The Challenge of Integrating Video Game Mechanics and Narrative While Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in BioShock

Suspension of Disbelief is a vulgar necessity in fiction.  Every story starts off with the implicit statement “Let’s pretend…” Let’s pretend that this story really happened, so we can be emotionally invested in the outcome.  Let’s pretend that coincidences and destiny present themselves so prosaically that we can sum up a life in 300 pages.  Let’s pretend that motives are clear, and the narrative certain, so that we can ignore the jumble within history as well as within ourselves.

Let’s pretend that the world is far simpler than it actually is, for to behold it in all of its complexity would evoke the horror of the sublime.

“Let’s pretend” – note the second person plural – is the implicit agreement between the author and the audience.  We are going to do our best to ignore the implausibilities and plot holes.  For his part, the author does his best to create a seamless universe; the audience, meanwhile, agrees not to pull too hard on any of the dangling threads.  With science fiction this tacit agreement becomes all the more vital.

Science fiction will typically posit some new technology, and then proceed to explore its many iterations and unforeseen side effects.  The storytelling aspects are the “controlled variable” of the experiment.  The characters will have arcs, they will pursue their interests and have their conflicts, but the driving force behind all of it will be this hypothetical technology which alters the playing field.  Usually there will only be one paradigm shifting technology (or collections of technologies) to take into consideration.  In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars series, humans are settling on and terraforming our closest neighbour: what sort of social, cultural, and political developments result?  In Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg a sapient species is discovered which lives on the surface of a neutron star, whose biology is based upon the strong/weak nuclear forces as opposed to the chemistry which underlies our biology.  How does this affect their perception of the universe?  The speed of their cognition?  What do they have in common with us, and what do they have that’s different?  Larry Niven’s Known Space universe posits multiple game-changing technologies, but each individual story generally limits the focus to one in particular.

The above are some of the best science fiction works out there, and even they begin to fail if you tug too hard at the threads.  Red Mars assumes a natural evolution of Fukuyama’s End of History theory; Dragon’s Egg avoids ontological questions of spirituality; Known Space fails to anticipate the social destruction elicited by sexual liberation; but to criticize them in such a way is the height of pedantry.  It utterly misses the purpose of the stories, sucking out any entertainment value, while diminishing the significance of the questions they are asking.

Suspension of Disbelief is a balancing act, which requires an understanding of what the story is about, and what it isn’t.  The softer the science fiction, the more critical this distinction becomes.  The criticisms above are controversial and esoteric, and only a zealot would allow them to undermine the stories; but the further we get from hard, well-defined technology, the easier these criticisms are to make, and so it’s all the more vital that the audience agrees to ignore any story-telling cheats.  Star Trek and Star Wars are oft cited examples of this; the technology in both is largely nonsensical, but so long as the authors use it in a consistent and meaningful way, we’re willing to ignore this faux pas.  Whether or not fish-headed, bipedal aliens are realistic is beyond the scope; these are stories about exploration and adventure.

Star Wars and Star Trek also bring up another issue of Suspension of Disbelief in storytelling: the challenge of depicting the fantastical on the Silver Screen.  Television and cinema not only have their own unique patterns and tropes inherent to stories told through the eye of the camera obscura (the medium is the message), they also have limitations imposed upon them by the inherent brevity of a 40 to 90 minutes story.  While a novel can indulge in exposition, the medium of film must explain through imagery; technological interfaces will mimic those that the audience is familiar with, whether it be monochrome computer screens in Alien, or iPod graphics in Star Trek (2009)Dragon’s Egg has the luxury of exploring the emotional life of 15mm long slugs with a dozen pseudo-pod tentacles sticking out of them, while E.T. needs to convey the eponymous creature’s emotions through the same facial expressions and body-language which is used by the hairless apes which dominate the third rock from the sun.  Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels could describe space battles happening light-minutes apart, controlled by advanced AIs, which lasted for seconds at the most – but as soon as cameras get involved, space battles become the domain of 19th century naval bombardments, or 1940s aerial dog-fighting.

For a gross example of this, simply compare the mech-suit combat of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers to the battle royale in Verhoeven’s cinematic interpretation.

