Contemporary settings in MMOs are few and very far between. Fantasy takes the top spot, of course, followed by science fiction, historical (think pirates and period pieces), and geek genre settings like steampunk and post-apocalyptic. But to play a game set in today's world? It's just not done, not really. Except in The Secret World.
From where I'm sitting, this gives TSW several major advantages that it can and does wield over the competition. Just because the game world resembles our own (with a few more zombies and werewolves, natch) doesn't mean it is stripped of fascinating allure. Actually, it opens doors that just aren't present in your typical fantasy game and paves the way for pop culture references that -- for once -- aren't anachronistic.
I want you to take a minute and consider the dilemma that every fantasy or sci-fi writer faces. The writer knows that we won't have an inherent understanding of this fictional universe, so there's a barrier to understanding the basic rules that gird everything. So the writer can either lean on hoary old tropes that are understood by a majority of the populace, introduce a reader surrogate who can be the visitor from our world who needs everything explained to him, or spend a gob of exposition space spelling out everything. It's hard to make a truly foreign setting understandable and relatable.
Therein lies the first big advantage of a contemporary setting: We as players already comprehend the setting, as we live it every day. The basics don't have to be explained to us, which allows the game's writers to go on to create the fantastic and then link it to items, features, buildings, mythology, and history that are part of our knowledge bank.
This is like the home town advantage for writers. It's huge and not to be underestimated. The devs don't have to throw in extraneous quest text explaining what a car is or how the stock market functions or how many flavors Baskin Robbins wields. While other games are scrambling to prepare the foundations, a writer for a contemporary game is already building a good-looking house.
Beyond that, we all identify with a contemporary setting. Maybe we don't necessarily like it, but we identify with it. The real world always seems more rich and varied and detailed than whatever fantasy writers create, at least to me.
But there's no lore- or logic-bending to be done in a truly contemporary game because these things make sense here. The Secret World can bust loose with all of the cool gadgets that fantasy titles can only mimic. It's here that I can run around with a shotgun and a chainsaw, use my cellphone, take a ride on a helicopter, and hack into computer databases.
I like how even the UI gets into the action. It's set up a lot like a smartphone, with buttons that are echoes of application icons, a GPS in the guise of a radar, and even a cellphone bar across the top when you activate the menu. The HUD that highlights your character's equipment, mission waypoints, and tactical info on the enemy makes sense in this context.
While fantasy, sci-fi, and the rest do have access to sub-genres such as horror and action, quite often we see MMOs playing it safe and sticking to high fantasy or military space sims. I don't know whether people just don't feel as comfortable with genre-blending when it comes to these settings or devs are just afraid they'll lose their audience. But what I do see with The Secret World's contemporary setting is more freedom and willingness to pursue a wider sampling of sub-genres without the worry that it will lose anyone.
Fantasy we might want plain and vanilla to help us gain our footing in those worlds, but we already are well aware that our world is full of complex issues and a rainbow of story types. It's not jarring to have TSW switch from political conspiracy to supernatural escapades to superhero antics to spy action to humor to horror to medical thriller because we've long become accustomed to all of these being part of our pop culture. The way I see it, TSW is set up to make it possible for the game to absorb and incorporate any of these genres and more without breaking the underlying foundation of "everything is true." It just wouldn't work in any other setting, however.
The Secret World doesn't have to scramble to make up a new zone with a new name and either a fire, ice, or marsh theme. It can cherry pick from among the world's most interesting locations that are so much more than a simplistic name and a paper-thin history. The mish-mash of real world cultures, of continued traditions, of varied architecture styles, of geographical quirks, and of recognizability trumps the fantastic.
At this point in TSW's life, we've seen only a sliver of the possibilities where we might one day go in the world. Tokyo's next up, but after that I wouldn't mind something from South America, the wild West, England, or even Australia. What about sending us up on a mission to the International Space Station and then down to see the Thing attack Antarctica research posts?
I'm not saying that a contemporary setting is better than all of these other settings. I like having the variety. I just think that it's a good advantage for The Secret World that its devs would be wise to use as much as possible.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and they'll jump on the case!