Overhaulout Part 4.5: Dish and Dog

By Rutskarn
on Sep 8, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Let’s say you’re James.

You’ve decided to go back to the wasteland and fix the water purifier, risks be damned, but the transition from Vault sheets to wasteland streets is worse than you could have possibly imagined. Glowing water and feral dogs and scabrous humans leave you a physically and morally exhausted wreck. In the cynical days of adjustment you become certain you’ll never finish your great work, never reunite with your only child. You’ll be preyed on by a string of greedy wasteland pirates and parasites until all your efforts to help the world are forgotten to the dust of time.

And then you stumble onto Galaxy News Radio and everything changes. Here at last you’ve found another genuine altruist in the hellish melee. He welcomes you, a stranger, into his heavily-guarded studio for an interview where you end up asking all the questions. He is thoughtful, savvy, warm, and patient. When you leave, he broadcasts on his radio station:

So if you see James out there, you say hello. Be kind to our new brother, and show him that here on the outside, we always fight the good fight.

Then after a brief and embarrassing episode in a creepy vault you wander back to the station for a visit and an interview—hoping to give his audience a PSA about drinking water and trusting strange computer programs, perhaps—and after cracking a couple Nukas, Three Dog casually mentions:

“By the way, your kid says hello.”

“What?” You’re stupefied. “My child came here…and didn’t even ask where I’d gone?”

“That did come up. Kind of a whiny kid you’ve got, actually. All ‘wah wah, where’s my dad, where’s my dad.’ And I’m like, does the kid need a night light for pete’s sake?”

“Did you say where I’d gone?”

“I sort of did. I mean, I said I knew where you’d gone, and that I’d share that info…in exchange for just, like, a tiny errand.”

“What errand did you…”

“Steal a giant radio dish from super mutant infested territory. So, you know. A desperate teenager from a soft vault upbringing seemed like the ideal person for the job.”

“How?!”

“Okay, you got me. I just didn’t want to have to ask the paladins to do it.” He checks his calendar. “Come to think of it, all this was a couple months ago. If I had to guess, I’d say your kid really sucked at fighting the good fight.”

The world spins. Your forgotten, shallow breaths lap the open mic—a live feed of your pain and suffering to Three Dog’s many, many worshipers. Your only family just died trying to find you, and died for no reason at all–except a desperate need to find and reunite with you.

“Say,” says Three Dog brightly, “you doing anything right now? And do you know where the museum is?”

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Borderlands Part 8: Welcome Back to Pandora

By Shamus
on Sep 7, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

Gearbox had a hit on their hands with Borderlands 1. The problem with making lightning in a bottle like this is that the publisher will immediately turn around and ask you to do it again. Gearbox needed to figure out what worked so they could improve it, and what didn’t work so they could fix it. This sounds easy, but you can envision a lot of ways that could have gone wrong.

We Have a Hit. Now What?

Do the fans want more of this guy, and is that even possible?

Do the fans want more of this guy, and is that even possible?

We know fans love those four original vault hunters, but how do we build on that? Do we have those same four characters go on another adventure? Or maybe we come up with four new characters with the exact same powers and skill trees? Or maybe keep the original four playable charactersAnd reset them to level 1 and hope players don’t mind. and add a few of new ones? Or maybe ignore the old characters and just make four new ones?

Fans like the humor, but how do we use that? Do we make a whole game of Crazy Earl style characters and quests? More Claptrap? Do we pester the player with constant communications from the characters, quipping and mugging all the time? Or do fans really just want the humor to take place when they’re in town, and otherwise leave them alone to enjoy the face-shooting?

Fans didn’t really care for the story. Do they even want one? Assuming they do, what should it be like and what should it be about? Opening another vault? Chasing another vault key? Fighting a different corporation? Or do we flip the script and have them work for one of these amoral corporations? The first game established that the vault can open once every 200 years, so do we set the second game 200 years after the first?

Focus groups are saying they would like Claptrap to spend another 10 or even 15 minutes explaining what respawning is.

