One Does Not Simply Parkour Into Mordor... Oh, Wait, You Totally Can

by Arthur B

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor offers surprisingly good gameplay, given how awful the plot is.
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Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that shouldn't work. First off, it's yet another release based off the Peter Jackson movies - an IP with a patchy track record at best as far as videogame adaptations go - but at the same time it bears a generic Middle Earth title, as though it hasn't quite proved worthy of displaying the more valuable trademarks of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Secondly, the plot is utterly ludicrous - a badass ranger of Gondor is wronged by the forces of Mordor, so he simply walks into Mordor and starts hacking up orcs like it's some sort of misorcist equivalent of Hatred.

Being as I am a man whose disposable income occasionally allows me to drop money on being among the first to get in on a bad joke, I actually bought Shadows based on the plot. I figured that if the game were as desperately silly and tonally inappropriate as it looked, I'd have something amusing to report back to you all, and if it turned out to be an unexpected delight then all the better. Somehow, it ended up being both.

So, premise time: it's some time after the end of The Hobbit and before the start of The Lord of the Rings. You are cast as Talion, a ranger of Gondor whose past indiscretions have landed you a spot guarding the least salubrious bit of real estate currently under Gondorian control: the Black Gate, the massive wall which controls the main pass into Mordor.

Now, this isn't quite as much of a suicide posting as it first sounds. Sauron hasn't actually occupied Mordor for quite some time, after all. Granted, the local fauna are horribly dangerous, as are the roving tribes of orcs, but that's why Gondor hasn't moved to reclaim Mordor directly - instead, it's been exiling convicts there in the hope that they will either successfully colonise the place or perish (which I guess makes Mordor the Middle Earth equivalent of Australia). And sure, with Sauron (in his guise as the Necromancer) having been ousted from his Mirkwood hideout by Saruman and Gandalf it's not inconceivable that the Dark Lord might try setting up shop in his old stomping grounds again, but you'd think if that had happened there would be hordes of rampaging orcs purging Mordor of outside forces and assaulting the Black Gate...

One orc assault on the Black Gate later, Talion is dead, the victim of an apparently-botched attempt to summon the dead spirit of a particular elf. I say apparently because, in fact, the wraith was indeed summoned - it just saw no need to obey its summoners. Stuck between life and death, Talion wants nothing more than to avenge the slaying of his wife and son - fellow victims of the rite - at the hands of the mysterious maybe-human the Black Hand of Mordor and his cronies. The elven wraith, for his part, wants to recover his lost memories and get his own vengeance on Sauron. Able to switch seamlessly between the martial prowess of the ranger and the swift archery of the elf, plus bolstered by certain faculties unique to the dead, the two form a unified entity greater than the sum of its parts. It's not so much possession by the wraith so much as it is a postmortem pact on the part of both - and with the final peace of true death denied to both of them, Talion and the wraith will have ample opportunity to perfect their collaboration.

Once the introductory section has wrapped up, what developers Monolith Products end up presenting to you is a weird pastiche of Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum with a Peter Jackson/Tolkien skin. From Assassin's Creed the game takes an open world approach that offers stacks of side activities alongside the main plot missions, ample parkour-based stealth, game mechanical encouragement to climb certain tall towers to survey the surroundings, and sweet stealth kills. From Batman: Arkham Asylum the game offers a wraith vision mode which allows you to see enemies through walls (and occasionally see tracks and other clues when a mission requires it) and smooth, fast-flowing melee combat that allows you to take on large groups of opponents and win and look awesome doing it.

To give them their due, the designers do a reasonable job of justifying most of these gameplay elements in the context of the immediate narrative or the wider setting - for instance, the towers you climb to unlock fast travel points and reveal all the features nearby on the world map are elven towers raised by the wraith's people during the Second Age occupation of Mordor, so there's some faint justification for the wraith being able to unlock memories (and thus recall points of local interest) by revisiting them. Likewise, as well as obvious sidequesty stuff like rescuing human slaves from their orc captors and hunting increasingly dangerous local beasts, other sidequest themes seem particularly suited to the Middle Earth setting - collecting herbs, for instance, to draw on the ludicrously detailed flora Tolkien developed, or picking up bits of trash and reminiscing about past attempts to tame the Dark Lord's very own back garden.

However, justifying the inclusion of disparately-selected gameplay elements in terms of the narrative and setting isn't enough, and Monolith know it: it's also important to show care in picking out mechanics which work together to give the desired experience. In this case, the experience seems to involve embracing the most ludicrously over the top action movie elements of the Peter Jackson movies and cranking them up to 11. In terms of his combat capabilities, your character is essentially a mashup of Aragorn and Legolas, and similarly absurd feats of swordplay and archery are possible (particularly once you have levelled up your character sufficiently). Fights against bands of orcs feel like chaotic scrums like the fight at Balin's tomb, whilst battling major bosses can take on the epic tone of Aragorn fighting the boss orc at the end of Fellowship of the Ring. It isn't exactly true to Tolkien, but it is true to Peter Jackson, which is exactly what you want if you want a visually stimulating, action-oriented take on Middle Earth. Each and every one of the borrowed gameplay elements here is hand-picked to serve that need, and it all comes together brilliantly when you add in Monolith's secret weapon, their one truly original concept.

