating tidbits about each character... So if I can be extremely cheesy, what led to this explosion of content was love. Love for the characters and their friendships with one another, and love for the conversations they have.

How this impacts the game and players is replay value. Since it’s not possible to get the coveted “harem” ending in a single try, New Game + offers the opportunity to not just get a different ending, but to experience a whole new unique set of conversations. It should be a very different experience at least three times, since most choices come in sets of three.

» I don’t like referencing memes, personally, because of the speed at which they age. «

Haris: People familiar with your localisation work might remember you best for a humour that’s firmly rooted in pop culture references and internet memes. Considering that with Undead Darlings the shackles are off what kind of humour can we expect?

Haha, the shackles... Well, I’m aiming for more original humor and less referential humor. One character is into movie and game references, so there’s still some of that, but I’m not using many memes at all. I don’t like referencing memes, personally, because of the speed at which they age. I’d rather something we do become a meme itself—that’s a little more of an accomplishment. Plus, there’s always the off chance that something someone says in the game becomes a meme reference unintentionally; it’s happened before!

If I could describe the humor style by comparing it to something else... Ugh, I hope this doesn’t come across as me thinking too highly of myself, but a fair comparison would be a mix between Daily Lives of High School Boys and Arrested Development. Or maybe “humor in unexpected places” and “non-sequiturs” summarizes it the same way.

Haris: We are living in what could be considered a golden age for first person dungeon crawler RPGs. From mainstays like the Etrian Odyssey series to recent highlights such as the excellent Dungeon Travelers 2 there are plenty of games for fans of the genre to enjoy. How will Undead Darlings fit in?

Nick: It truly is the golden age for this type of game! I’d say we’re also in the midst of a visual novel revolution—I’ve seen more visual novels come out in the US this past year or two than ever before. [/i]Undead Darlings[/i] fits amidst the growth of both genres, being a visual novel and a dungeon-crawler RPG.

My hope is that our game is accepted by both crowds, and without sacrificing what makes them great as standalone genres. I love both genres, and I want to see them come together like this!


Haris: When it comes to fighting you have opted for a 3 character party which is rather unusual, considering that most games in the genre give you five characters to control. How will you ensure that despite having fewer characters the game will still offer the challenging and tactical gameplay that is typical for the genre?

Nick: I’ve always found three-member parties effective in terms of strategizing. Given that the six playable characters in our game each have a different core “class,” making the battles strategic is certainly a key focus. It doesn’t even end with battle itself, though. A system that demands strategic party lineups like this means you’ll be giving each girl plenty of time in the active party. That, in turn, means you will find more sub-events in dungeons because those appear based on your party lineup!

One game I’ve always loved is Vagrant Story. I bring it up because in that game, building up damage through well-timed combo multipliers was often the only way to defeat an enemy—even the final boss. I envision the balancing in Undead Darlings battles to rely heavily on exploiting enemy weaknesses, which increases a damage multiplier that you can unleash during a chosen attack. In other words, kind of like in Dungeon Travelers 2, spamming regular attacks should get you a Game Over pretty quick. DT2 post-game, anyone? Awesome challenge.

When enemy and party numbers are smaller, each encounter should feel more significant. Giving each enemy specific approaches to defeat (but always allowing for more than one) ensures strategic thought in battle—well, until you set up those approaches as customized Macros so that you can auto-battle based on the enemy you’re facing. This is a cool feature I remember from Phantasy Star IV that I’ve wanted to resurrect for a while.

Haris: How will character progression work in Undead Darlings and will raising affection with the various heroines have an impact on their stats/skills?

Nick: Character affection levels impacting stats and skills is something I really want to do, but we want to get the visual novel and RPG mechanics work right on their own merits before expanding and integrating the two in such a manner. Basically, there’s always room to expand on existing ideas in sequels! I’d really love to be able to write a sequel; I already have a plot and character roster in mind.

