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The Park: An Unmitigated Exposition

I bought The Park expecting an evening’s diversion from my normal activities and was not disappointed. Over the course of three hours, I ambled languorously around the perimeter of an autumnal parking lot, stumbled my way through shadow-shrouded rides and attractions punctuated by ghost-eyed halogen lights, and descended into the bowels of a multi-tiered purgatory. Nearly three hundred screenshots sit in my repository as testament to my methodical, inquisitive exploration of Nathaniel Winter’s energy factory, also known as Atlantic Island Park.

Unfortunately, that assortment of screenshots and these spoiler-filled musings on the themes present in the game’s painstakingly crafted environments are the only sort of genuine replayability on offer. To do equitable justice to the experience is to write an abbreviated review as short as the game itself while employing stock phrases to describe the game’s mechanics rather than using one’s own words.

That’s the feeling I’m left with after having spectated the story, so it’s only fair. It does not innovate or introduce anything particularly novel with the horror elements it employs. The jump scares are predictable, the pacing and presentation are inconsistent, and the deadpannish monologues transition roughly into transcendental, prosaic philosophizing. It is, at best, an expensive visit to a museum of picture and sound, one which offers insights into the twisted history of the park, its lore tie-ins to parent game The Secret World, and a fascinating artistic representation of the stages of protagonist Lorraine Maillard’s personal and social disintegration.

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For those who are quite understandably unswayed by mixed sentiments, I would recommend The Park to you if you agree with one or more of the following statements:

  1. I enjoy Funcom’s games and want to support them financially.
  2. I want the top-end neck talisman and/or serial killer chipmunk costume awarded in The Secret World for purchasing the game.
  3. I have a fabulous disposable income and no qualms about tossing it to the wind in search of an ephemeral gaming high.

If none of these ring true, I would recommend watching one of the many recorded streams of other people playing the game, reading syndicated or personal reviews, or perhaps accompanying me on an exploration of the game’s particulars with an emphasis on Lorraine’s descent into psychological purgatory, which I personally consider to be the highlight-nadir of the journey.


The game begins in a parking lot with reddish-eyed mommy Lorraine sighing after a long day of child-rearing in the local amusement park. Son Callum asks from behind a car window where Mr. Bear is. With the collective millenia of parental world-weariness weighing on her shoulders, Lorraine monotones “I don’t know – I’ll go ask information” and walks off, leaving her darling treasure in their 1970s station wagon. This seemingly simple act foreshadows the theme of abandonment that is present throughout the game. As Lorraine talks to the Ken-doll desk manager about her son’s lost toy, Callum sprints past her into the park. Callum, the Scottish form of Latin Columba, means “dove” and represents peace and purity, an anchoring point for the inner turmoil and defilement that become familiar themes later on.

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Like any responsible parent would, I took the opportunity to explore the sparsely vegetated rocks and wind-rippled grass of the parking lot while my son ran unaccompanied in a closed-for-business entertainment complex inhabited by a known serial killer in a chipmunk costume. I first walked up the road away from chirping birds and the heady lights attached to loudspeaker-ringed lampposts to see how the game handles going where you’re not supposed to; waves of increasingly thick mist rolled toward me until my screen turned completely white. “No, I still have things I need to do in the park.” I unlocked a Steam achievement for my efforts.

After wandering around for a while on the lonesome pavement – with a barren flatness that on hot summer days has haunted me since my childhood – I clomped listlessly through puddles past a familiar, mud-tracked hatchback toward the commemorative plaque that welcomes visitors. (I found it somewhat distracting that the camera moves about subtly while standing still as if to simulate natural head movement.) The design is nearly identical to that of the dedicatory plaque found on Kingsmouth Town’s Langmore Bridge (previously known as “Hangman’s Span”) and features curiously deliberate phrasing:

ATLANTIC ISLAND PARK

“A tribute to the untamed heart of Solomon Island and the people who used their talents to bring the dream of Nathaniel Winter to life. May this park be a place where joy and laughter are gathered and used to infect all those who follow after.”

This language is an artifact of the endless word play, references, and layered meanings one comes to know on Solomon Island. The “untamed heart” may be a reference to the magic sealed under the mountain in Savage Coast by the Wabanaki; “where joy and laughter are gathered” reflects the somewhat more sinister function of the park, which is used by Mr. Winter to gather energy (anima) from the happiness of children much in the manner of Monsters, Inc. (as opposed to harvesting their fear which Winter’s colleagues wanted to do); and “infect” is a playful jab at the filth (animus) that will eventually subsume Solomon Island.

I then made my way to the information desk, where the impossibly perfect manager graciously offered to let me into the park to retrieve my darling son. As he returned to the newspaper on his desk, I looked past his seemingly half-dozing figure at the objects that populated his office: detailed maps, book-lined shelves, a waste basket, filing cabinets. I thought to myself that this was a respectable homage to Kubrickian scene-setting, fine details that had been added even though they might receive nothing more than a passing glance.

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There is an exchange that is thrust upon the onlooker. Terrain and mechanical exploration are eschewed in favor of visual, linear storytelling. Even the controls are nominal: jumping is not permitted, shift lets you run instead of walk, left click interacts with selected objects, and right click interacts with Callum. That is the extent of your agency. As I entered the park, I used right click for the first time: “Callum, wait for Mommy!” The response: “Come on, this way!”

As soon as one sets foot on the escalator, there is no turning back. Lorraine begins a flat monologue about how she always returns to the park. At the mid-point of the ascent, the world turns dark and an evil laugh is heard from somewhere unseen. From that point on, I generally had better luck with sound than sight. The promotional video for the game seems to use a gamma setting in which everything is visible; I opted for a literal interpretation of the lighting instructions during the game’s introductory sequence and ended up with a “fumbling about in the dark” experience.

