The End of the TF2 Honeymoon (or: Coming to Terms with my Waning TF2 Obsession)

It’s no big secret that I love Team Fortress 2. I delight in TF2’s trademark mayhem, and its mercenaries’ raucous battlecries are like the uplifting birdsongs of a brand new day. My wall and desktop are adorned with REDs and BLUs in glorious gratuitous combat. My MP3 player boasts a playlist of TF2 voice clips rearranged into music. And whenever a new substantial update for the game is about to come out, like thousands of other fans, I too am glued to its homepage, compulsively refreshing for the briefest shred of new information on the changes that are to come.

So why don’t I play Team Fortress much anymore?

 I’m actually feeling some minor emotional turmoil over this. I remember when sessions of TF2 were a daily event for me, when Dustbowls and Gravel Pits were what I looked forward to after a hard day of classes and work. Once, I clocked in an average of 18 whole hours per week, and I was proud of that in my own absolutely daft way. Today, I only play for a third of that time. I am also well aware of how entitled all this makes me sound.

Visual self-criticisms have never been easier, thanks to Meme Generator(tm)!

“Woe and dismay! I do not play Team Fortress 2 as much as I used to! My world is undone!”

However, in my defense, my fondness does not solely stem from its quality as a game. For instance, the distinctive cartoonish style of its characters endears itself to me in ways that no gritty gung-ho FPS can ever achieve. I have no desire to be another cookie-cutter military man overloaded with biceps and six-packs, to be one more in a line of cookie-cutter space marines with icing snarls and gumdrop grenades. Give me the scrawny double-jumping legs of a baseball-loving Bostonian. Give me the besotted eye of a black Scottish Cyclops. Give me the hearty paunch of a big war hero. Far better to be fat and unique than it is to be chiseled and unremarkable.

And it’s not just the characters. I revel in its light-hearted setting, with the bright colors of its maps plus the humor of its scattered easter eggs. I am moved by the effort put into updates for a game that (before the Mann Store opened up at least) was already released and sold. I am awed by a community that has grown and thrived alongside the game since its release in 2007, celebrating and contributing to their much-loved world of mercenary maniacs. I am doubly awed by the company that has responded to that enthusiasm in kind in myriad ways: bestowing one-of-a-kind specially named items for player excellence; creating the Steam Workshop for contributors to more easily display their creations and, in some cases, profit from it; and making Source Filmmaker (a movie-making program that uses in-game assets from various games including TF2) freely available for fans and artists to make their own masterpieces.

A scene from TF2’s highly-awaited Meet the Pyro, which was introduced alongside the Source Film Maker.

Team Fortress 2 is more than entertainment. To me, it is a symbol of the potential that games and game companies can achieve. It is a promise that one does not have to follow the formula and designs of past games to succeed. It is a promise that companies can form long-lasting bonds with their player base, crediting and celebrating their contributions. Mind you, while I also believe that the game isn’t completely perfect, I still look at it and think, “This is a game that has it right.”

And this brings me back to the topic I was originally mulling over: if I love the game so much, why am I not playing it as much as I used to? I could say that it’s because of how busy I am with work and life, but that would be an absolute lie. I frequently plunge myself into the digital distractions of a variety of games, and I know without doubt that some of them aren’t very good.

Even without comparisons to TF2 or other titles I hold in high esteem, some games will have elements that simply rub me the wrong way on their own. Those long periods of travelling and/or repetitive actions, intended to represent epic journeys and convey hardship, but instead instill tedium and restlessness in the hearts of gamers. Then, the lengthy tutorial lectures about an exhausting expanse of statistical variables, most of which eventually end being inconsequential to the player. Oh, and I shall not forget the bane of bad writing, not now or ever. Whether it is melodramatic prose or stilted dialogue, excessive macho posturing or ill-paced lowbrow buffoonery, every inelegantly delivered word grates on me. They savage my immersion and enjoyment like screeching claws on a chalkboard. Individually, they irritate. In concert, they weigh heavier and heavier upon me until they transition fully from games to chores. It would take a troupe of wisecracking commentators, mocking the game’s faults every step of the way, to make me reclassify it as entertainment once more.

MST3K: Pioneers of the “Mock something terrible to make up for its lack of entertainment” method.

