For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we've been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we're running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective. This week: A storytelling failure.
On a crag of volcanic rock, overlooking the wastes of Udun, I crouch silently in the rain, watching the orc hordes of Mordor milling around below me.
They march and they argue. They taunt their human slaves and, when they pass close enough, I can hear them talking about me — Talion, called Gravewalker, murdered Captain of Gondor brought back to life by magic and the influence of my mostly-invisible elf/wraith buddy, Celebrimbor, who is a ghost that lives in my head.
They fear me, these orcs. As they should. Thirty or so hours into the game and I am a Middle Earth murder machine, capable of slowing time, teleporting, exploding orc heads with my magical elf powers. I can orchestrate a ballet of death — by dagger, by sword, by bow and explosion and poison and mind-control — that is as ferocious as it is beautiful.
But instead, I sit still, watching, waiting. In the distance, my nemesis (my current nemesis, the one who hates me most for this ten minutes) walks in stupid circles, just out of my sight. His name is Malmug Face-Stabber. Or something like that. I forget exactly what he's called, because I have already hung so many of his kind on the end of my sword that they all blend together. He is Malmug The Plot Device, really. And as I sit and wait I wonder why the makers of Shadow Of Mordor didn't include a button that would make Talion sigh.
I am bored out of my elf-inhabited mind.
Which is a huge problem, right? Because when you have been given the gift of one of the richest, most affecting fantasy universes in which to set your hack-and-slash video game (J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, in case that wasn't obvious), then boredom should be impossible. I mean, you've got Sauron. You've got the One Ring, the Black Gate and a guest-starring appearance by Gollum himself. You've got Mount Doom actually smoldering there in the background of your world. And yet somehow I find myself bored and brooding upon the crags? What the hell has gone wrong?
Two things, really. Two early and fundamental mistakes that took whatever jumbled semblance of a lore-choked story Shadow Of Mordor might've had, and cut it off at the knees.
At the start of the game, Talion's wife, his son and then, ultimately, Talion himself are murdered by the Black Hand — the stand-in Big Bad in a Lord of the Rings-based game where Sauron, biggest of the Big Bads, never shows up. But that's not the problem.
The killings were a kind of ritual meant to summon the ghost of Celebrimbor (for reasons that won't be explained until hours later). But something goes wrong, and the elf-ghost (for reasons that are never really explained) ends up inside Talion, making him magical, super-grumpy and functionally immortal. But that's not the problem either.
Did I mention that Celebrimbor has amnesia? And that he can only get his memories back by making Talion go all over Mordor touching a bunch of stuff? Doing this triggers PTSD-style flashbacks and, in effect, turns Shadow Of Mordor into little more than a weird, very dark, high fantasy buddy-cop-story-slash-odd-couple-road-movie.
Yeah, that's the first mistake. And while the whole Main Character With Amnesia thing is a terrible way to drive the plot in any story, it's still only half the problem. The second mistake is, while already telling a Lethal Weapon: Middle Earth type of story so steeped in lore that you have to be a bona fide, Quenya-speaking Tolkien scholar just to get half the major references, the writers then chose the laziest of all possible plot devices to slow-walk the story forward: Talion is essentially instructed that he has to kill and kill and kill some more in order to get the attention of the bad guys.
That's just lazy. That's just bowing down before mechanics and gameplay, throwing in the towel as a writer, and saying, "You know what? Why try so hard when all anyone is going to care about is slaying orcs in Mordor?"
When it was released in 2013, the game got major props for its Nemesis System — an AI program that controls a large and tangled web of mini-bosses who are all constantly squabbling and scrambling for power while Talion is trying to murder his way to the endgame. Get defeated by an orc captain and he'll remember. He'll get stronger, seek you out and taunt you for losing to him.
And while, from a gameplay perspective, this is a blast, it does the game no favors in the storytelling department. Once it is introduced, every mission, every side quest, every everything becomes a murder marathon. Keep it going long enough, and it feels like fighting a spreadsheet. Like you're the most powerful bookkeeper in all the land.
And while reading Tolkien spinning a yarn about Gondor's mightiest accountant might've been amazing, being him (even with an amnesiac elf as a sidekick) is just not nearly as engaging as it should've been.