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In a way, this made the soft warbling sounds coming from the park’s speakers somewhat more ambient. And by ambient, I mean creepy. I passed a handful of these speakers on my way to the swan boats, the first ride of several. My silent bird companion paddled softly through a watery cave in which I was treated to an overly long shadows-on-the-wall story about Hansel and Gretel. Their mother and father want to abandon them in the forest because they have no food to eat. Woodcutting father takes them out into the forest and leaves them there. The clever children leave a trail of breadcrumbs so they can find their way back. After they’ve eaten all the food and have no more breadcrumbs left, father does it again. This time, the children come across a hungry witch while trying to find their way out of the forest. The children trick the witch into the oven in which she intended to cook them and they, instead, cook her. And then eat her, because they are ravenous little monsters.

Chad the Chipmunk, a psychotic alcoholic employee who kills people, makes a brief appearance in Story Time Tunnel. This was my first introduction to Lorraine’s fear – the distorted sound of a heartbeat pulsing and heavy breathing. You have to look in the opposite direction to see him at all, and in a way, this characterizes his role in the narrative: he is an unattractive side show.

The octotron is a multi-tentacled light show whose speed can be adjusted from full stop to annoyingly loud. Bits of information are found scattered about including a picture of Lorraine and Callum in which both of them look terrified at the sight of something; it’s as if their co-existence is one of perpetual terror. As Lorraine leaves the ride, she begins an abruptly prosaic rant in which she objectifies her infant son as a writhing red ball and muses that this life is built on a “single traitorous thought.”

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One can be forgiven for thinking that Lorraine might be referring to sex or love. This is our introduction to her all-consuming self-loathing, one that drives her to chastise herself unforgivingly for thinking that she could ever be a mother, could ever be “normal.”

Her exploration of the inactive bumper cars unfolds a scene in which she is seemingly electrocuted on the bed of a hospital table. A haywire car then comes careening over the platform and plows through a fence that guards access to a set of stairs leading up the side of a rocky hill face. As she ascends, she recalls a time when she left Callum in the car as an infant to run a brief errand. She came back to a sheriff writing a citation with a look of judgement on his face. Lorraine becomes vehemently defensive. She would rather be shot than accept help. Help is a thousand volts of lightning. (Help is a clinical hospital bed. Helps means you are a failure and everyone will judge you for it.)

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The slow rise of the Ferris wheel over mist-shrouded pine trees provides the backdrop for the tale of how she met Callum’s father. He was the only man who came into the diner that didn’t flirt with her or try to cop a feel. They went on a magical walk and made Callum that night. Three months later, he was working atop the wheel at the park when his safety strap failed and he fell to his death. “Fairy tale fucking over.”

Lorraine becomes bitter as she approaches the roller coaster. Babies steal your life. She hates people who talk about their kids like they are angels and how they are their entire world. Fuck those people – you spend nine months of your life pregnant just so you can clean up vomit and wipe asses. Callum owes her everything and it would serve the little fuck right if she were to leave him here. This marks the sharp objectification of what has thus far been a largely subjective experience; Lorraine’s mental deterioration derives in part from losing her connection to context as she is deprived of a normal life by the passing of Callum’s father.

As we ride the roller coaster, the fourth wall is shattered with all the tact of the Kool-Aid Man in his prime. The disembodied voice from the escalator talks to us directly in clichés: “You and your boy are everything the park doesn’t want. You are the antithesis of what we stand for.The witch has him now. You’re a fool and always have been.” As the ride gains speed, the narrative hand-holding is dropped and we are subjected to brief flashes from a movie’s “being rushed to the delivery room of a hospital” scene. The doors have been painted with phrases: “NOT SAFE” and “I CAN TASTE YOUR DREAMS.” Callum’s birth introduces a painful mix of emotional ups and downs whose effects are still resonating; our antagonist hijacks these emotions and bends them to his will.

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Sideshow Alley begins the transition from neurotic to psychotic. It is Lorraine’s prescription pills that are the devil, their effects a bitter admission of defeat. She encounters them in the middle of a ring of quiet attractions. “Yeah, these are mine.” The world becomes a wavy, vibrant red; bizarre messages are scrawled all over the walls. A newspaper clipping is written using dictionary words and grammatically correct sentences that make little sense. Abstract prose describes Beaumont and Cassandra, two Secret World figures. Right-click: “Callum, I’m sorry” in a distorted, ethereal tone. “Don’t touch me!” is the angry response.

Callum has bruises and marks on his body, Lorraine says. He looks at her at odd moments, tosses and turns in his sleep, muttering things in languages she does not speak. She tries to ask him what is going on but he does not answer. There will be pain, she says, but in the end, Callum will understand. (My depression medication will make things worse before it makes them better.)

A corpse lies behind the cotton candy stand under the pale watch of a nightmare fuel clown face. We turn around to see Chad the Chipmunk briefly before he fades out with all the elegance of Final Fantasy 14’s texture mesh. Lorraine’s medication wears off and she returns to the pain of reality. The House of Horrors remains the only unexplored un-attraction. “The witch awaits.”

The ground floor of the House is largely forgettable. Diligent use of a discovered flashlight allows one to pierce the shroud of darkness and admire, in some places, the deft arrangement of background scenery. Gas mask-wearing vampire cut-outs toting sub-machine guns pop up from the floor limply. They are a pale foreshadowing of the crescendo of interaction that awaits us as we make our way through a place that is significantly less horrifying than the inside of Lorraine’s head. The mirrors in this place twist her image just as her illness twists her mind: they make her look like a monster, a dark and jagged reflection of the young woman we saw in the parking lot.

