Secret World Legends: Tear down the Heavens to Rebuild the Underworld

In a world of unicorns and rainbows, the second incarnation of The Secret World may aspire to reimagine its predecessor the way Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen seeks to recapitulate classic EverQuest. But there are no rainbows and unicorns in this dark and mysterious – oh, wait. There are. I was going somewhere with that.

Sometimes in order to turn your artistic vision into reality, you have to tear everything down and start over, rebuilding the foundation from existing pieces. This is what makes great art, and that’s the way I see The Secret World, primarily: as a work of art that functions as a support system for life. Exploring the dark underworld that exists within our dreams makes the tedium of the waking world more bearable. I am probably an idealist in this regard; I leave an analysis of the game studio’s marketing, public relations, and financials to more capable and invested entities, not least of which the game studio itself. Ahem.

I’m more interested in the extent to which this rework emphasizes the narrative, a shining gem in a sea of numbers ground into sawdust. Many players are already understandably upset about having their Numbers and Stuff trivialized; I sympathize with them as I wear my cheekiest innocence-is-bliss grin and sip my coffee in anticipation of journaling my dormant character’s dreary, fog-shrouded meanderings. I measure my experience bar in screenshots and short stories. My nearly maximum-capacity inventory’s lattice grid of signets serve as trinkets more than anything, reminders of the paid-monthly journey I have at times cursed and worshipped. The talismans that will only cease to protect me when the Eleventh Hour arrives remain hidden under my clothing.

The information we have so far shows us a work in progress, one which highlights improvements (more interesting combat), integration (a popular topbar mod is now part of the UI), and growing pains (a key-activated mouse cursor mode à la SMITE). The default reticle emulates a soft-targeting system which highlights whatever’s underneath it. Fantastic, minus the concentric circles in the center of the screen. (I was getting tired of spamming tab.) The Overwatch-style mouse button usage will eliminate my need for AutoHotkey: I’ll be able to smash my primary ability without having to worry about left-hand cramps. I’m hoping this will make it easier to enjoy the freneticism of five-button combat in counterpoint to my ethereal countryside strolls – executing optimal damage rotations is the sort of ledger-balancing Liling would be doing if she had chosen to take up a nice, non-lethal desk job with regular tea breaks.

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Levels are no longer hidden variables. The philosophical value in deliberately hiding this information is overshadowed by the usefulness of being able to gauge your presumed effectiveness at a glance. Each level up now bestows a chunk of base hit points, another form of shorthand which vitalizes the otherwise static dead/not-dead binary. The upshot is that when you walk into a new area such as Blue Mountain, you’ll be armed with a more accommodating skill floor as well as the information needed to reasonably size up threats. No longer should you spend warm, wine-infused hours painstakingly crafting a new build for your favorite weapons, only to be flattened by the first giant insect beast that rushes you.

Much has been written on the virtues of selecting your own difficulty – if you want your audience to stay until the end of a movie that challenges them, you need to be able to take them outside of their comfort zone without frustrating them. Later, if they decide they’re up for it, they can choose to engage more difficult subject matter on their own terms. Forcing those terms on them by default via complex systems that require extensive research and experimentation may result in alienating those who just wanted to turn the page to the next chapter of your story without having to take a quiz on the mechanics of your fantasy world.

While character levels reflect one’s progress through the story, the notion of being able to “level up” your weapons is one that engenders lasting attachment and emphasizes one’s identity, the face that one shows to others. Once you’ve acquired an appearance you like, you are then free to focus on becoming more proficient with it rather than mentally reserving room for its successor. Space also exists for those who wish to min-max: each weapon type has an associated “always-on” character-level passive which requires a certain degree of mastery to enable; this passive remains even when you switch to other weapons. This appears to be a more meaningful system of progression based on a specialization-diversification dynamic as opposed to the straight-up grind demanded by augments and AEGIS.

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Indeed, the most powerful intrapersonal and interpersonal bonds are formed in cooperative environments that support the expression of one’s identity in communion with others. My play sessions are fairly anti-social apart from my interactions with friends – I generally do not want to see other people out in the world while I am playing. When I do interact with others, however, I want us to be able to accomplish our goals without having to get up in each other’s business: I shouldn’t be able to “kill steal” or disable an interactive object. The proposed culture of softening the emphasis on competition between the factions and replacing it with a sense of belonging to one’s own faction must be accompanied by game play systems which support this. To take a phrase from elsewhere: seeing another player should always be a good thing.

