What if every myth was true? The Secret World combines alternate reality with satisfying gameplay
You are forgiven if you haven’t heard about Funcom’s newly-launched PC MMO The Secret World. It’s not being advertised on TV and Funcom doesn’t enjoy the name recognition of Blizzard or Bioware. A lack of expectations may be better, as The Secret World isn’t trying to be like other MMOs; it’s a modern game with a witty atmosphere, smart writing, and a design philosophy aimed at breaking away from the expected tropes of online gaming. I’ve been playing for 12+ hours since launch and spoke with Ragnar Tornquist, creative director on the game, to discuss the game’s goals, and to find out how well they’ve been met.
You play The Secret World as a presumably everyday Joe Schmoe, whom destiny blesses with raw magical power and a visit from talent requisitions representing either the Illuminati, Templar, or Dragon faction. Each faction has a separate story, but everything comes back to one major problem: The secret world isn’t so secret anymore. It’s raising eldritch abominations in New England, ripping apart reality in Tokyo, and decimating Egypt with raining fire. It’s up to you to find out why and stop it if you can.
Tornquist chuckled when I asked him of the effort that went into creating the game’s world. Developing the game’s story was a project ten years in the making, and that was ten years of the most “unbelievable” amount of research. He also promised that it wasn’t a waste of time, as every bit of research was used, even if it’s just a throwaway background in one small building.
I’m inclined to believe him. I passed by the Overlook Hotel in the town of Kingsmouth. That’s the name of the hotel where Stephen King’s The Shining takes place, while Kingsmouth is itself a combination of Kingsport and Innsmouth, towns from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. The returned dead roaming the shore are referred to as “draugr,” a term Skyrim players will no doubt recognize, and that has a long history in Nordic lore. References like these are found on every street, down every alley, on the lips of everyone you talk to. The idea that so many of these myths, stories, histories and references could be brought together and not feel disjointed is impressive. This is a world where every myth is true.
“Every culture, on every continent. There are stories of a hidden world,” Tornquist said. “Our world is a fascinating place. Why would I want to go anywhere else? To me, it’s an endless supply of stories.” Those stories, and the way they’re told – sharp, smart writing and augmented reality investigations – are what sets The Secret World apart.
One of my favorite things to do in the game isn’t combat or questing related. When I see something new or hear something interesting, I pull up the in-game browser. There, I search via Google for more information about the subject, and I learn amazing things. Early in the game, a crazed doctor off-handedly mentioned that his experiments were well under control. “You should’ve seen the MKUltra guys,” he told me.
It’s a single sentence in a long string of conversation, but since The Secret World takes place in the “real world,” I knew I could search for that very thing to understand what he was talking about. I learned, as my character did in the game, that our world is maybe not quite what we thought. It’s a brilliant way to draw in the player, but it isn’t some happy accident. It’s ten years of hard work and research. If you’re interested, read up on MKUltra for yourself. It’s fascinating stuff.
Tornquist and his team want you to explore the world and discover new things. There are plenty of moments to do as I did and learn interesting facts on your own, but there are also Investigation missions that require you to solve puzzles by playing along with alternate reality games. These missions are among my favorite in the game, and I won’t spoil anything for you, but I will ask: Did you know Kingsmouth has the tallest lighthouse in the northeast United States? It’s listed, right there, on the town’s “About” page.
The game works a special kind of magic on players; it doesn’t think you need to be led checkpoint to checkpoint, or that you can’t handle a challenge on your own. The game isn’t afraid to slap you around and force you to re-try that dungeon one more time. The game doesn’t just value success, but the strides we take to reach it, and the difficulties we overcome during our journey. In fact, that sense of difficulty has been a core design tenant for The Secret World. Tornquist himself has had his share of difficulties with the game, though he practically brags about them instead of hiding them.
“Sometimes when you play a game that holds your hand too much or drags too long or just tells you everything, as a player you don’t feel the same degree of satisfaction. While in The Secret World, I’m a fine player, and I die a lot. I remember a few months back, I was testing a mission and I think I counted, I died 25 times before I completed the mission,” Tornquist said.“At the end of that, even if it took me two hours, I was like, ‘It’s not that difficult, idiot!’”
It took some time for that lesson to settle in when I first booted up the game. Often I would look around for my next waypoint, waiting for the game to tell me what to do before I realized I had to read a book or decipher a clue for myself if I wanted to progress. One mission told me of a hidden keypad near the church, with a code that corresponded to the congregation’s planned first song of the service. Talk to the reverend and he won’t tell you. Why would he? That’s not something you talk about during a zombie invasion.
The song isn’t listed on the Kingsmouth Congregational’s website. It’s in the world, right where it would be in a real church. You don’t click on it. You don’t activate it when you see it. It’s just there. And yet, for the longest time I couldn’t find it and was stumped. I knew it had to be around. I knew that if I just looked, it would be there. But why couldn’t I find it? Eventually I gave in and Googled the answer. When I found out where I had neglected to look, I firmly smacked palm to face. I knew it wasn’t the game’s fault, it was mine.
Tornquist echoed that feeling. “When you fail, it’s your fault. It’s not the game’s fault. It’s you that did something wrong, and you can learn from that,” he said. “It empowers the player rather than takes something away, and I think that’s an option. We want to empower players, and we want to challenge players.”
Yes, there is also combat
The combat uses a toolbar like most MMO titles, with timers and cooldowns, but there’s more focus on timing and positioning than in World of Warcraft or The Old Republic. It can also be quite difficult. It’s not just puzzles that I failed at. Several mini-bosses cleaved their tentacles through my torso and disposed of me, though the mission they attached to was rated “Normal” difficulty for my character. It’s not because they’re overpowered, but because, like TERA, there’s an active dodge system in place and certain attacks can – and should – be avoided. Each time I died, I knew it was because I wasn’t paying attention, not because the game was unfair.
The game doesn’t have level or class-based progressions, but instead allows players to dump Ability Points and Skill Points into purchasing spells, attacks, and buffs. You may not have a class, but you’re still advancing in either melee attacks, ranged attacks, or magic. You’re never locked into one choice, and when playing you can equip two different kinds of weapon and/or magic focus. Once I understood that the game wasn’t always going to tell me where to go or what to do, The Secret World opened up.
That’s why I had to allow myself to see the beauty in failing and trying again. I had to rid myself of the expectation that I could just go from Point A to Point B, collect five wolf pelts, and get my reward. The Secret World will only disappoint you if you look at it as a traditional MMO. It isn’t that kind of game, and it isn’t trying to be.
“I think that we’re all so conditioned now to like and play games that are sort of constant waves, constant direction, constant hand-holding, and that’s great, but why not give players an alternative? I mean, that’s what Secret World is always trying to do,” Tornquist told the Penny Arcade Report. “Sometimes when you play a game that holds your hand too much or drags too long or just tells you everything, as a player you don’t feel the same degree of satisfaction.”
“Games are supposed to be fun,” he said. After putting 12 hours into the game, I’m happy to report that I am, indeed, having fun.