A Philosopher's Blog

Cut Scenes

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2016

While I have been playing video games since the digital dawn of gaming, it was not until I completed Halo 5 that I gave some philosophical consideration to video game cut scenes. For those not familiar with cut scenes, they are non-interactive movies within a game. They are used for a variety of purposes, such as providing backstory, showing the consequences of the player’s action or providing information, such as how adversaries or challenges work.

The reason that Halo 5 motivated me to write about cut scenes is an unfortunate one: I believe  that Halo 5 made poor use of cuts scenes and will argue for this point as part of my sketch of cut scene theory. Some gamers, including director Guillermo Del Toro and game designer Ken Levine, have spoken against the use of cut scenes. In support of their position, a fairly reasonable argument can be presented against cut scenes in games.

One fundamental difference between a game and a movie is the distinction between active and passive involvement. In the case of a typical movie, the audience merely experiences the movie as observers—they do not influence the outcome. In contrast, the players of a game experience the game as participants—they have a degree of control over the events. A cut scene, or in game movie, changes the person from being a player to being an audience member. This is analogous to taking a person playing sports and putting her into the bleachers to be a mere spectator. The person is, literally, taken out of the game. While there are some who enjoy watching sports, the athlete is there to play and not to be part of the audience. Likewise, while watching a movie can be enjoyable, a gamer is there to game and not be an audience member. To borrow from Aristotle, games and movies each have their own proper pleasures and mixing them together can harm the achievement of this pleasure.

Aristotle, in the Poetics, is critical of the use of the spectacle (such as what we would now call special effects) to produce the tragic feeling of tragedy. He contends that this should be done by the plot. Though this is harder to do, the effect is better. In the case of a video game, the use of cinematics can be regarded as an inferior way of bringing about the intended experience of a game. The proper means of bringing about the effect should lie within the game itself—that is, what the player is actually playing and not merely observing as a passive spectator. As such, cut scenes should be absent from games. Or, at the very least, kept to a minimum.

One way to counter this argument is to draw an analogy to role-playing games such D&D, Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu. Such games typically begin with what is analogous to a game’s opening cinematic: the game master sets the stage for the adventure to follow. During the course of play, there are often important events that take considerable game world time but would be boring to actually play. For example, a stock phrase used by most game masters is “you journey for many days”, perhaps with some narrative about events that are relevant to the adventure, such as the party members (who are played by people who are friends in real life) becoming friends along the way. There are also other situations in which information needs to be conveyed or stories told that do not need to actually be played out because doing so would not be enjoyable or would be needlessly time consuming if done using game mechanics. A part of these games is shifting from active participant to briefly taking on the role of the audience. However, this is rather like being on the bench listening to the coach rather than being removed from the field and put into the bleachers. While one is not actively playing at that moment, it is still an important part of the game and the player knows that she will be playing soon.

In the case of video games, the same sort approach would also seem to fit, at least in games that have story elements that are important to the game (such as plot continuity, background setting, maintaining some realism, and so on) yet would be tedious, time consuming or beyond the mechanics of the game to actually play through. For example, if the game involves the player driving through a wasteland from a settlement to the ruins of a city she wishes to explore, then a short cut scene that illustrates the desolation of the world while the character is driving would certainly be appropriate. After all, driving for hours through a desolate wasteland would be very boring.

Because of the above argument, I do think that cut scenes can be a proper part of a video game, provided that they are used properly. This requires, but is not limited to, ensuring that the cut scenes are necessary and that the game would not be better served by either deleting the events covered in the movies or having them handled with actual game play. It is also critical that the player not feel that she has been put into the bleachers, although that bench feeling can be appropriate. As a general rule, I look at cut scenes as analogous to narrative in a tabletop role-playing game: a cut scene in a video game is fine if narrative would be fine in an analogous situation in a tabletop game.

Since I was motivated by Halo 5’s failings, I will use it as an example of the bad use of cut scenes. This will contain some possible spoilers, so those who plan to play the game might wish to stop reading.

