Thursday 5 July 2012

It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom

Player characters in MMOGs don’t tend to be a very chatty bunch. Not the *players*; fascinating socio-political debates in /general, the growing prevalence of voice chat, you can’t shut those buggers up. Their characters, though, tend to let their actions speak for them, giving eloquent speeches like “KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT KILL RAT”, with an occasional bit of interpretive dance (or as close as you can get with an /emote) chucked in. Even textual dialogue choices are mostly limited to “Yes, I would love to perform a menial task for meagre reward” or “I would love to perform a menial task for meagre reward, but have no room in my quest log at the moment.”

Recent games are featuring much chattier player characters; in Guild Wars 2 your character has fully voiced conversations, and of course there’s the Guinness World Record holding Star Wars: The Old Republic, but it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand some players find it odd if ‘you’ are mute, especially when everyone else in the world is yakking away nineteen to the dozen, on the other hand if you don’t like the voice, or think it inappropriate for your character, it can be a real immersion-breaker.

In The Secret World Funcom have either ignored the issue entirely, or tackled it head-on, I’m not quite sure. There are many cutscenes as your character is recruited into a society, briefed on missions, given general information on what’s happening in the world, with extremely voluble NPCs, and throughout them all you say… nothing. Hardly unprecedented, but it’s a touch odd, especially given the amount of talking other people are doing. Sometimes, like when you’re recruited, it’s quite obvious the NPC is talking directly to you, other times it’s almost like they’re extemporising away and you just happen to be in the area… one scene seemed to be two other characters talking to each other while I stood somewhere in the vicinity (almost out of camera shot), but I still ended up being assigned a mission out of it. The game even lampshades your inaction, having NPCs offer a handshake, and commenting when you continue standing entirely immobile with no indication you’re even aware of their presence. Outside cutscenes you can quiz some NPCs about a range of subjects and receive a spoken response, with no in-game indication of how you managed to elicit it; my current theory is that you have a big pad of paper, and scrawl “YOURSELF” or “ZOMBIES” on it, then wave it at the NPC until they start talking.

It’s quite peculiar and has been mentioned in many of the posts and reviews of The Secret World that I’ve seen, but somehow it sort of works. Perhaps because the world in general in TSW is quite peculiar, in a good way. The whole business starts with an origin story inspired by Burl Ives (“I know an old Templar who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die? Or perhaps she’ll gain magical powers that enable healing through the medium of an assault rifle. It’s pretty much 50-50.”), and builds from there. I think a lot of the appeal of the game has been leaping head-first into the off-kilter version of our world without any prior knowledge, much like your character, and gradually piecing together what’s happening from talking to NPCs, examining lore items and other snippets you happen across, and in that context your character’s silence is an inspired Brechtian alienation device. Or maybe they just ran out of time and money for recording dialogue.

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