Focus groups are saying they would like Claptrap to spend another 10 or even 15 minutes explaining what respawning is.

Do we go to a new planet or stay on Pandora? Do we visit new locations or revisit the old ones? How much do we need to acknowledge the events of the first game? Did the vault close and vanish into legend again, thus preserving the status quo of adventurers searching for a supposed myth? Or did the opening of the vault have far-reaching consequences?

Fans like the looting, but how do we improve on that? Do we give them crappy loot more often? Maybe give them good loot more often? Do we create even more exotic tiers of loot for them to chase? Do we amplify the differential between good gear and fantastic gear? If a player finds an ultra-rare shotgun that trivializes combat, will that make them happy or ruin the gameplayTo be fair, I don’t think ANYONE has a good answer to this question.?

Players liked the setting, but where do we go from here? New planet? Do we keep the desert vibe and give them another game set in arid wastelands full of trash? Would players be able to accept (say) swamp or tundra, or do we need to stick with the climate and color palette we’ve got?

And so on. I’m not saying Gearbox had these exact debates, I’m just trying to show that it’s not always obvious where the second game in a series should go, particularly when the first one was kind of a patchwork.

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No Man’s Sky One Year Later

By Shamus
on Sep 5, 2017
Filed under:
Column

It’s been a year since I last played the captivating, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing No Man’s Sky. There have been some large updates since then, and so I thought now would be a good time to come back and see how the game has evolved. These columns are going to run through September, so you’re basically getting TWO long-form analysis series at the same time. (This and Borderlands.) So I hope you like words.

Speaking of words, a year ago I said:

In fact, I’m hoping [Hello Games] made enough on this game that they can give it another try. I really do think that they have something special here. Imagine if the first iteration of Minecraft had been really awkward, frustrating, had a terrible building interface, and was constantly limiting and undermining your creative abilities because the developer thought the game should be focused on combat. I wouldn’t want the idea of a cube world to die on the vine. I’d want it to get another chance to become the creative, engaging, meme-spawning classic that was embraced as a hobby by millions worldwide.

I am less confident of this now. I really do think you can make a fantastic game using the No Man’s Sky technology. I think there’s a game in here that could create levels of engagement to rival titans like Minecraft or The Sims. There’s a reason those early trailers caused such a sensation. Some people really do have an intergalactic wanderlust. They have a clear desire to see strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly loot everything that isn’t nailed down.

But at this point I’m not all that eager to see what Hello Games comes up with. I have no idea what’s wrong inside this company, but their approach to designing game mechanics and interface falls somewhere between madness and sadism. In the last year they’ve doubled down on all the worst flaws of the core game. At this point I don’t think anyone at Hello Games is equipped to design a coherent set of gameplay mechanics. They’ve got great technology and a solid art team, but gameplay is a mess and I don’t see how they can change that. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and after a year they still haven’t reached that point. It’s not impossible for Hello Games to turn things around, but from the standpoint of momentum and company culture I don’t think it’s likely. This is a company doomed to make very pretty but very shallow and irritating games.

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 8: The Offseason

By Bob Case
on Sep 4, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

With season seven now wrapped up, it would be good to revisit some of the things I said many moons ago, when I first started my epic journey of complaining about Game of Thrones. Basically, what started all of this was a hypothesis. I believed that the show’s audience was in the early stages of experiencing what Shamus refers to as “story collapse”If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s explained in this series of posts., and that, sometime during the final two seasons, full story collapse would occur, and the show’s reputation would suffer.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

Was my prediction correct? So far, no. (However, there’s still another season for it to come true.) Instead, many critics did something I didn’t account for: they experienced story collapse, but their opinions on the show’s overall quality didn’t change.

The best (and daftest) show on television

Take this review of season seven from Vox, titled “How Game of Thrones season 7 went awry: The series is so intent on fooling its audience that too much of its storytelling no longer makes sense.” You can read the linked article if you want, but hopefully the title is enough to make you believe me when I say that it’s pretty critical. The author makes many of the same complaints I made in my reviews, and is bothered by many of the same things I was bothered by. “Right at the worst possible time,” he writes, “it’s become all but impossible to figure out just what anything on the show means.”

