Let’s Pretend Versus The Playground
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I’m hip, hip deep into The Secret World playing through for my review.
It’s not the first MMO, I’ve ever messed with, as I have a sordid history with the original Star Wars Galaxies, and have been around the block with other MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lineage II. And, as with those other games, there’s a strange conflict at work that I’m really not sure has any kind of satisfactory resolution.
It always starts out the same way in many of these MMOs. You create your character, you view some cut scenes, play through some tutorial missions, get a sense of what the world is, what the overarching conflict is that is the basis of your journey, and then you’re off, dumped into the starter/common area to make your way through and muddle your way to an understanding of the various systems the game has to offer. It’s here where the fundamental disconnect of the MMO kicks in; there are focused missions that try to draw you into the world and narrative that the developers have created, but it’s in an open zone with dozens, if not hundreds of players doing their own thing.
The Secret World is a unique MMO in that it actually tries—and often, in its private instances, succeeds—in being a game about horror. The very first common player area that newbies visit is Kingsmouth, a small town in Maine that is currently in the middle of its own private, rural zombie apocalypse. While you’re playing you’ll encounter wonderfully developed characters with their own agendas, secrets and sense of history. They’ll create a mood and invite you to live in it.
Then the cut scene is over, and some other player is running around screaming in all caps, “WHAT WOULD GRIMES DO, FOOLS?!?”
The problem, as always, is down to the “theme park” nature of the MMO. Unlike a single player game, which only has to focus on a single audience member, an MMO has to make sure that content is accessible to all players at all times. In a single player game, like Mass Effect when Shepard makes a decision or takes action, there are permanent, irrevocable consequences. In The Secret World and other MMOs, when you kill a boss in a non-instanced area, if you hang around long enough, it re-spawns so that another player can take a crack at it.
On the one hand, this kind of open world interference kills the immersion of a narrative experience. On the other hand, as any Grand Theft Auto fan can attest, it also opens the door for wildly unpredictable emergent gameplay. While it may be true sometimes that “hell is other people” the same can also be said for entertainment. As with any MMO, there will be times when a solo player can wander into a situation that might be too difficult to handle. I’ve already experienced a few such moments in The Secret World and have been rescued by passing players that saw my predicament and lent some assault rifle or lightning support when it was desperately needed. And then there are those moments when something weird, wonderful and random happens. I’m not sure it was necessarily the best response in the world, but when I’m fighting a Cthulhoid creature and someone runs by, stops, breaks into jazz hands and then starts tap dancing, I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. It may be stupid and break immersion, but it’s also funny.
That’s what it’s like in any MMO that tries to suck you into another world. Sometimes it succeeds, and other times, people—in hilarious fashion—remind you of where you are.