Favorite Game of 2016: Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange has become my favorite movie. I’ve watched it twice, both times with somewhat different decision-making but with the same basic themes, one of which was impressed upon me at the game’s midpoint: Maxine and Chloe, the title’s protagonists, are partners in time. The dynamics of the cast of associated characters revolve around this locus and play out based on your decisions large and small. Tonight I’ll be playing it for a third time, bearing in mind the knowledge and theories I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of pages of commentary, fan fiction, and analysis, as well as from watching dozens of videos devoted to its intricacies. It’s a game that invigorates the imagination and invites endless discussion on the heavy themes it addresses unflinchingly: bullying, suicide, euthanasia, PTSD, and mental illness, among others.

I briefly thought about writing a hyper-ballad dedicated to this wonderful game with which I’ve become obsessed as of late, but that multi-part treatise has already been written. I’d like to invite you to read Polar Opposites and Binary Choices: A Critical Reading of Life Is Strange – Part 1 at Dubious Ideas which discusses many of Life Is Strange’s most fascinating elements in no fewer than 47,000 words divided into six sections.

At its core, Life Is Strange is an episodic narrative which Dontnod, the game’s developers, intentionally leave open-ended so that you, the player, are the one who decides the precise nature of the things that go on around you. It’s also stress-free and slow-paced: there is no sense of impending danger and no rush to do anything. It is predicated on rewarding you for the simple act of stopping to smell the roses. Click on everything you can find. Sit down on a bench, a couch, a bed, and watch the world around you from Coppola-esque camera angles as Max pontificates. Announcing what your characters are thinking is presumably one of the cardinal sins of authorship – Life Is Strange utilizes this to great effect in a flawed masterpiece whose conclusion and lingering resonance have left me in a state of emotional vulnerability that I have not felt in a long, long time.

Life Is Strange is a story about 12th grade senior and aspiring photographer Maxine Caulfield who has been accepted into Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Here, she reconnects with her childhood best friend Chloe Price, whom she had not seen since she moved with her parents to Seattle shortly after Chloe’s father, William, died in a car accident five years prior. Through a series of strange events, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time, first using it unintentionally to save Chloe from being shot dead by drug-dealing rich kid Nathan Prescott in the girls’ restroom. Chloe is trying to extort money from him for the purpose of repaying the debt she owes to Frank Bowers, a local drug dealer.

Max’s powers become central to Chloe and Max’s efforts in trying to locate Chloe’s missing “angel” Rachel Amber, a magnetic personality and social butterfly who served as Chloe’s anchor – and crush – during Max’s absence. In the process, Max and Chloe’s rekindled relationship redevelops over the course of five days and, based on player choice, may blossom into romantic love. Max continues to have visions of a tornado that will destroy Arcadia Bay at the end of the week; it is discovered throughout the course of the game that Max’s use of her powers are thought to be the cause of this. Plot twists abound and culminate a final, heart-wrenching decision for anyone who has become attached to the protagonists: sacrifice Chloe by letting her die and thereby saving Arcadia Bay from the time-tornado (which now never happens because Max did not use her powers to save Chloe) or sacrifice Arcadia Bay and spare her girlfriend.

When I first started playing back in January of this year I was far less patient when it came to “fluff” in games and so thought nothing of the characters beyond Maxine or the introductory episode’s pacing and environs. The dormitory setting houses a mountain of interactive exposition which is mostly Chloe-free. Instead, we learn about Max’s life, her interests, and the people she has come to know at Blackwell Academy. Later on, when we first meet Chloe (after five years apart), our first impression of her may be somewhat negative: she is loud, profane, obnoxious, self-centered, petulant, and arrogant, so of course she’s going to nearly hit us in the parking lot driving the rusted out beater truck we saw earlier double-parked across two handicapped spaces.

Ten months later, I shook off my Secret World habit long enough to start playing through Episode 2 in which we get to know Chloe a little bit better. And by getting to know, I mean going along with her as she tests the validity of our powers and then convinces us to use them for her personal amusement by shooting bottles at an improvised target range in the junkyard she and Rachel Amber used to hang out in. The shooting attracts the attention of Frank Bowers, the drug dealer to whom Chloe owes money. Turns out she borrowed from Frank so she and Amber could leave Arcadia Bay for Los Angeles; that dream died when Rachel Amber went missing. The player is left to determine how the encounter plays out. The episode ends with Max using her powers to save Chloe from an oncoming train – the second instance in which she rewinds time to save Chloe’s life.

