Saturday, November 1, 2014

Radio On : TSW

I'd like to thank our collective corner of the blogosphere for nudging me to do something I've been meaning to do for months - log back into The Secret World. Several times of late I've patched up and sat looking at the password screen for a minute or two before deciding it was too much trouble to go find my old log-in details. That'd be a whole thirty seconds of my life, right? Who has that kind of time?

Both Syp at Bio Break, whose Secret Adventures series  has been pressing my nostalgia button for weeks, and Rowan at I Have Touched The Sky are consistent advocates so TSW never drops off my radar. Ysharros at Stylish Corpse recently gave in to the same prompts and jumped back in, thereby adding to the welcome, gentle pressure on me to return but it was Aywren at Clean Casuals whose pithy rundown of the current Halloween events finally tipped me over the edge.

To be precise, it was Aywren's account of a new event, The Broadcast, a recreation of 1940s radio drama, that caught my full and undivided attention. I've long been fascinated by the Golden Age of Radio. Obviously I never had the chance to listen to it first time around (I'm old but I'm not that old!) but I grew up in its hinterland, getting glimpses of that lost world from movies like Radio Days, Garrison Keilor's ironic re-creations and the countless revisitings and retellings of the panic inspired by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater production of War of the Worlds.

When they called it The Black House
they really weren't kidding
The all-pervading influence of the Internet and the World Wide Web has changed just about every aspect of our lives over the last couple of decades and one of the greatest changes has been a previously undreamt of access to the past. When I was writing articles for comics fanzines in the 1980s, if I wanted to send an editor a thousand words on 1940s cinema adaptations of comic book characters it would take me a week of research in the Central Library of a large city and even then I'd be lucky to find what I needed.

Now I can get up, make a coffee, sit down in front of this screen and have more information in a few mouse-clicks than I could possibly use, on just about any subject I could dream up. What's more, as evidenced above, writers of journalistic nostalgia don't need to describe things in detail any more; instead they can simply link to the originals and let their audiences experience those things for themselves, unmediated.

I always found Radio and MMOs a good fit, both for me and for each other. I may have missed the Golden Age but I grew up listening to the radio. From Radio Luxemburg on my mother's battered transistor and my grandfather's shortwave stations on his 1930s Bakelite valve set throughout my childhood, through the Radio One soundtrack of my adolescence to the thoughtful, eclectic, intelligent rumble of Radio Four that marks the background to my adult life, radio has been a constant presence.

When I began playing MMOs I settled into two audio habits right from the start: I always left the in-game music playing and I often supplemented it with radio in the room. For more than a decade I'd slay monsters, craft armor and explore imaginary lands to a sonic melange of looped synth samples, yelps of pain, explosions and Melvyn Bragg quizzing a bunch of professors on Nuclear Fusion or the Haitian Revolution.

I found websites that opened portals to radio stations all over the world and I'd often sort my inventory on a Sunday morning to a soundtrack of local news from Saskatchewan or some such impossibly exotic locale. Best of all I discovered archives of radio shows from long before I was born and listened to episode after episode of Academy Award Theater or The Adventures of Philip Marlowe as I murdered orcs or battered gnolls through Azeroth, Norrath or Telon. 

I used to do that. Then I stopped. Why? Because of The Secret World.

If it starts to shake put a bullet in it.
When TSW arrived back in the late spring of 2012 I found myself unexpectedly caught in its mysterious web. Along with a darkly twisted contemporary setting, drawn with astonishing visual detail and verve, came a thick, nested audio track that demanded full and undivided attention.

It wasn't just that quests were fully voiced - SOE trumpeted that little achievement for EQ2 all the way back in 2004 for all the good it did them. It wasn't the mere fact of embedded audio in game - music emerging from jukebox diners and skatepark boomboxes - Anarchy Online had both audio and video playing on in game wallscreens back in 2002.

When it comes to voiceovers and audio, TSW has never expected, like the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs, to impress us just by the act of doing. It's always been about doing it well and in that they have frequently surpassed all reasonable expectations. For the three or four months I played The Secret World as my primary MMO it was simply not an option to listen to the radio at the same time. The in-game audio was just too good to miss.

