2012 MMORPG Developed by Funcom
The Secret World (TSW) is in many ways an unremarkable MMORPG. If one has played almost any MMORPG in the last fifteen years, much of its design will be familiar. The game is essentially an amusement park, split into a series of themed areas which are chock full of creatures to kill and quests to pick up. What makes The Secret World stand out is its setting and its story. Its setting oozes character, is packed with a library full of lore, and its fiction is bound together with its gameplay by an impressive (for an MMORPG) internal logic.
One’s character is an ordinary person living an ordinary modern life. What makes them special is that one night they are picked, seemingly at random, to be the host for a powerful and otherworldy entity called “The Buzzing”. The Buzzing manifests itself as a swarm of glowing bees, one of whom crawls into the player character’s mouth while they are sleeping. So far so creepy. The Buzzing turns your ordinary joe’s world upside down, making them effectively immortal and giving them superpowers. Post beeception one is thrown into a world where every urban myth, every ancient secret and every conspiracy is true.
If some of this is sounding familiar that is because TSW’s setting resembles White Wolf’s famous “World of Darkness” setting in many ways. Indeed, the friends who got me into the game sold me on the idea partially as a digital imagining of the World of Darkness setting. When I first started playing however, I bounced off the game almost completely. In this piece, I should like to tell you a little bit about why that was. Doing that involves a discussion of a most interesting topic, roleplaying in videogames.
Most people I know who play videogames of all stripes, from FPSes to RPGs, do not really see themselves as roleplayers. When I told one of my oldest friends that I had started playing tabletop RPGs at university they described me as a “turbonerd” (not an altogether unfounded allegation). It has often struck me as strange that people do see a harsh divide between these two spheres of gaming. I know people who are part of roleplaying guilds in World of Warcraft so surely, I thought, it can’t be that hard to roleplay in a videogame. Through playing The Secret World, however, I have come to understand how “immersion” in a video game, differs from “immersion” on the table top.
“Immersion” is a somewhat catchall term which is often used as a byword for engagement with a video game. Its meaning hovers somewhere between suspension of disbelief and a state of flow. What I mean when I say “immersion”, in this piece, is being able to reason and act within the game as though one was actually a part of the fiction. That is to say, if the gameplay decisions I make are decisions of the kind that the character the player represents in the game would take, and I take them for reasons which that character would recognize as valid deliberations, then I am immersed in the game.
Roleplaying is, in this sense, immersive. It is taking on the mantle of a character and trying to get inside their head and reason as they do. This differs from what one might call “acting”, which need not be immersive at all, which is to take on the attributes of a character and try to express them through an already written script. No one needs to think as the character they are playing in order to act (although I don’t deny it might help).
Videogame RPGs tend to cast the player as an actor. Take the Mass Effect series for example; in these games there is essentially a set story which the player advances by progressing through the game. There are branches to this story, but one is never really asked, or given the opportunity to reason as Shepard does. We are never tasked with drawing up the logistics of running a space ship, planning a daring raid or investigating an alien crime scene. All of these tasks are mentioned as being stuff that Shepard does, but the player is not asked to participate in any non-superficial way. Instead we are asked to make fairly well signposted decisions through dialogue choices. We are, in effect, asked to choose which story we want to see Shepard be a part of.
Perhaps the best example of this is the “Suicide Mission” in Mass Effect 2. In this mission the player is asked to choose various members of Shepard’s crew to do a number of dangerous tasks—the only time in the entire game where crew members can die for good if they mess up. However, the criteria for success or failure in these tasks is somewhat obscure and the outcomes even more so. How well a crew member does is not dependent on the skills or abilities the player has given them, but is instead a pre-set (invisible) variable. Thus the player is not really asked to reason as their own Shepard—the one who has been choosing equipment for, and directing the development of, their crew. Rather the player is again asked to choose between a set of clearly branching options, choose-your-own-adventure style. The player here is positioned as an observer, rather than a instigator of action, Shepard is a character independent of the player.
Contrast this with tabletop roleplaying; on the tabletop one is presented with a fictional world in which one can act on the basis of what seems reasonable. One can make decisions which make sense within the context of that world’s rules, regularities and laws and expect them to have at least some chance of coming out right. Further, one’s actions shape not only what happens, but the shape of what it is possible to happen after that. In a tabletop setting one’s character is, in a sense, identical with oneself. They have a character independent of the player, but they are not acted, the player is an instigator, rather than an observer of their actions.
TSW wants so desperately to be something different from the standard MMORPG. It wants to take the player into its fiction and make them feel like they are properly part of the world. It wants one to feel like more than a mere observer. There is so much information about the world lying around, in almost every important location there are scraps of information to pick up. There are side quests liberally seeded around the world which give snippets of insight into characters, factions and the setting itself. On top of these come the investigation missions which often require reading, abstract thought and research. It is constantly trying to create a sense that it’s fiction is tangile, that one could reach out and touch it, that by playing one is taking part in great things.
TSW’s ace in the hole in this respect is its writing, especially in its depiction of character. The characters which one meets throughout the Secret World are echoes of stereotypes, conspiracy theorists, hard boiled cops, insane sorcerers etc. However they, most of the time, manage to step outside those stereotypes in interesting ways. For example, one of the first characters one meets is a hulking biker who specializes in the use of explosives. He has a poetic sensibility and speaks softly about destruction, in the best tradition of slightly cracked biker dudes. What is more unusual is that he has a crush on the policeman upstairs.
