Sunday, October 26, 2014

More Doors

This past weekend, I finished playing Shadow of Mordor, an action-adventure game set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I've had a lot of conflicting thoughts while playing it, so I wanted to jot them all down here while it's still fresh in my mind.

I should probably list my biases up front. I am a huge Tolkien nerd; I credit The Hobbit with awakening my love of reading, and have devoured a lot of the lore around Middle-earth, including multiple passes through The Silmarillion and the Book of Lost Tales (although I have made only limited progress in History of Middle-earth). Unlike many of the noisier Tolkien fans, though, I've generally enjoyed the film adaptations (other than a few very specific complaints), and have a fairly broad approval towards people re-interpreting the Middle-earth mythos. Tolkien was originally motivated to create Middle-earth because he wanted England to have its own mythology, something on par with the great Norse/Germanic myths. We don't think of myths as the works of a particular individual: they are a part of the culture, and both shape and are shaped by it. I think it's a huge testament to Tolkien's skill and vast effort that his corpus can support and inspire such creativity in others, and even as classical myths will inspire new works in unexpected ways, I hope that Tolkien's mythology will serve as a source of material for new creators to tell their own stories.

All that said, I must admit that I have a knee-jerk reaction of skepticism whenever I hear about a video game adaptation based on a movie or other established property. There are lots of people like me out there who are willing to buy pretty much anything that carries Tolkien's imprimatur, and video game companies are rather notorious for releasing shoddy tie-ins, particularly when it comes to movies. I did let myself be hopeful about this, though, partly because the LotR movie-based video games have had a surprisingly strong track record: The Two Towers was a really fun hack-and-slash game for PS2 in the style of Golden Axe, and the Battle for Middle-earth games were perfectly good real-time strategy games. Both seemed to nicely pull off the unique challenge for a movie tie-in video game: they felt like they occurred in the same universe as the movie, without retreading the exact same scenes as the films. Rather, you felt as if you were watching (no: creating) scenes that could have been a part of the films, were they allowed to be even longer than they already were.

(Sidebar: Tolkien games are in a particularly strange state because there are two entirely separate licenses. There are "book license" games, which can draw upon the books published by Tolkien, but cannot use any likenesses or visual designs from the movies. These include Lord of the Rings Online and The Hobbit. The more successful games, which used to be published by Electronic Arts and more recently by Warner Bros, have a "movie license", which means that they can include visuals and music from or inspired by the Peter Jackson films. Furthermore, since the movies have the rights to the books, the games can also draw upon any content listed in the books, even those that didn't appear in the movies. Confused yet? It gets better! Games can't use any content from Tolkien's other works, such as The Silmarillion; however, since they technically have rights to the appendices, they can pull in a whole host of material unrelated to the main plot that sheds light on other regions in Middle-earth and the earlier Ages. Additionally, even though they can't use material that only appears in The Silmarillion, they aren't supposed to contradict any information that only exists on those books. Which is, um, difficult, since the books are self-contradictory. But now this sidebar is way too long. Back to the exposition!)

I was highly skeptical of Shadow of Mordor pretty much from the first moment I heard about it. The whole premise just sounded wrong. The protagonist was a human who was killed, and came back from death in a quest for revenge? Tolkien has a very well-defined system of mortality and immortality, and I just couldn't understand how Talion (the protagonist) fit into it. I resolved to studiously ignore all marketing for the game and check it out for myself.

The results were... strange. I can already tell that I'll have trouble organizing this write-up, so let me get the technical stuff out of the way first, before I return to the lore in spoilertown.

First of all, from a purely mechanical standpoint, this is probably the best-feeling action game that I've ever played. The action feels fluid and fun, and looks completely awesome, with your character pulling off a series of totally sweet moves: parrying, ducking, side-stepping, rolling, knocking, stabbing, slashing, slicing, all with your left and right mouse buttons. The gameplay is deep, too, and manages to teach you how to play it at a great pace, keeping the play challenging while never growing (too) frustrating. As your character levels up, you gradually accumulate a wider and wider array of possible moves and attacks. Each player will probably settle on their own personal favorites, all of which seem viable. Personally, I had an overwhelming preference for stealth mechanics, which involves a lot of sneaking; unlike other fantasy games with stealth, though, you aren't just limited to backstabs, but also ledge grabs, pounces, brutal assassinations, etc.

