TSW: Waiting on a Miracle

Is there a word for something that’s both unexpected and yet totally unsurprising?

A Filth infected person in The Secret WorldLast month, the Halloween season had me feeling nostalgic for The Secret World. It was the first time in years I didn’t have TSW’s Halloween event to look forward to. Eventually I figured, “To hell with it, it’s not Halloween without TSW.”

So just a few short months after saying goodbye to the game, I was back in the dark days. For what it’s worth, this was still probably the longest I’d gone without playing the game since I started.

For the most part my characters are still retired. The only one I’ve pulled out of mothballs is Kamala, my second of three Dragons. Years after her creation, I finally finished Kingsmouth with her, and as of this writing she’s just started on Blue Mountain.

I’m playing very casually, just poking away at a mission or two here or there, and I’m not sure if this is a long-term return or just a lark. At this point I might as well finish Dawning of an Endless Night, but I’m not thrilled with the idea of slogging through Egypt yet again, so we’ll see.

The irony is not lost on me that I refused to make the jump to Legends because I didn’t want to start over, so my solution was to pretty much start over.

I’m complex.

My second Dragon alt in The Secret WorldI will say there’s a difference between starting over by choice and starting over by necessity. In the immortal words of Frank Costanza, “It’s different psychologically.”

And there’s things Legends can’t offer me. I’m a big fan of Kamala’s appearance, but near as I can tell there’s no way to make a character who looks like her in Legends. That same problem dogs all my characters, really — it would have made such a difference if I could have imported my original character looks into Legends.

Nor can I tinker with builds in Legends to the same extent. That has always been one of the greatest joys of TSW, at least for me. For Kamala, I’ve focused on super-charging her resource generation as much as possible, so she can fire out finishers like a machine gun. As with all fist builds, it does lack AoE damage, but otherwise it’s proving very effective, and it’s damn fun. It’s crazy how fast I can tear through single targets. Being twinked six ways from Sunday doesn’t hurt, I guess.

There’s something oddly surreal about playing this walking corpse of a game. You can almost feel it dying day by day. Almost every week there seems to be some new bug or crash. Most recently the DirectX11 client randomly stopped working for about a week.

In some ways it’s not as dead as you might think, though. Oh, it’s mostly dead, but not entirely dead. There are still people hanging out in Agartha, though much less than there once were, and I’ve even run into a few other lowbies out in the world while leveling.

The Savage Coast Lighthouse in The Secret WorldI’m also still getting spammed with notifications about Fusang non-stop. Of course maybe it’s just one guy running around solo-capping stuff for kicks. Over my five years in The Secret World, I think I’ve spent maybe an hour in Fusang, and most of that was to fight the lunar golem back when that was a thing.

Still, I won’t pretend this isn’t a game with one foot in the grave, and there is a very lonely feeling to playing it these days. I guess the silver lining is that this is a game that’s meant to feel lonely and unsettling, so in a twisted sort of way having the population crash kind of enhances the experience.

As I’ve said, I’m surprisingly okay with not seeing any more content updates. I’d love more, of course, but mostly I’m just grateful for all the awesome stuff I’ve already gotten to experience.

What does sadden me is the thought that no one new can ever find this game again. It’s a bad habit, but I’ve always had a great desire to share anything that makes me happy with other people, and so I’ve spent years evangelizing this game and trying to get everyone to give it a shot. I miss being able to do that. I don’t like that this is something I’ll never be able to share with anyone else ever again.

And beyond personal concerns, I wish more people had been given the chance to play TSW. It was always very poorly advertised, and a lot of people were scared off by the fact it was an MMO despite the fact you could just as easily play it as a single-player RPG, so there are undoubtedly tonnes of people out there who would have loved this game but never got the chance.

A wild Rakshasa in The Secret WorldThat’s the real loss here.

Yeah, there’s Legends, but it’s just not the same.

