The Secret World: look, ma, no walk-through!

, | Game diaries

This is a sad tale of both how great and how awful The Secret World can be. It is a tale of the investigation missions, which are unique in a genre when so many missions involve collecting ten boar hides or delivering a doo-dad to the next quest hub. It is a tale of backstory and clues and demonic rune alphabets and world building and characters. It is a tale that spans the globe. It contains spoilers. And I should warn you that it does not have a happy ending.

After the jump, meet Daniel Bach, who’s covered hell, you know.

Daniel Bach is a war reporter in The Secret World. He encountered something underground in Afghanistan, where the Taliban dynamited caves shut to keep the something from emerging. Everyone thought they were dynamiting Buddha statues, but Daniel Bach knows better. He’s been looking for whatever infernal thing is deep in the earth ever since. He’s sort of the occult version of Frank West. He’s covered hell, you know.


Bach lives at the Overlook Motel, where hell is literally spilling in through cracks in the ground. Hell seeps in through the open air. A free-standing door leads to hell. This is where you’ll find Bach, hanging out in the office, handing out quests, wearing his war reporter sunglasses. I’m going to do the quest To Hell and Bach without using a walk-through. I am going to rely entirely on my own investigative prowess. I am going to solve this by myself. Or am I?


First, I click through Bach’s dialogue options — note that every option has multiple responses, so keep going until a checkmark appears — and he recounts what happened in Afghanistan. He recalls a “real special moment in the ruins” with his wife. He decries Fox news and “fucking Burger King”. He has a very Remedy patter. Scandinavians writing dialogue about America for voice actors who sound like they’re in too much of a hurry for inflection.

Bach’s first quest is Hell Hath No Vacancy. I sure do like the name of that quest. It has a very Garth Marenghi sound to it. Once you do that, his advanced quest is To Hell and Bach. Get it? His name is Bach? Okay, so they can’t all be winners. Sometimes you take the pun where you can get it.

To Hell and Bach is concerned with the disappearance of Theodore Wicker, who Bach calls the Crowley of Soho. Wicker was a fellow hell-seeker who disappeared from room 13 of the Overlook. The first thing I do is read Bach’s notes about Wicker. Wicker is a Brit, but he has recently been investigating magic circles in Brooklyn and Soho. Bach’s notes about Wicker include three photographs of locations. Two look like they’re in London and the third looks like some sort of unholy puzzle room with floating cubes where I’m probably going to have to solve some goddamn puzzle about turning cubes a certain way. After I’ve read over the notes, the journal directs me to room 13, where Wicker disappeared. Room 13 is helpfully labeled as such, so I manage to find it. So far, I’m totally crushing this quest.


Wicker’s journal rests on the floor in room 13, helpfully highlighted in yellow. Selecting the journal prompts me to load a solo instance. Good. There’s some doofus with a mohawk and a bright green jacket skittering around the Overlook ruining the mood by constantly jumping up and down. I’d just as soon take this investigation to an instance.

In the instanced version of room 13 I can read Wicker’s journal. It has stuff about seance circles, including a diagram. The journal features a phrase that looks like Latin, but it isn’t quite right. According to the Internet, which is the arbiter of all things Latin, the closest I can get is “they fear what they hate”. But the verb, orderint, seems messed up. Minus the R, as oderint, it means hate. But with the R, there is no such word in Latin. What’s up with that?

Previously, I would have wondered if this was a mistake in the game. Now I’m wondering if this is something Funcom expects me to figure out. Who do I trust? The Secret World, or actual Latin? Wicker’s journal even hints at something unreliable in the seance circle, so maybe that’s what’s going on. Perhaps seance circles flunked Latin? I might have to look into that. But for now, each letter in the phrase has a rune under it that corresponds to runes on the circle.


And what do you know, there’s a seance circle under the rug in room 13! Here I am, crushing this quest. Mousing over each rune reveals its name. What sort of alphabet is this? When I Google some of the names of the runes, I come to Secret World walk-throughs. Okay, let’s leave the rune names alone for now and just mess with the seance circle. I compare the runes to the circle in Wicker’s journal and plot out the position of each rune so I can quickly click them on the floor. My concern is that there may be a time limit, so I get a quick reference chart ready, plotting each rune’s position in order. It looks like the display on a GPS showing the locations of satellites in the sky. I am a genius. Who is totally crushing this quest. I am going to find out what happened to Theodore Wicker, the Crowley of Soho.