I haven't played any of the Assassin's Creed or Arkham games, which seem to be described as the closest relatives to the gameplay in Shadow or Mordor, but from what I've heard SoM borrows from and improves upon them. I believe it: fighting never felt like a grind, whether I was facing a lone orc or a horde of fifty enemies on the screen at once, it always felt fun and I always thought I looked good doing it.

The game seems really impressive graphically as well. I would have picked up SoM sooner or later anyways due to the Tolkien name, but part of the reason I got it at launch was to try out my new video card (Asus Strix GTX 970, if you're curious). The game looks fantastic and detailed, with wonderful lighting (both day and night) and huge open environments. The game starts out in the blasted wasteland with which we are familiar, which is stark and harsh, not entirely unlike the early desolation of Red Dead Redemption. Later on, you travel to the southern region of Mordor near the Sea of Nurnen, a more fertile area where Sauron grew food to feed his armies. Of course, I much preferred the prettier setting down south. Level design is fantastic throughout, particularly in the fortresses, heavily-guarded orc structures filled with interesting interconnected structures.

One of the most talked-about aspects of SoM has been the Nemesis System, a really cool idea that lives up to its potential. As you would imagine, there are an infinite supply of orc enemies. The orcs organize into a brutal hierarchy, with the more powerful ones ruling those below them with fear and violence. Over the course of the game, your actions will dynamically change the composition of this structure. Kill a Captain of Sauron's Army, and a promising Orc will take his place. Threaten a Warchief, and he will collect more followers to protect himself. If you die, Random Orc #138023 who killed you will grow famous among his peers, earning a promotion into the leadership, and will gather his own protectors. Orcs will remember if you ran away from a fight with them, or if they killed you, and will react appropriately. Each captain has its own strengths and weaknesses, which you can learn by interrogating other captains or suggestible peons, and then use those weaknesses to plan your next move.

Frankly, I found the nemesis system much more interesting and challenging than anything in the main plot. One thing I hadn't realized at first was that it's omni-present: you can go on a mission to kill a Captain, for example, but even if you're in the middle of another mission (say, to rescue some human slaves), a captain might be present, abruptly changing what was seemed like a straightforward quest into a deadly one. And there's nothing to stop two, or even three captains from getting involved! All of this is dynamic and unscripted, and is driven by some solid work in the background. If a particular Captain is your Nemesis, then he will actively hunt for you, and thus might show up at the worst time possible. You might have a plan to deal with a target - for example, maybe you've learned that they're terrified of Caragors, and so have ridden a Caragor into his camp; however, maybe your nemesis is enraged by Caragors, and so that same tactic will backfire on you spectacularly. All of this is solvable, but it requires a very pleasant combination of strategy, tactics, and reflexes.

Okay, let's start digging into some


I'll be honest: I kind of hated the story. I'm not even talking about the lore now, just the main plot arc. It's boring, and derivative, and fairly squicky. It feels a bit like someone was trying to cram as many bad gaming cliches into the shortest story possible. "Okay, so we have a moody white male in his 30s as a protagonist, right? Excellent! Hm, does he have a wife or girlfriend?" "Yes, but don't worry, she's completely passive and only exists so we can murder her five minutes into the game, thus providing Talion with his motivation for revenge." "Great! Let's make sure that Talion has to use dark and unsavory means in order to attain his supposedly-virtuous goals. Remember, if we don't teach our players that torture is the best way to obtain intelligence, then the terrorists have won. Let's see, what do you have in mind for NPCs?" "Oh, you're going to like this! We have two dudes, Hirgon and Torvin, who are tough fighters with a lot to teach Talion. And we also have three women: Eryn, Lithariel, and Marwen, all of whom are rescued by Talion." "I sure don't see anything wrong with that! All right, let's make this game!"