The world of cinema is the world of dreams; of introspection and symbolism.  The world of novels is that of allusion and philosophy.  The former is exemplified in Rob Ager’s analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s monolith; David Bowman’s journey through time and space is symbolic representation of humanity’s journey through these new forms of communication, and what they do to our understanding of ourselves.  Meanwhile, the latter world – that of philosophical pondering – is present in Clarke’s novel, which meditates on what it means to be conscious, and where that can possibly lead.

With the rise of narrative in video games we’re seen yet another iteration on all of this: a new medium which communicates its own message, and thus requires a new form of Suspended Disbelief.  However, video games are still in their infancy, and some of the seams are showing.  The question we are still trying to resolve is, where does storytelling end, and game design begin?

Ken Levine’s BioShock is a high water mark – in terms of narrative, spectacle, and interactivity.  The narrative deriving from novels, the spectacle from film, and the interactivity being the core of this new medium – and because it is a high water mark, its lapses are all the more deserving of study.

Narratively it explores Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism through its anagrammed antagonist Andrew Ryan; a character who shares much in common with his real life counterpart.  Like Rand, he was a Jewish-Russian emigrant.  He despised the Bolshevik takeover of his homeland, and he likewise found himself coming into ideological conflict with his new home, specifically Roosevelt and his New Deal, and how they were spoon-feeding Americans the “Bolshevik Poison.” In Ayn Rand’s case, she wrote Atlas Shrugged, a novel in which the great and productive decided to boycott America’s creeping socialism, and retreat to the hidden enclave of Galt’s Gulch.  Andrew Ryan decided to actually build it: a society for the greats to isolate themselves, far away from the greedy hands of Washington and Moscow.  A city where science, industry, and the arts could all thrive without meddling from society’s parasites.  He decided to build the greatest city on the planet, and name it Rapture.

On the surface, the Parasite expects the doctor to heal them for free, the farmer to feed them out of charity. How little they differ from the pervert who prowls the streets, looking for a victim he can ravish for his grotesque amusement.
~Andrew Ryan

Ironically, it was this very greatness which would sow the seeds of its own destruction.

The primary agent in Rapture’s downfall was the “plasmid” technology that her great scientific minds created: body modifications which turned the individual into a super man.  Not only did their widespread adoption undermine social order and public infrastructure – it was akin to selling hand grenades at vending machines – they were also incredibly addictive, turning normal citizens into “splicers”, the equivalent of roid-raging heroin junkies.  Furthermore, the industry succumbed to the tragedy of the commons, quickly exhausting the natural supplies which could be acquired, and turning towards ethically unsound harvesting practices.

But while the plasmids were the most obvious agent of destruction, it was the inherent flaws in his system which allowed this socially challenging technology to turn into an existential threat.  Ryan’s zeal against regulation prevented them from being introduced in a more gradual, organic manner.  His opposition to centralized control allowed a criminal cartel to monopolize the production and distribution.  His rejection of workers’ rights created a rebellious underclass.  And his rejection of moral oversight allowed many ethically unsound behaviours, which helped tear apart the social fabric of Rapture’s society in their own subtle ways.

It brings to mind Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, an encyclical from 1891 addressing the new challenges being faced by society in regards to capital and labour; it was an explicit rejecting of socialism, and yet it simultaneously admonished capitalists and governments to treat their workers well.  Pope John Paul II’s reflections upon it a century later in Centesimus annus are particularly relevant:

These criticisms are directed not so much against an economic system as against an ethical and cultural system. The economy in fact is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity. If economic life is absolutized, if the production and consumption of goods become the centre of social life and society’s only value, not subject to any other value, the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone.

All of this can be summed up by repeating once more that economic freedom is only one element of human freedom. When it becomes autonomous, when man is seen more as a producer or consumer of goods than as a subject who produces and consumes in order to live, then economic freedom loses its necessary relationship to the human person and ends up by alienating and oppressing him.

By raising up one value as the “best,” Ryan subjugated all the others into second-class status.  Justice, social fabric, charity, and sustainability all fell to the wayside in favour of private ownership.  In trying to create a society based upon enlightened self-interest, he wound up nurturing greed.  It wasn’t the plasmids that destroyed rapture: it was the same old enemy he’d struggled against in Washington and Moscow.