But then, after more than 1600 unminced words of criticism, the final section of the review starts with the sentence “Please note that none of this means Game of Thrones is bad.” Doesn’t it, though? To me, a TV show with nonsensical storytelling is a bad TV show. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

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Overhaulout Part 4: Mutations

By Rutskarn
on Sep 1, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Here’s a question for anyone who’s beaten Fallout 3: what role do super mutants, the most common and iconic enemy in the entire game, play in the main storyline?

Really take a minute. Spool through the mutant-laden story beats: the brawl outside GNR, the mission to the Museum of Technology, the cleansing of the purifier, the expedition to Vault 87. Really let it sink in how much time you spend trading shots with these geeks compared to, say, the Enclave: how much earlier you encounter them, how much more prominent they are, how much more of your resources they eat up.

Now ask yourself again: what role do they actually play in the story?

But we’ve summed it up, haven’t we? They exist. They exist again, again. They shoot and must be shot at. If you find-replaced super mutants with anything else at all, berserk killer robots or cold calculating mercenaries or a platoon of brainless body-snatching coral shrimp, the story wouldn’t really change much. Their agenda and origins and function are immaterial.

I don’t think it’s too fussily formalist to argue that your videogame’s earliest and most common enemies should have a stake in or relevance to the major conflict. I guess you could argue that they demonstrate the altruism of the Brotherhood of Steel by providing an opponent to be combated, but that is an extremely low bar. I’d argue it’s the basic function any antagonist at all would fulfill.

I don’t actually like this idea, and it’s outside the scope of my redesign anyway, but but for the sake of argument consider a Fallout 3 where the player and Brotherhood fought Enclave forces for the whole game. You arrive outside GNR and Enclave troops are trying to capture the radio station. Enclave troops destroy the radio dish to prevent GNR from broadcasting its alerts and organizing the Wasteland. Enclave troops have occupied the purifier searching for your father. Imagine a game, in other words, where the game’s actual antagonist is established as a threat before the midway point of the game. For all that you’d lose in enemy variety and the thrill of discovery and story nuance, isn’t it better to spend your time tangling with your family’s actual nemesis instead of a bunch of staggeringly irrelevant ogres?

There’s no way around it: before we go any further, we’re going to find something to do with our super mutants. Before I do, I’ll show my work and explain what I will and won’t change to get results.

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Twelve Years of Twenty Sided

By Shamus
on Sep 1, 2017
Filed under:
Landmarks

The blog is twelve years old today. A child entering first grade when I launched it back in 2005 would graduate this year. (Assuming they didn’t flunk at some point. You know how it is with hypothetical kids. Always letting you down, hypothetically.)

I like doing retrospective posts like this one because it gives me a chance to note the passage of time, which for me is happening at an ever more terrifying rate. On the other hand, it’s sort of annoying how the anniversaries are all bunched up in the same general part of the year. The Patreon anniversary is in June, my birthday is two months later in August, and the blog itself is just two weeks later in September.

So I’m usually out of retrospective-y kind of things to talk about by the time this anniversary rolls around. I sometimes ask my Patrons for questions. This time Paul Spooner came through. The questions below are from him:

How are your allergies doing these days?

I’m actually doing fantastic. I got a new drug for my asthma. Breo might look like a 1980s science fiction prop, but it’s also a dang good medicine. It’s the only thing I take these days. August / September is usually the worst time of year for me, but this year I’ve barely noticed. I got a little sniffly like most people with allergies, but I haven’t had any asthma trouble. Which is good. I really enjoy breathing.

Any hope for a new book?

Here’s the thing with writing books: Per hour, the Witch Watch was probably the most profitable project I’ve done outside of working in an office. However, writing books is, on average, a huge loser for me. The problem is that since 2003 I’ve started something like six or seven books and finished just two. (Free RadicalWow. The Free Radical site gets more broken every year as (adherence to) HTML standards change. That site REALLY needs an update. and Witch Watch. I also finished How I Learned, but that’s not a fiction book and is kind of a different thing entirely.)

