“They finally immanentized the Eschaton”
–The Eye and the Pyramid (from the Illuminatus Trilogy),
by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
“…Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein…”
Unlike most roleplaying games, Funcom’s The Secret World doesn’t hide the apocalypse behind vague prophesy or in a pocket dimension at the terminus of time. The End isn’t couched in the endgame, something to anticipate and prevent. It isn’t a matter of a final showdown, or a final revelation. In The Secret World, the eschatalogical event is the main floor show and the opening act. Even the lowliest lowbies, fresh from their faction hubs, quickly learn that what they’ve been made privy to is, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it.
Zombies and sea beasts have all but overrun the once sleepy (now feverishly tossing) town of Kingsmouth. The small Egyptian settlement of Al’Merayah is besieged by a legion of Filth infected cultists and the Biblical plagues (those are some big goddamn bugs) seem to have returned in full force. The Transylvanian village of Har’baburesti stands on the front line of a vicious vampire crusade as the monstrous legacies of Soviet experimentation emerge from their former obscurity and stomp across the frozen ground of the Carpathians. In Tokyo, the dark, viscous substance known mainly as “The Filth” (that same mysterious abomination that lies at the root of the global conflagration) pours out of the subway tunnels and snakes up the sides of skyscrapers. A massive Quarantine wall has been erected around the affected area, but while it does appear imposing, even oppressive, to the fleshy human observer, some of the Filth monsters can fly. The Filth is infectious, virulent. It overtakes and corrupts any ordinary life form it comes in contact with. It’s only a matter of time.
Strangely enough, the power remains on in Kaidan (the epicenter of the Tokyo disaster). The streets are well lit. The billboards and neon signs wink at their surroundings. But the sidewalks and the roads are eerily empty, eerily quiet. What remains of the citizenry has long been transformed by the squirming blackness.
These recently infected once-people are the most disturbing of all, worse than the giant locusts, or the vampiric soldiers, or the ravening undead. You encounter them in every corner of the world, humanoid husks (many wearing the clothes they were “caught” in) with blackened skin and glowing eyes. They don’t merely growl, or snarl, or chitter. They speak, they rant. The ones in Kingsmouth rant in English, one moment pleading for some unmentioned entity to leave them alone, to get out of their head, the next obsessing over their misplaced keys. The ones in Kaidan speak mostly in Japanese (which I don’t understand), but a few of them, on spotting an investigator, have been known to utter a hearty “fuck you” as they pull their target toward them (at least I think that’s what they’re saying).
While the Bees, Gaia’s Chosen, (the players) have the enviable benefit of functional immortality, and the heads of the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Knights Templar do their best to put on a confident facade, there is no permanent safety in this new world. Even as you relax over a pint in Ealdwick (the Diagon Alley of The Secret World), or watch the rain from a Karaoke bar in Seoul, or rub shoulders with the occulted hipsters of Brooklyn, you understand that all too often a haven is, in fact, merely the eye of the hurricane. Somewhere out there, the darkness isn’t waiting. It’s tearing the world apart, slowly but surely, molecule by molecule.
The Secret World is not, on the face of it, a welcoming place. Unlike the vast, pastel expanses of Wildstar’s Nexus, the busy, bright worlds of Guild Wars 2, and the optimistic, colorful vistas of Final Fantasy XIV, TSW’s landscapes are in equal measure haunting, surreal, and downright creepy. On occasion, they cross the line into shocking. While all of the aforementioned worlds feature some darker locations and a few “warzones,” while they do occasionally touch on fairly dark themes, and while the conventions of the MMO format dictate that it’s always zombie o’clock somewhere, the horror and violence they portray is usually of the Saturday morning cartoon variety (which isn’t an inherently bad thing, by the way). You know that everything will be okay in the end, that your hero will manage to save the day, even against overwhelming odds. You know what side you’re on.
Things are a lot less clear, less black and white, less certain in The Secret World. It is not without charm, humor, or color, of course (it has them in spades), but its overall aesthetic is grimmer and its moral universe (in which quest giving NPCs are more likely to condemn the player characters for their blithe exercise of power and privilege, or angrily lecture them on the perils of ignorant sanctimony, than they are to dish out thanks or praise) is muddier than ought to be strictly comfortable in an escapist romp.
“…Let the darkness in.”
