Five Things the Final Fantasy VII Remake Could Use

final-fantasy-vii-remake

Eighteen years have passed since the release of the original Final Fantasy VII, and a whole new generation of gamers are ready to explore this fantastic world for the first time. For the gaming industry, Square-Enix has effectively reached the status of Disney. They really don’t have to truly innovate anymore as they could probably get by through updating, remaking and re-releasing their golden age classics.

There are plenty of other wishlists for the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake, but this article covers some content elements. Many of the other articles have been more obvious. New soundtracks! Better graphics! As though Square-Enix is expected to release a remake with MIDI music and character models that use a jaw dropping 17 polygons.

Rather, these recommendations are more about expanding the core gameplay. Questions regarding the combat system and faithfulness to the story have yet to be answered. So rather, these suggestions work against what has been established from the original game.

airshipFull Exploration of Midgar and the Ocean

Traveling the world and beyond is a common hallmark of the Final Fantasy series. Since game one, travel by land, sea and air were long established. The fourth game sent the main characters to the moon.

Yet after the release of Final Fantasy VII, it was heavily rumored that there were large swathes of the map left on the cutting room floor.

No one can really blame then Squaresoft for the decision. The game was fairly massive to begin with, so it really wasn’t a surprise to anyone that about five sectors of Midgar didn’t make the final product. Likewise, when AVALANCHE finally commandeers the ShinRa sub, they can only use it to explore the inner ocean between the three major continents. There’s a whole outer ocean just begging to be explored. And perhaps out there, a slight change to the story will allow us to…

Fight the Sapphire WEAPON

When Final Fantasy VII came to the United States, Squaresoft decided to add two new bosses the Japanese audiences didn’t receive until later. These were the powerful Emerald and Ruby WEAPONS, and defeating them is a brag-worthy achievement to this day.

Sapphire_Weapon_FMVBut among the original series of WEAPON bosses was one that the plot never allowed us to fight; the Sapphire WEAPON. It would require a slight alteration to events to permit this battle, but why not let players complete their trophy collection?

Say that the Sapphire WEAPON was injured instead of destroyed and forced to retreat, allowing Cloud and company to hunt him later. Perhaps that could lead to a fourth Limit Break for Cait Sith. Wait, Cait Sith has only two Limit Breaks? Well then…

A Full Set of Limit Breaks for Cait Sith

Cait Sith is best described as a divisive character, story wise. Some people liked him, some didn’t. But in terms of play-ability and use in combat, there’s definite room for improvement.

Every other character besides shape-shifting Vincent possessed a total of seven Limit Breaks, the powerful attacks each party member can execute after absorbing enough damage. Most characters divided these attacks into four levels. The first tier of any level was earned by having the party member slay 80 foes, while the second tier of a level was earned by using the first tier 10 times. The fourth level was unique and specially earned by discovery. This added incentive to swap characters to obtain all their abilities.

CaitSith-FFVIIArtBut Cait Sith was different. As the game’s resident gambler, he possessed only two Limit Breaks; a dice based attack he starts with and the random slots. Thus there just wasn’t much to earn with him once the second skill had been achieved.

Gambling and gaming wise, there are plenty of themes to choose from. Roulette boards, poker, darts and billiards, maybe some kind of Black Jack game where every hit results in “card” that hopefully adds up to 21 unless the player chooses to stay while a bust hurts him. There’s more fun to be had with Cait Sith!

Furthermore, one of the slot “attacks” actually resulted in an automatic game over. Maybe instead, how about a horde of status effects against the whole party? Automatically losing seems too harsh, especially if the player hasn’t saved recently.

Allow Swapping the Main Character During Travel

Above, incentive to swap characters was mentioned. While the importance of Cloud to the plot is understood, one wonders why he can’t sit out a bit more during the more mundane segments of the game. Why not let Barrett lead when the player is just leveling in the Junon area? Or let Aeris or Tifa catch the chocobo? When approaching a location that requires Cloud, they can just force him to join the party.

If Square-Enix even goes so far as to add quips and rib poking between their characters during combat, the reason to do this grows even larger, allowing for interesting relationship building and stronger dynamics.

