MMORPGs are generally not very well regarded in their quest design. Generally full of fetch and “kill X enemies” quests, many of them tend to be boring grinds until the endgame. In such a context, The Secret World’s (more recently relaunched as Secret World Legends) investigation quests are quite a breath of fresh air.
The Secret World was originally launched in 2012 as a story-focused MMORPG. Instead of medieval fantasy or science fiction, the two most popular RPG scenarios, TSW wanted to be different, focusing in conspirations in a lovecraftian urban fantasy. You control a person that has recently awakened magic powers and is called by a mysterious organization (which can be the Illuminati, Templars or the Dragons, it’s up to you). You are soon called to Solomon Island, a place in Maine where a zombie outbreak has begun (yeah, so much for originality).
There are many fetch quests in The Secret World, as it is in most MMORPGs. Still, while you’ll get plenty of “kill 10 zombies” quests, there is a special kind of quest that really sets the game apart: investigation quests. While in most quests you have clear objectives and a question marker to guide you, investigation quests are generally full of riddles and exploration without markers. While some of them can be criticized for their difficulty, they reward out of the box thinking and observation. To explain what sets some of the investigative quests in Secret World apart from other games, I’ll talk about four quests in the first area of the game, Kingsmouth Town. There will be spoilers from the quests, obviously.
In the Solomon Island, you’ll find plenty of odd characters (that speak as if they’re declaring poetry. The dialogue in the game is really odd). One of those characters is a seer called Madame Roget. She is spooked because she used to be a charlatan, but since the zombie attack she is having real visions. She has a vision about you and says that “on the tip of the pyramid, your path shall be revealed”. Then, The Vision quest begins and it’s up to you to find the places that she keep seeing. The first one is easy. You have to look at the map of the area and you’ll find a place called Pyramid’s Point. Get there and she’ll call you with another vision: “Shadows, long shadows, from the old boughs of the fairy forest, the flickering lights of the foolish fire guiding your path”. If you have walked around the area a lot, you’ll know she means Wispwood, where wisps (the flickering lights) surround an old tree. In the next vision, she talks about bees and flowers. This one is really hard. The only place with bees in the area is the entrance, which leads to Agartha (the place where you came from), but it’s pretty easy not to notice the bees when you enter. The quest continues with a visit to the graveyard, where you find a statue with a sword and finally in a bridge with a memorial of dead people. This is possibly the hardest clue to find, as Roget only says “The cold, dead eyes of innocent stare at you from the gallows, their blank gaze a mirror to the past… and the future”. That’s really not very specific. At the bridge, you beat a Revenant and quest completed. This quest is really interesting because, in spite of the MMORPG’s love for quest markers, it doesn’t give you any. You have to use your map and explore your surroundings as if they were a real place to discover where to go. That encourages thinking and, in the future, it’ll make you pay more attention to your surroundings in the game, as it might lead to interesting clues.
If the The Vision is a quest about knowing the game, the Men in Black Vans and Dead Air quests are very interesting uses of the internet. If you played The Secret World, there’s a great chance that you used the internet to solve The Vision. 90% of the quests of the game use quest markers, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when something is different. Those two quests acknowledge this and use the internet in a very interesting way to aid you in your investigation.
Let’s begin with Men in Black Vans. You find a kid called Danny in a skate park. He is curious about mysterious men in black vans that are making experiments with the local monsters, so it’s up to you to investigate. The first thing to do is to find a black van. There is one nearby, so that’s easy. In the van, you’ll find a laptop. To access it, you’ll need a password. The hint for the password is “My wife”. If you investigate nearby, you’ll find two corpses of people in black, a man and a woman. In their ID cards, you’ll discover that they are Kitsune Hayabusa (id: 1688490) and Emily Chan (id: 1689477). Note that they don’t have the same surname, so it’s possible that Emily is not Kitsune’s wife (and if you try Emily, Chan, Emily Chan or any variation of this, it won’t work). The clue here is that the ID cards show a site: http://www.orochi-group.net/?action=efinder. You can click it, it’s a real site. There, you have to track Kitsune for his name or ID number and discover that his wife’s name is Sally and that is the password. The rest of the quest is pretty easy. The password will give you a tracking device to find an “occult attractor” and instructions on how to disable it. Follow the tracker, follow the instructions (which you better have written, because if you don’t, you have to go all the way back to do so) and complete the quest.
