Playing The Secret World was enlightening but the only way to explore its most secret parts was to sit down with some of the myth-makers who are conspiring together to create this story-led MMO. So I did what was necessary, gathering together three of the minds behind the game and forcing them to talk at me and each other for many an hour. In the first part of this two-part conversation, you will DISCOVER the reason the game is set in the modern day, THRILL to the origins of the secret societies, CONSIDER the difficulty of inserting narrative into an MMO, and PONDER religion and mythology at great length.
RPS: Hello. With me today are Marten Bruusgaard, lead designer of The Secret World, lead content designer Joel Bylos and the game’s writer/director, Ragnar Tørnquist. We’re also joined by Knut Gaute Vardenær, a member of the Norwegian press but I’m rather rudely going to insist that they all talk in English. Let’s start with a discussion about the many inspirations for The Secret World.
Tørnquist: Well, I am the only one who has been on the project throughout the long and arduous process of making the game. I think Marten joined…when did you join? Three years ago?
Bruusgaard: A little bit more. More than three years ago.
Tørnquist: And Joel has been with us for a year and a half. Personally, I’ve always loved mythology, I love real world mysteries. I love fantasy worlds, but the idea of our world having so many unsolved mysteries, so many things that haven’t yet been seen or discovered, or experienced by people is something that’s always intrigued me. Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by stories about sasquatch, the abominable snowman, about aliens and all those things. And I’ve always been fascinated by literature that deals with that. Vertigo comic books with Sandman and Hellblazer, those sorts of things, Stephen King, things that use the real world as a starting point. Real characters and a very grounded reality. X-Files, for example, another big source of inspiration.
RPS: Indiana Jones?
Tørnquist: Indiana Jones, yeah! Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are so many things.
RPS: There was a monster that I glimpsed in the animation studio that reminded me of the bad guys from Hush.
Tørnquist: Yeah, that’s certainly one of the sources. There’s lots of inspiration coming from basic mythology as well as popular culture of the ‘90s and 2000s. Things that mix the ordinary and the extraordinary, that mix fantasy and the real world.
The frustrating thing is that there are almost no games that do that. Most games either take place in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, or they are real world and then they’re Call of Duty. Shooting Russians. There have been very few games that exploit that idea of the mystery of the real world. And that to me is so powerful. That gets to me everyday. Just walking through Norwegian mountains and seeing those vast empty spaces and thinking, what is out there. We have trolls! I mean, the troll myth has become sort of cartoony or comic book outside of Norway, but in Norway they are…
RPS: I guess you’ve seen Troll Hunter?
Tørnquist: Troll Hunter! Exactly! That’s a lot more of the idea of the Norwegian myth. I think growing up in Norway, in a country like ours, with so many empty spaces, you get the idea of the mystery that’s out there. Of there being a lot more to the world than what we know. And that’s what The Secret World is all about. And that’s what we’re trying to capture. The idea that on the surface, we think we know everything but dig beneath it and there’s so much more.
RPS: And the tagline, “Everything is true” which is also like saying, “Everything is possible”.
Tørnquist: Yes, and that to me is also so powerful. There’s so much potential if you just let your imagination run and I think there are so few games that do that, just let the imagination go. Again, it’s easier in a way to create a fantasy world, just to create something magical, but everything here has to be grounded in reality. You have to believe that these are real places.
RPS: It almost seems like a philosophical design choice. As if you are saying, “you don’t have to go to Middle Earth or Azeroth. There’s plenty here.”
RPS: In a way, that almost becomes inspirational, encouraging people to look at the world around them in more detail, and in a sense even educational as well. It asks people to learn more about these things which have impacted culture and literature, which hopefully makes them read books and watch movies to flesh out their understanding.
Tørnquist: Definitely. I want people to see the mystery and the magic in our world. Middle Earth is a fantastic place, I love to go there, but there are so many games that do that already. I’ve seen enough games that use dwarves to comment on the underclass and the elves to comment on…whatever. Eventually, I just think, why not use reality?
Bylos: My inspiration for working on The Secret World was either get fired or work on The Secret World.