More Time with “That Character”

In early 1997, the world’s most public spoiler involved a man armored in black telling a maimed fellow, “I am your father.”

The second most public spoiler involved the death of a certain character in Final Fantasy VII.  Amusingly, before the game was even released state-side, a rumor sprouted that the Japanese version would allow for (paraphrased) “the resurrection of a party member who dies,” while the United States version would not. This proved false, and the person leading the petition even apologized for the mistake.

Midgar

As mentioned before, a new generation of gamers has grown since the release of the original, so it’s worth trying to preserve the spoilers even after so long. But even in the first edition, the time the player had with this character was fairly short. Usually, the player achieves the departed’s ultimate weapon and Limit Break just before the events of their demise.

Attempting to undo the death of this character risks a great deal of the plot falling apart. So rather, it would seem fair to ask for a few events to slow down and strengthen an already strong emotional connection. It just seems a gentler way for veterans who are already used to the loss to better accept it.

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A Game of Code

So code development can be remarkably like working out.

When you do it, it’s easier to keep going. The practice becomes self-sustaining, enlightening and enjoyable, making you feel better and better about yourself. But just as with exercise, a halt in your efforts can endure. It’s harder and harder to open the IDE (think studio for developing) and get in a few lines of code.

I hate to admit that I was strangely reluctant to start coding this new project. I had discussed it with Manuel and Andrew for a while, and originally envisioned a collectible card game. Because my friends live in the UK, I suggested that doing a demo on Android could make it easier to play test.

But discussion about the m300px-Demomanarket slowly changed our direction. And although we’ve only added the prefix “digital” to the collectible card game title, ipso facto… we are developing a video game.

After agreeing to it, I began to feel reluctance. Coding is exhausting, a mental strenuous practice of researching API (application programming interfaces) possibilities, reading through how-to guides, trial-and-error approaches to problem solving. There can and certainly will be days you drill down the details and exhaust all possibilities on how to solve some issue, only to arrive at frustrating dead-ends because of inexperience.

Today, I finally cracked my inhibitions and began working. Just some easy User Interface (UI) designs, I admit, but not without a few challenges and making me recognize some of the tools and approaches I will be taking to develop the game. Handling the Java-derived functionality is usually easy. And thus far, the User Interface specifications are either in the scope of my experience or just outside of it and won’t take long to crack. However I have entertained the possibilities of moving beyond the “card game” demeanor and embracing… something classic.

Part of this desire was sparked by a recent sale I’ve been conducting on eBay. I am preparing to move to Arlington, Virginia in a week, so I thought to unburden myself of old items that I no longer need. Mundane things, like clothes and unneeded kitchen goods, found their way to the local GoodWill. But books and old Playstation games were placed on sale, some of which selling quite handsomely despite being nigh twenty years of age.

As I didn’t wish to sell damaged and useless goods to my customers, I went ahead and tested my games against my old PlayStation 1. The majority of titles on sale were from SquareSoft, before its merger to Enix. In those days, Square had exceedingly good programmers and designers, their titles enjoyable and fun, a mix of traditional with the new processing power the console offered them. Some say this approach ended with the release of Final Fantasy VIII, when the focus on art and graphics shifted attention from meaningful innovation of core game play.

Recent indie titles, such as The Banner Saga, Risk of Rain and the renovated ShadowRun series, have proven to me that not only is their a market for old-school gaming, but forgotten fun to be had. And yet these titles did not require warehouses of artists either.

Now to be fair, I am aware that there is a good chance this project may never be finished. A few years back, I looked at documentation for Steam Engine projects on their wiki projects page. Many of them had great ideas but didn’t get off the ground either due to lack of technical talent, time or interest. It’s hard to invest it something like this when one is not getting paid. (Not to be cynical, but being a starving artist carries the downside of actually starving.)

Now I will set aside time once a month to discuss this project. A lot of details keep getting shifted around although we have a core idea that we’re sticking with. But we’ll see what happens next.

Why Dead Space 3 is an Important Question

I write horror. So do hundreds to thousands of other people out there. And serializing horror is not something that has ever been done particularly well. For that reason, Dead Space 3 is something anyone who takes their craft seriously should keep an eye on.