Even in Secret World Legends, where playing fields are going to be capped at ten players. Even in places like Kingsmouth, which is sharded – not mega-served – to preserve the sense of isolation. Big Brother informs me that shared participation with no grouping requirements and personalized loot rewards is The Way Things Have Always Been. For once, he’s absolutely right.

I just hope that he sees fit to provide an option to turn off the swirling anima “ding” effect when you level. I don’t want to be a legend – I just want to continue the story with a minimum of fuss.

Nightmares with a Spirit Guide

This corner of the internet has been quiet. Nothing has changed. I’ve been playing The Secret World exclusively in my free time and not much else – either in terms of games played or activities engaged in – can really compete with my desire to do or be whatever it is I’ve got my mind set to. I haven’t exactly figured out what that is and I fully intend to do so before my interest wanes. It’s been an engaging several months to say the least.

Even with Samhain in full swing in the world outside Agartha, there are still willing participants to be found for the training sessions that constitute my introduction to advanced tanking. My learning experiences have thus far looked something like this: go into a pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeon with my guide and a handful of friends. A few random people join us via the Group Finder. We wipe a fabulous number of times while I learn the mechanics of the encounter. Our guests come and go as they please until we find ourselves in the company of individuals who don’t mind enduring the process. Some of them are able to offer helpful advice and pointers. Eventually we finish the dungeon. Subsequent runs take less time and require fewer wipes.

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This entire process is messy and organic. Few among our ranks are teachers; among these, none of them are psychic. One of the least interesting mini-games I play within these dungeons, then, is figuring out what I don’t know and then hitting upon the specific thing that I don’t know which unlocks the door to understanding. Sometimes it’s given in the answer to a question I ask directly. Sometimes it’s found in a comment made by one of our group members after the twentieth wipe. And sometimes it’s uncovered during the second or third run of the same dungeon on a different day in which we learn from a random player that their tank does this specific thing during their successful attempts. Somewhere in the distance the sound of a door unlocking is heard. Extra mental processing power becomes available for the execution of combat mechanics.

So far I haven’t broken any keyboards. My foray into Nightmare dungeons has thus far been a generally palatable one. My spirit guide is a well-intentioned, experienced individual on whom I have become somewhat dependent to get our groups kick-started. They really enjoy running dungeons and are quite good at it. In turn, I try to help them with whatever I’m capable of doing. When they’re not online, I tend to do other things, mostly because 1) I lack the philosophical motivation to take the initiative in forming my own groups and 2) I have developed a strong desire to run difficult content exclusively with people who are on my Friends List or are on my friends’ Friends List. Word of mouth and networking – even passively – carry an enormous amount of weight in TSW.

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Even so, there are some reputations that pop up now and again whose presence must be endured for the sake of civility. There are only a handful of players whom I have come to know by name who are impatient, bossy, rude, or flighty. On a more positive note, I am slowly developing a thicker skin, a measure of tolerance for criticism from hostile third parties, and the ability to persevere despite repeated failures. Generally speaking, however, most players have been willing to help in the learning process. It’s the product of an outstanding community which I seek to preserve as best I can. I go to great lengths to restrain my temper. It’s somewhat telling that there are exactly zero people on my ignore list and I strive to keep it that way.

There are rumblings in the background, now. I feel myself approaching a point where I must make a decision: continue with Tokyo content, which involves AEGIS, or simply cap my skill level in pre-Tokyo Nightmare dungeons and end things there. Engaging in Tokyo would involve leaving my guide behind for the moment as they are not very interested in the missions necessary to build up AEGIS controllers and shields to the baseline levels required for Tokyo Elites. I have long since done so and can confirm every blog post ever written on the topic of AEGIS and the extent to which it is straight up not fun.

I suppose I’ll just head whichever way the wind blows me.

Mindless Devotion

According to my Steam profile I’ve played The Secret World for 330 hours. The game engine is wonky, the graphics are a bit dated, and the most interesting aspects of player versus player are found on the ability wheel. Love doesn’t read game reviews.

I spend my time doing daily and weekly challenges whereby I accumulate currency that allows me to buy clothing, upgrade talismans, attune augments, and build a museum. This morning I spent 90% of my three or four million pax buying out the haberdashers in London. I won’t wear most of it and I don’t much care. On the same day, that day being today, I completed the 70 challenges necessary to acquire the Doomboard, a flaming, ichor-black hoverboard lined with spikes that I will likely never use past the initial “ooh, shiny ugly” once-over.

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I’m immune to fire, apparently. In that case, I’ll take a jet pack as well.

