The Secret World is an evocative, luxurious kind of title, a handful of words that conjure up a riddled sprawl of subterranean canals, dew-dropped gateways and darkened under-streets slotted in and around our own humdrum neighbourhoods and cities. It promises a glimpse of a murkier, sexier kind of life that unfolds just out of reach, on the other side of the raindrops, perhaps, or tucked in somewhere behind the fireplace. It practically bubbles with conspiracies, too, and we all love those - presumably because they allow you to believe that everything will make sense if you just stare at it long enough, that there's a governing force at work, however malignant, and that it operates within a galaxy of rules and restrictions, unfailingly listening to a quiet heartbeat of cause and effect. It all sounds a bit like a game, really.
Well, now it is one: an MMO designed by the cheerily unpredictable Ragnar Tornquist, creator of adventure games Dreamfall and The Longest Journey, and a man whose name suggests he belongs inside a fantasy universe - possibly smelting something nasty - rather than at the helm of one. (You can read an interview with Tornquist elsewhere on the site.) On the day I meet him at PAX, Tornquist finds himself in a secret world all of his own, wedged into a flimsy prefab alleyway threaded in amongst the slick bulk of Harmonix's booth where someone appears to be administering an unforgivable shoeing to Eleanor Rigby. "I never thought I'd get tired of the Beatles, but f**king hell," says Tornquist, speaking into a microphone even though I'm about a foot away and one of only three other people in the room. "And I was really looking forward to that game," he sighs.
Well, I'm still looking forward to his game at any rate, and not just because it wasn't put together following close consultations with Yoko Ono. Nobody's seen much of The Secret World in the first two years of its development, however. Early videos, particularly some brooding CGI of a knitwear-clad lady with fearsome highlights, made the game look grown-up and entirely non-traditional - actually, if you took away the shotguns and demons, it could have been an advert for an up-market Eastern skiwear manufacturer - but hard details have been scarce.
Today, Tornquist's willing to pull back the curtain a little bit, and has a thick stack of PowerPoint slides to prove it. He's presenting one of the game's central elements: the trio of secret societies at the heart of the narrative, the three major forces that have shaped his hidden back-stories.
But let's wind things in a little to take stock of what we already know. The Secret World tells the tale of magic-wielding heroes waging an underground war against "zombies, vampires, and that kind of thing" (Tornquist's words) and is set within a dense muddle of conspiracy theories, old wives' ramblings and urban legends. An early teaser suggested that it might have room for all of them, in fact, reeling off everything from secret chambers discovered beneath Arctic wastelands, rumours of a massive cavity within Earth itself, Stonehenge, telepathy, Masonic links within the US government and, naturally, Atlantis. If the development team had let the film run for another twenty seconds, they'd probably have had enough room to connect Lord Lucan and Shergar to that time somebody leaked a pre-release PDF copy of Jamie's Italian onto the internet, and even found the space to cram in a few Your Mom jokes to boot.