"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.
Where does this leave refined group dynamics, though, if players have no framework for their skills or level of power? "That is a challenge, because yes, people are used to the damage/healer/tank dynamic," Tornquist admits. "In certain situations that dynamic will still exist, it's just a case of making sure your group stacks the deck of cards the right way, if you see what I mean. You do need this set of abilities, or this or this, but the main difference is you're not stuck being the healer or the tank." There will be guidelines for those intimidated by the freeform character development, too.
You'll be in total control of your character's look, and able to restyle it at whim; your equipment will be weapons, skills and artefacts rather than armour. The style seems to be cool, glamorous but grounded, and 100 per cent contemporary. In stills, we see a hard-bitten John Constantine lookalike with cigarette and trench coat; a milkshake-sucking Asian girl in a tank-top with magical tattoos; and a white-haired indie chick toting winter woollies and a shotgun adorned with magical charms.
All of which is very alluring, naturally - but in MMOs, too much freedom can be a bad thing. Where are the rags-to-riches satisfaction, the ostentatiously-worn bragging-rights to covet and strive for? "You can't make an MMO without having a focus on items, on progression, on getting the cool stuff, because otherwise there's no incentive; people would enjoy it for 30, 40, 50 hours and then they would go away," agrees Tornquist.
"It's not going to be loot in a traditional sense, but there will be a lot of really cool items you can use to enhance your character. It's going to be a lot about the skills you get, but it's also going to be a lot about the weapons. It's not going to be about armour and things like that, because if you want to wear a tank-top and hot-pants, you can. If you want to wear the trench coat and the combat boots and the hat, you can do that too, but it's not going to give you a different advantage over the person who just wants to wear the jeans and t-shirt.
"[It] will definitely be the weapons and the powers you have, the cool special effects that you have, there will be ways to really see and differentiate - yeah, that guy's been playing this game a long time, and you can tell."
Tornquist and his team - made up from veterans of Funcom's adventure games as well as its MMOs - aren't quite ready to throw the baby out with the bath water, however. The meat of The Secret World will be combat; missions to fight monsters. Tornquist isn't ready to detail the combat system, but promises it will be fast and feel like an action game. "Conan did good things," he says of that game's fast-paced combo system, but is keen to point out that The Secret World is following the path in spirit, but not to the letter. As for a player-versus-player element: "We're going to talk about that more at another time, so you can interpret that how you will. But there is definitely a common goal, though."
Combat will be conjoined with exploration, puzzle-solving, and what sounds like a much more languid, adventure-game style of play. "You can choose: today I don't want to fight things, today I want to explore this mystery, I want to find out about this story, I want go and meet these characters, I want to know what's behind that door, I want to know what's behind the legend of this place," Tornquist says. Puzzle-solving will be incentivised with new powers and other rewards, and "exploration in itself is gameplay".
Will there be an attempt to create group mechanics around this non-combat activity, we ask? "We are definitely trying that, but the more you get into adventure-style gameplay, the more difficult it is to make it group-based," he says. "So if you're the kind of player who finds combat difficult, actually grouping with somebody in order to do an investigation of something, to go into all these mysteries is important.
"We are creating puzzles, definitely, which require a group to solve. At the same time, I really really think it's important for people to be able to play solo through a lot of the story aspects of the game and be able to casually team up whenever that's needed. Yes, it's an MMO, yes there's a lot of content that does require a group, but when it comes to the story and the lore of the universe, I want those players who are not necessarily used to playing in groups to get into this world and find interesting things within it."
This is not to say that The Secret World will follow the route to solo MMO storytelling taken by Age of Conan's early levels, and Lord of the Rings Online's epic quests: instancing. "My preference is to have as much of it as open-world, shared spaces as possible. I don't like instances at all," says Tornquist, surprisingly perhaps for a craftsman of the adventure yarn. "So we're trying to avoid that. There will be some places which are reserved for you or a group of people, but for the most part we're going to make it seamless, open, a lot of people running around - and that does introduce a lot of challenges when it comes to the storytelling aspect. But we have ways of working around that."
On the story he'll be telling, Tornquist is at once fulsome and vague. He's able to be so because The Secret World's premise - the rise of an ancient evil, hundreds of millennia old, which has shaped the world's cultures and been kept secret - seems to be an all-encompassing grab-bag of history, mythology, urban legends, pop culture, fairytales and fiction.
The concept video buries us in teasing phrases faster than we can write them down: "Some secrets should stay buried... arctic explorers... now the conspiracy is revealed... we are in the fourth age... Stonehenge is a beacon... vampires... Titans... Earth is hollow.... Atlantis is rising... bees are harbingers... Noah's was not the only ark... Everything is true." No kidding.
How do you define the game's fiction when it seems to take such a kitchen-sink approach? Tornquist admits it's hard, but says his team is very much taking its lead from the locations. "The elements that we have in terms of day-to-day gameplay are more focused, and those are tied to locations in the game. So when you go to London there's a lot of London mythology there. What's the essence of London, or New York, or Egypt? What are the mythological aspects that you expect we're going to use here?" He adds that you'll get a sense of a much larger canvas that will be painted as the game expands over time.
On his influences, Tornquist can be clearer, and disarmingly frank. "Things like Sandman and Hellblazer and a lot of the Vertigo comic books, that kind of contemporary, dark urban fantasy. The works of Neil Gaiman, obviously that's a huge inspiration. The idea of magic existing and mythology being a truth in out universe and twisting that a little bit," he says.
"At the same time I'm also a huge fan of things like Buffy and Angel... Buffy was an inspiration when I made The Longest Journey as well, because I do like the fine balance between the humour and pathos, soap opera and sitcom, and creating this interesting fictional universe which is very sort of character-based... and which isn't hugely original. I'm not going to say that The Secret World is necessarily enormously original. But it's not the sort of setting that's often been explored in a game, definitely not an MMO."
That is certainly where The Secret World's appeal lies at the moment - and despite the slight GDC showing, that appeal is considerable. Sharp art direction and the expansive but simple premise - anything is possible, as long as it can be tied to the here and now - pick The Secret World out in a bright, but flattering spotlight similar to that which fell on Otherland last year. Urban myth and magic, fighting monsters and investigating mysteries on streets you know, being a sorcerer in smart casual: who doesn't want a piece of that?
If The Secret World's combat and classless society live up to their hype, they should also prove a powerful draw. But God, and the Devil, are in the details, and Tornquist's team has a mighty challenge ahead when it comes to balancing accessibility and a sense of achievement over years, not hours, of gameplay, with no structure to be their guide. Hopefully they can do more than talk their way out of answering that, because we'd love to see it solved.