Tørnquist: Thanks for the contribution.
Bylos: No, I’m kidding. I really like the setting. I was talking to RPS earlier about our inspirations…
RPS: Including Dark Corners of the Earth and Vampire: The Masquerade.
Bylos: Those are the sort of games that I love and working on The Secret World, we already have all that stuff in there.
RPS: Dark Corners of the Earth is a phrase that you could use to describe some of the places in The Secret World very easily. It’s a really evocative set of words and it seems to speak for some of what you’re building.
Tørnquist: Yes, we are going to those dark corners, digging into those mysteries. But the one thing we had to do with The Secret World was expose that darkness in a way. It’s not a game where you constantly go searching for things because The Secret World is about these things coming up to the surface. Zombies are attacking Kingsmouth (a New England town shown in the segment we played; a blend of Kingport and Innsmouth). All this terrible stuff is happening because we are at a turning point in our world where the things that used to stay in the shadows are emerging. And that sort of – I wouldn’t call it a compromise – it’s something that has to be done in order to amp it up a bit, I think.
Bylos: I don’t think it’d make much sense in an MMO if all these people were digging in dark corners. It makes a lot of sense for the storyline to have this darkness rising. But the cool thing is, as in Tokyo Flashback (a segment which shows a ‘terror’ event with the Filth showing itself in public) and you get a hint of what’s going on. But the interesting part is that all that stuff is here already, everything was there, it’s just suddenly started to wake up. And that’s the part that you play through. It’s almost fulfilling the promise of things like Lovecraft. In the future, one day, Cthulhu will rise.
RPS: The stars will be right. Are the stars right in The Secret World?
Bylos: Yep. Or close enough.
Bruusgaard: The whole emphasis on caring about the story in the game is something that really developed while working on this project.
Bylos: When I get on this project, I remember you saying, “Story? Fuck story. Story sucks!”.
Bruusgaard: Something like that. But then one day Ragnar said, “we’re going to tell you the story of The Secret World.”
Tørnquist: Oh, I remember that. That was with Joel as well, I think.
Bruusgaard: Previously, when I played MMOs, there were enemies, and I wanted to kill them so I could get to the next level and do a raid and some PVP. That was my sole purpose in an MMO. And I heard the story about The Secret World that these guys had conceived, and I was just blown away. It was fantastic. And I said, yeah, I’m sold. This could be a movie, a TV series, a game.
Tørnquist: There’s only one person outside Funcom who knows our entire storyline. John Walker.
RPS: Oh really!
Tørnquist: Yeah. But he’s sworn to secrecy.
RPS: Well, I didn’t even know that. Maybe I’ll interview him when I’m back in England.
Tørnquist: He needs to keep his mouth shut!
Bruusgaard: He has too many spoilers.
Tørnquist: Spoilers for the next five years.
RPS: With the game having an ongoing narrative does that mean if people join later, the game might be at a later point? Or can newcomers always start at the start? Or will the world have changed?
Tørnquist: That’s a good question and it’s always a challenge when you’re dealing with MMOs. They are tough in storytelling. And that’s why I would say at launch, 95% of our story is backstory. It’s actually finding out what happened. As you’ve seen, you step three weeks into the past at the beginning of the game. Just uncovering those three weeks is a big part of the story. At launch we cover, I think, the preceding 10,000 years. That’s what we’ll be concentrating on at launch. But obviously we want to drive the story forward. But how do you do that in an MMO? I think WOW did it brilliantly with Cataclysm. In fact, Cataclysm came out and we have talked about something akin to that.
An MMO can’t be driven entirely by single player action, in fact it can’t be at all driven by single player action, so our story is actually about that. The theme of The Secret World is ‘what is the nature of being a hero in an MMO, in this kind of world where there is no one hero’. There’s an army of heroes and what you are doing throughout the game is maintaining the status quo. In the case of Kingsmouth, you’re not there to save the day, or the civilians, you’re there to make sure this darkness doesn’t leak out. And more importantly, you’re there to make sure that people outside of Kingsmouth don’t know what’s going on. The factions don’t want people in Vermount or Montreal to find out there are zombies on their doorstep, and that’s key to the story.
