As widely beloved as Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe is, one can’t help but wonder what happened to it since the Peter Jackson directed movie trilogy “The Lord of the Rings”. It seemed like the value of the IP was on the upswing, and it looked for a second like every product of pop culture associated to it from toys, video games, to comics and otherwise, were going to catch fire from the overabundance of heat riding behind — all of that was more or less brought to a halt when the cinematic adaptation of the first Hobbit — which only bears it in name — didn’t manage to garner as much critical and audience reception as the legendary pieces of cinematic mastery before it did. Saddled by Peter Jackson’s baggage as a director in lack of inspiration–clearly frustrated from having to dive back into a universe he already gave his all — it would seem like the ship of Middle-earth was going to sink deep, probably never to arise again. But soon thereafter, a new product of entertainment — controversially regarded as the most blasphemous twist to Tolkien’s fantastical lore, set afoot. Middle-earth, the video game series, was born.
Spoilers ahead for Shadow of War, and subsequently, Shadow of Mordor. You’ve been warned.
You’ve probably heard all the boring stuff from review sites already. This isn’t the interesting story to me. What is rather most-puzzling is how a work derived from Tolkien’s universe managed to be so derivative, yet ostensibly distinct, but at the same time, still retaining of an identity, and an almost legendary notoriety in the video games industry for introducing a mechanic that would soon become a standard stay in the very fabric of power fantasies the Action-RPG genre often tries to aspire to.
The nemesis system, at its core, is an algorithmically based RNG model-creation predicament where certain visual, and archetypal traits are assigned to a character, along with abilities, and skills that would make it seem like the game is unraveling a never-ending army of new foes each time the row of front-lines is defeated. In a world as rich as Middle-earth is, that variety manifests itself utmost in the selection of Uruks, with names more dazzlingly confusing and increasingly hilarious as time goes on. It’s everything from Tark the Nose-Picker, to Baz the Pain-Lover. Like elden wisemen will say in the future: That’s how I like my BDSM representation in media.
But jokes aside, this system really put forth a sensation that Sauron’s army would never see to its end — gameplay systems corroborated it too. There’s absolutely no way you could kill any and all captains, Sauron would just shit out new ones from whatever holes he shat out the prior ones. It’s all a bottomless pit of doom the player is encouraged to brutalize, or outright dismember in the most creative ways possible — almost to a fault.
What the game however seeks to accomplish by portraying the conflict in such a manner, is that it presents the perpetuity of player choice, as an active and a cognizant effort to indulge in Sauron’s ultimate scheme. He, who seems undefeated, doesn’t exist because nobody is willing to challenge his rule, but because –according to the explicit propos of Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s ending — Sauron only exists to present a dichotomy to the player’s action. Henceforth, there wouldn’t be a Sauron to defeat, if there were no Talion –or rather Talion-like individuals — to seek the power necessary to defeat him in the first place.
Often among audiences, the narrative of a fantasy setting where villains and do-gooders faced against each other have comparable bits of power is at the very least questionable. I mean — who’s to guarantee us that if Evil were to be conquered, the good guys would know what to do if they were to wield such power over the people whom its very presence threatened in the first place. Shadow of War doesn’t only reckon with that reality, it very much codifies it in text that it is the reason why Mordor is in such distress — the people whose ambition was antithetical to the greater good of society were ultimately let down when they found out that they couldn’t possibly wish for a better outcome than to have an Evil replaced by a lesser evil, only to find out things became much worse. And while Shadow of Mordor’s story was more focused on defeating the much more immediate danger, and the seemingly unconquerable threat that was Sauron — Shadow of War deals with those issues head on. It turns out as was expected that chopping Uruks’ heads off was never going to be the silver bullet to rid Mordor of its ills — a way Talion saw most fitting to end Sauron’s reign, but we as players, we indulged in it without wondering whether it would actually work. Beyond the implication of game developers having to code in the necessary assets and mechanics to allow a freer style of engagement, they’d not only lose the soul of what makes their games great — they’d also have to pass up on communicating a clear message on what they think of player interaction within the universe. The fact most negotiations can only be solved through murder in most Action-RPGs is very telling about the industry’s forwardness to embrace instant feedback over thematic relevance and narrative resonance.
