25 best new characters of the decade
917 8.41. Half-Life 2 - PC Games
First appearance… Half-Life 2 (2004)
Around the beginning of the decade, the conventions of videogame narrative said that action game NPCs must be unconvincing mechanical ciphers who move like tractors and talk like a broken Speak & Spell. Female ones should pout and constantly threaten to get their bangers out.
“Screw you, conventions of videogame narrative!” said Valve. “We care not for your insidious fallacies. We’re going to make a real girl!”
And, much like the nerds in Weird Science, they did. Alyx behaves like an actual person, with all the corresponding strengths and failings. She’s determined and headstrong, but nuanced and funny. She’s stoic and badass when emotionally driven to be, but she’s also vulnerable and unsure of herself. In short, she’s a human rather than a stereotype, and one you’ll genuinely grow to care for without ever being manipulated into doing so.
609 7.82. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos - PC Games
First appearance… Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002)
He was once a mighty and honorable paladin, battling to save his people from the undead scourges of Azeroth. To succeed in his quest, however, he needed more power… and to yield more power, he needed a sword cursed by his enemies’ leader. By the end of Warcraft III, Arthas had lost his soul to this blade, and his sense of self to possession by the villainous Lich King.
What’s riveting is that you witness this entire transformation, from good to evil, across multiple games and multiple genres. During his real-time strategy origins, you experience Arthas’ bloodlust firsthand as he orders his men to slaughter a city’s innocent population in order to stop the spread of the undead. By the time you catch up with him in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, he’s gone completely Darth Vader, gathering and marshalling the same forces he once sought to destroy.
478 8.63. BioShock - Xbox 360
First appearance… BioShock (2007)
How do you describe a world as unique, complex and brilliantly bizarre as Rapture? Easy – just point at Big Daddy. This already iconic creature is a perfect symbol, and summary, of the BioShock paradox. It’s scary and yet sad. It’s overwhelmingly alien and yet disturbingly human. It’s brutally vicious to strangers while lovingly gentle to Little Sisters. Its outer appearance is clunky and retro, but its inner genetics are the stuff of futuristic sci-fi nightmares.
Big Daddies also expose the hypocrisy of Andrew Ryan’s utopia. If these people moved underwater to escape the so-called slaveries of government, church and military, how can they then justify lobotomizing their fellow citizens, imprisoning them in monstrous diving suits and condemning them to pace the ocean floor for all eternity? This study of morality is what made BioShock a masterpiece, and this mystery is what makes the Big Daddy such a fascinating character. We can’t wait to learn more, and get behind the helmet, in 2010’s sequel.
560 8.64. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
The template for what Naked Snake/Big Boss would eventually become, The Boss is an enigma right up until Snake Eater’s final moments. A legendary guerrilla fighter during World War II, she’s introduced as Naked Snake’s mentor, but their bond is actually much closer to an adoptive mother/son relationship. And that’s why, when she betrays Snake and leaves him broken and bleeding, it nearly destroys him. But it’s all part of her final lesson to to her pupil: for soldiers, loyalty is an illusion. Friends one day will be enemies the next, and the only thing a true soldier can depend on is the mission at hand.
In every subsequent meeting, she attacks Snake, but never really seems to be trying to kill him. And every time they meet, you can always catch a little glimmer of something like sadness or tenderness through her cold, monotone exterior. The more we learn about her, the more tragic and effed-up The Boss becomes. And after Snake kills her in the game’s final, sad duel, he learns that she’d been a double agent the entire time, resigned to go down in history as a traitor so as not to spark a nuclear war. Killing her was like killing a Colossus – hard-won, but ultimately a hollow victory that haunted us for years.
1037 8.35. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - PlayStation 2
CARL “CJ” JOHNSON
First appearance… GTA: San Andreas (2004)
Rockstar protagonists have become so fun and so memorable over the past decade, it’s hard to believe that Grand Theft Auto III starred a generic mute. Vice City’s Tommy was deliciously vengeful, but for us, the first breakout star of the series was a smart and resourceful kid trying to protect his family and escape the gangster path that drugs, poverty and corrupt police had forced him down. If you weren’t rooting for CJ within the first five minutes of San Andreas, you simply weren’t paying attention.
