Shadow of Mordor Has 'Only Scratched the Surface' of Monolith's Middle-earth
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's design director Michael de Plater first read The Hobbit when he was four years old.
"I lived with my grandmother and she was a teacher, so she taught me to read before I had started school," de Plater said during a recent interview. "That was the first thing I ever read. And then I read The Lord of the Rings straight after that, I was maybe six. It was the first thing I was introduced to."
De Plater was drawn into game design not through video games themselves but through pen and paper role-playing games, dungeon-crawling adventures set in fantasy worlds that required less button mashing and more imagination to complete. And while he loves the realm of fantasy, in working on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor he was carefully not to build the game like the universal fantasy archetype that often comes to mind.
"We wanted to stay away from guiding people into thinking of Middle-earth as a generic fantasy," he said. "It’s history and myth that really differentiate it."
Players have recognized this in Shadow of Mordor, the game has received numerous praise and accolades, including GameSpot's own Game of the Year award for 2014. Recently, Irrational Games founder and BioShock creator Ken Levine published a piece on Medium discussing how the game chooses to tell its story. Levine called Shadow of Mordor "chess meets Hamlet." For de Plater and his team at Monolith Productions, this is high praise from a high place.
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"BioShock was very a big inspirational game for us, not because of the linear narrative, but because of the way it told its world story," de Plater explained. "I think it did that so incredibly well and managed not only to communicate the history within the world, but even the themes and that idea of choice in games. That really got us thinking about, what would it mean if that choice actually was real rather than the illusion of it being real?
"We’re [Monolith and Levine] both definitely trying to tackle the same issues with narrative. And in that piece he used the word ‘choose your own adventure' to describe trying to make truly systemic stories that respond to players rather than huge branching authored stories. We’ve just taken the first baby steps of what we’re trying to do."
It sounds like Monolith with continue to work on and iterate the Nemesis system, the colorful military hierarchy of Orcs that players use as a canvas on which to paint their Shadow of Mordor story. De Plater suggested they have "only scratched the surface" in terms of what is possible with the system and that the intrigue of the Orcs themselves bolstered the appeal of the setup.
"The most interesting thing about the Orcs is the way they will turn on each other," de Plater said, noting that Talion is not the only antagonists these Orcs face--they have each other. "So you as an individual could plausibly be the spark that sets off their own internal fights, the way Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin manage to do in The Lord of the Rings. It’s a way to address the one-man army idea. Those ideas looped back into each other.”
"We’ve just taken the first baby steps of what we’re trying to do."
De Plater said the studio was surprised at the positive reception towards Talion, who was inspired by another Lord of the Rings character who fell to corruption, Boromir. Talion is being used by Celebrimbor's wraith, who in turn is using the weapon of the enemy against the enemy--that is, the mind-controlling power imbued into the One Ring. He could be seen as a swashbuckling, powerful hero, but in many ways he's not a hero at all. Chris Plante of The Verge refers to Talion as more of a terrorist, an outsider invading and subverting what he has been culturally conditioned to consider as a lesser race.
"A really positive and great surprise was that people did feel engaged and emotional enough to think about it and talk about it and examine Talion in that depth," de Plater said. "Some of the stuff we thought was really obvious and we were heavy handed on was the analogy of Talion with Boromir and Thorin [from The Hobbit] to some extent. Someone who is going down the path of violence and revenge and using what is in effect the Ring of Power to achieve those ends. That’s so obviously a path leading to a fall. It’s an Anakin Skywalker situation, it’s a universal thing.
"Tolkien said there can be no story without a fall. It’s hard within Middle-earth to have a heroic human character in an action game who is using violence as a means to an end without examination of it as a fall."
But as far as building a new story within the universe of Middle-earth, which is already stuffed with stories and myths, de Plater feels that rather than worship Tolkien's world, Monolith has succeed in preserving its themes through iteration.
"There’s a really good British fantasy author called Michael Moorcock, and he wrote something along the lines of, 'Avoid becoming a Tolkien imitator.' We did more of a pastiche of those stories by looking at the roots and references and myths and trying to stay as true as we could to the themes of the stories. You could say we were trying to copy the disease, not the symptoms. At the same time we tried very hard to make sure that we told a new story and showed new places, because something the books or stories never do is actually retread the same places. It’s very risky to tell something new but in some ways it's the only way to be faithful to the experience.”
And as far as a sequel is concerned, it's a little obvious that players will be spending more time in Mordor years from now. De Plater said that something he'd love to explore more is the relationship between Celebrimbor and Sauron and the evolution of Sauron's character, and suggested this isn't the last we've seen of the Nemesis system.
"The thing we started to explore more and that I love as a character and has so much more potential and is Sauron. I think he’s such a strong villain, and I'd love to explore the Nazgul [Sauron's servants] as well. There’s a lot more to explore and a lot more we can do to develop those villains. And to be super honest, it was our first go, so we’ve just scratched the surface with what we can do with the Nemesis system."