Going with my narrative rule, a cut scene should not contain things that would be more fun to actually play than watch—unless there is some greater compelling reason why it must be a cut scene. Halo 5 routinely breaks this rule. A rather important sub-rule of this rule is that major enemies should be dealt with in game play and not simply defeated in a cut scene. Halo 5 broke this rule right away. In Halo 4 Jul ‘Mdama was built up as a major enemy. As such, it was rather surprising that he was knifed to death in a cut scene right near the start of Halo 5. This would be like setting out to kill a dragon in Dungeons & Dragons and having the dungeon master allow you to fight the orcs and goblins, but then just say “Fred the fighter hacks down the dragon. It dies” in lieu of playing out the fight with the dragon. Throughout Halo 5 there were cut scenes were I and my friend said “huh, that would have been fun to actually play rather than just watch.” That, in my view, is a mark of bad choices about cut scenes.

The designers also made the opposite sort of error: making players engage in tedious “play” that would have been far better served by short cut scenes. For example, there are parts where the player has to engage in tedious travel (such as ascending a damaged structure). While it would have been best to make it interesting, it would have been less bad to have a quick cut scene of the Spartans scrambling to safety. The worst examples, though, involved “game play” in which the player remains in first person shooter view, but cannot use any combat abilities. The goal is to walk around trying to find the various people to “talk” to. The conversations are scripted: when you reach the person, the non-player character just says a few things and your character says something back—there are no dialogue choices. These should have been handled by short cut scenes. After all, when I am playing a first person shooter, I do not want to have to walk around unable to shoot to trigger recorded conversations.  These games are supposed to be “shoot and loot” not “walk and talk.”

To conclude, I take the view of cut scenes that Aristotle takes of acting: while some condemn all cut scenes and all acting (it was argued by some that tragedy was inferior to the epic because it was acted out on stage), it is only poor use of cut scenes (and poor acting) that should be condemned. I do condemn Halo 5.


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@DestinyTheGame #badpoetry # dinklebot

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2014

Rolling through the Cosmodrome with my Dinklebot.
Killing Dregs and Vandals.
Dropping them with just one shot.

Off to Luna to bring the Hive some ruin.
What’s that, Dinklebot?
That Wizard came from the moon?

Flying to Venus to grind the Ishtar Sink.
Who’s setting off the alarms?
Why, it’s a bot named “Dink.”

Finally, to Mars to shoot up the Cabal.
Seriously, Bungie…
F@ck that annoying talking ball.


Openly Gamer

Posted in Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2013
Dados do sistema d20

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started my gaming lifestyle when my mother got me the basic D&D boxed set over three decades ago. Since I was already solidly classified as a nerd by the other kids, I made no attempt to conceal my gaming ways. I also did track, cross country and debate—which actually resulted in more mockery than my gaming. When I went to college, I continued my openly gamer lifestyle, although I also continued my running ways.

In graduate school, I took my gamer lifestyle to a new level—I began writing professionally and my name appeared in print as solid evidence of my gaming lifestyle. While some people leave gaming behind after college, I stuck with it and still have a regular game, usually Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu, each week. I also have my own tiny publishing operation and obviously still am open about my gaming ways.

Thanks to the popularity of video games, fantasy and science fiction, gaming now has less stigma than it did in the past. However, I know numerous gamers who are careful to conceal their gaming lifestyle from others. For example, one person tells people that he is playing poker or watching sports when he is, in fact, rolling D20s and pushing around miniatures. He also forbids any photos of him engaged in gaming. Another person is careful to conceal his gamer status from his professional colleagues out of concerns that it will negatively impact his career. Others are less secretive and do not deny being gamers—if directly asked. They do, however, do not usually talk about their gaming around non-gamers and tend to have anecdotes of bad experiences arising from people finding out about the gaming.

Jokingly, I tend to refer to people who actively keep their gaming secret as being in the dungeon. Folks who voluntarily tell people they are gamers come out of the dungeon and those who are involuntarily exposed are outed as gamers.

In my own case, being openly gamer has been a no brainer. First, I was obviously a nerd as a kid and there would have been no point in trying to deny that I gamed—no one would believe that I didn’t have a bag of strange dice. Second, I studied philosophy and became a professional philosopher—in comparison being a gamer is rather down-to-earth and normal. For those who are curious, I am also openly philosophical. Third, because I am socially competent and in good shape, I do not have any fear of the consequences of people finding out I am a gamer.

