I have been a J.R.R. Tolkien fanatic since I first read The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade. Aside from the Bible, I’ve read that series more than any other book. I’ve also sampled a fair number of video games based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, most of which have been like shiny gift boxes containing a serviceable pair of used socks. So I was moderately surprised to discover that the new big-budget game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor did not leave me feeling disappointed, even if it still misses the mark in one important way.
The challenge for such games is to capture the mytho-poetic atmosphere that Tolkien loved. And for Christians, this is directly related to the challenge video games face in capturing the essence of the Bible and sacred narratives.
Tolkien believed that the worlds he created in narrative fiction could capture the mysteries of life and excite readers about noble sacrifice, inhuman beauty and unearthly wonder. Video games excel at world building, but generally in a different sort of way. Games are great at making imaginary spaces tangible: gamers can poke and prod these worlds. The necessity of making things playable, however, frequently kills a game’s capacity for mystery. We can precisely quantify a wizard’s spells, so that heroism becomes a matter of accurate calculation. The necessity of play also poses a problem: hew too closely to the book and there’s no room for players to make a difference; open things up too much and we destroy the power of the original.
Shadow of Mordor elides this last problem very cleverly: it avoids touching on any events Tolkien wrote about in detail. The game is set in the lands the author describes, but in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And clearly the developers are fans: although the game invents some flora and fauna not found in Tolkien’s writing, nothing contradicts the original vision of his world.
If we want to see video games reach the capacity to represent mythical and religious narratives, we would do well to consider the limitations of fun.
At first, I felt that perhaps the game’s story was too dark and tragic for Tolkien, who loved unexpected, happy plot twists. Shadow of Mordor follows the warrior Talion, who dies an awful death at the very outset of the game only to discover he is trapped in a sort of purgatory. Talion embarks on a seemingly hopeless quest to exact vengeance on the evil sorcerer who prevented him from reaching his final rest. In spite of my initial misgivings, the more I played the more I realized this game was in tune with the tragic side of Tolkien, especially The Silmarillion, which is full of similarly bloody and depressing tales.
The gameplay is also in tune with Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as Shadow of Mordor is mostly about hunting evil orcs. The tribal dynamics of the orcs are particularly faithful, with captains brutally vying with each other for violent dominance. And while the exceptionally gory graphics might seem more fitting for low-budget slasher films, it is not far off from the brutality we find in the pages of The Lord of the Rings.
Yet after many hours of playing the game, I finally put my finger on what troubled me about it. As I charged across the land on the back of a carragor (a vicious, lion-sized beast that looks like a cross between a cat and a lizard) mowing orcs to the ground with my wildly swinging sword, I suddenly realized how much I was enjoying this. And it was then that I understood the weakness of the game medium when it comes to capturing mythological poetry: it has to be fun.
Well, it doesn’t have to be. But to this point in game history, that’s what we’ve learned to expect. We associate play with frothy joy, with childlike wonder, with entertainment. If games aren’t fun, what good are they? Herein lies the challenge for making Tolkien-based games and, more importantly, for making games that take real faith seriously. I don’t think either is impossible, but because we expect fun and demand it, we get games that have a hard time dealing with profound, mystical and troubling things.
If we want to see video games reach the capacity to represent mythical and religious narratives - as writing, cinema, sculpture, stained glass and painted canvas have done - we would do well to consider the limitations of fun. Much as I enjoy entertainment, video games have the capacity for more.