Middle-earth meets Marston
When you think of Middle-earth, you tend to think of intrepid Hobbits scaling Mount Doom, preening Elves who look suspiciously like Orlando Bloom boasting of their combat skills, and Gandalf the Grey puffing his pipe in the meadows of the Shire. Red Dead Redemption’s gruff Old West outlaw John Marston isn’t exactly the kind of guy who’d be palling around with Legolas, right?
The developers at Monolith Productions take a different view. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is an open-world action-adventure that trends closer to Rockstar’s landmark titles than the typical slashing swords and linear design that have come to define many Middle-earth videogames.
“Red Dead, in many ways—in the storytelling, in the mission structure—was really a reference for us,” says director of design Mike De Plater. “John Marston is such a great character, because he’s very authored and very real but also someone that you can actually project quite a lot of yourself onto and into. We really wanted that same thing, where people felt they had freedom and they could immerse themselves in this character, but he would also have a very strong identify and be able to carry the story as well.”
When the time came to create an open-world adventure set in Tolkien’s sprawling universe, Monolith tapped Christian Cantamessa as lead writer. If you don’t recognize the name, he was a writer and lead designer on Red Dead Redemption and also worked as a level designer on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If Monolith was looking to bring credibility to the project, bringing in a developer who played a key role in two of the most lauded open-world games of the past decade was an instant way to get people’s attention and interest.
True to the Read Dead inspiration, Shadow of Mordor won’t put players in the hairy feet of a wide-eyed Hobbit or the pointy ears of a wisecracking Dwarf. Instead, a brooding Ranger of the Black Gate named Talion takes center stage. He’s endured unbelievable hardship as Sauron rises to power in the dark time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—and now has to share his mind and body with a Wraith. While this creature grants Talion several powers, including the ability to enter the Wraith-world, the two protagonists don’t exactly share an altruistic relationship. And in a departure from previous Lord of the Rings fare, this quest takes entirely within a single realm: Mordor.
“The Wraith is a separate entity that has its own motivations and goals,” De Plater reveals. “It’s very much being awakened and brought back because of the return of Sauron, so there’s sort of a history there that we get into as it learns more of its own past. The story really delves into the concept of the Rings of Power and the concept of what power is. There’s that point in Fellowship of the Ring where Boromir says that he would’ve taken the One Ring and walked into Mordor to use the weapon of the enemy against it. We want to be really authentic to those themes and those ideas in Tolkien.”
De Plater, a Sydney native who’s worked on an absurdly diverse set of games over the years—Aussie rules football, strategy titles like Rome: Total War, and Tom Clancy’s EndWar are just a sampling—says that joining Monolith to work on Shadow of Mordor is exactly the kind of challenge he’s looking for after two decades in game development.
“This is the genre that, personally, for me, is the most exciting,” he says. “I feel like I’m really lucky here. I’ve been working toward the opportunity to get to work on something like this.”
His experience with sports games, in fact, provided an excellent foundation for developing Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system, which takes some cues from games like Madden in creating a stable of antagonists with different skills, abilities, and motivations. Players can even use the power of the Wraith to “possess” the enemy and take a look at its “lineup” of various chefs (yep, someone’s gotta do the cooking in Sauron’s camps), soldiers, and war chiefs. It’s this system, along with the story and core combat, that De Plater says are the “standout pillars” that separate the game from other open-world titles. If you happen to burn the face of an angry Orc, he’ll remember—and so will his comrades-in-arms.
“It’s a very dog-eat-dog environment. Within Mordor, any enemy in the world has the potential to work his way up through the ranks to battle his way up into a position of power,” De Plater says. “The relationship you have with your enemies in the game, the fact that they remember you, they acknowledge you, they change, and they adapt truly does feel like a living world and a society with your own villains growing out of it.”
While some Lord of the Rings fans might be disappointed they can’t craft their own individual Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit in the vein of Saints Row and tackle this open-world adventure, De Plater says that since the narrative plays such as integral role in Shadow of Mordor, the developers knew they needed a strong protagonist to anchor the proceedings.
“We really wanted a main character,” he explains. “If players were just going to run around in the procedural world, absolutely, the benefit would be for them to be whoever they wanted to be, but the story and the cinematics are very authored and really do have a strong role. We wanted to be able to tell a standalone story with really high stakes. We didn’t want to tell, in any way, a B-story or a side story or guys who were a bit like the Fellowship but went off somewhere else.”
While Shadow of Mordor‘s 90-minute hands-off demo certainly looked impressive, I couldn’t help but wonder whether an entire game spent in this bleak, helpless realm would be overwhelming to fans more accustomed to the diversity of Tolkien’s settings. In particular, players weaned on Peter Jackson’s movies expect to encounter places like Hobbiton, Rivendell, and Rohan. De Plater notes that humor will play a role in keeping the environment from getting too oppressive, but he also points out that Mordor is more than the intimidating presence of the Black Gate.
“I think a big part of setting the game entirely in Mordor was finding somewhere that’s just so central, so iconic, and so fundamental,” he says. “One of the things about Mordor is that it’s really large. It’s bigger than Washington [state], so you’re able to explore deeper and experience a real diversity of different landscapes and environments. Sauron has to feed his army, right? There have to be places to grow the food. There have to be fertile places. For example, there’s the Sea of Núrnen in the south, so you’ll actually get to explore a diversity of locations—places that aren’t just arid but are actually quite lush as well. When you go and see something that is very lush, and it’s still within Mordor, it’s really striking—but it’s still authentic to Tolkien’s world.”