In an iconic scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo, horrified at what he has heard about Gollum, who is stalking him in hopes of reclaiming the Ring, remarks that it’s a “pity” that Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had a chance. Gandalf pushes back at the notion, insisting instead, “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need…Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends.” Ironically, of course, Gandalf does properly predict that Gollum is better alive than dead, as his actions lead, however inadvertently, to the destruction of the Ring (spoilers for a book released in the ‘50s, I’m not sorry).
This is the perfect summation of the morality of Tolkien’s fiction, where hope and mercy are the ultimate virtues, which makes it the perfect place to point to when discussing how Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor differs from its source material. Early in the game, you meet Gollum, and your protagonist immediately wants to kill him. It’s disgusting, he says. I think I remember him using the word “vermin.” The only reason he stays his hand is because Gollum proves temporarily useful. Despite the aesthetics being just right, the world in Shadow of Mordor ain’t Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien would hate this game.
In Shadow of Mordor, you play as a ranger of Gondor named Talion (though he was boring enough that I quickly forgot his name and started calling him Keith), which basically means he looks and sounds like Sean Bean. And like Sean Bean, Keith gets killed by orcs in the first ten minutes of the game alongside his wife and child, who are, of course, never directly mentioned again, because video games. However, their death was a part of a blood ritual or something, which means Keith is brought back to life possessed by the spirit of an Elvish wraith, which gives him special abilities and most importantly makes it impossible for him to die. You don’t know initially know who this wraith is, so unlike a few reviews of the game I’m going to avoid spoiling it, since it’s actually fairly interesting for Tolkien buffs.
At any rate, the finer details of the plot setup aren’t what matter. This game isn’t terribly concerned with Keith’s backstory, and neither are we. The point is that, as a ranger, Keith is good at stabbing things, and with his wife and child fridged, he has a reason to do so. Specifically, Keith is going to be spending the game wandering around Mordor, stabbing a lot of orcs in a lot of creatively brutal ways.
This is where the game starts to get interesting. As Keith (fine, fine, Talion), your goal is to find the Black Hand of Sauron, a high-ranking servant of the newly resurgent dark lord (the game takes place in the gap between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, where Sauron has returned and begun rebuilding his power but everyone else is still too busy to care). He’s the guy who put the curse on you, and you want to know why. Frankly, you don’t have much else to live for at this point. In order to find the Black Hand, you are tasked with gathering information and causing mass amounts of chaos in the ranks of Sauron’s orc army.
To facilitate this task, the game gives you what the designers have dubbed the Nemesis System. Basically, it’s a set of tools and AI functions designed to create an emergent, unique orc hierarchy for you to meddle with. All the captains and warchiefs in the game are named, with procedurally generated (read: randomized) traits and personalities, and they are constantly milling about the game world, engaging in their own activities, occasionally fighting amongst themselves for rank and prestige. They have memories, too, remembering you if they survive a fight with you and responding to you accordingly, like, for instance, one annoying sonuvabitch named Hura who had a habit of sneaking up on me in the middle of fighting someone else and killing me with fire arrows, and who gloated about it every time he saw me. Engaging with this system, Talion can interfere with their hierarchy, killing off important orcs and manipulating things to prop up others in the ranks.
It’s a fun idea, and it’s implemented well, creating a gameplay experience that lets you create and play out your own dramas. I agree with the consensus in the gaming world that this is a system that should be emulated and incorporated into future game design.
The game wants to be more than a showcase for this system, however. The care put into setting and tone make it clear it wants to say something about Tolkien, wants to be taken seriously as a Middle Earth story, and in that light the Nemesis system is a total mess.
JRR Tolkien had an orc problem. If you go digging through the volumes of his published notes and letters, you can sense it from the frequent changes and addendums and shifts made to their origins. Are they mutated and corrupted elves? Ruined humans? Did Morgoth (Middle Earth’s Satan equivalent and Sauron’s old boss) create them or are they the result of some terrible happenstance? Depending on where you look, the answers change. The reason for this is simple: orcs don’t quite fit into the world Tolkien created. They don’t fit into the order of the world that Gandalf describes to Frodo, where mercy is absolutely right and redemption is always an option—however distant a one. Tolkien’s world is, after all, based irrevocably in his Catholic sensibilities; his non-Lord of the Rings contributions to the universe feature a benevolent creator God and make it clear that the wizards are maiar, essentially angels. It’s important that even Sauron chose to be evil, deliberately rejecting the goodness inherent in all creation.
Orcs are different. They’re evil simply by nature, inherently corrupted. In Tolkien’s rendering they have no culture and no language of their own. What’s worse, they are dreadfully racially typed, described by Tolkien as “sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact, degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol types.”
Orcs exist in a permanent state of exception, absolutely Other, nameless and killable in droves. They’re two-dimensional and infused with imported racist prejudice, given no depth in a world full of it.