BioShock‘s narrative is compelling enough on its own, but it doesn’t stop there.  In Atlas Shrugged Galt’s Gulch performed double service as a necessary plot-point, and an exploration of how Rand’s ideal state might realistically function; beyond that, however, it was a prosaic mountain villa – populated by geniuses who’d developed technological marvels, granted – but from the perspective of spectacle it was a town like any other.

Rapture, on the other hand, was a marvel to behold.

Andrew Ryan’s city wasn’t just isolated from the democratic parasites; it was built in the furthest reaches possible on planet Earth, in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

Its architecture sang with the Art Deco style which personified America during her heyday (the same styling you’ll find on monuments like the Hoover Dam).  It was a city of towers, reaching magnificently upwards, and disappearing into the horizon.  The fashion and music were those of the man at his ascendancy: elite and elegant, while simultaneously universal, rejecting both the crassness of subculture, as well as aristocratic pompery.  And its impossible aquatic location?  A testament to man’s will, unencumbered by the assumptions of the past; and yet, it isn’t some sort of space-age feat – it’s a city like any other.  New York, London, or Paris… Rapture is the same as these, only better.

To the pedant, this exotic spectacle beggars belief.  From an structural standpoint, Rapture’s flat panels and hard lines makes no sense; water pressure has its own unique set of demands, and any sensible architect would have been building spheres.  The civil engineer would be equally aghast; the glamorous downtown cores for which our cities are known are but one aspect of the city as a whole.  The suburbs, the farms, and the transport infrastructure are all vital portions, and without pavements dedicated to the free movement of automobiles, Rapture’s grid-structure makes little sense.  Even its bathysphere system strikes the casual critic as insufficient: one lighthouse, and one bathysphere which seats eight, being used to populate an entire metropolis?  It’s obviously insufficient.

Rapture is cinematic and spectacular, not realistic and plausible, but all of this is to Ken Levine’s credit.  Instead of limiting his vision to that of the “real”, he used imagery which spoke to the heart of America’s culture; and he used it to explore the consequences of American self-interest writ large.  The weight of the sea water is omnipresent throughout the game, bearing down and crushing the desperate citizens – as well as the desperate character – without the ugliness of emergency scuba equipment, nor the other-worldliness of life in an underwater space capsule.  The water isn’t merely water; it’s the financial threat of going under, when we live in a world predicated on currency manipulations.

Cinematic spectacle is the depiction of exotic normalcy, and Bioshock hits the mark.

Finally, we have the element unique to gaming, that of interactivity.  This provides both opportunities and constrictions.  The novelist’s ability to indulge in exposition is largely a faux pas in gaming; requiring the reader to sift through endless paragraphs of text, hidden away behind three menus, slows a game down to a crawl.  The film maker’s reliance upon skilled actors and choreographed set pieces is likewise denied to the game developer; neither involve the participation of the player, and so they wind up detracting from the experience, no matter how expertly crafted they might be.  But while these tropes are denied, other opportunities appear.  The environment itself can tell the story; whether it be damage to a wall from an old explosion, or discarded refuse dropped by citizens during an evacuation, we can piece together what happened by simply observing and exploring (most of what we know from archaeology is what we’ve learned from the trash that our ancestors left behind, after all).  Dangerous opponents aren’t limited to their fearsome aspect; the player can directly engage them, and learn first-hand what sort of threat they constitute.  Even the “idle” aspects of gaming contain their own sort of lore; whether sorting through a character screen while levelling up, reorganizing an inventory, or simply listening to the passive dialogue which the non-player characters emit while not otherwise engaged, provides a wealth of information about the setting.

Bioshock makes good use of all of this.  The Big Daddies – hulking behemoths in retro diving suits, whose moans are inspired by the whales which swim through the city core – do this on multiple levels.  Their size and hulking movements shows their danger; their watery aspect speaks to the oppressive, underwater environ; the diving suit itself hits the uncanny valley, suggestive of the scientific horrors which went into their creation; and the fear with which Rapture’s splicers react to them foreshadows the danger they’ll eventually present to the player.