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Her antagonist is presumably Nathaniel Winter, the park’s owner, in the form of The Presenter from The Secret World’s yearly Samhain event. He has retreated to the House of Horrors after the park was closed down by an inspector due to the unusually large number of accidents as attested to by his personal journal entries, an internal accident report, and an official police report. He curses the dark magic that the locals believe is bound to this place – it is interfering with his plans to extract energy from children. His grand plans foiled, he latches onto Lorraine’s son and draws her ever downward as he warbles in the background incoherently or sings along sadistically to otherwise innocent childrens’ songs. “Mommy Duck said quack, quack, quack, quack…and NO LITTLE DUCKS CAME BACK.”

The real House of Horrors is a dim meander through an artistic depiction of Lorraine’s house as a reflection of her mind. We descend through the same rooms repeatedly as her condition becomes increasingly worse. Each scene holds several interactive objects; examining all of them allows us to understand what’s going on in her world. When he was still alive, Callum’s father, Donald, suggested the name Emma for a baby girl. Another Secret World reference – there, Emma is the embodiment of anima (life) essence; here, perhaps a reference to unbound happiness and joy, things that the park stands for. Things that fate has conspired to wrest away from Lorraine.

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On the first level of Lorraine’s reconstituted living space, we read a letter from her physician advising her that she is of sound mental health and no longer requires her medication. Callum has drawn her a crayon picture containing a heart and the words “I LOVE YOU.” A hard-bound science fiction novel features a breathy blurb on the rear of the dust jacket. A non-fiction novel tells the tale of starvation among migrants in the Old West. Random letters have been penned on the sticker faces of an unsolved Rubik’s cube with a marker. The static screen of a television buzzes with quiet white noise. A kitchen faucet drips softly. A shopping list features fruits, milk, and Lorraine’s prescription.The refrigerator contains food and a wine bottle. The power company has sent a form letter disconnect notice. Lorraine has been having financial troubles since Donald’s passing.

We descend.

A hand-written note from her mother rejects contact: her (alcoholic) father was a horrible man and she regrets the years she wasted with him. A form letter from Dunwich Emergency Services documents her intake for early pregnancy depression and her rapid recovery in response to electro-convulsion therapy treatment (help is 10,000 volts of electricity) combined with a prescription for medication. A letter from an attorney, Ed Stapleton, informs Lorraine that the beneficiaries of Donald’s estate are his parents. They are not receptive to Mr. Stapleton’s overtures and without legal proof of a biological relationship, they consider Lorraine to be ineligible to receive any of the moneys from Donald’s estate.

They were not married. A child out of wedlock. A single traitorous thought.

The books begin to speak to Lorraine. The slow breaking of her mind reveals new truths to her. Witness:

THE PARK IT WAS A WAIT, WAIT, WAITIN’
ON A CHILD FOR TAKE, TAKE, TAKIN’
USING JOY FOR BAIT, BAIT, BAITIN’
WHILE THEIR MOTHER’S MIND IS BREAKIN’
ANALGESIA WIN!

Medication dulls her depression and, in doing so, blunts her emotional bond with her son. Her father’s alcoholism was an uninvited companion on their journey away from her mother. The wedge that came crashing down between Lorraine and her parents as Callum grows older has proven to be his inheritance.

We descend.

A letter from Donald in which he tells her of not “being in his right mind” because he’s so far from home (the city) and working so hard. His mind is like a spring wound ever tighter, loosening a bit when he goes for drinks with the guys after work. He doesn’t want to come home to her until he’s in his right mind. Lorraine can be forgiven for not wanting another boozing father in her life – but Callum needs a father. His drawings on the walls of the room reflect this absence. He writes in crayon on a letter: “THANK YOU FOR THE WATCH WILLIAM. YOU HAVE MADE ME VERY HAPPY. CARROT.”

Descend.

The tale of starving migrants has been updated:

A long time ago, in a forest in the woods, there lived a woodcutter, his wife and his two children – a boy named Hansel and a girl named Gretel.

They were very poor and had very little to bite or sup. This story has been doctored to hide the truth from the unsuspecting public. Now, our panel of fairytale experts have uncovered compelling evidence that Hansel and Gretel were in fact eaten alive.

In this never before seen exposé read about how their parents inexpertly tried to cover it up by telling stories about a witch and a house made of candy.

All here in the pages of this SHOCKING FAKE STORY!

And then –

“I didn’t run away. Dad took me.”

Lorraine wears the Woodcutter’s Lament around her neck. It symbolizes the despair felt by Father Woodcutter in not being able to provide for his children. Lorraine is now mother and father; she has not been able to provide and has been judged for this. Her sentence: medication.

Her pills lie faithfully on the living room table every time she enters. While other objects throughout the rooms undergo subtle transformations, the instructions on the bottle never change. They are a prescription for dependency on substances, a dependency that touches everything in her life.

Descend again.

The shopping list mentions Lorraine’s prescription on every other line. Remember: more pills, tickets to Atlantic Island Park. Callum’s masterpieces bear inky handprints; rips and tears appear in the form letters. The attorney’s response has become the backdrop for a crayon drawing of Callum’s abductor: a bogeyman and his top hat, suit, and cane. The taglines on the backs of the fiction books form the ABCs of clinical, psychological victory: analgesia, basal ganglia, cerebral cortex win!

(Lorraine feels nothing when she takes her pills. The townsfolk are immobile as Chad the Chipmunk murders. The bogeyman denies his own existence and Lorraine believes it.)

The dolls lose their eyes and their clothing. Their skin becomes shiny. The lore rain beats a steady, arrhythmic drip from a kitchen faucet, threatening to madden the listener.

“The witch always wins. The woodcutter is dead. (Repeat.) All here in the pages of this BROKEN STORY!”

Descend, Lorraine.

Science fiction becomes science reality, warning of the apocalypse and global domination. (Answer us, Lorraine!)

Picture: my two best friends, Don and Laura. (Did he leave me for another woman because I was losing my mind?)  The shopping list is her prescription repeated eight, ten, twelve times. (Is that why he wouldn’t marry me?) Remember: you are alone. Nobody loves you. Callum is not who he once was. (Abused and neglected.)