And yeah, his race was important, too. Even today, games pigeonhole African-American characters into the most obvious stereotypes and painful cliches. CJ certainly wasn’t the perfect antidote to that trend – he is a murderous criminal, rap producer and womanizer, after all – but he was a big step in the right direction, with intelligent dialogue, noble intentions and more common sense than anyone else in the story.
He also signaled the start of Rockstar’s diversification workshop. Since CJ, we’ve played an Eastern European immigrant, a Jewish biker, a Chinese visitor and two Dominicans, one of whom is the business partner and bodyguard to a gay nightclub owner. Now if only the rest of the industry were so brave…
231 7.76. Ratchet & Clank - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Ratchet & Clank (2002)
Sidekicks are supposed to be comic relief. They’re meant to break the tension with a hilarious catchphrase or stumble, slapstick-style, into obvious danger so that the real hero can rescue them – again. Sidekicks can be crazier, funnier or cuter than protagonists, but they should never, ever upstage them.
Clank must not have gotten that memo, because we can’t think of anyone who prefers the self-centered and smart-alecky Ratchet to the quiet, collected and effortlessly charming robot with cool powers and cooler personality. Most admirably, he doesn’t try to steal the show from his lesser half… which means, of course, that he automatically does.
But the best thing about Clank? The games’ developers understand our preference for the sidekick, and give us as many surprising opportunities to play him as possible.
536 7.87. Devil May Cry - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Devil May Cry (2001)
The first real action hero of the PS2 era, Dante had the rare honor of changing action games as we understood them forever. His first outing seamlessly blended beautiful visuals with tight platforming and fast, balletic action, making Devil May Cry the first game to deliver the experience that Hong Kong movies had teased us with for so long. Even as DMC transformed notions about what games could be, though, Dante himself made a deep impression on gamers’ psyches. He was unforgettable in his red leather trenchcoat and long white mane, and packed dual pistols and a big sword. He was smart-mouthed, unflappable and able to deal easily with anything and everything thrown his way, even when those things included very large blades that ran straight through his torso.
The son of a heroic demon father and a human woman, Dante was a brutal mercenary anti-hero before that kind of thing was a trend, but he wasn’t a stoic hardass, either; he was playful, cocky and loved to tease his super-serious enemies before cutting them to ribbons. He set the template for all subsequent smartass action heroes, and while his relevance seems diminished after a string of sequels that never really recaptured the first game’s spirit, his first explosive outing changed the course of videogame history for the better.
324 7.98. Left 4 Dead - Xbox 360
First appearance… Left 4 Dead (2008)
Armed with a shotgun and a sharp leather vest, Francis is ready to blast his way through the zombie apocalypse. But that doesn’t mean the badass biker is happy about it. He hates planes. He hates elevators. He hates the woods. And you know what? He probably hates you, too. That’s exactly why we can’t help loving the grouchiest survivor in the Left 4 Dead universe. Even after staving off hordes of flesh-eating infected, he’s got enough vitriol leftover to hate on the philosopher and novelist, Ayn Rand.
Francis is also hilarious, with occasionally dimwitted one-liners that make Left 4 Dead as funny as it is frightening. Hearing him say – with grim determination – that the “goddamn vampires” won’t beat him cuts through game’s tension like a knife. No wonder Francis is almost always the first character that players choose when entering a game lobby.
481 8.89. Portal - PC Games
First appearance… Portal (2007)
The cake is a lie. Weighted Companion Cube. Still Alive.
Portal is a lean, mean meme machine, and crucial to this astounding cleverness is GLaDOS, the murderous artificial intelligence that runs Aperture Labs’ test facility. Much of Portal’s joy comes from watching her programmed personality unravel as she repeatedly attempts to kill you and repeatedly fails. As she slowly but surely degenerates into a mess of mixed messages and cross purposes – and as you methodically incinerate the components of her electronic brain – you can’t help but experience pity.
The ending song indicates that GLaDOS continues to exist in some form or another, so we hold out hope that one day soon we’ll be treated to more of her manipulative shenanigans. And maybe we’ll finally get a piece of that cake. We hear it’s delicious and moist.