While the writing is good however, one is still positioned outside the world, and it is almost impossible to interact with it. The characters one meets have stories start and then almost immediately come to an end in a most jarring way. Speaking characters generally have one or two quests to give out, quests which tell the player a little about who they are and what is going on in their many and various plot arcs. These are introduced by, generally, entertaining monologues feeding one a drip of character and life. However, just as one is getting a sense of the character, getting an idea of who they are and getting interested in their story, there are no more of their quests to do.
It is as though one is watching a series of “best of” scenes from a television show one can half remember. All of these characters swirl briefly in front of one’s eyes, playing out a tiny portion of their part, before they disappear into the fog. What happens with any of their stories? Nothing at all, nothing can happen. They cannot do anything which would actually change the status quo. Indeed they can do nothing which would require them not to be standing in the exact same place where you find them. There are no conversation options and choices which change the outcome of quests are almost unheard of.
Because nothing changes, there is no sense that one has much control over the setting, or one’s interactions with it. Further the player character is a silent, if outlandishly dressed mannequin, and if one plays with other people, so are all their friends. You never speak and you are never called upon to give a response in anything other than prescribed action. The kind of response one gives also predictably moves along one of two paths—use a thing or kill some things (sometimes one has to use one thing to kill some other things).
It is almost impossible to roleplay in such a setting as it is impossible to express one’s character in some kind of dialogue with that setting. All the player ends up being, in story terms, is a blank space or a camera. That sat badly with me for a long time.
The problem here, I realize now, is that I had been looking at the game from the wrong perspective. I stopped playing for a couple of years and came back when my flatmate suggested that we play the game together. Before that point I had not really thought about the game’s mechanics in any real depth. Its vast array of skills and somewhat unique combat system seemed like an opaque swamp of a thing compared to the easily accessible story. Therefore I meandered along not really thinking about my equipment or abilities. Usually RPGs have a set of classes or something similar that give the player a sense of what they are supposed to do with their character in combat. It is easy to understand what a fighter is supposed to do in DnD—it’s in the name.
The Secret World however does not really have archetypes which guide the player in the same way. In fact its skill system is one of the most complicated to explain I have ever come across. There are nine weapon types, three each in the categories of “melee”, “Ranged” and “Magic”. Each of these weapons has an associated set of skill trees consisting of active and passive skills. From the skills one has unlocked, one constructs a “deck” of eight active and eight passive skills. The active skills can only be used with the corresponding weapon equipped (of which the player can have two equipped at any given time), while passive skills from any tree can be used in any deck. There no fewer than eight skill trees per weapon, each with seven skills to pick up.
This is an absolutely bewildering array to put before a new player and it takes a good long time to learn how to actually manipulate the system properly at all. All of the different weapons have a different role which is sometimes obvious and sometimes pretty obscure. Shotguns are, fairly obviously good crowd control weapons, while assault rifles have a lot of healing abilities (who knew?). If one can get past the initial bafflement however, what one finds is a deep and compelling system not unlike a collectible card game such as Magic the Gathering. Almost all of the skills one can choose from synergise in some way with other parts of the skill tree. As one comes to understand what all of the different skills and abilities actually do, the possibilities spiral out into a panoply of different ways to fight.
The fiction of The Secret World is great, but it is the combat system which lies at the heart of the game which tells the most interesting stories, if one pays enough attention to learn its language. When one has learned that language, one can begin to express something like a character (if only while killing things). The joy of it is that there are so many different ways of doing things, so many different healer, tank and DPS builds to play around with, one can almost always find one’s own way of doing things.
This becomes, in time, a sort of roleplaying in and of itself. Sometimes one will make a “deck” (what the game calls savable sets of abilities) which works in a way that one did not expect it to, and that deck starts to take on a character of its own. One learns what abilities work well together and one starts thinking out fights in terms of how to best use those abilities.
While this is not roleplaying in its fullest sense, TSW’s combat is a good deal more malleable than its story. There are so many combinations of different abilities that not all of their interactions could ever be entirely forecast by a creator.
In videogames we must look to mechanical interactions if we want to have a roleplaying experience. Videogame worlds will (most likely) never be a negotiated space in the same way as a tabletop roleplaying game. However, sufficiently deep systems allow the player some leeway in terms of expressing themselves, shaping a character, and getting outside their own experiences, into the way of reasoning as that character. Thus when I first encountered TSW I was looking in the wrong place for the experience I wanted from the game. Instead of trying to get into the mechanics, I wrote them off as unimportant to what I wanted, which was to be part of a weird and interesting world. In doing that I cut myself off from the only world with which I could actually interact, the mechanical world of the game’s systems, the heart of the entire experience.
It seems strange to say that the most satisfying roleplaying experiences in videogaming are mechanical rather than story driven. However, consider some of videogaming’s best stories, like the saga of Boatmurdered or the infamous Civ 2 forever war. These did not derive their interest from the fiction of the game world, but rather from the mechanical bedrock of these games; mechanics which create a world with which the player can interact and within which they can express their reasoning. TSW’s writing is entertaining, and its fiction is interesting, but it is the game which lies underneath which makes it a good roleplaying game.