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On To The Next [MMO]

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

 

I’m not sure what degree of cynicism is required to maintain this type of reverse-pessimistic detachment from reality and authority that I’ve harbored all my life, but conspiracy theories and the cross-pollination of secret societies with occult practices is fascinating to me.

One of my hobbies that I’m confident will never fade away is my love of not so much playing pen-and-paper RPGs, but digesting sourcebooks, campaign settings, and monster guides. Countless hours of my youth that should’ve been spent honing my Street Fighter and later, Starcraft skills were squandered on flipping through White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” campaign settings. I’m as much a fan of wracking my brain through a series of encounters built around deterministic systems as the next D&D fan, but what’s always piqued my interest more is the deconstruction of these fictional worlds, and then putting them back together and seeing what makes them tick.

I think my fascination with occult conspiracy began in elementary school, when I tore through books on the afterlife, Dante’s Inferno (not the EA version, although that happened years later over the course of a very bland weekend), and reincarnation. This fixation grew with religious viewings of “X-Files” and “Millenium”, the latter of which had greater appeal to me due to the suffocating dark and nihilistic atmosphere that made viewing each episode from start to finish an exercise in willful masochism. I wonder, if Deus Ex wasn’t packed with as many references to New World Order, the Illuminati, and Ufology, would it still rank as high up on my list of all-time favorite games? I prefer not to answer that, out of fear of making myself seem superficial. Also, let’s not forget volumes of Lovecraft that sit on my shelf. Yeesh.

 

 

This is why Funcom’s Secret World probably is and has been my number one most anticipated PC game for this year, taking a close tie with Deus Ex: Human Revolution (multi-platform, doesn’t count, ya console kid!). To some people who know me, it should be Diablo III. To my friends I hung out with in high school, it should be Star Wars: The Old Republic. “Anticipation” in this sense does not equate to “eagerness to play”, but more on that later.

My earlier musings deserve a little bit more clarification in that my detachment extends more towards institutionalized channels of authority and ages-old establishments. I’m skeptical towards intangible precepts of “order” and “truth” that we’ve grown so accustomed to. That’s not to say I’ll balk outright at the established order either; my absentee ballot had Obama’s name on it, after all, and I voted for Meg Whitman just to spite Jerry Brown. Deep down, I know he felt it. I don’t believe there’s any greater “truth” out there, either; I’ve been a respectful atheist my entire life, and I’m comfortable saying this without fear of repercussion from the zero people who stumble across this blog because I state my position without a hint of malice or claiming that my belief is the correct one.

 

 

Talking about the Georgia Guidestones with my friend Elliot the other day (he is perhaps an even bigger conspiracy hound than myself), we both expressed similar sentiments of disbelief at how a place like this could exist. Like the Pyramid on the back of the Dollar, masonic symbols and architecture scattered throughout our nation’s capital, and the eight-point star of Isis appearing on just about any marble-tiled floor, I’m amazed at how symbols like these have penetrated American consciousness so deeply to a point that we don’t question their existence and meaning. And like my love for RPG campaign settings, occult conspiracy is so engrossing to me as a form of entertainment because of the amazing amount of detail, research, and ability to link these patterns together throughout history and then stack layers upon layers of meaning on top of one another in a purported search for the “truth.” Believe in conspiracies, secret societies, and New World Order or not, I think it’s undeniable that the formulation of said theories is evidence of a very observant, meta creativity at work amongst bored Americans. What sets Dragonlance apart from the numerous copycat Tolkien fantasy worlds is the cohesion and unity of the campaign setting’s history. Patterns that grow organically (these days, we say “virally”) are a sign of civilized society, and one thing we do best as humans is recognize patterns and assign meaning to them. There’s an order behind all the chaotic randomness we come across each day, and as a species, we’ll go through Lot 49-like stretches of narrative meta-realism to sort these patterns out. What conspiracy theory is is this recognition and ordering of patterns taken a step further. Once a person has seen and identified patterns they should not have seen, so begins the manifestation of their inability to remain willfully ignorant any longer.

That being said, the release of Secret World both excites and terrifies me on the same level. Ragnar Tornquist and his talented band of developers have a proven track record, one I’ve been privy to with Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and Age of Conan, which was interesting up until when I finished all of the single-player “night” missions. AOC demonstrated that Funcom could not only deliver a solid MMO experience, but that the studio knows how to pay respect to source material. Robert E. Howard’s Cimmeria is a land of washed-out grays and volcanoes dictated by Darwinistic rules of nature, and Funcom relayed this design philosophy through what was at release touted as an innovative, action-packed melee system in which the winner of a stand-off was determined through linking combos, finding weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses, and knowing when to attack from what direction. Brutal, yes, but a little superficial if one was to tinker with the combat system in the later levels.