That weapon is a lovingly realised army of crude, violent, bickering, characterful orcs.

The orcs of Mordor are arranged under captains, who in turn report to warlords. One of the joys of Shadows of Mordor is the way it actually bothers to model this command structure (twice over, in fact, since the two major zones the game plays out in have distinct command structures). One of the in-game menus presents you with the massed warlords and captains of the local orc army, showing which positions in the command structure are currently filled; gathering intel by directly fighting captains or interrogating weak-willed orcs allows you to discover specific details about the individual captains and warlords, including their personal immunities and weaknesses (so going in after them without intel is almost always more challenging than going in prepared).

However, a lot of the time you don't necessarily get to pick when you confront the captains. Aside from the warlords, who only come out of hiding under particular circumstances (which you can trigger once you've gathered enough intel on them), and a very small number of captains who are momentarily inaccessible due to main plot reasons, more or less all the captains are out there roving around the map, and you can conceivably run into them at any time. Moreover, they don't roam about at random; if there's a lot of noise happening because you're in a big fight, nearby captains will come running (fights which end up with multiple captains involved are usually a recipe for quick death early on, and remain meat grinders even late in the game), captains will often be found either trying to recruit other orcs to their warbands, getting involved in altercations with other captains, going off on hunting parties, or simply having a booze-up, and if you have given a captain reason to dislike you they'll actively prowl around the map hunting you.

One particularly nice touch is that occasionally, a captain you thought you'd killed will turn out to be still alive and kicking - sometimes several times. The game picks particular captains out to be your current Nemesis in this fashion, and finding yourself facing the same orc over and over again makes each subsequent kill all the sweeter. Like many features of the game, this is best early on: your first Nemesis will probably smush you the first few times you fight them, due to your comparatively weak capabilities early on, so finally killing them the first time is a major relief and seeing them show up again is a shocking twist. Finally, your capabilities will increase to the point where you dispatch them easily, and nothing feels better than taking a captain who had previously been slapping you down from one side of Mordor to the other and making mincemeat of the wretch.

As and when you do die, the game takes the opportunity to reshuffle the deck a little. Any outstanding duels or other altercations between captains which weren't resolved by your intervention get resolved then, and orcs are promoted into some (but not necessarily all) of the empty spaces in the power structure. Captains or warlords who kill you personally get more powerful; rank-and-file orcs who kill you are first in the queue for being promoted to captain. By making dying and respawning part of the narrative, rather than a "bad end", the game retains a sense of uninterrupted continuity which the Grand Theft Auto games also benefit from, whilst at the same time dying clearly does still have consequences since it allows Sauron to consolidate his forces and patch over some of the damage you have done.

Some reviews have griped that there isn't any sense of permanent accomplishment with this; there's always more orcs to fill in the gaps in the ranks, you never actually beat the orcs. This kind of misses the point. First off, the entire plot and atmosphere of Shadow of Mordor is that Talion and his elven copilot are fighting a battle against Sauron which they can't win. We know for a fact that in the long run, Sauron wins out and becomes the dominant force in Mordor, and that Sauron himself won't be defeated until Frodo and Gollum part ways in Mount Doom. Moreover, as the story progresses Talion and his elven pal end up becoming increasingly willing to use Sauron's own weapons against him - particularly once you unlock the power which allows you to bend orcs to your will - and whilst the main plot ends with a minor victory against Sauron which has long-term consequences that help shape the War of the Ring, it also sees the duo charting a cause which can only end in disaster.

I don't think this is accidental by a long shot; in fact, I think this is a place where Monolith manage to be sneakily true to Tolkien in spirit, if not in specifics. The Middle-Earth canon is absolutely stuffed to the gills with stories like The Children of Húrin, wherein a flawed and imperfect protagonist for reasons of angst takes up arms against the Dark Lord of the hour (usually Morgoth) and ends up coming to a bad end due to their character flaws ultimately working towards the Dark Lord's own ends. Part of the deal of being Dark Lord of Middle-Earth is that you get to be this omnipresent force of evil that, in a pseudo-Christian fashion, gets to twist every sin or imperfection so that in the long run it turns to your advantage because every discordant note in creation can be traced directly back to Morgoth.

The ending of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are both uncharacteristically upbeat when it comes to the Middle-Earth saga as a whole, and arguably The Hobbit ends as well as it does in part because the protagonists don't directly face Sauron. Obviously, most attempts to take down the Dark Lord are going to fail, because once one has succeeded that's kind of it - Middle Earth has a limited budget of potential Dark Lord candidates so once both Morgoth and Sauron are dealt with there isn't really any room for further stories on the same scale.

