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Feature Article

Why Shadow Of War Takes Liberties With Lord Of The Rings Canon

"We could have had Shelob appear in great spider form, but she would have had a much smaller role in the game, ultimately."

Like its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of War tells an original story set in the Lord of the Rings universe. As such, it bends the established canon, doing things like presenting the spider Shelob as a human woman.

While you can check our our Shadow of War review for thoughts on how it's turned out, we recently discussed the challenges of making a Lord of the Rings video game with Tony Elias, Monolith's lead narrative designer. In our chat, he touches on why it wouldn't be fun to do a straight adaptation of the books, the rationale behind Lady Shelob, and whether he would be interested in taking on the material in The Silmarillion.

Shadow of War has a release date of October 10 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. For more, check out our look at the game's best trash-talking orcs. And to get prepared for the new game, check out our Shadow of Mordor story recap, and find out why Monolith's creative VP thinks it's "impossible" to make everyone happy.

GameSpot: What's your background with Tolkien lore and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and maybe something like Silmarillion?

Tony Elias: I was not one of those kids who read it when I was really young, like many of the people here. I kind of came to it later in life, so in my 20s I read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and got into it in that way. It's interesting; now I have kids, and so I have an eight-year-old boy, and we finished The Hobbit last year. We just worked our way through Fellowship [of the Ring], and so it's kind of fascinating to see him experience that for the first time. He's just become such a big fan.

He obviously can't play the game, but he's just really fascinated, like, "Wow, you're making a game in the Lord of the Rings universe!" It's really kind of funny to see him geek out over playing Lego Hobbit, and just learning about Mordor and Middle-earth in general.

Yeah, I think I first came to it when I was 12, and I obviously wasn't old enough to appreciate it. I think Tolkien was too descriptive for that age for me. I think maybe I had seen the Fellowship, and then assumed that the books would be more descriptive in the battles, which is what I was looking for at that age. Then I came back to it like six years ago, and I was like, "Oh, okay, I get it." It's super good, because--

It's interesting to see someone coming to it. It's kind of a little above his reading grade, and so there are long sections. You look at Fellowship for example, and after Gandalf gets there, it's a long time before they leave the Shire. It's like 100 pages, and you watch the movies for example, and it happens immediately.

It's kind of a good reminder of just what happens with adaptation, and that things exist differently. Every time you're recreating this story in a different medium, pacing changes, character emphasis changes, all of those things. Seeing it through, like going back to the books is always really useful, because it's just such a great touchstone for the themes that Tolkien was obsessed by, the subjects, that we really take to heart and try to retell again.

Speaking of adaptations, what was it like coming over to work on Shadow of War knowing that you would be able to work on a Tolkien video game?

You don't get that many opportunities in a lifetime to work in such a beloved world as Middle-earth, and the opportunity here is, not only is it Middle-earth, but the focus is Mordor. Not that much has been written about Mordor. You read Lord of the Rings, and there are a few conversations between orcs here and there, you go to Mordor, but the orcs are this kind of unknown population. That's where we really dive in, and we get to create this culture and civilization around the orcs. We put this undead man fighting this war, having to form alliances with orcs, and battle against them. It's their rightful gains, but it gives us the opportunity also to create new stories in this world that we really all love.

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I think Tolkien died in '73? Ever since then, it's been Christopher Tolkien and the estate publishing his stuff posthumously. It must be exciting to contribute to that, but flip side of that coin, it must be pretty daunting. Maybe intimidating.

Oh, absolutely. I think whenever you have an IP or a book series that is so beloved by a fanbase, you have to take that on board and realize that there's this kind of a handle with care there. Thankfully, the people who have worked on this game, the developers, we love Tolkien's work. We want to realize it in a different medium, and with I guess a more contemporary sensibility. I think the danger of adaptation is being too conservative, and being overly reverent, because I think that, it's safe in some respects, but I think you walk a path in which you create something that is dull, and doesn't work in the medium that you're creating it for.

Our number one priority is to make the most fun, enjoyable game that really feels like it comes from Tolkien's world, that it is Middle-earth, that these characters and themes are really recognizable, but realizing this [is a] different medium. That's been the objective. We have a lot of conversations here, sometimes sort of arguments over like, "Well, is this appropriate? Would we do this?" Sometimes you make a decision where, we realize, okay, we've been debating this for 15 minutes. Maybe that's a good thing, because I think the films that I've most enjoyed, the games that I've most enjoyed are ones in which you walk out, and there's so much to talk about.

When you look at someone's intention or someone's motivation, and two people can have very different viewpoints about what they were trying to accomplish, it lives on beyond the experience rather than something that like, "Okay, I've experienced that, completely digested it, and never have to think about it again." I think that's probably a mark of failure in a lot of ways, and it's what we've tried to avoid. We really want to put in as much content as possible that will really excite and motivate conversation and debate.