As for the splicers, they are the perfect combination of posh and ugliness – dressed to the nines in torn clothing, with multiple wound dressings, and deformities ranging from tumours to open sores.  That they try – and fail – to hide their horrific visages behind the sort of party masks one could imagine the Great Gatsby wearing, speaks not only to the insanity of drug addicts, but also to the lies and false fronts put out by high society.  Their dialogue backs this up: each of the enemy models has an implied back-story which speaks of desperation and failure, with delusions about still being able to make it, even though they’ve fallen through the cracks of society.

Baby Jane:Mr. Ryan’s gonna notice me, and I’m gonna be a star! It’s not too late, not too late!
Lady Smith:They talk talk talk, but in the end they’ve got nothing to offer society. Just more mouths to feed.
Breadwinner:It’s just a bad quarter. Naw, that’s all. Yeah, market’ll come back, huh? Yeah! Everything’ll be fine. Yeah, it’ll all be fine… Augh.
Toasty:Things were supposed to work out for me, down here…! RYAN! When’s my turn, you son of a bitch?!

This characterization is subtle; it’s never an explicit focus of the game, and usually occurs when the player is too busy fighting or escaping to give it their full attention.  Nonetheless it seeps into the environment, it leaves its subconscious impressions: the gloomy desperation and mercurial anger of those who were promised success but who found themselves at the bottom of the pecking order.

Those are some of the environmental opportunities which gaming provides, and which BioShock uses to great impact; but the most significant is the core aspect of gameplay itself.  In BioShock this is the plasmids themselves.

Despite wandering through a city fallen to their abuse, the player is nonetheless required to begin abusing the plasmids himself.  He uses them to inflict traumatic injuries on his opponents; setting them on fire, or manipulating their minds to turn upon their allies.  One is left with the creeping fear that in the process of fighting monsters, he is becoming one himself.  Losing his humanity and becoming something else; something that’s just as pathetic, just as enslaved, as those pathetic wretches he’s annihilating so callously.

This gameplay aspect contributes directly to the main theme of BioShock: choice, freedom, and consequences.  As Andrew Ryan intones during the climax: “A man chooses – a slave obeys!”

In a novel, style needs to match content.  In a movie, cinematography must emphasize mood.  In a video game, the mechanics must echo theme; so long as the art conforms to these standards, a great deal of disbelief can be freely suspended.

Bioshock exemplifies this unity of mechanics and theme – but at the same time it falls flat on its face.  To explore how it can do both at once, it’s worth delineating precisely what a mechanic is, and how video games are more than just chasing pixels around a screen.

Chess is arguably the perfect game, because there is no perfect game of chess to be played.  Nothing in it is random or prone to luck, and aside from a slight advantage with the player who moves first (roughly 5%), victory is utterly reliant upon the skill of the players involved.  Computers can emulate this skill by computing thousands of possibilities in milliseconds, but the mark of a true chess player is not memorization, it’s creativity.

And yet chess contains no narrative; no catharsis.  It is strategy distilled to its purest form, void of emotion or meaning, nothing but the purified will of its participants.  Different forms of “Battle Chess” have been put on computers, with animated knights, or characters from Star Wars replacing the abstracted pieces, but these are nothing but novelties; the amusement with which players watch the animations speaks to their lack of emotional impact.

Video games are a grafting of catharsis and mechanics; the vast majority involve random chance, which undermines the purity of the strategy employed, while at the same time allowing for a perfect game – an ideal strategy or character build which is hands-down superior to all others.  On top of this they allow for exploits – manipulation of the rules to achieve a desired outcome, which doesn’t technically break the rules, but certainly feels as if it’s undermining the core narrative being presented.

Good game design minimizes these exploits; it creates a verisimilitude where the player can explore the rules to their fullest, without violating the expectations of the narrative environment.

First Person Shooters have turned environmental design into an art form all of its own.  While the earliest games in this genre used maps that were little more than hedge mazes, the current generation manages to create environs which are deceptively realistic; at first blush they appear to be living, breathing places, no different from any office, hospital, or industrial plant in the real world.  Yet at the same time they still have all of the puzzle aspects and tactical challenges of the last generation’s hedge mage design.  Upon closer examination these maps are much smaller than any real-world location would reasonably be, and often the enemy characters have little reason for waiting about in the locations where you find them.  It is the illusion of an organic world through the programming equivalent of smoke and mirrors.

