The Secret World Review

Last Thursday, a day before the headstart for preorderers for The Secret World, someone brought me a preorder and lifetime subscription. Up until then, I’d avoided learning too much about it, as I can’t afford new MMOs. So the night before the headstart, it was time to cram. Here are the results of my early gameplay, with pictures (click for larger versions).

Setting and Story

Secret World is a near future horror/urban fantasy game, where all the legends are true and the end of the world is approaching. Three secret societies – the Templars (based in Europe), the Illuminati (based in North America) and the Dragon (based in East Asia) look to investigate what’s going on and try to stop it. In the process of getting a bit of power for themselves, of course.

After an incident where a glowing bee flies into your mouth while sleeping, stuff happens that varies on what secret society you’ve chosen. As a Templar, a woman visited me and sent me to see a puppet man in the park. At this point the stories converge, as everyone goes to the combat tutorial – a flashback to an incident in Tokoyo, where a member of each secret socity is working together to control an evilmutantzombiething outbreak in a subway station.

Once all that’s done, I visited the head of the Templars* (the man in the foreground – I’m in the background) and picked up my first abilities.

A man in a suit speaks as my character looks on

Meeting the boss

There’s a lot of story thrown at you in the introduction, so it’s worth making sure all the graphics options are set before you create your first character. Also switch on subtitles if you need it (the game has voice acting for most dialogue). I didn’t, so didn’t get subtitles for the first parts of the intro.

After all the introduction is done, Kingsmouth is the main area where everyone goes. Zombies have invaded and the town is hiding all sorts of dark things from their past. Kingsmouth is where the depth of the storytelling really comes out. There are numerous plotlines coming together here. More than enough to keep the game going for some time.

A woman armed with pistols in a misty forest

Kingsmouth forest

The game world is beautiful to look at (in a rotting zombie sort of way) and the storylines of the missions are polished. There are a few missions that break when everyone’s trying to do them, but overall the number of bugged missions is down on other game releases. Though some missions are simple (like killing certain numbers of something), it’s hard to progress without thinking. Some require puzzles to be solved** or instructions to be followed (rather than clicking every interactable object… you have to click the right one). The focus of the game is on enjoying the story and solving puzzles, rather than trying to powergame to some form of endgame content.

This is the strongest area of the game…

Characters

… and the player character creation is the biggest weakness of the release. There are very few body options. No body sliders, so you can’t change height and weight. There are a few face options, but no way to make the faces older or younger. Colour choices for skin, hair and eyes are limited (though there are options allowing you to create different races). All hair styles have straight hair (not an issue for my character, but it will be for some).

A character creation screen showing head options

Character creation

After creation, you can buy clothes for your character, though again, the selection is limited and a lot of the colours don’t match. I ended up using the leather Templar jacket I got as a perk, with a mixture of leather items in reds and browns.

Names will become an increasing issue in the future. All characters have to have a unique nickname*** (unique across the whole game). Their first and last name do not need to be unique. Already, a lot of names are random letters that sound like words. It’s difficult to get a name that means something.

These limits aren’t placed on the NPCs, who come in a variety of sizes, ages, hairstyles and clothings. I also heard beta had more options available for players. My understanding is they’re working on it, but it is a clear weakness in the game at release. Being able to adequately customise characters is important.

Game Mechanics

This isn’t a level based game. Characters earn skill and ability points, which can be spent freely. There’s no limit to this, so the longer you play, the more skills you’ll pick up. That means no need to delete and recreate characters if you don’t like your skills. Just replay a few easier missions and you’ll soon have the points to train some different skills.

On that note, most missions can be replayed, so no one will be stuck killing random monsters to progress. There’s a timeout before you can do the mission again, but by the time you’ve gone through the missions in an area, plenty of them will be repeatable.

For those like me who are completionist about missions, the ones you’ve done are marked with a tick, so you can see at-a-glance if it’s new or not.

Portryal Thoughts

Women

My first impressions of the website brought to mind the discussions on urban fantasy covers. The issue in urban fantasy is women tend to be hyper-sexualised on covers. They’re always wearing revealing outfits, whether the character in the book does or not. They stand in poses that’d give most people back ache, if they can pull the poses at all.

