In my heart and mind, I always return to The Secret World.
It’s not that it’s a perfect game, by any stretch. To this day my unipolar assault rifle (AR) spec Lummie who majors in health talismans still beats my blood + elemental Templar in raw survivability (and yes – I am aware that there are at least three good builds in TSW these days, –thank you very much!).
The great thing about Funcom –the studio– is that they always try to reach a little better than they grasp, which beats the hell out of most MMO’s in 2016. It’s a genre that largely phones-it-in at this point, –not that there aren’t bright lights, floating in and among the dross.
The Secret World is one of those, I think, based largely on its story. It begins with a classic trope: you are the everyman, transformed by hybrid geometry into a superman. You are recruited by the powers that be, or a faction of them anyway, to fight back a growing darkness. Along the way you face down undead, demons and a Scandinavian god. You infiltrate and destroy a desert cult bent on the restoration of the Egyptian sun-king. You trace the origins of werewolves and vampires through the murky forests of Transylvania, and the legend of Vlad Dracula. And you end up tracing a thread that leads inexorably toward modern day Tokyo — its streets black with spiritually radioactive filth — lair to the mother of all monsters.
The whole thing is suitably epic and over-the-top, and just enough like real life to give you the creeps every now and again. Playing an Illuminati agent feels greasy, decadent and mildly disempowering. Like you’re always on the edge of a breakthrough, until the game doles out a half aborted pay-off, and then drops you deeper down the rabbit hole for shits and giggles.
This is part of the game’s charm. The thing with MMO’s is that they live and die by one constraint only: it all falls apart if the player doesn’t keep going. Players who keep going keep playing. Players who play often pay for more subs, and buy more stuff. That’s all there really is to it.
The Secret World is not a modern game. It was conceived and created in a time before the RL Mayan Apocalypse: the time before “open world” everything. TSW is full of discrete “zones,” just like the old days. Each of these is gated somewhat by a relative power level, –your gear. Sure, you can “go back” and replay a lot of the story. Yes, you will even earn XP for doing so. But ultimately, “The Secret World” is a one-way Funhouse mirror, story-wise. The object of the game is to keep going deeper, which fits, because there are so many places in the game that deserve their own stories.
Atlantic Island Park is one of those places.
Much has been written about The Park’s sense of inevitability, and indeed, you play a fractured heroine powerless to change her fate. Your decisions, and the path you take as you move through the park are never congruent with your purpose. You will ask yourself “why” as you purposefully sidetrack yourself, again and again.
If The Secret World is the left hand path to the right hands “open world” MMO, then The Park is something even more constrained. Memory, unreliable and imperfect, struggles against something elemental: loss of love, loss of faith, loss of child.
Every parent or lover knows instinctively where that story ends.
The Park is not a perfect game.
Still – played alone, in the dark, with headphones on, fingering Lorraine’s growing terror and cry of urgency….
Well, –buzz buzz, little sweetling — because tomorrow you are going to love the dawn.