Max also deals with the attempted suicide of her friend Kate Marsh, a devout and kind-hearted student who was drugged at a party and videotaped kissing several boys; the video goes viral and sends her into a deep and dark depression. You have the option of talking her down from the roof of the dormitories but without the aid of your rewind powers as you’ve used them to stop time so that you can get up to the roof before she jumps.

To this point I had been able to play for an hour or so before becoming restless and stopping. Episode 3, the game’s midpoint, was where I began to fall for the relationship between Max and Chloe and by extension, everything surrounding them. Chloe texts Max close to midnight and the two meet for a moonlit rendezvous in the main building of Blackwell Academy. Chloe managed to snag the entrance keys from her step-father (also known as “step-douche”), an overbearing war veteran suffering from paranoia who serves as the head of Blackwell security. I’m a sucker for night-time settings; skulking about the halls of Blackwell when all the lights are off to the background hum of deliciously intoxicating dark music rubs me in all the right places. I absolutely love the fact that Max’s “flashlight” is an app on her smartphone. Circle the camera in front of her, and she moves her arm to accommodate it. (I cannot adequately describe how cute this is.)

After obtaining information about Rachel Amber from the principal’s files, the two head off to the swimming pool for a midnight dip. They have a playful, intimate heart-to-heart conversation – and it should be mentioned that Life Is Strange treats its protagonists as human beings first and foremost. They then return to Chloe’s house where they crash for the night.

The following morning, the two muse on how they used to hang around all day. Max’s clothes are covered in chemicals from the previous night’s swim, so Chloe invites her to try on some of Rachel’s clothes that have been left in her closet. When Max expresses hesitation (“they’re not my style” – “Max, you don’t have a style”), Chloe dares Max to kiss her in the name of being more adventurous. Prior to this, I had read somewhere that Chloe dies in one of the game’s endings and thought nothing of it. At this point, the relationship between Max and Chloe became central to my play through and I started engaging in marathon play sessions. I wanted to see exactly where the story would lead them and how things would play out. Yes, romance was the hook that lured me in.

At the end of the third episode, Max discovers that she can travel back in time by focusing on photographs. She does so with a photo of herself and Chloe in their teens when Chloe’s father William was still alive. Seeking to make a better life for Chloe, she travels through the photograph back to Chloe’s house and prevents her father from taking his car to pick up Chloe’s mother from the supermarket and thus never dies in a car accident. In exchange, Chloe receives a car for her seventeenth birthday and is permanently paralyzed from the neck down when she is thrown from her vehicle after being cut off on the highway. When Max returns to the “present day” of the reality she has created, she is horrified to see Chloe strapped into a wheelchair with a respirator attached, completely dependent on her parents.

Episode 4 is where my love for the character of Chloe and her relationship with Max were cemented. The “better” world inhabited by a bed-ridden Chloe in which her father is alive is offset by a strange, howling wind that blows outside the house and flocks of birds that flutter about in bizarre formations. It’s intended to give one the sense that the world is a bit “off.” It’s here, when Chloe is most vulnerable, that Max and Chloe’s love for each other is allowed to exist in its purest form, free from the pretensions of everyday, artificially complicated life. Chloe is helpless, Max has come back into her life to help her. This episode highlights the role that Max plays in Chloe’s life as an anchor, someone who gives her space in which she can be interpersonally secure and thrive. Max is Chloe’s rock. Alternate reality Chloe floored me, so when she asked me to obviate her eventual respiratory failure by giving her a fatal overdose of morphine, I did so and sat for a while in the room as she drifted away. Her final memory was of us together, looking at photos taken when we were both children and the world was not cold and cruel.