» We’re making a really fun dungeon crawler that can be enjoyed by hardcore and casual crawlers alike because of how many things it does different from the dedicated single-genre games. «

Haris: Undead Darlings seems more focussed on the visual novel aspect than comparable games which is probably going to attract some people that typically don’t play dungeon crawlers. How will you balance the need to make the game accessible to those people with the expectations of dungeon crawler fans?

Nick: That’s the thing with hybrid-genre games like this. While I don’t think we’ll be making the “most challenging” or “complex” dungeon crawler ever made, I do think we’re making a really fun dungeon crawler that can be enjoyed by hardcore and casual crawlers alike because of how many things it does different from the dedicated single-genre games. A smaller party count, novel battle and skill mechanics, a cool visual style, plenty of durability-based loot, and a character-driven visual novel focus should make it a really unique experience for dungeon crawler fans of all levels.

In the same way, reverse the above for visual novel fans. While I don’t think it’ll be the most complicated branches-upon-branches visual novel ever made, it tells a great story with a focus on likable characters, all of whom have interesting motivations and backstories to learn. There is plenty of replay value because of the vastly different script you’ll experience by making different choices. Plus, a great way to learn about the characters is to explore during dungeon crawler segments and find sub-events or other events. The more you explore, the stronger you’ll become, so those who seek the most story will also be the most ready to face the challenges of this particular RPG genre.


Haris: With a demo planned for the Kickstarter campaign what can potential backers expect? Will the content in the demo be featured in the full game or is some of it exclusive to the demo?

Nick: We’ve started calling it a “prototype” demo because we don’t want players to misunderstand what they are playing versus what the final product will be. A demo would be taken as a near-final build, but we’re going to have more of a “prototype,” which is more of an in-progress peek at a game’s ongoing development.

I want us to offer an entire chapter of the game for people to try, which consists of a couple of hours of dialogue and a couple of hours of dungeon crawling, give or take an hour depending on your skill!

Since everyone working on the game is on contract instead of salary, their availabilities ebb weekly, sometimes daily. That said, it may not be possible to get the prototype ready in time, but I want to make one regardless.

So the content of the demo will be in the full game, but what players will see is by no means final. The text may be tweaked, events reordered... Basically, the prototype is also a feedback engine for backers to let us know what they liked, what needs work, and other suggestions. Things like movement speed in dungeon, battle speed, how text advancement works, ways to denote a line of text that will have a choice box appear (it’s possible to spam right through a line of text before the choice box can appear, resulting in players inadvertently picking the first choice), dungeon map layouts, enemy spawns, detail of graphics, lighting... These are all aspects that will be present in the prototype, but can be further polished or improved upon through backer feedback. I definitely want everything to be “better” in the final game than the prototype—that’s a big reason for having prototypes, after all!

» I want to make sure people don’t think I was translating the Japanese, or had some kind of control over the translation. «

Haris: Looking back how do you feel about the Hyperdimension Neptunia series in general? On one hand the series has obviously spawned a very passionate and relatively large fanbase for a niche title but on the other hand Neptunia is probably the reason why you could be considering to be among the most controversial individuals in video game localisation history.

Nick: I sincerely hope I’m not among the most controversial... I mean, who the heck am I, anyway? Just a guy who sat at a desk along with 20 other people, doing a job. From my position, I was following the localization process as it was taught to me. Each game I worked on had a different approach based on the source material and where they drew their humor from (since almost every game was a comedy; I really wish I could’ve worked on a more serious title since those demand a sharp and focused edit). I want to make sure people don’t think I was translating the Japanese, or had some kind of control over the translation. The translator and I would talk often, and the edits were reviewed not just by the translator but the entire localization team in a “script party.” Whether the pendulum would swing literal or liberal for the translations depended on the translator/editor duo and was discussed prior to starting the translation, assuming Japan did not indicate a preference.

