I don't have a problem saying that I think The Secret World is currently the industry's best storyteller. If you want to take a cheap shot, you can insert some snide remark about rote quest text boxes in the comments, but I think that there's a lot of solid writing and storytelling across the MMO spectrum right now. It's just that TSW does it better.
Why? What's going on here to make stories and characters that just stick in my head long after my brain has cycled other MMO's events to deep storage? I started writing a list and had a hard time stopping at just nine.
More is not always better. When it comes to your cast of characters, it can actually be detrimental to feature thousands of people when you're trying to make any one stand out. I mean, how many forgettable NPCs have we interacted with over the years?
But in The Secret World, there are just a small handful of NPCs in each zone. With multiple missions covering each, you usually get to know them pretty well. If we had a test, I could probably list most of the NPCs in the game from memory because of how much they stand out and have an impact on my experience.
2. Show not tell
MMO stories tend to feature a lot of telling: "King So and So is under attack, and we need you to kill 16 Figwidgets to help his cause." When this happens, the game is asking your imagination to fill in the gaps that the developers left.
I don't find this as often in The Secret World. There are a lot of visual cues that pull the story train, especially in the introductory cutscenes. I'm a big fan of some of the body language that's used as well as the custom-made art that comes up during the course of missions (such as documents, photos, relics, and the like). There's a lot of story here to be seen.
3. Great voice acting
Bad voice acting can really drag a game down (and I'm being oh-so-nice right now by not pointing fingers at certain other MMOs), but TSW fortunately boasts a stellar ensemble of actors. There some fairly well-known vocal talents (Jeffrey Combs and Tim Russ comes to mind) as well as a gang of folks who pull off the wide range of accents, personalities, and bizarre dialogue with aplomb. Even if I've run a mission before, I'll still watch the opening scene to hear the actors do their thing.
"Funny" is hard to force. You've either got it or you don't, and I say TSW has it. Even though it's such a bleak game in spots, the NPCs make me laugh through bizarre references, sarcastic quips, and self-deprecatory comments. Humor engages us and connects us to these characters -- and it makes these stories far more memorable.
"If you want to understand humanity, read the comments on YouTube."
5. Contemporary references
I've already spilled a thousand or so words talking about why The Secret World has an advantage due to its contemporary setting. Part of this is because it's easier to tell stories when you don't have to explain the basic principles of the world to the audience. Layering the fantastic on top of the mundane, easily understood world we live in provides a natural, easy bridge to the supernatural. It opens the doors for all manner of contemporary references that are not lore-breaking but lore-keeping.
6. We are the "everyman" pulled into a fantastic world
When you think about it, in most MMOs our characters are already established parts of that particular fantastic world. But in The Secret World, our characters are the "everyman" who enters into the dance of the secret societies. As with, say, Harry Potter or Narnia, this gives us someone to relate to as well as gives the game an excuse to explain the fundamentals of the new world. We as players are discovering all of this at the same time as our characters. That gives us an "in" to the story that we don't typically have elsewhere.
What I loved about shows like LOST is that the writers knew that for every question about central or secondary mysteries that they answered, they had to bring up at least two new ones. This is TSW in a nutshell: So many questions, and every answer we discover just raises more queries. When everything is true and everyone is great at keeping secrets, getting to the bottom of it all will take more than one or two quick quests.
8. It's morally murky
No matter where your own moral compass points, it's hard to deny that The Secret World plops us into a murky situation and doesn't ever make it completely clear whether these secret societies are good or evil. There's a lot of grey area, and the NPCs you interact with often call you out on that. They question your motives and your participation, and even though you don't really have a choice in the matter, it gets you to think about why you're doing what you're doing. Am I good? Am I deluded? Am I selfish? Am I just a pawn who has no inkling of the game being played?
9. It crosses over into your life
It's hard to explain just why investigation missions are so appealing to those of us in love with this game. Other than the fact that we don't see this type of content in any other MMOs, I believe it's a result of how the game blurs the line between reality and fiction with these missions. By requiring us to draw upon real-world experience and leave the game in order to do online research or website browsing, the game crosses over into our lives. It's a taste of what alternate-reality games offer (and TSW has offered in the past as well), and the story of the mission enlarges to include you as a real part of it.
As a combination of these items and more, The Secret World delivers stories in such a way that make them personal, captivating, and incredibly memorable. That's why I'm constantly hungry for more. Bring on Tokyo already!
Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ and Justin every Monday as they infiltrate The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and they'll jump on the case!