The not-so-secret musings of The Secret World noob


or: How Stevil Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MMORPG

As some of you already know, I almost lost the fire inside. Video games didn’t excite me anymore, and while that was mostly down to their ever-decreasing circles of creativity, I’d also gotten lazy, stuck in my ways. The same thing happened with my voracious musical appetite until I discovered Bandcamp; a site that single-handedly brought my record-browsing self back from the dead (and long may it independently reign).

I wanted to get back into the hobby, prove everything wrong, and I could only do that with an open mind. So I decided to try out a MMORPG with the same “screw it” attitude my closest friend had when she bought a violin. But unlike that neglected instrument, currently collecting dust while she teaches in Saudi Arabia, I was determined to get money’s worth.

I first tested the waters with the free-to-play APB: Reloaded. That lasted all of two hours before I realised the Tories didn’t kill this game with their tax cut refusals, just outright bad development. It wasn’t a great start and my options were pretty narrow. I was never really a fan of Star Trek and I’d rather play Knights of the Old Republic III than whatever EA/BioWare were peddling in its place. During my search for the ideal gateway game, it became quickly apparent how much MMORPGs were in love with their fantasy settings. Anything else was just an unprofitable niche.

But, luckily, The Secret World was my kind of niche. Swords and sorcery, orcs and elves, none of that has ever appealed to me. The Dark Tower is the most fantasy I’ve ever read, and after putting so about 80 hours into The Secret World, I find the two are very much alike in the way they acclimatise their audiences with familiar, generalised genres, before unveiling grander, cosmic themes culled from more obscure sources. Not many video games can claim they used an Umberto Eco novel as a puzzle solution, that’s for sure.

The Secret World is still fantasy, albeit grounded in some semblance of reality. Funcom clearly designed it to capitalise on H.P. Lovecraft’s recent resurgence in popularity and cater towards Chaosium Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu fanbase (with a bit of Delta Green for good measure), but then there are nods to Hellblazer, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and The X-Files’ cool brand of paranoia. And for all that, The Secret World ends up being unintentionally ’90s throughout; which is okay by me because I love that era of occult self-awareness and fuzzy guitars, anyway.

I suppose most people remember it for two things: the awesome “Katana Girl vs. Cthluhu” artwork and that mystical fellatio scene when you joined a certain faction. But playing it now and looking back on the initial hype, those two images sum up The Secret World’s insurmountable odds and jet-black absurdity in a nutshell. Chilling tales are told through comic book extremes, epic quests are played out in universities, subways, and amusement parks, and the secret societies you work for – Templars, Dragons, or the Illuminati – are pompous high school cliques.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, telling you the bigger picture before my own intimate experiences, but I do love The Secret World for what it is, niche or not, and in its twilight years. I understand the appeal of MMORPGs now; the time investment, the co-operative raids, the passing camaraderie, the clutch kills, the endless looting, the archaic cheekiness of buying “Funcom Points” with real cash, and the addictions of quest management.

So how did I get to that point? Well, it started with a deep breath and several hours in the character creator. Look, honestly, if your character creator can get my likeness vaguely right, then your game has already won me over. Jonathan Holmes cries a lot about generic 30-something white guys with brown hair and stubble in games, but I’m actually okay with playing that type because I’m a narcissist. I also had to choose a permanent faction and a server. The former was easy since I was totally down with the Dragon’s love of chaos theory, but due to my lack of experience, 20-30 minutes was spent browsing server topics on Steam forums. In the end, I picked Daemon and never looked back.

Creating a whole new world, especially for a MMORPG, is an unenviable task. You have to make a coherent and snappy introduction over a phonebook of lore, while teaching someone the basics that’ll become their second life. Oh, and don’t ramble despite the epic scope because someone might reach for the refund button. Thankfully, The Secret World’s opening is pretty sparse compared to the manageable stream of information later on. You get stung by a magical bee, and now you’re a supernatural warrior with a penchant for Topman/Topshop clothing. End of Prologue, on to Act 1!

After meeting up with the Dragons in Seoul, I’m asked to choose a starting weapon/offensive skill. Avoiding the usual fantasy cliches, I went the way of the gun. Dual action, all the way. Of course, I didn’t take into account that I’d be hearing the same “pew-pew-pew” sound effect for the next 80 hours. I’m now leaning towards blood magic and sword skills to keep my sanity intact.

My apprehension quickly piqued when the game nudged me towards the most infamous of MMORPG traits: micromanagement. Curiosity and dread flowed with equal measure, but I was surprised to find how easy it was to pick up, and how much easier it would be to master if I bothered with the hotkeys (something I stubbornly ignored until the first real boss kicked my arse, several times). The whole experience reminded me of when I first heard about The Dillinger Escape Plan and thought, “Ooh, they sound like they’d be a bit too much for me,” only to find they weren’t that inaccessible at all. In fact, later on, they even knew their way around a damn good melody.

But I digress, as after learning the ropes in a post-apocalyptic vision, I was quickly sent investigate mysterious goings on at Solomon Island, just off the coast of Boston. Long story short: Zombies and Deep Ones. Eyes should’ve rolled, but it was the perfect introduction for me, as both the MMO virgin and a lover of survival horror, and having to deal with something familiar through unfamiliar means was wholly refreshing (see also: Koudelka).

