“I started looking at small companies that were running a sort of virtual reality cottage industry: I had imagined that I would just put on a helmet and be somewhere else. That’s your dream of what it’s going to be.” —Thomas Dolby
It’s not often I step in to do short talks on a series-in-progress, but the Excalibur Arc bears mentioning because it represents a point in the story where the stakes are quite as high as they’d been in previous arcs. No one’s lives are in immediate danger, and as such, events take on a much more casual pacing as Kirito, Asuna, Suguha and the others take on a quest to clear the Þrymheimr dungeon and restore Jötunheimr its former state. After three episodes of combat, Kirito’s company succeeds and, with Sinon’s help, retrieves the legendary Excalibur Sword. Over the space of three episodes, elements of RPG return to Sword Art Online II, and while I was initially wondering if the second half would deal with the Alicisation Arc; in the light novels, this sees Johnny Black poison Kirito by an unknown means and setting off Kirito’s quest to escape the Soul Translator virtual reality environment. Admittedly, this arc sounds a little intimidating in tone relative to what has been seen so far. However, it seems like the Mother’s Rosario arc will be covered from here on out, and if the light novels are to be believed, this arc could be quite moving if executed properly.
- Before we get into the more serious tone on the Mother’s Rosario arc, the Excalibur Arc offers a brief respite and showcases the protagonists doing what MMORPG players enjoy doing most: talking about rare in-game items and planning their next major raid. I haven’t played an MMORPG proper before: the when I played World of Warcraft and Ragnarok Online, both of those were private servers a friend was hosting.
- Here is this post’s obligatory fan-service shot. While I don’t particularly do MMORPGs, I can get along just fine with RPGs like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I’ve got a paltry forty hours in the game right now and are level 24; I’m going to try and finish the main story before continuing to explore Skyrim in its entirety.
- Leafa and Asuna return from their preparations for a major procedurally-generated quest-line that involves Norse mythology. I am not familiar with Norse mythology to any real details, save some of the more well-known aspects (and any references to it in the Halo universe).
- Strangely enough, the weapons in Skyrim don’t have a durability statistic and as such, can last forever. In World of Warcraft, weapons and clothing had to be repaired, otherwise they’d degrade in performance or even be rendered unusable. With this said, Skyrim is emphasises the dragons and exploration above subtle elements of realism, so this isn’t too big of a deal. Mine eye might be deceiving me, but Lizbeth appears to have taken after several design elements that Kyoto Animation is known for.
- Although Alfheim Online possesses a much more diverse colour palette than did Gun Gale Online, Kirito and company travels into one of the sections of the game characterised by desolate, icy wastelands. They had previously assisted “Tonkii”, a squid-like being, in its fight against humanoid demons and unlocked the condition that allows them to utilise Tonkii as transportation.
- En route to Thrymheimr, Urðr, the Goddess of the Past and eldest of the Norn Goddesses, appears and explains to Kirito’s party that, should they fail this quest, Alfheim Online stands to enter Ragnarok and be utterly destroyed. Most games typically trigger a game over condition should this ever happen, but the Cardinal System, more advanced than even what researchers are investigating, appears to be capable of permanently altering a game state. Such features might be touted in future games should they be implemented, and one would imagine that the game would probably remain playable even in this state if it is to ever retain its player base.
- The only Minotaurs I’ve encountered in gaming is in DOOM (no one calling themselves a first-person shooter can do so without having played the classic DOOM); known as the Barons of Hell in DOOM, they were actually reasonably straightforwards to fight despite having incredible endurance and being capable of dealing massive damage. In the mod Brutal Doom, Barons of Hell will tear the player in half (the long way) if one is too close to them.
- If I were to be a player in Alfheim Online, I would probably focus on magic-based capabilities or archery, as I prefer ranged combat in RPGs to other forms of combat. Ironically, in first person shooters, I excel at close quarters and usually try to close the distance between myself and the opposing team’s members in order to damage them from up close. Players tend to panic when engaged at close range, and their shot placement tends to go all over the place: by maintaining a calm manner, it is then straightforward to either track them and fire with a weapon (Battlefield 3), or use melee attacks (Halo 2) to finish them off.
- Freyja (or Freya) is the Norse Goddess of Love and appears as an NPC en route to Thrym’s chambers. A part of Alfheim Online’s UI is shown here, bringing to mind the 3D feel of all the user elements seen in Sword Art Online. Games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the upcoming title, Tom Clancy’s The Division are shifting towards holographic HUDs that give these elements a non-intrusive feeling.
- Despite protests from the others that it’s probably a trap, Klein decides to help Freyja and frees her from her icy prison. There are games where making some decisions to save people are rewarded, and as Klein will shortly discover, his decision will end up being the correct one.
While I largely found the Excalibur arc to be a laid back adventure, one thing did strike me as unusual: the Cardinal Engine powering Alfheim Online was said to procedurally generate quests based on information retrieved from repositories of folklore. This system continues to update the game world’s state as events occur, and it turns out that if Kirito and company had failed to complete their quest, Ragnarok would have triggered, destroying Alfheim Online. While a solid plot element that adds urgency to the quest, it is unlikely that game developers would intentionally give their game engine enough power to permanently alter the game world to render the game unplayable. Assuming Alfheim Online is an MMORPG that follows the subscriber model (similar to World of Warcraft), customers would be most dissatisfied to know that their in-game progress was lost because a small group of players had failed a quest. Modern game engines are reasonably powerful: the ones I’m most familiar with are tailored towards small-scale environments (such as detailed destruction effects in shooters). As far as role-playing games go,most of my experience is with Skyrim, which featured a combination of scripted and procedurally generated quests. While I’m not far enough into the game to differentiate between the two, I understand that the technology is still limited. Procedurally generated quests, dialogue and contexts is one of the aspects that role playing games have yet to tackle, but properly implemented, these quests could make a game with a truly infinite play-time. Of course, developers would have to carefully consider the consequences of giving the game engine full reign over the world: a logical choice would probably be to design a system that can do everything short of destroying the game. As technology continues advancing, one might expect such games to be present by the 2020s, which is when Sword Art Online is set.