I did try. I'm good at multitasking audio. I've had decades of practice. I can usually filter all those tunes, triggers and conversations and extract the meaning I need. Always something's going to get lost in the mix, though. With such a consistently high quality of  voice acting and the complexity of the narrative threaded through so much of the game it just wasn't a viable option any more.

So I turned my radio off. Then, when GW2 came along a few months later, another visually and sonically rich MMO, only bright and bold where TSW was dark and subtle, I left it off. Over the past two years I've only occasionally played MMOs with the radio on and even then only Test Match Cricket, which is more of a background hum than something that demands close attention.

You might consider it both ironic and appropriate then that last night I spent the best part of three hours listening to the radio inside The Secret World. What goes around comes around.

First I had to re-orient myself. It didn't take long. TSW is a remarkably easy MMO to drop back into because not all that much seems to change. That might not be great for players hoping to make it their full-time virtual home but for fairweathers like me it makes for a fine welcome back each time I put the key in the old door.

I did notice a few changes. There's a Pet system now that allows you to store your pets in much the same way you store your minis in GW2. That freed up a few welcome bag slots.

The reason I was fiddling around with my pets to begin with was because the first things I noticed when I got to the Agartha were all the cats. Everyone and his uncle had a pet out and most of them were cats. My character has a cat. I'm suggestible. So it goes.

When I'd gotten all my pets safely kenneled I turned to the two messages in my mail. One was from Dave Screed, who seemed unusually freaked out even for him over some short-wave radio broadcasts he'd heard; the other was from Madame Roget about some trouble she's been having with her cats.

The most surprising thing was that I immediately remembered who they both were and where they both lived. That in itself is testament to the strength of the writing in The Secret World. I was able to go straight to Dave in his New York Launderette to get started without needing to look anything up although once I was under weigh I did open a walkthrough because the puzzle-solving aspect of TSW only amuses me when I'm making progress.

As it turned out I barely needed to refer to the cheat sheet. Not because of my Sherlockian way with a clue but because I spent most of the three hours I was playing standing motionless next to a radio listening to some almost supernaturally accurate recreations of 1940s radio drama complete with station identifications and commercials. It was weird, compelling and also genuinely spooky.

If you think waving a katana around in a church is inappropriate behavior you clearly haven't spoken to the priest.

The first broadcast I listened to from inside the Kingsmouth Congregational Church. Not because I was too scared to stand in the Graveyard where I eventually found the radio but because, like a real radio signal, these broadcasts fade and break up as you move around. Inside the church was where I first found the strongest signal that let me hear the audio clearly. Also the stained glass windows are awesome.

The second I heard while standing outside The Black House in Savage Coast. I started off standing next to the radio inside the burned-out ruin but the racket from occasional fights as players less interested in retro-radio than I triggered the ghost that turns up at the end of the quest drove me to stand outside on the porch.

In her post Aywren says the broadcasts last 10-15 minutes but I think it's more like a full half hour. I'll time the next one and see if that's just a subjective impression or whether it really is that long. Either way they are incredibly impressive pieces of work. Frankly, the two I've heard so far are every bit good enough to be broadcast on PBS or the BBC. The sheer quality of the media work, the narrative and the writing in TSW is so far ahead of any other MMO I've played (100+ and counting) it's a joke.

The entire time I was listening to the broadcast those people in the woods were having some kind of party. Weirdos.

It's a tragedy the game hasn't been successful enough both to allow a much faster and more extensive pace of development and also to generate a feeling in the MMO industry as a whole that sharp, literate, sophisticated writers and creative artists are worth hiring. Comparing the quests in TSW to the ones I've done recently in ArcheAge, for example, is akin to comparing an exhibition in a smart, downtown gallery with the pre-schooler's crayonings pinned up on your next-door neighbor's fridge. And I like the quests in ArcheAge...

Never mind. At least we have this. And how fine it is. I'm two-fifths through The Broadcast and halfway through The Meowling (which has been in the game since 2012 but which I have somehow managed to miss until now). More reports to come, assuming there aren't any parts in either where I have to, y'know, actually win a fight, because the one part where the game and I don't really hit it off is the combat.

And yet even here TSW wins. After the first radio show ended and I clicked on the radio to progress the quest a ghost spawned. It was my first fight after my long lay-off and I couldn't remember my synergies so I died in short order. When I got back to my corpse the radio wasn't playing golden age repros any more. As a ghost I heard what Dave Screed had heard: a Numbers Station.

