Earlier this month, Curse had a chance to sit down with Funcom's Joel Bylos, Lead Content Designer on The Secret World at a special media event to preview the game. Joel was kind enough to sit down for a lengthy interview and discuss Funcom's work on The Secret World.
The full transcript of our interview can be found below, in which we discuss everything from Egyptian lore to Steven King references in The Secret World.
Check it out below!
Curse: To get things started, what would you like to tell our readers about The Secret World?
Joel Bylos: Whew, well there are lots of things I like - did you play the investigation mission today?
Curse: I didn’t, I was just about to start the investigation mission but I didn’t get that far-
Joel Bylos: Yeah, so the investigation missions are a lot of fun designing these sort of puzzles that tie into the real world. Like, you know, it’s almost interesting from my perspective because I get to sort of point people to things that are really interesting. Like, Edgar Allen Poe’s works are referenced in the one you guys could have played today. And that leads people to read a short story by him which is all about solving the cipher. Then you have to reuse that cipher knowledge that you‘ve obtained from his short story in the game.
I really like that crossover stuff, so in terms of the content I really enjoyed doing that. Otherwise, it’s really interesting to work with real-world based stuff, you know? I don’t know - I’ve made a fantasy game before, I worked on Age of Conan, and there you have like unlimited imagination to go crazy. But it’s the same thing when you’re making a sort of fantastical game in the real world, you can go as far as you want with it. What’s interesting is that most of the things that show up in fantasy games are just based on our own stuff anyway. There’s rarely an original idea. So, I find it much more interesting to find out the history of these real world things and, you know, bring those into the game.
So, yeah, I guess I just enjoyed the research side of it all – it’s a lot of fun.
Curse: So, were there any things that you learned while you were doing the research that you found particularly interesting?
Joel Bylos: Well, for some of the investigations I had to learn, like…yes! Reading the history of the Bavarian Illuminati was very interesting. Finding out – and of course we take these things and add our own twist – but finding out the…looking into the conspiracy theory side of these things and, you know, why they started as well as where they came from, and there’s a lot of that that I find interesting.
I had to learn morse code. I’ve…not learned, but I’ve referenced a lot of braille. I’ve been looking into Hebrew and Arabic languages and lots of different stuff. It’s really interesting.
Curse: On a side note, have you read any of Eco’s take – Umberto Eco’s take on the Templars?
Joel Bylos: No, no I haven’t. That’s Foucault's Pendulum, I’ve been trying to get it on Kindle cause I – they don’t sell it in a way. I’ve been trying to get it, actually, and they don’t have it on Amazon. I’ve been a bit annoyed. Oh, sorry, they don’t have it on digital Amazon but I’m sure they have it on paperback. Ragnar [Tornquist] references that book all the time, so it’s definitely one he’s used for research.
Curse: So, there’s a lot of American Indian and Mayan stuff in the Illuminati quests – I guess you’re leveraging a lot of 2012 mythologies?
Joel Bylos: Yeah, I think anything that comes out of 2012 has to sort of tie to that. But it’s not directly tied to the story, actually, it’s just kind of the rough time frame when things started to happen in the world and 2012 happens to tie in. But, the Wabanaki – the Native Americans, the Mayans – their thread doesn’t tie in at all to the 2012 part of the game, because the events with them happened over a thousand years ago in the game time.
Curse: That’s right, there’s time travel.
Joel Bylos: The player travels back in time to do that and the method of travelling back in time is smoking a peace pipe with a guy, so it’s almost like a vision of the past that you can participate in, it’s very cool.
Curse: And I see there’s also the Deep One, so the Cthulhu myth – the H.P. Lovecraft, is there any more of his stuff in there
Joel Bylos: Yeah, Lovecraft is referenced a lot, mostly for references. And, you know, there’s a lot of Steven King references being set in Maine.
Curse: Alright, I assume that the reclusive author in the lighthouse is semi-based on Steven King?
Joel Bylos: Yes, Sam Krieg? SK? [Laughs] He’s great, it’s actually – his character is heavily influenced by the evil whisperings in the area. I wonder how Steven King would take it if we were basically saying he was semi-insane and being whispered by a demon? Yeah, Maine is very sort of based on things from that area, you have witch burning victims in the area – who have come back as zombies now.
