I have a confession to make: I'm a roleplayer.
What started for me—at the tender age of eleven or twelve in a black-and-white telnet window— has given way to fully-realized graphical worlds brimming with rich detail. When I play games, I try to keep a sense of character: not "what would I do in this situation," but "what would they do?" I relish games that give me a blank slate. If you want to waste a few hours, ask me to tell you about my Shepard, my Inquisitor, my Dragonborn, my Vault-Dweller.
I expect a lot of folks took the same path that I did. It's easy, after all, to draw a through-line from Redwall MUCK or Avalon MUD (my early haunts) to EverQuest, and from there to World of Warcraft, and then all of a sudden you've been playing MMOs for almost as long as you've owned a computer.
The first time I played The Secret World was in late 2012, just after developer Funcom ditched the game's monthly subscription model in favor of a "buy to play" setup, and it felt like having an affair. If you've played MMOs for any significant length of time, then you know how it is. Warcraft is nice, but the spark goes missing. It becomes too familiar. Too predictable. You still love Azeroth, but you're bored. After a while, every conversation between Warcraft and I at the dinner table was the same: "How was your day? Have you heard from your sister? Please bring me six flawless boar tusks."
As a roleplayer, I wanted more—and The Secret World gave it to me in the form of a game that was a loving homage to the works of James Herbert, H.P. Lovecraft and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among many, many others. The roleplay community was big, vibrant, and operated mainly out of the in-game bar, The Horned God.
I remember when The Horned God was full of people. This is what it was like:
As the biggest, seediest watering-hole on this particular subway stop, the tavern was a revolving door for London's more furtive denizens. A Romanian refugee regularly bent her arm at the bar with a German professor of numerology. There, in the corner booth, a counselor for a local youth group tries to convince her friends to come along on her church retreat to the mountains—those rumors about the Morninglight being an apocalyptic death-worshipping cult were ridiculous, she insists, they've completely turned her life around.
Upstairs, an off-duty fixer for the Illuminati dances with a young woman who later that evening will attempt to extract his blood in the name of Aten, a long-dead Egyptian deity. The couple laughing as they flip through the pages of the charmingly antiquated jukebox? They're members of an ancient society devoted to steering the path of world events using complex models that blend math with chaos magic.
The Secret World encouraged this sort of wild characterization from its players. It was a game in which we were told from the very start that all of the fairy tales, improbable legends, and wild conspiracy theories that flit across humanity's collective consciousness are not only true, but imminent—that it was, for example, our responsibility as players to prevent the Mayan apocalypse, or to hunt down Bast with the help of Baron Samedi.
Magic isn't just real; your neighbors are sending their kid to a boarding school in Maine that will help him learn it, like Hogwarts with a Steven King accent. Mummies don't just come back to life, they're managing their stock portfolios and buying expensive suits. Not only are the Illuminati controlling what songs shoot up the Top 40, they're also lacing subliminal messages into Facebook image macros. And they're the good guys.
The Secret World treasured its roleplayers in a way that I haven't seen before or since. Just down the street from the tavern in London is the Avalon Theater, which contains a full-sized stage with working lights, sets, weather effects, and sound cues. Just down the street is Pangaea, the clothier—all outfits in The Secret World are purely cosmetic, so our characters could look however we wanted. Or if you're looking for something a little more social, there's the Crusades nightclub, where a player-run radio station called Radio Free Gaia, to this day, provides the soundtrack for our nightly excursions.
Outside of the game, Funcom's community representatives leveraged the game's modern setting by creating in-character Twitter accounts for various NPCs—imagine if the Warchief was also an accomplished shitposter. The so-called "Twitterverse experiment" is where the roleplay community REALLY flourished, due in large part to the developers staging elaborate ARGs with in-game and physical payoffs (to this day, I keep a dogtag of my character's in-game faction stowed, talismanic, in my car's glovebox—my reward for "winning" one of the roleplay contests).
Even as the three-year arc of The Secret World's in-game plot came to a climactic conclusion, we continued on Twitter, playacting our characters' private lives, our romances, our little dramas. That's the really amazing part of roleplay—you feel a sense of ownership over the world you all inhabit. When the community came together, we sincerely felt like we were writing fantastic tales.
It was the Garden of Eden. For a while.
The Secret World's servers are still up. Content trickles in a lot slower than it used to, but it still arrives—in the form of clothing packs, dungeons, in-game holidays. You can go to the quest hub and see a few people talking idly in the Looking for Group channel, and the chat room on the big offsite roleplay hub still has half a dozen members hanging around. But almost everywhere you go, things are looking thin.
The Horned God still looks full, until you realize that everyone standing around the bar is an NPC. Stand there sipping drinks, and you start to hear the same incidental lines repeat themselves over and over again. The music on the dance floor upstairs still thrums through your speakers, but the only people bobbing their heads along are lifeless strings of code and texture going through the same motions whether you're there to see them or not.
"It's best to know what events to attend," one roleplayer who goes by the handle "Insein" tells me. Like many roleplayers, Insein had played World of Warcraft for almost a decade, but was lured away by the prospect of something different. She still roleplays actively both in-game and on Twitter along with a small roleplaying cabal (in-game guilds are called 'cabals') of about ten members.
Their cabal holds social events and in-character dungeon runs on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, but even she admits that the state of the game is in decline. "Content releases are slower than prior and less exciting, both in story and mechanics," she tells me. In her opinion, the game's decline is a result of Funcom reducing the game's staff, and while she has no plans to stop playing The Secret World, she tells me that she wishes she had something to look forward to.
Another active player, Klaus, has been roleplaying in games since Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne. He was intrigued by the game's concept and preordered The Secret World because it came with an in-game cat as a pet—Klaus loves cats, he tells me. He says that relatively speaking, the game is still doing well, but also admits that they're in the middle of a content lull. He's not worried, though—he trusts the developers to keep making things that everyone will enjoy.
There is one advantage to the game's declining numbers, however. Awash with nostalgia, I returned to Innsmouth Academy, a magical boarding school that serves one of the game's hubs. I accepted some quests just for the sake of hearing one of Jeffrey Combs' lovingly-acted monologues, and during my entire trip, I never saw another player.
No one broke my immersion by doing the Gangnam Style dance inside the quest NPC. No one shouted racial epithets in the zone's general chat. Nobody said anything about Chuck Norris. I was alone—and even playing a max-level character, I could feel the game's atmosphere seeping back in, setting that familiar thrill of fear in my gut.
Back in London, outside the Crusades nightclub is a faded poster advertising an in-game event - a giant party on December 21st, 2012 in honor of the Mayan apocalypse. The poster advertises THE END OF THE WORLD. It may be almost four years later, but the few players who still log in are waiting for the end to come. The Secret World's climax—a bloody battle in Tokyo for the fate of the world itself—has come and gone. For years, it was a story that we were all writing together. Today, it's hard to shake the feeling that the final page is approaching fast.