I'm just kind of baffled at how they came up with this. They went to all the bother of inventing a completely new story, which is not tied to any requirements from the LotR setting, and ended up with a total cookie-cutter plot that seems to be trying to be as unoriginal as possible. Is that maybe the point? For as much as I write about video games, I really don't know a whole lot about how the industry works. Maybe it's easier to get a project green-lit if you tell the executives that you're just going to tell the same story that's been told dozens of times before, and so it's less risky than telling a creative and imaginative new story? I dunno.

More than anything, it feels like a massive wasted opportunity. There are so many great, rich archetypes in Tolkien's stories that they could have drawn on for inspiration. If you must do a fighting game, why not make a character in the tradition of Eowyn or Haleth? Or, if you're willing to shake up the gameplay more, consider how Luthien or Tom Bombadil would have accomplished their quests. Or, as long as they're injecting foreign archetypes and themes into Tolkien's universe, why not do something completely out-there, like breaking the fourth wall or a revolutionary uprising of orcs? I think that's my biggest complaint: Talion is an anti-Tolkien archetype, and he's not even a good anti-Tolkien archetype. He makes the universe worse for existing in it.

Pretty much all of modern fantasy descends from Tolkien, and so much of his style has become commonplace that it's easy to lose sight of what's really radical about his books. For all the major battles that take place in Lord of the Rings, at its heart it is secretly a pacifist work. Sauron isn't slain by the hero, and Aragorn isn't able to defeat the host of Mordor. While valor is commendable, it doesn't win the war. Rather, in the end, it is mercy that wins the day. The "good guys" win because Bilbo spared Gollum's life when he could have killed him, and because Frodo took pity upon him even knowing he was untrustworthy. It's a story about persevering under adversity and treating others with kindness even when they don't deserve it.

Ultimately, I had the most success thinking of Talion as a minor villain. This isn't entirely unprecedented: Boromir famously was drawn to dark means in pursuit of his noble agenda, and the First Age is filled with elves doing terrible things in the name of vengeance. That's not the sort of character I want to play as, though, and I'm really disturbed by how the game seems to sum up the impact of your adventures.


Eventually, after killing your way up the Orc ladder, you have the chance to fight Sauron himself. Yeah, I know. It was weird. You (/Celebrimbor) defeat him, and the game seems to say that it's because of this that Sauron wasn't able to take physical form during the events of LotR, being restricted instead to his flaming-eyeball persona. From a pure lore perspective, I'm actually more or less fine with that idea. It's similar to the trauma Sauron experienced after the fall of Numenor or after his defeat at Dagorlad, and it's been well-established that while his immortal spirit can't be destroyed, his form can be restricted. But even if the lore is fine, it rubs me absolutely the wrong way tonally. Within the Tolkien mythos, while good intentions aren't guaranteed to triumph, evil acts will lead to bad outcomes. In the short term they may seem effective, but the ends never justify the means.

Again, for a while as I was playing the game, I thought that this might make more sense if I just consider Talion as a villain. There's a particular section in the main plotline when you speak with Queen Marwen, and realize that she's been possessed by Saruman in the same way Theoden would later be. For a moment, I thought, "Oh, it all makes sense! Saruman is manipulating Talion to raise up an Orc army from the stock within Mordor, selecting the best and strongest; then Saruman will take over, creating the Uruk-hai. So, the stuff I'm doing in this game is directly contributing to Rohan's near-destruction in The Two Towers. That's neat/awful!" But it seems to drop this plot thread after Marwen's possession is overturned, and all of the visual and auditory evidence in the game seems to be reinforcing the idea that we're supposed to think of Talion as the hero, and his mission as being a good one. Ugh.


There's also some nonsense at the end about Talion forging a new Ring of Power. Presumably this will be in some future DLC, where he'll convince Celebrimbor to make a new one, probably forged in the flames of Mount Doom. Surely this will end well.

