(TWT) A Shadow Indeed: an (old) review of “Shadow of Mordor”

 

I wrote this in April 2015 when the game Shadow of Mordor was coming out. If you want to make an enemy of me, imitate pop culture’s twisting of Tolkien for their own ends.


The theme of The Lord of the Rings, as seen by Tolkien, is that of immortality and its opposite. But there is another theme which seems very important as well to the story, and this is the use and corruption of power. The One Ring is the epitome of corrupted power in Middle-earth; yet a third idea that is central to LOTR is that the Ring’s power cannot be used for good. The powers of darkness cannot be used to fight darkness, no matter what; the end never justifies the means. If a person takes one thing away from a reading of The Lord of the Rings, I think this should quite possibly be it. And if there is one thing that those who seek to commercialize Tolkien do not take away from the story, it too is often this. In the new ‘Tolkien’ video game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, this whole point is skewed into something dreadful.

This article is not a review of the game per se. I don’t play video games; I have no interest in the mechanics or graphics of Shadow of Mordor. What I am interested in, or rather passionate about, regarding this game, is how it portrays the messages of Tolkien’s life-work. Instead of gushing over how wonderful (or otherwise) is the technology of the game itself, I want to look at the story which the game tells, and show that it is wrong: wrong in a moral sense and utterly contrary to what Tolkien was trying to say.

In the game, players take the character of Talion, a ranger who sees his family killed by Orcs just before he himself is killed. Talion is then resurrected – by a “spirit of vengeance”[1], no less – as a wraith, and forthwith goes out to avenge his family. The first write-up for the game puts it this way: “Resurrected by a Spirit of vengeance and empowered with Wraith abilities, Talion ventures into Mordor and vows to destroy those who have wronged him.”[2] At first glance, this should sound terrible to one who shares Tolkien’s worldview. At second glance, it should look even worse. In Middle-earth, wraiths are always evil. The Ringwraiths are the most obvious example; the Barrow-wights on the borders of the Old Forest are a second. There is no such thing as a ‘good’ wraith in Middle-earth. Therefore, it would seem that the gamer, in the role of Talion, is certainly using the powers of darkness to fight darkness. This is only one problem with Shadow of Mordor; the whole idea of making a game out of a search for vengeance is far more appalling.

This search for vengeance is undeniably evil. The theme of vengeance and its consequences runs deep in The Silmarillion, where Fëanor and his seven sons spend their lives seeking revenge against Morgoth and any other who comes into possession of a Silmaril. It is clear in the book that this desire for retribution causes much suffering in Middle-earth during the First Age. Now compare this to Shadow of Mordor, where the entire point of the game is, once Talion is resurrected by this spirit of vengeance, to get back at Sauron and the minions of Mordor! And all this seemingly without consequence.

I will admit that I don’t know how far the ‘no consequences’ goes; I don’t know if Talion will eventually discover somehow or other the error of his ways and the evil of a desire for revenge. To be sure, Samantha Ryan, senior vice president of the company producing the game, says, “…players will explore the dark and very personal theme of vengeance in a world where decisions have a consequence, and those consequences persist even after death [emphasis mine].”[3] But despite this I am not hopeful. On closer study, I doubt that Ms. Ryan is referring to the consequences of revenge. Immediately after the above statement, she goes on to explain the new technology which the game employs: “Through [this] system, enemy relationships and characteristics are shaped by player actions and decisions to create personal archenemies that remember and adapt to the player and are distinct to every gameplay session.”[4] Taken in context, Ms. Ryan’s words do not seem to be about revenge and its consequences, but to the consequences of the player’s decisions during battles with different enemies.

My opinion here is reinforced by Scott Juster’s review of the game on popmatters.com. Juster gives in detail how his enemies react to what happens during the battles, and how when the particular enemy returns to fight again, it has taken into account different features of what Juster-Talion did in previous battles.

Juster, however, does not seem to be a fan of the game, despite the ‘fun-ness factor’ of the new system that makes the enemies’ tailored actions possible. He begins his review with, “Sauron and I don’t know each other very well, so I don’t know if he plays video games. If he does, I bet he is pleasantly surprised by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.”[5] Not a very promising beginning if one is trying to reconcile the game with authentic Tolkien morality. Juster concludes by stating,

Another round of killing, enslaving, and power grabbing […] To what end? To no end, really. Even when you finish the game, the orc horde continues to replenish itself and provide more grist for entertaining assassinations and ability upgrades. It’s a mill that exists simply to power itself. You dominate some orcs and gain more power. You use this power to dominate more orcs. Why do you need to dominate orcs? To get more power to dominate more orcs, obviously. You save some slaves here and there, but the game doesn’t end with any major change to the status quo. Unlike Frodo’s journey, Talion’s quest doesn’t really end a war or culminate with him relinquishing his power after learning about its consequences. You become an unstoppable death lord who oversees a kingdom of violence that exists thanks to its own circular logic.

Like Sauron’s power, Shadow of Mordor is seductive. The more you indulge, the better it feels (it starts off feeling amazing). […] Every time that you think you can stop, you realize … you’re close to gaining a little bit more power, which in turn allows for more killing and domination. You’re soon lulled into a pattern of unreflective enslavement and murder. By the end, you’re the most powerful, terrifying force in the land. It feels great, despite its dubious morality.

Somewhere the Dark Lord is laughing because you slipped into the cycle just as easily as one might slip a little gold ring onto his or her finger.[6]

Power – who doesn’t want power in some degree? Like Shadow of Mordor, The Lord of the Rings is about power. But how different are the two messages promoted by the two! The Lord of the Rings warns against a hunger for great power; it enumerates the consequences of power; many of the characters want power and are destroyed by their lust – Boromir, Sméagol, Saruman, Denethor… I could name far more. On the other hand, Shadow of Mordor feeds the player’s desire for power and tries to make absolute power seem good, ignoring Lord Acton’s warning that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In the end, what war video game is much better than this? But Shadow of Mordor is worse in a way than even Call of Duty, because it so blatantly contradicts what Tolkien was trying to say throughout his writing. The Professor would without the slightest doubt be heartily ashamed to see a Middle-earth label on such a product. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is, indeed, a shadow of Mordor.


Notes

[1] http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20131112005633/en/Warner-Bros.-Interactive-Entertainment-Deliver-Original-Dark#.VOiRhfnF9X8, retrieved 21 February 2015.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] http://www.popmatters.com/post/190246-seductive-power-in-middle-earth-shadow-of-mordor/, retrieved 21 February 2015. The entire review is worth reading in its entirety.

[6] ibid.

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