Decisions, decisions. When you are invited to a special sneak peek of The Park, the upcoming single-player game based on The Secret World’s own Atlantic Island Amusement Park, guided by Joel Bylos, the very guy who created said park, it is hard to say no! On one hand, you really want to be completely surprised by every little detail when you get to play the horror game for yourself. On the other, you get to pick the brains of the man behind that amazing park and learn all sorts of juicy behind-the-scenes tidbits that aren’t available during a personal playthrough. In the end, it wasn’t much of a choice: Talking with Bylos totally won out. The result? I learned the origin story of The Park, tasted the atmosphere, and experienced a few fun moments in the game. Now I am even more excited to play it than before!
Thankfully, Bylos promised to not reveal many spoilers (though one accidentally popped in), and I in turn will avoid them here as much as possible. Instead, I’ll focus on the story behind the story, the goals of this thriller, and the possibility of more projects in the future.
While many folks might say that the end result is all that really matters in the development of a single-player RPG, I found the The Park’s origins to be pretty fascinating. You see, the game was not conceptualized as an actual product. Bylos explained that The Park was only an experiment based on the need to learn how to use the Unreal 4 engine. Because Funcom has fewer render coders, the studio was looking at using an engine that already has coders working on it. Bylos said that he was given a time frame for the team to learn how to use the engine, and his response was that the best possible way to learn it was to make a game from start to finish. So that’s exactly what they did.
In March, three devs started tinkering around with the project to familiarize themselves with Unreal and see what could be done. Tthe game wasn’t a product, so the team utilized resources already at its disposal. Because of subject material, it makes perfect sense that Bylos would use a location he was instrumental in creating for TSW — a place that is coincidentally rife with story possibilities. Voices for the game were provided by actors who were actually at the studio working on other projects; the lead was working on LEGO Minifigures Online, but once Bylos heard her, he had to nab her for Lorraine, the game’s lead.
Come August, Bylos took the game to the management team, who played through it and loved it! It is at that point that The Park first began its life as a commercial product for the public, and the project was given more devs to help polish things up and prepare it for a Halloween release.
Immersed in the eerie
What did my brief glimpses into The Park reveal? Just enough to make me want more, more, more! There might be minute spoilers here, so skip ahead if you wish, but it is mostly just teasers; I will pretty much be talking about the atmosphere, not details of the story. (If you want many spoilers, you can watch the OPTV full playthough on Saturday, October 31st, at 9:00 p.m. EDT.) For those who are worried about having the ending spoiled elsewhere before playing themselves, Bylos said the game is about the tension, about the slowly building horror of what is going on — not the end.
The Park is the story of Lorraine looking for her son. It is also, in the words of Bylos, the “story about a mother’s relationship with her child,” including the “darker side of being a parent — some of the things people won’t tell you about being a parent.” But beneath that it’s also the story of the park itself and how it came to be the way it is. And who doesn’t want to learn more about the park?
Bylos revealed that there will be many recognizable characters as tributes to The Secret World, from cut outs in the house of horrors to walking, talking entities. I loved each snippet of familiarity. In fact, the backstory of a familiar character (I’m not telling you which one!) from the MMO will be revealed in this single-player experience. “I think new players will get a kick out of [The Park], but The Secret World players will get a bigger kick out of it,” Bylos said. “There are a lot of references, a lot of name-dropping.” He added that there is one specific place where he knows TSW players will jump out of their chairs in shock.
How does the setting compare to The Secret World? The game starts right as the park is closing and the protagonist is chasing after her son who ducked back inside. At first I was startled by the bright sunshine and the happy-go-lucky feel, but that was soon replaced with the expected dark spookiness. Bylos stated, “This type of game is all about atmosphere,” and I think they nailed it. Even in my brief time there, sights and sounds really combined to create the mood — that mood being slightly paranoid with your skin crawling. You are just waiting for something to happen. As the mother progresses in her search, you can feel the anxiety grow as the tone of her voice and her breathing changes. The UI is super minimal so you aren’t distracted from what’s going on visually. And you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled: Besides the fact that the graphics are a step up from TSW, Bylos warned that if you blink, you will miss a lot.
The tour included a stop at a couple of the rides. Although The Secret World players will definitely recognize some rides (like the infamous Octotron), the layout of the park and the rides themselves have been re-imagined. One very major difference is that here you can get in and ride them all yourself! I cannot wait to test that mechanic out on all of them. I also caught glimpses of various papers, clues, and other assorted items that you can interact with throughout the park. (Hint: Players will definitely want to pick up and turn items over as there can be clues hidden on various sides of the objects.)
Bylos admits that the game is pretty simple mechanically, especially when compared to an MMO, but he also emphasized that the goal here was building tension while telling the story. Granted, there are some “tacky, cheap jump scares” in the house of horrors, but the rest of the game relies on the cycle of building and releasing tension. As it is very much based on the story, there are no choices that will affect the narrative; however, that doesn’t mean that players are stuck on rails. Players can turn off locational prompts and wander about the park, poking in all the nooks and crannies. And they should! Those who wander off the beaten path will get more backstory. Those who rush to the conclusion of the story will miss so much.
By all accounts, The Park is truly a labor of learning and a labor of love. And judging by the reception it is getting so far, many players are poised to love it as well. So what is in store if the game does well? Is there a possibility of more games based on other TSW locations? Bylos answered, “Absolutely! If The Park succeeds, does better than we expect, and management is happy with it, then yes, absolutely.” Bylos noted that with The Park, the team built a nice foundation that can have many applications, even if nothing is planned yet.
Before signing off, I asked whether Funcom’s latest financial woes were affecting Bylos. He told me that the latest news really didn’t bother him, noting that he’s heard the doom and gloom since he first started working for Funcom and has yet to see it ever materialize. Bylos added, “I like the new strategy the company has.” He said that he thinks the new CEO really gets gaming because he’s grown up with games and been working on games for many years. This CEO lets the devs worry about making games while he worries about the financial part. Bylos’ view is that making good, quality games that the public wants to buy is precisely the way to save the company.
And although I’ve only gotten a taste so far, from where I sit, The Park is looking to be just that — a good, quality game that I, along with many others, have already bought. As Bylos put it, The Park lets the team focus on its strengths: atmosphere and storytelling. If that is the direction the company is heading, I am all for it. Here’s to seeing more of this in the future!