Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)

Animal Behaviour in The Dinosaur Project

The Dinosaur Project (DVD Cover)

I love watching dinosaur films. As long as there are pretty dinosaurs, I’m not too picky about the script, acting or anything else. There is one thing I’m a stickler for though: realistic animal behaviour.

I’ve complained before about King Kong‘s handling of dinosaurs, where they go after the humans as snacks above all else (including their personal safety). Even Jurassic Park had issues, as the predatory dinosaurs were a little over-interested in eating people. The velociraptors were intelligent social animals who had been raised by humans… and the audience is supposed to accept that they have no emotional attachment to any human. The same goes for T-rex, who was intelligent enough to figure out how to take out the fence, but went after cars she saw every day, and knew contained her mini-rex friends who regularly brought food. “Because they’re dinosaurs” isn’t a reason*.

The dinosaurs also have a handy tendency to congregate in large mixed-species groups anytime the characters look out over the park.

When I watched The Dinosaur Project, I knew nothing about it, other than it had dinosaurs on the cover. It’s a relatively low budget production, using the self-filmed style made popular by The Blair Witch Project. Given all that, it was a surprise on the animal behaviour front.

The story follows a British team heading to the Congo in search of Mokele Mbembe. They’re assigned a conservationist, whose role is to guide them through the jungle and make sure they don’t damage any wildlife or habitats**. Unsurprisingly from the title, they find more than Mokele Mbembe.

The first species they meet is clearly an eats-people variety***, but does so due to having prior success at hunting humans. Later on, the humans outnumber them and resist, so the animals back off. In the real world, a show of resistance is usually enough to drive off wild predators, at least temporarily. It’s nice to see it happening in a film. If anything in this sequence, it’s one of the humans who does something mind-bogglingly stupid from an animal behaviour perspective, not the predators.

There’s also an example of intelligent predators, who don’t automatically view humans as food. Instead, they’re curious and a little cautious****. They can tell humans apart*****, which becomes important when not all the humans turn out to be nice.

But the thing that really stands out is most of the dinosaurs stay away from the humans. They’re heard in the distance, but most have no reason to get close. I liked that the face-to-face encounters were a limited range of species. These are wild animals who’ve had little contact with humans, and have a previous history of trying to stay away from humans******. This will likely be a point of criticism for the film, as people expect the dinosaurs to pose, but for me, sometimes it’s nice to see a little more realism.

My main complaint is true of most of the lost world genre, in that it sticks a little too closely to the fossil record. Continued evolution is mentioned (which is more than most), but I look forward to the day I pick up a film that has created all-new dinosaurs, with radically different behaviours based on their new environment. Though at the end of the day, it had dinosaurs eating sweets and people, and that’s good enough to cover most issues.

* Consider that plenty of intelligent predators are kept in captivity. Big cats and wolves are common examples. The majority of these animals aren’t aggressive towards their keepers, because they accept these humans as part of the family. It’s the less intelligent predators that cause most issues, as they may not be able to learn that humans are friends, not food. Intelligent dinosaurs are in the same league as mammals, birds and cephalopods, so would be expected to behave more like a tiger and less like a shark.

(Not that sharks are like the film version either. They don’t attack anything that moves and do tend to avoid people. But they’re also not that smart, so don’t expect a great white to have snuggly feelings about you being one of the family.)

** Though not the main topic of the post, I did like this nod to anti-colonialism. Unlike classics in the British explorer genre, their guide is not there to lead them wherever they want to go. She’s there to make sure they get in and out with as little damage caused as possible. I would’ve liked to see more character development time for her, but it has to be said, character development isn’t a strong point of this film as a whole.

*** The first species got my classification ponderings going, because they fly like pterosaurs, but those heads look very dinosaury. My best guess is they may be intended as early pterosaurs (the fossil record isn’t good for early pterosaurs and their ancestors, which leaves it open to interpretation).

**** Though not technically a dinosaur, the handling of terror birds in Prehistoric Park (a fake documentary program where they travel back in time to rescue soon-to-be-extinct animals) hit this one. Because humans were unfamiliar, the terror bird was curious… and after they started feeding it, grew actively friendly. In general, Prehistoric Park‘s handling of animal behaviour beats films hands down, but in fairness, it was written with that in mind.

***** Back to the Jurassic Park raptors, it would’ve come across far more realistically if they’d avoided/ignored most of the humans, and focused in on hunting down the main keeper (as he’s the one they associated as keeping them captive, and who wanted them dead). Telling individuals apart is an important skill for social animals, and does extend to how they view other animals (including humans). Why bother with a human stranger? They’re more trouble than they’re worth.

****** The reason they’re not staying away in the film is a spoiler, but if you’d like to know: ~~ spoiler warning: highlight to read ~~ The conservationist believes they’re being forced into contact with humans due to deforestation. ~~ spoiler end ~~

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.