shadow of mordor 6

As the guy who made that one Lord of the Rings comic years ago and did that one LP of Lord of the Rings Online, and as someone who has professed to have read Fellowship more times than I care to recount, I’ve gotten something of a reputation as a Tolkien expert. The truth is I’m pretty much a lightweight among the serious Tolkien fans. I’m nowhere near a Tolkien scholar and I’m not even a huge fan of The Silmarillion.

But I still think The Lord of the Rings stands near the top of the list of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century. It’s a masterfully crafted work and its cultural influence is difficult to measure due to its enormity. Tolkien spin-offs have become an industry in their own right, and as someone standing at the intersection of games and Tolkien fandom a lot of people are wondering what I think of Shadow of Mordor.

When a book or movie is adapted to video games, we often get hung up on the small details of lore and whether or not the writers get it “right”. And that’s fine, up to a point. It’s nice when the writers take the time to get all the little details just so. It feels good to see that thing from the book or movie, fully realized in a game world that meshes with our prior experience or imagination. But when you’re adapting a work of fiction, getting the lore right isn’t nearly as important as matching the original in tone, themes, and aesthetic texture.

Imagine a Batman game where they butcher all the lore: Alfred is Batman’s uncle, Gordon is the mayor instead of the commissioner, and it takes place in Chicago instead of Gotham. That would be really annoying. But it would be far less offensive to me than a Batman property that gets all the lore details right, but re-imagines Batman as a vigilante who goes around shooting criminals and torturing them for information. This is how Shadow of Mordor feels to me. It’s a Lord of the Rings game in name and lore only, because the tone and themes are jarringly wrong.

shadow of mordor 2

The developers tried. They really did. You can find bits of poetry, heaps of lore details, and there’s a loading screen where someone sings a song. The developers looked at Tolkien and thought what people really wanted was lots of text to read and lots of little stories about incidental items in the world. And I guess they succeeded at that. It’s all shoved off to the side in collectibles that magically turn into “money” (not really money, but it’s the currency you use to buy upgrades) and not part of the core game, but it’s there. There are references to legendary characters that do not appear directly in the books or movies, and they even manage to shoehorn in a barely-justified appearance by Gollum. (Which is a wonderful re-creation of movie Gollum, doing a fine impression of the original performance by Andy Serkis.)

But these things are the skeleton of Middle-earth, not its soul. They failed to grasp anything resembling the heart of the elements that give the world its identity.

First let’s start with the small stuff: The dialog is all wrong. Gone is the artful and varied speech of the various peoples of Middle-Earth. In the books, each group of people had their own take on English. Hobbits were simple and folksy. Dwarves were brusque and direct. Wizards and elves were almost Shakespearean in their flowery speech. Humans were varied, going from the quasi-cockney style of Bill Ferny to the nearly-Elven patterns used by kings.

In Shadow of Mordor, all of that is lost. People talk in generic “movie medieval”, and the lines are bristling with cringeworthy anachronisms. One Orc (an Orc!) even says, “Visualize your goals,” to the player, which I guess is supposed to be funny. But making jokes at the expense of the setting is something you do in a parody (like my web comic) and not something you should do in a story that’s trying so hard to be taken seriously.

shadow of mordor 1

Like I said earlier, getting the lore 100 percent right isn’t the most important thing, and some messy retcons and edits are probably unavoidable when you’re adding something new to a work that was fully complete. I’ll even forgive the fact that the bad guy here makes no sense and the antagonists constantly do things for no reason other than to empower and motivate the hero. Instead of picking apart the story, let’s talk about the themes.

The game starts off in the most ham-fisted and tone-deaf way possible: You play as Talion, a soldier. The bad guys come and murder you and your family during the tutorial. You then come back from the dead to get your revenge. Yes, the writers took the most stale and overused story premise from 80’s action schlock and tried to hide it under a coat of Tolkien paint. The result isn’t just merely sophomoric, but contemptible. No effort is spent filling in the protagonist’s world, establishing his character, or building any sort of narrative tension. The game has just a few lines of dialog before it jumps right into the family-murder, like a porno that’s in a hurry to get past all the stupid talking scenes and get to the boning. That’s what Shadow of Mordor is: Revenge porn. The game starts with a guy killing your family and ends when you kill him back. (And if you needed a spoiler tag for that, then you are new to this planet.)

This is even more infantile when you realize that one of the themes of the books is that revenge — and the lust for it — is poisonous and destructive. In the original work, the forces of good win at the end because nobody had the heart to murder Gollum, even though they all knew he deserved it. The Hobbits were the key to victory not because they were fierce and cunning, but because they were guileless and gentle. Their innocence protected them from the allure of a ring that devoured normal guys just like Talion: Guys who want to solve the world’s problems by stabbing.

In the books, war isn’t celebrated, but regretted. In Lord of the Rings, even men who returned from victory found wounds on their heart that clouded their judgement. Power was seen as a dangerous thing, and even the very wise (no, especially the very wise) feared to wield the power they had, and did so only reluctantly. Boromir wanted to use the powers of the enemy against them, and this mistake cost him his life and nearly undid Middle-earth.

shadow of mordor 14

In contrast, Shadow of Mordor has Talion gleefully using the powers of the enemy against them without any cost to himself. (Aside from that whole family-murder business, but that makes him into an immortal superhero. Once that’s done, he can do as he pleases without consequence.) He does everything Boromir dreamed of doing (although without using a magic ring) and not only escapes with his life and honor intact, but is even rewarded for his wrath.

Shadow of Mordor doesn’t just use Tolkien’s rich world as a stage for cheap revenge porn, it uses that stage as a place to say that Tolkien himself was wrong. Power doesn’t corrupt, evil can be defeated with swords, and Boromir should totally have taken the One Ring to overpower Sauron and made himself the benevolent ruler of Middle-earth.

Talion gets to live the dream that Boromir had, which incidentally was (in the book) a lie invented by their devil. This is like a Superman story where Superman brutally murders Lex Luthor, and that fixes everything and he’s still a hero. It doesn’t matter how “realistic” that might be, because it runs completely counter to the themes of the work.

As an attempt at Tolkien world building, Shadow of Mordor is cheap, shallow, obvious, and masturbatory. It sells the audience short, assuming that we’re too dumb to appreciate nuance and too self-absorbed to accept a power fantasy where the main character isn’t worshiped as a hero and where power has a cost. It thinks the defining characteristics of Tolkien are fussy world building and lack of brevity.

It feels like a Tolkien story by people who neither like nor understand Tolkien.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.

Comments

Leave a reply

You may also like