In short, Monolith are sufficiently loyal to Tolkien that they realise that Shadow of Mordor can't be a story like The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, but falls into the same category as the likes of The Children of Húrin. That's fine, because The Children of Húrin is by far the most metal of Tolkien's novels, and the combination of brutal Peter Jackson violence, ridiculously scuzzy orcs and protagonists willing to get grimdark works fine for that sort of story. There's numerous ways in which Monolith like to slip in these little setting features that help establish premonitions of doom; for instance, for most of the game Mordor doesn't quite look like the Mordor of the films - there's plants growing and occasionally nice weather - but by the end of the main plot Mount Doom has erupted, covering everything with ash and transforming Mordor into the more familiar hellwaste we know and love. Because you know this is going to happen sooner or later, it adds this extra level of pathos as you discover these various human communities with footholds in Mordor, because you know they are all going to be swept aside and their efforts to till the soil and repair the awful wound in the world that Mordor represents are all going to be swept aside.

Whilst the plot is smarter than it looks when it comes to these background details, when it comes to the major specifics of the story it's kind of hopeless. Talion, as a sad dad who is trying to avenge the death of his wife and child, is about as generic an action game protagonist as you can possibly get; the elven wraith is actually a much more interesting figure from Tolkien's legendarium who has perfectly good reasons of his own to want to keep this crusade against Sauron going, but who has a dead wife and child applied to him needlessly so you can get two pasty white sad dads for the price of one.

On top of that, the game is amazingly inconsistent when it comes to its handling of women. Aside from various dead spouses, there are exactly three female characters you meet in the game (not counting monsters like the ghoul hive-mothers). In the first half of the game, a major plot involves Talion catching up with Hirgon, a former ranger who defected to join the outcasts in Mordor for the love of Eryn, an outcast woman whose rescue is one of the main plot missions early on. In the second half, you have Lithariel, who despite her elfy-sounding name is a human, and Lithariel's mother Queen Marwen, the leaders of the folk living in the coastal region of Núrn.

Now, Eryn lacks personality or distinguishing features beyond being a captured woman who loves Hirgon; Queen Marwen is basically a gender-swapped take on Theoden when Saruman has him possessed, only with flashy prophetic powers. Lithariel, for her part, seems to be Monolith's attempt to include a token warrior woman in order to gain feminism points. The problem with Lithariel is twofold: firstly, her supposed badass status is swiftly undermined in the main plot when she ends up captured by orcs, and when you come to rescue her she literally ends up as a heavy burden you have to carry with you to the end of the mission. Ultimately, she - and Marwen, and Eryn, and Hirgon - all have to evacuate Mordor because it's just too dangerous for human beings who aren't possessed by undead elf-lords to survive in; it's tough to claim you've really presented a strong female character if you then turn around and say "Actually, she very obviously isn't strong enough to contribute to the fight ahead".

The second problem with Lithariel is that, aside from her and Eryn, you never see any women amongst the prisoners doing slave labour for the orcs. Women are basically exotic and rare creatures in this game, with perhaps only one or two existing in entire communities of men, and although gender representation is a bit more complex than getting absolute parity by the numbers, ultimately you can't claim to not be working in a sexist paradigm if the default human being happens to be male. On top of that, literally every human being you meet is white, to the point where orcish slurs for "human" are often based around the paleness of human skin - this, despite the fact that Mordor is literally next door to areas designated by Tolkien as being full of brown people. There's an extent to which the precedent of the Peter Jackson movies (and original books) is being followed here, mind, but this is hardly an excuse.

Additionally, whilst the gameplay is for the most part fantastic, it feels like the advancement system is both a little too shallow and a little too rapid, and that you finish the game a little too powerful. Both Kyra and I found that a lot of the challenge of the game evaporated well before the end of the main plot; in particular, once you have unlocked one or two of the special moves which are triggered by getting high hit streaks, and then buy the powers which a) let you trigger those powers every 5 hits instead of every 8 hits, b) let you trigger two for the price of one, and c) lets you get hit once without disrupting a kill streak, suddenly you turn this corner and you end up a totally unstoppable killing machine, to an extent where later upgrades feel like mere icing on the cake.

Still, it took me several dozen hours to hit that point, so I can't say I feel like the game was bad value for money. Apparently, the whole Nemesis System of tracking your interactions with major orc NPCs is trimmed back in the legacy generation versions of the game, so whilst it is getting a release on PS3 and XBox 360, I would strongly recommend getting the PC, PS4 or XBox One versions if you're thinking about getting it at all, since you miss out on a lot of the game's unique selling points if you don't get the full Nemesis experience. There's only one thing better than bashing an orc's head in, and that's bashing its head in after it shows up wearing an improvised gimp mask because that's the only way to keep the shards of its skull in place after the previous times you've bashed its head in.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 12:20 on 2014-11-10
My reaction to this game was kind of frustrating because it's sort of a combination of two franchises that everyone else seems to enjoy more than I do, combined to form a game that everyone else enjoyed more than I did.

I've had long standing issues with the Assassin's Creed franchise, namely clunky controls and frustrating, repetitive mission objectives. Shadow of Mordor does fix some of this due to Talion's super human abilities (the fact that you can just leap off of buildings and cliffs whenever you want is great) but my attempt to play the game still made me want to throw my controller out the window- oh I need to interrogate this guy for info, except he's surrounded by dudes, maybe I can sneak past, no wait the stealth is awful oh I killed him by accident.