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Dolls lie in the oven and hang from the ceiling. Callum’s I LOVE YOU drawings burn to ashes.

DESCEND, LORRAINE.

Form letter: “Miss Maillard, As we agreed in our meeting today, we consider you to be batshit fucking insane…” Science fiction novel: “Chad the Chipmunk – Steve Gardener – was locked away for what he did to those kids. Nathaniel Winter hasn’t been seen in years but is nowhere near Atlantic Island Park. We’ve established this. You know this!”

Blood stains walls and fragments of letters. Two corpses hang from the ceiling. A fire burns in the oven. The Rubik’s cube has solved itself and bears a grim message:

See her try. See him die. See her lie. Why?

Shopping list: “Forget: Don, Dad, Ca…not him.”

Move closer. The hanging bodies are Lorraine in sandals and a young woman in a black frock, facing opposite directions. (The witch?)

A shredded letter: “YOU WILL WATCH ME ROT.”

Doors that rattle for attention and slam shut when approached. Right click: “STOP!” Callum closes a half-open door behind him and whimpers, “don’t.”

Descend one last time.

Books, a fan, a fire, documents, candles. Nathaniel Winter’s last journal entry:

…kids broke in today.
it has been so long since I heard laughter. So very long.
I took one of them.
I couldn’t help myself.
it was fast, the others didn’t notice. I liked hearing him laugh, this boy from the academy.
I put him on a slab.
I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe.
My machines came to life, whirring in time to his gasps and shrieks.
I think this is delightful.
The change wrought in me by the machines is not yet complete.
There must be other children I can lay on my slab.

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Eyes without Sparkle, the last novel in a library of psychological abuse. Winter preys upon her fears and insecurities and uses them to convince her that what must happen next is natural and fitting. (I’m a failure as a mother. Things are better this way.)

Like the Red Sargassum Dream, like the dreams anyone has ever had about being in other places, other times, other worlds, the hum of humanity is still present somewhere down here in the multi-hued glow of these dimly lit spaces. Half-imagined sounds and fragments of consciousness build a world in which one could live in muted peace if one simply accepted being alone with eternity as the natural way of things.

Callum, wait for mommy. 

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Asleep, on the slab. (What am I doing?) Her hands are guided by the bogeyman behind her. (There will be pain, but in the end, Callum will understand.)

Good night, Callum.

It’s a story that’s told time and time again: a boy wanders off into the forest and into the mouth of a witch. In the oldest version of the story, the mother and the witch are the same person.

In this fairy tale, a boy wandered alone into an amusement park and never came back.

Fade out. Fade in. A reassuring hand rests on Lorraine’s shoulder as her head rests in hers. She looks up. The information manager sits down behind a desk. A police desk. “Where did you last see Callum?” (In my heart and in my mind, I always come back to Atlantic Island Park.)

Which parts of this fairy tale were true, sweetling?

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One Year Later: Remarks on The Secret World

A little over a year has gone by since I first walked out of Agartha and into The Secret World. My mind feels as though there must have been more than twelve months between now and June of last year when Liling was born. The steady march of time slowed and devolved into a weighty shambling gait as I dreamed my way through the entirety of the fantastic narrative found within this story’s seemingly endless main missions, side missions, investigation missions, and sabotage missions. My journey now takes me into the harrowing fields of instanced group content where I’ll lie nose-up on the ground with my extra-smiley face on as lore bombs rain down from the sky. I like to imagine myself as a sponge absorbing all of the water in this ocean of half-formed remembrances and allowing its filthy abstractions to seep from the pores of my nocturnal body like honey.

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Most remarkably, The Secret World chooses to straddle the line between reality and fiction by populating its world with inhabitants who reflect the diversity of people who live in our world: Madame Rogêt is as old as I am, Amparo Osorio has an afro and speaks Spanish, Zaha likes girls, Ricky Pagan is pansexual, Kaoru is transgender. You grow up amongst these people and understand them as fellow human beings. My character is smitten with the leader of the Marya who may be too busy to consider such things or uninterested in romantic relationships altogether. In a way, it mirrors Sandy “Moose” Jensen’s deep and abiding feelings for Deputy Andy – feelings which remain to this point one of the many hanging plot threads in a strange and complex tapestry of painfully interesting lives.

See also: “Funcom Nailed Representation in The Secret World” at Geek Girls Pwn

Perhaps it’s better that they remain unresolved. It’s fiction with a human touch that provides a fertile breeding ground for the imagination. I’m spending time outside the game reading forum entries written by people with more insight into the workings of things who can fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the overarching plot after having played through its fragments. I know what’s going on, generally speaking, but the juicy details have gone over my head and I leave it to others to recall and speculate on the parts that are missing from my mental catalogue. The Secret World is a hive of busy bees that set my mind buzzing.

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The combat that I had dismissed as simplistic when I first started out has come full circle and now offers a moderately satisfying amount of depth. My exploration of the fully unlocked ability and auxiliary wheels has most recently evolved into trying out optimized damage rotations on various adversaries during the Guardians of Gaia event and looking over the post-encounter statistics in Advanced Combat Tracker (ACT). It’s one of the rare instances in which I’ve installed damage meters. I’m doing it as part of a comprehensive evaluation of different loadouts and playstyles so that when I go into the most difficult content, I’ll have the added advantage of maximizing my personal contributions.

I don’t normally care about such things – and, indeed, there is very much a “play what you like” culture in everything but the really hard stuff – but I’ve warmed up to this dark and moody world so much that I’m willing to dive deeper into its fighting mechanics. To this end, I’ve relaxed my purist philosophy in favor of situational pragmatism and installed a handful of quality of life modifications: a top bar that displays several useful bits of information in one place, resource bars that have been relocated to the center of the screen for easier viewing during combat, and automatic AEGIS selectors that operate based on what I’m targeting. It wasn’t until I had reached the epilogue of this novel that I even began to consider the desirability of these add-ons.