Several months have passed and I still haven’t completed my 10.5 glyphs for my block tank set, let alone upgrade my talismans past 10.4 to 10.9. I also need a defence set of talismans specifically for Ankh (Nightmare) in which you cannot block attacks for whatever reason. I’m still working on upgrading my melee scenario build and a ranged damage build. They’re somewhere far down the list of a never-ending set of tasks.

Diminishing returns kick in once I burn through the weeklies and the dailies have been picked clean. More frequent exposure to well-endowed veteran players means learning to get along with unique personalities. Sometimes I fail. Hard. When being social gets to be too much for me, I fill the gaps with old flames and eyeball random, interesting titles on Steam such as Date Warp, a reasonably well-written murder mystery-themed husbando simulator. Don’t judge.

After playing through the pre-Legion invasions and deciding I’m not interested in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of sugary retail offerings, my brain black hole-collapsed into itself and I rolled up a human warrior on a classic World of Warcraft server which represents the best (read: least terrible) intersection of quality and population. She’s currently sitting in Stormwind at level 20 waiting for a full bar of rested experience prior to tanking the Deadmines. The server is PvP which means I likely won’t go past the starting zones; this is all well and good as I’m waiting on an in-development PvE server which may or may not be the successor to the now-defunct Nostalrius.

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I reinstalled Smite in response to a post by MJ Guthrie on Massively OP looking for teammates to participate in a new PvE game mode for the AbleGamers charity. I played for half an hour against the computer last night – I haven’t lost any of my mechanical knack or knowledge of abilities, just my PvP Conquest acumen. Even if I’m not needed it might be fun to dabble in cooperative settings every now and then. The gods and goddesses they’ve added since I last played in May are enjoyable enough.

I’ll wait for the next Double XPlosion before logging back into WildStar. Tyria hums at a different frequency. Halloween approaches. Colorful leaves and chill winds descend.

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 catalog. 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 kyonshi 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 kyonshi 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.

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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Blaugust 2015, Day 3 – I Wouldn’t Have Played This Game: An Unexpected Love

What’s a game you would have never tried but for some reason you did and ended up loving it? – Void

I would never have tried The Secret World if it hadn’t gone on sale on Steam and I hadn’t seen my fellow bloggers mention it as one of many items on offer at reduced prices. I’m not the type of person who maintains a huge backlog of unplayed games that were snapped during fire sales. Heck, I didn’t even buy Papers, Please for a pittance after having watched the entirety of an hour-long Let’s Play-style video and really, really liking the monotony of being a civil servant in an iron-fisted dictatorship. It takes a lot to get me to pull the trigger on purchasing a game if I’m not doing it on a whim.

It took about a year and a half for me to warm up to the notion of joining the hordes of hammer-and-pistol-wielding Bladerunner protagonists sporting tie-dyed t-shirts, blue jeans, and cowboy boots fighting off the once-human, once-living hordes of unending undead rolling out of the sea-swept fog. The seeds were planted over time, gradually, carefully, and lovingly by several different bloggers perhaps unbeknownst to them. It was a game for adults, I discovered while trawling vast oceans of text. There were many, many different types of missions and stories that one could take part in – I read about several of them without really absorbing the specifics. It was more about atmosphere for me (it always is). And the ambience was absolutely fantastic. I found this out for myself when I wandered into a diner on a supply recovery mission and found myself rocking out to the latest punk rendition of the smash hit “Girl, I’m Totally Fucked Up About You.”

After having purchased the game for a price I found to be quite reasonable, I found myself downloading the client via Steam. A few hours later, I launched the game fully ready to play and was immediately paralyzed by the character creation screen. Three days of research and contemplation later and I had decided on my character as well as a Secret Society. Among the throngs of jean-jacketed punk rock starlets and leather-jacketed Zell Dinchts and trenchcoated Deadeye Brightlands and blonde bunnies in short shorts, a new champion emerged: an economics student in a zip-up bumblebee hoodie, black office slacks, and loafers.

I don’t know how to play games.

It was precisely because I didn’t know anything about how to play the game that I immediately began to enjoy it. There are no character levels, so you’re not focused on some magical number which determines how much damage your bullets do. Completing missions gives you Skill Points, which are used to unlock the ability to use higher Quality Level weapons and talismans, and Ability Points, which are used to purchase increasingly useful and powerful active and passive abilites for your weapons. You complete missions by running around and finding things to do. There’s a main mission which requires quite a bit of work to complete; along the way, you’ll find side missions as well. As you complete these missions you’ll get AP, SP, and items with higher QLs and higher stats. The sum of these things makes you more powerful and gives one a sense of statistical progression.