In light of the above, it might seem a wonder that it appeals at all, let alone as much as it does, so consistently and on such a deep, personal level. But the truth is that I enjoy the Secret World, quite a bit. In fact, not only is there currently no MMO that I personally enjoy more, but it has, over the course of its lifespan (two years as of this month), climbed effortlessly up the ranks of my all-time-favorites list, taking its place beside the Myst series in the very highest tier. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an objective review (or a review at all, for that matter). I am clearly smitten. What I’ve set out to answer is just why that is, why it transcends, at least subjectively, the traditional MMO paradigm, why and how it has become, at least for me, such a real, memorable, distinct place, a fictional universe on par with those of my favorite books, shows, and films, as opposed to, as all too often happens with the format, serving as just one dedicated, structured corner of a vast metaverse.
I can, of course, spend the whole span of an article going over the Secret World‘s mechanics, in which I personally see a somewhat flawed excellence, but which, alas, may appear a touch too imposing and opaque to easily gain mainstream praise or acceptance. I love the complex theory crafting, the massive ability wheel, the levelless, classless, horizontal progression, and I recognize that some people might be turned off by the steep learning curve or the lack of more clearly, more traditionally, delineated milestones. And that is, perhaps, a discussion worth having, another time. Those mechanics, while clearly a massive bonus in my personal “pros” column, certainly worthy of a good defense, feel secondary, akin to the excellent outfit selection, the more than decent customer service, and the mostly attractive graphics (character animations aside) when weighed against the game’s true strengths.
It is said that people of an artistic temperament (and I will always allow myself that affectation) are often attracted to decay, to the macabre. One can easily see shades of Poe, Lovecraft, and Stephen King (and often much more than shades) in just about every aspect of the game’s narrative, and it follows naturally that fans of horror will feel at home among its tombs, ruins, and gnarled trees. I won’t deny that the genre contributes to my own appreciation of TSW, as does the fact that its “real world,” modern day setting is simply a refreshing break from the now staid High Fantasy/Dark Fantasy/Fantasy-Sci Fi standard.
And it’s not as though the game world is, in fact, unpleasant to explore or inhabit. The Secret World‘s environments are, as Robert Smithson might have put it, a species of “picturesque.” They are melancholic visions of a slow-burning apocalypse, sure, but they’ve also the appearance of having been meticulously crafted, inch by inch, by somebody who cared a whole damn lot, someone who is possessed of more than the average allowance of taste, sensibility, and creativity.
Even with my high level character (sometimes I intentionally scale my gear down, and sometimes I don’t), I can spend hours roaming the autumnal hills and valleys of Solomon Island (the “newbie” region). It’s always Halloween there, and the small seaside town is as quaint as ever. I can imagine what it must have been like before that whole zombie thing came up. There’s a lot to see there, a lot to find: the demonic amusement park, the academy, the Wabanaki trailer park, the deep, bug infested forest, where an old treehouse looms stoically over the teeming mayhem below.
And while I may be in the minority, I’ll take any excuse to adventure in Egypt. The Scorched Desert is one of my favorite areas in any game (and currently my favorite desert area in general), and I find the City of the Sun God, which is disturbingly sparse and cut off from the rhythms of nature, to be fascinating in its own right, and in its own way. The labyrinthine ruins seem to stand outside of time. The sun is obscured by dark clouds, and in its stead shines – perpetually, day and night – a glowing sigil, the massive eye of “Aten,” the false, eldritch sun god. Seven gargantuan Sentinels stand watch over the black rock and pale sands, over the twisting paths and ancient bones, melancholic (literally) but ultimately as unyielding in their tragic duty as the unblinking eye is in its dark vigilance.
The artists’ take on Transylvania, far from the expected nest of Hollywood cliches, genuinely reminds me of my few rural experiences in my native Russia. There is something authentically Eastern European about it, those majestic firs and dead castles juxtaposed against bombed out tenements and abandoned Soviet installations, the small, intimate village surrounded by crumbling battlements, the gypsy camp, the mushrooms.
Kaidan, which I’m still new to, grew on me pretty quickly, with its imposing skyscrapers, its sad neon glow, its quaint alleys, the cherry trees in blossom. Always there is beauty, flowering growth, among the ruins.
There is life, both terrible and beautiful. The apocalyptic environments of The Secret World feel paradoxically alive, as if actually in flux, evolving, moving, striving (despite the fact that, this being a “game,” they are actually just mechanical simulations). One can observe, if one wishes, ecosystems in action, symbiotic and parasitic relationships between the monsters, the monster slayers, and the places they inhabit. And, within the established cannon of the game, it all pretty much makes sense.