The maintenance of this illusion requires that the player behave in predictable ways – and yet putting constraints on the player’s interactions is the antithesis of what games are supposed to provide.  Thus the bane of game developers everywhere: the fact that players love to break the game.

It is the stage magician’s equivalent of an audience who won’t stay in their seats; who insist on walking behind the stage, where the props and trap doors become evident.  Players will seek out alternative interpretations of the rules – not actually breaking them, mind you, no more than a chess player who employs an unorthodox strategy is “breaking” chess – but by doing so they wind up breaking the game; that is, turning the whole setting into a farce.

One example of this is known as “kiting”; the enemies in a game will typically have a radius surrounding them, which is the limit of their environmental awareness.  Stand outside of it, and they’ll ignore you; penetrate it, and they’ll pursue you.  In a game like BioShock, which is meant to simulate a real world, this can lead to nonsensical results, where you take a group of enemies and kite them away, one at a time – thus avoiding the intended challenge of a “boss fight” involving multiple opponents, without actually breaking the rules as they’re laid out.

There are many patches which can prevent this exploit – ranging from enemies who naturally wander, to communication between opponents – but it’s worth remembering that these are all systems developed to mimic real-world behaviour.  Or at least, realistic-world behaviour.

It is artificial intelligence – not intelligence itself.

Another solution to player creativity is to embrace it; instead of trying to prevent the player from abusing the mechanics, embrace the abuse, and turn it into an intentional part of the gameplay.  The problem which arises from this is when the game’s developers begin to mistake the systems they’ve developed, for the real world which it’s supposed to be emulating.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when your game is based upon certain stats – health, magic power, strength, and speed – all of your items start to look like statistical buffs, rather than plot-laden Rings of Power.

Many – if not most – of the plasmids in BioShock fall into this category; they’re combat buffs which toy with the game’s core mechanics, which realistically wouldn’t have been relevant to your average citizen prior to Rapture’s fall.

To some extent this can be waved away; presumably there are plasmids which increase your charisma, or help you stay up late studying, and the player character simply ignores those ones because he’s busy fighting for his life.  But with others it’s on the nose.  One of the plasmids makes the ‘hacking’ minigame easier – despite the fact that hacking is explicitly illegal in Rapture.  Yet another, “Security Bullseye”, exploits the AI behind the various automated turrets and security cameras.  It tricks the machines into thinking your target is on Team Green (your team) instead of Team Red (the enemy team); from the perspective of game mechanics, this ability is obvious; but from a story-telling perspective it’s nonsensical.

Further exacerbating this is the nature of the plasmid powers themselves.  Not only are they more mechanic-focused than verisimilitude-focused – they’re also fundamentally magical in nature, despite their scientific patina.  The justification for plasmids is technobabble about stem cells and genetic code, but their effects range from telekinesis to summoning a swarm of bees.  Very cool effects – but utterly world-breaking, if we’re assuming a materialistic, science fiction setting, as opposed to outright fantasy.

Now even this isn’t a problem on its own – Magic: The Gathering is a statistical card game with a High Fantasy veneer – but Bioshock wants to be more than just a fun diversion.  It wants to be taken seriously.  It wants the plasmids to be a core element in the narrative progression, and yet it undermines them from both a scientific, and game-mechanic perspective.

Suspension of Disbelief requires a clear set of fictional rules.  In science fiction this is often mistaken for having a clear set of rules for how the technology works, but in fact it is deeper than that: the core rule is that the author doesn’t violate the audiences expectations.

The lightsabers in Star Wars are utterly unrealistic, but they’re not a problem because the audience understands that they’re just some sort of fire-sword: it cuts through anything, and cauterizes the wound in the process; that’s all we need to know.  But the moment the author starts investigating such an implausible technology, it immediately becomes problematic.  As soon as we’re supposed to take it seriously, we start asking a lot more questions.

Why don’t civilians use lightsabers?  Where does it get its power supply?  Do they bounce off of mirrors?  What sort of generalized applications does this technology offer?  So long as lightsabers are kept in their box, the other implications can be ignored; but the moment you open it up, a huge pile of worms spills out with it.

