Lovecrafting an Atmosphere – Exploring The Secret World

‘Creepy’ and ‘MMORPG’ are two terms that seldom seem to go together. The fact that you’re playing a third-person game, coupled with the cooldown-based combat system and infinite respawns that are MMO staple mechanics, the player often finds themselves in a mindset of invincibility, or at least where getting killed whilst attempting an objective is a nuisance more than anything else. That, and with the monsters spawning in front of you at frequent intervals, literally materialising in front of your face, it’s not surprising that a level of tension is absent from most MMOs.

I felt the same way for my first few sporadic hours of playing Funcom’s The Secret World. However, now that I’ve sat down and dipped my head below the murky waters, I’m feeling the chill atmosphere that should rightly accompany the subject material being handled by the game, and I’m loving it.

I’m a huge Lovecraft fan, and I’ve read the mythos through and through. I play Fallen London almost daily and Kraken is my favourite book. When they announced The Secret World, I was so excited to play it, but the subscription fee put me off. When it went free to play, I got it immediately. Unfortunately, the first few missions and hours of The Secret World seemed so depressingly standard that it was hard to immediately differentiate it from any other MMO – kill x number of zombies in this location, move to location B, kill more zombies. Collect some stuff while you’re there and bring it back. I couldn’t figure out how the game was getting so much praise for its innovative quest-mechanics and storytelling from critics with such simple fetch-quests.

It probably doesn’t help that The Secret World is so unfriendly towards new players. Not in a sense of difficulty, but it is dense – tutorials and tips appear on your screen for a matter of seconds, and while I’m sure there’s a way to find them again, it might be off-putting to anyone who just wants to pick it up, sit down and have a bash at it. This was the very reason I played it on-and-off for so long myself. I won’t lie, it took me over 10 hours of play to realise what a ‘deck’ was within the terms of the game. Then, it took me another five to discover whereabouts on the menus I could actually find them. Although, that could equally be put down to me being an idiot more than any fault of the game though.

I stuck with it though, hoping to unearth the game I had promised myself it would be, and eventually I found it. Over the last few weeks though, I’ve been putting more and more time into The Secret World. Partly because my girlfriend also bought a copy, and it’s more fun to explore deranged cults and cannibalistic rituals with a friend, but also because now it actually feels like that’s what I’m doing – investigating the otherworld, the one that our parents convinced us wasn’t real and definitely isn’t following you home on a dark, foggy night.

Secret World Cthulhu

It may be many hours before you find the quest that leads to this. But it will be worth it.

The zombie-murdering eventually gave way to investigatory missions – hunting through the records of a local newspaper to discover the identity of a killer, or following a flock of ravens to see what foul magic has summoned them to a seemingly innocent play-park. Light bulbs bursting as you walk along through tunnel, and then having to fight the poltergeist that’s been causing it. A bridge covered in hanged corpses that you can only see when you are dead (when you die, you enter a ghost form for a while.) That is what I signed up for, and that’s what The Secret World eventually gave me.

It can also be surprisingly scary. Well, for a coward like myself, at least. One mission has you exploring a pitch-black underground car park with nothing but a head torch to light your way. I’ve never seen an MMO use lighting to such an effect before, but the way the shadows moved, and monsters hid in the inky-blackness… The closest comparison I can make is Bioshock, which is high-praise as far as I’m concerned. As I said in the intro, a shock-factor is something that is to be expecting in most games, but is nearly always missing in MMOs. But in The Secret Word, things like this go a long way to adding tension:

I’ve come to realise now that playing through The Secret World isn’t about the quests like it is in so many other MMOs, but about the story being told, and the rich, dark lore behind it. The quests aren’t even compulsory half the time – you can get through an area without touching anything but the main storyline. Your quest bar may say “kill 10 zombies”, but the story tells you that this quiet town is being harassed by the living dead, and that you can help solve the mystery of why that is. If you go over there to kill them, maybe you’ll find a clue to the bigger picture? Or maybe you’ll just be doing the poor town a favour. Either way, you shouldn’t be worrying about the rewards or the experience, but the world and its mysteries. Snippets of lore can be collected, giving you insights into the titular secret world. Even simply standing in a room and reading the tale told by the patterns of destruction and smears of blood is infinitely more rewarding that running in, grabbing the file you were sent for, and running out again.

I’m nowhere near completing The Secret World, but it now has me hooked. I’m happy to suffer through the grinding fetch-quests in order to experience the gems of mysterious creepiness that shine bright in the encroaching darkness. The awkward combat system I shall endure, because somewhere out there, there is a cult just waiting to make me a human sacrifice, or a haunted house to exorcise. And now I know how I should be approaching this game, it’s going to be much, much more enjoyable.

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