Everybody at the besieged police station was asking for a favour, and those favours usually involved killing monsters. I’m no stranger to RPGs, but this was the first time I was involved in taskbar combat, and the whole experience was disconnective. RPGs have the benefit of free time, a considered direction of battle, but in the MMORPG realm, it’s all online and real time, giving the illusion of player input. Though my avatar pumps infinite bullets into a small horde, I’m really just clicking icons in a certain order below and the right order is key to my survival. I’d like to think that I died a lot due to this usual laspse into an existential crisis, but it was really down to my lack of leveling up.

After Wild Arms 3, I’m used to the dreaded grind. But even though The Secret World proclaims that it does leveling up differently by putting an emphasis on stat-changing equipment, much like the underrated Resonance of Fate, you still have to grind to upgrade. I knew “Kill 10 Pigs, Now Kill 20” was another infamous MMORPG trait, and stupid me tried to cheese my way to the endgame. It’s like they knew me so well when I had to confront an ethereal beast with more 0s in its HP than my bank account. But I noticed quickly that to ease the burden, my Doctor Who-cosplaying self was always hitting EXP milestones, and mini-quests were just a stone’s throw away; thus creating this “just one more” mentality in the process.

I get it now, why people devote their livelihoods to World of Warcraft. Sometimes, I find myself considering a quick session, completing a side quest before shooting off to make coffee at Starbucks. And here’s a secret to making a good Caramel Macchiato: there is none, they all taste like overpriced shit, regardless of what you do.

Am I worried about being addicted? Nah, not in the slightest. If you’ve ever read my Silent Hill Retrospective or one-offs about cinematic games, then you’ll know I’m a nut for narrative. As it stands, I treat the The Secret World like any single-player RPG, immersing myself in the plot and seeing it through to the season finale set in Tokyo. Grinding just ensures that I get through the main story arc, where quality equipment is essential for progression. Outside of that, the quests are busy work involving reskinned monsters, investigative turns, and mini-bosses to cap them off. That said, The Secret World is beautifully presented and wonderfully written. It’s too bad, much to my newfound disappointment, that the latter part is routinely ignored.

NPCs might dole out quests with a sense of deja-vu, but it’s their natural monologues and interactions that keep me invested. Their dialogue flows off a dry tongue, sharp wit cuts through the odd slice of melancholy, and just about everyone I meet has a long sordid history for being themselves. Sure, the quests are repetitive, but the reasons for being sent out into the middle of the woods to exterminate giant insects are pretty gripping. On Solomon Island alone, there’s a bickering Indian tribe, a Hunter S. Thompson photojournalist, a drunken and disillusioned horror writer, a foul-mouthed park owner, a morbid dean lacking any self-awareness, government agents completely out of their depth, a gossiping cat lady, and a supervillain mage who reminds me of Russell Brand.

They all make up for a lonely experience, too. I’m sure, at one point, The Secret World was teeming with other players, and that the overall experience was less challenging for it. And while the isolationism works for the spooky atmosphere, I’ve obviously still missed the boat. When I do meet another player, they’re incredibly helpful in a fleeting and somewhat shy way. It’s almost always awkward to get a conversation started after someone saves your skin.

“Thanks for killing that horde,” I once typed into chat, before reluctantly asking, “Hey, how do you join up with people in this game?”

I expected the worst, being the new guy and all. Not swearing, just the silent treatment before they flew away on a hoverboard. Yeah, I forgot to mention the hoverboards. They’re a thing in The Secret World.

“Ctrl+C, then invite,” they explained, eying up my Portland hipster attire from behind cool designer shades. “I’ll join you on the invite. What missions are you doing?”

“Oh, just the college ones,” I replied.

There was a long pause, enough to tell that they had no desire to go back there, then they ran off (no hoverboard) and we never teamed up. Not that it mattered because I was actually looking to take part in a raid, and that, as I found out 80 hours later, was done though Ctrl+V. Bugger!

Presently, I lead by example, diving headlong into battle for new struggling players. I’m more confident in what I do, which makes their silent shyness all the more jarring. In the background, I catch sight of this Templar couple, jumping around, hand in hand, wishing I was their awkward third wheel. Still, it’s better than being shunned or killing someone else in a designated PvP area, where I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m supposed to be achieving. Maybe it’s to do with a smaller-than-usual community wanting to keep the numbers stable, or maybe it’s just because of the type of fans it attracts, but nobody ever turns out to be an arsehole and it makes those passing moments all the more special.

Anyway, I eventually killed the Russell Brand mage, and that’s when things got really weird. Plot pieces started falling into place and I was struck with the realisation that we were completely misunderstanding our enemy. It was bigger, more ancient and abstract than some Cthulhu-inspired monsters on a Bostonian island. My handler didn’t care and I was sent packing to Egypt to take part in a Holy Skirmish or two.

This time I felt ready to take on a new area. Sure, I was still learning about this MMORPG stuff, but I was also fully committed to the cause. I’d gotten the fire back in me. Under the baking sun, I planned out the quests ahead, wondering how the golden desert connected to the gothic nights of Transylvania and eventual horrors of Tokyo.

Suddenly, the group finder alerted me.

It was finally time to take part in my first raid.