It’s certainly been tried so, so many times. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Resident Evil, Silent Hill. Each of these movies and game series have their hey day and begin to fade, their sequels becoming derivative. A recent interview over on IGN certainly suggests that the artists and designers at EA and Visceral Games are doing their best not to let the horror element get away from them.

Now, I certainly don’t feel any need to defend EA or the game. I am looking forward to it, but that’s not to say I cannot be disappointed. It might be, as many other gamers worry, too much action and not enough scares. But I think that overall, based on a few things I’ve seen and heard, there are three things worth discussing and thinking about when it comes this trilogy’s ending.

So how do you keep horror fresh?

Extreme Venue Change

In the past two Dead Space Games, outdoors meant trying to find oxygen tanks and avoiding floating bodies, because you were in zero gravity space. While I certainly hope that there will be some actual moments spent in the void again, the frozen tundras of Tau Volantis have all kinds of possibilities too.

The open spaces make for an unusual set of circumstances. Before, we always had reason to fear the vents and the tight, claustrophobic tunnels and shafts. Which means that if the necromorphs (or whatever monster you are writing about) want their prey, they have to develop new, interesting ways to get close. Hunters always adapt or die, as is the law of the jungle. Camouflage? Tunneling beneath the snow? Masquerading as a snow mound? All possible. Even probable.

But here’s an idea. What if you had to trudge through a snow storm and you see a human looking figure ahead of you. (I know of at least one monster type that is already doing this.) Crazy thing is, your mission is to rescue survivors. And let’s say you can hurt or even fail your mission if you shot them just to be sure.

Which means you have to get close to confirm. Kind of like The Thing. A real moral dilemma.

Admit it. It would freak you out as you have to guess. The question alone causes hesitation.

Someone Else’s Madness

"There is no John Carver, fleshling! It is I, Megatron!"

“There is no John Carver, fleshling! It is I, Megatron!”

John Carver. We don’t know crap about him. Except that one, he’s a soldier. Two, he’s starting to hallucinate. Badly. And three… you’re stuck with him. Now if these ingredients aren’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.

That first point is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the second point. What if the game designers decided to really play with your mind, and player one looks like a necromorph on the screen from a hallucination? And friendly fire hurts?

Yeah. I’d be furious myself. You got necromorphs, the environment and unitologists trying to kill me. And now I got to deal with a rampaging player who is freaking out? No wonder they didn’t want split screen co-op. And I couldn’t really blame the other player. When I see a necromorph, my first instinct is to blast away too.

Oh yeah, nothing adds scare like desperation. Survival horror, not just horror. How are you two going to divvy up the ammo and credits? The last thing I need is to find out my partner is an ammo hog and a really bad shot…

The Still Unknown

One large and very disturbing fact is that no one knows what or where the marker actually comes from. There are theories and ideas, but the only thing that seems to stick is that it’s alien. But obviously, there must be a marker on Tau Volantis for there to be necromorphs. Possibly even the original, the black marker. The Dead Space 3 trailer suggests as much, but it could be something else.

It would be strange at this point not to use the marker to open up a larger possibility. Maybe humans and necromorphs won’t be the only foes Carver and Clarke face. Maybe there’s one more thing somewhere down there. One more faction to the already expanded list, that wants its property back. As Dead Space has proven over the last two games, what you don’t know can and will kill you.

Imagine something comes after you. Something that is not remotely human, its skin is smooth. Its features more animal like terror. There is no rot, no gore, the blood it spills is different in color. It might even sound like it’s saying something. You manage to kill it. And Clarke examines the body.

And admits it does not even look like a necromorph.

… guess we’ll find out on February 5th.

Fantasy that Inspires

I think you can safely call me a fantasy racist. That might seem odd to say, but looking over the fantasy that inspires me, I realize that my interest in Tolkienesque race elements is rather low. I am frequently so fascinated with human elements that exploring other races, like Dwarves, Elves and Orcs, is pretty rare.

No, when it comes to fantasy, I am drawn to fantasy that mingles itself strongly with other common human elements, like economics and politics, religion and psychology. I enjoy the injection of horror into fantasy, the fusing of real world historic mythology. Truly gothic.

So here are several fantasy tales in various mediums that have inspired me. And if you’re looking for fresh materials to stimulate your muse, you can check them out too.

Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story

The Playstation era was a golden age for story telling. The mix of higher resolution graphics, more processing power and greater hardware capabilities was a mixed blessing in that some developers started to make their creations too scripted and cinema laden. But when they got it right, oh boy…

Vagrant Story was one such success story. Squaresoft (before it became Square Enix) created a few games set in a universe called Ivalice. Early games set in Ivalice, such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story were gold, but later Ivalice installments lost their touch as too many fantasy and political elements began to run way too rampant. But for a while in the PS1 golden age, it was unforgettable.

Vagrant Story was a blend of political intrigue in the battle between church and crown, set in the fictious and forgotten city of Leá Monde. The stunning architecture and history of the city meshed with with medieval scheming and grasping for ancient and forgotten powers hidden there. Yet in the depths and dark of the city were old horrors, age old fairy folklore brought to life and the dead who clung to the mortal realm. Meanwhile, the main character Ashley Riot struggles with illusive and untrustworthy memories.

Final Fantasy Tactics

Ramza_BeoulveSet in the same world of Ivalice, FFT was a masterpiece of tactically strategic gameplay and RPG elements. But the real meat of the game came from the real, thick plot. Rife with betrayals and backstabbing, political intrigue and a wide, motivated cast of characters, FFT was gaming meets Shakespeare. After the blood bath, you have such respect for the main character, Ramza Beoulve, for managing to survive such a world with his morals intact.

The story of FFT starts at the end of a war between two kings. A power vacuum has been left that various groups are trying to fill with their own chosen successors. But as it is set in a fantasy world, the leaders of the church choose to play with fire. The other reason the game is fantastic is because it also helps you think about fantasy elements from a strategic and battle point of view. Questions of how magic fits into a fight, the importance of terrain. These are things you don’t normally think about in fighting, but are factors that enrich ones view of pulp fantasy combat.

Try it if you can. You won’t regret it.

I promise you.

Berserk

Berserk

Any of my long time readers know of this manga series Berserk I go on about from time to time. Probably because it’s incredible. Probably because it positively screams ‘adult’ everytime I open it up. You see men and women at their best and at their worst in the story. The fantasy elements are just the side show to the important questions about man’s soul.

Nothing will make your writing feel so inadequate after you feast your eyes on this masterpiece of art and writing.

The story revolves around Guts, a mercenary who was betrayed by his father and falls into a group called the Band of the Hawk. The band’s efforts earn them prestige, and Griffin, their commander and Guts’ friend, is eventually made into a knight of Midland. But Griffin’s ambition proves his undoing when he sleeps with the princess of Midland, and ticks off the king.

The Band of the Hawk is almost destroyed. Guts manages to save Griffin, but all of this was the hand of fate in action. Due to events foreseen aeons ago, Griffin is offered the chance to ‘create his own kingdom’ by demonic forces. All it takes is a sacrifice… the Band of the Hawk. But Guts and another member survive the branding. And though Griffin is elevated to the status of a god, Guts sets out to take revenge upon him.

Guts’ quest for revenge is still on going. But events have conspired that have opened the door of fantasia. Old myths and tales that people thought weren’t true have begun to appear in all their glory and horror alike. Hydras, dragons, fairies. Some good, more for ill. Powerful questions of the human psyche and the belief in karma explain these events.

Trust me. Read it. You’ll understand why Berserk is the greatest fantasy work you’ll ever read.

Vampire Hunter D

Vampire Hunter DOh D, D, D… so much incredible potential. So much background and amazing world building. And yet, the barriers between America and Japan have made the transition so difficult for you.

Although there are more than two dozen novels, a video game and a couple of movies, few have been able to do this series justice. The video game was horrible. If I recall correctly, Playstation Magazine slammed it with 1 star out of 5. The novels from which the series originates were rich with story telling possibilities, but not well translated.

Believe it or not, the movies have been pretty good. The first, created back in 1985, was based on the first novel and filled with a great story even if the artwork is a bit dated now. The latest, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust drew from the third book and is a jewel of animated movie making.

The series takes place sometime in 12,000 A.D. Humanity engaged in a nuclear war, and in the aftermath the nobility (vampires) took over. Although there were some much kindlier vampires, the majority of which were horrifying blood suckers.