When a game gets so ponderous and its plot so cringe-worthy, it invokes in me this thought: “Why am I not playing a game I already know I enjoy? Why did I spend money, time, and effort on a new experience that has now proven to be unsatisfactory?” However, that train of thought leads to a problematic stance of constancy, something that the world at large argues against with no end of proverbs and anecdotes.

A developing world like ours obviously favors change; you can’t get the modern conveniences of life without trying out a few new things. Hell, I myself am ever a proponent for new experiences, seeing and hearing and trying as much as is possible in the one life available to us. And while the familiar may bring its own kind of bliss, even the fondest sensations become bland after the hundredth or the thousandth time. Worse still, staying forever with the familiar exposes me to much fewer ideas of improvement, fewer insights into how different games can truly entertain players and how different stories can be conveyed to audiences. And even if I am playing a game or reading a book that has turned out to be utter soul-cringing tripe, at least I will know why it is tripe and how it became so.

Team Fortress 2 and other favored games are my ports to return to after testing the teeming seas of new game titles, whether they be big-name or indie. They are the memory-evoking dishes that mom used to make. They are the old favorite songs you recognize on the radio. They are the understanding swinger wife, who tolerates my dalliances with younger games in return for my compliance with her cross-promotional swapping parties, dropping hats in a bowl and bringing home every new player that catches her fancy.

Awkward metaphors aside, my point is that trying and enjoying something new, whether it be food or games or activities, is most certainly not betraying what I already love. These new experiences do not replace; they add on, growing and refining my knowledge of what makes games excellent. They let me better appreciate games by learning more about what they include and what they rightfully do not. Yes! Plunge headfirst into the new and unknown! Be it treasure or be it trash, every game adds to my ideas and ideals and so long as I do not overindulge and cut into time I set aside for my own creative obligations, I will…

Posted on August 23rd, 2012.

I will…

November 16th, a date that is approximately 85 days after August 23rd, give or take a few hours.

I will be berating myself in a future post for failing to achieve a goal I have explicitly set. To any readers who may have been waiting, I apologize for yet another outrageous lapse in my willpower.

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No Excuses

March 23, 2011

(Though it is a chilly day, the sun shines brightly through a window, laying its rays upon a man sitting at his computer. His fingers readied upon his keyboard, and his eyes betray the idealistic anticipation in his heart. Words are swirling around in his mind, slowly falling into place as he envisions the first few sentences of his first blog.)

Ryebread: I’m doing this. I really am doing this! I’ve written fan fiction for obscure shows. I’ve written creative writing assignments for class. I’ve written pieces for another blog and I’ve written short stories just to keep in practice. But now I’m starting my own blog on my own terms, a responsibility to be upheld solely by myself.

Ryebread: But I have to remember. First and foremost, this isn’t about pride or marketing myself or internet cred. This is about maintaining a habit of writing regularly. I love writing, plucking ideas and thoughts from my mind and planting them down in the form of amusing self-reflection pieces or compelling narratives. However, if I want to even entertain the idea of producing articles and stories for the perusal of others as well as for myself, I need to not only practice the art of writing, but also to write so often, it will be a part of my life. Now, let’s do it.

August 23, 2012

My Two Pixels Worth, circa 2012.

(It is now 2012. In the span of nearly one and a half years, this blog has only accrued 3 posts.)

Ryebread: Well, damn.

I can make excuses. I could vent about four years of learning turning out to mean jack-squat in the working world, and a year of fruitless job-searching before giving up and starting over in college. I could hypothesize with anecdotes and observations about how modern society (mostly through popular media) is catering to shorter attention spans, and how entertainment is increasingly stuffed with quick doses of action padded with the fluff of bland dialogue and nonsensical plot twists. I could even cop to how I have most certainly spent a lot more time playing games then writing about them, while claiming that it was for research or experiments or inspiration.

However, these do not touch upon the main reason for this blog’s disuse: my own irresponsibility. Yes, I have more pressing concerns in my life to deal with, but I made the decision to start this blog. Besides being a more permanent online presence for me on the tumultuous sea that is the internet, it was also meant to keep me writing regularly. Back then, I at least knew myself enough to know that I am terrible at keeping focused on a single task. Hell, in the writing of this alone, I’ve alt-tabbed back and forth from Chrome to Steam to Skype in varying orders every time I finish a sentence or two. And then halfway through the writing of this, I completely procrastinated on finishing it for another two months! Mind you, I didn’t say anything about this in the beginning; at the time, I still entertained a faint fancy of writing professionally and feared including anything that would make me appear as a less viable candidate for projects and positions.