BioShock tries to have it both ways; on the one hand, the plasmids follow the Rule of Cool: “The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its awesomeness.” Yet on the other, they’re supposed to be a plausible form of technology, which we’re meant to take seriously.  The audience is not only expected to blindly accept their existence – we’re also expected to devote considerable brainpower to examining the effects they’re having within the world of rapture.

You can’t have it both ways.

In a first person shooter, random ammo drops are necessary, regardless of whether you’re in a police station, a hospital, or a church.  Because of this players are willing to suspend their disbelief as they rifle through filing cabinets searching for 9mm bullets.  But the moment you put some plot-relevant documents into such a cabinet, the disbelief comes rushing back.  Why is this cabinet full of randomized loot drops, while that one has an implicit backstory?

No amount of verisimilitude will ever satisfy the pedant, but nonetheless it’s the creator’s duty to provide as much plausibility as possible.  For a writer this means avoiding gaffes; researching even the most obscure of topics, because you mentioned it briefly, and if you get it wrong somebody will be taken aback by it.  Filmmakers need to ensure that their settings, lighting, and photography all match the mood, even to the point of selecting which books go on the bookshelf in the background.  And game devs need to integrate their mechanics into their narrative, as fully as they possibly can.

The audience will accept scientific inaccuracies and lucky improbabilities, so long as they’re kept in the background; but the moment the creator tries to have their cake and eat it too, the whole narrative comes crashing down.

In Star Trek the audience will blindly accept that you can’t beam through the shields – until a hackneyed writer suddenly comes up with an excuse to do exactly that.  Then all the previous instances will come under scrutiny.  In Fallout: New Vegas players will ignore all the human skeletons scattered throughout the wasteland as set decor, placed there to add to the mood; until in one instance, a group of skeletons are part of a backstory.  That’s when they start wondering where all the other skeletons came from, and why nobody has given them a decent burial in 200 years.  And the fantastical, chilling world of BioShock will be taken at face value, up until the moment that the audience is expected to start analyzing the Science! scientifically.

To be fair, the problems in BioShock mostly arose with its sequels.  This is likely why BioShock 2 was so poorly received, despite being on-par with the previous title.  As the series’ lore expanded, the cool gimmick from the first game was increasingly treated in a serious manner.  Suddenly the VitaChambers – an utterly implausible and irrelevant bit of technology, which was clearly intended as a simple game mechanic (largely derivative of the previous System Shock series) – became plot relevant, necessitating serious scrutiny which it just couldn’t bear.

(In BioShock Andrew Ryan died because his VitaChamber was deactivated; in BioShock 2 subject Delta was resurrected in a VitaChamber after 10 years; and on top of this, it’s never really explained how sea slugs and genetic modification lead to reality-bending resurrection chambers.)

To some extent this is the fault of fandom.  Fans of a science fiction series’ demand more of the same, and so the creator delivers, sequel after sequel, until the lore is a heaving leviathan on the brink of aneurysm.  Star Wars continues to expand, piling ridiculousness upon ridiculousness, until the spark which animated the originals is lost under all the retcons.  Star Trek has lived far beyond its shelf-life, trying to repeat the exploratory adventure of previous generations, mimicking tropes that we should have grown past long ago.  And BioShock has gone from being a palpable critique of Objectivism to a convoluted mess of time travel, Quantum Mechanics, and increasingly implausible cityscapes, all of which is powered by the magical green slime emitted by an imaginary sea slug.

Sometimes the best way to maintain the Suspension of Disbelief is to simply quit while you’re ahead, and move on to something new.  Nothing last forever; so maybe it’s time to stop exhuming the memories from our past.  They never smell as fresh the second time around.

ͼ-Ѻ-ͽ

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Davis M.J. Aurini

Trained as a Historian at McMaster University, and as an Infantry soldier in the Canadian Forces, I'm a Scholar, Author, Film Maker, and a God fearing Catholic, who loves women for their illogical nature.

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2 Responses

  1. Stefan says:

    That was an excellent, indepth analysis.

  2. richard says:

    How on earth do you find the time to write such content? A very good read!