Game designer Joel Bylos is currently a conspiracy guru. After all, he’s spent the last few years of his life responsible for the quality of design and implementation of content in The Secret World, an MMO cut from a different cloth than the games that have come to dominate the genre—games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Funcom’s own Age of Conan.
The differences are quite apparent when talking about the game’s characters and setting. There’s a conspiracy theorist named Dave Screed, Bylos explains, who fears that the Illuminati observe him. Not only that, the character claims that his girlfriend has been replaced by an android. In the real world, this is crazy talk. In The Secret World, it’s probably true. And it doesn’t stop with paranoid boyfriends talking about robots: zombies, vampires and ghosts are just some of the ghouls that you’ll encounter while roaming The Secret World’s urban funhouse.
Funcom’s attempt at redirecting MMOs is more H.P. Lovecraft and Steven King than Deus Ex and Blade Runner—in fact, there are references to Lovecraft and King in the newly released game. Bylos says The Secret World moves the genre away from traditional fantasy stories common in video games and updates the intrigue for an urban setting and modern times and technology.
"We take a monster like a vampire and turn it into something that would exist in the modern world," explains Bylos, who was Lead Content Designer on the game. "They go out in the daytime because they wear protective clothing and have these mouthpieces that they can use to pierce the skin of anything." Unlike Dracula or even the current teen obsession The Vampire Diaries, the monsters live and breathe (even if they are dead) in a cyberpunk horror landscape.
"Fantasy is very interesting in that it puts a mirror up to the real world and enables you to talk about things that you can’t talk about," says Bylos. However, the fantasy of The Secret World immediately separates itself from the conventions of the MMO genre. Instead of dwarves sword fighting in castles of Middle Earth, you’ll align with the Illuminati, the pious Templars, or the Seoul-based Dragons in action, sabotage, story, and investigative missions to uncover the secrets of The Secret World. And in so doing, players are immersing themselves in the fantasy of the game while using real-world tools and principles to move ahead. "People proposed using potions, which is fine in a fantasy game," Bylos says. "But we should be using actual chemistry. You should be trying to figure out the chemical formula."
The game also includes elements of hacking on a Linux-like interface, as well as solving puzzles through Google. "Myself, I’ve learned quite a bit of Latin and I had to learn quite a bit about cryptography," Bylos says. He also had to learn some Arabic and Hebrew and translate between them.
Funcom is also very careful about what conspiracies will be addressed in the game’s initial launch and through later add-ons. While there may be touchy subjects addressed, it’s more about monsters and creating a general mood of paranoia. "We try to avoid things like September 11," Bylos explains. "It’s more a general idea of everyone else in the world being kept in the dark."