399 810. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Xbox
First appearance… Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
BioWare’s epic role-playing saga had the best characterization of any Star Wars game, before or since, and HK-47 was surely the most memorable cast member. At first he appeared to be the typically polite, C-3PO style droid… until you dug deeper into the conversation trees and discovered his utter disdain for what he described as “meatbags,” nauseating piles of organs sloshing around inside a flimsy package of skin. Or, as you might know them, humans.
Over time, you realized just how psychotic HK-47 really was, with a preference to resolve nearly any problem with murder. Take him aside for a particularly lengthy conversation and you would discover his unsettling history, too, a past that involved working as hitman for a Hutt. Finally, if you paid close enough attention, you’d learn that this seemingly harmless robot had eventually turned on (and executed) each and every one of his previous masters.
HK-47 assured you, of course, that this time would be different…
502 811. Katamari Damacy - PlayStation 2
KING OF ALL COSMOS
First appearance… Katamari Damacy (2004)
This vengeful father figure provided much-needed context to Katamari Damacy, and kept the series fresh even as the gameplay remained essentially unchanged. Without his vast personage and wildly clumsy parties, after all, the tiny Prince would have no reason to roll Katamaris in the first place. He was always good for laughs, too, blurting out absurd insights, breaking the fourth wall and cutting you to pieces with eyeball lasers whenever you failed.
On a metaphysical level, the King helped remind us that the cosmos are a wondrous and chaotic place where logic doesn’t always apply. He also proved that purple tights can be refreshingly masculine, when worn with the carefree flair of a supreme being. If there is a god calling the shots in our universe, we imagine this is as close as you’ll get to a peek inside its delirious head.
734 8.412. God of War - PlayStation 2
First appearance… God of War (2005)
Kratos is one of those characters that seems incredibly boring and generic at first glance. A bald, seething murder machine who sports cool swords tethered to his arms with chain whips, it’s easy to mistake his one visible emotion – pure rage – and singular fixation on killing things for shallow design. Spend a little time with Kratos, though, and you’ll learn that there’s much more to him than wanton savagery, constant anger and a voice stuck somewhere between “growl” and “roar.”
In truth, Kratos is both an unstoppable force of nature and a broken, tragic man. Once a brave and respected general in Sparta, he sold his soul to Greek war god Ares in a moment of desperation, and was rewarded with a lifetime of servitude and torment. Tricked by Ares into murdering his own wife and daughter, Kratos spent years trying to atone for his mistake, grudgingly carrying out the orders of the gods in the hope that they’d eventually rid him of his pain. Instead, they elevated him to godhood – and then betrayed him when he took his frustrations out on the rest of Greece, an act that drove him to declare war on Olympus itself. Kratos is cruel, brutal and an outright villain, but his story is so compelling, and at times so heartbreaking, that we can’t wait to see how it ends in God of War III.
973 7.813. Halo: Combat Evolved - Xbox
First appearance… Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
He’s the obvious choice for a list like this, but trust us, he’ll also be the most controversial. “Master Chief barely talks!” we can already imagine you shouting. “He doesn’t even have a personality!” we hear you protest. And you’re right.
Master Chief’s strength as a character, however, lies not in specifics. He’s a symbol and an icon, one that has broken through the boundaries of our hobby and into the cultural mainstream’s consciousness. You can find him in toy stores and Times Square billboards. You can find him on t-shirts, French fry cups and Mountain Dew bottles. Hell, around the launch of Halo 3, you could find him practically anywhere, including a weekly GamesRadar feature that ran for nearly 50 straight weeks. Everybody knows about Master Chief – not just gamers – and increased exposure for the medium is always a good thing.
Plus, even haters have to admit… the mask and suit are pretty badass.
932 8.314. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess - Nintendo Wii
First appearance… Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
Despite a history that spans 22 years and dozens of games, The Legend of Zelda is remarkably devoid of memorable characters. In fact, we can’t say we feel attached to anyone other than Link, Ganon and the eponymous princess, all around since the beginning. Then came Midna, a diminutive imp-lady that guides you around both Hyrule and the shadowy Twilight realm. She starts off as a grinning mischief maker that’d look right at home in The Nightmare Before Christmas, then through dialog and actions it becomes clear she has her own agenda. The question is, who’s side is she really on?
