So I was reading Chris’ recent CMA entry on The Secret World, and I found myself in a curious state. I definitely agree with his initial assertion that this is a good game, that this is a game I like, a game that should be celebrated and remembered and deserves praise and lots of memories. And yet I also agreed with his assessment that playing the game feels kind of bad… which led to me thinking about what I actually think about TSW as a whole.
TSW has combat that’s a mixed bag at best and generally kind of meh. The investigation quests are annoying. The stealth quests are obnoxious. The combat quests are kind of rote. The story is all right but never super compelling or filled with characters I particularly liked. So why do I agree that this game is so good? Why is it that I could think of a rejoinder for every bit of praise I have for the game?
And the answer was pretty clear on a little thought. Because for all these faults, I love the idea of The Secret World. Probably more than I ever loved the game itself.
If you’re about to chime in down in the comments that you really like something I panned above, relax a little. I don’t think any of this takes away from TSW or is somehow a damning problem. It’s not that the game is bad, and I will literally fight over that point. But I do think it’s interesting that the more I think about the game, the more I realize that what I like is the idea of the game – the fact that the game was trying to do something different even if it didn’t always work.
I like the idea of the different factions, the modern setting, the unique approach to story and setting, the aesthetics, even the unique approach to how skills and abilities and combat are supposed to work. I love so many parts of this game, and if the game itself never quite delivers on that love, I’m willing to overlook that fact because the ideas themselves are a breath of fresh air.
The thing is… I don’t know if I’m alone. And I don’t think this is a situation unique to TSW.
Another game immediately suggests itself to me: Book of Travels. The aesthetic of this game? The look of it? The idea of a sedate and different kind of MMO that’s focused on something very different than the usual engine of these games? All of that stuff is like catnip. I’m an easy mark for all of this stuff, and I’m intrigued.
But for all that interest, my actual playtime in the game is very low. Heck, I agree with Justin’s initial assessment that the game is very pretty and unique but hard to parse insofar as it’s unclear what you’re supposed to be doing. I love the idea of this game, I want to love the heck out of this game, and yet I don’t actually find myself playing it all that often.
And yet at the same time, I wouldn’t say the game is somehow failing in its design. It’s doing exactly what it sets out to do! I would even argue that this is a marvelous and inventive game worthy of your time. So why don’t I actually want to play it at all?
Because what I’m in love with is the idea, the notion of the thing, the feeling of the game more than the actual gameplay. This isn’t some kind of failure to execute correctly on behalf of the game or some major design-level flaw that implies it should be made differently; the problem here isn’t with the game. The problem, if there has to be one, is that it’s possible to sometimes do something inventive and novel and unique without everyone who admires it necessarily wanting to play it.
Now, the thing about this category of MMOs that we like but don’t want to play is that it’s different for everyone. I know for a fact a lot of people loved TSW just fine even with all its janky issues, and hey, that’s great. This isn’t how everyone feels about the game, just like there are games I can play endlessly that have other people looking at them saying “gosh, I want to love this, why don’t I?”
But here’s the thing: I think it’s important to think about these things, even if we acknowledge that it doesn’t really change things. You cannot will yourself into liking something; if you could, I would have long ago started enjoying The Witcher just to get people to stop suggesting it. Yet there’s space to acknowledge that you may not want to actually play a particular game, but you still love the idea of it just the same.
Obviously, this is something that I have to do basically forever just as a result of my job. There are a limited number of hours in the day, and I am constantly learning about cool stuff that various games are doing, so I just have to sort of accept at a certain point that some of these things will be cool things I admire but do not have the time to actually play. Sorry, Warframe.
But this is also about more than that. It’s about taking a step back and being willing to really analyze your own impressions about certain games, and how it’s possible to have games that you really like the idea of – maybe even games you admire – that you do not genuinely want to play. Maybe it’s because the core gameplay loop isn’t very well developed, maybe it’s because the game is a janky mess, and maybe because at the end of the day this game is just not something that’s rewarding what you actually want to do even if you feel like you should want it.
See… we all see games that we love the ideas behind. There are always going to be games where you just hear about the notion and you think “wow, that’s really cool just for existing.” But that doesn’t always translate to a game you actually want to play. You can think The Sims is a really neat idea, but if your primary enjoyment in video games is active fighting and blowing things up, you just are not going to get much out of that game however much you love it.
And that’s all right. It has to be all right.
For that matter, we need to understand that this might be part of the problem that some of these games have in the first place. Just because people like an idea behind a game doesn’t mean that the game has enough actual players to fill its roster up. You might like the idea behind a less-structured version of No Man’s Sky, but it quickly became clear that people didn’t generally want to play that game even if they admired the idea.
You can have great ideas that don’t always translate to great MMOs, and sometimes the ideas you love the most just don’t quite make for the experience you want to play. That’s not a failing of you or the games, but it is worth thinking about.