A Secret Christmas


critical paths

Every week, Richard Cobbett takes a look at the world of story and writing in games. This week, a little nostalgia for a game that is, but never was.

Christmas. It's a time for family and friends, and presents and hope. And when that gets boring, for playing new games. This season, I've been digging into many, though not all of them PC based - the new 80 Days expansion on my iPad, Bayonetta 2 on Wii-U, Russian Roulette down on the docks... you know how it goes. And on nothing more than a whim, I've also been firing up my copy of The Secret World, one of the most frustrating games I was ever disappointed to realise I was never going to love.

I always maintain those are the worst games. If something is bad, it's easily ignored or laughed at. If something is great, hurrah! When something just... doesn't... work, but you can still see the game it could have been, it's often heartbreaking. That's how I feel about The Secret World, a game whose every fault comes straight from its need to be an MMO and to adhere to that genre's rules. It's overcomplicated, it's not particularly pretty, it's janky, and the presence of other people tends to detract more than it adds, moreso here in a world where you're meant to be solving puzzles and investigating mysteries but will usually see someone standing around just plain demanding to know the answer so they can get the points and move on.

In many ways, it's the perfect failure of the most damaging trend to hit the genre over the years - the personal quest. With a personal quest, designers are freed from the need to design around players and their willingness to work together in the 'right' way, they're spared the times when the content simply dries up and leaves the player with nothing to do, and they ensure that the lore and story is pushed at all times, even if the heroes hacking through it are talking about Star Trek as they go. At the same time though, they're self-destructive. The obsession with these quests, with everyone being the hero, is that multiplayer has inevitably been sidelined to the point that other players are only really needed to help beat up tough bosses and descend into dungeons to grind for loot and call each other rude names, if they even bother talking at all. At the same time, the solo content itself is constantly hampered by the needs of the MMO side, like the aforementioned dungeons suddenly being sprung as a "And now you have to play with others for a bit" after hours and hours of being taught that you can accomplish anything with just pluck and a few weapon-skills.

(I was pleased to see that in the new World of Warcraft expansion, the dungeons are finally split from the solo-content so that you never end up with business unfinished at the end of a quest-line if you don't play well with others. The remade Final Fantasy XIV on the other hand also scores some marks for having the guts to enforce group play - to progress on the personal story, you have to complete three basic dungeons and a surprisingly challenging introductory boss fight pretty early on. Both approaches are fine by me, as while I naturally favour solo play, I'm not against a multiplayer game insisting on, well, multiplayer. Though I do prefer people to know their place in most MMOs, as wallpaper to breathe life into the otherwise static world)

The Secret World is of course far from the only game that has suffered here, but it is - even more than The Old Republic - the one I've most enjoyed while able to enjoy it. The writing is still some of the best the genre has to offer, particularly from characters like Illuminati faction-handler Kirsten Geary (who I remain convinced is former PCG-writer Kieron Gillen's otherkin self) and every appearance of Jeffrey Combs. His performance as Montag, the emotionless headteacher of Innsmouth Academy, is a game-stealer, to the point that his fine establishment really needed some kind of spin-off set in better times. Well, less bad. Slightly less bad. Very slightly, ideally.

What's strange about The Secret World is that its major problem remains the one thing you'd expect a game so rooted in storytelling technique to understand - pacing. Like many MMOs, it's set to be a slow, slow process intended to take months to unpick and finish even though inevitably the hardcore players will have finished in about three and a half minutes. Never though have I played a game so absolutely committed, devoted, to wasting time. Every mission is a million-tiered operation, every step designed to drag things out as long as humanly possible whether you're beating up monsters or looking for mushrooms. Arguably the worst individual case is when you arrive in the first zone, Solomon Island, to be told that your first mission is eighteen steps long and by the end of the first zone you're only seven or so into them. This kind of lingering assignment is obviously meant to feel like an epic quest, but instead it just feels like a prison sentence. Solomon Island is your personal Alcatraz, with no escape for hour after hour of filler quests that almost never contribute to the main story except on the most peripheral 'here's more weird s hit' level.

And yet for all that, when everything actually comes together, you find some of my favourite moments in the genre. They don't involve the multiplayer side unfortunately, but never mind that. I love that, for instance, it doesn't just have you look at the abandoned theme park on the Savage Coast, but lets you ride its haunted roller coaster via-cutscene. I adore some of the staging, like the haunted Black House on the same level, and the way that story elements are reinforced by everything from child's drawings in abandoned notebooks to the casual way that everything you think you're discovering is just business as usual to the guys back home. I particularly loved finding out that the Illuminati base is in a real district - how much effort Funcom put into trying to create a baseline for all the madness to be neatly layered on top of. And goodness, wasn't there a lot of madness? You wouldn't see Varian Wrynn welcoming new recruits into the Alliance like this, put it that way... (Slightly NSFW, unless you assume it's just a really, really good foot massage. As it may be.)

It's just such a wonderful world, as Louis Armstrong might have commented had he been into computer games. Every new area you go to feels fresh, every character is so lovingly written - and sometimes overwritten, yes, though it is a game from the creators of The Longest Journey. The sheer attention to detail and worldcraft puts most other single and multiplayer games to shame, even if it does diminish a bit after Solomon Island (I can't speak for the new areas added after it dropped the subscription). It feels solid in a way that's very unusual, and all the more impressive for having to create a world where Lovecraftian horrors, vampires and friendly sasquatches are supposedly something that we missed for the many years before we accidentally swallowed a bee and got magic powers. Also of course, the bee thing. I really appreciate that it takes a little bit of time to show your character's life changing in painful, confusing ways before they're thrust head-first into their new life; that it's not purely a case of "Well, I'm magic now. Time to join the Templars!" Your trashed apartment has a story of its own, and the walls don't need to talk to tell it. It's just the right mix of scary and uplifting, even if the justification is a little bit silly.

Now, as ever, I can't play The Secret World for long. It doesn't take much time before its agonising pace and clunky mechanics drive me away. Every time I fire it up though, I'm aware that in an alternate universe where it was inspired by the likes of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (most popular game of 2004, selling ten million copies on its first day and currently on its seventh sequel), it's almost certainly one of my favourite games. That's largely what keeps me reinstalling it every few months; less for a fresh chance to play it, then to remember the high hopes I had for it before release. That might not sound like the warmest thing to say, but it's a hell of a lot more than I've done for, say, APB. Remember when that was due to be the next big thing?

Nope. Me neither. Ah well. Farewell again, The Secret World. See you in a few months, the next time I crave a hit of your crazy, and a new dream of what could have been.

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