I used to imagine what was going through Peter Jackson's mind when he sat down. You know, there have been animated films of The Hobbit and Fellowship, and then I think there was the Return of the King one as well, but I was always wondering what went through his mind. Like, "How do I adapt this to a movie?" I can only imagine what would go through Monolith's minds when you're saying, "Not only how do I adapt that into something entertaining but also fun." Because the movies can be entertaining, but I wouldn't necessarily call them fun. They're not like lighthearted or anything, not that Shadow of Mordor is, but … if you were to make a game that's super, super faithful to the books, it would be a boring game.

Yeah, I'm not sure how fun it would be. I think you have to ... I think there were some decisions made at the outset that really put us in a strong position for making something that is well-suited to [a] third-person open-world action game. It's set in Mordor, so you are a human in Mordor, so you're kind of a sort of stranger in a strange land, and you're fighting this war, and everyone hates you. Everyone is trying to kill you. It's just sort of a setup that is perfect for gameplay.

Also we have this death mechanic that allowed us to really work with the themes of deathlessness in Tolkien's work, but adapt it to a medium where death is usually a fail point. Oh, I died, I got to do that again. No, time moves forward here, and you get to chase down your enemy, and create a continuous story that would usually have ended.

Unlike Boromir or Faramir, when I think Talion, I actually think of like an anti-hero, because I think he's more on a revenge quest than a heroic kind of odyssey, right? I was telling Michael, before I played Shadow of Mordor, I was always wondering, I was like, "I wish they would have a character in a Lord of the Rings game that would actually be an antihero and use evil power against the evil people." Because that's the fun part, and then in Shadow of War of course, you're forging your own ring, and you're getting really powerful, and you're building an army, and there's that strategy aspect to it. I know you weren't on the writing process for Shadow of Mordor, but for Shadow of War, was that kind of a conscious thought: How do we make this even more fun and expansive, but also how do we fit into these themes with Talion, with the setting, with what you're doing throughout your time in this game?

Yeah, absolutely. I think Shadow of Mordor was very much a revenge story. Talion's family is killed at the beginning, it's a very immediate event, and he's seeking vengeance for that. Our dual protagonist is formed at the beginning of that game, with Celebrimbor and Talion. A lot of Celebrimbor's time is trying to rediscover who he was. We pick up in Shadow of War with the forging of a new ring. They have a very solid objective: they're going to forge a new ring of power, and build an army of orcs, and take this war to Sauron. The stakes have been really widened to all of Middle-arth at this point.

Although in some ways, I think Talion's story is one of four in a lot of ways. He finds himself in Mordor; Celebrimbor as well. He's already fought a war against Sauron, he knows what it takes, and you find Talion in this position of asking himself, and he's fighting these monsters, these orcs, he's having to deal with the Nazgul, dealing with Shelob, and asking himself, "How much of a monster do I have to become in order to defeat these enemies?" Which is kind of a struggle in their relationship as well. There's a lot of drama that comes out of that in the course of Shadow of War.

I think people's sense of who Shelob is is one of the great spiders, and we could have done just that, sure. ... We really wanted to explore this character.

It was great in Shadow of Mordor, when they were first announcing, you're kind of showing off the characters, and then when we heard that Celebrimbor was in it, we were like, "Oh, that's a huge deal." Because obviously, I think was it like 1,000 years before Elrond, the alliance, marched against Sauron? It was the 1,000 years before that when Celebrimbor fought Sauron?

In the first war, yeah, after he forged the rings. Yeah, he stole the rings.

Then I'm like, "Okay, that's cool, he's in this game." I don't know who Talion is, obviously, but Celebrimbor, that's a name people know. Now I'm curious, I don't know how much experience you would have, when you're kind of figuring out what to put into this story, what's going to be faithful to the books or the movies, what's going to be faithful to the Tolkien license--did you have any interactions with Middle-earth Enterprises or do you mainly go through Warner Bros. or on the writing team?

I think everything is reviewed by Warner Bros., but also Middle-earth Enterprises. Every line of dialogue goes through them, every story arc; the story outlines are reviewed, and we get feedback and respond to that. They've been a great partner to work with on this. I think there's always a bigger question when we want to use a famous character from the original IP, or sometimes we'll create … We don't actually have that many characters from Lord of the Rings, for example, but you may have Gollum, for example. You really want to honor people's sense of who that character is, but sometimes you'll create a character like Eltarial, this elven assassin. We have references for how she might be, but we have how an elf might be, and how she might speak, and what her bearing might be. We'll later talk about the art that goes into that, for example, but all of that is reviewed ultimately by Middle Earth Enterprises.

There was some feedback when people saw this Shelob, who is traditionally a giant spider, and now she's this woman. What went into the process for playing with artistic liberties in that sense? Stuff like that, that some people might not think is faithful.