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I know we said you could wear anything, but you’re not exactly dressed for a firefight, honey.

Truth be told, I didn’t really need anything fancy while reading through the chapters. I was able to use my preferred weapons, Blade and Rifle/Hammer, and the same basic set of ten or twelve active abilities for the entirety of the journey. It was only in the toughest encounters that I found it necessary to rethink my otherwise globally applicable approach; I do not recall any place in the game’s varied environments where I was not able to brute force my way through a situation with a combination of gaming experience and mechanical execution. Many of the missions recalled my days playing the Nintendo Entertainment System: failure would result in being sent back to a checkpoint and doing it all over again. Soldier on, methodically, and you prevail.

Being in possession of such a mindset is paramount for the intermission activities – the gap between the end of the current batch of storytelling and the next – which involve acquiring massive amounts of currency and points to upgrade talismans, unlock augments, and curate one’s personal museum. Much in the manner of Final Fantasy 14, whose difficulty skyrockets dramatically at the very top end, once you’re finished with the story in The Secret World, the personal fortune you’ve amassed is but a drop in the bucket if you’re interested in taking on the Big Bads.

Even if you choose to forgo this “capstone” project, the long and winding path is still worth the foot aches. From the very beginning, the missions you undertake are thematically relevant and impress upon you the feeling of being an actor in unfolding events as opposed to a bounty hunter or a fur trader. You may be seeking out vistas and haunts based on a psychic medium’s interpretation of a vision she had. It could be that you’re spelling out the missing piece of a bible verse on letters of the alphabet carved into a stone floor (and being fatally poisoned if you make a mistake). The world conspires against you and sends you battling your way through train cars as you defuse a tense situation by removing all of the deranged cultists on board. A local racketeer politely demands that you tend to the grave of his gang’s founder by gathering a water bucket and incense from the shrine in a graveyard filled with illimitable kyanshi beings who need to be mortally wounded and bound by ofuda, giving you enough time to clean up the Venerable One’s final resting place and light devotional incense sticks before a gust of wind sweeps through the headstones and frees the infuriated kyanshi from bondage.

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All of these activities are part of the bigger picture, one that only comes into being after completing everything on the map and some of the things that aren’t. Even once you’ve collected all of the pieces of the puzzle and read between the lines, it may be that you don’t even understand half of what’s going on.

Which is exactly the way it’s intended to be. You’re not supposed to know everything. There’s an intoxicating attraction found within the unknown and The Secret World riffs off this to infinity and back. It boasts the best story I’ve ever enjoyed in an MMO; only the Imperial Agent class story from Star Wars: The Old Republic is even in the same league.

Would I recommend it? There are several shortcomings which may put one off: a clunky physics engine, poorly optimized graphics, and a handful of infuriating missions. Initially, I found the writing to be abstract to the point of incomprehensibility. (Once I was able to characterize the happenings in the first area as “a bunch of occult stuff,” things started making more sense.) These quibbles do not constitute deal-breakers, however. If you’re comfortable with playing MMOs and think you have the knack for dealing with challenges, then the answer is: yes. Buy the game and play it for a while. Enjoy the dark and cryptic story. If you really like it, you can then consider paying the optional subscription fee of $15 per month and gaining access to several benefits.

It took me nine months before I decided to start subscribing because that’s how long it took for me to really get into the game. I still find many of the missions to be too similar to video game levels for my liking, but now that I’m more powerful and experienced I can usually go back and soak in their connection to the narrative without feeling overly harried. Since that’s what I’m here for and there’s so much of it to go around, it stands to reason that I’ll be staying a while.

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Postcards from Tokyo

I write this on a tablet as I half-doze on a tatami mat in one of the back rooms of Susanoo’s Diner. I’ve concluded business in Tokyo. Daimon Kiyota’s running the show now. His quirkiness rubs me the wrong way but the other day he did a flawless version of the moonwalk that made me like him just a little bit – until he stepped away to call in a favor for a life he had saved: he instructed the party at the other end to wait until three in the morning, count to 61, and throw a half-empty bottle of whiskey out the sixth-story window of a building.

I’m no good at being a Dragon. I still don’t understand chaos theory.

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I do, however, understand the aesthetic of this place, which is why I’ve made it my home for the time being.

QBL News has branded me a terrorist. I’m supposed to be lying low in the limelight. There’s no need. The only people left in this part of the city who are still in possession of their faculties are in my debt, big time. I’ve ingratiated myself with the demon-hunting Jingu and their arch-enemies, the demons of the House in Exile led by Inbeda the Fierce, Inbeda the Mighty, Inbeda who worships Kirsten Geary as a goddess and populates his bathhouse with mannequins in her likeness.

The demons and the demon hunters live a few blocks away from each other. I suspect that’s the cause of and solution to many of their problems.

I investigated the source of strange tremors in the City of the Sun God. The cultists were behind them, as they are behind everything in this area. My dear Shani and her Marya don’t seem to be making much progress on that front. The destruction of the Atenist raison d’être does not seem to have sated the cultists’ blood lust or shaken their conviction. As part of my “research project,” I revisited a jinn named Amir whose contempt for me was once again expressed with the sort of honeyed grandeur that only an ancient being made of fire can reasonably pull off without sounding overly cathartic.

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“The perverse will be used as firewood in Hell!” Easily my favorite line.

Amir is but a bit player as he is only made of one element. The rumblings turned out to be the product of the Unbound, a jinn made out of all four elements and therefore much more powerful. The tremors are the manifestation of his anger on this earth. I was tasked with entering the pyramid that housed his prison and subduing him, both of which I accomplished in a reasonable amount of time and without unnecessary difficulty.

