The Secret World

Ragnar rock.

Ragnar Tornquist, Funcom's in-house auteur and creator of its next MMO The Secret World, is as bright-eyed, effusive and animated as ever, even if his hair seems to have a nasty case of jetlag. The setting is familiar; we last met in the same building, quite possibly the same room, a year ago.

But in contrast to last year and to his colleague Craig Morrison's dim Conan dungeon down the hall, the room is flooded with northern California sunshine, as if to symbolise the fact that he's actually going to shed some light on the game this time around.

Funcom is eking every inch out of the fact a game about secret conspiracies and a hidden occult world within our own lends itself to a rather coy, cloak-and-dagger style of promotion. But the picture is slowly becoming clearer. We discovered the basics this time last year and more about the game's secret societies and locations at PAX.

Now, at long last, we're to be shown rolling game footage and given the lowdown on this most high-concept MMO, learning a little about the nitty-gritty of its construction: combat, character development, mission structure.

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Not the usual combination of MMO and Pringle.

This is a Ragnar Tornquist game, though, so mood, character and story still come first - all presented with a writerly turn of phrase that belies the fact that English isn't his mother tongue. He reintroduces us to the New England town of Kingsmouth, a classic slice of autumnal, wood-framed, small-town Eastern seaboard, straight out of Stephen King or John Carpenter. "Scratch the paint off that white picket fence and you'll find rotten darkness underneath," says Tornquist.

That talent for an elegant turn on genre tropes is echoed in the game's script. Tornquist isn't the only MMO developer touting a newfound focus on story for the genre - LucasArts and BioWare are doing just the same with Star Wars: The Old Republic, for starters - although he is perhaps the only one delivering it in the pithy, world-weary style of American pulp TV at its best. Think Buffy or the X-Files in their now-distant heydays.

He shows us a reel of the fully-voiced cinematic intros that will kick off each of the game's missions, although each will effectively be a "quest chain" in old MMO money, consisting of several "tiers". The intros sketch out the characters that give players their tasks: a jittery Sherriff's deputy, a pair of black-clad Matrix technocrats, a Stetson-wearing backwoods hunter, a nervous priest, a silver-haired biker type in denim, an old lady brandishing a shotgun.

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Mushroom, elephant, squid, or ungodly horror?

They sketch out the undead terror ("can't we just call them zombies yet?") besieging Kingsmouth along with an ominous, if picturesque, fog, using lines like "I've tried prayer, but Satan's wearing Kevlar" or "I wouldn't go so far as to call any place Hell... but when the wind blows west, you can smell the brimstone". Classic Americana with a striking sense of character and melancholy tone, and it's already clear that The Secret World won't feel like your everyday MMO.

It won't look or play quite like one, either. A segue into gameplay footage shows off a slick and pleasantly minimal "augmented reality" interface not unlike Heavy Rain's: mission and item information appears hovering in 3D space in the game world next to the appropriate item or character. Aside from that, there's not much but a discreet chat window and a bar of seven skill icons at the bottom of the screen.

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