Max then returns to teenage Chloe’s house and refrains from hiding William’s keys so that he takes the car to pick up his wife and is killed in a car accident. Max is overjoyed to see Chloe again in the primary timeline and they go off to investigate Rachel Amber’s disappearance. They discover that she is dead and buried in a shallow grave in the junkyard which leads to the game’s most emotionally heart-wrenching scene. It turns out that Mark Jefferson, Max’s stylishly hip photography professor, is behind it. He lures them to the grave again at night, allowing him to dose Max and kill Chloe.

The final episode is where things gets real. Max wakes up in an underground bunker which Jefferson uses to photograph his victims at the point where their “innocence turns into corruption.” (He’s a psychopath, it turns out.) Via a series of time-bending photograph leaps, Max is eventually able to right all the wrongs, save Chloe, stop Jefferson, and make the game’s final, most difficult choice: sacrifice Chloe or sacrifice Arcadia Bay.

From reading /r/Games, which appears to be dominated by people more likely to play logically and provide excellent mechanical analyses of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, sacrificing Chloe has been christened the “good” ending due to the fact that the ending cutscene is longer, more powerful, and wraps up this coming of age friendship story by acceding to Chloe’s final, selfless request: let her die so that others may live. Doing so, they say, means that you have grown up and moved on from your childhood. You got to say goodbye to an old friend, something that some people never get the chance to do.

The subreddit I have been visiting lately, /r/LifeIsStrange, is dominated by people more likely to play with their hearts on their sleeves. I fit right in. We decided that we had fallen in love with Chloe despite her massive shortcomings and if the world has to burn for our honeybun, then so be it. Shipping (supporting) a relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, dubbed team “Pricefield,” forms the basis of thousands of fan fiction pieces, some of which I rather enjoyed in a sentimental sort of way. (I’m obnoxiously picky when it comes to fiction.)

And you’re allowed to be sentimental in video games because it’s the realm of the imagination. You’re also allowed to be sentimental in art because it makes really good fucking art. Life Is Strange, from its music to its images to the fluidity of its animations, the scene-setting, heck, even the awkward dialogue (Max is awkward, by the way) have shown me in a way that has touched me unlike anything else that there is beauty to be found in creating and sharing. I’ve even joined DeviantArt and Tumblr to explore my creative side with more enthusiasm. This entails spending less time playing games, which is just fine with me.

It makes me want to create and share so that perhaps some day, something that I have contributed to will make someone feel the same way I do about Life Is Strange.


Sleep, Cousin of Death

I don’t notice the dead bodies any more. An unhinged jaw attached to a lifeless once-was ringed by an oblong hexagon of soaked pine slats scarcely registers among the high-rise book shelves and rigid tendril candles that dominate the bowels of the Devore family crypt. The ghostly attendant rendering ministrations to an audience of skull pedestals and misshapen pastel crystals is but a flicker in the periphery. There is nothing in this place of soot, ash, and dust that has not already been seen and unseen more times than there are days in any of our lives.

Choosing to visit Solomon Island for its Samhain festivities is akin to watching a porn flick because it has a well-written plot. Once the veneer fades, the ever-present smut continues on as it always has, existential grounding or not. I didn’t return entirely of my own accord – my presence had been requested by a secretive individual bearing the name “Jack” who claimed to have an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was equal parts boredom and fatigue from endless field operations that led me to assent to a holiday stay in fog-shrouded Kingsmouth, a popular tourist destination for those who choose to escape reality by vising a tornado-ringed Halloween town where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the shambling drowned.


A painstakingly hand-written letter using overly flowery calligraphy appeared to invite me to midnight coffee in the attic of the local academy for the occult. Had I been asked to share chai, I might have declined; I have always preferred beans to leaves. I rebelled against the lukewarm, flavorless bedtime tea of my childhood by drinking the strongest coffee I could find. What I found waiting for me on the shin-high rectangular table in the school’s fully furnished loft was a viscous, heady tar the color of skunk shit that set my veins on fire and relocated the auditorium echo of my heartbeat to a place between my temples. It tasted as if the devil himself had been blazing up until sunrise and capped off the night’s bacchanalianism by squatting over a coffee pot. My body hummed with exquisite potency as a hooded figure entered to my left and sat down awkwardly at the table across from me.