Back in Tokyo, I then took on the less glamorous tasks of running Kiyota’s protection racket for him and robbing a bank manned by infuriatingly astute security droids. Once finished, I returned to Gozen’s diner and sat down to a bowl of noodles, a cup of coffee (which I’ve grown to like more than tea), and a manga book about chibi-children who save the world by planting sakura trees. I can’t really tell where the line between reality and fantasy is drawn after all that’s transpired.

They tell me now that my help is needed in field operations with other agents. We’ll see about that. I’m going to take a nice long nap, first.

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Guardians of Gaia

The passage of time has not made the secrets of The Secret World any less mysterious, nor has it softened the tenor of the grim undertones that resonate through the bowels of a global society in disarray. If you take a game like Ever, Jane, for example, which dances among the pleasantries and intrigues of civilized society, you might find yourself at a picnic on a nice summer’s day having a conversation with your companion. Your task may be to ingratiate yourself with them, perhaps in the style of Vanguard’s Diplomacy sphere. It may be that you’ve had a glass of sherry or a cup of coffee and there’s a nice background hum to the rhythm of the day. The sun smiles upon your face as you bite into a slice of succulent watermelon. Your companion laughs as they reach for a napkin and dab playfully at the juice that’s running down your chin.

In contrast, The Secret World offers a fundamentally different milieu for those who seek their chthonic pleasure in somewhat darker surroundings – not necessarily within the underbelly of society, in its back alleys, or between the hips of its inhabitants, but in its flirtation with the line between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. It’s that air of mystery that the security guard in Kaidan Hospital said he needed to maintain prior to the day’s back-office liaison with an office administrator whose questions had spilled over into the domain of the personal…the mundane. This world’s secrets are seductive and even intoxicating precisely because our fleeting glimpses into their domain are only ever through fragments, memories, dreams, and imaginings.

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It has now been four years since the magic-users of this world – the “bees” as they are called – were first invited to sample its dark delights in search of the Forbidden Orgasm. The Guardians of Gaia are erupting from the peaks and valleys of Earth’s bushy landscape as one of Gaia’s natural, cyclical defense mechanisms against the filth that seeks to corrupt her. The Gatekeeper, a golden being who guards passage into the more nefarious depths of the black ichor’s realm of influence, acts as the conduit via which the Guardians are given corporeal substance.

Less tasteful individuals who are not entirely in character might choose to call them “loot piñatas.” I beg to differ. A more accurate description would be “hit point sponges.” Keep in mind that this is an endearing description on my part; I am quite fond of the game despite the occasional finger cramps that occur from prolonged combat.

In the spirit of The Secret World’s community which is generally helpful, forgiving, and wary of unsolicited exposure of the meatier bits of the game’s story, I decided to engage all of the “golems” at close quarters without reading up on any of the strategies. This meant eschewing ranged weapons such as the Elemental Focus which allows for continuous, maximal damage output and concurrent avoidance of close-range mechanics. This would be anathema in a game whose culture worships power and stats; here, nobody seemed to care much save for a choice few whose frustrations with the 40-person Gatekeeper encounter were given voice in public channels. On the whole, I was largely successful in melee combat. I’d like to think it’s a product of experience and having played games like WildStar and GW2. The only golem that gave me trouble was the Guardian of Pestilence in the Shadowy Forest. It was here and here alone that I experienced heavy lag and thus couldn’t react to its deadly purple poison ground-based AoE fast enough for the server’s liking. I’m just not willing to compromise on graphics quality, I guess, apart from turning “Effects” down a notch in Blue Mountain.

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The consequences of visual snobbery.

Many players were using an AddOn called ShoutOut to send a nicely formatted message to the Event channel when they had spotted a golem. An additional script adds the ability to automatically accept all “Meet Up” requests, which is an option from the menu that pops up when you right click on a player’s name in the chat log. Clicking on Meet Up sends you directly to wherever the target player is. Accordingly, players were regularly offering “taxis” to popular destinations such as London in addition to the locations of the golems.

Up close and in person, the golems have varied and interesting mechanics: small circles are generally less lethal attacks but may leave behind Bad Stuff on the ground; big circles are bad, so run away; and golems may poison or afflict you which should be cleansed or healed through as the presence of this status on players will empower the Guardians’ attacks against those players. Generally speaking, the melee dance was enjoyable if a bit longish but I suspect that’s partially a product of my relatively paltry Epic 10.1 gear with stat-appropriate signets and glyphs of varying quality.

After slaying all eight of the golems and reaping their rewards, I made the self-surprising decision to use the Meet Up feature to join a 40-person raid on the “Hatekeeper,” the enraged form of the Gatekeeper who must be summoned on a large platform that resides in the veiled chiaroscuro of Deep Agartha. To summon the Gatekeeper, eight different types of golems must be called forth by players. (If you have a blue-quality object in your inventory that features an icon that looks like a golem and is named something like “Irate Shard” or “Roiling Shard,” that’s what I’m talking about.) Once this has been done, the Gatekeeper will appear on the main platform and players can begin chipping away at his health pool.

It took our raid three attempts and over an hour to finally defeat him. I was able to melee him fairly decently but developed a bad habit of being randomly one-shotted by the copious amounts of chameleon-patterened Bad Stuff he leaves on the floor and thereafter switched to add duty away from the main fight, mostly to avoid the stat loss from 100% damaged talismans. In addition to his small circles that leave lightning-colored bad stuff behind, he also regularly telegraphs a long rectangle that sweeps in a small arc in front of him, terminating in a long line of fire-colored bad stuff on the floor. Periodically, he will pulse out a raid-wide AoE “buff” that cannot be cleansed by normal means and takes away most of your health once it wears off. Finally, there are three narrow walkways that branch off from the main platform. At the end of each path is a portal from which custodian machines spawn; if any of these custodians reaches the Gatekeeper, he is healed back up to full.