I also have moral reasons as to why I am openly gamer. The first is my moral principle that if I believe that a way of life needs to be hidden from “normal” people, then it would follow that I should not be engaged in that way of life. Naturally, there are exceptions. For example, if I were in a brutally repressive state, then I could have excellent reasons to conceal a way of life that those in power might oppose. As a less extreme example, some gamers do believe that they will suffer negative consequences if people find out about their gaming ways. For example, someone who knows her boss thinks gaming is for Satanists would have a good reason to stay in the dungeon.

The second is my moral commitment to honesty. Being a gamer is part of what I am, just as is being a runner and being a philosopher. To actively conceal and deny what I am would be to lie by omission and to create in the minds of others a false conception of the person I am. While I do recognize that people can have good reasons to create such false conceptions, that is something that should be avoided when possible—assuming, of course, that deceit is wrong.

I do know some gamers who hide their gaming when they start dating someone—I recall many occasions when one of my fellows went on a date or met someone and others, on learning this, said “you didn’t tell her you are a gamer did you?!” The assumption is, of course, that being a gamer would be a deal-breaker. While I do not advocate being an in-their-face gamer (just as I do not advocate being an in-their-face runner), honesty is the best policy—if the dating leads to a relationship, she will eventually find out and dishonesty tends to be more of a deal breaker than gaming.

Naturally, some gamers have made the reasonable point that they want to win over a person before revealing that they are gamers. After all, a person might have a prejudice against gamers that is based on ignorance. Such a person might unfairly reject a gamer out of hand, but come to accept it once they get to know an actual gamer.  After all, gamers are people, too.


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Dead Island

Posted in Ethics, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2011

While looking for some new co-op play Xbox 360 games, I ran across an upcoming game called Dead Island. The game is set, amazingly enough, on a resort island. The player must battle zombies in order to survive. Seeing the game made me think of an adventure I had written for GDW’s horror RPG Dark Conspiracy. This adventure, called Nightsider, was published in 1992 and the first part is titled “Dead Island.” The players are on a resort island and find that the inhabitants have been killed and raised up as zombies by a military experiment gone wrong. Naturally, there are secrets beyond that (involving my own creations, the nightsiders). But, aside from the name and the basic plot elements, Dead Island is different from my adventure. One weird thing: though my adventure is set on a fictitious island off the coast of Maine, the cover of the adventure shows a tropical setting (palm trees and the zombie kid has a dead parrot).

Perhaps someone involved in the project saw my adventure and got the basic idea from it. Perhaps the person does not even recall the adventure. Or, which is also a real possibility, it is just one of those coincidents that happen because gamers often think alike. To use one example, I have noticed that gamers often independently come up with the same names for characters, monsters and game settings.

“Dead Island” is also the name of part one of GDW’s 1992 Dark Conspiracy adventure, Nightsider. This adventure, written by Dr. Michael C. LaBossiere, features a vacation island whose inhabitants have been transformed into zombies by an experimental military weapon. This island is, however, located off the coast of Maine. Aside from the name and plot similarities, there is no known connection between the video game and the Dark Conspiracy adventure.

Naturally, I have no interest in attempting a troll style lawsuit. I would, however,  be interested in knowing if my adventure had some small role in the idea for the game-it is always cool to see that happen. I’ve been inspired by others, so I think it is only fair to try to pay it back in a small way.

I did attempt to put a blurb on the Wikipedia page for Dead Island clearing up that it has no connection to my adventure, but someone quickly swooped in to remove my addition. I am, of course, not urging people to add something like the following to the page:

“Dead Island” is also the name of part one of GDW’s 1992 Dark Conspiracy adventure, Nightsider. This adventure, written by Dr. Michael C. LaBossiere, features a vacation island whose inhabitants have been transformed into zombies by an experimental military weapon. This island is, however, located off the coast of Maine. Aside from the name and plot similarities, there is no known connection between the video game and the Dark Conspiracy adventure.