MINI SPOILERS AGAIN (Lore ones this time)

On a positive note, the pure lore parts of the game are well-researched and well-done. You find various fragments as you explore Mordor, which provide glimpses into some nice deep-cuts topics from Middle-earth, including the fall of Numenor and the Blue Wizards and Elven tales. These don't really relate to anything else in the game, but I still appreciated them.

I was initially going to write a ton here, but more knowledgeable Tolkienites than me have already done the work, so if you want a comprehensive rundown of the major issues, check this out. Instead, here are a few more-or-less random thoughts on what's... not necessarily wrong so much as weird about the lore in this game.

When it comes to adaptations in general, I tend to be fine with omissions. This has been the general approach taken in the Lord of the Rings movies and the Game of Thrones HBO series, and I think it tends to work well: the creators find a few focal through-lines and cut extraneous material, leaving you with a work that, while not as rich as the original, still feels faithful to its spirit. A second approach is addition, such as that used in the Hobbit movies or anything related to Star Wars. This is more challenging, since it risks overwriting the original's essence, but can also be rewarding, if it expands upon the positive aspects of the primary text and grows its universe.  The most difficult, though, is modification, where the adaptation cherry-picks particular things it likes and rewrites them, creating a patchwork work that casts familiar characters in unfamiliar roles, old lines in new scenes, connecting or disconnecting timelines at will. This has been used extensively in the Walking Dead AMC show, and can feel very disorienting to people deeply familiar with the original, since any time they witness a change people tend to ask themselves, "Why is this different, and is it any better this way?"

Wow, that was an incredibly long lead-up to saying that I just plain don't get the point of inventing Caragors and Graugs for this game. Caragors are Wargs, and Graugs are Trolls. So why not just call them Wargs and Trolls, and why slightly (but not significantly) alter their models to look different? It isn't a rights issue; wargs and trolls are both definitely allowed by the "movie license". It doesn't seem to be a lore issue; caragors act just like wargs, and graugs act just like trolls (except, I suppose, for the whole sunlight thing). Was it too hard to render fur in real-time? Or what?

By contrast, while the ghuls are creatures who were only created for the game and not part of the books, I'm not quite as weirded out by them. It does seem a bit weird to have an entire new race of creatures instead of, I dunno, spiders or something, but in general additions like this feel fine to me as long as they don't actively contradict existing lore.

I alluded to this earlier, but one troubling aspect of the game is Talion's relationship with the orcs. You spend a lot of time fighting and killing them, which is more or less to be expected; orcs are by far the main enemy of Lord of the Rings, after all. Things get a little more disturbing later on when you gain the ability to essentially brainwash them, turning them into your slaves who will then fight and kill for you. From a gameplay perspective, this is really fun! You can raise an entire army of grunts, then charge off and kill a whole bunch of other grunts. But, it's another thing that makes it even harder for me to enjoy playing as Talion/Celebrimbor. If orcs are pure evil, then you shouldn't be using them as your tools. If orcs aren't pure evil, then it's even more wrong to mentally enslave them.

But really, the whole problem with orcs goes all the way back to Tolkien himself, who never seems to have been entirely happy with them. For narrative purposes, they served the role of an implacable enemy who must be opposed. But what, exactly, were they? In some stages of his writing, Tolkien wrote of them as corruptions of Elves that Morgoth had twisted awry. But this doesn't fit well into Tolkien's theology: if they were Elves, then presumably they had souls, and thus should be targets for redemption rather than extermination. Were orcs, then, created beings? That's also troubling, since only Eru should be able to create new species. The record in Tolkien is inconsistent, and I think it ultimately points back to a more fundamental question that we face in the real universe: where does evil come from? That's a tough question to answer on planet Earth, so it's unfair for us to expect a satisfying answer in fantasy literature or action/adventure video games.

