We have all imagined what it would be like to be gifted (or cursed) with the ability to see a spirit world that ordinary people cannot. The Secret World is an MMORPG on the Windows PC platform that lets players visit such a world—a modern world inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. It is a world where all the legends about haunted houses and ancient evils are true. While The Secret World is certainly not the first game to pit players against zombies and other such horrors, the game manages to distinguish itself through excellent and unique storytelling with diverse and believable characters.
The M Rating
The game is rated “M for Mature” (17+) by the ESRB, and the rating is fair. There is a certain amount of unsettling violence, but the violence is fantastical and, one could argue, less disturbing than a realistic first-person shooter. There is also some implied sexual content that may be awkward for kids and parents playing together.
If your kids are at an age where you feel comfortable playing M-rated games with them, however, The Secret World is definitely worth your attention. The gameplay is challenging, but very free-form and conducive to experimentation. Creating characters that synergize well with each other can be a great family activity, and a team that works well together helps with the game’s higher-than-average difficulty.
The Literary Storylines & Important Themes
The real highlights of The Secret World are the literary storylines, which easily lend themselves to discussion.
It all starts with your character swallowing a special bee while sleeping. Doesn’t it always? Your character then dreams of two people cryptically telling her that she has been given great power. The two messengers speak in tandem except in key portions of the message. Portions where the two dream messengers differ demonstrate two paths open to your character. One path implies using your character’s supernatural power to its fullest extent regardless of the consequences, and the other path implies restraint that risks defeat and obscurity.
Themes of power and responsibility feature throughout the game and are perfect for ages 17 and up.
The odds that teenagers will be faced with saving the world from terrors beyond imagining are slim, of course. The idea of encountering a large scary alien world, however, is an apt allegory for entering adulthood. It’s an age when kids are maturing at different rates, yet all are learning what makes them different as individuals. Some kids are better at one thing, while their peers might be better at another. Some kids navigate social situations easily, while others can feel awkward or lost. Regardless of the situation, adulthood is a familiar yet alien world at first.
The Secret World might facilitate discussing and thinking about this entry into the adult world better than most games. One of the things I appreciate most about it is the idea that there are some things in life that are so great and scary that we can’t address them alone. It’s a departure from the lone-hero narrative we see in most media. The Secret World gives the sense that if we come together—even if we don’t know what we are facing or how things will end we will have a better chance to see another day.
The Great and Diverse Heroes
The Secret World tells its story with a diverse cast. Players feel they could meet these characters in real life. The female characters are not supernatural queens or princesses. They’re sheriffs, detectives, a retiree with a shotgun, and a divorced con artist whose fortunetelling act somehow became real. The fact that female characters are both plentiful and not always super-powered gives The Secret World a more powerful feminist message than the usual lone-heroine narrative.
While heroines with abilities or positions far beyond their peers can be empowering, they can sometimes convey that powerful women are the exception rather than the rule. Games tend to present heroines as young, fit, and white. The wide range of different looks, ages, capabilities, weaknesses, and personalities The Secret World gives its female characters helps their heroism feel more natural. Heroic women are a given here—not some accident of birth or magical alteration.
Similarly, the non-white characters in The Secret World break free of tired stereotypes and present us with a more diverse world that resembles real life. Black characters are not restricted to the job of soldier or police officer. They are business people, artists, and fellow secret agents. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and each character feels unique. Once again, variety helps squelch the idea of token exceptionalism that often accompanies portrayals of non-white or non-male characters.
When I think of the heroes I’ve encountered in my real life, very few of them fit the hard-bitten, white-man archetype that many games seem to insist on. Real heroes don’t have to be superhuman; they are ordinary people who chose to accomplish extraordinary things. The Secret World seeks to create a modern-world game setting parallel to our own. It is fitting to see heroes of all backgrounds and genders in a game set in our world.
The question remains then, why is diversity still such a challenge for video games when our real-world heroes are diverse? The Secret World highlights that a world with only white male heroes is more unrealistic and imaginary than one where heroism comes from all kinds of people from different backgrounds stepping up to accomplish amazing things. Hopefully more studios will learn that we players may love our far-fetched fantasies with dragons, ghosts, or terrors from another world, but a fantasy world where all the heroes are white men is scary in ways that are neither acceptable nor artistically valid.
A world where heroism is limited to white men is not a world I care to escape to.