The nature of the Neptunia franchise’s subject matter and sources of humor almost necessitated a liberal localization—keep in mind that translation and localization are very, very different. I worked for a localization company, so their modus operandi was to localise the text for English-speaking audiences. As an editor working for them, that meant making obscure or unfamiliar references/jokes/memes from Japan into something relatable in Western culture while remaining somewhat parallel with the original Japanese joke/reference/meme (Was it a good reference? Bad reference? Old, new? Etc...). The company does leave it to the team working on the game to make these calls, so the responsibility is shared with everyone.

I did a really fun Q&A with the super-passionate Neptunia fans on the Niche-Gamer forums recently and it was a great chance to talk about the entire process and my role in it.

How do I feel about Neptunia? I’m happy that it’s become a franchise. It was intended to be a one-off game, similar to Trinity Universe, and its localization was approached as one. But its popularity both in Japan and in the West caused it to continue, and that’s awesome. That’s what every game wants, really. To become a franchise.

They were really great games to work on, but this isn’t a question with a short answer. I definitely recommend looking up that Q&A I mentioned.


Haris: As for the localisation process, how did you go about turning a game that is so steeped in Japanese internet culture into something that pretty much captures the essence of a certain subset of US internet culture. At this point I am imagining that you spent all day browsing 4chan for… well … research purposes.

Nick: Not an easy answer! A lot of it had to do with my inherent knowledge from a lifetime of gaming and many years of industry experience. Other people in the office would send awful memes around or make their own, so I never really had to go searching myself when I could just ask the in-office memesters. This is a lot of the translator’s role as well, finding and researching what all the Japanese jokes are and then describing them to editors, who then help them come up with a localized form of the joke. Sometimes the joke ends up in a different line in the same scene because, when translated, it may not work in the same context—or in many cases, the imposed character count limit per line prevents the joke from landing, so bits would be transferred to the line before or after. Sometimes, phrases have to be added to help the jokes land (an unfortunate and unavoidable incident when localizing obscure comedy). Doesn’t mean every joke is a hit, or even meant to be. Bad jokes in Japanese become bad jokes in English, for instance. Sometimes that’s intentional!

I think you can sum up the process as seeing the forest for the forest. We would localize with the bigger picture in mind, like, “What happens in this scene? What are Japanese gamers supposed to be feeling here? Happy, sad, laughing, cringing?” and then we’d do our best to keep the spirit of the scene (emotions elicited from gamers) the same with the translation and subsequent edit. So if you compare line-to-line or word-for-word, that’s more like looking at the trees and not the forest. Neither is inherently superior to the other in my opinion; that was just how the process was.

If you feel that the team successfully captured the essence of internet gaming culture, then thank you! I think the very fact that the franchise has gained such a passionate Internet following means the Japanese developers succeeded at what they set out to do.

» Removing content, to me, isn’t as much localization as it is culturization. «

Haris: Considering various controversies in the last 12 months related to perceived censorship in the world of games localisation it seems like localisers are put under more scrutiny than ever from a vocal subset of the gaming public. Some of this seems to be founded in a lack of understanding of the localisation process as a whole and a more general conflict between people that demand almost literal translations and others that are fine with localisers taking certain liberties. What are your thoughts on this situation?

Nick: Regarding the situation on a macro scale, and from what I experienced working for a Japanese-owned business, there are a few key points fans need to keep in mind when voicing dissent: 1) These are businesses, and incredibly risk-averse ones at that; 2) Japanese developers don’t consider the Western market when they’re developing their games. They make them for the Japanese audience (and heck, game cases generally have a giant “FOR JAPAN ONLY” disclaimer on them despite being on region-free consoles...) and leave it to the publishers to do what’s necessary to get the game released elsewhere.

Maybe an example would serve better. One game I was involved with had to have a mini-game removed for its Western release. I can’t remember what the official statement was, but the steps that led to it are worth sharing because, to me, they’re common sense. We (when I say “we” like this, it’s a reflex—it means “the company”) submitted the CG images and gameplay footage to ratings boards to get their thoughts. Once we got those and had to make a decision, there were two viable options: 1) Redraw/edit the art involving flesh-colored panty lines (it looked too suggestive/nude) and remove a couple of “too young-looking” images, or 2) remove the mini-game entirely.