But when I go to actually do the puzzle on the floor, I see that it doesn’t match the circle in the journal. Oops. So I plot it out again and manage to pretty quickly click each rune of the Latin phrase on the circle on the floor. Nothing happens. I try it again. Nothing happens. I try it a third time, being particularly careful to stand close enough to each rune — basically walking around on top of the circle instead of standing off to the side — and this time it works. An image of Wicker appears and he talks about sacrificing his heart to someone named Saccharissa. What a terrible name for a character in an occult quest. Dextrosina. Splendidia. Sweetenloweena.

None the wiser about what’s going on here, I’m now told to go to the places in the photographs. This is what I was afraid of. The Secret World is as large as you’d expect an online MMO to be. There are plenty of places I haven’t been. And furthermore, plenty of places I have been where I might not have been paying close attention. In a puzzle I did recently, I was directed to find bees. Bees? Where the hell was I supposed to find bees? It turns out — I looked this up because I didn’t see anyplace on the map labeled “bees are here” and I wasn’t about to walk the earth looking for bees — that the fast travel portals have bees flying around at the entrance. As god is my witness, I thought those were flies.


So now I have to figure out where these photographs from Bach’s notes are located in the game world. Fortunately, the idea is that Bach was tracking where Wicker had traveled. He mentions Brooklyn and Soho. I am smart enough to realize, without looking it up online, that these places are in New York. Which is the hub for one of the factions. Here I am, crushing this quest!

As I study the photograph of some sort of arched basement doorway, I have an inkling that there are underground areas in New York where one of the player factions is hidden. I’ve been down there. I originally played that faction in a pre-release version of The Secret World. And, of course, I’ve been to the New York hub for certain missions, and to track down lore tokens. I should be able to find something that resembles that photograph.

Once in New York, I remember roughly how to get to the underground area. It’s amazing to me how this stuff gets lodged in the back of your head, and it can burble up when you need it. If I were to jump into Lord of the Rings Online or GTA IV or any other game that didn’t let me zap around freely a la Bethesda, I would quickly get my bearings. So here I am under New York, and I pretty easily find the spot in the photograph. Sure enough, looking down a passage, there’s the arch, there’s the ceiling light in the foreground, and there’s the ceiling light in the background.


But there’s nothing here.

I look around for a bit, standing in the exact spot the photograph was taken. Now what? I amble around the room. I stand in the spot again. I check down the hall. There’s a manhole cover to a new area, but do I really want to go down there? Isn’t that just some other part of the map? It’s worth a try.

And here’s where I discover a new room with a seance circle on the floor. It makes me smile to have discovered this, to not be entirely certain it was going to be here, to have a sense of “well, I guess I’ll check down here — a-ha, look what I’ve found!” This will be the high point of To Hell and Bach. It’s all downhill from here.

On the new seance circle, I click through the Latin phrase from Wicker’s journal. It doesn’t work. I try it again. It doesn’t work. I try it again, being especially careful not to misclick. It still doesn’t work. Let’s give it one more shot. It doesn’t work. I try doing it without the first R in orderint, essentially correcting the Latin. No luck. I start reading up on Latin conjugation and declension, thinking maybe it has something to do with the translation. Does Secret World expect me to relearn Latin? I’ve done things far more frivolous in videogames, so let’s give it a try. That doesn’t last long. Okay, let’s not give it a try. I’m not about to relearn Latin for a videogame puzzle.

I am no longer crushing this quest.