- Lizbeth gazes upon the piles of treasure in the dungeon’s final level. In almost all existing RPG games with a loot system, vast treasure troves cannot be looted from because they’re a part of the scenery, although by the time of Sword Art Online, graphical processing capabilities could have reached a level where it is possible to have millions of interactive physics objects in a game world: such innovation will probably be allowed by a combination of clever game optimisation (such as only loading what players see in a virtual environment relative to their surroundings) and improved hardware: it’s been just a year and a half since I built my computer, and the NVIDIA GTX line has already released the 980, which surpasses even the GTX Titan, the best card around when my computer was built, so GPUs will definitely continue improving and may reach a similar levle to that of Sword Art Online by 2020.
- Þrymr (Thrym) was king of the jotnar and was known for stealing Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, to extort the other gods into giving him Freyja as his wife. This story is reproduced in the quest, although there is the classical twist of allowing anime characters to enter the myth and play their own part in it.
- Freyja and Thor are the one and the same in the Sword Art Online arc, and Klein’s decision to save Freyja winds up providing their party with a member who is capable of overhealing them. When Freyja comes into contact with Mjölnir, she transforms into Thor, giving Kirito’s company a powerful ally in the battle and making it much easier.
- Sinon recovers the Excalibur after Kirito discards it in order to make a jump. She returns it to Kirito on the condition that he thinks of her every time he uses it, leading Silica, Leafa, Asuna and Lizbeth to give him a death glare. This is about the maximum extent of Sinon’s feelings for Kirito, and admittedly, this aspect was particularly well-handled. There is no drama, just a subtle action.
- With Excalibur extricated from the base of the castle, Þrymheimr crumbles and Jötunheimr is restored to its former state as Yggdrasil is once again able to access its water supply. The cold wastelands give way to a more temperate, hospitable climate, and sunlight pours through the sky. Moments such as these make games particularly rewarding: yes, some games are violent, but for positive, moral actions one takes in some games, sometimes, players are treated to incredible cinematics that make it worth the effort.
- Excalibur would probably be classified as an artifact or legendary item in a modern MMORPG, although its precise stats are never given-in game. Many RPG games have items ranked by their rarity, with poor (grey), common (white) and uncommon (green) items occupying lower tiers, rare (blue) and epic (purple) occupying the middle tiers, and legendary (orange) or greater being of the greatest rarity. Such items take numerous raids to attain or craft, and in some cases, only drop for players out of sheer luck.
- For their efforts and success, the three Norns, Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld appear before Kirito’s party to thank them for their actions. Kirito is officially given the Excalibur here, closing off the arc. If memory serves, Kirito and company complete this quest on New Year’s Eve. In previous years, I typically did not game on New Year’s Eve and instead, spent most of the day watching anime or tinkering with electronics.
- The Excalibur Arc of Sword Art Online marks the first time I’ve seen Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld in an anime setting: the last time was with Ah! My Goddess‘ Urd, Belldandy and Skuld. Whereas the latter seem to have been stylised, the Norn’s appearances in Sword Art Online would probably be more consistent with how they would have appeared in Norse mythology.
- Kirito is seen working on a “mechatronics” project that makes use of cameras and sensors to allow Yui to interact with the others in reality. At this point in time, I wonder how many viewers of Sword Art Online are involved with development of virtual reality technologies; after discussions with my supervisor, my graduate thesis project has finally been fleshed out and curiously enough, will make extensive use of contemporary virtual reality technologies.
- By the New Year, I’ll hopefully have learnt enough Maya to begin making the graphics elements, and the first few months of 2015 will probably be spent tuning the graphical assets and interactions. I imagine that March-April 2015 will see the real work on the VR components take off in earnest. Returning back to Sword Art Online, the episode closes off on a high note, with everyone sharing lunch together. The next talk will be on Battlefield 3: it’s been a year since I purchased the game, and a year’s worth of experiences can be shared. As well, I’ll aim to get a talk on Hyouka out: I’ve finally watched it, which means it’s time share what I thought of the series. As well, I’ve gotten a request from a friend to watch Psycho-Pass, and one of my readers have requested that I check out Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou: I’ll begin watching the latter in a day or two, and anticipate having a post out before mid-December. Psycho-Pass has two seasons, one of which has finished: I anticipate finishing that somewhere in January to February 2015 and should have a talk on both seasons once they’re finished.
As Sword Art Online is set a “mere” six years from now, it raises the question of just how prevalent virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will be six years from the present. Back when Sword Art Online first aired, the research lab I work for had implemented an early form of augmented reality for our anatomy software: this program made use of QR codes to automatically bring the program to an appropriate anatomical model. During this period, the lab had also focused on Natural User Interfaces to provide a more intuitive means of interfacing with the software, and the Oculus Rift had only begun development. With a consumer model set to release somewhere in 2015, virtual reality is looking more and more to be a part of life, rather than merely a distant science-fiction construct. These are exciting times, and as both virtual and augmented reality technologies advances, they’ll soon find their way onto the consumer market: rather than acting as experimental technologies that might be used in biology visualisation lab, things like the AmuSphere may very well become a reality. The social implications of such technology are non-trivial, but this will remain a discussion for another time.