Her constant berating makes her initially abrasive, though after a heroic act from Link, she opens up, reveals that she is the ousted, cursed Twilight Princess, and needs your help to regain her true form. Cue hours of puzzle solving and wilderness exploring, throughout which you’re treated to more and more insight into her tragic fall from grace. When it’s all said and done, and her gorgeous true self is unveiled, you can feel the already strong connection between Link and Midna grow exponentially. In a series packed with amazing gameplay yet next to no standout characters, Midna’s personal, emotional story radiated as brightly as the Triforce itself.
313 8.415. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Nintendo DS
First appearance… Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
In a perfect world, Miles Edgeworth would have been the hero of the Ace Attorney series. As children, both he and Phoenix Wright shared the same noble, idealistic goal of becoming defense attorneys to protect the innocent. Unexpected tragedy and the stolen life of a loved one, however, took Miles down a darker path… a path completely consumed by the need to punish criminals, no matter what the cost. A gifted prosecutor was born, but a childhood dream died.
Although his peers misunderstand his motivations, and often cast him as the heartless villain, Edgeworth chooses to keep his past hidden. He doesn’t seek pity – he seeks justice. And while he is a proud man, he never lets that pride blind him from the truth, even when it means admitting defeat to Phoenix Wright.
Stoic where Phoenix is blathering, and complex where Phoenix is one-dimensional, Miles was created to act as a counterbalance to the protagonist but often ends up eclipsing him. Plus, he’s a way better dresser.
459 8.216. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - PlayStation 3
First appearance… Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)
Some characters, like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix, are heroes: always capable, always resourceful, always confident, always in control of every situation. Nathan Drake, by contrast, is almost never in control of any situation. He’s always outgunned, outnumbered and outflanked, and continually finds himself in situations where he’s at an absurd disadvantage – hanging from a tall signpost in the middle of a plaza while surrounded by angry mercenaries, for example. Somehow, his quick thinking, plucky resilience and Rasputin-like endurance always pull him through unscathed, but watching him completely lose his shit in the meantime is always entertaining.
Nathan’s charm extends well beyond his uncanny knack for getting in over his head, though. A globe-trotting, treasure-hunting thief with an apparently inexhaustible travel budget, he begins each game with completely selfish motives, but by the end he’s always saving the world from international supercriminals who want to unleash some ancient evil on the world for profit. He also has the good fortune to be paired with (mostly) female partners who act as ideal foils for his cocky swagger and apparent inability to take anything completely seriously, and the screwball patter that erupts between them is part of why Nathan, and his adventures, possess a depth and humanity that most videogame characters can only dream of.
191 7.917. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003)
Everyone roots for the underdog, and when it comes to downtrodden characters, no one is as heartwarmingly pathetic as the Disgaea franchise’s Prinnies. Their delicate penguin-like bodies house the souls of mortal sinners and are highly combustible. That’s why you’ll often see their cruel master – Etna – using her Prinny slaves as disposable bombs, tossing them straight into the gaping jaws of death without a second thought. The poor little guys are constantly beaten and bossed around, with giant beads of sweat flying from their stressed-out brows… how can you not sympathize?
Despite their weak constitution, though, Prinnies can also be molded into a fierce fighting force. Keep grinding to level them up and you’ll eventually wield an army of powerful Prinny captains, generals, kings and gods. Only the hardest of hardcore Disgaea fans will ever have enough patience, but trust us, constructing a team of nigh-invulnerable Prinny wimps is one of the greatest accomplishments possible in the world of turn-based role-playing games.
459 8.418. Silent Hill 2 - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Of all the characters in this list, none are as complicated, brutal and downright disturbing as Pyramid Head. The game’s protagonist, James Sunderland, first encounters this bloody behemoth inside an apartment building, where it’s violently raping one of the other gruesome monsters. This implies that not only is this thing something to avoid, but it’s also so overpowering and dangerous that it can literally have its way with the other things that are trying to kill you. Frightening on the most primal level, for sure.
