My love of The Lord of The Rings is well documented, heck, I just reread the books over the summer (with my glorious hardcovers). There’s a lot I like about them, like how they marry a beautiful world to an epic quest, and how that epic quest is a story of vanquishing evil not through violence but instead through sacrifice.
I also like video games. And video games based on The Lord of The Rings should be a natural match for me. And they are! Battle for Middle-earth is an RTS I thoroughly enjoyed playing, but a bigger favorite just might be the PS2 tie-in for The Return of The King. It’s a two-player hack-and-slash and I have many fond memories of my brother and I fighting through waves of Orcs as Gandalf and Aragorn. And, of course, destroying the Ring when we finally made it up Mount Doom as Frodo and Sam.
I picked up Shadow of Mordor a couple years back along with its sequel Shadow of War since they were both on sale. Shadow of Mordor was fun enough, though its theming seemed a bit off-kilter for a story based on The Lord of The Rings. You play as Talion, a Ranger of the Black Gate who, after dying in an assault from Mordor, finds himself unkillable and bound to the wraith of Celembrimbor — the Elven smith of the Rings of Power. With the wraith’s power, you carve a swath of vengeance through Mordor in your hunt for those who killed your family.
It’s a strange narrative for a story set in Middle-earth. In Tolkien’s legendarium, wraiths were those who succumbed to the power of the Rings, Men who craved life and power so much that they were doomed to wander Middle-earth neither alive nor dead. This is not a good thing (Men are uniquely afforded the Gift of Men, that is death and to go to what might be next), so seeing the game’s hero be bonded with a wraith is… odd. The game doesn’t really question that, though, which left me with an uneasy feeling throughout the game. It’s also hyper-violent, with Talion hacking Orcs to death, forcing them to do his will, and making their heads pop. Again, it’s odd for a game based on a book series that didn’t glorified violence, especially since it’s all about revenge this time, and not about saving Middle-earth.
I put off playing the sequel for a while and finally started it recently to go through my backlog (Control is excellent, by the way). Right off the bat, though, the dissonance with the source material hit. It opens with Talion and Celembrimbor forging a new Ring, like the One Ring but without its flaws, with which they hope to fight Sauron. You ally with Shelob the Spider, who now can assume the form of a lithe woman in a sleek black dress. A big part of the game is using the New Ring to control Orcs and Uruks with which you will go to war against Sauron.
The makers of the game explicitly said that their game’s not meant to fall into the canon of The Lord of The Rings, which is fair since its timeline is all over the place, what with Gollum skulking around Mordor while Talion takes part in the vain defense of Minas Ithil (which technically took place a millennium before Bilbo took the Ring from Gollum and the latter went out searching for it). I understand deviating from the lore of the books (and movies) to make the game more interesting, running around Minas Ithil and seeing it become Minas Morgul is certainly cool. If Celebrimbor were to still walk the world as a wraith, it’s plausible enough that he would try to forge another Ring of Power. Likewise, though neither Shelob nor her ancestor Ungoliant was Maiar, it is possible that she could have shapeshifting powers. And yeah, Orcs are prone to infighting so a war pitting Orc against Orc checks out.
Where Shadow of War falls short, like Shadows of Mordor before it, is with how it interprets the themes behind The Lord of The Rings. Shelob is, like Ungoliant, a hungry force of nature whose greed overpowers all. She might be plotting and have designs of her own, but to show up as a femme fatale goes against a fundamental part of her character. Orcs fighting Orcs makes sense, but Orcs know only destruction and cannot be a force for Good. A hero leading an army of Orcs goes against the value of life that Tolkien’s good guys all hold dear.
Then there’s the Ring.
The One Ring is a powerful weapon indeed, but it is a corrupted power, one that dominates and overpowers the Free People and not one that should be used by a hero — much of the point of Frodo taking the Ring to be destroyed is because it’s antithetical to what Sauron would do. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Gandalf, Galadriel, or Aragorn to wield the Ring in combat against Sauron’s forces? No, The Lord of The Rings isn’t about force of might. For Talion and Celembrimbor to forge a New Ring to wage war is the height of folly, especially since it’s not an idea that’s particularly challenged in the story. Yes, part of it is Talion’s descent into darkness, but that’s undercut by the lack of penalties from using the Ring for a chunk of the game. If we’re meant to be the heroes, why do we have the mindset of Sauron himself?
When Frodo and Sam meet Faramir in The Two Towers, he deduces from them that they are carrying a weapon of Sauron, one that tempted his brother Boromir, and one that they hope to destroy. He assures them that as much as he would see Gondor returned to its former glory, it is not worth using a weapon of the Enemy. As he says: “…I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend…” For Faramir, the Man who resisted the temptation that corrupted his brother, the power of Sauron’s weapon does not justify what it would do to the world he loves. In The Lord of The Rings the heroes do not fight their battles for the love of warfare or to wreak destruction. They fight to defend.
It’s frustrating, because the game’s pretty fun despite these thematic issues — I enjoy the Nemesis System that gives me beef with enemies and recruiting an army is a cool feature. But the huge Tolkien nerd in me can’t divorce himself from the glaring dissonance between the game and the world it’s set in. I get what Middle-earth brings to the table; there’s a wealth of material with magic rings, Balrogs, and Nazgûl to offer game elements. You’ve got the history of the fall of Minas Ithil and Celebrimbor’s forging the Rings to flesh out story beats. But to ignore the why of the books feels ignorant at best and crass at worst. Maybe the games wouldn’t have been as popular were they made whole cloth in a new fantasy world, but at least that way there wouldn’t be this thematic mess. As fun as decapitating orcs is, relishing in violence and power doesn’t feel right for a game based on The Lord of The Rings.