Last night I had one of the best gaming experiences of my life. No exaggeration. But I can’t tell you exactly what it was – it’s a secret and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you (well, maybe I’ll mention it later on).
Instead, I want to shamelessly recommend The Secret World and let you experience it for yourself. But there is a caveat – there is an art to getting the best from The Secret World, and it’s in the pacing.
The content, writing and ambience is outstanding, but if you approach game content in a manner you would any other MMO, you may well miss it.
I nearly did.
The Art is in the Telling
I am a huge fan of immersion in gaming and I enjoy a good story well told. This is often something which is missing from MMOs as compromises are made to accommodate large populations and a broad demographic of play styles. In most cases, the player is drawn into the stories of the world through the tried-and-test formula of the quest mechanic. The player will interact with an NPC quest-giver, when a window full of text will appear and often just be skimmed for salient information. Then the player will charge off to achieve whatever standardised variation of quest objective is required. Essentially this will be kill ten rats, interact with world item X or give this item to that NPC.
After being initially impressed with the engaging storylines that lead you into The Secret World, I coerced a friend to join me in checking the game out. As soon as we found each other and formed a group to explore the undead-infested town of Kingsmouth, my game experience changed. Almost immediately, my immersion was shattered as we charged from mission-giver to mission-giver, jumping through the required hoops to gain the mission rewards. We had fallen into old MMO habits of “farming” the content. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take us long to grow bored.
My friend and I logged out and discussed our experience. We agreed we were disappointed that, for all it’s mature content and excellent cut-scenes, the game experience itself felt no different to any other MMO. It was Everquest in a Halloween costume. Then it dawned on us – we were making it that way by behaving like ADHD sufferers, rushing through content as quickly as possible. It was evident that many elements of The Secret World had been lovingly crafted, yet we were hurrying through in pursuit of XP and loot – because that’s how it’s always been done.
Engaging the Grey Matter
As former pen-and-paper gamesmasters (including Call of Cthulhu “keepers”), we were aware of the frustration of having players ride roughshod over painstakingly prepared material, so we resolved to give it another go. This time we would steadfastly refuse to succumb to the power-gamer approach and find something to do which was more intellectual and involved. We tried an investigation quest, The Kingsmouth Code.
The next few hours were joyously, infuriatingly challenging. We scoured the world for visual signs, discussed cryptic clues and researched random theories on the internet (taking care to avoid walkthroughs). Admittedly, we hit a few brick walls and ended up falling back on the MMO equivalent of police investigators knocking on doors, but we solved things. With our minds. The sheer euphoria of deciphering a riddle or following up a “this will never work” theory and finding out it was right was giving me a neurological dopamine overload of a kind I’d not experienced in gaming before.
When one particular clue seemed to obliquely suggest a biblical reference and the solution was found in an actual bible from a real bookshelf, the pay-off was magnificent. I found myself thinking “How do they expect people to figure that out? Oh wait a minute, we just did!” Glorious.
All of the People, Some of the Time
Perhaps puzzle-solving and cerebral acrobatics isn’t what everyone wants from a game, but for my friend and I it was a tremendously engaging and team-spirited experience and if the pace ever got too slow, I could always go hit a zombie in the face with a hammer. For other gamer types, The Secret World still provides a min-maxer’s paradise in the form of raids and PvP et al, but don’t they all? Still, The Secret World is an eldritch god amongst button-mashing mortals when it comes to providing something deeper, more immersive and more thought provoking.
So there’s the caveat: although there is plenty of old-school MMO action to be had, to truly get the best out of The Secret World, the onus is on the player to treat the content with respect. You wouldn’t skim through a great book or fast-forward a classic movie. The Secret World really is of that quality. The key to enjoyment is in the pace at which the the player chooses to play and they really should savour every moment.
They had me at “Lux Omnia Vincit”.