Would I have heard that if I hadn't died? I don't know. Does it mean anything? I don't know.

I like not knowing. I like The Secret World.


  1. I agree. The Secret World's story and atmosphere are miles ahead of any MMO ever made in my opinion. Unfortunately, I still couldn't get back into it recently. The combat, while it has improved over launch, is still mediocre. It feels stiff, unwieldy and largely lacks impact. Also, while TSW has no more kill quests than any other MMO, I found it jarring in the setting they have and with such a story driven game, I didn't like the lack of payoff in most quests.

    1. I don't hate the combat per se. Fights just take way too long (and I'm a fan of long fights in principle), mob density is very overcooked and many of the fights in instanced quests are just too difficult and/or long for the context. I can't see any purpose in creating top-of-the-line story content and then gating it behind 20 minute kite fights.

    2. My average time to kill is generally 4-6 seconds. In Transylvania. The nightmare-level swarm mobs in any zone I can usually kill a fill group of them in about 3-4 seconds. Even the aegis-protected swarm mobs in Tokyo go down in 4-7. It's all about your build and passives. If the fights are long, then experiment with the wheel some more and change some things up.

      Sure it can take a while to build out to everything, but that's part of the fun.

      For me, my next challenge is to find a build that kills the aegis-protected non-swarm mobs in Tokyo a bit quicker. They're taking me more like 15-20 seconds, though at least half of that is due to all the dodging I'm having to do. These mobs toss out their telegraphs like candy....

    3. When I last played I spent hours reading builds and fiddling with mine, all to no avail. Even using an identical copy of builds other people swear by made no difference at all. My current build is all about not dying because dying was the main problem I was having back then. I'm pretty good at that now - I just can't kill anything in less than forever.

      I don't find working on builds or specs in MMOs fun at all. I just find it irritating. That's a big reason why combat in MMOs like TSW and Rift just don't work for me. I have very little interest in or patience for what goes on under the hood of my characters when it comes to combat. Spells and abilities, yes, those I enjoy learning. Strategies and tactics - great. Synergies between actives and passives and weapons and all that jazz though - makes me want to log out and read a book instead.

      Rift at least has pre-made builds although they aren't as good as some player-made ones. Last time I played I was struggling in Storm Legion so I used a build that was suggested for me by a guildie. Combat went from slow, ponderous tedium to devastating speedkills instantly - with absolutely no change in player skill whatsoever. If there's a build like that for TSW I'd love to see it.

    4. Actually I think you hit the other nail on the head. There are way too many mobs. No space to breathe and way to much stuff to kill to get to the juicy stuff - the story.

  2. (Got an error message and the posts doesn't show up, so I'll try again and risk a double-post)

    You're back for some TSW? I immediately though of this:

    Excellent choice. And the game can be almost as disconcerting and full of atmosphere as this scene which I'm sure you know because you proved before that you know your Lynch. ;)

    Come to think of it, getting him onboard for an MMO, maybe TSW, maybe something new... that would definitely be interesting. I'm not saying it would nevessarily be successful, but it would be very interesting.

  3. Someone was saying in chat last night in one of the zones that the broadcasts actually are real ones from the 40's that are in the public domain. I dunno if that's true or not, but they seem so well done, that I wouldn't be surprised either way.

    1. Oh, now that is interesting. The one I listened to in the Church actually mentioned Boris Karloff as an actor in the play that was going on. I did think it was odd at the time. I've heard some of the Boris Karloff radio dramas but I didn't recognize that one. It was extremely dark for a 40s show but then Karloff's name would have created that expectation in an audience back then.

      If these are ported original in a way that's even better.

  4. Wow! Didn't check out the radios in dead state! Great hint, thanks a lot! :)

    1. Also, welcome back to TSW, and i hope your troubles with the combat ease up a bit.
      (I might be a strange person, but i actually find combat in TSW more convenient than for example in GW2. )

    2. I just got to 5/5 of The Broadcast and the fight with The Presenter. Utterly tedious. First time I died with him around 75% but that's fine - I was working out the mechanics of the fight. Second time I had that sussed but the fight went on FOREVER! I had him under 50% and I was barely going under 90% but it just went on so long I lost concentration, my mind wandered, and next thing I knew I was dying again.