The reason I love this whole setup is because I can focus on the story and feel like I’m not only making plot progress, but gaining power as well. My health has gone up considerably from having equipped more powerful talismans and such; these remain hidden from view – other players do not see them when running past you. Your visible clothing is for appearance only, which means that you can’t tell at a glance that Rusty “Hardwood” Slapshot is wearing weaksauce +5 Power Gloves and therefore isn’t worthy of joining your dungeon group. Progress is natural and organic, almost like a side effect of having completed objectives. The character animations in the cutscenes are wonderful and the voice acting runs the gamut from cringe-worthy to excellent just as it did in Final Fantasy 14. I do find the faces to be a bit off in some cases; this, however, is a minor quibble.

Did I mention dodge rolls? I love action combat.

Overall, I’m enjoying the game quite a bit in a small doses. I haven’t even begun to explore synergies or the use of an expanded weapon set. What I’m loving most of all about this relatively older, subscriptionless game is the fact that I’m immediately doing what I want to be doing without having to first go through a Skinner Box full of things I don’t want to do. That’s an automatic win right there.

Blaugust 2015 Initiative Page

Not exactly dressed to kill, but close enough.

From a View to a Kill

I was born into The Secret World as Liling “Lilyann” Ming, a young economics student who apropos of nothing discovered how to manipulate physical objects using her invisible hands while studying the ways in which some people think markets are manipulated via invisible hands. I don’t have much more than that in terms of her backstory, other than the fact that she’s perhaps interested in branching out into Computer Science which could lead to a career in what we would call BCIS these days. I’m developing her raison d’être as I play – the alternative would invariably result in tropified, stereotyped characterizations based on what I think I know. Instead, I’m going to rely on my knowledge of what it’s like to be a human being and go from there.

I suppose I should mention that I came up with her name by referencing a list of female Chinese names and their notional meanings. Based on my poor understanding of the words’ transliteration sans tonal diacritics, “Liling” (莉玲) is something like the sound of white jasmine and “Ming” (明 or 铭) seems to represent some confluence of literal and/or figurative enlightenment. I’ve also supplied her with a standard-issue “American” nickname as part of TSW’s character creation requirements should she ever decide to come to the United States and have to work a part-time job in order to finance her studies – that way the locals will be able to pronounce her adopted name without tripping over their tongues and turning an everyday encounter into a discussion about culture. But she wouldn’t consider it unless she gets accepted to MIT. Six digits of debt simply aren’t worth it unless you’ve been correspondingly prepared to obtain a career making six digits.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Standard zombie hunter attire.

For all I know, her name could be entirely nonsensical to the ears of a native speaker. In the meantime, she’s been kidnapped by the Dragon, an arguably equally nonsensical group of Jeff Goldblum’s finest Chaos Theory adherents from the original Jurassic Park. I decided on the Dragon as her secret society due to the fact that it’s the least unsuitable of the three choices. I ruled out the Illuminati almost immediately: she’s not interested in participating in the type of brisk, jocular, snappy dialogue you would find in a movie about high-powered stock traders who drive fast cars and wear expensive suits and for whom women are horizontal trophies. I took my time and thought about the resulting dialectic for a couple of days: the Templars or the Dragon? All of the online tests out there told me I was a Dragon, something which immediately triggered the contrarian in me and made me lean toward the Templars. I tried to come up with an angle in which my character had been abandoned at birth and looked to the Templars as ersatz parent material. Would I find enough agency within those parameters, though? I’m afraid I don’t make for a very versatile stage performer – I roleplay however I like without regard for what I’m “supposed” to be doing based on a game’s in-fiction.

I watched the introductory videos for each of the three secret societies to gain a greater understanding of their respective modi operandi. No thanks, Illuminati. Rose White displays commitment and conviction – a bit too much for my liking but I’d pick her for my team ten times out of ten. At the end of the video for the Dragon, Mei Ling, your plot liaison, makes herself a Dragon Milkshake after having taken out a demon. I think I’ve found my brand. The ingredients are simple enough: milk, vanilla ice cream, vanilla extract, strawberries, and marshmallows. I decided to try it for myself yesterday using half the ingredients and I have to say, it was pretty damn tasty. I might do it again with blueberries or raspberries. I don’t have the youthful metabolism of Mei Ling, though, so I can’t really afford to be drinking these every day. Then again, I’m someone who feels bloated at 152 pounds on a frame slightly under six feet tall, so maybe I could – for a while, anyways. There’s a version for the other two secret societies that involves a “secret ingredient.” I’ve had my fill of contrived factional animosity in games and really have no problem with either the cut-throat tactics of the Illuminati or the Templars’ Ishgardian zealotry as long as they’re not getting in my way and/or trying to kill me.

