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Dec 1

Metal Gear Solid V: Lord of the Parasites

SPOILER WARNING: Obviously for MGSV. Also the novels 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', 'Lord of the Flies' and 'Moby Dick'.

This series has a running theme. What we past down to the next generation. Whether it be genetic or memetic, we all leave a mark. Metal Gear Solid spoke about genes. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty about memes. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater showed how a single meme could change the course of history, and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots details the results of that degraded meme.

In 1859, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus. In 2006, this fungus was featured in Sir David Attenborough's documentary series 'Planet Earth'. It showed an ant that had been infected by the Cordyceps fungus. Once infected, the fungus would change the behavior of the ant, making it climb upwards and clamping it's mandibles onto the underside of a leaf. The ant would then die and the fungus would grow out of it's head and eventually disperse the fungal spores down onto the forest floor. They infect the ants on the ground. The cycle is complete.

This may all sound familiar, because in 2013 this fungus was used as the main plot point in Naughty Dog's 'The Last of Us', where humanity is almost wiped out by Cordycep fungal spores. The Infected turned aggressive as their behavior changed, until they - like the ant - die, spreading more spores and completing the cycle. The fungus found a way of spreading it's genetic information down the generations. As Wallace spread it's discovery down through the generations to Attenborough and finally to Neil Druckmann (writer of The Last of Us).

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There is no better word to describe this fungus - it's a parasite. The fungal spores create a symbiotic parasitic relationship with the ant. One of the two grows stronger at the expense of the other. The "other" in this case being the ant. There are other symbiotic relationships, mutualistic and commensalistic. Mutualistic is where both sides benefit from the relationship. And commensalistic is where one side benefits with no effect on the other.

Now, as you inevitably think of the various different parasites in MGSV...stop...float above this game and view it from another angle. Because I'm not going to be talking about how parasites made you killed your own men or how they granted people supernatural abilities. I'm going to be speaking about the people and organizations of the game, because a symbiotic relationship doesn't just refer to fungal spores and tiny bacteria.

What do I mean by "float above the game"? I kind of mean literally. Go back to the moment you started the game or even put that disc into the drive. I'm talking about the player. This is the first step and first symbiotic relationship. It was there the first time someone played Pong, it's an obvious fundamental part of the gaming experience. The host is the ant and the parasite effects the host. The host is the game and the player effects the host.

The key difference with MGSV and the rest of the series is it's freedom to complete a mission in your own way. What weapons do you use? Where do you start the mission? What tactics do you go for? Are you going to make a noise or be completely silent? And what order you play the missions in...but wait, no. That last one doesn't really exist. Some missions unlock in batches of 2 or even 5, but mostly they unlock one at a time. The episodic nature of this game never existed. You can't unlock a cutscene featuring a certain character before that character has been introduced to the narrative. Inside the game we have total freedom. Outside the game we are merely slaves to the narrative. No great surprise, it's always been like that. This is not a stand alone game, it has a past and a future to think about. Even in GTA later missions obviously don't open before the earlier missions. It something you can't overcome, even in an open world game. You may have side stories you can complete at anytime (Quiet, for example), but the main story is always linear. Things that happen, happen in a sequence, that's just how time works. Sorry to state the obvious so much. But we are being told by Kojima the opposite. That we are playing a game that needed to be structured in episodes. This would make sense if you had 20 missions unlocked at once and difference cutscenes out of order. But that was never going to happen. You can't have a mission set in Africa playable before Huey reveals there's something going on in Africa. There is only, "Here are 3 missions, complete them in any order and after the first 2 are complete the game will unlock another mission". There's nothing different with that. It is standard. We've been doing it for years. Despite all his hype and willingness to sell his product, Hideo Kojima would know this is the case. His series in particular can't get away from this dynamic. Yet he still preaches about this so called freedom. This is Newspeak. Freedom of the narrative doesn't exist. There is only linearity of the narrative. This is implanted early on in the promotional hype. He compares it to a TV series. Who watches TV series from the middle or out of sync? It doesn't even make sense within a video game. You simply can't play them out of sync and nor would you want to.

Newspeak originates from George Orwell's novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', as a way of controlling freedom of thought. Words are heavily censored, simplified and even have their meanings changed completely. Negative words are changed, for example, "bad" becomes "ungood". And the word "free" cannot be used in the term of "freedom".

From the very start, the player is being controlled to take a certain path and play a certain role.