Now, things are different. This is a message from me to me, to serve as both an admonishment and as a reminder. This space of 17 months between blog posts is not my one single failure, but a continuous stream of failures at writing a blog. Every second of free time that I did not dedicate to the act of writing but instead to the practice of in-game massacres and the accumulation of virtual treasures is another tick on an already monolithic metaphorical failure counter, blotting out the sunshine of my ideals and intentions.

Oh, they were all so satisfying though, I can’t deny that. There was that TF2 moment when I leaped from a window, fired a rocket into a group of enemies, and turned them all into a hailstorm of bodily organs. The feeling I had as I landed amidst the pitter-patter of livers screaming like a blood-crazed baboon, it was exquisite. As for the hours I spent in Terraria, delving deep into the planet’s crust and fighting off the creatures beneath, those lay the foundations for the feeling. The feeling of scraping together the rarest of ores and shaping them into the most powerful of items, turning me from a paltry peasant into a god-warrior to be feared. These and many others were the achievements that swelled the heart and warmed the soul.

But these were cheap achievements, the drive-thru cheeseburgers of achievements. Like a quickie in a bathroom stall, these satisfied but had no permanence. The true glory belonged to Valve and Re-Logic. While players like myself climbed mountains and crossed seas, they were the ones who crafted them from numbers and pixels. Above all else, it is the act of creation that deserves merit. I am no mountain maker or sea shaper, but damn it all, I can at least write!

So this is how it will go: the posts I write will still frequently relate to the topic of PC video games, simply because they are what I devote the majority of my free time to. However, if the moment strikes and I find myself with an abundance of thoughts for another subject (TV shows, politics, choice of hand sanitizer), then I will bloody well write it and post it, relevance or appeal be damned. My fault is not my ability, but my lethargy. Thus, I place upon myself this one requirement: one post a month, more is welcome but certainly no less!

If I violate this… well, slothful I may be, but I still have my pride. This post is my admission of my laziness, and will serve to reprimand me in the future. Should I fail to fulfill that requirement, I will know that it is solely because I am too much of a feeble-hearted nitwit to tear my corpulent buttocks from the distractions of the world, even lacking the barest shreds of willpower necessary to focus on the comparatively simple task of writing one single blog post.

A continue screen from Newgrounds’ Domo-Kun Angry Smashfest

Now, let’s try this again.

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The Duke and The Rose

Back in March, Gearbox Software incited controversy by unveiling a new game mode for the revived Duke Nukem Forever: Capture the Babe. For those unfamiliar with the shooters genre of action games, it’s derived from Capture the Flag, where two teams fight to snatch their enemy’s flag and deliver it to their own. In the case of Duke Nukem Forever, the flag is replaced with a writhing woman who is likely to be scantily-clad. And to top the cake of controversy, when the Babe occasionally freaks out, the player must “give her a gentle smack to quiet her down”.

I’m here to kick ass and exhibit ludicrous gender stereotypes… and I’m all out of ass.

Opinions about this vary over a wide range, going from enthusiasm on end to abhorrence on the other, with several middle-ground ‘mehs’ along the way. The pro-Duke camp lauds Capture the Babe for what they see as defiance against puritanical political-correctness, or for displays of decadence and raunchy imagery. Mostly the latter. The anti-Duke camp lambastes the game for promoting violence against women and/or acts that belittle women’s worth. Of course, this being the internet after all, posts and counter-posts tend to involve personal attacks, with pro-Duke posters labeled as chauvinistic man-children and anti-Duke posters painted as over-reacting feminazis. I have a few thoughts in regards to this, but before I say anything, I want to talk about another game.

The Womanly Battle Begins!

In Rose & Camellia, Reiko is the low-born widow to a wealthy family’s eldest son. Though her love can no longer protect her, Reiko stands up to her oppressive in-laws, intent on claiming that which is rightfully hers with the power of her open palm. Ladies and gents, this is a game about slapping. There are also critical slaps, slap-dodging, and counter-slapping, but the main goal of this game is to “Beat her Cheek”. A parody of the Victorian soap opera setting, Reiko struggles through her trials in her own delicate fashion:

“What was that, my sister-in-law? I fear I could not hear your cruel recriminations over the the slap that spun your head around 360 degrees.”