      It's not that the fights are hard in any way - almost every fight is either a DPS test or some kind of chase - it's that they are so long and boring I zone out and forget what I'm doing. I think the two attempts on The Presenter took over half an hour and I have no interest in trying again so that's most likely going to be the end of that.

    3. Actually my question would be, how good is your gear? That fight is in Romania and scaled for people in QL10 equipment. But don't worry, that's what the event channel is for. I regularily see people with lower QL gear ask for assistance on that mission and others provide.

      (If you run with QL10 gear and that guy is over your head, you should seriously consider your deck, though. )

    4. Without logging in to check I'm pretty sure I'm in full QL10 although it would be gear from at least a year ago. I all but finished Transylvania on my first run in TSW and I've done a fair few events and such since then where the tokens dropped for the faction weapons vendor so I have some of those. And a chainsaw, much good that does me!

      As I said above my build is all about survivability because when I had one that wasn't I just died all the time. Now I can survive the heck out of things. I just can't kill them. It's been about a year since googled for builds. I might take a look and see if there are any new ones. As I said above though playing with builds is not an aspect of this or any other game that I enjoy so I'm more likely to just forget it and move on to MMOs that don't emphasize that part of the hobby.

    5. Actually i know no MMO where the build you use is of no meaning. And in all of them, TSW included, you can easily find some guides or helpful people if you are not interested in figuring them out yourself. (I'd volunteer to help there, too. Contact me in game if interested, my characters name is Slad. )

    6. Thanks! I think I've got what I need for now though. I spent half an hour fiddling with my build this afternoon before I remembered there's a place where you can save them. Lo and behold I had saved five different builds last time I was playing. I swapped from the build I was in, which was my healing one, to the "DPS" one, tweaked that a bit and tried again. Took a couple of goes and a close finish but I got the quest done. If I have time I'm going to do a post about it.

      As for builds, yes all MMOs have them to a degree, but many are very forgiving about how seriously players take them. I don't mind a bit of fiddling with augments and stats and so on but when it becomes a major feature of the game (which it definitely is in both TSW and Rift) then I'm not so happy about it.

      I guess what I'm really saying is that I don't mind, even enjoy, having to set my build on a given character but once I've done it I want to forget about it and have it work in all situations or at least for anything short of a major revamp to the whole game.

  5. Glad I my little article inspired you to log in and check out TSW radio broadcasts! You might be right about the length - I only listened to one fully, and that was in Blue Mountain. If anything, I might have been so immersed in the story (I turned off all other sounds so fighting and game stuff didn't bug me) that I just lost track of the time I spent listening. I need to hit up the other radios, too.

    That's pretty creepy that you hear a Numbers Station when you come to listen to the radio as a ghost. Makes sense, though!

  6. I just bought TSW - $11.00 CDN on steam right now. $22 for the whole thing...
    I don;t have time from MMOs right now but have been waiting for an excuse to buy this one.

    1. You'll enjoy it a lot I think. It's an MMO I expect to come back to many times although I wouldn't play it full-time for several reasons. The bleakness can become quite overwhelming after a while for one thing. That was the main reason Mrs Bhagpuss didn't stick with it - that and the blasted Akab in Blue Mountain.

  7. Makes sense to me they may be pulling from radio shows -- "OTR" -- that have long since lost their copyrights. Bet it does sound cool in that game.

    -- 7rlsy

  8. Dammit, I hate dying! But it's not like I'm not getting plenty of practice, so I'll make sure to listen to a radio while almost-dead...

    Doesn't sound like I'll be able to do the end bits, or even much it it at all (I think Mys is sitting around QL 5) but that's ok. There's plenty to do.

  9. and one more TSW related piece of advice, to anyone playing ot just starting playing:

    /chat join Sanctuary

    Sanctuary is a player-created chat channel dedicated to helping/advising new players and provides the social benefits of a guild/cabal, without any of the responsibilities or drama that can come with a guild/cabal. It's open to anyone, and is a very friendly and welcoming channel. Strongly recommended to anyone feeling overwhelmed by the options and possibilities of TSW.


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