See, if a book stalls then the months I put into it were wasted. Meanwhile blog series are usually (but not always) much smaller in size. If I start to get sick of a topic I can wrap it up quickly and move on, and I’ll still get some content out of it.

I’d like to write some cyberpunk again. I’ve got tons of ideas for settings. I’ve got lots of cool characters. I do okay with dialog. But I struggle with creating the overarching structure. I have trouble coming up with that big thing for the characters to overcome, or with figuring out how they overcome it. I write good scenes, but bad stories. I think that’s why DM of the Rings was such a win for me. Someone else provided the structure, and I just filled in the blanks. Same goes for my Let’s Plays.

Or maybe I’m just too critical of myself. I analyze my own story and think, “A is too muddled of an idea. B doesn’t have a strong enough link between the protagonist and the struggle. C sags too much in the middle. D is way too obvious.” I’ll get a few weeks or months into a project, recognize the fatal flaw, and lose interest.

Any hope for a new programming series?

I dunno. I’ve been doing a little coding with a friend. I hope it goes somewhere, but there’s nothing to write about yet.


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Borderlands Part 7: The New Vault Hunters

By Shamus
on Aug 31, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

In the comments of the previous installment, a lot of people were surprised that I was moving on from the first game so quickly. The series actually evolved quite a bit in the DLC that took place between the games, and to make any sense of the massive change in tone you kind of need to look at the DLC. Specifically, people wanted to know if I was going to talk about The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC.

Yes, I’m going to mention the DLC, although that won’t happen until next week. On the other hand, I’m not going to talk about General Knoxx.

Here’s the thing: I own the General Knoxx DLC. According to Steam achievements I’ve played some of it, but I have not completed it. However, I have no memory of it. I don’t even remember what character I was using when I played it. I kinda forgot that it existed until it came up in the comments. I’ve played Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot and I’ve been through The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned multiple times, but I’ve somehow managed to overlook the most popular DLC.

I’ve moved on to other games since writing this, so this series will need to continue on without covering General Knoxx. It’s fine. I think the other DLC gives us what we need in terms of bridging the gap between the two games. Yes, Knoxx introduces Athena and she’s important later. I’m sure we’ll manage somehow.

Anyway, with the slog of Borderlands 1 behind us it’s time to talk about Borderlands 2. Since this game is so much more character and story focused, let’s start with talking about our new heroes.

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My 70’s Suitcase Contents

By Shamus
on Aug 29, 2017
Filed under:
Column

If you missed the previous entries: Two weeks ago I proposed a thought experiment where we talked about what we would put in a suitcase for the people of 40 years ago. Then last week I outlined who I’d send it to, how I’d motivate them to share their discovery, and how I’d package the data. This is a very loose summary and you really should read those earlier entries before reading this one.

A note: In the previous entries I said I wasn’t going to talk “politics”. Some people found this ambiguous. I thought it was clear from context that I was talking specifically about American partisan politics, but some people went with the more formal definition. And yes, using the rigid definition the entire suitcase is political because the whole thing contains information that will be used to make political decisions. However, my immediate concern was to rip the red / blue labels off of everything to make the information more palatable to people all over the political spectrum. The issues will get politicized later by the people of 1977, but I’m not going to endorse one group or the other even if I personally favor one over the other. In the end, I don’t care which party acts on this stuff, as long as they act.

I know I made a big deal about how hard it would be to stuff the suitcase full of scientific data, but that was just to illustrate the tradeoff between size and accessibility. In truth the limiting factor here isn’t cubic volume or storage formats, but time. My time. If I’m working alone then there’s only so much time I can put into this. I still need to earn a living and I can’t spend years of my life on this thing.

How long does it take to track down a study, convert it from barbaric PDF to (say) HTML, and then track down all the studies it cites and do the same for them? How long will it take me to figure out what studies are most important? Remember I also need to check and see if a given study is in dispute, or has been disproven. Doing this kind of research across multiple domains for 40 years worth of progress would be an immense task.