But of course that’s not going to be satisfying in the long-run, just to have these pockets of incidents that don’t affect anything in the world. So, yes, I hope we can drive the story forward in significant ways. Not necessarily entirely player-driven ways but in significant ways that make sense. But of course, we have to consider whether to get rid of content or let new players experience it before they get to the new content. That’s a huge challenge in an MMO to make that feel real. But we are going to do it and we are already talking about plans for the future.
We know the next area of the game. We know where the story is going, but what are we going to do to introduce new players two years down the line? That’s going to be a challenge because playing through things that are now in the past of the game’s timeline is going to feel a bit awkward.
Bylos: What’s interesting about the game is that it has million-year long backstory.
Bruusgaard: I think it’s five million years actually.
Bylos: Fine. So you can keep digging into the story, which is helpful because we’re only revealing pieces of it at a time. With the whole conspiracy thing, players will create their own theories about where this is all leading. I think at launch people will – I don’t want to say be creating their own stories – but certainly coming up with theories about what’s going on.
Tørnquist: Yes, and that’s really important. The idea of community-driven storycrafting. Figuring things out, taking all these puzzle pieces and putting them together and seeing the patterns emerging. Then they can start to theorise. And that’s what we want players to do. We know the truth. We have this massive document and we know exactly what everything is and what everything does, and the meaning behind it but we’re never going to tell players the whole story. We’re going to let them figure it out on their own.
Bylos: There really is something very melancholic about the individual stories actually. When you leave Kingsmouth, once you’ve finished the story mission in that area, and you start finding out that it wasn’t a rescue mission and those people are going to die. All the characters you’ve just spent the last few hours speaking to will die.
RPS: Are you going to make John cry again?
Tørnquist: That’s not so hard! C’mon! John cries over everything!
Bylos: It is a very sort of melancholy feeling that, in some ways, you’re not a hero at all. What you did there was in many ways for your own advancement. You see the mission reports popping up and they’re all from the perspective of your faction.
RPS: Would your goal in Kingsmouth change if you were representing a different faction? Or would there at least be a difference of feeling from the flavour of the text and briefings? Can the outcome actually change – say, for example, the Dragons, are they more concerned with saving people?
Bylos: Nobody wants to save people.
RPS: It’s The Horrible World.
Tørnquist: The factions are driven by The Council of Venice and the Council’s job is to make sure that The Secret World and the civilian world are kept separate. So, no, the story mission in Kingsmouth doesn’t radically change depending on your faction, but when you return to your headquarters there is a faction-based story mission and that is radically different for each faction.
Bylos: There is something very interesting about making the player meet and like these people and then having you realise that you’re not going to be able to do anything for them.
RPS: And in some ways, realising that you’re not necessarily the good guys?
Bylos: Well, you could try to be the ‘good guy’ and do something for them, but then you’d be leaving behind your faction and everything, and then you wouldn’t be able to continue with the game.
Knut: The factions, I guess, are based on myths like the Illuminati and The Templars, and the Dragons are something like a Triad?
Tørnquist: No, the Dragon is definitely not Triad. It’s an interesting challenge with cabals or secret societies in the Far East because they are either political or criminal. The idea of these sort of conspiratorial organisations that we have in the west isn’t that prevalent in Asia. They have a lot of secret societies but they are always almost exclusively criminal or political. So the Dragon is the most fictional of our three.
But keep in mind that our Templars are not the Knights Templar that we know of. The Knights Templar was an offshoot of our Templars. The Knights Templar went to the Middle East and captured Jerusalem. They are basically a radical separatist group of our Templars, who have been around since the dawn of Ur and Babylon, of the Mesopotamian nations. They were always there to crusade against evil. They were never about religious conquest of the Biblical world. They have always been paladins in the fight.
The real Illuminati, quote unquote, is really not that interesting. If you read about it, it’s mostly fictional and there’s some Austrian – I think it’s Austrian…
Tørnquist: They’re really not that interesting. But our take on it is that the people who claim they are the real Illuminati actually aren’t. The real Illuminati came out of Eastern Africa at the same time as the city states of Mesopatomia arose, when the dawn of civilisation was happening in Eastern Africa. That then moved north to Egypt and that’s where the Illuminati started out.