Secret World’s site doesn’t do that. Most of the women are standing in practical poses that emphasise strength (something that only tends to happen for men on urban fantasy covers). One woman is in a sexualised pose, but it’s mildly so… it’s the sort of pose a woman might use, without needing to be a contortionist. She’s also wearing a lot more than the average urban fantasy heroine.

A woman in Templar uniform, with Dragon and Illuminati people behind her

Website art with strong poses

In the game itself, it’s interesting to see women cast in roles like the battle-hardened sheriff, protecting the last survivors.

All this is notable, because for previous titles, Funcom did have its moment of, “Woohoo, we’re making adult games! We can have naked women and make them fondle their own breasts!!!” So it’s good to see them improving on that score. This isn’t to say none of the portrayal of female characters have any problems, but there is an improvement. I live in hopes urban fantasy might make it too someday.

Race and culture

Unlike many Western games, it has acknowledged that the changes will be happening all over the world. It’s a positive sign that rather than a token mention of stuff happening elsewhere, players can go to those places and take part in what’s going on. How well those locations have been rendered isn’t something I can judge, as I’ve never been to Seoul or Tokyo for example.

So far, it looks like racial diversity matches the area. A lot of Dragons are East Asian (and I presume Seoul is mainly Korean people, given that it’s Seoul, but I’ve not been there in the game). London has a mixture of people, including the Templars being run by a Black British man. On the other side, Kingsmouth is very white, which doesn’t seem out of place for a small town of its sort.

My main complaint is the lack of this diversity in character creation. There should be some non-straight hairstyles, and more clothing that isn’t Northern European in origin. The NPCs have it, but the players don’t.

Other stuff

There are a mixture of ages and weights among NPCs, though it’s low on people with physical disabilities. Mental illness is interesting, as a lot of the infections spreading cause it. The survivors include many people who’d be labelled as eccentric, and may be considered to have pre-existing mental disabilities or illnesses. But in this context, it makes them more likely to survive strange compulsions to walk into the ocean and drown. It’s a logical extension of the idea, as if an attack is designed to work on a neurotypical brain, it may fail when someone is atypical.

Overview

Overall, I’m enjoying the game and the storyline. I like games where the gameplay is the content, rather than having to level doing nothing much until an endgame I have little interest in. However, the character customisation needs a lot of work.

For anyone interested in trying it out, it should be noted it is an adult game and does have adult scenes (my understanding is there’s some sexual content in the Dragon intro and some torture in the Illuminati intro… but I’ve not had time to try those yet). It is also a horror game, so expect blood, slime and people transforming into tentacle monsters. None of this is all-the-time. There are breaks from the horror and the adult content isn’t crammed into every cut scene. But it is there, and it might be triggering for some people.

* Though NPCs have voice narration, the player characters don’t. This means your character spends a good deal of time staring silently and intently at other people. No one seems to mind though. I suppose compared to a zombie, being a bit unnerving is fine.

** One puzzle that comes up a few times is figuring out computer passwords from the password hint. Fortunately for players, none of the characters in this game have any idea how to create secure passwords. The name of your wife? Really?

*** The name filter (which does filter against bad language, even though both players and NPCs can swear all they want in chat) rather humorously blocks unicorn and penumbra, but happily allowed someone to call their character Bollocks.

Above World – Jenn Reese

Above World CoverSeries: Above World, #1
First Published: 14th February, 2012
Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The breathing technology used by the Kampii (mermaids) is failing. The adults won’t do anything, so Aluna and her friend Hoku travel up to the surface to find answers (young Kampii don’t get their mermaid tails until they’re older, so they still have legs). In the above world, there are unaltered humans, bird people and horse people (among others). They’re under attack from the upgraders (cyborgs).

This book is a fun action-adventure. The world is a dystopian spin on old mythology, without being too gritty. The current situation is one that developed from the founding of the various colonies, so as well as travelling the world, they also have to learn about their past. I enjoyed the contrast between the two main characters – Aluna as a warrior and Hoku as a scientist. It was nice to see Aluna having positive relationships with other girls/women, rather than being the one special girl who hated all the other womenfolk (as so many books with warrior girls/women tend to do).

There were some points that made me pause. Though it’s good that being cool mermaids and so forth isn’t a white person only zone, I wish the racial descriptions had been less ambiguous. There’s mention of brown skin, but that leaves a lot to the imagination in the sort of way where people rewrite in their heads to make everyone white (especially when the character isn’t on the cover). It would have been nice to have some mention of other features, such as hair, facial features and remaining pieces of culture.

