Game Design Spotlight #5: The Secret World Created An Intriguing And Mystifying World With Real-Life Oddities Like No Other MMO

An ambitious contemporary title on release that stood out due to its concepts.

Anthony Jones
By Anthony Jones, News Editor September 6, 2022
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Welcome to the fifth installment of the Game Design Spotlight, a weekly piece where I examine the design elements of various parts of an MMO, such as an obscure combat system and controversial player-friendly features. Last week, we went back to Final Fantasy XIV to spotlight the janky house decorating system and its much-needed evolution. Today, we're covering one of the more unconventional titles that came out a decade ago: The Secret World.

Every aspect of The Secret World services the theme of “everything is true." Far-reaching conspiracy theories rumored about on internet pages and tall legends that never held weight are alive and kicking. The Earth is actually hollow; a city rests on the Moon; Atlantis is rising from the ocean depths. These bizarre real-life oddities are naturally emulated in The Secret World as the end days are approaching, creating a world with an intriguing and mystifying allure that satisfies player curiosity.

Of course, real life and the game world are totally different, but what is captured in-game and conceptually thought of in the development process, makes everything believably competent. Vampires are not shoehorned to fit the game but rather molded into the narrative with references from real life, giving credibility to these mythical creatures.

SWL Port Monsters

Actual locations on the planet become tightly assembled as secret societies move in to make them their base of operations. Within them are nuggets of originality and familiarity, parting away from reality when coming across portals hidden below a flight of stairs or down a distant alleyway. All of these colliding factors of The Secret World make its overall design like no other MMO.

A Game Of What-Ifs

Developed by Funcom, The Secret World was originally released in 2012 with an optional subscription-based/buy-to-play business model, set in modern times under attack from occult forces. Reading the premise, it may sound pretty bare bones and not original, but it expands wildly on the sheer magnitude of opposition players must battle. You've got creatures who clawed out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel, zombies running the streets of a remote port town ripped out of Silent Hill, and Old Gods pulling strings behind the scenes to fit their needs and wants.

The Secret World debuted in a saturated market of high-fantasy MMORPG titles, which helped it stick out attractively as something experimental and fresh. It had an interesting concept, cool trailers, and surface-level gameplay qualities that offered a bit of player experimentation.

However, The Secret World received plenty of mixed reviews for various uncooked areas of the game, with combat being a commonly named area. Despite that, there was unified praise for its story presentation, unusual atmosphere, worldbuilding, and puzzles. In an interview with GameSpot, former Game Director Ragnar Tornquist mentioned how narrative beats would be at the forefront and that the "story is a huge jigsaw puzzle," unraveling and unlike anything else.

In a world where “magic, myths, conspiracies, and dark horror” stalk the Earth, the development of all the what-ifs in real life took precedence over its weaker parts, like the combat system. The best part is that Funcom’s efforts to sell this unique world came with attention to detail and plausibility that stands on its own today.

A Replica World With Dark Charm And Originality

Strengthening the essence of secrecy and bewildering myths, players can choose to join the Illuminati, Templars, or Dragon societies. Everyone has motives to fulfill to better the Earth, and competition is fierce between them. The factions are not just cool clubs people sign-up for, though. Players become chosen and must decide which philosophy they willingly can support. Templars will burn a whole village down to smite a demon child for a more righteous world, Illuminati are menacingly crooked and will go to any lengths to get what they want, and Dragons believe in chaos and act as a middle-ground between good and evil.

These factions have leaders and places they operate within: London, for example, is the stomping grounds of the Templars. Here, tunnels open up to public squares and shops in the European city with an air of authenticity. Templars have an ancient reputation to uphold, too, fittingly adorned with regal crimson uniforms with crosses and housing paintings of glorified crusaders on the walls of their chapel. The head of the Templars indoctrinates players upon their arrival, giving them the run-down on what they must come to terms with and the faith necessary to live through the end days.

SWL OctoMob

The introduction to these societies eventually leads players to Hollow Earth, the viscera of the planet and nexus for portal traveling across the globe. This is "Harry Potter" levels of realism meets fantasy – albeit a darker charm here but it did a great job of blurring the line. I love this thematic consistency in The Secret World, which practically forced the devs to consider where players would discover portals and the historical significance of secret societies.

Something like an in-game phone book with fake businesses and numbers sold the experience, too. Alongside subways in Tokyo, slathered in dark gunk and goo that summons demons, soon peeled back to reveal an adjacent dimensional world filled with hauntingly abnormal planets. Add in characters slinging fireballs while wearing faded hoodies and busted-up sneakers, and The Secret World seemingly persuades the player to buy into this realistic game world even more.

And while The Secret World used the framework of Earth, its overall design and vibe presented a game world injected with a dark juxtaposition of reality and the imaginary. In recent memory, nothing else has touched this deliberate supernatural area of MMOs, and certainly hasn't done so as effectively.

That concludes another week of the Game Design Spotlight! Have you ever played the original The Secret World? What about the current iteration, Legends? Was there anything about them that made you think, "Yeah, I can get behind this?" Let us know below! Also, leave any titles or features you would like me to cover for next week's story if you have any suggestions!

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About the Author

Anthony Jones
Anthony Jones, News Editor
Anthony Jones is a gaming journalist and late 90s kid in love with retro games and the evolution of modern gaming. He started at Mega Visions as a news reporter covering the latest announcements, rumors, and fan-made projects. FFXIV has his heart in the MMORPGs scene, but he's always excited to analyze and lose hours to ambitious and ambiguous MMOs that gamers follow.

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