Neither an introduction nor tact were on offer that evening: “You are very serious and boring. This elixir will change that.” The rim of my bone-white mug hovered inches from my lips. I stared blankly through my prescription glasses into the folds of the rough woolen robe opposite me and saw nothing. There was no movement as he continued: “Take this pistol and dispatch the rider who will appear on the southern shore three hours hence.” A lacquer-handled black revolver appeared from an overly long sleeve and went directly into my waistband. Thereafter, silence – not even the ticking of a clock’s hand in the background. My interlocutor’s death warrant was trailed by a wake of peaceful stillness.

“He appears once a year when the fornication of mortals is at its filthiest. The…coffee…is needed to see him, especially by a soul with a disposition so disagreeable.” An audible in-breath. “I smell it on you.” Frowning, I took another drink from my cup and felt as if my body had suddenly decided to shed its skin. The figure moved ever so slightly. “You are ready. In return for this favor, I will leverage my control over the spirits of the living and see to it that your love is requited by anyone you wish. Simply come to my side and whisper their name into my ear.”

I stood up carefully with saucer and cup in hand by pressing the outer arches of my feet against the floor. My office shoes drummed softly against the old wood that carried their weight. The fabric of my black slacks tautened against my left knee as I knelt down and whispered: “Shani.

An almost imperceptible nod. “Return to me when you have completed your task and your love shall endure until your weary body comes to rest.” And then, as disjointedly as he had seated himself, the figure rose. He padded without sound to the top of the stairs and descended out of sight. The pleasant quiet returned.


Presently, the coffee took full effect. The bones of my body hummed as if struck by a tuning fork. I meditated in silent bliss for nearly three hours before departing the attic for the southern shore where the lighthouse meets the sea. A full moon hung low in the starry sky as I made my way down rolling, sandy hills. When I arrived at the concrete pier that overlooks the tower’s lonely beacon, I found myself gazing thoughtlessly at the intoxicating luminescence reflected by the night ocean. Transfixed, I crossed my arms and opened my mouth slightly as I waited for Jack’s bane to enter stage right and submit to a bullet between the eyes.

Shortly, a chill breeze flattened my hooded sweatshirt against my breasts and crawled across my face with icy fingers. A sing-song nursery rhyme whispered its way into my ears:

Saccharine stillness
In the land of the dead
A bucket of treats
For the price of your head

There, beneath the water tower, sat a skull-masked rider atop a horse the color of blackest night with eyes like glowing embers that were painful to look at. The pale moon cast a wretched shadow across the beaked end of the rider’s facade. He inclined his head ever so slightly in my direction and I clutched my chest in pain. A volcano erupted in my rib cage. I cried out in agony as my stomach expanded uncomfortably. My hand reached reflexively for the pistol that was now grating against my spine. White-hot lightning arced through my back as the gun left its waistband holster. With my left hand fiercely clutching the fabric of my shirt and hoodie, I rounded the revolver on the rider’s lifeless face, took aim at a spot between the sockets of his bone mask, and used every bit of strength I could muster from the right-hand side of my body to pull the trigger.

I remember looking up at the night sky with vomit on my chin and blood pooling around the back of my head.

To my left the sounds of the amusement park’s roller coaster screaming a violent symphony of steel and wood. To my right the ocean’s spray soaking my clothing as wave after wave of piss-scented water roared past the shore and up onto the stone slab that had received my fragile body with dispassion. It was here that I was going to die. I closed my eyes and prepared to fade into the inevitable.


Bright, piercing light rushes toward me. I extend one hand toward the center of it feebly. The brilliance of the background diffuses and is replaced by the sterile white walls of a hospital room. A thin, cream-colored blanket covers my body. A needle has been inserted into my left arm. The tubing is held in place with medical tape. My right hand caresses the angular cheekbone of a strong, rugged face framed by a tied bun of short, thickly braided hair. Shani returns my gaze evenly. Her right hand rests on my shoulder reassuringly. I pull gently on the back of her neck. She leans closer.

“You’re a good person,” I whisper, and place my lips softly on her cheek. She pauses, then kisses me briefly on the forehead before standing back up and taking my right hand in her left. “You need to rest now,” she says, caressing my knuckles with her thumb. I smile and drift off into sleep.