That would presumably be wrong. Right?

In any case, I am a big fan of zombies (which is why “Dead Island” leads off Nightsider) and video games. So, if Dead Island is any good, I’ll pick up a copy. If it sucks, I will curse it for tainting the name “Dead Island.” I really like that name.

Full disclaimer: I suspect that the genesis of “Dead Island” can be traced back to one of my favorite childhood books, The Bad Island. It has no zombies, but is about an island populated by monsters. I must confess that I still have it.

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Aristotle, Halo &ThinkB4YouSpeak.com

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 20, 2009

The goal of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com is to attempt to counter the homophobic remarks (such as “that’s so gay”) that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers face. The main motivation for this campaign is that the casual use of such phrases, it is claimed, can lead to more overt hostility against LGBT.

As a college professor, I do deal with some teenagers (mainly 18-19 year old students). However, students tend to feel some small degree of reluctance to throw slurs around in front of professors (but less so than in the past). My main dealings with teenagers “in the wild” has been in the context of online gaming, mainly Halo 3 and other such shooters.

I  used to play Halo 3 online on Xbox live quite often. While I enjoy the actual game, the post game banter can be rather horrific. If my team wins, the vanquished all too often throw out a chorus of vulgarities and insults. In the rare event that my team loses, we are regularly treated to shouted obscenities. If I am playing a “pickup game” with random people, woe to the player who has a bad game-his performance is critiqued with such phrases as “fag” , “that was so gay”, and “you c**k sucking, a** f***ing fag!” While this does not happen all the time, I am always surprised when I hear a calm voice saying “good game” or “wow, that was close…you guys played well.” So, if my own experience is any indication of how teens (and adults) behave, the folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have their work cut out for them.

One question that arises is the matter of whether the use of such phrases and terms should be a matter of concern. On the one hand, kids just use whatever words happen to be in vogue as insults at the time. As such, I suspect that most kids who use “gay” or “fag” as an insult do not really harbor deep hatred of homosexuals and the use of such terms does not cause them to act against LGBT. They use such phrases reflexively and without much thought. In fact, the terms are most often applied to straight people in response to things that have no connection to sexual orientation at all. For example, if someone says “that was gay how that guy sniped me like that” in a Halo game, he is just expressing his displeasure at being sniped and not expressing any hostility towards LGBTs. Of course, LGBTs will feel upset if they here such terms being used, but we all have to face things that upset and annoy us.

On the other hand, some people who use the phrases and terms do harbor hostility towards LGBTs and the repeated use of such terms no doubt adds to their views. After all, as Aristotle argued, we are what we do. Someone who regularly uses such phrases and terms will be affected by them and it will shape his character. In the Republic Plato also argues about how what we observe can corrupt us. While he was discussing poetry and the arts, his arguments would seem to apply here as well. If someone hears such phrases being used as insults, they can be corrupted into using those terms and also corrupted into the mindset behind such views. While it is a long distance between saying “that is so gay” and attacking homosexuals with a baseball bat, the first step towards that swing begins with the language.

Further, there is the harm done to the LGBTs. While I am straight, I can imagine what it would be like for a LGBT to hear those things. After all, I was called “nerd” and “track hack”(an insult against people who run track)  in school and did not like that. Even if it never escalated into more overt hostility, it would still be needlessly unpleasant.

Granting that it is harmful for such phrases to be used, the next matter is what is to be done about it.

The folks at ThinkB4YouSpeak.com have launched a campaign to attempt to curb the use of such phrases. Their current campaign works like this: they have various advertisements that replace the “gay” in the phrase “that’s so gay” with the target of the ad (that is, the type of folks who tend to use the “that’s so gay” phrase). One example is “that’s so jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence” and another is “that’s so gamer guy who has more video games than friends.” They even have on targeted at cheerleaders that says “that’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff.”

Like the fine folks at Penny Arcade I have my doubts about the effectiveness of such an approach.

First, there is the point made by Aristotle in his writings on moral education. Aristotle argues that most people cannot be made good (or at least less bad) by mere words. As he argues, most people are ruled by fear rather than shame and are only deterred by punishments. The main reason he gives as to why mere words will not work is that “dislodging by arguments long embedded habit is difficult if not impossible.”

