My column this week is not a work of subtlety. This is one of those cases where I went in thinking I was just going to critique a few points, but the more I analyzed the story the more outrageous it seemed. Usually writing a column is cathartic, but this one made me angry to write.
Now, maybe you’ll argue that Tolkien is fundamentally incompatible with a visceral Arkham-style empowerment fantasy. But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine we’ve been given that very job by a clueless but well-meaning executive. Arkham gameplay is popular, LOTR is popular, they have the license, and it smells like money to them. We can’t do anything to change this, so how can we make the best of a tough situation?
If I wanted something fitting tonally and thematically with LOTR, I guess I’d begin with the idea of the Dàºnedain, or (even better) an Elf. The rangers regularly protected places like Bree, and did so in secret. They didn’t want the glory of being heroes (and such glory is corruptive anyway, as the protected have a tendency to ask you to be their leader) and they didn’t want common folk to live in fear. This gives us an excellent setup for a lone protagonist who lives in the wilderness and fights against evil alone, which is exactly the scenario this game demands.
Being an Elf or a man of the west, we have someone who we can broadly justify as being far stronger than typical men. If we can get marketing to let us make the protagonist an elf, then we can even hand-wave the whole “no game over screen” by just saying that elves are immortal. (Immortality doesn’t really work that way in the books, but this isn’t any more of a compromise than what Shadow of Mordor gives us.) I’d also fight hard to make the protagonist female, if only to make them unique. Talion is SO much a boring dudebro, and anyone with common sense should realize that having a unique and iconic character is an asset. PR would shoot this idea down in the end, but I’d try. Maybe I could at least get them to have the protagonist wear some color. And if they’re going to be a man, then they should at least have a beard. That’s slightly unusual(ish) and is appropriate for someone who lives in the wild.
The story would be small-scale, limited to some sub-section of either Rohan or Gondor.
Like Batman, our central character would be more or less a fixed element. They wouldn’t go through any huge transformative arc. Someone who is hundreds of years old isn’t likely to experience rapid changes anyway. Our protagonist can be stoic, calm, pragmatic, and extremely slow to anger. They would serve as a foil for the people having character arcs around them: The humans they’re protecting. Orcs invade the human territories in numbers, our hero intervenes, is discovered by the locals, and this drives our drama.
Some people people want the hero to go away, distrusting strange foreigners. Some have too much pride to accept help, even though they are completely outmatched and need our hero. Others don’t want to believe the Orc threat is real. Others dive into hero worship and want the hero to lead them openly. Others want to turn to “magic” (the arts of evil) to protect them, echoing the mistake of Boromir. These conflicting viewpoints form the conflict that drives the story of the game, with our hero doing various deeds to gather intel, build trust, preserve life, and forestall the enemy. All of this would fit with the existing gameplay: Infiltrate strongholds, save prisoners, assassinate leaders, recover baubles, and slay tons of Orcs. At the end the player will have built friendship and trust, which are (in Tolkien) powerful forces.
The bad guys? They don’t get any arcs. They are a fixed thing, an impending doom. A force of nature. The only stories we get from them are the ones that emerge from the nemesis system. (The best part of Shadow of Mordor.)
But Shamus, who cares about a small region? We wouldn’t get to save the save the world! We wouldn’t get to stab Satan at the end! This is so booooring.
Yes, PR department, I know you think stories need to be epic scale to be good, but The Shire was a very small and unimportant place, and the audience managed to care about it very deeply because they saw it through the eyes of the Hobbits. It’s actually way easier to get the audience to care about a single farmhouse of interesting characters than care about “all the unseen people of Middle-Earth”. TellTale managed to make a game where your job is to protect just one person, and it was one of the most emotionally powerful games ever made. If we fill the world with interesting characters that we care about, then the player won’t feel like their job is unimportant.
It’s not perfect, but that’s how I’d handle a job like this.
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The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?