I did not expect to wake, so the opening of my eyes came as quite a shock. I bolted upright into a sitting position with such force that my battered body’s pained breathing could not keep up. I sucked in air with a loud, howling gasp. In front of me, I heard the sound of glass shattering and a half-hearted curse. “Oh my gosh, ma’am!” called a boyish tenor from my right. “Are you all right?”

The sheriff and her deputy appeared on both sides of my makeshift cot and guided my head back to its pillow with steady hands. I stared at the cool grey ceiling of the police station as their faces appeared above me. Helen, the experienced veteran, and Andy, her fresh-faced deputy. Just like in the TV shows. The worried creases in Andy’s forehead brought the word dapper to mind.

“I’m sorry about your coffee,” I croaked.

“Oh, honey,” said Helen with more compassion in her voice than on her weathered face. “Coffee can be replaced. You can’t.” Andy looked at Helen for a moment, then back to me. I was in too much pain to chuckle at his charming innocence. “Say, ma’am – we found you way out by the lighthouse near the Franklin mansion. What the heck were you doing out there?” Helen frowned and waved her hand dismissively. “Let her rest,” she chided. Andy took a step back. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Helen looked at me calmly. “We’re still working the crime scene. It appears that you were ambushed by a lone assailant. We have a suspect but all of our leads are coming up dead ends. Name is Jack Lambert. He seems to have vanished into thin air and taken any useful evidence with him.”

I opened my mouth to speak but before anything could make it through the filter of phlegm that guarded my voice box, Andy began to converse animatedly.

“You know, it just occurred to me that Jack Lambert sounds a lot like Jack O’Lantern,” he volunteered. Helen sighed and crossed her arms as she rounded and walked a slow, knowing gait back to her desk. Andy didn’t appear to notice. “Around this time of year, Halloween, that is, my Nanna – my grandma – used to tell us all kinds of stories about Jack and how he would play tricks on everyone. They said he’d go after anyone, especially the big-shots who thought they were too good for tricks. He’d make business propositions to them, stuff that sounded like there’s no way it could be a trick. That just meant that it was a really good trick.”

I humored him. His story seemed harmless enough. “What about the rider?” I rasped.

“The rider, yeah. I heard Miss Rogêt, you know, what the fortune-telling lady calls herself, talking about that, and she said that Jack has a more serious cousin that rides a fiery-eyed horse around in the underworld. He doesn’t like to play tricks like Jack does on account of he’s so serious, but he’s just as angry at mortals for condemning him to roam the land of the dead for all but one night of the year, so he goes along with his cousin’s pranks.”

I settled my head back into the cushioned recesses of my pillow in a vain attempt to make it harder to hear Andy’s Bedtime Stories for Naughty Children. Apparently he interpreted my reluctance as worry, as he immediately returned to my side and placed a comforting hand on my left shoulder. I feigned a pained grimace. No luck.

“Well, at least they’ll be asleep for another year now,” he reassured me with the cutest, dumbest smile I had ever seen. Andy strode back to his bar stool perch near the windows of the police station as if he were a victorious arena gladiator approaching Caesar for the final verdict.

As I watched him walk, I got to thinking that the Devil’s Own Coffee had been some pretty powerful stuff, all right. Combined with sleep deprivation, it’s possible that I saw things. A “gun” that did nothing more than create enough force to knock someone back. A dream in which my subconscious generated movies for me to watch based on recent events in the waking world.

Nonsense – there’s no way that it was all a set up. Right? Andy raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and started scanning the width of the window pane in front of him.

“Yeah, Andy, this Jack O’Lantern and Mr. Black Stallion of yours might very well be asleep until next Halloween,” offered Helen gamely. “But you wouldn’t know it from looking at this town.” She glared disdainfully at the back of Andy’s head. “Or the people in it.”

If I hadn’t been too tired to talk, I would have voiced agreement. I didn’t feel as if I knew anything more about reality now than when I had first arrived. Given the company I kept, perhaps it was better that way.

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.


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.


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.