Beyond that, we find that Pyramid Head is a manifestation of James’ own guilt for murdering his wife. While the other enemies in Silent Hill 2 are feminine projections of James’ masochistic desires, Pyramid Head is an invincible masculine tormentor that will forever hound James for his actions. It’s not until the end of the game that James realizes what the monster truly is, and comes to terms with his unforgivable crime. In doing so, James finally kills what was nothing more than internal strife. This gut-wrenching tale of denial, delusion and unending purgatory has cast a shadow so long, so powerfully dark that it’s been impossible for the series to top. Even the 2006 film used Pyramid Head in its most memorable scene (keep a barf bag handy). What other character has caused an entire series to tread water for nearly 10 years in attempt to catch up?
772 7.219. The Sims - PC Games
First appearance… The Sims (2000)
The game gives them no name. No personality. No appearance. No motivation. No nothing, really, until you – the player – step in to fill out all the blanks. Yet the Sims have somehow managed to capture our hearts and imaginations more than any other customizable avatar this decade. Why? Because unlike the frozen-faced Miis or utterly generic Second Life residents, the Sims are not puppets. Once brought into being, they take on a life of their own. You create them, you often control them, but you can never fully predict them.
As a result, every aspect of your pet computer people’s existence takes on special significance. Friendships, weddings, affairs, babies, kitchen fires and extraterrestrial pregnancies can be forced, of course, but they also evolve naturally and spontaneously. No wonder so many fans keep Sim screenshot scrapbooks, then share them online like proud parents. And even less wonder that The Sims franchise has already sold at least 50 million games and expansions, generating roughly 2 billion dollars in revenue. Mario, you may soon be eclipsed.
112 7.920. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (2002)
“Gentleman thief” is an archetype that’s woefully underrepresented in videogames, but at least we’ll always have Sly Cooper to show us how it’s done. Quick-witted and nimble, Sly was a globe-trotting master criminal who was like Nathan Drake crossed with Solid Snake and divided by George Clooney, and while he always seemed to be in over his head, he always managed to keep one step ahead of his foes – and his archnemesis/love interest, Inspector Carmelita Fox.
Inhabiting a brilliant cartoon world, Sly wasn’t a total anti-hero; while he made his living pulling off elaborate heists, he only stole from other master criminals, some of whom even joined his crew down the road. (It also didn’t hurt that Sly’s acrobatic platforming skills and increasingly devious bag of tricks made him a blast to play as.) He wasn’t a loner, either, as his back was watched constantly by his childhood friends, gadgetsmith Bentley and their driver/strongman Murray (both of whom became a little less compelling once they were playable in later games). Still, their presence only made Sly look that much better, and because they genuinely cared about him – as he did for them – it made it a little easier for us to care about him, too.
117 8.821. Psychonauts - Xbox
TIM SCHAFER'S IMAGINATION
For pretty much everyone in…
Psychonauts (2005) and Brutal Legend (2009)
Nobody creates more memorable, legitimately funny characters than Tim Schafer, head of developer Double Fine Studios. Take Psychonauts: Your character – a young boy who was raised in a circus and has psychic powers – is actually the straight man. This is possible because of characters like Mr Pokeylope, a pet turtle who spouts seductive Barry White-style patter, and Dogen, a young Ralph Wiggum-alike who wears a helmet because his brain waves keep making squirrels explode.
But Schafer’s characters aren’t mere caricatures – they have real depth, pathos and often tragic pasts. Psychonauts’ Milla is an ever-happy party girl with a secret that breaks your heart. Edward is a black-velvet artist so lovesick he can’t paint. And if Brutal Legend takes flak for drawing too much real-world inspiration – the Killmeister is Lemmy, Eddie is Jack Black, etc – then we’d like to meet the gothic angel who inspired Ophelia. And how can we forget Psychonauts’ Linda? She’s a giant, mutant, talking lungfish, and you will love her, because Schafer wants you to.
You can say we copped out by giving an award to the entire cast of two separate games. We’d argue it was the only way to give any other games’ characters a chance.