“Dear mother-in-law, your malnourished appearance wounds my heart. Pray, please partake of a humble dish I call the SLAP-wich.”

A simple game that is entertaining in its direct approach, yet I digress. To all of you out in the internet, whether you are for or against the Duke of Nukem, do you feel the Duke’s butt-smacking of the flag-babe can be viewed in the same fashion as Reiko’s slapping of her in-laws? Duke Nukem is already set up as an all-powerful Adonis, worshiped by throngs and conqueror of everything. When he smacks someone, female or otherwise, the act both reaffirms his position as alpha male and diminishes the perceived power of whoever he slapped. Reiko’s role as the beleaguered widow is often explicit in portraying its own vulnerability and helplessness. However, Reiko turns this on its head by weaponizing the open-hand slap, empowering both herself and her opponents who fairly fight her one-on-one. The setting, the amount of apparent satire, the identity of the slapper, the identity of the slapped, and myriad other factors modify our varying judgments of the situation. In essence, a reasonable assessment of a game or anything else requires context.

Thus, I do not argue for or against Duke Nukem Forever, but instead that a reasonable argument cannot be made at this point in time. There are no screenshots of a ‘babe’ being captured; there are no gameplay videos of the mode in action. The only context we have is half a paragraph of text, and everything else is conjecture based on media of other parts of the game and from understandings of Duke’s character from earlier games. Even in the more recent screenshots, the lewdest things shown are just a pen and some chalk scribbles. Certainly, it is highly likely to be littered with raunchiness and exposed women, with the game being pretty much advertised as such, but there is nothing that demonstrates the mode itself.

I’m not wholly without opinions myself, but I do know that whatever I present now will be rather under-informed. Still, I’d like to present two ways Gearbox could dilute this controversy, or at least give it a bit more flavor:

Changing The Slapper

From the screenshots of Duke Nukem Forever’s multiplayer gameplay, Gearbox is using the ‘hordes of clones’ approach for character models. Simple and cost-efficient, but a little too surreal and lacking in variety for my tastes. However, let’s imagine a future where Gearbox lets players play as someone other than the Duke. Then, let’s imagine that copyrights no longer exist, allowing players to be a certain raider of tombs.

‘lo there dear. Why don’t you pop by the fridge and make a working woman a sandwich?

This would work with any female character. If a woman hoists another woman about fireman-style or deprecatingly pats that woman on the bum, then the belittling is no longer directed at all women. Not so in the case of Duke Nukem who, even if he is not intentionally chauvinistic himself, serves as an incarnation of self-absorbed chauvinism with his engorged muscles and crimson wife-beater.

Changing The Slapped

On the other hand, what about the woman-flag who is to be slapped and carted about? Again, I’m quite certain there will be little effort made in characterizing the woman, since she is intended to be a literal object who whines every so often. Get an actress to record a few lines here, get someone to design a busty hourglass figure over there, and voilà: a sexy NPC of unremarkable personality à la the hostages of iconic Counterstrike.

A picture of wary hostages from the First-Person Observer

Now, let’s turn on the imagination again. Let’s pretend Gearbox gets cheeky, perhaps for an April’s Fools prank. Duke Nukem Forever has been out for a while and lots of people enjoy playing the multiplayer portion of it. Then, on April 1st, players log on to play a heated match of Capture the Babe and find… Marcus Fenix in a bikini. Duke Nukems everywhere must now escort a beefy man of equal machismo, with his muscular body exposed to all eyes. Evoking the same emotions that Yahtzee’s challenge to Rockstar and Sucker Punch did, players are not only tested on their reflexes, but also their precious masculinities as well. Can you imagine the butt-slaps in this context? Dare you imagine?

**********

Personally, I don’t see any of the above happening. Duke Nukem Forever is a game about an egocentric hero, aimed partly (if not mostly) at those who adore or want to be an egocentric hero; players are meant to laugh only with Duke Nukem, not at Duke Nukem. The appeal of a cigar-chomping American hero-cliche teeming with testosterone passed me by a long time ago, and now I just see him as I do whoopee cushions and pens with breasts on them: relics of an immature childhood.