Tokyo Blues

“Shush,” says Zoe before I finish my sentence. I’m in the middle of asking her about some of the eerier spirits lurking in the side streets of Tokyo – parents who melted into liquid filth when the bomb hit and left their children orphans – when I’m met with an abrupt wave of the hand that brings my mouth to a standstill.

“How long have you been doing this, Lily? Do you still shit your pants every time a bunch of filth-crazed mutants run at you? Idiot.”

I really like Zoe. She’s a fellow Dragon who’s been doing this for at least twice as long as I have. Either she’s got a blunt personality or she’s been in the field for so long that she no longer has the patience for niceties. She’s also very, very attractive, so it doesn’t bother me much when she ends our conversation by telling me to fuck off.

I’ve been on the lam for six months now which in practical terms means nothing seeing as how I’ve become so powerful that anyone looking to collect on my capture has simply stopped trying. Maybe the fact that I’ve been wearing the same clothes for the past two years says something about the way I see myself. Namely, that I’m blind to my own transformation. On a lark, I decide to hit up Daimon Kiyota for an update on the world-wide situation.

I know there’s nothing new to report and the look on Daimon’s face when I walk into his office tells me that he knows I know there’s nothing new. This swanky swell sees right through me.

“You’re all wet, baby. Those cheaters on your chassis aren’t helping you see the Big Six Picture. Now, this cat isn’t beating his gums just to get you in the struggle buggy and take you for a ride, you dig? No, no, no, Mrs. Grundy – I’ve seen you when you hit on all sixes, so let me level with you: put some color in that bluenose. You’re a deb doll who acts like a fish in a wet blanket when you could be a real live wire. It’s high time you started strutting like a fence-swinger.”

And with that, he turns right back around and hums to himself while eyeballing the ever-changing, never-ending light show of the pachinko machines in the parlor below. It’s the least he’s ever said to me. In other words: scram.

It makes perfect sense. Well, it does after I look it up on the internet. Normally I don’t bother trying to understand what Daimon is actually saying – I figure he makes a habit of riffing off whatever chaos theory theme is swimming around in his head. Somewhere in the jungle of prose I pick up on the Cliff’s Notes: do this, obtain this, go here. Those are the most important things, usually.

This time, though, I parsed his jive: you’re a bearcat, moll. Now get a wiggle on and don’t take any wooden nickels, you dig? Yeah, you dig.

Invasion Tourism

Moonlit skies served as the backdrop for my brief return to Azeroth during the last week and a half of August. Having satisfied my once-per-month Blaugust posting schedule on the very first day of the event, I was left with thirty days of not-blogging in which to faff about to my heart’s content. I spent much of that time looking for something to fill the gaps left by The Secret World and my diminished interest therein after several months of deep diving into its post-story activities. I’ve come full circle and now face the irritating but predictable realization that it, like every other persistent multiplayer game, houses its share of very vocal veteran players with sometimes scary values who on one quiet evening reacted with indignation to the schoolmistress – yours truly – who dared suggest that fora for helping new players were perhaps not the best place to use as their high-rollers’ social club. I have learned my lesson.

It was a moderate measure of desperation that thus sent me with wallet in hand back to Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. The fact that the blogroll sidebars of my WordPress feed’s dramatis personae were filled with glorious tales of cross-faction, group-agnostic mayhem also helped. What would be just another Thursday evening in Guild Wars 2 constitutes a once-an-expansion special event in World of Warcraft and was titillating enough to attract my temporary patronage.

I paid for a month’s subscription on my secondary Warlords of Draenor account, my main account of nine years presumably entombed somewhere in the deep freeze storage of Blizzard’s server farms, and started messing about with new characters on the Argent Dawn server. I started with a gnome hunter whose randomized moniker, Pepperixie, required a mechanical rabbit named Saltinatrix. She was followed by a draenei warrior whose name I cannot recall. A human priest was born into the world and vanished into the depths of the Fargodeep Mine, never to return.

It was then that Big Brother correctly pointed out that all of my characters are Blood Elves. My characters have always been Blood Elves.