Dead Air uses internet in a similar way. In the abandoned airport of Kingsmouth there’s a very suspicious guy called Ellis Hill, a mechanic. He is anxious about a radio that isn’t working well, but urges you not to meddle. Of course you’d meddle, wouldn’t you? Your first mission is to find the antenna of the radio without quest markers, which is not very hard, you only have to look around in the airport. Unfortunately, the radio mast is broken and you have to fix it, but how? There is a serial number: Manticore 3881999. Manticore is a subsidiary of the Orochi group (the same from the last quest). You have to enter their site (listed in the game) and look for Manticore, then enter the serial number. In the site, you’ll discover that you’ll need household adhesives, conductors and amplifiers to fix the mast. You’ll find them nearby (there’s a quest marker now). Fix the mast and you’ll get a code in morse code. Yeah, this game never let you do things easily. As soon as figure it out (or read the answer in the internet. I did that, as I don’t know anything of morse code), you’ll find that the message says “Droplocation 712 536”. This means you have to find these coordinates in the map. There, get the content inside a crate and quest completed.
Again, those two quests are interesting because they make you think for yourself, instead of only following quest markers and instructions. The use of internet in an online game is pretty interesting, too, as the setting is in contemporary times and it is pretty realistic to use the internet to solve riddles (as you probably do a lot in games). An offline game could have more problems doing this, as it doesn’t really know if the player has internet access that moment, but this isn’t the case.
The final quest I’ll talk about is The Kingsmouth Code. It’s one of the most interesting, inventive and unfair quests I have ever played. The Kingsmouth Code summarises well everything right and wrong about the design of The Secret World’s investigation quests. It is very complex, yet very interesting, but too damn badly explained for its own good. I actually dare you to complete it without reading any part of its solution online. It’s almost impossible.
“Kingsmouth is a book of secrets. An illuminated manuscript, waiting for those who would read between the lights.”
With this phrase the reverend Henry Hawthorne begins the quest. I highlighted it because I think it encompasses perfectly what The Secret World tries to do. This quest is made, in a similar manner to The Vision, to make the player see Kingsmouth as a living place full of mystery. A place to be deciphered, uncovered. In a game about conspirations, there’s no feeling more interesting than the one that the ambient itself in which the game occurs is hiding something. Also, that is a notable way to introduce lore through gameplay, instead of dialogue, something most games struggle with.
Henry is obsessed with the Illuminati and the secret they left in Kingsmouth. He says there are hints of their secrets all over town and he want you to help investigate. The first clue is that the illuminati pyramid points to the secret. There are illuminati symbols in the sewer caps right in from of the church. If you follow the eyes on top of the pyramids, from sewer cap to sewer cap, you’ll reach the next clue. This beginning is pretty interesting, as it take something you have for granted, those sewer caps as part of the town, and it turns it into a clue. More than in The Vision, now your surroundings have a meaning. In the end, you’ll find these clues:
In the seat of power, the navigator immortalized
Illuminating the path
To the sleeping priest and fletcher
In memory of Frans Hals, who perished in light (1580-1666)
The first clue is the “seat of power”. What is the seat of power? It means the town hall. Inside there, you have to figure it out what is the navigator immortalized. If you googled Frans Hals, you know that he is a painter. As the first floor of the town hall is full of paintings, the answer is in one of them. You should note the words “the navigator immortalized”, as it’ll take you to a picture of a navigator. If you pick the wrong one or try them one by one, you’ll be sent to detours and have to visit various points of the town, like restaurants, in order to move on. In the navigator picture, you’ll find a new clue.
“Time is the province of Kings and Gods. The hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. The path is open to the enlightened.”
If you follow the first clue, you should go to the sleeping priest, as the navigator illuminates to path to him, which is the house of the priest, at the side of the church. There, you’ll find a locked basement. The code to the basement is discovered in the second clue. If time is the province of Kings and Gods, that means there is a relation between these three items. The second phrase says that that the hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. What are the words of God? The Bible. The mention to kings could the Kings chapter of the Bible. And the hands of time means the clock. Any clock you find in Kingsmouth will be marking 10:10, so you have to find the answer in the Bible: Kings 10:10:
“And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.”
Kingsmouth town is in Solomon Island, so it has to be this versicle. The only number in it is 120, which is the password to open the basement. There, you’ll find a computer with the last clue “light conquers all”. This phrase, in latin, is LUX OMNIA VINCIT, a phrase that is written in all the sewer caps that you found in the beginning of the mission. Use the password and you’ll find the illuminati relics and the end of the quest.
This quest succeeds because it really explores everything The Secret World’s investigation quest have to offer. You have to carefully think of Kingsmouth as a real place with meaning, you have to use objects outside the game (the internet and/or the Bible) and you have to think for yourself. The shortcoming of the quest, I’d say, is that it is too obtuse and hard. It’s not impossible to get to the painting of the navigator, but to make the relations with the clock and the Bible and to discover that you should use the number in the basement are way too vague clues and could be explained better.
While The Secret World is filled with trash mobs and fetch quests, as any MMORPG is, really, those quests really stand out. Quests like The Kingsmouth Code, even with their difficulty, flesh the world and the lore more than any dialogue and they do so by gameplay, in which the player has to be active in this world. That is great quest design and should be adopted by more games. The Secret World may be an uneven game and even those quests are, but they show steps into the right direction.