“The Big, Terrible Picture”
One can also spend countless hours reading into things, interpreting the collectible lore (which is at once esoteric, rich, and poetic), musing over the sometimes Shakespearean in quality NPC monologues (delivered by top notch voice over talent and written with matching flair), making real world connections and reaching startling conclusions (the game doesn’t spell out who Callisto really is or might be, for example, but it gives the player just enough of a breadcrumb trail for an extended, and ultimately quite satisfying, journey down a Wikipedia rabbit hole).
The official Lore forums are full of in depth discussion on history, mythology, philosophy, and, occasionally, theosophy, and not because TSW players are smarter or snootier. The game seems to be designed to push those buttons, to invoke those thoughts, to drive discussion and confront its audience with ideas, actual ideas, all sorts of ideas, about morality, divinity, humanity, good, evil. All of the above are, of course, present in every narrative, but they are rarely examined, complicated, problematized, deconstructed so aptly in any medium, let alone in video games. In The Secret World, these ideas can be played with as surely (and with as much variety and complexity) as the mobs, the powers, and the weapons. The player isn’t given, or even promised, big choices with big consequences (while there are a few choices he or she must make at specific points in the story, their outcome, if any, has yet to be made clear). There is no red vs. blue spectrum of morality, no paragon or renegade. There is simply narrative (heaps and heaps of narrative, well written, sometimes obtuse, often intentionally open ended narrative), context, and suggestion. The big questions, the big choices, the big dilemmas are there and there in force. It’s just that one is asked to ponder them, really ponder them, inside one’s own brain, instead of selecting an option from a drop down list and dealing with a predetermined consequence.
The Secret World is, in short, dense, very, very dense, on multiple levels. And while plenty of games can claim more “content,” there is not a single MMO, and very few games, that can claim to have “content” of this caliber. In The Secret World, almost everything, including many of the quickie side missions, has significance, everything has value. A single line of lore can justifiably prompt several happy hours of voluntary research into esoteric subjects, and a quest is just as likely to educate you about cosmological models throughout history as it is to entertain you with the monster slaying action that the we’ve come to expect from the MMO format. Quality, in my very humble opinion, always outshines quantity, and it’s clear that TSW’s development team has taken this adage to heart.
“That’s just a figure of speech, right?”
The word “immersion” gets tossed around a great deal in this industry, and seems to connote something intangible and, inevitably, subjective. In my own experience, there are games I enjoy, because they are engaging, fun, pleasantly distracting, etc., and there are games I become immersed in, games that make me forget where, or even who, I am (figuratively…I am not a madman), games that alter the flow of time. The latter is never a voluntary action, though I sometimes wish it could be. It is a reaction. Sometimes, I am struck by the sheer beauty of a digital world. Sometimes, I am struck by the narrative, or the humor, or the polish, or the sheer fun of it. In this case, I suppose, it is undeniably a combination of the above. I enjoy the systems, the atmosphere, the music, the story, and, for the most part, the presentation (again, wonky, disjointed character models notwithstanding). Those are the aspects that get me to show up, so to speak. What I stay for, however, is the game’s aforementioned density, its symbolic and narrative richness. I am struck, in a sense, even more by its approach to ugliness, and its willingness to engage with it, to “dive into the filth” with eyes open, than by its beauty (and there is, indeed, beauty).
Ultimately, what makes The Secret World work for me, as a truly immersive cultural product, is the fact that I can call it a “cultural product” in the first place, and feel none of the standard (and admittedly unjustified) games-hipster shame I otherwise might. It is at least as much art as it is entertainment, if not significantly more so. And its true power, and thus its true appeal, may lie in the very fact that its developers are not afraid to address, with disquieting eloquence, sensitivity, and candor, some very, very unpleasant things, the fact that it sometimes manages to fail as escapism and succeed as a true vector for message, metaphor, and discussion.
If you think about it, if you really think about it, the environments of The Secret World present the player with a more realistic depiction of our modern world than might be apparent at first glance. It occurs to me, as I write yet another ruminative article about the “essentially useless,” that the earth is constantly in a state of apocalypse, that endings and beginnings are not, in fact, happily confined to their own dedicated chapters, but rather overlap constantly, countless thousands per moment, revelations both beautiful and grotesque.