And the Dragon. As I’ve said, it’s hard to find one source of inspiration for that kind of group in the Far East, so what we have done is taken some of the concepts and ideas coming out of the philosophies of those nations to create something new. Our secret societies resonate pop culturally on the name side of things but as you start digging into them, you’ll find that what we have done is to create something completely unique and different from the iconic versions.
RPS: There’s a Dan Brown joke early on in the Templar initiation…
Tørnquist: Not everybody is a fan of that joke!
RPS: It’s as if the Templars know that the player, or the character, thinks he already knows everything about them because he’s read the Da Vinci Code. And they turn round and say, ‘no, no, no, you’ve got us all wrong’.
Tørnquist: We have a lot of dimensions to it and as you progress through a secret society you will learn a lot more about the background of it and the depth of it. Hopefully that’s true of everything in this game. There is so much depth. We’re only scratching the surface now, but if you saw our Wiki and how much material is there, you’d probably be surprised.
RPS: Can we talk about religion?
Tørnquist: We can always talk about religion.
RPS: It was a little surprising to see the plagues in Egypt, echoing Exodus, and a character actually says, “these plagues are not Biblical”. There’s a conflation of living religion and mythology, which seems natural to me because Christianity, even to a believer, can be seen to contain many elements of myth-making. Do you worry that having horror, folk tale and religion all providing setting and creatures could cause offense?
Tørnquist: We’re Funcom. We don’t usually worry too much about offending people. We are not trying to offend anyone and we are respectfully addressing all religions, we really are. We have certain rules to try and prevent offensive content, but we do want to explore the similarities between religions and mythologies, and between basic cultural ideas. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not addressing the question of whether or not there is a God. We’re leaving that open.
There are characters in the game who are religious and refer to God and yet they know The Secret World. There are characters who refer to the existence of a Hell, even though we have something akin to Hell in the game. It’s not the Hell of damned souls, it’s a place where demons live. So we’re trying to say that there are these shared cultural ideas across religions that have their origin in something else and we’re looking at those origins, but we’re not addressing the big question of who is God and which God is it.
So, what I hope is that people from any religion, who are open minded, will be able to play this game and say, ‘yes, this can fit into my world view’. That would be my ideal situation. As long as you are open minded and flexible enough to accept slightly different points of view, we’re not contradicting anything. We’re not contradicting the creation of the universe. It is actually true what you’re saying though; if someone is easily offended , then no matter which religious belief you have, you’ll find something to be offended about in our game. Likewise, if you are actually open-minded, no matter what religion you follow, you’ll find something in the game that can play to your belief system.
RPS: In the West, Christian mythology has influenced so much of fiction, myth and pop culture that you could argue it would be dishonest to leave it out entirely when you’re being so inclusive.
Tørnquist: Exactly. It’s the same thing we’ve done with a lot of our games. At least the games I’ve worked on, both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall touched on religion and had ideas that might be considered controversial or offensive. But if you actually listen to the characters in the game and you actually see the ideas in the game, it’s clear that we’re not trying to do that. We’re trying to explore different points of view. And that’s important.
We actually try to say something and I think that’s something that – I can’t speak for Conan – but at least on the games I worked on, maybe Dragonheart excepted (laughs), we try to actually say something of value. We’re not trying to push any ideas on top of players but we really like to ask questions and make players go away and think further about them.
Bylos: And the church isn’t simple. What else did you see in there?
RPS: Nobody told me there would be a quiz. Illuminati symbols?
Bylos: Exactly. There’s lots of other stuff going on there.
Tørnquist: God is in the details.
RPS: You tipped us onto surface detail this morning before we played, telling us to look at every sign. I could have spent an hour just wandering around that tiny part of London absorbing everything.
Tørnquist: And it’s not even done yet. Just wait until we’re actually done implementing everything! The texture and the detail in this game is exhausting…
RPS: And exhaustive?
