Chaos Theory: How The Secret World makes you learn

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|01.20.14

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Chaos Theory: How The Secret World makes you learn
Maybe it's my age or maybe it's just a little bit of laziness about me, but I'm finding myself a little peeved whenever someone or something wants to make me learn a new system. I mean, I'll be the one constantly reading Wikipedia to all hours of the night because I like soaking up info, but if a game asks me to go through a two-minute tutorial, I'm like, "Forget that!" and upturn my computer desk while I go to the other room to calm down.

It's not that I don't like learning -- I end up really enjoying myself when I do, in fact -- but that the energy and attention required to absorb a new lesson can often be a tad daunting. This is what drives me back into familiar gaming arms again and again, and why I'm more than a little apprehensive about all of the sandbox tools that will be coming to MMOs near us.

That's why I have to hand it to The Secret World -- here's an MMO that pushed me out of my comfort bubble and made me learn, sometimes kicking and screaming, and sometimes with a giddy and joyful heart. This is an MMO that isn't content to spoon-feed you the same mush you've been downing for years; it's one that operates under a practical mission statement of teaching through gameplay.

Learning by reading

Both MJ and I teach, and she knows as well as I do that different people respond better to different learning styles than others. Creating an environment where many of these styles are in play results in a wider array of folks getting invested and growing more knowledgable and capable about a subject. For example, I actually learn the most when I'm tasked with teaching someone else a topic. So it is, I believe, in The Secret World.

One of the most typical ways that we learn is by reading (and hearing via lectures). Unlike many MMOs, where the lore is completely disconnected with our actual reality, The Secret World boasts a contemporary setting and interest in conspiracies and mythologies that have a lot to do with our world. Did you know much about Aten, Krampus, or Agartha before you stepped foot in this game? I didn't, but my exposure to these topics through quests, places, encounters, and bee lore have opened my eyes to these subjects and led me to do a little after-game reading on the internet.

Instead of becoming a lecture hall professor, TSW prefers to drop a few tantalizing morsels in its gameplay and then trust that gamers who have had their curiosity stimulated will go on to do the rest of the research on their own. Honestly, I wouldn't have done all of that studying about the Phoenicians if TSW hadn't intrigued me with the hints and activities of this purply faction.

Learning by doing

Remember what I said about different people responding to different learning styles? Take that and apply it to another aspect of the game: the different mission types. The Secret World has very specific types of missions that offer up different experiences -- and different kinds of learning. Each type pulls and tugs on different parts of our brain, refusing to let us fall into a boring, complacent routine. If you look at missions as puzzles, then action missions challenge you to use your combat skills to overcome obstacles, sabotage missions challenge you to use the environment to reach your goal, investigation missions challenge you to use your brain to get to the end, and side missions can be any of the above.

The 25 or so investigation missions in the game are often praised, deservedly, for their heightened challenge and "hands off" approach to guiding you through them. Sure, you could go to a guide for the quickest route, but I've encountered so many players who take pride in never doing so because it's ultimately more satisfying to finish one on their own.

I love investigation missions because you never really know what you're going to get and what you'll end up learning once you've finished it. Sometimes they challenge our research skills, having us delve through websites and books and texts to find the answers. Sometimes they pull upon real-world systems and hobbies, such as Morse Code, GPS locators, or origami. But no matter what, I walk away from those missions having learned a thing or two while having fun doing them.

Learning by adversity

I'm still not sold on the fun factor/necessity of scenarios, but if you love them, then more power to you. One thing that the inclusion of scenarios and Joel Bylos' comments on them made me realize is that there's a very conscious effort by the dev team to constantly throw challenges our way and keep us from getting comfortable in how we play. In other words, the devs want us to be learning, always learning, and they're willing to hurt us to make it happen (in-game, at least).

The Secret World isn't the type of MMO to coddle you -- teach you, yes, but not coddle. You're free to create a build that's absolutely horrible and equip yourself with the worst combination of gear and be totally miserable as you fail missions again and again. Learning how the skill wheel works, how synergies are set up in the game, and how to best outfit yourself make up the first great milestone of adversity. By Blue Mountain you're either getting it or you're going to have to go back to boot camp for a while until you can figure things out.

As you progress the mobs get trickier, with all sorts of special buffs and debuffs and tactics that require you to create multiple builds and pay attention to what you're fighting. Creating multiple builds is a necessity by Transylvania unless you've found that rare do-everything build that I've heard allegedly exists but have never seen it in action.

Then there are the challenges of instances, which require specializing in roles yet remaining flexible dependant on the boss fight in particular. With Issue 8 came scenarios, which required yet another examination of our builds and how best to plow through these sessions. Bylos has already mentioned how the AEGIS system is coming with Tokyo, and by all accounts that sounds just like another layer of required learning and strategic flexibility that will be required for our future progression into the game.

I won't lie: Sometimes I really hate that TSW is like this. I hate that it just won't play nice and easy like other MMOs. But part of me grudgingly admits that I appreciate how it's made me into a better player, one who doesn't get stale and has to remain on his toes to deal with each situation as it arises. I may grump about learning. I may fight it. But I'm going to do it because I love this game, and I like where that learning takes me.

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 or and they'll jump on the case!
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