Venom Snake
If the player playing the game is the first symbiotic relationship, then the second is Venom Snake himself. As there was once an ant, with Venom there was once a man and one day the memories of Big Boss suddenly awoke in him, like the Cordycep fungus that awoke inside that ants brain. This then drives Venom to act as Big Boss spreading his meme down to the next generation.

The best example to describe this relationship is Peace Walker's AI. Designed to replicate a human brain, it is then implanted with the memories of The Boss. But Peace Walker was never The Boss, just as Venom was never going to be Big Boss. The brain Strangelove created didn't replicate the structure of The Boss' brain, but merely stored her memories and used that experience to create The Boss' phantom. 'The Phantom Hero' - the name of the chapter where Big Boss meets Strangelove.
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The same thing happened with Venom. They took a brain that wasn't Big Boss' and stored his memories inside, but the structure of Venom's brain isn't the same as Big Boss. You can fool a lot of people and even Venom himself, but Venom is not Big Boss, his thought processes are different and processes Big Boss' experiences differently.

Venom Snake's character is that of a man struggling against someone elses memories. Memories that he can't reconcile with his own personality. His purpose is to act as Big Boss, to carry on his meme, but he can't possibly act exactly like Big Boss. Big Boss' memories are the parasites inside Venom's brain.

Big Boss is always there lurking in the background. He is inescapable. The game starts with Venom waking in a hospital bed and if you're quick enough the shadowy figure of Big Boss can be seen hiding behind the curtain, waiting for Venom to wake. Later, the nurse moves the Star of Bethlehem flowers from Big Boss' side to Venom's, signifying Big Boss' memories being transferred to Venom. It is then Big Boss himself that guides Venom out of the hospital. Venom is then "free" to spread the Big Boss meme across the world.

Apart from the obvious relationship of Tretij Rebenok (Third Child) with many different people within the game, there are also other more important symbiotic relationships happening at once, with several people controlling Venom for their own benefit.

As the player is being controlled, so too is Venom. Each denied freedom. Each has lost something. Each has a phantom pain.

Kazuhira Miller
"Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured. - Mark Twain"
After 9 years of waiting for Big Boss' return, Kaz Miller is driven by an all consuming lust for revenge. Even after being told by Zero that it wasn't him, Kaz is completely blind (arguably literally) and ignorant to the fact that the perpetrator, Cipher, wasn't actually behind the attack on Mother Base. Kaz now sets about using Venom.

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Venom is now Miller's host and steers him into a battle with no end. How do you fight an enemy you will never find? In these 9 years Kaz has be left isolated - literally and metaphorically - and has now turned feral. He believes the big bad beast that is Cipher is threatening him, but in reality it's he that created the beast. Kaz my as well be called Jack Merridew, a character from William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The novel tells the story of a group of school children during a wartime evacuation crash landing in the ocean. They are washed up on an desert island and begin to lose their humanity. Of course, this is also paralleled with Eli and the child soldiers of MGSV. I say "paralleled", but it's basically a copy and paste. What isn't is Kaz Miller and Venom Snake himself.

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Kaz is Jack and Venom is Ralph. In the 'Lord of the Flies', the children split into two groups. Jack is the leader of one group in opposition to Ralph's group. Ralph starts as the democratically elected leader of the whole group and favours a rational way to govern the children. But this doesn't last and Jack begins to lead others away from the group, until there is only Ralph and his friend Piggy. The rest become savages, resulting in the death of Simon, who is violently murdered in the belief he is a beast from the mountain. In reality, there was no beast, only a fighter pilot trapped on the island. Later, Piggy is killed when a boulder is pushed on top of him from the cliff above (reminiscent of Ralph's death in MGSV). The whole ordeal comes to an end when the boys turn on Ralph. They burn down the forest to smoke him out and as they are about to catch him they are met by a naval officer. The officer and his troops had come to investigate the fire. This is the moment the boys revert back to kids again and burst into tears over what they've done.

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Kaz's anger at the situation causes him to lose all sight of his objectives. Much like Jack losing sight of his humanity. Venom, like Ralph, wants to use a different approach, "Just one thing, Kaz. This isn't about the past. We're fighting for the future". The "beast" is Cipher, a near mythical enemy, that is in reality no direct threat...only mentally. Even after discovering Cipher played no part in the destruction of MSF, the fear of the "beast" still drives Kaz on his quest for revenge. Kaz knew in 1975 it wasn't Zero and finds out in 1984 that it was Skull Face, but still can't shake his anger, even after Skull Face's death. This is something that Venom recognizes early on. He knew Zero wouldn't do such a thing. Hence his ideal about fighting for the future and not the past, but Kaz pushes the past at every turn. He still very much tries to control his host. The combination of Kaz's anger and Venom's relative levelheadedness creates a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, both benefiting. Venom's reaction against Kaz's wishes gives him a platform to move forward, while giving Kaz the army he craves.