I wasn’t too comfortable with what was shown of Dash’s people. They seem rather pseudo-Native American, which is potentially problematic when they’re a race of horse people. Or the suggestion that the desert was an uninhabited area free to be colonised by the genetically changed. However, it’s possible both issues are handled in later books, as these things were told second hand rather than seen.

I did enjoy the book despite those concerns and look forward to the sequel.

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories – JoSelle Vanderhooft (editor)

Steam-Powered CoverSeries: Steam-Powered, #1
First Published: January, 2011
Genre: Steampunk / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Mike Allen; Rachel Manija Brown; Georgina Bruce; Amal El-Mohtar; Sara M. Harvey; Meredith Holmes; N.K. Jemisin; Mikki Kendall; Matthew Kressel; Shira Lipkin; D.L. MacInnes; Shweta Narayan; Tara Sommers; Beth Wodzinski; Teresa Wymore
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

There were a few stories I particularly liked. “To Follow The Waves” by Amal El-Mohtar was one, set in Syria with dream crafting technology. The post-apocalyptic Western “Suffer Water” by Beth Wodzinski was also a fun story. Overall though, a lot of the stories didn’t really hold my attention.

The Kindle edition has no formatting, making it harder to read. If you’re going to buy it, the print edition is probably a better bet.

I, Robot and the Uncanny Valley

A photo of Sonny: He has a realistically shaped face and eyes, but his workings show through artificial skin.Discussions of the movie I, Robot tend to focus on how Asimovy it really was (or wasn’t). I was interested in another feature: how the uncanny valley was used in movie. This post talks a bit about what the uncanny valley is, how I, Robot used it and how that might relate to non-visual fiction.

** includes spoilers for I, Robot **

What Is The Uncanny Valley?

The uncanny valley is a theory about how people react to increasingly human-like things. The theory states that people become more emotionally positive to things as they become increasingly human. A lizard is more like a human than a turnip, so lizards get more warm fuzzy feelings. A monkey is more like a human than a lizard, so monkeys get more warm fuzzy feelings.

But just before something reaches being a full human, there’s a drop in positive emotions towards it. This drop is the uncanny valley. It’s the point where a thing stops looking endearingly humanised and starts looking freakily sub-human. Or the point where a human is no longer seen as human and drops into the valley (zombies are the classic speculative fiction example of that… still all human and rather uncanny).

Robot design is an area where this matters. Makers want to make their robots human-like enough to make people feel good about them, but not step too far and fall into the valley.

Uncanny = Evil

The main use of the uncanny valley in the film is to signify evil.

The old robots are humanoid, but they have a blockier build and clearly robotic faces. They’re shown behaving in sympathetic ways, such as robots in storage huddling together. These robots are at the positive peak. They show sympathetic, human-like features, without appearing to be too human.

The new robots are down there in the valley. They have human-like faces, realistic eyes and rounded limbs, yet don’t look entirely human. Their voices are soft and more human-like than the old robots, yet also emotionless. The uncanny valley is telling you these robots are evil.

This is a pretty standard use of uncanny valleyness. It manipulates the audience into sympathising with the old robots and distrusting the new ones.

Why Don’t The Future People Think They’re Freaky?

Other than the protagonist, people trust the new robots. Even the protagonist doesn’t think they look untrustworthy (not any more so than the old robots anyway). So why don’t the future people think the robots are freaky?

One criticism of the uncanny valley is that it’s culturally based. A person’s experiences will change where (and possibly if) the valley exists. This is shown when humans drop into the valley.

Supposing you had a friend who didn’t have hands. You have no problem perceiving your friend as being human. A stranger isn’t used to your friend, and places him in the uncanny valley. The stranger’s reactions are hostile and untrusting. This example is unfortunately not that hypothetical – people with obvious deformities, scarring and missing limbs can end up in the uncanny valley and are treated accordingly.

The important point is that you and the stranger have different thresholds for what’s human and what’s not. However, given time, the stranger will get to know the friend, and will stop seeing hands as a defining human feature*.

Back to robots, it’s clear that a society’s view on robot appearance could modify. What’s uncanny at first may not be in a few generations time**. (On the other hand, it’s possible there’s a limit on what people would accept as human. As we have no evidence either way, a story could take either view***).