So, you have these sort of references but then when you go to Egypt, it’s a very different mythology that we dig into. I know Ragnar mentioned you can look up Akhenaten, and that’s’ really deep history but also there are conspiracy theories about who Akhenaten was and what his role was back then so it’s very interesting.
Curse: So, we haven’t touched on the Seoul end of things. What is that based around?
Joel Bylos: Seoul is an amalgamation of Eastern philosophies – well, Seoul itself is based on a district in Seoul. Very much based on the old districts of Seoul, and I mean – the screen references, you can basically match them up and see that we’ve used the real stuff, a lot of the guys have been down there. The air is recognizable for people who have been to Seoul, especially to these touristy old city areas.
But the philosophy of the dragon faction – it’s a bit more of an amalgamation of the schools of thought like Taoism, Buddhism and things like that that tend to be more in the East. The reason being, and this is partially from talking with Ragnar and partially my take on it, is that it was hard to find a secret society there that was not heavily religious or heavy criminal.
Curse: Yeah, the Yakuza would have been an almost-fit but not so much?
Joel Bylos: Yeah, and the Illuminati, they’re kind of universal – they can be from anywhere, and the same with the Templars. But, the Yakuka, I mean…they’re Japanese. And the Triad, they’re Chinese – you don’t have crossover there so it’s very hard to…so the Dragon need to be a bit more an Eastern feeling organization. So, I think that was the idea behind combining a bit of stuff there.
Curse: So, is there any influence perhaps from the Mongolian end of things?
Joel Bylos: Yes. I don’t actually remember, we wrote a list of famous ex-Dragons – I don’t remember if Genghis was one of them. I may be wrong, but I think we have actually said he was one of the Dragon. And it fits with whole theme of chaos and tearing down things to start anew.
Curse: Absolutely. So – there’s also the Agartha, the Hollow Earth, is this going to be a fairly widely used mechanism to get from point A to point B?
Joel Bylos: Yeah, it’s the travel mechanic in the game. We didn’t want people to click an airplane in the world and appear somewhere else in the world. It’s nice to have this travel hub and it’s quite a storied place, there’s plenty of stuff about Agartha everywhere. And it’s fully expandable forever, that’s the great thing about Agartha, we can keep increasing its size. It’s this great – I call it a glimpse of the possibility of the game because, in Agartha you have portals between place and time and space. You can look through the portal and see an image of what’s on the other side. And what’s interesting about that is, we can put images of, you know, the surface of the moon and things like that. To allow players to sort of see that we can take this anywhere and we really can.
Curse: So, I guess you have a large catalog of myths and conspiracies that you can leverage for future content.
Joel Bylos: We do, we have a few rules about it. Like, the lunar landing is one that’s been forbidden and that’s because Ragnar thinks it’s incredibly disrespectful to the astronauts who went to the moon, to belittle their work. That’s one of the rules, Ragnar said like, no that’s one thing we’re not touching. That’s something he feels very strongly about. And things like 9/11, we’re very careful about – we don’t want to go poking around. We’re careful in our selection of conspiracies, but most of them are pretty contemporary and people will recognize them.
Curse: I noticed references to the Great Fire of London and, obviously, you’ve got Stonehenge in there.
Joel Bylos: Ah, Stonehenge is fun yeah and, you know, Shambhala.
Curse: So, with the Cabals that you can have – the sort of guilds that you can have in the game, I imagine each Cabal is tied to a specific faction, you can’t have cross-faction Cabals?
Joel Bylos: No, they’re all specifically faction-tied. And they’re mostly for PvP, for the big outdoor PvP areas and puzzle solving. That’s what we’re pushing the Cabals in the direction of at the moment.
Curse: Well that sounds like great fun.
Joel Bylos: It should be, that’s…I hope so. But yeah, it’s coming along well, I feel.
Curse: I think you’ve done a fantastic job so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product.
Joel Bylos: Me, too. [Laughs] Only a couple months now, it’s not far away now. It’s the home stretch, it’s really great.
Special thanks to Joel Bylos and Funcom for taking the time to chat with us!