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Deep in the Box

First, I’d like to take a moment so everyone familiar with slang of the UK can snicker on their own for a bit.

Now, when I introduced myself a few weeks back, I said a fair bit about games being more than games; I wrote about how they were more than just methods of whiling away the time, that they are assuming the same role as literature and television in the shaping of our perceptions and are becoming a solid part of our memories. However, I have to admit that when selecting games for myself, I tend to gravitate towards a certain bland criteria: experience systems.

Heart-pounding excitement!

Essentially, experience systems are all about the numbers. Bash something insensible, wring out the numbers from its battered frame, and slurp up those numbers to add them to your own. Keep doing this until all those numbers reach a certain threshold, whereupon a wave of energy surges within you, typically in the form of light shooting out from every pore and orifice on your body (even the naughty ones). Empowered with might and vigor, you can now embark on the noble quest of brutalizing stronger things for their number juices. Certainly, reaching these thresholds (or leveling up as it is more commonly known) offers incentives such as: obtaining new weapons to hurt things with; learning new methods of hurting things; unlocking new locations where one might hurt things; and so on. Mind you, strip away sound effects and graphics and text, and all that’s left are the numbers.

MAH BOI, this is what all true warriors strive for: having many ways to cause pain

Not that numbers are a bad thing. Everything on a computer or video game console have numbers tied to them. The very building blocks of each letter I am typing right now are the iconic 1’s and 0’s that laid the way for every digital discovery in this era. I’m not arguing that experience points are a bad thing either. While not quite a feature to wholeheartedly praise, it is still a valid way for games to portray progression. In fact, they even present it in a more satisfying manner. In reality, progression occurs constantly for everyone; every action and thought we make is a minute but undeniable movement forward in the storyline of our own lives. On the other hand, there is also the frustration of being uncertain of success. In a diet, how do you know for sure that every responsible choice of meals definitively leads to a healthier body? In a job, how do you know for sure that every hour of overtime will lead to a promotion? You can trust in your dietitians and your employers, but the cynical find certainty in something more concrete.

Am I succeeding and getting ahead in life? Of course I am! I hit level 67 an hour ago, and look! Look how much that bar rose just now when I filed those insurance claims!

Experience points and experience bars are intended to be clearly understood (gaining abilities to crush my enemies like tiny strawberries is a pleasant bonus). Do I want to reach level 12 and learn a new skill to crack skulls with? Then earn 1200 experience points! I can earn them anyway I like, but as long as whatever I do earns me those points, I am guaranteed swift progression… in the beginning at least. Most games that use experience systems make it such that the first few levels are easily and quickly gained. However, as these games go on, earning enough experience to hit a new level takes increasingly more time. One might see this as understandable; games can’t be too easy for the player or he’ll lose interest. But then there’s the fact that this is also a means of getting a player to spend more time on a game, even if he’s having less fun or becoming more bored.

Obviously, I’m not going to play a game if it immediately becomes less a game and more an exercise in monotonous tasks, yet changes like these happen gradually enough that I won’t pick up on it until after I’ve pulverized my 37th identical zombie in a row. Fine, so I can quit the very moment I am aware I’m being bamboozled into mindlessly punching goblins on an assembly-line. I could just get up, uninstall that game, and run out into the wonderful sunshine outside so I can forget all about that initially-fun-but-now-boring game. And yet I can’t, because the experience bars I lauded so much for their clearness not only represent what I can get and how soon I can get them, they now also symbolize what I have already spent. Every level and skill and weapon I’ve earned become telling reminders of the hours and effort I’ve consumed for the sake of virtual progress, and knowing all that makes it a wrench for me to denounce all that as superficial or useless. Even if I only wanted to dip into a game for a bit of quick fun, the allure of constant rewards ensure my entrapment within a virtual and mundane box.There’s a reason I return to the box metaphor (besides juvenile genitalia humor); game developers, particularly for MMO-type games, make use of the ideas behind a Skinner Box. They literally have the design of experience systems down to a science, a dispassionate money-hungry science. I don’t particularly mind them, but I am also not comfortable being seen as a rodent pushing a money-dispensing lever. Those of you who don’t play Role-Playing Games, the games that experience systems are so intrinsically tied to, might not see this relating to you. On that note, I ask that you examine the games that you do play, whether they be the genres of action or racing or farm simulation. Is there any point in the game where you are making a bar fill up with something or other by doing things? Is there any point in the game where you are trying to raise one number enough to match another number so as to obtain new game items or unlock new game areas? If yes, then you are as subject to the experience system as much as me and my RPG-playing ilk, subject to game designs that aim to keep players firmly nestled in their seats out of compulsion instead of fascination.