Still, despite it all, I am having fun. Even with the game bleeding out, even with this being my fourth time through, I’m having fun. This is still one of the best games I’ve ever played. Maybe the best.

One thing that I’ve always loved about TSW is that it seems like every time I revisit an old zone or mission, I find something new and interesting that I never noticed before. Amazingly, after all this time, that’s still true.

This time the discovery came while interacting with John Wolf. Now, I’d undoubtedly heard this conversation many times before, but the significance had somehow passed me by.

John talks about a home that he lost. And he gives this home a name: Miracle.

Now, even if you’re a long-time TSW fan, I don’t blame you if you don’t know what Miracle is. But if you do know, it’s a name that’s likely to give you chills.

I’ll explain, and it is very hard to find concrete info on Miracle, so take anything I say with a grain of salt, but this is the story as I understand it.

Bong Cha, the Voice of the Dragon, in The Secret WorldRagnar Tornquist has worked on the setting of The Secret World for a very long time. Almost sounds a bit like me and Soulcleaver. And while The Secret World is the only incarnation of that universe to make it to the public so far, it’s not the only one he has planned. Miracle is another.

We know Miracle is a video game, but beyond that the details are harder to uncover. It seems clear that for a time Miracle and TSW were in fact one and the same, but somewhere along the line he seems to have decided Miracle would be a separate game in the same setting.

Reading between the lines — and again, grain of salt — the impression that I’m left with is that Miracle is the true conclusion to the arc of TSW and its main conflicts. The end of the Fourth Age of Humanity and the dawn of the Fifth, all that. TSW is the set-up. Miracle is the pay-off.

The matter of when or even if Miracle will be made, like so much about the game, is an open question. But at least there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Ragnar ever gave up on the idea.

And it is therefore to Miracle, not Legends, that I am currently inclined to give my hopes for the future of the franchise.

Until that day comes, I’ll continue to enjoy TSW as I can.

The Franklin Mansion in The Secret WorldBe seeing you, sweetlings.

In the half-light.

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RPGs Versus Progression Games

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the video games we refer to as role-playing games, or RPGs, are spectacularly mislabeled?

Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaLet’s look at what that term actually means. “Role-playing” refers to assuming an identity or personality other than your own. To pretend to be someone else, usually to act out a scenario or tell a story.

While most RPGs incorporate at least some element of this, it’s very rarely the focus. It isn’t what defines the genre. In video game terms, RPG elements are considered to be things like character levels, stat sheets, experience points, and unlockable abilities. All of these things have little or nothing to do with role-playing.

I understand that the ingrained terminology of the genre is not going to change just because a chubby blogger in Toronto says so, but I would like to outline why I believe that most if not all video games we call RPGs are mislabeled, and how this goes a long way to explaining my love-hate relationship with the genre.

Stop, drop, and role:

I know quoting Wikipedia is in the same realm of tackiness as bringing 7 Up as a wedding gift, but while looking for definitions of role-playing, I found this one pretty apt: “A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.” [Source]

I would argue that video games eliminate the need for other players in the creation of your role-play story, as scripted NPCs can fulfill the same need. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t role-play with other people, of course; it just means they aren’t a necessity.

My party in Sword Coast LegendsEither way, role-play is about assuming a role and telling a story.

Now what does that have to do with level grinds and character stats? Nothing whatsoever.

In the early days of tabletop role-playing, things like character sheets and stat rolls and such were necessary to give the experience some degree of order and consistent logic. Video games, on the other hand, have the ability to keep all that under the hood and provide the player a seamless, immersive experience.

But because the genre’s origins were rooted in numbers and stats, gamers and developers have come to conflate the two. The character sheets and dice rolls continued into the digital space, and now they’ve taken over the genre entirely to the point where they’ve shoved out the actual role-playing.

Consider MMOs. Traditionally developers have had to designate special servers (usually a minority of the total server pool) for role-playing, and increasingly they’re not even bothering to do that.