The other component is the Batman stuff. I've never understood why Arkham Asylum's combat was received so well, as the enemies all feel like gigantic damage sponges and most of the strategy seems to consist of waiting for counter icons to pop up. Shadow of Mordor imports these problems directly, along with Arkham City's insistence in constantly flinging mission notifications, side quests (there's a plant you need nearby!) and ENDLESS ENEMY CHATTER at the player; it's as if the developers are terrified that people will get bored if they're not constantly assaulted with new content to play, which to me kind of defeats the purpose of having an open world.

Basically, I think the games I've mentioned above are if not a genre now than a certain kind of game formed from the intersection of multiple genres and Shadow of Mordor finally convinced me that I'm just never going to see its appeal. I've made multiple attempts at various Assassin's Creed and Batman games and every one ended with me putting the controller down in frustration.
Daniel F at 09:28 on 2014-11-11
So I first came across discussion of Shadow of Mordor's plot via Shamus Young's criticism of it, and having not played it, I do find it interesting how you (Arthur) and he seems to have come to opposite conclusions. For Shamus the story is ridiculous because it valourises combat and murder, accepts revenge as a legitimate motivation, and allows armed conflict to lead to a positive resolution. For you, it sounds like the story kind-of-works because it does suggest the ultimate emptiness of revenge and the futility of Talion's crusade.

It's entirely possible that this is due to familiarity with Tolkien's other words - and you're right, The Children of Húrin is the precedent to look at here - but I wonder if it might also be to do with a focus on the game mechanics themselves. It sounds like, just like Assassin's Creed, Shadow of Mordor's mechanics are designed to empower the player, escalating as the game proceeds, and that would be a massive clash with an intended atmosphere of futility and doom.

The other thought that occurs is that here you run into something of a tension in Tolkien's works themselves, and then a further tension with Jackson's reinterpretation. An observation I keep coming back to is that Tolkien never seems to have quite worked out how to juxtapose the worldview of pagan heroic sagas with his own strongly held Catholicism. A text like The Lord of the Rings has his Catholic ideals come out very strongly, via the exaltation of the meek and the ultimate uselessness of force and the strength of innocence and all that, while The Children of Húrin sits happily in the worldview of Germanic paganism, with Túrin doomed to be gradually overpowered by his terrible wyrd: there's obviously a lot of Beowulf and Sigurd in Túrin.

That particular tension isn't too much of a problem for me with Tolkien's own works, if only because there is such a distance between The Lord of the Rings and The Children of Húrin/The Silmarillion. Not only are they set thousands of years apart, they are in entirely different books. There is no place for Frodo in Beleriand and no place for Túrin in Gondor, so they never have to face each other. But if you decide to put a Túrin-esque story right next to The Lord of the Rings, suddenly you have to face that tonal shift.

The other tension you have, as you identified, is between Tolkien and Jackson. There isn't much to say there except that Jackson and his imitators are far more willing to accept the ultimate efficacy of violence. Whether he's in his pagan mood or his Catholic mood, Tolkien still tends to imply that violence can only ever be a necessary evil, and that it will not solve any problems in a permanent fashion. At most it can buy time before the end. If war is your strategy, ultimately Morgoth or Sauron will overwhelm you. But Jackson goes for the typical sub-Hollywood action movie thing, and so his Return of the King ended up having some very different implications to Tolkien's.

If Shadow of Mordor adopts Jackson's visual style and love of over-the-top cool action sequences, you've then got another layer of tension and dissonance. With the whole thing wedded to Assassin's Creed-style free movement and a focus on player empowerment, I'm sure it would end up very schizophrenic.

But of course, these are just the idle thoughts of someone who has not played Shadow of Mordor. Feel free to pick apart!
Arthur B at 10:32 on 2014-11-11
For Shamus the story is ridiculous because it valourises combat and murder, accepts revenge as a legitimate motivation, and allows armed conflict to lead to a positive resolution. For you, it sounds like the story kind-of-works because it does suggest the ultimate emptiness of revenge and the futility of Talion's crusade.

Yeah, I think Shamus' analysis only works if you pointedly ignore the long-term. Getting some short-term benefit from harnessing the Enemy's powers is totally viable in Middle-Earth - that's what the Numenoreans did, after all - and to say that Tolkien's legendarium doesn't have room for heroes who are motivated by revenge glosses over the fact that the elves came to Middle-Earth in the first place because they were chasing Morgoth to give him a curb-stomping they weren't strictly speaking capable of giving him. Although that whole deal worked out poorly for them, it was the backdrop for more or less every significant act of heroism in the First Age.

It sounds like, just like Assassin's Creed, Shadow of Mordor's mechanics are designed to empower the player, escalating as the game proceeds, and that would be a massive clash with an intended atmosphere of futility and doom.

Pretty much. It almost works by having the empowered player kind of turning into a monster by the end with the whole mind control deal, but not quite.

A text like The Lord of the Rings has his Catholic ideals come out very strongly, via the exaltation of the meek and the ultimate uselessness of force and the strength of innocence and all that, while The Children of Húrin sits happily in the worldview of Germanic paganism, with Túrin doomed to be gradually overpowered by his terrible wyrd: there's obviously a lot of Beowulf and Sigurd in Túrin.