Option 1 sounds like the better choice, right? Remember what I said about Japanese developers not really focusing on the Western market? They didn’t want to redo any of the art (understandably) because, I assume, their time was needed on more important tasks like their next game (which makes sense to me). Given that, and that permission was not given to edit them on the publisher side, the only option left was to remove it.

What’s my point and how does this answer your question? There is never one specific person, place, or thing to point out for decisions like this. Everything, including localization/editing, goes through several sets of hands and eyes. In my case, I wasn’t the first person to work on the text from Japan, and I wasn’t the last person to touch the edited scripts; this is especially true when you’re freelancing.

Removing content, to me, isn’t as much localization as it is culturization. It’s not a word, but I think it works—content is removed or tweaked based on the release region’s generally accepted mores and culture regarding different subjects.

Has every instance of this been necessary? No. In Breath of Fire IV, they removed a certain scene where one of the main characters/villains kills an important figure and there is blood and... Well, it was a really cool scene. In the Japanese version, anyway. The US didn’t get to see it as the Japanese did, and I have no idea why. It wasn’t particularly brutal or offensive, and it wouldn’t have changed the rating from T to M; I’ve worked on much more graphic games that skirted away with a Teen rating.

Is there ever a necessary instance? Yes, but not in the way you think. Refer to my previous example, which was an involuntary choice between the lesser of two evils, as it were. In general, it has more to do with businesses prioritizing risk management, margins, and consumer branding. You need to license a game in order to turn it around for a profit, and if businesses adopted the “if you have to change it, don’t bother bringing it over” mantra some people have, well, they’d go out of business real fast. If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything, et cetera.


Haris: How do you feel about content that might skirt moral grey areas in the eyes of the general public but wouldn’t necessarily impact the age rating of a game? For example religious references or character behaviour that might seem alright in the context of Japanese culture but could raise eyebrows or cause offence in the Western world. Do you think that defusing such content is justifiable?

Nick: I think the original creators are beholden to explain themselves. I wouldn’t remove the things you mentioned because that’s...I dunno, backwards. However, sometimes I think creators can make something that’s just outright improper or offensive. With Japan, they have a very internalized culture, so sometimes they can be ignorant of things that are incredibly sensitive in other cultures but are normal in theirs.

Hmm, an example... I can’t claim to know the backstory to this one, but when I was playing Rune Factory Oceans: Tides of Destiny, I thought there was one character written by some kind of complete cultural recluse. Imagine a game targeting a younger audience, bright and happy and innocent... How does adding a very stereotypically flamboyant priest (Christian in design) who keeps little children in his house sound good? What does that teach the kids playing the game? Beware the non-Japanese? I have no idea, but I’m assuming that type of character is “funny” in Japan as a caricature.

That’s all my assumption, of course, but the localization did what they could with the dialogue to “calm down” that character’s personality. I don’t care if the priest was written to be gay, and I don’t care about kids being given sanctuary in a church. It’s just this specific combination of things that gave me pause.

So to answer the question, anything is justifiable to someone, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

» Localization of anime is very different from games. «

Haris:You aren’t just known for localising games, though. While at NIS America you have also worked on various anime series, the most popular of which is probably the first season of Love Live!. How did your localisation approach differ between working on animes and games and which one do you prefer working on?

Anime was a lot of fun, but we had to treat them more as a “break from games” than anything else. Often, we were given less than two weeks to complete an entire show. The first season of LoveLive! was my last project, and wow, was it a trip to work on.

