Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.... To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.
- H.P. Lovecraft, in a note to the editor of Weird Tales regarding resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu”
There is a theme in Lovecraftian horror which essentially takes to task anyone who attempts to understand why the horrors in a Lovecraftian tale happens. If they do not feel overwhelming regret over their newly-found knowledge, they go mad or are destroyed upon learning.
I doubt this attempt to introduce TSW fans to the themes of Lovecraftian horror will go far enough to drive people mad. Hopefully though, gamers who've grown to love the way The Secret World drags people into the lore will appreciate the care with which Ragnar Tornquist has crafted the game's setting.
Note, however, that I am no Lovecraft scholar. Online resources and some library work have helped to make some of the overarching themes of Lovecraftian horror known to me, but I doubt I would be able to uncover all the secrets of Tornquist's game. As such, take this to be a primer for gamers into one of the influences behind this MMORPG.
The Hanging Question
One of the basic themes of a Lovecraft-inspired work is the hanging question. It is when the character of a Lovecraftian work experiences something which they don't understand and trying to gain understanding, as mentioned above, would drive them to mental, emotional, or physical ruin.
For every player who creates a character and chooses a faction to join, the hanging questions are established at the very beginning. We dream of another world, where good and evil appear to speak to us and give us power. Then we wake, and we feel power as we reach for our clothes, and we ask, “What is this? Why do I have this power? Who (or what) gave it to me?”
The problem with hanging questions is that they're rarely answered, or are answered so far into the future that the question becomes inconsequential in the face of other problems. Thus, after gaining your power, you struggle to control it. Sometime later, you gain some control over your new power, and you're recruited by the faction you chose at character creation, and then sent off to fight a war against unspeakable horrors.
Threats Against Civilization
Lovecraft's stories have a strong association with a threatened civilization. Lovecraft had stories wherein people who were generally used to modernity and civilization had to fight against a corrupting influence, or a civilized group of people generally fall prey to inhuman forces and dark machinations.
In all three starter factions, we are given a glimpse of this horror. Tokyo, one of the bastions of modernity and civilization, has its subway system overtaken by dark forces, and we were allowed to witness the last few moments of someone who seemed to perish in that disaster.
As an agent of one of the three factions who have adapted to modernity and are firmly entrenched in civilization, we are shocked to find zombies, draugr, and other monstrosities assailing a sleepy little town called Kingsmouth. Worse still, as the story progresses, you realize that there are active forces that have caused the deaths (and subsequent un-death) of a good number of the folk on Solomon Island, and you have to find out how to deal with it.
Man's Irrelevance and Metareality
The irrelevance of man is a central theme of many of Lovecraft's works. As mentioned in the opening quote, Lovecraft tends to write in a way that emphasizes how humankind doesn't matter in the greater machinations of the universe's unfolding. The very nature of The Secret World's gameplay structure reflects this concept, except on a strange metaphysical scale, as the entire game world is essentially irrelevant and static in the greater scheme of things.
At the same time that the game's characters are fighting threats across the game's world, it must also be noted that inhuman forces (basically the game's code as it works on the game server ) keep the enemies coming. There is, and will be, no end to them for as long as they game keeps running and the developers keep creating content for the game.
From a story and role-playing standpoint, let us take Solomon Island. It would make no sense to a game character for there to be an unending scourge of undead on Solomon Island since the isle only houses a limited number of people, and thus would only have X number of dead. The storyline tells us that the main threat came from the sea, but even the sea would have limitations (albeit extremely large limitations). The beauty of the Lovecraftian influence is that it is also a hanging question: Why doesn't the threat stop? The answer: it doesn't matter, because you'll have to fight regardless.
Futility and Fate
On a slightly larger “storytelling versus actuality” scale, we as players also know what happens if no one is online to play the game at a point in time when the game is active: the monsters will never overrun the world. In fact, they'll rarely move off a predetermined path. Despite this, we send our characters in to hack and shoot and spell-sling their way through enemies to end a threat that they think will eventually stop.
That is futility and fate intertwined, and these are also central characteristics of a Lovecraftian work.
Lovecraft's writings intersperse this sense of futility and hope in the characters, all while framing it in the previously-mentioned contextual theme of a universe that treats man indifferently. Lovecraftian heroes can and often do abate the march of evil, but victories are fleeting and the march will inevitably continue even after they've moved on (to inactivity through the press of an unsubscribe button, or through their movement to an entirely different game zone).
At the same time, fate plays a role in Lovecraftian lore as well. Oftentimes, a central character in a Lovecraft tale does not really control what he's doing and he can't stop himself from continuing along his path. Had he true free will, he could run away, but he never gets that option because an external force or otherwise indifferent being is compelling him to push onward.
Sadly, as I read this bit of research, it dawned on me what that meant: the MMO game player is the “indifferent being” now being referred to, and the characters we play in the game, who do not speak in cutscenes and cannot technically die due to anima wells, are bound to our whims.
The Silver Lining
If you've read all the way to this point in the column, you may be feeling slightly depressed. You may even have a hanging question in your head as to why MMORPG.com would think to publish this particularly disconcerting bit of text. The reason behind it is a bit of a silver lining that makes me think Ragnar Tornquist is a twisted storytelling genius.
Tornquist designed the ideas of this game with an emphasis on creating a horror MMO that fell in line with many of the established nuances present in the horror genre. Let's take that and extrapolate it into its seemingly logical conclusion.
As we mentioned earlier, Lovecraftian themes would make us seem like indifferent beings. But looking at it from another point of view, this would also mean that Funcom and its staff would represent something. Let's play with an incomplete analogy then.
As the creators and desirers of conflict, I would thus give Funcom the metaphorical equivalent of being the Great Old Ones, a race of alien beings or deities who once ruled Earth, and are currently sleeping. The Great Old Ones have a priest, who preserved them with spells in R'lyeh so they can survive until the stars are right again.
The name of this priest? Cthulhu.
I would thus submit for your approval the premise that Ragnar Tornquist is essentially The Secret World's Cthulhu, and that he has tried to incite entities of considerable power into action to combat his attempts at priming the world for destruction.
Those “entities of considerable power?” That's us, the subscribers.
While Lovecraft has influenced the makings of The Secret World, Tornquist as Cthulhu is presumably much more fun at parties. He even went on Reddit to do an AMA, which went over pretty well. Unlike a pure Lovecraftian tale, he's giving this world a decided force for good, and that's us.
That leaves us with a hanging question though: Are you going to stick around and keep fighting “Ragnarthulhu” until the Great Old Gods awaken? I certainly hope so.