Tørnquist: Yes, but definitely exhausting. It’s killing us! But it’s so worthwhile. You didn’t see New York today, but a few weeks ago I actually went to the area from the game and explored it in the real world…
Bylos: They have seen New York.
Tørnquist: You did?
RPS: We had a little look. Tiny.
Tørnquist: Well, I went to those streets in real life and walked around. And I thought, “holy shit, I am standing inside the game right now”. It’s exactly the same and that attention to detail just really triggered something in me. Does that answer the question?
RPS: I don’t know if it’s a question we can necessarily answer at all today.
Bruusgaard: It was about religion, remember?
Tørnquist: Oh, yes, this is RPS. All they care about is the really big questions! (laughs)
RPS: We can talk about how the game works too. The skill wheel?
Bruusgaard: It’s a wheel of skills.
RPS: Having played it, that makes sense. Unfortunately, the people reading this interview probably won’t have played it. But I’m going to assume they understand what a skill wheel is. Or explain it in an insert.
(Hello. This is the insert. The 500+ skills in the game can be seen on a large wheel, with each segment assigned to one weapon/magic. They are unlocked from the centre, starting with an inner wheel and progressing to the more powerful outer wheel. Given the number of skills and the complexity of creating builds from them, Funcom are including a search engine to help players find skills that work well together, but it is entirely possible to make a unique character using any combination of seven active and seven passive skills. Bye!)
RPS: I was talking with Joel earlier about the original 1920’s style of the game, back when it was called Cabal. From what I understand – in fact, I shouldn’t say understand, I’ll just ask. Was the modern day move because you felt the cultural references would resonate more strongly?
Tørnquist: That was definitely one of the reasons, yes. For a short time I was strongly against the idea of moving it from the 1920s to the modern day. That’s partly because I play a lot of Call of Cthulhu, I’ve been a dungeon master in that, or a game master. There’s something about the 1920s that helps to put across this mysterious world. It was a time when there was suddenly access to planes and cameras. A lot of explorers were starting to dig into all the remote locations of the world, bringing them to the surface. It’s a transition point, I think, between a world that’s completely shrouded in mystery and the modern world. It’s sort of a gateway.
As for the modern setting, like you said, it allows us to bring in a lot more pop culture references and other broader cultural references. And secondly, I really want players to feel close to the world we’re making in this game. I think the 1920s is still somewhat alienating to a lot of people. Moving it into the present day makes it so much closer and brings the reality of the fantasy so much closer to home.
This could be your backyard. This could be happening right now. So once I started warming to the idea, it seemed very obvious that this is what we had to do. But we kept everything we did for the 1920s version, brought if forward another 90 years and said, this is what happened in the meantime. I’d love to go back and do the ’20s version of The Secret World, maybe on Xbox…
RPS: Or as a point and click adventure. I’m actively trying to influence your decision-making here.
Tørnquist: (laughs) We could explore it anyway we want to actually because important stuff happened in the 1920s as well. The stuff that’s happening in the game that you play today, it’s cyclical. It keeps happening over and over again. What’s happening now in the current version of the game is so much grander and bigger than anything that’s happened before, but these things have run in cycles since the beginning of time. The 1920s is just one point where things surfaced before.
Bruusgaard: Investigation is a huge part of the storyline in the 1920s version.
Tørnquist: Yeah, yeah. But still. When we go to That Location That I Shall Not Name, the ’20s background is going to be an incredibly important part of it.
Bylos: We haven’t lost any of that history. Players will be digging through the layers of story. So at launch, the players will be digging through the last few years and then when they reach the 1920s, things go a bit deeper.
Tørnquist: It’s mostly the last three weeks at launch! And then they’ll journey back and back and back and back…now, I need to leave for a moment but shall return. So you can talk about PVP or something.
And we did! Eventually. After talking about raids, dungeons, guilds and the difficulties of making a classless MMO. Of course, we also talked about other things. Including lore, Tintin, the future of Funcom and bees. Read all about it later this week. And, yes, when Ragnar returned, we also talked about Dreamfall.