I’d have to confess that a game of me brokering peace deals with and between Uruks, and devising a more complex plan of action aside from chopping heads off at every turn would be far too interesting to me than it should be. Why would anyone play that? Isn’t Mordor the land where heads separate from bodies almost as frequently as spouses drift apart? That may be partly true, but to pretend like that would bring about to any productive end is simply foolish. Shadow of War not only canned in a fantastic end to Talion’s journey –though I wouldn’t fall in shock if he came back somehow — but it also showcased that Talion wasn’t the first to embark on a journey to end the darkness. The Nazgûl had held prior to a legacy of slashing Uruks from every which way they come, but they all ended up kneeling to Sauron’s behest — it didn’t matter how much will power they had; the fact that they continuously had built up the courage, and the tenacity to take on a whole army is good enough reason that if time came to be, they’d only occupy the same role they so wished to curtail. No one is too noble to be spared the embrace of darkness — once Talion realized he had to embrace it by wearing one of Sauron’s corrupted Rings of Power to exact vengeance on Celebrimbor’s wretched treason, he would only come to find out the Dark Lord “Sauron”, and the Bright Lord “Celebrimbor” merged into one and fed into each other in an everlasting frenzy of inner conflict. If Shelob’s visions of the future are to be believed, Talion would have conquered Sauron only to become another version of him, break the balance of power in Mordor, and then give reason to another warrior with all the good intentions in the world to take on him — only to assume his power, and thus, the cycle continues much to Talion’s ideological disapproval.
It is important to highlight that in an era where so many pieces of media shy away from codifying their message and aim into the text — Watch_Dogs 2 is anti-capitalist, but not really; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag flatters Anarchy, but not really; Call of Duty: Black Ops II is criticism of American foreign policy, but not quite; Battlefield 1 shows what great people are capable of in situations of dire, but also really not all that much — it is apparent that many games take upon about reflecting on a facet of our society that developers and writers may have felt a personal responsibility to shed light on in the most unassuming and subtle of ways, but not all of them succeed in imbuing text with so much criticism of what the game actively promotes the player to do as Shadow of War does.
After the drummer’s drumming halts, the last breath is ushered, the battle cries waned, all that is left is nothing but destruction and scatter. Mordor is really not that better a place than it was when Talion started going on a murdering spree. The message of the game is loud and clear — violence only breeds more violence, and in retaliating against the most powerful being on Mordor, you’ve only given them more reason to lay it harsher on those of most need and least consequence. Talion may display an unwavering determinant will to do good in the world — but he’s not unbreakable. His ambitions flew too close to the sun, and he did not only end up being burnt by it; it also swallowed him whole.
I appreciate Shadow of War for being an incredibly enjoyable game to play on a visceral level. It allowed me to kill a lot of Orcs, but it also taught me the not-to-be-forgiven consequences of indulging in a vengeful conquest of violent ends against the people who I wish to teach a lesson in not partaking in the very activity I’m cautioning them against. It crops up all too often in our current political discourse that the only necessary recourse in battling dissent is retaliation — though we all realized far too quickly that it was only going to breed more and more of it. Shadow of War isn’t only a lesson to take on the best of humanity when the times are tough, and there’s seemingly no way out of it — it is also pertinent and intelligent commentary on the state of perpetual violence in what informs our choices about which video games to buy. I’d like to believe I reached a point where I wouldn’t have to stick a knife in someone or put a bullet through someone’s head at least once to enjoy a game — that’s where my Stealth-Only No-Kill run of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided might come in. But in all honesty, it makes me ponder about the meta-context of it existing in a space so rife with competition where it seems the only differentiating factor is how the killing happens, and not what leads to it, nor what motivates it. Talion’s crusade against the army of Sauron is most justified, but the game does a very good job of communicating authorial disapproval to player’s actions in a way that doesn’t feel condescending, but rather enriching, genius, and most inviting of criticism and ponderance — just like I’m doing right this second.
I realize I had already stipulated spoilers will be mentioned at the risk of me dancing around lore elements without addressing them head on, but I legitimately think that wouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the game the slightest. At its most basic, it’s a very fun Action-RPG/ Hack ’n’ Slash that will at least service you for forty hours— DLC discounted. But at its core, it’s an indictment of the very quest the entirety of the video games industry embarked upon when Doom first shocked the world with its grotesque portrayal of banal violence. It showcases the strength of Talion’s character with none the baggage that comes with “character-bashing” sub-par writers are often culprits of. The Orc-Slaying manages to be consistently fun despite its increasing similitude as you near the third dozen hours of play, but it’s so brilliantly contextualized that one can’t help but not feel guilt over what ensues after the endgame. Not because Talion bestows mercy on his enemies — through ill and good — but because the developers over at ‘Monolith’ understood exactly what they were dealing with, and delivered a masterclass in anti-violence advocacy the likes of which I’m not sure I’ll be able to witness any time in the near future. At least until Death Stranding -eventually- releases.
All photos featured in the article were taken by me using NVIDIA Ansel.