Mother Base
While we're on the subject of Kaz and his business, Mother Base. I want to go back to George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Fittingly (whether it was meant or not) Mother Base is located in the middle of the ocean and '1984' is set in the state of Oceania. In both cases they're fighting a perpetual war for their glorious leader BB. In '1984', this BB is Big Brother, the figurehead of the ruling party, who may not even exist. In MGSV, we have Big Boss as the figurehead, but in the shape of Venom Snake, who isn't the real Big Boss, but was sent by Big Boss (unknowingly) to carry on his meme.

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Big Brother and Big Boss have the exact same meaning. There are designed to inspire the population of their respective state and battlefield. The soldiers of MGSV are often heard talking about this legendary soldier, with some even in disbelief that he is even real.

"You can't run from yourself forever"
This could be a whole study in itself. Mother Base's Room 101. Again a reference to '1984'.

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The first time we see Room 101 is after the rescue of Huey Emmerich. Because of his role in the attack on Mother Base he is interrogated with a truth serum. After 6 hours, a stronger truth serum and having his leg forced in the wrong direction, he says nothing. Kaz believes this is because of some kind of procedure to boost his metabolic enzymes or gene therapy. During Ground Zeroes we know that Skull Face says "The scientist was our way in". That's the closest we've come to a confirmation, but it still isn't one. Skull Face could still have used Huey without him knowing.

The important thing to understand here is that I'm not trying to make excuses for Huey. At the top of his list of crimes is trapping Strangelove in the AI pod and leaving her to slowly die. That's a certain character from 'Breaking Bad' levels of calm but psychotic. The bare face fucking temerity of killing Skull Face is seriously fucked up whatever angle you choose to look at it. Even if Huey was completely innocent, but felt the need for his own revenge, he still steals Venom and Kaz's moment of glory. And does so in such a comical fashion, you can't help but think, "This man is fucking insane!". For the record, I believed - until the very end of his stay at Mother Base - that he would be found innocent, and even I thought, "This man is fucking insane!".

And that's how I think it's supposed to go. It's been said that Huey couldn't be killed purely because he can't die until he drowns himself in later life. But that's not true, because this would have been planned from the very start of his inclusion in PW. Because why would the role of Otacon - which is what Huey is all about - turn from well meaning scientist to calmly psychotic?

But what's the point? Because while you're busy trying to piece together all Huey's lies...you're not thinking about the other lies going on here. "You can't run from yourself forever". Venom can't. Ocelot can't. Kaz can't. In '1984', Room 101 is used to break a person by using their own worst fear against them. In the case of it's protagonist Winston Smith, his fear is rats. In the case of Huey, it's not being able to walk. A fear that is exploited when Ocelot threatens to destroy his exoskeleton legs (that are physically attached to his bones) with metallic archaea.

Room 101 is used to brainwash Winston of all the information he shouldn't know. And now it's being turned on the player.

Call Me Ishmael
It would be easy to compare Kaz Miller to Moby Dick's Starbuck, because of their businessman similarities, but actually he has more in common with Ahab himself. Consumed by revenge for the near mythical ghost that is Cipher, losing his leg just like Ahab. Kaz is willing to do anything and take any job to take down Cipher. That's basically it for 'Moby Dick'. It's quite a simple parallel, a revenge mission using a helicopter called the Pequod.

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But one aspect is very telling and that's the relationship between Ishmael and Venom Snake. In 'Moby Dick', Ishmael is the narrator, but not that big a character. In MGSV, we have Ishmael, who is also the narrator. It all comes back to that old symbiotic relationship. Because Ishmael is Big Boss and it's his memories and experiences that drive this narrative. It's Big Boss that "frees" Venom to spread his meme and tell his story, as well as creating his own. It's Venom's own story that distorts our view of Big Boss throughout the events of the game. He creates a legend of Big Boss that Big Boss couldn't have done by himself.

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The Boss once spoke to Big Boss about loyalty. "Sooner or later, your conscience is going to bother you. In the end, you have to choose whether you're going to live as a soldier, or just another man with a gun" [...] "I'm loyal... to the "end." To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What's it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit? Or your personal feelings?". The Boss' loyalty speech is very often misunderstood that she is saying "It's good to be loyal to something". When it's actually a warning about loyalty. Being loyal to something is unavoidable, but it's how you deal with that loyalty that matters.

