Wednesday 24 February 2010

Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of Solitaire.

I often find that it’s the little details which capture my imagination the most in an MMO, I’m not really one for the ostentatious and meretricious things in these games – or in life, for the most part – which is one of the reasons that I appreciate having costume outfits in games such as Lord of the Rings Online, where I can create a look for my character which is slightly less King of Clowns than the average MMO adventuring ensemble. That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate the grand and the theatrical, surely there are always those elements which even the most obstinate curmudgeon can’t help but stand back in jaw ajar, misty eyed admiration. The vista of Rivendell when approached from the Trollshaws; the cavern within Blackrock Mountain with its ever-circling mobile of dragons; the wide expanse of magnificent rolling mounds that make up the buttocks of Atlas’s statue in Atlas Park; all of these things manage to inspire and impress without the need for flashing neon and riotous fanfare. Horrible thought for the day: the next tier of World of Warcraft epics will blast out a loud trumpeting fanfare as the player walks around Stormwind or Orgrimmar, a foghorn-like blarp, perhaps, that causes the monitor screens of anyone nearby to tremble in enforced awe. Hoom hrum, either that or it will have one of those announcements which are often used on heavy goods vehicles: *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear *beep* this Epic Player is reversing *beep* please stand clear. Let’s face it, with the size of the swords that characters have hanging beside their hips and jutting out behind them, it’s probably a feature that would prevent a lot of the more unpleasant impalings when the more epically geared players try to back their way carefully out of the auction house.

Anyway, a feature that I noticed in Lord of the Rings Online recently, that I haven’t been able to stop playing with and smiling at, is such simple thing. It has to do with the player’s horse mount, and I don’t know whether it’s only recently been added, whether it applies only to horses where I’ve predominantly ridden ponies up until now having played a dwarf for most of my adventuring life in Middle Earth, or whether I just didn’t notice it because I’ve been too busy considering just how ugly horse bums are, having had ample opportunity to do nothing but sit and stare at them during my time in the game. Regardless, I’ve only just noticed it and now, like a child who has just discovered the noise that can be made by holding a ruler over the edge of a table and flicking its end, I can’t stop playing with it at every opportunity. It’s such a daftly innocuous thing: when you steer your character left and right by holding the right mouse button and dragging the mouse (and probably by using the left and right turn keys for all you keyboard turners out there), the character turns in that direction, as does the horse’s head, in a very realistic and delightfully true to life manner. And now that I’ve noticed it I can’t seem to stop turning in circles in order to make myself grin in that slightly gawpish way, like a child who has found for the first time that they can make rainbows magically appear on the wall or ceiling if they tilt their watch into the sunlight just so.

It makes adventuring difficult. Picture one of those Indiana Jones segues where a map appears and a little red arrow-headed line depicts the path of our hero’s long but uneventful journey from one location to the next; now imagine that the line starts out straight but very quickly begins to veer off to the left before completing a full circle and continuing on its original course, for a short while at least, before it veers off to the right, then back left, and thus slowly wriggles its snake-like path across the map, stopping every now and again to fight a bunch of crap creatures that have had the audacity to cross one of the red line’s wayward swerves off of the beaten path. As if I didn’t spend enough time riding from one location to the next, now I’m actively drawing out the process because of a bit of ‘simple’ model animation. Don’t even get me started on cresting hills.

Oh, cresting hills is so splendid! I don’t know why, but when you ride up a hill and then turn left or right as you crest it, it looks like one of those shots from a Western just before the hero pulls up sharply, the horse performing a pirouette on the spot as the rider flicks around in the saddle trying to maintain their fixed view of whatever it is in the distance that has given them cause to halt. There’s no horse pirouette emote in LotRO yet alas — Riders of Rohan expansion, you are my only hope — but the feeling and imagery is triggered nevertheless, and I will confess to more than once riding back down a sharp incline just so I could crest it again. To my, albeit minor, credit I haven’t yet tried to perform any skateboard tricks as I hack pell-mell up and down these slopes. So back to our map and the red line now also turns around whenever there are a bunch of closely packed contours, and then turns back again and continues on up the steep gradient a second time. Basically by this point our little travel map looks like the impassioned scribblings of the clinically insane, which is probably apt considering that it has been generated by yours truly.

Spinks, Tamarind and many others have been discussing immersion recently; for me immersion is, in part, down to the little details: the way a character swings a sword, the way a horse moves, the way a path wends its way up a mountainside. If the details of the game world that we can relate to are congruent with our own world, then it makes the suspension of disbelief with regards to the fantastical elements that much easier, thus priming the jaws of immersion, allowing them to snap shut and grab hold.

And now, post delivered into your expectant hand as you watch from the porch of your RSS Reader, I hold my hat up in the air as my steed rears up, and then charge rapidly off, ahead of a cloud of dust, into the sunset.

Swerving wildly left and right as I go.

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