Having faced off against the target audience for these advertisements online, I am quite confident that they will not work. I will admit that there are some people who use “that’s so gay” in a state of naive ignorance and can be corrected by being made aware of the serious implication of their usage. However, the sort of folks who scream “fag” and “that is gay” as they play Halo 3 are most likely not amenable to reason. They are folks of this sort and are largely immune to attempts to get them to reflect. The folks that are most likely to be more overtly hostile towards LGBTs are of this sort or even worse and clearly will not be lead into the light so easily.

Second, the specific approach taken is a poor one. The ads seem to be an attempt to get the target into a “reversing the situation” mode. That is, the target is supposed to feel the cruel sting of the insult and thus be made the feel the pain the LGBTs feel when they hear “that’s so gay.” There are numerous problems with this.

The main problem is, as noted above, the target audience most in need of enlightenment is the most resistant to such an approach. A secondary problem is that trying to be a jerk (even in a weak and lame way) to counter jerks is not an effective strategy. This is like trying to counter stupidity by acting stupid or hatred by hating. Another problem is that the ads lack sting. While the “that’s so gay” probably really hurts some LGBT folks, I suspect that almost no one will feel the cruel sting of oppression from these lame attacks. To use a game analogy, the ThinkB4 folks have entered the battleground wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and cut-off jeans. They are armed with bouquets of flowers. Their opposition is wearing battle armor and armed with big guns. Did I mention that the guns have chain saws on them? They are, as was pointed out at Penny Arcade, woefully under armed for the opposition.

Thus, while the campaign has noble motives and goals, their methodology is lacking.

Because of the moral right to free expression, it would be wrong to compel people not to use such language. Naturally, the overtly hostile behavior can be checked and stopped, but merely saying nasty things is not adequate grounds for the application of compulsive means.

So, what should be done? Well, it does make sense to try to correct people. That can, in some cases, work. While it won’t change how people think in a direct way, it can deter people from saying obnoxious things in public.

Another option, the one I have used when really annoyed, is to forgo slapping folks with a bouquet of flowers and rip at them with a real verbal weapon. While this is probably morally dubious, it is quite satisfying. For example, here is an incident from when I was playing Halo 3:

Player: “You fag! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck! You f@cking suck!”

Me: “That is not very sportsman like.”

Player: “You’re a fag! You F@cking suck! You F@cking suck!”

Me: “Is that all you’ve got? Don’t you have anything original in the way of insults?”

Player: “What?”

Me: “You just keep saying the same thing over. What about some originality, buddy?”

Player: “You’re a fag!”

Me: “That is not original. You just keep saying that.”

Player: “F@ck you, you fag!”

Me: “It is my considered opinion that you f@ck dogs.”

Player: “What!? What did you say, you fag?”

Me: “You heard me just fine, you poodle f@cker.”

While I probably should not advocate this approach, if you want to make someone feel the cruel sting of language, you need to use something with the right sort of caliber. The lame approach of ThinkB4 lacks that sort of firepower, but my approach worked quite well.

Naturally, I think that a more rational approach would be preferable. But, to paraphrase Aristotle, some people listen to reason, but you have to put the f@cking boot to others.

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Are Gaming Consoles’ Days Numbered?

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on March 27, 2009

OnLive, a new startup company, plans to offer the gaming world streaming games. The idea is that just as people now stream videos (mostly porn) and music to their PCs, gamers will be able to stream games to their PC or TV. The current hype is that OnLive might doom gaming consoles.

The OnLive system, image from Onlive

The OnLive system, image from Onlive

Using the service on a PC will most likely involve installing client software. For TV use, a hardware box (the OnLive Microconsole) will be needed. OnLive claims that it will offer the latest PC titles to gamers.