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Our winning strategy had groups of five players camp each of the three branches while the remaining 25 players stayed on the boss. The custodians power down after receiving a certain amount of damage and will then wake up after a fixed amount of time; additional custodians will spawn from the branches’ portals at set intervals which means that you may have two or three custodians per branch coming back to life at the most inopportune of times and threatening to undo all your hard work. Five bees per branch with self-designated “floaters” seemed to work well enough in dispatching all of our custodians before they made it to the outer ring of the central platform.

I was rewarded with five epic-quality flare gun toys for my trouble. I’m here for the story, so I don’t really care. There are some pretty cool rewards that you can get if you win the loot table lottery or want to make a game out of farming the engagements. I’ve taken this month’s subscriber points stipend and purchased a week-long AP doubler which stacks with the 2x AP rewards already in effect for the duration of the event (June 29th – July 13th). I’ll be alternating between repeating Transylvania missions (which I’ve found to be the best stream of SP and AP), battling the golems, and completing outstanding missions in Kaidan. I thus hope to finally complete my ability wheel and at least acquire all of the Rocket Launcher abilities on the auxiliary wheel; I obtained my shoulder cannon quite some time ago and the poor thing hasn’t even been fired once.

Overall, I’d recommend taking part for the social experience even if you’re not terribly far along in the story or aren’t interested in the combat mechanics. This is the first time since I started playing that I’m in a position where I’m ready to look at public chat channels. (What a strange thing to say!) Prior to this, I had been playing a deliciously dark single-player game with only the occasional passersby to remind me that others were operating in the same environs. With the main story complete and other gaming interests mostly muted, I think it’s time to see whether the social aspects of The Secret World contain any stories worth telling.

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Tribute

Three and a half weeks later I’ve reached level 80 and 100% map completion in Central Tyria. I whipped through Southsun Cove as well for good measure. At the end of all of it there’s a certain sense of satisfaction mixed with a measure of relief.

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Proof of heroics. Achievements optional.

We’re taking a break, Snow White and I, from the heady bustle of completion and exploration and combat and gorgeous scenery with varying degrees of ambient lethality. She’s a persona all her own with no back story to speak of and no character empires to rule over: a ronin Chronomancer. Our uninstalled break will last as long as it feels like it should. In the meantime, I have other depths to plumb to see just how much I like being in love with Lovecraft and Halloween. Is monogamy back in vogue? Only one way to find out.

She’s entirely from scratch. I used only what I earned during my leveling adventures. I did cheat once by buying an underwater spear off the Trading Post during a statistical drought; otherwise, supernumerary boosts were eschewed. I started off with my standard sword/pistol and greatsword combination. Somewhere in the mid-30s I switched out the greatsword for sword/sword. Thereafter, I forced myself to melee everything.

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If I had a bow like this, I wouldn’t melee either.

Hearts and Hero Points involving combat thus became fora for improving my visual parsing and timing memorization skills. I’m better at the former than the latter, on the whole. Nevertheless, I was only downed thrice and never defeated. One of those flirtations with defeat occurred when my guided exploration path took me straight through the middle of the Claw of Jormag event. I ran out of invulnerabilities and couldn’t remember the mechanics, so plop! I went onto the ground and lay there until someone ran over to revive me. They then flopped over and it was my turn to resuscitate them, thereby perpetuating the circle of life.

I’ve never been much for condition play, so scepter, torch, and staff went unused. The stationary wardens generated by a focus offhand were too much of a damage loss to offset the speed boost generated by #4. In any case, Signet of Inspiration (passive: random boons, i.e. swiftness, every 10 seconds) worked well enough until the very end when I had enough Hero Points for Time Marches On in the Chronomancer trait line (passive: 25% increased movement speed). Signet of the Ether allowed me to recharge my phantasm summons, Signet of Illusions made them tankier, and Signet of Humility made the really annoying loss of control mechanics slightly less annoying.

As things wrapped up, I started to become a bit lazy (except in Orr) as once I forced myself to pay attention to the world around me and did not succumb to fatigue, the vast majority of adversaries were no longer threatening. Obvious exceptions would be champions whose health bars require extensive whittling and anything with lifesteal spam, of which there are more than enough in Cursed Shore.

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Impossibly beautiful and improbably clothed. It’s the human female meta.

There are plentiful opportunities for screenshotting no matter what you’re doing or how long you intend to play. One item of note that I had forgotten about during my three-month absence was the extent to which the variegated, handcrafted landscapes of Guild Wars 2 surpass those of every other MMO I’ve ever played. There is simply no comparison.

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A lesser scene among the pantheon of milieux.

I’m setting it aside again for a while, at least until I wear out the trappings of The Secret World and play through the rest of Life is Strange and then eventually find myself wandering back to the same place I always seem to come home to.

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Autolobotomy

Age has quelled my lust for power. The two MMOs I continue to play are games in which numbers are of secondary concern. Guild Wars 2 offers moderately entertaining combat mechanics; The Secret World offers a steady stream of story that I have been drinking in slowly.

In Agartha’s overworld, I have finished the Main Story through Tokyo. I am now busying myself with strolling through the remainder of the missions in Kaidan and anything I may have missed elsewhere. The Side Missions are entries in the glossary in the back of the novel that explain people, places, and things. I’ll turn them into stories, eventually.

Tyria is the site of a second filth bomb: I lobotomized my account – I’ll leave you to figure out what that means – and am now leveling the third version of my Mesmer, this time a snow-white salad. (My erstwhile human protagonist’s name has been safeguarded on a level 1 character on a free account created specifically for that purpose.) She currently sits at level 73 with 73% map completion. Almost every night I fire up gw2navi and GW2 in borderless windowed mode, click on “show completion route,” and complete the map I’ve marked for that day in Microsoft Calendar. It’s steady and methodical. Once I’ve hit 100%, I’ll decide whether I want to leave her as a “tribute” character – in which I create a character, log her out in medias res, and uninstall the game – or continue playing with a set of concrete goals for each play session.