I almost wonder whether this is deliberate. The flawed men and elves of the First and Second Ages operate according to pagan logic, and consequently are slaves to their wyrd; even the defeat of Morgoth is hollow because Sauron steps right into the vacancy. Middle-Earth only rids itself of the Dark Lords when more Catholic ideals prevail, with the victory coming from an act of mercy that is specifically inspired by the teachings of Gandalf, who has apostolic succession from Iluvatar by virtue of actually being of the Ainur.

The other tension you have, as you identified, is between Tolkien and Jackson. There isn't much to say there except that Jackson and his imitators are far more willing to accept the ultimate efficacy of violence. Whether he's in his pagan mood or his Catholic mood, Tolkien still tends to imply that violence can only ever be a necessary evil, and that it will not solve any problems in a permanent fashion. At most it can buy time before the end. If war is your strategy, ultimately Morgoth or Sauron will overwhelm you. But Jackson goes for the typical sub-Hollywood action movie thing, and so his Return of the King ended up having some very different implications to Tolkien's.

My favourite example of this is in the extended cut of The Return of the King - whereas in the book Aragorn spares the Mouth of Sauron despite himself because, as Gandalf points out, only a total shit-turd mistreats ambassadors (note: paraphrasing here), in the movie Aragorn decapitates the dude and we're all meant to cheer. (To be fair, the scene was cut, but the reasons for it being cut have more to do with it lacking tension due to the fact that the audience knows full well that the Mouth is bluffing at that point in the film because of the way it shifts scenes around from the book, not because Jackson had second thoughts about the violence.)
Andy G at 10:58 on 2014-11-11
Another key example is the moral decision not to kill Gollum at various points even though it would have been expedient, especially when Sam has the opportunity at Mount Doom. This moral dimension is absent from modern grimdark-y stuff, where doing the right thing tends to be a foolishly naive thing that gets you killed.

At the same time, it's worth remembering that LotR also has Legolas and Gimli competing over who killed the most orcs, which seems pretty Jackson-y.
Arthur B at 12:07 on 2014-11-11
By "Another key example" you mean "the actual example I cite", right? ;)

At the same time, it's worth remembering that LotR also has Legolas and Gimli competing over who killed the most orcs, which seems pretty Jackson-y.

Hey, Legolas and Gimli needed something to do beyond just being Aragorn's tag-alongs.
Andy G at 13:28 on 2014-11-11
So you did!
Jules V.O. at 16:57 on 2014-11-11
There isn't much to say there except that Jackson and his imitators are far more willing to accept the ultimate efficacy of violence.

I actually find it faintly disturbing how much the Jackson films exalt martial virtue. In An Unexpected Journey we are introduced to the Rivendell Elves not as singers and dancers, but as swordsmen and lancers, as if the audience couldn't respect them unless they visibly proved themselves in battle first. FFS, his version of Denethor is condemned by the subtext for being insufficiently warlike, having been adapted for the script with the bizarrely out-of-character behavior of neither raising his own armies nor calling for his allies. How the writing team got there from the source material, I don't know, but apparently they were uncomfortable presenting a martially-competent leader as unsympathetic.

I put it down to Jackson's New Zealander culture. It's not immediately apparent from the outside, but the level of war-worship in NZ and Australia is kind of absurd.
Jackson did do a real hack job on poor Denethor, who goes from "potentially great man who makes the fatal mistake of yielding to despair" in Tolkien to "pathetic, irresponsible creep" in the movie.
Arthur B at 20:50 on 2014-11-11
Yeah, he's in the running with Gimli for losing the most dignity in the movies.
Andy G at 22:50 on 2014-11-11
A plausible explanation (though by no means a justification) I've seen given is that Jackson wanted to keep things simple and make sure there was no doubt that Aragorn taking over would be a good thing.
Daniel F at 07:30 on 2014-11-12
Arthur:
Pretty much. It almost works by having the empowered player kind of turning into a monster by the end with the whole mind control deal, but not quite.

I'm not sure you could do that message in a mainstream video game at all, to be honest. Perhaps Spec Ops? It's odd in retrospect just how much the dominant gaming paradigm is about empowerment.

I almost wonder whether this is deliberate. The flawed men and elves of the First and Second Ages operate according to pagan logic, and consequently are slaves to their wyrd; even the defeat of Morgoth is hollow because Sauron steps right into the vacancy. Middle-Earth only rids itself of the Dark Lords when more Catholic ideals prevail, with the victory coming from an act of mercy that is specifically inspired by the teachings of Gandalf, who has apostolic succession from Iluvatar by virtue of actually being of the Ainur.

I doubt it's consciously deliberate, but it seems a plausible reading to me. I can get shades of The Everlasting Man out of it, actually. The pagan world reaches the apogee of its glory, the apex of secular martial and intellectual accomplishment, and is only saved from the ultimate hollowness of that achievement by the catastrophic intrusion of God into history.