Why Do We Like Sonny?

Sonny is one of the uncanny robots. This is emphasised in his early appearances, by displaying almost human behaviour. He dreams and can draw, yet draws with precision with both hands at once. He’ll fight to survive, yet does so with superhuman strength and agility. Unlike our friend with no hands, he’s not displaying completely human behaviour. It’s going to be difficult to overcome that feeling of uncanniness.

By the end of the film, Sonny is showing human understanding of things like loyalty, deception and the value of free choice. It’s interesting that while watching the film, I have no trouble accepting Sonny, yet the screenshots still look creepy. Appearance may put a robot into the valley, but behaviour can pull them out of it.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as behaviour is the thing that tells you real humans are humans. Often a screen robot looks uncanny because its behaviour is a little off (this can also be true of 3D animated people… the audience picks up on tiny errors in the movement that betrays the fact it’s a simulation).

How Do We Like Sonny?

This is a question that’s hard to answer. When we take someone or something back out of the valley, what are we actually doing? Do we see them as…

  • A human (whether they are or not). Any differences are accepted as normal human variation.
  • Near-human. We may not have had a category for that before, but our brains start to realise there’s a middle-ground between human and not.
  • An exception. We’d still find others like them just as uncanny, but the individual is accepted.

In the case of the friend without hands, it’s going to be the first one. We soon realise that hands were never a defining part of being human anyway. The friend behaves in an entirely human way, so it’s not a difficult leap to make.

With Sonny, there’s still a voice saying he isn’t human. Whether we’re seeing him in a near-human category, or he’s just sneaking closer to be seen as fully human, is hard to say.

It would be fair to say that any one of those options could be realistic in a story.

Application to Fiction

Stories don’t have the same visuals as films, but the ways character might react may be based on this principle.

One interesting issue is that it might means it’s easier to accept a non-human robot as a sentient being with rights. The robot who falls in the valley has to overcome feelings of distrust – something an out-of-valley robot doesn’t have to contend with.

The robot Asimo is a classic out-of-valley design. Roughly humanoid and able to move in a human-like way, but robotic enough that he doesn’t fall in the valley. People react in a positive way to Asimo****, and this would obviously be a great advantage if Asimo were sentient and trying to gain rights. People wouldn’t assume he was evil.

On the other hand, Sonny has an uphill struggle. It’s interesting that the movie makers didn’t try to make Sonny look outwardly friendlier than the other new robots. The viewer has to overcome their own prejudices to see Sonny as anything other than the bad guy.

Few robot stories deal with the potential issues of a robot facing discrimination for its appearance. Perhaps a new robot line would be a little too human-looking and not sell as well, so they face being dismantled for parts. Perhaps when it comes to choosing between believing the blocky robot and the almost-human one, a character might go with their instinct and chose the blocky robot (possibly with disastrous consequences).

The sort of cultural change needed to accept an almost-human robot as human (or as definitely not human, and not uncanny) would take a long time to reach. In the meantime, all those robots in the valley have a problem. It’s odd that their problem doesn’t appear in fiction as much as you might expect.

* This has some real world significance too, because it suggests that it’s important for people to have experience of a wide range of people. If they don’t, they run they risk of seeing other humans as non-human.

** In Doctor Who, Donna (a modern day woman) meets automated greeters at a library in the future. These greeters have human faces on them, to put patrons at ease. They’re normal to the future people, but freaky to Donna.

*** Kryton, an android in Red Dwarf, has a blocky appearance. The crew discovers that earlier models look identical to humans. When asked why Kryton looks more primitive, he explains it’s because humans didn’t like their androids looking too human. Later models were made to look less human on purpose*****.

**** One example was the reaction to the Honda advert where Asimo moves through a museum. Some watchers were moved to tears, as it shows a very positive view of technology… a friendly robot reacting the way a human might to the museum exhibits. Few (if any) people thought “that robot looks like a mass murderer… I wouldn’t let him near those gadgets”.

The advert can be watched here. And just because it’s fun, dancing robots!

***** Though the way people react to humans in costumes is always somewhat different. Data from Star Trek was made to look slightly not human, in both behaviour and appearance. Yet he didn’t tend to set of people’s uncanny valley alarm. He’s a man in a costume and we know it.

Sonny photo is Copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Used for review purposes.