Humanity is trying to recover, but the remains of the nobility (they are dying out) make it difficult. D is the greatest of the vampire hunters, being a dhampir.

Castlevania

GabrielCastlevania has been around for decades, as far back as the old Nintendo Entertainment System. But around the Playstation 2 era, Konami has made a real effort to apply more and more story telling elements to their gothic, vampire slaying series. There was Castlevania: Lament of Innocence which details one origin of Dracula, and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, a side story revolving around Hector, a demon summoning man trying to escape Dracula’s legacy.

But Konami really hit gold with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. A reboot of the series, Mercury Steam and Konami refreshed everything, transforming the game into a thick, shocking origin story of Dracula and the Belmont clan. The ending was particularly well done. The story designers kept pounding you with plot twist after plot twist. Maybe you saw something coming early on, but they didn’t stop until they got you with something you didn’t foresee.

But the real joy is coming in the sequel… where you’ll be playing as Dracula himself.

Final Fantasy VI

Well, I almost made a criminal mistake here. As I wrote this, I was tempted to leave it at five franchises, when I remembered that there was probably one more I should speak up about. I suppose the reason I almost forgot about Final Fantasy VI was that it was first an SNES title, as I never owned an SNES, only borrowed. And that it was so long ago that it was released, back in 1994. The previous titles are either still on going or have been reference via other works. Final Fantasy VI stands well on its own.

So what’s it about? I’ll give you the short of it in simple words. An empire. Steampunk. Rediscovery of magic. Genocide for power gain. Madness. A broken world. Family. Friends. Survival. Hope.

FFVI conflicts me. On one hand, I want to see it remade because the current generation of gamers needs to know the powerful story, strong characters and unforgettable world. If there’s such a thing as required reading, then FFVI is like required gaming. But on the other, it’s very likely that Square Enix could not do the original title justice.

I suppose that someone could do the remake properly… but I simply don’t know anyone in this age who could achieve the rights, has the needed capital, and is skilled enough at game design and story telling to pull it off. But bare in mind I would prefer them not to even touch the story. They would have to figure things out like the importance of cinematography in the transition from 2 to 3d, but the script and events? Unless you carefully (and I mean carefully) add more incredibleness to the tale somehow, to change anything would be tantamount to artistic heresy.

So I leave you now with a piece of art by Jimo Hazard, a rendering of a piece by Yoshitaka Amano, for you to think about.

Final Fantasy VI

Attack of the 50 Foot Bomb

The Mithran babes just wanted a day at the beach... but alas, it was not meant to be! ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT BOMB!

The Mithran babes just wanted a day at the beach… but alas, it was not meant to be! ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT BOMB!

I may have left Final Fantasy XI behind… but this, this just makes my day…

Anyway, I’m adding a fan run site for the work of Akihiko Yoshida to my links to the right. Or you can click here to see it for all I care. Final Fantasy XII was meh, but Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics remain gaming gold to this day. Vagrant Story in particular remains a powerful influence on my writing.

PS You can also check out some of the amazing scores for these games by Hitoshi Sakamoto. Here’s one for Vagrant Story, and another for Final Fantasy Tactics.

Castlevania: A Turbulent Love Affair

Last weekend, I got myself a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The game proved hard to put down, intriguing, fast, colorful. It provides a fresh experience that I couldn’t help but think the series needed for a long, long time.

As far back as the series’ origins, Castlevania has really struggled to define its soul. The first game consisted of simple action, guiding oneself through castle dungeons and dealing with patterns of monsters. The second game was the first of the series to attempt various RPG and adventure elements. Areas could and would be revisted, several persistent upgrades could be earned. The third game was much like the first, but gave the player the option to choose their own path and, most awesome of all during the NES age, let the player earn three spiritual companions. The companions were basically other playable characters, which with a drastically different playstyle.

 The three NES games provided a lot of the early gameplay features which have been recycled, improved upon and reused throughout the series for a long, long time. Sometimes, the elements were perfected, as the RPG and adventure elements were in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Othertimes, it was good but not great, like Curse of Darkness.