 

 

What kind of source material does Secret World pay homage to? The obvious answer is conspiracy theory, occult, and secret societies, but I’m not quite sure how this translates into something that’s fun for players. In any instance of popular media, protagonists have traditionally been the ones uncovering the conspiracy, not the puppet masters. Even popular shows like Buffy and Angel made it clear that the titular protagonists were pawns in unseen conspiracies existing in the darkest of places that neither of them could comprehend. Conspiracy theory as a whole makes sense objectively, because the operating word here is “theory”. It always has and always will. To put this into “g4m3” terms, conspiracy theory is a procedural, “player-created” process in that there’s no right or wrong way of looking at things. The proposed outcome of conspiracy theory is to educate the ignorant masses to the great occult evils that wish to enslave us, but no one can say for sure whether or not there really was a demon’s face in the smoke on 9/11 or in the drops of water in, ahem, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” music video. And no, no one can say for sure if Jay-Z’s music video for “On to the Next One” really contained a subtext that illustrated his ascension to the 33rd tier of Masonic hierarchy, except for Jay-Z himself. It’s procedural because it’s making meaning out of nothing, and then running wild with that meaning. How does this translate to Secret World‘s design?

On some level, the class-less system and “battle how you wish” conceit that surrounds the progression design of Secret World is making meaning out of nothing, but like AOC‘s combat system, it’s a superficial representation of the source material. And that’s what bugs me about the conspiracy, shadow organization setting of Secret World. Conspiracy theory’s role in our society has always been about choosing sides; either you give in to the power that pulls the strings behind the curtain, or you join the ranks of free-thinking individuals that will not be swayed by a power elite. Deus Ex communicated this perfectly; the aptly named JC Denton is a blank slate for the moral and political decisions the player makes, ultimately choosing one of three outcomes. The great part about the three unique endings of the game is that they can all be achieved in the final area of the game; there’s no linear path of objectives that the player needs to complete that might bar them from viewing other outcomes. And like modern conspiracy theory, the player as Denton has to make sense of all of the patterns they’ve thus far come across and choose an outcome for not only themselves, but all of society. This point is driven further home in the ending of Deus Ex: Invisible War, where the player as Alex Denton has to choose his or her allegiance to one of many different shadow organizations, each with their own philosophy on governance and a selected quote from John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Aristotle, John Locke, et al. to correspond with the outcome the player chooses.

 

 

Thematically, conspiracy theory-based entertainment has always centered around a solitary protagonist’s search for meaning or to uncover a truth, whether or not the so-called “truth” in question happens to be a Macguffin that strings the plot along. The more people the protagonist interacts with and the more events transpire, the less and less the protagonist starts to share anything in common with the people he or she once knew and it is upon reaching the truth, however it might be defined, that the protagonist is finally alone, trapped in a psychological island of their own design. Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Fox Mulder in The X-Files, and Richard in The 39 Steps are all examples of people who are very much alone in their struggle to make some sense of their reality, a tradition of which was carried on by Deus Ex‘s JC Denton. You might argue that for Mulder, he had Scully, but her original function on the show was to act as a thematic foil for Mulder’s hare-brained theories and matter-of-fact view on extraterrestrials, colonization, and El Chupacabra. Conspiracy-based entertainment is ultimately about, as John Tynes’ pen-and-paper Unknown Armies‘ subtitle states, “power and consequences”. In this case, knowledge equals power, but as is always the case, it’s pretty lonely up top.

I’d hate to see conspiracy theory romanticized in the player’s role in Secret World, as the appeal of such franchises as X-Files and older shows like The Prisoner has always been about what the audience doesn’t know as opposed to what they actually know (or think they know). In an MMO setting, the last thing I want to see is player-to-player interaction boiled down to mafioso-type power struggles for turf and respect, where highly organized paramilitary groups battle one another with laser-scoped SMGs and intricately crafted katanas. True, all games are wish fulfillment rolled into power fantasies, and Secret World promises players the license to go after the dark forces that hinder mankind’s cultural and societal progress, but again, it’s about thematic consistency and whether or not this type of power-granting makes sense given the source material. The game holds a lot of promise, don’t get me wrong, and I remain cautiously optimistic about its release. Elliot and I came to a consensus that conspiracy theory was fascinating to both of us in that the intricate timeline theorists have set forth details an alternate lens in which to view the power structures we’ve grown accustomed to in these modern times. It’s not so much the hidden truth as it is simply someone’s truth, and it’s really fascinating to read about. On the same note, I doubt there will be much fanboy-like bouts of Asperger’s possible with a game based on the game’s source material; after all, conspiracy theory has always been about making sense of patterns and the context in which they are presented. Let’s just hope Funcom’s using the right patterns this time around.

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