The currency of my gaming life has become stories, as they are for old Mosul who sits atop a bridge in The Shadowy Forest fishing from a river uninhabited by fish. Between autumn of last year and spring of this year, I stopped caring about numbers and the systems that encapsulate them. GW2’s most compelling story is found within the plethora of exchanges in brief among characters overheard while running by. Compelling enough for me to spend part of my time budget on fishing for them? Difficult to say.

In becoming a more responsible parent I have begun to delineate my gaming time. This is anathema for someone like me who does not like schedules. It is also somewhat strange given my Myers-Briggs profile type, ISTJ, the “Duty Fulfiller.” I thrive on having concrete, globally applicable rules; schedules, on the other hand, are a nuisance. Bedtime has been set at 12:30am, a compromise between early and late. Years of going to bed much later will take time to reverse. Gaming is no longer advisable when the children are awake – they notice how much time you spend and do not spend with them, even if you think they may not notice when they are very young. Sessions are generally 1-2 hours in length; more results in chasing the high highs that in my personal life are inextricably intertwined with chronic substance dependency. I’ve spent many of my off days trying to achieve a psychological orgasm of excess via food, caffeine, videos, audio, and so forth. It doesn’t satisfy.

So, in my advancing age, I have come to the point where my personal development has made moderation something that feels naturally desirable. It is not a forced philosophy. It is not a prison sentence. It is the simple realization that at this point in my life, sustainable and long-lasting happiness comes from moderation and the enjoyment of things in the moment. Twenty years from now when the children are adults I may find that 12-hour daily gaming sessions are the next natural step. (Pfffffft.)

A combination of caring and not caring is required. I must not beat myself up when I fail to adhere to my self-imposed limits; at the same time, I must care about respecting those limits. In the present moment, I am quite imperfect: I am using the computer during the day (as an exception) to write this blog post rather than cutting into the time I’ve “budgeted” for gaming. This budget is part of an overarching method devised by Sarah Knight (which I found out about via Jeromai) that comprises two steps:

1. Decide what you don’t give a fuck about.

2. Don’t give a fuck about those things.

Not Sorry is how you should feel when you’ve accomplished this.

Therefore, an abbreviated list of things I do not care about in the online realm:

  1. Games when I’m not playing them
  2. Writing think pieces about games
  3. Spending free time blogging instead of doing other things
  4. Twitter
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It’s part of my new lifestyle. Not Sorry.

Henceforth you’ll find me writing mostly stories à la Liling’s Adventures in Filth World and fluffy “what am I playing?” posts. What you won’t see much of are academic-quality treatises like some of the fascinating material you’ll find on sites like FemHype. It’s great stuff; I just can’t be bothered to write any more papers after having finished up my university degree half a decade ago. Any non-authoritative comments I have on related topics will appear in the comments section of other people’s blogs.

The separate writing site will be folded back into this one which is now a “me” site, probably the way it should have been all along.

Guild Rush - Moment in Time (2)

You Think You Do, But You Don’t

If you peruse some of the gaming websites found via Google by using keywords such as “addiction” and “detox” you’ll find all kinds of stories about how people quit playing video games altogether and now they’re riding around on magical unicorns shooting rainbows out of their ass. I found the same sort of material when I was trying to make my decision to stop drinking permanent; it’s my understanding that in that context, the statements are intended to be mostly inspirational. When you stop drinking, the only thing that happens is…you stop drinking. You don’t magically get a job, acquire a life partner, or have wheelbarrows full of cash carted to your front door. It just enables you to actually live your life without the specter of alcoholism clouding your thoughts all day, every day.

So when I found this article by Karsten Aichholz written in December of last year in which the author asserts that playing EverQuest all night, every night was the most productive he had ever done for his career, I was genuinely intrigued. Video games have been Metroiding my brain for as long as I can remember and it wasn’t until recently that I opened myself to the possibility that specific games have been functioning as a post-booze substitute for the same sorts of addictive tendencies that were at their most violently intrusive when I was regularly imbibing horse piss.

My main source of fascination with this author’s material is the postulate that life-consuming gaming habits were ultimately responsible for driving a successful business career. The notion that one can take a laser beam focus on a leisure activity and harness it for the power of productivity is at once remarkable and completely alien. When I’m not playing games that feature what I would call compulsive hooks, I’m more often than not still playing them passively in my mind as I think about how to progress my character or conjure up scenarios in which my avatar does wondrous things to the amazement of fellow players. Taking that internalized energy and directing it outwards, positively? How utterly bizarre.

Generally I’ve found that removing the source of compulsive, repetitive behavior from my life enables me to relax internally to the point where I have enough space to reflect and ruminate. (Eventually.) Likewise, Aichholz discusses the ways in which he modified his behavior by addressing multiple factors: ability, motivation, and triggers. Ability describes things like access to the game, motivation refers to why you game, and triggers would be things that trigger your attachment. (The source of these components is a model invented by Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University.)

A comprehensive solution therefore involves deleting characters, deactivating or selling accounts, uninstalling the game, replacing it with non-compulsive games or non-gaming activities, and staying away from things like the ear-shattering DING! sound that signified gaining a level in EverQuest. That can also mean not watching videos or reading websites about the game in question.

That sounds like too much work and not enough fun. Most people don’t need to do these sorts of things since they can play games in moderation and wake up the next day not wanting to immediately grind out 300 floozles for their next flozzle rather than making breakfast and sending their kids off to school. Most people. Except people who play one game for 3,600 hours or maybe 36 hours straight. But if it leads to a successful and happy life somewhere down the road, I suppose we can just look back and laugh at all the good times we had. And we can still have them, as long as we set very concrete and pragmatic boundaries.

I still maintain that employers reserve the right to immediately discard résumés that include raiding in World of Warcraft as an example of leadership experience. Let’s not get too out of hand, here.