Big Boss' unwavering loyalty to his country wavers the second his is forced to kill The Boss. All he has left is the choice between soldier and a man with a gun. He chooses to be a man with a gun. Then he creates MSF, a place for more "men with guns". He becomes responsible for these men and gives them and himself a purpose in life. Loyalty...to the bitter end. Big Boss then acquires Peace Walker's nuke to protect himself and MSF. It becomes bloated to the point where he has painted a target on his head, and it's only a matter of time before someone hits that target.

Fortunately, "the end" is not death for Big Boss. Not for the first (or last) time Big Boss has a life changing moment of clarity. "How can they kill me, if I'm not there to be killed?". But he doesn't change his ways, the ways that caused this in the first place. No, he only goes bigger. The Big Boss with "no nation" now builds a nation. He did it again. In the end he's no more than a human. All he can do is repeat the same pattern over and over again.

And in the midst of all this is Venom Snake. A MSF soldier, medic and their best man. And, if we look back to relationship number one, the player. "Venom has no backstory", he does, because it's our backstory. It was there the first time someone played Pong, it's an obvious fundamental part of the gaming experience. It started when you played your first game. A language of control was established. A dialogue formed between you and the creator. You became dependent on each other. The game becomes a product built by a relationship.

Throughout the series information was passed back and forth. In a very real sense we both created the series through a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes it can be parasitic, mutualistic or commensalistic. To put it in a cold way - a product doesn't exist without a consumer. It would never take root and grow.

"Plant your roots in me"
After defeating Skull Face, Diamond Dogs transport Sahelanthropus back to Mother Base, but why keep it?

"It's a mark. Us Diamond Dogs, we don't have a country to call home. That means we have no past, nothing to prove that we lived. Every one of us threw it all away when we came here. Sahelanthropus is a symbol to show that the likes of us brought at least one crisis to its end".

Kaz is pleased by Venom's attitude...a change in attitude. Venom also does the same thing with Volgin's body and The Boss' AI. Something has changed.

"Anyone can give up his fight by laying down arms. But the feeling of holding a gun - that, we'll never forget. Like our lost limbs, the sensation lingers. We hold our rifles in missing hands. We stand tall on missing legs. We stride forward on the bones of our fallen. Then, and only then, are we alive. This "pain" is ours, and no one else's. A secret weapon we wield, out of sight. We will be stronger than ever. For our peace".

These are Kaz's words, but does Venom feel the same? It doesn't feel like this is over.

In Mission 43, Venom Snake has to personally kill many of his own men, saving the future generations. He turns to leave this horrific moment in the past...but stops and returns to his fallen comrades. He now embodies the spirit of a leader building the future on the past...something he didn't want.

"I won't scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me".
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It was always going to happen, because, "you can't run from yourself forever". And because, "Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing".

The Phantom Past
To Venom Snake it wasn't about the past, but the future. Yet it still didn't stop the past from haunting him. Created from the memories of Big Boss, in the body of a dead man and in league with people who can't let go of the past, he really has no choice but to battle against it.

The player has always been Snake's best man. Snake and the player can't do anything without each other. We guide him in exchange for the experience to play as Snake. But we were distanced by a forth wall that was many times broken, but never shattered. We came close with Raiden, but we were merely controlling a Snake wannabe, who in the end rejects us...he'd never heard our name before. The experience of playing as Snake was never ours. Our past was not the same...until it was.

For years we watched over Snake, destroyed Metal Gears with him, helped him build MSF and recruited like minded soldiers. These soldiers were nobody before they met Snake, but would be willing to die for him. Then one day, one does. In this moment of sacrifice the forth wall envelopes the player. We wake up expecting Big Boss, so we see Big Boss. We expect Big Boss' allies, so we see Big Boss' allies. We expect Big Boss' enemies, so we see Big Boss' enemies. We expect Big Boss' past, so we see Big Boss' past. But in reality it's just us and we're about to be taken for a ride.

I've seen people try to rationalize the idea that Venom Snake is the player because we make his choices...but that's not true and could never be true. Freedom of the narrative doesn't exist. There is only linearity of the narrative. We are Venom because our experiences are one and the same, regardless of choice. Solid Snake was Solid Snake. Raiden was Raiden. Big Boss was Big Boss. They all had they're own histories before we came along.

The player has the whole history of the series behind them. And it shows. We are haunted by phantoms of the past. Volgin, a virtually dead piece of meat, but with enough anger left to come seek us out. The Boss, a ghost in a machine, repeating the past on an endless loop. Zero, the man that started it all, but is now "a tombstone chiseled into the code of a machine". Eli and the 'Third Child', ghosts of a future we've already discovered. Our MSF comrades from 9 years ago, running around in the wild aimlessly. And Paz, who doesn't even exist, only as collected pieces of the past.