(Mind you, I don't know how much of a direct influence Chesterton was on Tolkien; he certainly was one on Lewis, and since they were in the same circle, it would make sense. Google tells me other people have made the connection.)

Jules:
I put it down to Jackson's New Zealander culture. It's not immediately apparent from the outside, but the level of war-worship in NZ and Australia is kind of absurd.

I'm a little curious what you mean? Born and bred Australian here; what would you see as the warlike strains in our culture? I would have thought that the glorification of martial strength in this way is more of an American trope. The keystone Australia/New Zealander war story is the ANZACs, surely, and it's a bit hard to read that as war-worship.
Jules V.O. at 18:28 on 2014-11-12
I'm a little curious what you mean? Born and bred Australian here; what would you see as the warlike strains in our culture?

Warlike is the wrong word, because I don't see Australian culture as belligerent, just having a strangely disproportionate reverence for the subject. Ithink the best example I have is fro when I returned to visit Australia after spending some years away. The second thing I noticed (the first being that everyone had suddenly started speaking in Australian accents) was how bizarrely huge and prominent the war memorials seemed to have become. Like it was really important I be conscious of them.

The keystone Australia/New Zealander war story is the ANZACs, surely, and it's a bit hard to read that as war-worship.

I think it is, actually, just not the upbeat kind. The soldiers who died at Gallipoli totally get the full martyr treatment. Or they did when I was there, it has been a while.

I would have thought that the glorification of martial strength in this way is more of an American trope.

I find it difficult to talk about American culture, because it's just *so* divergent by region.
Daniel F at 03:56 on 2014-11-14
I think it is, actually, just not the upbeat kind. The soldiers who died at Gallipoli totally get the full martyr treatment. Or they did when I was there, it has been a while.

It's definitely the full martyr treatment. I suppose I'd qualify it as more like soldier-worship than war-worship, though, if that makes sense? When I think about depictions of the ANZACs, the focus is not their military successes or the glories of what they achieved (after all, they achieved very little), but rather on the all-consuming tragedy that these beautiful young men were cut down in the prime of their life. Less "war is good" and more "war is terrible because it kills these borderline-angelic young heroes".

It's still creepy, in a way, but I read it as very different to the triumphant American brand of militarism.

I find it difficult to talk about American culture, because it's just *so* divergent by region.

American culture as filtered through export to another country, then.
Cressida at 18:29 on 2014-11-15
Shamus doesn't say that there's no room for revenge stories in Tolkien's works. He just says, "One of the themes of the books is that revenge -- and the lust for it -- is poisonous and destructive." Which I agree with, even (maybe especially) in The Silmarillion. Revenge is presented as, at best, an understandable response to bad things happening; it's not treated as the kind of quasi-holy quest that it so often is in modern video games. (I haven't actually played SoM, so I'm speaking in generalities here.)

I also think that winning by mind domination is extrememly foreign to the Tolkien aesthetic. Taking away someone's free will is the ultimate bad thing in his world; I cannot imagine even a super-flawed "good guy" like Turin doing it and still being a good guy.

The wraith just made me roll my eyes. First off, I'm not convinced elves can even have wraiths, though maybe that can be explained as a Jacksonism. And I see you've been very careful not to spoil who the wraith is, but I've seen it revealed elsewhere, and ... well, I can accept that that particular elf has motivation for wanting to fight Sauron, but that's the best I can say for the idea.

Finally: Have you heard about the attempts to control YouTube videos about this game? Short version, they refused to pre-release the game to video reviewers unless the reviewers signed an extremely restrictive agreement dictating what they could and couldn't say--essentially, promising to shill the game and not mention any flaws. Interestingly enough, they were also directed not to mention The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The Jimquisition video explaining it in some depth is here. Very interesting watching.

P.S. Totally agree about Denethor getting the shaft in the movies. Really, the entire country of Gondor got the shaft as far as I'm concerned, with the ironic exception of Boromir. Which leads me to to my second thought: if Middle-Earth video games must feature dark, dishonored, bitter heroes, can the next one please not be from Gondor for a change? We already had that in The Third Age.
Arthur B at 18:56 on 2014-11-15
Shamus doesn't say that there's no room for revenge stories in Tolkien's works. He just says, "One of the themes of the books is that revenge -- and the lust for it -- is poisonous and destructive."

Which is what makes me think he either didn't finish the game or just wasn't paying attention, because it's fairly obvious that in the long run Talion and the wraith are on a path of self-destruction and the biggest win you can expect out of the conclusion for their story is for Talion to get away with his soul intact.

I also think that winning by mind domination is extrememly foreign to the Tolkien aesthetic. Taking away someone's free will is the ultimate bad thing in his world; I cannot imagine even a super-flawed "good guy" like Turin doing it and still being a good guy.

That's the thing though, it's blatantly trying to use the powers of Darkness against Darkness and it can't come to a good end.

Finally: Have you heard about the attempts to control YouTube videos about this game?

Yes, but I don't usually let that stuff affect my assessment of games one way or another.