One intriguing tradition that has evolved has been the gameplay elements of the characters themselves. When you play as a member of the Belmont clan, you get the fast, twitch action elements you’d expect out of a fighting game. When you play as someone else, like Alucard, the gameplay is more about the explorative adventure and the RPG elements, like gathering items and leveling.

Lords of Shadow is a change of pace. Certain traditional elements are there. The fast action is there in full force, the traditional monster themes. In some ways the experience has been simplified. Many boss fights are awesome-to-watch cinematic flash games for better or worse. You can upgrade if you find rare items and the puzzles tend to be more on the spot than adventure minded (find the key hidden behind the…)

But there are lots of changes I like. The story is thick. Previous games either provided simple stories you wanted expanded upon, or tried and didn’t wow, like Lament of Innocence. They draw names from the rest of the universe and try to build upon it.

The series transition to 3D over 2D has always been challenging to say the least. SotN resisted the move, remaining an adventurous platformer. The N64 version was the first attempt. Lament of Innocence, Curse of Darkness and Lords of Shadow all did as well, to varying degrees of success. LoS suffers from bad camera angles, but did succeed in implementing various moves and crowd control. Despite the frentic gameplay, you still feel like there are discernable patterns in the attacks of your foes that can be memorized and exploited, just like the very first game.

So when I read reviews about how the latest Castlevania game is good but isn’t really Castlevania, I shake my head. The series always, from the beginning, played with its formula and tried new things again and again. It never gave up trying to innovate, trying to grow and expand. I hope in time, gamers will appreciate that.

Pen, Paper, Processing

A lot of the earliest pencil and paper roleplaying games have tended to ease their formulas to provide the right mix of complexity with ease. A lot of basic math is applied to calculate certain values, which are then the basis of desired values for an act of chance, the results of which are reflected for better or worse in the game.

“But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action.”

The appeal of these roleplaying games has always been the sense of legitimate adventure confined more by the scopes of human imagination than the limited scopes of a digitally designed world. Combine this with a sense of social interaction these games require and you have a fun and flexible product to be shared with friends.

The computer and especially the smart phone have opened up new possibilities of complex skill-based calculations, story telling and dungeon creation. This ease of use often comes at a cost, as many of the worlds created in larger titles have been the signature of someone else’s vision.

The ordinary dungeon master in his room often has access to some tools for creating his own world, such as dungeon designers and map building applications. But to apply one’s pure, artistic mark to the creation using these tools is overshadowed by the visions of the artists who created them in the first place.

There’s no real solution to this. The difficulty here is art and science versus engineering. The artists focus on creating something, the sciences on discovery. But the engineer is bound by these visions, working within the confines of what is available. These dungeon builders and systems are tools for game engineering, and they are useful if not necessary. But creating original art is much more challenging, and there is no real way to formulize it.

It requires a vision that the machine isn’t able to provide, at least at the moment.

“Exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling.”

Going back to my original point, I’ve noticed that people enjoy these complexities of game rules. Forums are awash with break downs of how the math of Diablo II worked. Some fans grumble at the lost RPG elements found in Mass Effect, taken away and replaced with a simplified system combat and no real adventure elements outside of where a conversation can take you. Discussion of the value of skills and stats in the Fallout series is a major consideration.

Simple and accessible is certainly nice. But many game fans out there enjoy the depth of skill-based adventuring, not just action. Fighting and violence is not going anywhere. But the explorative nature of alternatives can breath a lot of addictive elements into a game, as a result of discovery.

Why is this? Probably because exploring things is a form of very vast, unrealized gambling. Maybe hacking that terminal will give you easy access to your goal, or bring security down on your head. Perhaps there’s nothing in that cave, or a mountain of treasure. When you open that door, you have no idea what’s behind it. Maybe it’s an army of guards. Maybe it’s the princess. Maybe it’s One-Eyed Willy’s rich stuff. Maybe it’s a rolling boulder. Who knows? Absolutely no one, until you find out.

For a while, that’s the direction that games were evolving. Sometimes we’re still moving in that direction, or at least toying with the concept. But I have a vision to create a world of infinitely renewable adventures. Where there’s always a story oriented goal, another door to open, a mountain to be climbed. No attempt at it has satisfied me thus far. Call me mad, but I know it can, and will, be done.