Chaos Theory: Why TSW's quest art thrills me to no end

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|02.17.14

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Chaos Theory: Why TSW's quest art thrills me to no end
Every Secret World fan has his or her own list of reasons why the game feels special and unique. Perhaps it's the investigation missions, the contemporary setting, the flexible character builds, the dark subject matter, the well-done voice acting, the creepy tone, the immense pile of lore, or the sheer fun that is the dressing room. Steadily climbing to the top of my own list is an aspect that I haven't seen mentioned much at all: the quest art.

Is that the best terminology for it? I don't know what else to call it. What I'm talking about here are the images that often pop up through quests, from photographs to journal entries. These pieces of art aren't just sprinkled in here or there; they are so dang prolific that I've devoted an entire screenshot folder to holding them. Once you start really noticing them, it's hard not to marvel at all of the work that was done to put them in the game.

So excuse me this week as I go on about why quest art is seriously terrific and terribly underrated. I may even share a favorite or 27 of them along the way.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I'm not going to claim that TSW is the only game to ever include some still images as part of a quest description or during the quest itself, but I think it's pretty fair to say that outside of this game, it's a very rare bunny indeed. And yet TSW obviously sees these images as an integral part of the storytelling process, just as much as the quest text, the cutscenes, the landscape, and the scripted events.

The first thing that quest art does is establish context, mood, and setting. TSW might be set in the modern world, but it's very much on the fringe of believability with its stories. Thus, any anchors that can be used to connect the game to what we have observed about the real world is vital. Quest art in Kingsmouth echoes modern New England, while images used in Egypt are often of older hieroglyphics and archaeological finds. And what about those journals in Transylvania that are completely written in another language, even though the devs could have cheated and just given them to us in English from the get-go? Details matter, my friends. Details get noticed and help to cement a loyal fanbase.

An image, it is said, is worth a thousand words if it's a particularly poignant one. Whenever I go to an art museum, I look for the story in each painting and am often pleasantly surprised to discover just how much a single picture has to tell. Many of TSW's pictures hint at other stories untold or additional viewpoints of a current tale. Would Andy's horribly sad story of his kittens be as poignant if it weren't for the addition of the Polaroid showing a picture of them? By taking advantage of showing, telling, and experiencing, TSW is presenting far more fleshed-out stories than we normally get.

I also want to point out something that impresses me mightily. Not only is quest art all over the place, but each piece is obviously created by hand. This isn't just a cut-and-paste job with images, folks. Someone took the time, for example, to create two pages of a phone book that look authentic, down to the crinkled pages and different fonts.

Combing through my files, I am impressed by the sheer variety of art laid out before me. There are hand-written journal entries, recreations of photographs, leaflets, gravestones, graffiti, web cam photos, paintings, ID badges, security camera stills, newspaper clippings, hand-drawn maps by kids, field reports, baseball caps, tablets, machine manuals, and so much more.

Beyond being cool and helping with world immersion, these images are often integral to quest progression. During a quest that uses them, the image will remain accessible in the mission log to pull up at any time. Relevant clues and guidance are found within, particularly for investigation quests.

Maybe this column is just a thinly veiled excuse to show off some of the images that have impressed me over the past year-plus, but if we can't gush about parts of the game that impress us, what's the fun of talking about it at all? Writers and directors and even voice actors get the lion's share of the kudos when it comes to MMOs like this, but I say the artists who took this extra effort to make our quests come alive need praise as well. So huzzah for them, and here's hoping that they keep up the good work in Tokyo!

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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