The service is supposed to offer numerous advantages. First, the hardware requirements are alleged to be moderate. The reason is that the servers are supposed to do the “heavy lifting” while the user’s PC or MicroConsole displays the images and sends output (game commands). If the service becomes a reality, this could appeal to many gamers-especially those who would like to play the high end games without buying a high end system. Second, OnLive will handle the patches and updates on their end. While patching games is easy enough, this would make keeping up with the latest patches and bug fixes effortless. Third, OnLive might be cheaper than buying games. I say “might” because the service is still in closed beta.

While the service sounds appealing, there is the question of whether it will doom consoles or not.

One obvious factor is the fact that Sony, Nintendo and (most especially Microsoft) swing some big sticks in the industry. If their people think that OnLive is going to be a major competitor to their consoles, they will no doubt use their considerable influence with the game companies. Platform specific games (Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3) are nothing new and the same sort of tactic could be used against OnLive.

A minor concern is that the service requires reliable, fast broadband. While this is not a major issue (most gamers already have broadband), OnLive faces the same challenge as online gaming with the additional challenge that OnLive will presumably have no offline play. After all, offline play with OnLive would just be normal computer gaming-why pay for a service that would let you do what you already do? Of course, online only games have been successful. Just consider World of Warcraft.

A more serious concern is that OnLive will need to provide the service at a reasonable price (after all, gamers with plenty of money for gaming will just buy high end rigs and the games) while still being able to purchase and maintain high end servers capable of doing something that servers generally do not do (that is, play PC games).  To get companies onboard, OnLive will also have to offer them the opportunity to make more money dealing with OnLive than they will lose from not selling games directly to consumers. This might be feasible. A game going out via OnLive would not need to be shipped to retailers on physical media, thus eliminating those costs.

Since some gamers are into mods, they might find the service unappealing. After all, I doubt that OnLive will let customers mod programs on their servers. Of course, OnLive could offer modded versions. Also, many gamers do not mod, hence this will not be a concern for them.

One rather significant reason that OnLive will not doom consoles is that consoles already co-exist with PCs. Unless OnLive can offer the content and experience that keep people buying and using consoles, the console is most likely safe from the threat of OnLive. There is, of course, some concern that OnLive could be harmful to retailers. Of course, this is the same worry that retailers who sell music and videos have had to deal with for years.

I’ll no doubt look into OnLive. However, to appeal to me it would have to be a significant improvement over how I currently game. I suspect that I won’t become a customer, though. I tend to get one game and play it through for a month (or months) rather than playing many games each month. But, for gamers who consume multiple titles each month, OnLive might be a good deal.

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Headset with (Bad) Attitude

Posted in Humor, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 17, 2007

I recently picked up a new Xbox 360 headset. I had to do this because Microsoft makes a great deal of (to be technical) ‘crap that breaks.’ So far, the death total is: 1 Xbox 360 (Red Ring of Death), one controller, and 3 headsets. Oddly enough, this blog is not about the evils of Microsoft, but about the packaging for the headset in question.

As I was saying before my Microsoft rant, I bought a Plantronic headset for the Xbox. The set itself is decent (I should hope so-these guys designed the headsets for the moon landings) but the package text is not so decent. The text refers to the user’s friends as “know-it-all, bench-warming trash talkers you call ‘friends'” which seems needlessly hostile. It also gets right down to the avowed purpose of the headset-to “verbally devastate foes” using the mic boom that “flexes to fit your trash talking maw.”

I know that the hip, soul-patched marketing minions put together the text to appeal to the target audience. The text shows that they know this audience well. As I related in an earlier blog, trash-talking is the dominate thing in online gaming. I am somewhat surprised that the package did not say something like “Our headset is so cool that you can scream ‘fag’ out of your hateful maw and your gay foes will clearly and distinctly know that their sexual orientation has been soul-patched with your verbal devastation!”

Yes, I know it is just a headset. But, there really seems to be no need to give more encouragement to people to behave even worse than they already do.

Oh, as far as the headset itself goes, I like it. It does hold well to my ear without being irritating. It also has a volume control (I use that often) and a mic off/on switch. My only real gripe is that the mic boom rotates too easily and does not lock in place-mine gets turned around so that my verbal onslaughts sometimes get a bit muted. That was easily fixed by a bit of electrical tape, though. I got mine on sale for $20-about the same price as Microsoft’s crappy headset.

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