Middle Earth is notable for how tightly it’s been controlled by Tolkien’s estate. There is no expanded universe; the only way anyone outside of Tolkien’s lineage has ever played around in this world is through adaptation, which makes Shadow of Mordor the most popular (and one of the only, period) new additions to the story, the first entry in a potential video-game-based Middle Earth extended universe. As such, it’s hard not to read it as a commentary on its source material. And at first glance the Nemesis system and the game structures surrounding it seem like a response to Tolkien’s orc problem.
The Nemesis system gives the orcs much-needed culture and depth. They have names, they make small talk. They have parties and feasts. They live in a constantly changing feudal society. It is, admittedly, a particularly nasty and violent society, but it’s one that makes sense within the narrative. Orcs, after all, are a perennially subjugated people, forced into war after war throughout history by the hands of their supernatural bosses. Violence is a way of life.
Orcs can be quite awful in this game, as much as in Tolkien’s work proper, but here it’s treated with a nuance that Tolkien never bothered to develop, and it’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for them. Orcs are victimizers, but they’re also victimized, set in longstanding oppressive power structures.
What’s more, the way the game handles player failure allows the orcs to grow and change. Every encounter they survive with you, whether by victory, retreat, or sheer luck, lets them accrue additional power and reputation. They remember your clashes, and their bodies are marked by them, burn wounds and scars serving as trophies.
I was recently killed by a low-ranking orc after a long, ugly encounter, only to find later that he had moved up in the hierarchy and donned a snazzy new helmet as a status symbol. I felt oddly proud of the guy.
If the orcs are brutal, they’re no more brutal than Talion. As the ranger, you are a whirlwind of violence. By the halfway point in the game, you’re capable of taking on a couple of dozen orcs at once. You also gain the ability to magically enslave orcs letting you use them to stage ambushes and lead insurrections amongst the ranks.
If that sounds troubling, it’s because it is. For as much as the Nemesis System feels like a solution to the orc problem, it also reifies and even magnifies it. Orcs are still cannon fodder in the same way they’ve always been. It’s a bizarre double bind: our orcs are special unique snowflakes, now kill all of them.
Austin Walker nails it in a fabulous essay about NPC depth at Paste, pointing out that “Mordor presents these characters in incredibly high fidelity—and I mean that both aesthetically and narratively. Some of the Orcs wear visible jewelry. One dev pointed out during a video preview that ‘some of them are poets.’ But we’re told again and again that these Orcs want to destroy beautiful things. It just doesn’t hold up, and this tension extends to every element of their narrative and systemic characterizations. These Orcs have fears, interests, values, rivalry and friendships. Some Orcs are lovingly protective of their bosses or underlings. But they are ‘savage creatures’ that ‘hate beauty,’ so go ahead and enslave them.”
It’s not that I’m opposed to fictionalized ultraviolence. I think there’s value in creating a space to vent out violent urges and explore them from the remove of mediation. In the debate on whether or not we should feel bad for killing orcs, my colleague Drew Toal at the AV Club answers with a resounding, “Nope!” and I don’t entirely disagree. They’re not real, and that’s a detail that matters.
But, well, listen: In A Signal Shattered, a pulpy scifi novel by Eric Nylund, the protagonist Jack ends up in a fight where he uses a program to attack an opponent’s neural implant. His enemy dies screaming and hallucinating, killed by a brain in revolt. Jack’s uncle, a seasoned assassin, seeing this, turns to him and says that, after the fight is over, they need to have a conversation about “the right and wrong ways to kill someone.”
One of the abilities you can unlock in Shadow of Mordor allows you to sabotage feasts by poisoning the orc’s grog. While they’re vulnerable, you can use magic to interrogate them before they die, or use the vulnerability to eliminate or enslave their leader. I’m with Jack’s uncle: this feels like the wrong way to win that fight.
In a text included with the posthumous The History of Middle Earth compilation, Tolkien emphasized that even orcs deserve humane treatment, that “they must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and severity…If any orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost.” Shadows of Mordor creates orcs that are more clearly worthy of mercy than any Tolkien created, then summarily refuses to give it to them. Talion enslaves, tortures, and kills his way to his goals, embracing the methods of his worst foes to get what he wants. Like I said, Tolkien would hate this game.
That makes it an interesting attempt at adding to Middle Earth, although that’s also why I think it’s an ultimately failed one. In the interest of being a fun game, Shadow of Mordor jettisons the moral decency that makes Middle Earth such a captivating and warm place to inhabit in the first place.
The Lord of the Rings is an important piece of fiction, beloved by most people I know. But it’s not perfect, and I’m deeply glad that games might be a space where we can revisit and revise those stories. I just hope that, going forward, they remember to heed Gandalf’s advice.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.