Skinner illustrates his theory with a WoW gamer

I don’t mind games using experience systems, but I do mind when they’re explicitly used as time-traps, shanghaiing attentions for the sake of increased exposure and extending subscriptions. And while I may be prone to performing repetitive tasks, blatant tricks are where I draw the line and get out of my box.

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Enter Name:

Hello Internet,

My name is Ryebread (or Rye for short), and I love computer games. Or rather, I love what computer games can be. At their best, they move our spirits with powerful emotions: joy, sorrow, fear, rage… At their best, they can enfold our senses completely, drawing us through the flat monitor before us into a virtual world. Even simple things like forming lines with blocks or batting about a white dot have become the nostalgic memories we look back on so fondly. Our grandfathers had Tag and Blind Man’s Bluff, and our fathers had Uno and Monopoly. We have Mario and Half-Life.

Yesterday…

Although I might be waxing poetic a bit too much, seeing as how a good part of my current gaming life is sneaking about, making clever traps, and cackling when a digital person turns into digital gooey bits. In fact, on reflection, a good part of my life is my current gaming life. I’m only 28 so I wasn’t there at the birth of games, both of the computer and the video variety. But I did grow up through its evolution.

All my troubles seemed so far away…

I cut my teeth on educational software, where an upbeat Reader Rabbit tried to teach me words and numbers. I tentatively moved on to the less forgiving King’s Quest III. This was the one where you played a scrawny lad enslaved by a merciless wizard. Being 6 years old at the time, I perished repeatedly from stepping off cliffs, choking on poisoned porridge, standing still for long, and perhaps because I coughed on a rock. When I was a bit older, my dad bought a Nintendo and later a Sega Genesis, introducing me to more colorful console worlds to die and explode clumsily in. When more time passed, when my fingers were more deft and my reflexes more nimble, I returned to the PC and experienced darker games like Diablo and Counterstrike. It was there where I spent most of my gaming days, all the way up to today, where I now split my time between Fallout 3, Team Fortress 2, and a few less-graphic-intensive browser games.

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay…

Quite a life, and likely more indoors-oriented than my parents and personal friends would have preferred, but it was mine. Mind you, this is not a particularly unique story, especially not in this era of technology where computer usage is commonplace and consoles are household names. A decade or two ago, when parents needed to get diminutive hellions out of their hair without tossing them outside, they turned to the television, the electronic babysitter. Mickey Mouse and Big Bird were our nursemaids then. Now, the burden of freeing parental hands falls on Master Chief and Link.

On a similar note, remember that bit earlier where I was talking about grandfathers, fathers, and us? Electronic games have a long enough history that they could have been a part of our parents’ lives, and possibly our grandparents’ as well.  Hypothetically, if some guy went back in time and altered my history such that I somehow now have a 5-year-old son, how would I be bonding with him? Not with sports, not with camping trips, and certainly not with television. No, I’d be teaching him lessons about life through the wisdom of a husky sandvich-eating Russian. For that young boy, Heavy Weapons Guy would figure greatly in his childhood memories.

Oh, I believe… in yesterday…

Which brings me to my main point. Games are important, no matter how ludicrous the premise. Floating pink blobs, surly god-killers, spiky-haired silent pretty-boys; we can laugh at them all we like, but they are our links to worlds and concepts beyond our reach. As we guide them with controller and keyboard, they guide us with every step through their pixelated worlds. Literature and cinema have done this, and the interactivity of games has the potential to draw us in so much further. Some may dismiss games as being simply games, a miserable little pile of moving pictures that require and deserve no further thoughts, but it is not just the games that matter. It is the meanings we, as players and as fans and as creators, attach to the games that are important.

My name is Rye. These are my thoughts on games.

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