tolkien

A Ghost in the Machine: The Specter of Literature in EA’s Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor (12 February 2016)

One of the most compelling aspects of studying literature is uncovering the ways society and popular media adapt, adopt, reboot, and reimagine classic literary texts and genres into “new” (and more marketable) media forms—for better or for worse. One of my favorite trans-media adaptations of the last few years has been Electronic Art’s 2014 videogame Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor, an open-world adventure game that takes place in the rich, fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. This week I will be discussing how Tolkien’s literary texts literally “haunt” this videogame through the character Celebrimbor. Through this figure, I also consider what the ghostly presence of the book as an instance of “old media” can tell us about the future of fiction in an age of new media.

Media culture has its share of weak literary adaptations, some that distort or ignore the world of their origination, and some that are so geeked-out with hidden references and inside jokes that they become inaccessible to casual fans. Shadow of Mordor is unique in that it strikes a perfect balance between Tolkien’s literary world and the game’s player-focused digital narrative.  While one might expect a game based on books as popular as Tolkien’s to rely heavily on a teleological and novelistic plot, Shadow of Mordor’s open-world design allows the player to explore freely while choosing their own path through the loose narrative framework of the game. In a review for Kotaku, Yannick LeJacq writes “Mordor wants to be great game more than a satisfying bit of fan-service,” adding that “the game gracefully manages to keep the fiction of its own universe at arm’s length throughout” (Kotaku). While at first it appears that the rich history of Tolkien’s world—a deep fantasy universe that is founded on generations of unique internal histories—has been vacated in favor of a favorable playing experience, taking a closer look at the mechanics of the game reveals the fascinating and ghostly presence of Tolkien’s literary texts. Interestingly, Tolkien’s literary influence shows primarily through the game’s design and play-mechanics rather than through the narrative, and it is through these aspects of play that Shadow of Mordor is able to contribute to, rather than appropriate, Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The avatar through which players navigate the game is Talion, a ranger character invented specifically for the game.  The game begins with Talion witnessing his family’s ritual sacrifice by the evil minions of Sauron (the antagonist of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) before being killed himself. After his death, Talion enters the spirit world and confronts the ghost of Celebrimbor, an elven ring-maker whom Sauron had also murdered long ago. Fans of Tolkien’s novels might know that Celebrimbor is an essential, if somewhat peripheral, character. As the most talented ring-maker of the Second Age, it is Celebrimbor that forges the magical ring from which Sauron derives his power over others. This makes Celebrimbor a small, but key component to the development of Tolkien’s universe, which revolves around the struggle to destroy the ring of power and arrest Sauron’s dark influence. In Shadow of Mordor, it is through Celebrimbor’s presence that Tolkien’s literary universe interacts with the game-world inhabited by the player.  (picture 2: player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right))

mcb2f2

Player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right)

Talion, who is a human (like the player) is summarily possessed by the “wraith” of Celebrimbor, and it is this interaction with the spirit world that grants Talion and the player special powers they can use to explore the environment and history of the game-world they inhabit. Seeing through Celebrimbor’s “wraith vision” allows the player to track the footprints of enemies, locate hidden relics, and restore once great ruins to their previous glory.  It is through Celebrimbor, the ghostly remnant of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, that the game’s material history—including its foundations in a literary past now overshadowed by a decade of film and videogame adaptations—becomes accessible to the player.  By joining the player-avatar Talion with Celebrimbor, the ludic dimension of the game-text and it’s literary history become one. And while a player may feel as if they have left the rigid history of Tolkien super-fandom behind, Celebrimbor’s ghost is always haunting the edges of the player’s experience, pointing out the undeniable link between history and the present.

Perhaps Shadow of Mordor’s most compelling aspect for gamers is its innovative Nemesis engine, a system of play that imbues the world of the game with a type of material and historical memory.

mcb2f3

Screen capture of the Nemesis system

The Nemesis system allows Talion’s enemies to “remember” when they have been defeated and, more insidiously, when they have defeated the player. This means that when encountering a seemingly random enemy in the free-roaming world of the game, the player often comes face-to-face with an enemy that bears the scars of past battles and holds a grudge. When Talion is killed in combat, the enemy who strikes the final blow gains a powerful boost in their statistics and may even be promoted to a higher rank in the feudal system of Sauron’s army. This means that mistakes and challenging encounters, which in most games could be forgotten by re-loading a save, create a long-lasting impact on the difficulty and narrative experience of the game.

mcb2f4

A victorious Orc is promoted to War Chief

As many reviewers have noted, the Nemesis system gives the game an entirely new dimension, turning enemies that have long been portrayed as faceless, nameless grunts of Sauron’s evil army into well-known and despised villains with unique personalities determined by their personal history with the player. Strangely, the Nemesis system—designed to create even more provoking villains—serves to “humanize” Sauron’s army in a way, providing a new perspective on the often-ignored minor antagonists of Tolkien’s world.  The Nemesis system makes the materiality of Tolkien’s world a framework for the experience of the game-world. Rather than forcing the player to re-live a pixelated version of Tolkien’s novelized history of Middle-Earth, the free-range, “sand-box” style of the game combined with the Nemesis system gives players agency in discovering, and even creating for themselves, new depths to Tolkien’s work. Even as the player experiences the freedom and pleasure of writing their own adventure in Tolkien’s world, the phantom of the text is always there beside them, guiding them through Celebrimbor’s voice or framing the materiality of Tolkien’s influence through Nemesis. In this way, Shadow of Mordor makes its most interesting contribution back to Tolkien’s literary world.

Inhabiting the ghostly margins of their new media forms, the phantoms of our favorite books are capable of transforming our understanding of literature by shaping new and immersive narrative experiences.


Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.