To me, the most notable thing about that sort of stuff isn't that it happened - AAA publishers have been pulling the strings of professional reviewers through fair means and foul for about as long as games journalism has been a thing - but that you almost never see GamerGaters talking about it. If GamerGate were really a movement about ethics in games journalism, you'd expect its supporters to be constantly on the publisher's case about this because it's a high-profile example of a very major release whose publisher has been publicly exposed as trying to corrupt and control the criticism of a game, but they ignore it a) because they're distracted by hassling women and b) because it's the sort of game they prefer, not the sort of artsy-farts indie game they tend to deride.
Cressida at 20:52 on 2014-11-15
Talion and the wraith are on a path of self-destruction ... it's blatantly trying to use the powers of Darkness against Darkness and it can't come to a good end.

Eh, maybe. I've seen that argument from other commenters, but even if that happens, I'm not sure it will magically make the games fit with the source material. Well, maybe the Jackson part. But overall, it sounds like they've strayed too far into Nineties Anti-Hero territory to salvage it as a Middle-Earth game. And yes, I have read the story of Turin Turambar (my least favorite character in all Tolkien's work, btw), and I think this goes beyond even him.

Too bad they felt they had to tie it to a recognized franchise that would sell, instead of making their own world. Or at least picking a fictional world that would fit better. Someone had an intriguing suggestion on another board that it would have worked well as a Sith-based Star Wars game, for example. (Yes, I know it depends on which licenses the company you work for holds. But if none of them fit, and I don't think this one does, then original is the way to go.)

Re the YouTube contract, I get the vibe from TB and Jim's comments that this is over and above the level of control that companies usually try to squeeze out, and the fact that this game is being well received overall may mean they'll try it again. I definitely agree that GamerGate should be all over it if they were really dedicated to ethics in game journalism. Strangest of all that I've seen is, when someone has pointed this out to vocal GG supporters on message boards, they don't even seem to see why anyone thinks they should see it as a big deal.
Arthur B at 21:21 on 2014-11-15
Too bad they felt they had to tie it to a recognized franchise that would sell, instead of making their own world. Or at least picking a fictional world that would fit better. Someone had an intriguing suggestion on another board that it would have worked well as a Sith-based Star Wars game, for example. (Yes, I know it depends on which licenses the company you work for holds. But if none of them fit, and I don't think this one does, then original is the way to go.)

Possibly, but there's a certain rare satisfaction that you get from foiling Sauron that you don't get from foiling Generic Sauron Ripoff #38.

Strangest of all that I've seen is, when someone has pointed this out to vocal GG supporters on message boards, they don't even seem to see why anyone thinks they should see it as a big deal.

I suspect this is because the more vocal a GamerGate supporter you are, the more likely it is that you're either a) engaging with the whole thing in bad faith and really just want to make Zoe Quinn feel bad with fast food jokes or b) have bought into GamerGate dogma to an extent that you don't feel that the SoM situation is important because you haven't seen other GamerGaters treat it like it's important.
Daniel F at 12:27 on 2014-11-16
The wraith just made me roll my eyes. First off, I'm not convinced elves can even have wraiths, though maybe that can be explained as a Jacksonism.

Off the top of my head, I don't think there are any elven wraiths in Tolkien's writing, but neither can I think of any solid statements that rule them out. Part of the issue is that Tolkien never explained how wraiths, wights, etc., work in any systematic way.

I suspect in this case it is a Jacksonism, though, yes. As I understand it the SoM wraith acts like a ghost, possessing Talion's body and directing him from there. That feels particularly alien to Tolkien's writing, where there isn't really a role for disembodied spirits.

Have you heard about the attempts to control YouTube videos about this game?

My reading of that is that the attempt itself isn't that far from par for the video games industry. It was just a bit more egregious than usual, and with quite a lot of people on the hunt for solid evidence of corruption in games writing right now, it inevitably got out.
Jules V.O. at 15:59 on 2014-11-16
The distinction between a hypothetical elvish wraith and the established elvish spirit that lives on after their bodily death seems pretty fine.

There's certainly Middle-Earth precedent for possessing spirits, although it's mostly in the rather obscure subject of werewolves.
Arthur B at 16:28 on 2014-11-16
So, wait, are we saying here that Talion is a were-elf?
Cressida at 16:39 on 2014-11-16
Possibly, but there's a certain rare satisfaction that you get from foiling Sauron that you don't get from foiling Generic Sauron Ripoff #38.

If the setting doesn't feel like Middle-Earth anymore, then it doesn't feel like you're foiling Sauron. Generic Sauron Ripoff #38 will do just as well for Generic Fantasy Land #57, even if they've called it Middle-Earth.

Re wraiths, the assumption in the game (from what I've heard) seems to be "He died and now he's a ghost." Which assumes things about how elves die that don't really fit, as I see it.

One reason I attribute this attitude to Jackson is that I remember his comments about the elves that he added to the battle of Helm's Deep, and how it was so noble of them that they died when they could have lived forever. Once I got a little deeper into reading the background material, I realized that comment was off--didn't PJ realize they'd just go to the Halls of Mandos and get new bodies sometime later? (Having read the comments above, I'm now tempted to tie that to the Gallipoli thing.)