I’m just a guy. Maybe a friend can help out, but one of the parameters of the exercise is that I don’t have access to any special resources. I’ve gotta do this myself, by hand, one study at a time. At this rate, it could take me months to fill even a single DVD with “studies”.

And like I said last week, I don’t think the scientific stuff is the most important stuff. Science is cool, but you can save a lot more lives with (say) warnings about natural disasters, diseases, and famines. For me the science stuff is just the icing.

Before we talk about the contents, we need to talk about…

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 7: Achievement Unlocked – Season Seven Complete

By Bob Case
on Aug 28, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

Welp, we’re finally here. The season finale, clocking in at 81 minutes (not counting the behind-the-episode stuff), has to tie up two main storylines: the whole “show Cersei a wight and negotiate a truce” thing, and the Arya-Sansa-Littlefinger tango in Winterfell. I’m going to give each its own section.

“Why Are We Here?” – Cersei

That’s a good question. The only reason given that Queen Daenerys and her Dothraki-Dragon-Unsullied three-way tag team didn’t just knock over King’s Landing in the second episode was a very unspecific handwave about how it would cause “too much death,” so for me this entire storyline was built on a foundation of frustrating vagueness from the get go.

In the middle part of the season, Cersei scored several victories over Team Dany via a combination of Euron’s teleporting fleet and Tyrion’s misguided belief that Casterly Rock was tactically important. So now that the Lannisters are back in the game, Team Dany can’t go north to fight the Night King and company, because Cersei will retake… something.

What exactly will Cersei retake? Near as I can tell, the only things Team Dany controls are Dragonstone and Casterly Rock. And considering that what looks like all of the Unsullied show up at King’s Landing, I’m not even sure she controls Casterly Rock anymore, or if anyone even cares about Casterly Rock anymore anyway.

Jaime and Bronn start the episode with a conversation where they try to say the word `cock` as many times in every sentence as possible. I smell another writing Emmy!

Jaime and Bronn start the episode with a conversation where they try to say the word `cock` as many times in every sentence as possible. I smell another writing Emmy!

As for the Vale, the Stormlands, and Dorne, there’s no indication at all what’s happening in any of them. So, absent a truce, what exactly is Cersei going to reconquer with her armies? Oh yeah, by the way: that’s “armies” – plural. The only Lannister army that I’m certain exists is the one Jaime led back from Highgarden, and they were devastated by dragonfire and Dothraki. But now Cersei makes multiple references to her “armies” that everyone on Team Dany takes at face value.

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Overhaulout Part Three: Time Bomb

By Rutskarn
on Aug 25, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Quick housekeeping note before we progress: these posts represent what I’d call a first draft of our revised Fallout 3 storyline. I’m jotting down notes for one-off revisions that I’ll share in the final post, but I also reserve the right to retcon lavishly as we go along. Dialogue is written for general effect, not for poetry, although I’m certainly trying to approximate the correct tone and content. Might I say again, at the risk of belaboring the point: actually writing a videogame is so much harder than what I’m doing in this series. 

We’re coming to the first major multi-part quest of Fallout 3, “Following in his Footsteps.” Core design purpose: allow players pursuing the main quest to rapidly uncover the central hubs, conflicts, and NPCs. Secondary purposes: provide a sense of mounting mystery by drip-feeding information and “you just missed him” teases about your father, expose player to selected sidequests that create a huge (not to say inflated) sense of player empowerment. On all accounts, the finished product rates a very qualified success.

One problem is that by this point in the game the player is invested in one question: why did our father leave the Vault? Soon we’ll learn that he actually brought us into the Vault years ago, and the contrary question becomes equally enticing: why did he go there in the first place? Why was he even permitted inside? There’s no point in speculating. You don’t have the facts to do, so you can hardly be expected to get it right. It’s perfectly well to motivate the player by promising to answer these questions later over and over again until your father is discovered and all is revealed, but surely it would be more inspiring to dole out clues and little revelations more regularly. Even as early as the first town, we should be laying groundwork that will stir the mind for a first playhrough and ring like a bell every time thereafter.

