While Shadow of Mordor offers a pretty fun gaming experience, it packages a whole bunch of problems within it. I’m personally sick of the trend of Dark Fantasy that embraces nihilistic despair. Shadows doesn’t go as far as most, but it tries to posture in that direction. But electing to not go the route of tragedy (which I’d wholeheartedly endorse), this posturing leaves one with a decidedly unsatisfying experience.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Thematic Review – Spoilers (suck it up) – 2/10
The tale is one of vengeance. Talion is named for the Lex Talionis, the rule of Eye for an Eye. You orcs killed my family, so I shall kill you. The elven spirit who possesses him turns out to be Celebrimbor, maker of the Rings of Power, who has his own axe to grind against Sauron for (surprise, surprise) killing his family.
Now, at first glance this can offer a pretty good tragic setup. Talion, driven mad by vengeance, will ultimately become everything he hates in an attempt to destroy the dark lord. It’s the story of Boromir but without the redemptive ending. Or maybe we could get some redemption towards the end?
We won’t find out, because the makers decided just to grab some low hanging fruit. All this vengeance stuff is only a vessel to explain away Talion’s powers and presence in Mordor. It ends there and thus becomes a weird albatross hanging from the story’s neck.
The writers know their Tolkien. They can’t do Tolkien, but they know him. They know that the theme of vengeance for vengeance sake is, to put it mildly, at odds with Tolkien’s vision. While vengeance is something present in his Legendarium, it’s reserved for the bad guys. And never is it united with more altruistic goals like saving an enslaved people.
Tolkien is about heroism, fighting and dying for the good. He cherishes weakness, celebrating the spirit’s transformation into something divine when united with the good, even if it may be seemingly destroyed by a superior evil. Yes, we see the might of an Aragorn and a Faramir, but we also see the courage of a Frodo, of a Sam! And though the evil is greater in might than all of them put together, it is dwarfed by the goodness they fight and fall for.
So this is the kind of guy Talion needs to be. And for all the vengeance talk, that’s what they make him. But this just muddies the waters.
Talion is kept mostly clean of anything more heinous than brutalizing every orc he comes across (which, let’s be honest, they had coming). He makes friends with an ex-ranger, he aids human slaves to gain freedom, he helps a dwarven hunter. He may be vengeful (ostensibly), but he’s also a good guy, you know? In general, this just leaves Talion a man of confused goals. Is he trying to avenge his family? Or is he trying to be free of his curse so he can be with them? Or is he trying to end Sauron’s dominion? Or is he trying to help the human exiles in Mordor? These aren’t exclusive aims, true, but as competing primary aims, this is really trying to have both the conflicted vigilante and the idealistic do-gooder in one package. And it doesn’t really work.
Now, for tragic potential, Celebrimbor, the elven spirit, offers a better character. He’s far more simple and thus, actually, more satisfying. Upon first possessing Talion, he doesn’t know who he is, beyond being a commanding jerk of an elf-spirit. Once he knows who he is, he becomes single-minded in his goal – finish off Sauron’s Captains. He is dismissive of Talion’s other goals, especially when they ignore his status as an undying. We are no longer of the living, he continually reminds him, and our goal is killing the Dark Captains.
But this a problem, especially at the end of the game. Once you’ve killed the Dark Captains and Celebrimbor has fully remembered that Sauron is the brutal murderer of his wife and daughter by beating, does he call to go after the Dark Lord? No. After the final battle, Celebrimbor seems to think this enough and the two can die peacefully. I’d expect this from Talion, but not Celebrimbor.
But it gives Talion a chance to be the heroic one. Talion appeals to Celebrimbor’s sense of duty – they can’t sit by when they may have the power to confront the Dark Lord. There’s a chance to go real tragic here, with Celebrimbor compelling Talion to give into complete vengeance and turn his eyes on Sauron (the path Celebrimbor had taken before his demire), but the game decides to favor Talion’s idealism.
All of this is to say I’m frustrated. The game never commits itself to a real path for the characters. Something like is allowable in a faceless-protagonist RPG, but Talion and Celebrimbor aren’t faceless. You need to make them into fully fleshed characters, not just leave them uncommitted tabula rasas. It makes the story wallow in an unsatisfying middle-ground of blech. Some may be foolish enough to call this a morally complex character – I call it bad writing.
The other characters and the missions they call you to, of helping the human slaves of mordor and hunting the monstrous beasts of the dark land, are never more than coat-racks upon which to hang the side-missions. Hirgon just leads you to locations to sneak around. Gollum (yep, he shows up) is simply a guide for fetch question. You never see a substantial uprising that is hinted at by the slave-rescue missions. Torvin the Dwarf is a fun diversion, but his talk of the hunt doesn’t even have thematic unity with the wider tale. Lethariel and her mother’s small kingdom never become more than the an amorphous, benevolent call to a better life and the tutorial for your mind controlling powers.
Of most concern to me is the implicit upending of Tolkien’s vision. While superficially keeping things heroic, especially by never really dirtying Talion, the whole crux of the game in dominating Orcish leaders to confront your enemies, to turn their power against them, is to fulfill the stories of Boromir and Denethor from original trilogy. Both ended badly. The game hintss in it’s ending ,and makes explicit in the sequel’s reveal trailer, that Talion and Celebrimbor will be forging a new Ring of Power and confronting Sauron with it. It ignores the true power of weakness. If gaming wants to be respected and live up to its sources, it needs to be able to confront and work with these themes.
It gets especially uncomfortable as Celebrimbor, when dominating Orcs or commanding them, uses language of light and leaving the darkness. But the orcs aren’t actually being enlightened, they are becoming slaves to a new master. This creates a kind of relativism – even the light, the good guys, are just a sort of monster. Yeah, this isn’t Tolkien.
While it may not go to the same degree, the thematic aesthetic Shadows smacks of the current trend of “Dark Fantasy” – Martin’s Game of Thrones being the most well known example. Such literature and media is marked by a world where there is no real good, evil is but a matter of selfish depravity, innocence and idealism are to be mocked and revealed as useless. Shadows of Mordor doesn’t go quite so far, admittedly. It’s a video game. They require a satisfying ending (or at least pretend to) and are ultimately appealing to a person’s sense of romantic adventure; so they mix in some odds-and-bits of goodness and light and ignore the despair – leaving one ultimately unsatisfied.
This all leaves me very frustrated. The pieces are here of something really good. Talion’s tale of vengeance is a perfect set up for a grand tragedy. He meets people along the way who could seek to tempt him further along the path or seek to bring him back to the light. What are his relations to the orcs? Does he actually bring “light” to them, sparking something left from before their corruption? Or are they truly just beasts with no hope of redemption? And does treating them as so many disposable soldiers do anything to his soul?
None of this is explored! Yes, it explains the gameplay, but it doesn’t do anything more. This makes everything tantamount to just so many rules. But without an actual sandbox aesthetic to the game, this just makes it so you’re killing time.
While the gameplay can be mindless fun, I can’t recommend the game for anything beyond that. With it’s failure to have a real meaty story or give some more context to its interesting Nemesis and Branding systems, it adds up to little more than a gussied up time-killer.