Oh yeah. I think people's sense of who Shelob is is one of the great spiders, and we could have done just that, sure. We could have had Shelob appear in great spider form, but she would have had a much smaller role in the game, ultimately. We really wanted to explore this character. If you look back at Two Towers for example, I think one of the first descriptions of Shelob is an evil thing in spider form. It's an interesting way to describe this creature, a spider form. Not just a spider, or a great spider, and so it feels like it's chosen [that form] in a way.

Her mother was Ungoliant, who it's suggested is a Maiar, but this kind of primordial being, all powerful. Shelob is the daughter of Ungoliant. We kind of ran with that idea of a creature that could transform itself, depending on the context--we have done that in the first game with Sauron in fear form. Sauron has his war form and he has his fear form, and Shelob, you could think of the spider as Shelob's war form, and her fear form she uses when she counsels Talion. She can read the web of fate. We see her as this kind of dark oracle, a sort of dark Galadriel who can see the future and guide his path.

We thought there was a lot to explore there, and we could do that with a humanoid representation. We're not saying she is a woman; maybe she goes back between the two. It's very clear from the outset that this is a form that she takes when she communicates with Talion. It allowed us to do a lot more with the story, it allowed us to use her in a more meaningful way in the story.

It kind of reminds me of--when you say in spider form, I always think of It.

That's a really, yeah, I mean--spoilers--but it is an actually great contemporary reference. Because these are sort of archaic icons in a way, these creatures that inspire terror in humanity, these ancient, monstrous forms. Shelob is just that, it's just sort of if she had appeared in spider form and remained in spider form, and then she's going to guide Talion on his path in the future, what actions he might want to take with the siege of Minas Ithil. I think this is not something that could probably be dramatically supported over the long haul. People generally don't trust monsters when they appear in monstrous form. I think you have to give it more breadth, and explore what this character, the other dimensions of what this character could be, and that's what we were trying to do in Shadow of War.

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Talking about It, I feel like one of the big themes of Shadow of Mordor and a lot of Tolkien stuff is fear, and how that plays into it. You mentioned the themes. What are the big touchstones in terms of themes that you felt between the books, the movies, and bringing them into video games? What are some of those major ones that you really wanted to hit with Shadow of War?

Speaking of the themes, I think the major theme that we explore in Shadow of War is probably the idea of deathlessness, because our character is kind of this undead human who can die and return over and over. Where's our ring of power? The promise of the rings is one of, it's not necessarily immortality; it's deathlessness. It's this kind of weird intermediate state between the two. There's the temptation of power in the rings that kind of speaks to the fall of so many characters before--Talion and Boromir and Gollum, characters like that.

I think we really wanted to explore the cost of deathlessness. Sure, it will allow you to accomplish certain goals, but at what cost? That was I think an important one, especially through Talion, through Gollum, but also through the Nazgul; we get to explore their back stories in Shadow of War ... little is said in the books about the identities of who these kings of men were. We get to explore that a little further. These were men corrupted by the power of the rings, and [who] became these kind of undead creatures, these monstrous lieutenants of Sauron.

I think another theme that, it's probably not spoken of a lot, but it was one of Tolkien's main subjects, was friendship or fellowship. This idea of camaraderie and bonds that are forged in war, or through adversity. You think of Lord of the Rings, but you think when we start our game with the siege of Minas Ithil, and Talion has been undead. For a while now, he's in a way losing his humanity, and I think he senses that. When he forms these friendships with characters like these Gondorian lieutenants, like Idril and Boromir, it's a way to reconnect with that lost humanity, but also he's forming these alliances in a way that he did when he was alive t the Black Gate with his fellow soldiers. Even in the first game, I think that was explored with characters like Ratbag, and we get to do that a little more in Shadow of War.

What's it like to know you can look back and say that you added to this universe that you kind of fell in love with through literature, and then it's the most iconic fantasy franchise? Game of Thrones is up there, but it's not Lord of the Rings, it's not Middle-earth, right? What is it like to know that you can look back and know that you added to that world?

Well, the experience of working on this game, and there are projects where you get to work on an IP like this, and it might not be the best version of it. I think we are so lucky at Monolith; we have put together a team of people who are incredibly talented and collaborative, who created this great game in Shadow of Mordor, and really wanted to expand the scale and depth of the game in Shadow of War. My experience coming in as a writer on this team was, it's something I'm always going to sort of cherish in a way. You know? Who knows how the game will do when it comes out, but the experience of having worked on it, and it's an honor, and it's humbling, and it's the sort of thing that you do this job for.

Do you wish that at some point in your life you could do something with the Silmarillion?

That would be fun. I think there's ... [I] don't want to go into the various license agreements and what we can work on, and what we can't work on, but yeah. To be able to work on everything that Tolkien wrote really expands the canvas. We have a pretty good chunk in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. There are so many characters and themes that are touched on in the appendices, and just those stories that there's no shortage of material for us to work in.

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Chris Pereira

Chris Pereira is GameSpot's engagement editor. He likes Twin Peaks, The X-Files (before it was bad), and serial commas.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War

Middle-earth: Shadow of War

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