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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

What Other Games Can Learn from The Secret World’s In-Game Research

Posted by Ortwig Sunday July 15 2012 at 11:22AM
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So The Secret World (TSW) went ahead and implemented something that, upon consideration, seems a no-brainer—they added an in-game web browser.  Hit the “B” button and you’re taken to Google, and from there, you have access to the entire internet from within the game.  In makes complete sense for an MMO set in the modern day, especially given the need to research clues and solve things like Morse Code puzzles.  Sure, we could do all that in an outside browser as well, but having the browser right there not only keeps the player in the game, but also makes for a more immersive experience.  In several quests, it’s actually necessary to browse out to a website created by the TSW developers to solve the puzzle.  Given the number of times I’ve popped out of other games to look up information in the browser, I’m wondering why more games haven’t attempted to present their lore in-house.
There is no internet, of course, in a fantasy universe, but even so, it’s a pretty common occurrence for players in World of Warcraft to jump out and look up a piece of lore in Wowhead or WoWWiki, or watch a YouTube video with tips on a certain dungeon or raid.  WoW did so something with the in-game lore idea by adding the Dungeon Journal, which gives background on some dungeons and raids, as well as tips on tackling the bosses within.  There’s also lore imparted within the quest text boxes, and you can certainly learn a few things by taking the time to read these.  But the amount of information presented in-game is miniscule compared to what is available on external websites, and even in the Journal, only the newest dungeons and raids are included. 
Perhaps there will be an effort to bring the lore from the classic areas as well at some point, but it doesn’t appear to be high on the priority list—my guess is that developers may not see retrofitting and integrating lore for a game that is 8 years old as worth the effort at this point; maybe Titan, Blizzard’s next MMO, will be the place to look for it.
That’s a shame, because The Secret World proves that including lore in-game helps maintain the atmosphere developers make such great efforts to produce.  In addition to TSW’s browser, characters frequently encounter bits of lore as they wander about the world, whether it be background information regarding one of the game’s three factions, or on one of the many conspiracies that make up the main plot.  This information isn’t presented objectively either, more like whispered discussions overheard or bar conversations—either way, it’s presented with a point-of-view that may or not be trustworthy.  Gradually, the larger picture comes into view, but only after lots of gathering and cutting through the noise.  A piece of lore may not mean anything initially, but may come into sharper focus during a quest later in the game. 
WoW did a little bit of this in its vanilla days—a monster might drop an odd journal that contained a story, but often this was just window dressing and local color; the quest you were on resolved any questions in the writing, and only once in a while were there puzzles to solve in order to complete the quest.  I do remember finding a book with a story of a cursed knight in Darkshire that was especially interesting, and actually played into a series of quests, but nothing in the book required me to solve any mysteries.  One journal in Un’goro Crater involved activating crystals in several sites.  But in the most recent WoW updates, books contain no text at all, just a quest to accept and follow to resolution on the mini-map. 
What if fantasy games had in-game resources similar to the intranet….like, um, libraries?  In Skyrim, it’s easy to stumble upon full books of lore, poetry, even works of fiction in-game.  Knowledge can be power, and players who take the time to read these books may come away with just an interesting read, but perhaps there’s a legend in there with a grain of truth that can be pursued if the player takes the time to put two and two together.  Maybe the clue leads to a hidden series of quests, a treasure, or a dungeon that may not be on the official map. 
Libraries could be placed in capital cities, and much of that information out on the web could be placed in those in-game books, and there’d actually be value in going in and looking up information within the game.  Histories of various areas in the game would be accessible, so things like the Dungeon Journal would be placed alongside a whole series of other books with subjects ranging from crafting to bestiaries to legendary weapons to wars to religion.  Oddly enough, all this information is already available somewhere (usually on the web)—just not, perversely, in the place you’d expect to find it within the game world!  How about leveraging that content?  Developers could even continue to host the lore on the web, but reference it in game as well, so that it could be accessed from both places as long as it was formatted to appear as in-game content.  Opened books could actually be web pages formatted to fit on the screen.
Of course, major city libraries might not be the only source of books.  You might find hidden stashes of books in an enemy’s lair, or in a hidden shrine in the wilderness, or in an ancient ruin.  The books there could contain more esoteric subjects that might lead to even more epic adventures or crafted items.  This also serves the dual purpose of getting players out in the world and adds another treasure besides gear to the game world.  A powerful spell that may not be available in the general lexicon would be a huge incentive to look for items such as these.  Or a journal describing clues to a major enemy’s weakness.  So many possibilities here, and it re-emphasizes what is done so well in The Secret World—ask players to explore, investigate, research and use their heads.
Restoring that balance between story, lore and combat is a major accomplishment for The Secret World development team—they deserve all the great reviews they are getting.  Guild Wars 2 is on the horizon, and they, too seem to recognize that putting the lore back into the game is the right direction.  Here’s hoping for more copycats. writes:
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