As a fiction writer, I am most interested in world-building. Last year, I was bowled over by Irrational Game’s “Bioshock Infinite” which is a work of art so mind-bending and smart that I think everyone, gamer or not, should experience it. The world of “Bioshock Infinite” is so socially and politically complete that when the game reaches for an emotional response, you—not just the player, but the main character (because you are the main character)—are invested enough to really care. Maybe even cry. Am I admitting a game has made me get a little blubbery? Yes. Rockstar’s “Red Dead Redemption,” one of the finest sandbox games ever made, also had me wiping tears from my cheeks.
Which brings us to a “Lord of the Rings” game that may not have made me weep, but still, I can’t help but note there is something remarkable happening inside the world of “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor,” the new action-RPG (role-playing game) from WB Games.
The story takes place between the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” You play as a character named Talion, a ranger who is killed, along with his family, by Sauron’s armies at the very beginning of the game. It’s a tough scene, so that when you are brought back to life by a wraith (Imagine a ghostly elf who possesses you and gives you time-slowing abilities so you can loose an arrow into a moving target’s face from 40 feet away. Neat! Thanks, ghost-elf), you are ready for revenge.
Throughout the game you discover that you are bonded to this elf in deeper ways than you initially imagined, giving a nice twist to the classic revenge story and fostering the dynamic of the game. It makes sense that you can die over and over because you’re undead and somewhat immortal to start with. And yes, you will die a lot. You’ve been brought back to the living world not just to avenge your family but to help the elf do the same. Maybe he’s using you, but who cares—you’re having too much fun gutting hundreds of armor-clad Uruks (orcs).
The bulk of the experience is hunting down Sauron’s armies and the wildly different classes within it. You can pull up an index of wart-covered captains and warchiefs, choose your target, and hunt them down. You take out as many Uruks within the captain’s camp or stronghold—using stealth or blowing up bonfires to burn three to four Uruks at a time—then make your final push to assassinate their leader. This isn’t an entirely unique feature, but again, it drives the revenge narrative and adds incentive to “hunt every last snot-nosed gremlin down.” Then you try to kill all 10 of the warchiefs. Once those assholes are dismembered, you can defeat Sauron’s army.
If that was all that “Shadow of Mordor” facilitated, then it would be a standard hack-and-slash action game. But, what still impresses me is what the developers are calling the “Nemesis System.” If that Captain you targeted drove his axe through your skull and you died, he would be promoted to a higher rank in the army’s class system. He would gain power and be harder to kill. Better yet, next time you encounter him, he will taunt you, saying, “Oh look, the ranger is back from the dead . . . ,” followed by somewhat witty dialogue. His underlings chant his name as he approaches. The effect is compelling. You start believing these Uruks not only have personalities, but are interact among themselves offscreen. After a battle, you can see how your win or loss has affected the army’s class system. The Uruks even battle each other for advancement within their army.
It’s a clever and dynamic feature. I’ll risk a few reputation points and say that the Nemesis System might change the way people develop RPGs. There’s just so much to build on now that this logic exists, turning a game from a novel with a main character and a bunch of obstacles, to a game with many characters and a believable world. When you are world-building, these are the systems that make the player believe in the space as a real place. They are what make you care. “Shadow of Mordor” may not be at the level of literature yet, but it works well enough for me to keep playing and, when I’m done, invite people to decapitate a few dozen warchiefs within the shadows of Mordor.
Justin Sirois is the author of the series “So Say the Waiters.”