But you know what else the game doesn’t foreshadow? Nearly everything, including the central hooks that come in without ceremony midway through. By the time the Enclave shows up to seize the water purifier, the player needs to have a very clear idea why this is a bad thing on both a personal and regional level. That the early portion of the game teaches neither especially well and in fact seems disinterested in either point is one of the storyline’s more arresting failures.

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Ding 46!

By Shamus
on Aug 24, 2017
Filed under:
Personal

I am now suddenly a year older, because that’s how birthdays work. So far 46 is a lot like 45, only slightly moreso.

I’ve been trying to get in shape. Again. And for the first time in my life, I’m having success. I mean, I was in really good shape in 1990 when I rode my bike for miles every day, but I was 19 years old and people that age are basically invincible superheroes with no common sense. But this is the first time I’m having success with fitness as a mortal adult with physical limitations.

I dropped a bunch of weight a few years ago when I had to decommission one of my internal organs. The weight loss was a nice side-effect of the surgery, but it’s been creeping back up over the last decade.

I’m generally not very good at judging my body shape. My wife has a tall mirror in our bedroom, but it never occurs to me to look at it. Sometimes I’d look down at my body and think, “Yeah. Looks like my gut is starting to stick out a little. I should probably fix that.” Then a year ago someone took a candid picture of me. My reaction on seeing the photo was, “Wow. Is that really what I look like these days? Am I that wide around the middle now? That’s really bad.”

In the past I tried to get in shape according to conventional wisdom: Diet and exercise. I switched to eating crappy, unsatisfying food and got myself a treadmill. But crappy, unsatisfying food makes for a crappy, unsatisfying life. Anyone can eat salad today. But eating saladIn this case “salad” is shorthand for all of the various foods that are good for me but no fun to eat. basically forever? Sooner or later I’d say “screw it!” and eat an entire pizza. I’m sure dieters will be familiar with the resulting cycle of frustration, bingeing, guilt, repentance, and misery.

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My 70’s Suitcase

By Shamus
on Aug 22, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Last week I proposed an exercise: You can send a package back 40 years and have it delivered to one person. But sure to read the original post to get all the parameters. At the end, I posed four key questions:

  1. Who gets the package?
  2. How will you entice this person to examine the package, take it seriously, and distribute the information according to your wishes?
  3. How will you store information in the suitcase, and what format will you use?
  4. What information will you send them?

My proposal is going to be very USA-centric. It’s hard for me to think globally about the pre-internet (and almost pre-consumer computing) world of my childhood, so here I’m just focusing on what I know. This creates an interesting question for people in small countries: Will you send your suitcase to your own country, or will you send it to your favorite global superpower?

Also, this post got to be really long. I’m going to answer the first three questions this week, and question #4 will be next week.

As a reminder, I’m really building this proposal under the assumption that I’d actually have to do it myself. Some people are taking a more liberal approach to the exercise by saying, “It would be best to send them gadget X and information Y,” without worrying about how they would pay for X or obtain Y. I’m not going to suggest sending things I can’t get all my my humble self. That means I’m not going to send them 100 smartphones, because I can’t afford 100 smartphones. I’m not going to send them classified information, because I don’t have access to that either.

And finally, I’ll admit that last week I did a bit of a fake-out. I presented my original assumptions from when this idea first came to me. “How can I give them a bunch of technology?” It took me a few weeks to realize that if I really wanted to help people, technology wasn’t nearly as useful as information on natural disasters, disease, war, famine, and the final installment of Mass Effect. I thought I’d make myself look clever by pointing this out here in part 2, but quite a few of you noticed this right away. Thus I am left looking not-so-clever. Such are the hazards of these sorts of thought experiments.

I suppose this shows that if you do find yourself involved in some sort of time-travel scenario, you should ask your friends for advice in case you’re overlooking something important.

Anyway. Enough preamble. Here is my proposal…

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