(Secondary sidebar, even more tangential than the first: While playing this game, I was vividly reminded of a campaign I ran using Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle-earth Roleplaying System back in the 1990s. I set our campaign in the Fourth Age, roughly thirty years after the fall of Sauron. A lot was going on, but one particular plot thread closely involved the orcs. In my adapted Fourth Age chronology, a few Sindar elves elected to remain behind in Arda, and devoted themselves to trying to rehabilitate their erstwhile "cousins" the Orcs, hoping that, in the absence of the actively evil influence of Melkor and Sauron, they could be retrained and redeemed to a more elvish way of life. Out of this effort was born the Free Orc Movement, a society of reformed orcs seeking to form a civil society. They were opposed by the remnants of Sauron's army, led by the Mouth of Sauron, and were viewed with intense suspicion, hostility, or violence by humanfolk who had suffered in the War of the Ring. A major plot dealt with where the FOM would be able to settle, and how they could earn the trust of the Free Peoples. It was, um, really fun. Okay, I'm done.)

That does make me think, though, about how much wasted potential is shown here. I mean, Shadow of Mordor was a very expensive game, and it shows it very well: the graphics, voice work, CGI, environments, gameplay, are all top-notch. So why do we spend much of the game trudging around in a desert, controlling a character who manages to be both boring and annoying, telling a third-rate revenge story that squanders its lore-rich license and manages to pollute the best themes of its source material? There are so many incredibly rich opportunities to tell amazing, new stories that build upon Tolkien's legacy and expand the world! Why not do something with the blue wizards, who have always fascinated readers but were never fully developed by Tolkien? (Granted, they wouldn't be able to use the names Alatar and Pallando with the "movie license".) Or explore the other areas of Middle-earth outside of the well-documented northwest, like Far Harad or the East? You could literally draw the map, create new cultures, make whatever kind of game you wanted, and tie it as loosely or as strongly as you wanted to the events of LotR! Or tell a story about the virtuous Numenoreans attempting to flee the island after the disastrous approach to Aman, or set a battle game during the War of Power, or a Civilization-style game as the newly-awakened Elven tribes in the East,  or anything at all during the Fourth Age... in a universe that seems to be full of exciting possibilities, I'm baffled why we seem to have ended up with the same angsty revenge plot that could have been made with no license at all.


Then again... maybe the plot is the outcome, not the input. I've been very surprised to learn that, in the majority of video game studios, writers are often brought in after the game is created. They're essentially told, "Okay, here are the levels, here are the enemies, here are the characters. Write a story explaining why the player is doing what they're doing. Go." Add to that the fact that, since AAA game development is so hideously expensive, executives are extremely reluctant to fund games that don't appear to follow a proven formula for financial success. For better or worse, action/adventure games with dour white men doing nasty things to nastier men tend to make money, so those are the games that get approved, so those are the stories that people write. And I suppose that I've just reinforced that cycle by spending $60 to buy this game. Ugh!

But, getting back to the contradictory nature of my feelings, the number of minutes I had fun while playing the game vastly outnumbered the number of minutes I hated thinking about the plot. As has become increasingly common for me, I took a whole bunch o' screenshots and put them online. Beware, for this album is filled with spoilers!

I've noticed that far too many of my blog posts end with a statement along the lines of "If you are a Dragon Age fan, you should read this book!" or "If you enjoyed other Telltale Games, you'll really like The Wolf Among Us!" For Shadow of Mordor, my feelings are actually kind of the opposite. If you aren't a huge Tolkien fan, and aren't immersed in his stories or the lore of Middle-earth, odds are excellent that you will enjoy this game. It's fast, the gameplay is fun, it has terrific mechanics and a fluid style and all sorts of nifty graphics. But there's probably an inverse relationship between how invested you are in Tolkien's mythos and how much pleasure you'll get from this game. I'm not even talking about the technical details like when Gondor stopped patrolling Mordor or whether spirits can be recalled from Mandos. There's a sick idea at the core of SoM, an idea that evil can be overcome with evil, which is antithetical to what I love about Tolkien's works. That's not to say that such stories shouldn't be told! Antiheroes can be interesting, and there's lots of great art that comes out of dark thoughts like this. But I don't understand why they would need to set such a rotten story in one of the most beautiful, vibrant settings ever created.

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