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'The Secret World's' secret weapon? Reality

Forthcoming online game
Forthcoming online gameFuncom/EA

"Everything is true" — or so goes the especially apt tag line for the forthcoming game called "The Secret World."

Sure, this massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (set to launch in April 2012) is nothing but pure video gaming fiction. But it is setting itself apart from the pack (and generating plenty of buzz to boot) precisely because it is rooted in our very modern reality.

At the Penny Arcade gaming expo taking place in Seattle this weekend, I had a chance to talk with "The Secret World's" lead content designer Joel Bylos from developer Funcom and he told me that "a huge amount of research" has gone into making this game as realistic as possible.

It's an interesting choice, especially considering that "The Secret World" will be pitted against that behemoth of a massively-multiplayer online game — "World of Warcraft." And "WoW" has been an enormous and long-running hit with players (at least in part) because it transports them to a fantasy world extremely different from our own.

But Bylos points out, "The market is flooded with fantasy stuff." And he believes players want something different.

And so "The Secret World" is set not in some mystical medieval realm, on another planet or in outer space, but on our planet Earth with its familiar look and modern amenities.

Cell phones. Email. This is how the characters communicate. Meanwhile, the game unfolds in real locations like New York, Maine, the UK and South Korea. And Bylos says that, to make sure they got the details right, Funcom sent researchers and artists to many of the actual locations.

"We want these areas to feel like they belong in the real world," he said.

And even when it comes to the not-so-real stuff found in "The Secret World" — this too is based on real-world research.

The thrust of "The Secret World" is this: gamers choose to play as one of three factions who — when they aren't fighting each other — are busy fighting a host of monsters. The factions you can choose from: the Illuminati, the Templars and the Dragons.

Meet the Draug - a mythological creature from Viking legend given new life inFuncom/EA

Anyone even slightly familiar with history (not to mention the wild world of conspiracy theories) will recognize the names of these real or perhaps not-so-real secret societies. Meanwhile, not only have the game's creators drawn on long-running lore to create the factions and the frictions between them, Bylos says that every monster that players run across in the game is plucked from the tall tales, legends and mythologies of cultures from around the world.

The developers, for example, pulled from Viking monster mythology to create the Draug — a kind of walking dead with the ability to swell to a large size. Bylos said the Akab — nasty winged and spiked creatures — are taken from Myan mythology, while the Revenants were taken from European folklore describing a kind of ghost or animated corpse.

Meanwhile, one of the bosses Bylos showed off to crowds gathered at PAX this weekend — the Varangian — was drawn from a particular group of people in Russian/Baltic history. And he also showed off player-versus-player battlefields — and yes, these too are based on real and mythology-based locations: Stonehenge, El Dorado and Shambhala.

Though it may sound difficult to build a fantastical game world that stays true to our own reality, Bylos said that having the real world as a guide has actually given the team more freedom. After all, they didn't have to spend their time trying to construct an entirely new world — with its own history, lore and laws — from scratch.

Those attending the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle this weekend can catch Bylos and lead designers Martin Bruusgaard as they give live demos of "The Secret World." If you can't make it to PAX, check out these recently released "Secret World" screenshots for a look at how Funcom is spinning one fantastical yarn from the threads of reality.

For more game news from the Penny Arcade Expo, check out:

Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+ . And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.