Localization of anime is very different from games. Since everything is based on timing, a more straight localization is required because there’s no wriggle room to fluff the language. If a character speaks for three seconds, you have three seconds to read back your translation/edit. If it takes you too long to read, you need to cut the verbiage down or split the subtitles to allow enough reading time. It was fun to me because it was a different kind of writing exercise; did I mention how much I love writing?

I did one thing special with their release of LoveLive!. The song lyrics have been matched syllabically in English to the Japanese (for season one; no idea if they did this for season two). That is to say, if one refrain consisted of 15 syllables in Japanese, that’s how many syllables the English lyrics will have. I did this because it’s a bit of writing psychology—as you hear the song in Japanese, you’re reading the lyrics, right? If the syllables match, you may find yourself unconsciously reading the lyrics in time with the lyrics being sung; in a way, it’s a read-along. If these songs were ever dubbed, those subtitles would be an excellent starting point.

This was one of the most fun things I got the chance to do, because it was such a unique challenge and felt almost like poetry, what with bending the concept of proper grammar and sentence construction to create lyrics that make sense in English, get across the same feelings/meanings as the Japanese (well, to my knowledge), AND match the Japanese syllable count. I’m proud of it.


Haris: Last year’s Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed caused some debate with one particular line uttered by the character Dengekiko that contained what was interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the Gamergate controversy. Or at least that’s how I interpreted it and the internet seemed to agree. How did you come up with this line and can you reveal the intention behind it so that at least one pointless internet argument can be put to rest for all time.

Nick: Oh, boy. That line.

Do you remember in literature class when the teacher would talk about symbolism, or what the author “did here” in their stories? And how it sometimes felt like you were instead being taught what the teacher thinks the author did instead? Maybe that author didn’t mean it at all. Perhaps the pen is just a pen.

I didn’t mean anything with it. The line, as originally delivered to me after translation, was “...That's it? Well, as long as there are no complaints of my Gamreporter stance then I'm fine with anything!” If you are unfamiliar with the game or Japan, Dengeki is a major gaming magazine, and the character Dengeki just so happens to be a journalist.

From this translation, the meaning as I understood it was referring to Dengeki magazine and its reporting methods. In Japan, Dengeki and Famitsu are the big gaming magazines in competition with one another. It’s also thought, in some circles, that they also engage in less-than-honest reporting/reviewing—doubtless in a Famitsu score article here in the West, someone will comment about how scores from Famitsu don’t matter. Similar-ish stuff could probably be said for Dengeki, but I have no idea if there’s any truth to it.

With this meaning to the line, it’s time to localize it. First, there are not really any major gaming magazines left in the West (US, specifically)—most everything is consumed digitally now—let alone claims of those magazines doing shady things. So instead of a meta-statement on the magazines, it became a meta-statement about the people behind the magazines—the journalists. What issues do game journalists face lately, I thought to myself, and then that edit was the result.

Reviewing games highly because they went to a secret press-only event hosted by a AAA developer, or being given bags of swag for a positive preview (all things that totally happen, but not every journalist is guilty of it—not by a long shot)...that’s a journalistic integrity issue. When reviews scorn, spurn, or grade a game poorly based on subjective opinions like “the characters look underage” or a similar statement, that’s imposing personal stances on a product and using those stances as a metric for grading something. I get where they’re coming from and I get where the opposition is coming from, but for this line, that’s what social justice stances refers to.

It’s just a line referencing recent “game industry reporter” trends. Any meaning you take away from it is personal opinion, because I meant nothing beyond a general reference.


We want to thank Nick Doerr and Mr. Tired Media for this interview. The official home page of Undead Darlings can be found here and the Prefundia campaign for the game is located here.


28. Dezember 2020 um 13:51 Uhr (#1)
I am a big fan of "Undead Darlings" - Fritz Financial
28. Dezember 2020 um 14:04 Uhr (#2)
I am a big fan of "Undead Darlings" - Fritz Financial
24. Juni 2021 um 05:50 Uhr
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Mit wie vielen "d" schreibt sich "dailydpad"?


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Nick Doerr

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