In my several attempts clicking runes on the seance circle, I notice that the rune representing N — it’s called ilv — doesn’t always make a confirmation noise when I’ve clicked on it. Does this mean something? I try to parse if this has some significance. I trying clicking without using ilv. I try rejiggering the Latin phrase minus the Ns. I double check that I didn’t improperly click any runes. I try it again. I re-read Wicker’s notes. I re-read Bach’s notes. I try it again. I try it one more time. I reload the solo instance. I try it again. I try it again. I stop playing for a while and come back later to try it again. I am now doing the same thing over and over. It’s not working. The Secret World has ground to a halt for me. I cannot beat this quest. It’s been well over an hour with no progress and I have no idea what to try next.


Disgusted with myself, I Google “secret world hell and bach walkthru”. It turns out the phrase to unlock this seance circle isn’t the phrase from Wicker’s journal. Instead, it’s written on a hidden spot in the room. If you walk around behind a generator, you’ll see it. There will be another seance circle at the next location. The phrase to unlock it is written on the ceiling. Once you realize this, and once you look up the demonic runes online, and once you find locations depicted in photographs, To Hell and Bach is a trivially easy quest.

So what did I learn from not crushing this quest and having to resort to a walk-through?

1) As much as I admire The Secret World, some of the puzzles need to do a better job spelling out the basic concepts, presenting their internal fiction, and establishing the tools needed to solve the quest. There are fundamental problems with To Hell and Bach that Funcom could have ironed out.

Because as it is, this is a really dumb puzzle solution. It’s the equivalent of being asked to hack a computer that has the password written on a Post-It note stuck to the back of the monitor. Who solves a hacking puzzle that way, especially when you’re holding the supposedly secret notes of the guy who owns the computer? Why would he stick his password back there? More to the point, why would I ever think to look back there? When you design a puzzle, you have to think like the person solving your puzzle. You have to put yourself in his shoes and consider what he’s thinking, and how he arrives at his conclusions, and how his mind will work given the information you’ve presented. You read his mind. It should never — never! — be the other way around. The person solving the puzzle should never have to read the mind of the person creating the puzzle. That’s a poorly made puzzle.

Did Funcom consider the fiction of Theodore Wicker hiding a message in a seance circle and scrawling the solution to the seance circle on the wall? If Wicker’s journal had included a reference to hiding the phrases, I might have known to explore the room. Furthermore, if I had somehow understood that different circles had different passphrases, I might not have tried the Latin passage from his notes so many times. I was a best-case candidate for Funcom to present this puzzle, because I was interested in the lore. I was curious and willing to learn. So here was the perfect opportunity for Funcom to create a fiction about seance circles hiding messages, each requiring a different password. But there was nothing to suggest that the single passphrase wouldn’t work for all the circles.

2) Funcom still needs to work on the quality control in their puzzles. One of the worst things you can do when you lay out a mystery is to be sloppy with the clues, leaving your investigators to chase the mistakes you made instead of the solution you hid. Whatever is going on with the “orderint” vs “oderint” should have been ironed out, because it will emerge as soon as someone starts to examine the pieces. Similarly, whatever caused the ilv rune to not sound a confirmation note should have been ironed out. Both seemed like clues. Both are the sorts of hitches someone invested in the quest might notice. Both are viable ways to communicate information to an investigator. Ah, so this word doesn’t exist! So that piece behaves different from those pieces! And both pulled me away from the simple fact that a clue was scrawled on the side of the level geometry.

3) I need to look everywhere. For better or worse, Funcom expects me to pay attention to their world, and it’s usually worth it. I like knowing those are bees. I appreciate that this is a world vivid enough that I can recognize the sewers of New York and later the doorways of London, which is where the quest goes next. I like that I should pay attention to shop names and landmarks. I love what Funcom has built and I love how much it rewards closer examination. The Secret World’s strongest point is its world building, and the investigation quests often take advantage of this. So if you’re not paying attention, you’re not playing right.

As for Hell and Bach, once I had resorted to the walk-through, I lost interest in actually solving the quest. I went through the motions, but the payoff was hardly worthwhile. I still don’t understand the point of it, or what happened to Wicker, or why Bach cared. At least the puzzle cube room didn’t have a goddamn puzzle about turning cubes in a certain way. At least I got a handful of experience points out of it. At least I now have a better understanding — yet again — for both how much and how little to expect from Funcom.

2 stars

Up next: time to call in reinforcements
Click here for the previous entry.