The future maybe all Venom is interested in, but he can't escape the past. He may process these memories differently, but he is always that ant climbing that tree. And we will certainly make sure of that. It started when you played your first game. A language of control was established. A dialogue formed between you and the creator.

I asked if Venom felt the same as Kaz. The answer was a clear, "Yes", as evidenced directly after Kaz's speech. As a vision of Skull Face lingers around Venom, because "Words can kill". And Skull Face's words have killed Venom's resistance of the past.

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"I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders, I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are...peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong... War changed me - and not only my visage. Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me. A philosopher once said, "It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland". My fatherland - my truth was stolen from me. And so was my past. All that's left is the future".

Venom was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside him. And it changed him.

The game uses a one shot cinematic throughout. The camera often leaves Venom only to return later in the scene. Early on in the hospital, a system is used with cuts as Venom blinks in first person. We are tethered as much as possible to Venom. It's like we can explore the area around him, under the condition that we return. And we do. The screen may fade out for flashbacks or a loading screen may appear, but no cuts between different cameras in a scene. Except for one instance.

As Venom hangs unconscious in the upturned ambulance, Ocelot pulls Big Boss away. As Big Boss goes to stand there's a cut...then again as he moves away...the camera slowly zooms into Venom's face and then fades into the next scene. As Big Boss and Ocelot look at the bike, it cuts again...then again as Ocelot light the cigar...and then back again...then again as Big Boss gets on the bike...then again shortly after...then again. 8 cuts, all when Venom is unconscious. Then the next scene - the mirror scene - we are back to one shot. So it wasn't just Venom that was unconscious, but also the player.

Remember the naval officer from 'Lord of the Flies'?

"The whole ordeal comes to an end when the boys turn on Ralph. They burn down the forest to smoke him out and as they are about to catch him they are met by a naval officer. The officer and his troops had come to investigate the fire. This is the moment the boys revert back to kids again and burst into tears over what they've done."

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At the end of Mission 46, it's Big Boss and Kojima that play the role of that officer, come to break the illusion. In a "bizarre coincidence" (so bizarre and unlikely I feel it needs inverted commas), the picture above is from a scene in MGS4, in which Mei Ling comforts a scared naval officer on his first real engagement. Her ship (the Missouri) happens to be in the Pacific Ocean, the place where 'Lord of the Flies' is set...and the naval officer just so happens to be played by Hideo Kojima.

"Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do?".

Since 1998, the language of control has changed from game to game. And with each game, we changed too. Our understanding of control, our tactics and even how we saw right and wrong. Metal Gear changed us. It made us climb more than just a tree. And didn't just force us to pass it down to the next generation, but made us part of it.

"Where we are, today? We built it. This story - this "legend" - it's ours. We can change the world - and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you, wherever you go. Thank you my friend. From here on out, you're Big Boss".
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That's an intoxicating thought, we were created to become an actual part of Big Boss' legend. You can't help but give a little smile. It's cool. We've been directly recognized and thanked. Thank you Hideo San.

But there is a problem. This has been forced on us and we are moving inexorably towards Solid Snake. There can be only one Boss. There's only room for one Boss. And there's only room for one player and we're about to meet the character we started this relationship with. In an odd parallel, Venom moves towards the mirror with his horn fully grown out of his head, just like the ant with the fungus. We are still trapped by the forth wall that enveloped us and there's only one way out.

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For a fleeting moment we see the image of Big Boss in the shattered forth wall, before Venom leaves us, strolling into infamy in a cloud of smoke with Operation Intrude N313 loading in the background.

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Let's remember the ant, infected by fungal spores, it was parasitically driven to climb the tree, all in order to spread that fungus down through the canopy and the generations. The infected ant may be familiar to anyone who played The Last of Us, and should also heavily remind you of a certain scene involving snails in MGSV, but do you remember this? In 2008, Kojima revealed he had a name for MGS4's promotional artwork - Dissolve.

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We know the FOX Engine began development soon after MGS4 and then Peace Walker, "the MGS5 Inside me". I wonder how long it took for those "seeds of life" to grow roots in Kojima's brain? Was it always going to happen? Because, "you can't run from yourself forever". And because, "Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing". Is there hope? Is MGSV the end? Are we merely left to tell the tale of Metal Gear? Is it truly game over?

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Posted Dec 1 2015, 06:30:06 AM · No comments
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