417 7.322. Animal Crossing - GameCube
First appearance… Animal Crossing (2001)
At first glance, ol’ Nook is an adorable raccoon merchant on par with most of Nintendo’s cuddly creations. Delve any deeper and you’ll be subjected to his limitless greed that forever binds you (and the other furry citizens of Town X) to his cause. Right from the start, Nook dangles financial stability like a delicious carrot in front of you, forcing you into servitude and what seems like never ending debt. Oh, you can pay him back, but then he’ll add a level onto your house (without your consent) and boom, you’re back in the hole with a pile of bills.
What a dick! Look at him, content with his life, indenturing countless passersby for his own gain. He frequently reminds you of your woes, usually with a cheery demeanor and not-so-subtle hint at the consequences of missing a payment. You’re never told this explicitly, but it sure does look like Nook’s involved in some shady business, and he’s passing his problems onto you. His mix of raccoon cuteness with the ruthlessness of a Wall Street tycoon has earned him not just a place in gamers’ hearts, but also the internet as a whole, having become the personification (and viral meme) of a deceptively devious character.
137 8.323. Beyond Good & Evil - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Beyond Good & Evil (2003)
Sure Jade, the sexy, photojournalist/martial artist, is the star. But the real heart and soul of BG&E is her adopted uncle Pey’j (pronounced “page”). A jolly pig-man, Uncle Pey’j zips around on fart-powered rocket boots he invented himself and speaks with the warm-hearted bellow and simplicity of a stereotypical good old-boy. Uncle Pey’j, as Jade calls him, seems at first to be just a caretaker of orphans and a handyman. However, when things go bad, he charges enthusiastically into the fray with one simple goal: Protect Jade, and everyone else as well.
Even as government conspiracies and an alien invasion take center stage, Pey’j remains fiercely loyal despite the danger. By game’s end, he’s been uncovered as a resistance spy, beaten unconscious, kidnapped, and even killed before being revived and rescued. The game’s final scene reveals he’s also been infected by an alien virus, which he’ll no doubt nobly conceal until the sequel. But even after all of that, who’s right at Jade’s side for the final battle? Pey’j, making clear he’d do it all again without a moment’s hesitation. That is what makes Pey’j a fantastic character.
Well… that and the fart-powered rocket boots.
378 824. Ico - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Ico (2001)
She embodies feminine sweetness, innocence and maternal caring, though that’s about as deep as her persona goes. Yorda is an idea more than a fully-realized character, and that’s what makes her so appealing. Don’t lie – you had a crush on her, too. She’s the perfect archetypal damsel-in-distress, and it helps that she’s in one of the best games of all time.
Don’t assume that her shallowness and helplessness are anti-feminist qualities because, well… okay, so they kind of are. But screw you if you want to deny us our male fantasy. Right, we know, women are as strong and independent as men. Still, in a statistically unproven yet generally accepted majority of men, there exists a natural paternal desire to suffer for the safety of others. That desire will be expressed, whether by getting our asses kicked in a fight (just being realistic), or by killing monsters and jumping on shit in a game.
And when Yorda finally proves her strength and carries her exhausted hero out of the collapsing ruins, it’s heart-melting. We could continue for pages on the topic of the paternal/maternal balance occurring here, but so this Freudian analysis of Ico doesn’t get too weird, we’ll skip to the point: we
1327 7.825. Final Fantasy X - PlayStation 2
First appearance… Final Fantasy X (2001)
Their romance is among the most legendary and heartfelt stories in gaming history, but it’s easy to see why Tidus fell for Yuna: her demure, girl-next-door cuteness was complemented by her ability to summon raging beasties to fight alongside her. She was compassionate, generous and dutiful to the end, ever willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good.
As such, her update in Final Fantasy X-2 was shocking. She’d lost half her skirt, picked up a pair of pistols and transformed from a reserved priestess into a seductive pop idol. Her sassy new attitude chafed with many fans, who felt it was too dramatic a shift in her personality. Whether you loved the new Yuna or hated her, the simple fact that she warranted her own sequel speaks volumes about how popular she’d become.
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