"What is The Secret World? It's not a parallel dimension, it's not an alternate reality, it's the world outside these blinds. It's down that alley to the left and behind the fence, it's an abandoned warehouse, it's that strange little town in the Middle East, it's that haunted forest, it's all the places we avoid, all the locations that make us feel uneasy, it's the stories on the news about the missing person who people think has been murdered but the story's been covered up, it's the things that the authorities don't want us to know about, it's what the governments are hiding, it's what the secret societies are suppressing. That's the secret world. It's a world behind our world, hidden by a veil."
Ragnar Tornquist, tall, rangy, animated, youthful, a little wild-haired, is pacing up and down a luxury hotel suite in San Francisco that's been kept dark despite the brilliant day outside and decorated with cryptic maps, books on the occult and old radio equipment. The game auteur is talking a mile a minute in his clipped Norwegian accent, hoping that he can use his sheer voluble enthusiasm to distract us from the fact that he's not really going to answer the question he just posed himself.
And to be fair, he largely succeeds.
What is The Secret World? It's Funcom's next MMO, the developer's third after Anarchy Online and last year's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. It's set in the contemporary real world, but has elements of dark fantasy, ancient conspiracy and the occult. It's directed by Tornquist, the writerly designer known for his adventure games The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. It is, by Tornquist's own admission, "still in the hype stage".
So we're not going to get a lot of concrete detail from this Game Developers Conference presentation, and we're certainly not going to see the game itself. We're going to see some beautiful concept art and a couple of impressive CG trailers, one of which we can share with you today, as well as a concept video that bombards us with reference points. And we're going to learn one hard, and very important, fact.
The Secret World will have no classes or levels. This, Tornquist stresses, is absolutely not a typical MMORPG design; he describes it as an "action-adventure-MMORPG" with "fast, reactive combat". Although there will naturally be character progression and an incentive to play the game for a long time, "The Secret World begins where other MMOs end," he says. "There's no grind to get to a preconceived place." You take your character from the same, blank-slate "regular person" starting point as everyone else, and develop it in any way you want.
Furthermore, the entire game (which we know will include London, New York, Seoul, New England and Egypt as launch locations) will be open from the start, although some areas will be harder than others, and some content will be intended for more highly-developed characters. According to Tornquist, it "doesn't take long" from starting a new character to being able to join in with friends who've been playing the game for months.
Character customisation is completely free, and allows players to explore paths such as dark magic, voodoo and witchcraft as well as martial arts, ancient weapons and modern firearms. "If you want to be a character that has some magic power and ranged combat, you can use a shotgun and a voodoo doll and you can kick some serious ass using just your fists and your feet; you can do that. If you want to focus just in one direction and be a brawny soldier character who wears Kevlar armour and huge combat boots and a headband, you can do that," he says.
However, acquiring new skills in new areas will be the key to advancing your character. "You are progressing your character through expanding your deck of cards, expanding the possibilities you have," says Tornquist. "You'll never have to create a second character." The adventures available to you will be limited by character specialisation as much as your total power - which, combined with the lack of hard-and-fast levels, raises the intriguing prospect of grouping or solo completism being alternative paths to seeing much of the game's content.