Taking into account Tokyo, which presents a stark picture of the Filth Victorious, and the Mahattan Exclusion Zone (a ten person single-boss raid that paints, during its first several sequences, a surprisingly and horrifyingly raw image of a “ground zero” mid-disaster) the regions of The Secret World all parallel real world war zones in one, unsettling characteristic. They are very pointedly “excluded.” They are quarantined, cordoned off, ignored by the outside world, and treated by the key players (in this case these are the faction “brass”) as strategic assets or liabilities, even as the human toll climbs. The name of the game is “containment,” damage assessment and control. If this doesn’t sound awfully, upsettingly familiar, then you might want to catch up on current events.
Considering the overall quality of the writing, which is almost objectively excellent, this parallel isn’t accidental. Like most great works of horror, the supernatural is merely the manifestation, in palatable, distant, mythological guise, of the worst aspects of mankind. It’s so much easier to play, and write about, video games (or to consume any instructive “art”), I guess, than it is to confront that which is truly horrible head on, to confront the undeniable fact that at any given moment it is “end times” somewhere in the world, usually in several places at once. From a comfortable, Western perspective, these disasters always seem to be happening “somewhere else,” in some far away “exclusion zone,” in some distant nation that the average Westerner might have trouble finding on a map. It’s always somewhere else, until it suddenly isn’t. “Anyway, this is nothing. Nothing! I’ve covered wars. Dirty wars. Where crazy runs the show…” quips Daniel Bach, the strung out journalist in the Overlook Motel, as the armies of hell quite literally tear through the thin dimensional membrane and set up for an awful picnic right outside his window. “The best joke of all? We do this to ourselves.” His tone of voice is somewhere between sardonic and deranged.
And then there are the smaller, more personal apocalypses, tragic in their own way. The widow Franklin, in her quiet mansion full of cats and ghosts, might not even be aware of the “Big Terrible Picture.” She sits there, smoking, reminiscing about parties that she’ll never throw again, about her lost husband, her lost friends. At the conclusion of the End Times seasonal event, Montgomery de la Roche, the habitually cheerful Oxford professor, is suddenly more concerned about the loss of his romantic partner, their relationship brought to an end by something as banal as a heated argument, than he is about the “jolly news” (the fact that you’ve managed to at least stave off the Mayan variant of the apocalypse). “My sense of impending doom is entirely subjective,” he says, fighting back tears, “…Endings are awfully difficult to predict.”
Sam Crieg, the alcoholic horror writer in the lighthouse, cynically laments the tragedy of routine, the futility of repetition (this serves as a bonus meta-commentary on the genre itself) as he snipes at zombies from his lofty perch, his personal limbo. “You ever do that? Keep going when it serves absolutely no purpose? When it’s already clear you’re not making any kind of difference?”
The zombies, of course, are more than just zombies. All of the monsters in The Secret World are more than just monsters. They are symbols, shambling, grunting, brine spewing metaphors. The Wendigo and the Vampires speak (in different ways) of cultural dissociation, the loss or corruption of heritage, identity, and, eventually, humanity. The zombies, while always good for commentary on mob mentality and mass stupor, here speak more often of buried secrets and revised histories, forgotten atrocities, witch hunts, mass graves. The denizens of the Hell Dimensions mostly speak of the wages of war, which (as the story-line of the three Hell dungeons reveals) degrade even the most righteous of intentions. The animated scarecrows and the Revenants are a fairly direct metaphor for calculated genocide; the former, of course, “are just following orders” handed down by the latter.
I suspect (and this is where it gets rather personal and interpretive) that the Filth creatures, the infected, whether former fishermen or salary men, are at least in part symbolic of both willful ignorance and the guilt and shame that eventually result from it, much like the narrator in Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, who is suddenly seized by existential contortions at the realization that his privileged first-world, middle class life is the exception and not the rule.
Every play field is, in a sense, a monstrous, allegorical vista of all of humanity’s darkest sins, a sort of massive, interactive version of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And while I’ll occasionally enjoy grinding out a few AP levels, and while I do, indeed, have fun with the game (and it’s important to remember that it is a game, and a commercial product as much as it is a cultural one), my truest, deepest enjoyment of it, I feel, is akin to my enjoyment of that famous triptych. It is largely contingent on the fact that the game stimulates me and, above all, scares me in ways that are decidedly not “fun,” not trilling or traditionally entertaining, because sometimes it’s important, even necessary, to be scared.
“Be not afraid,” whispers the mysterious, buzzing voice, “be terrified.”