Another hunter, this time with a pet dragonhawk named Butterfly in tow, reached level 20 before stepping outside the realm of time and space. Her abilities and auto-attacks had the effective force of releasing party snakes from a tin and popping the tops off cans of Pringles in the general direction of my enemies. Hardly impressive. A warlock reached level seven before I remembered that managing pets has never really been my thing.

My old Wrath main, a discipline priest, reached level 28 before I succumbed to the need to be entirely self-sufficient as well as a decade-long affliction with anti-alt-itis. Which class wears plate, can do all the things, and has glowy hands? Paladin.

The best way for lower level melee characters to advance was by participating minimally.

It took an hour to get her to level 10, the minimum level required to participate in the invasion events, and another hour of flailing about in a mish-mash of starter gear to hit level 20. Ten levels and several reward chests later saw me in a full set of level-appropriate plate armor wielding a fearsome one-handed axe and a garbage can lid. Shields were not on the menu, nor were necklaces, rings, cloaks, or trinkets. It didn’t matter terribly much once I discovered that the ideal strategy for a melee character who was not level 100 and did not have hundred of thousands of hit points was to not die.

It turns out that not dying accelerated the leveling process dramatically. Somewhere in the 30s I switched from my preferred aggro-magnet Protection specialization to Retribution’s four-button damage rotation so that I could throw Judgment hammers without being immediately murdered. Later, in my 80s, I switched to Holy so that I could use Holy Shock, which has a 40 yard range, as opposed to Judgment’s 30 yard range. Despite the fact that enemies in the group encounters dynamically scale to each player’s level individually, many of them – most notably the bosses in Stage 3 of the event – have one-shot mechanics that send almost everyone, regardless of player and item level, to the graveyard.

The events had four stages: defend (easy), bosses (easy), boss train (medium to hard), end boss (graveyard zerg hard). Once you were able to purchase your flying mount at level 60, which was easily done by simply selling excess rewards from the invasion chests, it was paramount that you kept up with the boss train in Stage 3 to maximize experience gains. What I learned to do, then, was to tag bosses with one or two abilities and then run away as far as I could while keeping the boss in view. While doing so, I learned the bosses’ abilities and was able to gradually move in and melee where possible. More often than not, however, I chose to stay far, far away in order to avoid the copious one-shot mechanics. Death in Stage 3 meant no experience when the boss dies unless you were able to get back to the boss and tag it again (and not immediately die again) before it went down.

Let’s play a game called “Find the One-Shot Mechanic.”

Among these mechanics were death auras with an eighty-yard diameter (hence the preference for dipping in and out of maximum range with Holy Shock (40 yards)) and a spell called Delirium which made all affected players hostile to one another despite the fact that PvP was disabled during the event (even in hostile territory). Delirium requires the affected player to take 50,000 damage in order to clear the debuff. Guess who doesn’t have anywhere near that many hit points and gets one-shotted by a level 100’s multi-hit ability when they run up to tag the boss?

Yeeeeeaahhhhh. Kinda kills the cooperative feel of the event.

And that was really the main thing that kept me doing it night after night for 99 levels over 32 hours and 44 minutes /played: players of all kinds came together to achieve a cooperative goal. No grouping was required. Everything needed to advance your character was found within the invasion event. You may protest this fact and tell me that this cheapens the leveling experience; I would not disagree. However, I do not care to expand on this particular philosophical topic because this experience for me was mostly about shutting off my mind (in the futile hope that it would perhaps wander off and forget to come back).

In other words, I did it for funsies. Cooperative game play has become my source of joy to the point where I take little interest in fighting other players. “Why are we fighting?” I ask myself. I have no problem with the other faction(s). “Why don’t we just hang out and have horseback archery competitions or something?” Sounds like fun to me.

After I had my fun, I opened enough chests to get a full set of level 680 armor and vendored the remainder before heading off to the auction house, where I bought the cheapest, highest-level items I could find to fill the remaining slots. I transmogrified the helm and cloak slots to the “hidden” appearance, logged out to the character select screen, took a screenshot, and sent Chrysanth off into a deep slumber from which I expect she will wake one day when the mood takes me.



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.


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.


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:


“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.


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.


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.”


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.”


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.)


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


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.


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. 


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. “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?

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.