Mei Ling pouring herself a Dragon Milkshake.
The Secret World – Dragon Teaser

The “tradition” of the Templars doesn’t match Liling’s tradition anyways – castles and causes and righteous justice are all well and good if you’re fond of reminiscing about the days of Empire in which you murdered anyone whose existence was at odds with your vision of an orderly world; I didn’t see enough room for expression within that context. Liling doesn’t care for any of that and doesn’t seek to pretend in order to fit in. So I went with the “terrorists,” the Dragon adherents, who go out and sow chaos based on the theory that a gust of wind introduced on a summer’s day flaps the wings of a butterfly somewhere which takes off and lands on a bush, inspiring an artist to paint a masterpiece which is sold to a corporate executive at an auction who puts it up on the wall of her condo which is stolen during a robbery and subsequently sold on the black market to a hitman with too much time and money on their hands who is so moved by its beauty in a Jack-Bauer-watching-a-trash-bag-in-the-breeze sort of way that he calls off the hit on the mayor of Kingsmouth who then by virtue of being not dead is available to bed Madame Rogêt and be interrupted mid-coitus by the zombie apocalypse causing him to run off with the key to her plush handcuffs straight into the waiting arms of the undead horde, leaving her to tell me this tale in the den of the fortunetelling house I just so happened to have wandered into.

I thus stood there in her basement entranced, not because she was telling me a moving tale, but because I was listening to music from a radio that I assumed to be upstairs. I had read of TSW’s first-rate ambient sounds previously; one of the first things I did when I got to the hotel in Seoul was stand there and listen to the sound system’s entire repertoire of loud karaoke pop songs. The radio above Madame Rogêt’s den, in contrast, played muted, ethereal tunes, the sort of thing that’s very much my kind of thing. One of my fondest memories as a child was waking up on the floor of my mother’s bedroom one morning next to her bed and listening to the soft strains of a radio in the apartment downstairs. I imagined the radio’s owner listening to it at full blast while showering; from my perspective, it was as if sirens were singing their melodies in a distant place unknown. Were I a character in the movie “After Life,” in which the dearly departed select one memory to take with them into the after-afterlife, I would take that memory with me. I stood in place and listened to Madame Rogêt’s radio for a good ten minutes.

Madame Rogêt is ready for bed.
Yay, Kingsmouth.

It’s this kind of purposeless meandering and idling that I’m here for. I like to pretend we live in a world in which the first movie of a series such as Jurassic Park remains untainted by sequelitis. In doing so, it’s necessary to consciously ignore a few things for the sake of immersion. Knowledge of too many details makes for a version of fantasy that doesn’t differ enough from reality. And so in the game I’ve left NPC nameplates and health bars at their default settings, which is off. I have player nameplates on because I find it interesting to see what people have chosen for their given names and nicknames. I’m debating on whether to turn these back off – from a roleplaying perspective, you wouldn’t know these things unless you asked and were answered. I’m not engaging in challenging group content where such things matter, anyhow – at least, not yet.

While running around town looking for nothing in particular, I did stumble upon a large rock creature which was marked on my map. At first I thought it was a quest objective. Turns out it’s part of the Guardians of Gaia event that’s running until the 15th. I was rather surprised when my frame rate dropped for 10-15 seconds to load the thirty or so players who were standing in place and plinking away at it. I did the same, being careful to stand just outside the range of its occasional largish telegraph, and dutifully built and spent bullets with my assault rifle. Every so often a group of melee-range players would go flying up into the air in a rather comical fashion and come crashing back down to earth, lying in deathly repose for a good five seconds before ninja-flipping themselves back up onto their feet. I decided to forgo all of this and instead concentrate my mental efforts on TSW’s infamous 111112111112 combat. My reward was a miniature rock minion and several loot bags full of currency and foci, a weapon type I’m not interested in using because it looks dumb on my back. You don’t always have to have a good reason for everything, you know.

So don’t ask me why I’m off fighting zombies in a town called Kingsmouth far, far away from home. I really have no idea. Doesn’t seem like a very nice place to live, yet armed residents can be found most everywhere defending their little corner of heaven. “Kingsmouth: Come for the murders, stay because you got murdered.” I can’t say that Liling cares much for exotic philosophies or noble causes – she’s rather more pragmatic and studious than anything else and would be perfectly content living her life in the back room of a bank calculating running totals and balancing books. Honest pay for honest work. As to why she’s a thousand miles from home taking potshots at the walking dead and hacking their limbs off, well, I’m still working on the RP angle for that one. It’s an organic process, one that I expect to take a while. Suits me just fine.