I'm also annoyed that they're taking a nuanced and rather ambiguous character and making him flat-out evil, whether that's what they intend to be doing or not.
Cressida at 16:58 on 2014-11-16
Adding: Were-elf!! That's perfect, and I'm going to start calling him that now.
Arthur B at 17:07 on 2014-11-16
If the setting doesn't feel like Middle-Earth anymore, then it doesn't feel like you're foiling Sauron. Generic Sauron Ripoff #38 will do just as well for Generic Fantasy Land #57, even if they've called it Middle-Earth.

True, though I think the game feels sufficiently true to Jackson's Middle Earth that I feel like I'm fighting Jackson's Sauron, and whilst it isn't chapter-and-verse loyal to Tolkien it is at least as true to the original spirit of the stories as Jackson was, and in some respects more so (the only character who ends up as a dignity-lacking comic relief buffoon is an orc, and Tolkien uses orcs for comic relief constantly).

Re wraiths, the assumption in the game (from what I've heard) seems to be "He died and now he's a ghost." Which assumes things about how elves die that don't really fit, as I see it.

It is strongly implied that some sort of fuckery on Sauron's part is also involved.

Once I got a little deeper into reading the background material, I realized that comment was off--didn't PJ realize they'd just go to the Halls of Mandos and get new bodies sometime later?

As far as I'm aware the Halls of Mandos and specific mechanics of elven afterlife are only mentioned in the Silmarillion and other such materials - which means that neither Jackson nor Monolith were allowed to touch them. The movie licence is only for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the game licence and most other spin-off licences are based off the movie licence, and the Tolkien Estate watches the activities of the licensees like hawks for any infractions of the licence because they're really not happy about its existence.

I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Jackson and his crew deliberately avoided having any contact with the Silmarillion and other such sources during the filmmaking process, precisely to avoid any suggestion that they were incorporating material from them in the films. I don't know the exact terms of the movie licence, but if I were their IP advisor I'd say that even canon-checking ideas against the Silmarillion or History of Middle-Earth to make sure they weren't actively contradictory to those sources (even if they don't originate with them) would be dangerous.
Cressida at 17:43 on 2014-11-16
Well--if it works for you as Middle-Earth, then I can't argue with that. The wraith-bonding and orc domination throw it too far off for me to accept it.

And yes, I know the movies weren't allowed to use any Silmarillion material directly, but I'm talking about a behind-the-scenes comment. Whatever Jackson's reasons for ignorance (whether caution or lack of interest), it does mean that this whole wraith thing is more likely derived from the movies.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2015-01-31
<blockqoute>he simply walks into Mordor and starts hacking up orcs like it's some sort of misorcist equivalent
Oh man, that is hysterical.

I enjoyed this review immensely, but not being much of a gamer, I don't have a whole lot of interest in Shadows. And while I am a big fan of Tolkien's works, I'm no die-hard; in fact, I find some of the elements in The Silmarillion disappointing precisely because they nerf small bits of headcanon I developed over the years for The Hobbit and "Lord of the Rings" which, though minor, have sweeping implications for how you interpret the world of Middle-earth. So while I enjoy the discussion of how this game gels with Tolkien's world, I don't have a big stake in it, one way or another. So good conversations, I just don't have anything to add to them.

... Tangents now, tangents, I can do.

Arthur: I wouldn't be surprised if Peter Jackson and his crew deliberately avoided having any contact with the Silmarillion and other such sources during the filmmaking process, precisely to avoid any suggestion that they were incorporating material from them in the films.

Heh, I've been following a Tolkien related podcast over the last year or so, and the pundits seem pretty confident that the films' creative team have been playing around with supporting material, including The Silmarillion and "The Quest for Erebor" from Unfinished Tales, to the extent that they can without violating copyright. For example, they point out a lot of parallels between Thranduil's relationship to the white gems Thror owed him in the trilogy, and Thingol's obsession with the Simarils.

if I were their IP advisor I'd say that even canon-checking ideas against the Silmarillion or History of Middle-Earth to make sure they weren't actively contradictory to those sources (even if they don't originate with them) would be dangerous.

*snicker* The podcast folks also talk about interviews where one of the creative team - Philippa Boyens, I think - would occasionally tell Jackson "Oh you can't do that" precisely because it violates Tolkien canon, meaning she's either fact-checking, or just knows the source material really well and is putting her knowledge to use.

I can see the point of doing so from a story-telling purpose, because even if you can't use any of that material, having it for a reference can at least help ensure you get the tone right. As far as the legal advisability, I've no idea, though I can certainly believe that it's venturing into not-so-safe territory.
Michal at 17:34 on 2015-01-31
Which Tolkien-related podcast? Link please!
Robinson L at 20:36 on 2015-01-31
The podcast is Riddles in the Dark; the hosts spent the past 3 years speculating about what would be in the Hobbit movies, and then dissecting the results (with plenty of tangents, most of which are Tolkien related); you have to be a really diehard Tolkien geek to get through all that but, well, what can I say?

I find the easiest way to listen to the episodes is on iTunes under "The Tolkien Professor," which also has a swathe of other (mostly) Tolkien-related material.
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