Those who do role-play in MMOs are often viewed by other players as strange or even deviant, and openly mocked. They are a minority, and like all minorities in gaming, held in very low regard.

My rogue in RiftDoes this not seem incredibly bizarre to anyone else? If we’re to believe the name of the genre, role-players are the only ones who are actually playing the games correctly, and I say that as someone who is at best only on the barest periphery of role-play.

I think this proves the games we call RPGs aren’t about role-playing at all. Most of them incorporate RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them true RPGs.

To give you an idea, I think Life Is Strange is much more of an RPG than World of Warcraft. It’s all about playing a character and making choices as that character to shape the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect example of what an RPG could or should be, but it’s certainly much closer than most of the games we call RPGs.

So what should we call them?

I name your true name:

I would argue that the genre we have come to call RPGs should instead be known as progression games.

The core concept that unifies the genre is that of progression, of growing more powerful and improving your character’s performance. You level up, unlock new abilities, get better gear, and so forth. This is true regardless of whether you’re playing Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Diablo, Aion, Persona, or whatever other example you want to give.

A screenshot from the RPG Titan QuestProgression is the mechanic that purists of the genre cling to. I’ve often heard complaints that level-scaling such as was introduced to the Elder Scrolls Online with One Tamriel is bad because it makes games less of an RPG. That’s an absolutely ridiculous argument; level-scaling makes a game more of an RPG by eliminating ridiculous scenarios like slaying a dragon with a single punch.

But level-scaling does make it less of a progression game. We have conflated RPGs and progression mechanics to the point where people are unable to separate them, but in truth it’s little more than an accident of history that the two are related at all.

Pretty much the only area where the two concepts meet is when constructing a character build. Your choices of which stats to stack and which abilities to unlock help express the identity of your character, and that is an element of role-playing as well as a means of progression.

For example, in World of Warcraft, my warlock actually hates demons. As a result, I choose the talent Grimoire of Sacrifice whenever possible, allowing her to sacrifice her demon minion to increase her own power. This enhances the fantasy of the character. To her, demons are simply a resource to fuel her own quest for vengeance, and Grimoire of Sacrifice lets me express this concept through the gameplay.

But even then performance concerns in progression games can often cause you to make compromises in your character concept in order to ensure your character is strong enough to overcome the challenges before you. This is especially a problem in MMOs, where there’s an element of social pressure to conform.

My warlock cosplaying as a demon hunter in World of WarcraftStalled by progression:

Understanding the difference between role-playing and progression games goes a long way to explaining the love/hate relationship that I have with the genre we tend to call RPGs. You see, I’m a big fan of role-playing games, but much less fond of progression games.

Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting gameplay, and the more time you spend with it, the more transparent it becomes. After so many years of playing progression games — especially MMOs, where the treadmill is at its most naked and cynical — I have almost entirely stopped caring. I’ve gotten so much phat lewt and heard so many level dings that it’s stopped meaning anything to me at all.

I still like making builds, and earning new abilities is the one part of progression that still consistently excites me, hence my two Panoptic Cores in TSW (RIP). But for the most part I’m reaching the point where I just want to establish a good build as quickly as possible and then focus on actually playing the game.

Progression inhibits role-play at least as much as it enhances it. It’s a distraction at best, a roadblock at worst. Hence my eternal frustration with a genre I otherwise love. What I want is to inhabit a character, to immerse myself in a world. Most of what we call RPGs offer this, but not always to the extent I crave. Too much focus is put on the numbers, not enough on the texture and character of the world and its story.

Jeyne Kassynder in Dungeon Siege III. Ah, Jeyne, we hardly knew yeI think this is what keeps me coming back to Bioware, despite their inconsistencies. They’re progression games, but they haven’t forgotten their RPG roots. They’re still, at their heart, about people, places, and stories.

And that’s what attracts me: Exploring new lands, getting to know characters, and living out stories. Those are the experiences I crave. That’s what role-playing games are truly about.