Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Beautiful Balloon : Ninelives

It's going to be a fair old while before I experience Virtual Reality in the comfort of my own home, I imagine. I've never been much of an early adopter when it comes to technology. I'd rather let someone else pay ten times the eventual price to road-test kit that's a tenth as good as the eventual mass-market breakthrough version is bound to be.

My feeling is that some form of VR will, eventually, achieve widespread public acceptance and, in time, a great deal of popular entertainment, both factual and fictional, will be produced and consumed. At which point we'll all stop thinking and talking about the tech and just get on with enjoying whatever it is that we use it for.

That singularity is still a long way off. Isn't it always? There have been predictions of the imminent arrival of A.I. for most of my adult life and yet the stilted versions that have so far gained the widest public use and acceptance, Siri, Cortana and their like, with their emphasis very heavily biased towards the "artificial" rather than the "intelligence", bear small resemblance to the idiosyncratic, self-aware digital entities we were promised or warned about.

V.R. seems, at least, to be doing better than that and, with the buzz in the air, wandering through Ninelives last week I couldn't but be aware of what it might feel like, one day, to be exploring such a delicious, delightful new world in the round. After all, even without the benefit of 360 degree vision, the tiny team behind the game have done a stellar job of creating an atmospheric, absorbing three-dimensional world on a flat screen.

For the current alpha two character slots are available, which is handy, since there are only two classes at present, Blade and Mage. There are four races, Humans, Goblins, Ogres and Nightbreeds. The racial choices, along with the music, soundscapes and textures, are a large part of what reminds me so strongly of City of Steam in its alpha days.

Over time, that game veered away from its complex, nuanced, fascinating world, choosing instead to promote a garish, fairground experience, reliant on countless mini-games and shills. Once upon a time I was sufficiently engaged with CoS to imagine making many characters just to explore fully the racial backgrounds and stories of the divergent branches of  Greenbloods and Riven.

In the end the only character I played seriously was a goblin. This time, in Ninelives, I thought I'd best expand on that a little, while the choice still seems worth making. So, I rolled a Nightblood Mage.

It's a quick process since there's no character customization at present. Neither, so far as I can tell, is there any particular difference in the content available. Despite that, playing a female Nightblood doesn't feel very much like playing a male goblin at all.

Appearances matter, for one thing. Roaming the world as a six-foot tall shock-haired woman in a robe is an entirely separate experience from doing exactly the same as a five foot male goblin in a leather harness and furry boots. Similarly, speaking to NPCs who talk about the cursed history of your own imagined race has a frisson that's absent when they tell you exactly the same story about someone else's imaginary race.

There's also the nuance that comes from doing something for the second time, yet not in exactly the same way. When I first approached the great city at the start of the game, as a goblin it was a moment of awe and wonder. Everything blurred into an imagistic reverie. The statue of the stag, the smoky barroom, the hot air balloon above the towering rooftops, it was all too much to take in for a small, greenish goblin who'd just woken up in a stream.

Striding up the hill as a confident magician with a fair idea of what lay ahead, however, I found I was able to take much more on board. Discovering that the stag represents the curse of my race and that the great city of Crimson Crest was founded and built by Nightbloods after their escape from the desert and their own terrible error, brought the world into a focus it had previously lacked.

All of which is a lengthy preamble to explain how I came to notice, as I jogged along the road north of the city, that the hot air balloon I'd thought to be no more than an excellent piece of atmospherics was actually descending towards a landing platform not a hundred meters away. I dropped my immediate plan of re-heading scarecrows and instead scrambled up the slope to meet the airship as it arrived.

I had FRAPS running so I hit F9 to record the whole thing. I'd already spoken to an NPC in the city who'd told me about balloon flights to another city being suspended because of some outbreak of conflict, so I was aware the game might have some method of supposed aerial transport. I imagined it would be enabled at some future stage of testing, when more maps came on line.

What certainly never occurred to me would be that the balloons, when they were running, would be physical objects in the world; craft onto which you could clamber and stand and be carried as they rose and flew. I'm racking my brains to try and remember if I've ever encountered this in an online game before. I haven't come up with anything yet.

EQ2's Moors of Ykesha expansion has balloons as the intra-zone auto-travel option and I seem to remember that World of Warcraft has air balloons as the Horde's equivalent to griffins, but in both of those cases the mechanics are entirely different. You interact with an interface that effectively renders your character an integral part of the vehicle. Thus you remain until either you reach your destination or you cancel your connection by jumping off.

What you don't do is clamber into the basket as it rests, briefly, on the ground, then see yourself taken up by the balloon as it rises. You don't stand, free and clear, able to walk from one side to the other, turn, take in the view. You don't have the vertiginous sensation of balancing precariously on a floating platform that moves and changes direction against your own inclination, aware that a false step could send you over the rail. You don't get the thrill.

It was as the balloon took a long, sweeping curve high over the city that it occurred to me to wonder how this might all feel if I was encompassed in V.R.. It felt immersive enough to bring butterflies to my stomach as it was. For the first time I was able to imagine an application in a game I actually play that might benefit from the new technology we are all, most likely, going to have to come to terms with eventually.

At this point I'd love to be able to post the video, which would give some small impression of the event as I experienced it. Unfortunately, FRAPS, usually so reliable, decided to give up the ghost just after the balloon left the ground and all I was left with was a corrupted file the size of a small MMO.

I could go back and try to shoot it all again but why bother? Ninelives is free. It's a small, fast download. It takes seconds to register an account. Go see it for yourself. It's worth the ride.


  1. ArcheAge had air ship transports like this. They ran set regular routes and you just climbed aboard when they got there. You could, if you were crazy or had a glider equipped, jump off en-route, which was rather tempting as it was one of the few ways to get up certain mountains :)

  2. Actually WoW's airships, just like the Alliance sailing ships, are a public moving space that your character can move around while the ships flies/sails. The airships travel for so long before zoning you to the other continent with one exception- the airship between Ogrimmar and Thundersblufff goes the while way with no loading screen. That ride was always my favourite as you could see mobs and players below as you flew along. The Horde equiv of griffin taxis are the wyverns.

  3. I second Telwyn's love for the Thunder Bluff/Orgrimmar zeppelin ride.

    SWTOR also has a balloon ride, which you have to go on get a datacron (thing that gives a one-time stat increase). Sadly it goes across a desert, so the view is not very exciting.

  4. @everyone - Not so original as all that, then! I remember the carts that go along the roads in ArcheAge, that you can hop on and ride, but I don't think I ever saw an airship. I can't recall going on one in WoW but I didn't play Horde at all in the few months I was there. My goblin later on rode on an insane amount of devices but they were all very gimmicky (and fun).

    I loved the subway from Ironforge to Stormwind but I don't actually recall going on a sailing ship in WoW, although of course I have been on more boat rides in EQ and EQ2 than I care to think about, some of which didn't end at all well.

    MMOs could do with a lot more "physical" travel options in my opinion. They're always entertaining even if a cut scene and a loading screen is faster.


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