Where are all the idyllic Lord of the Rings games?

How game designers are missing the point with all these grimdark Lord of the Rings adaptations

Aidan Moher
May 4, 2020 · 9 min read

One of my great gaming guilty pleasures was the 2003 adaptation of The Hobbit. It wasn’t great — in fact, it was pretty a bad action platformer — but it allowed me to do something I’d never been able to do before (outside of the abysmal Fellowship of the Ring game on Super Nintendo, which is better left unmentioned): explore Middle-earth on my own. Of course my mind had wandered the fields of The Shire and the forests of Lorien and the caverns of the Misty Mountains for years, but digitally exploring every nook and cranny in Bag End was exhilarating and a whole new way to enjoy Tolkien’s world without the guiding hand of an authorial voice.

17 years later — the tone of Middle-earth-based games has changed.

Screenshot from Daedlic Entertainment’s Lord of the Rings: Gollum

The first screenshots from Daedalic Entertainment’s Lord of the Rings: Gollum appeared online today, and my first thought, besides being curious what a game might look like when it’s targeting next gen consoles, was a deep sigh of disappointment. Besides one single screenshot of a bright, earthy Mirkwood, the screenshots looked a lot like what I’ve come to expect from Middle-earth games over the past decade: dark, gritty, and unpleasant.

From 2004’s Battle for Middle-earth to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, Tolkien’s beautiful world has become decidedly… violent.

My guess given Daedalic’s history with point-and-click adventures is that Lord of the Rings: Gollum will be focused on exploration and stealth, but Gollum’s been known to shank a goblin or two, and I’ve yet to meet a developer who can resist the urge to marry their stealth mechanic with gratuitous and ever-inventive stealth kills. But games need to have gameplay, and ganking goblins in the dark fits the narrative of Gollum’s unfortunate life, so, fine. I get it. The reason for my sigh, however, is that once again we’re getting a Middle-earth game that attempts to explore the world’s dark side, instead of the elements that made us all fall in love with it in the first place. We all want to live in Rivendell, but instead we always get angry Mordor, grim industrialism, and enough red and black to suit a vampire.

The most interesting element of Gollum’s journey through Lord of the Rings is the Smeagol’s his ultimate failure to find redemption. I’m judging this on only a few screenshots, and perhaps Daedalic will surprise me by exploring the cost of power and Smeagol’s lost humanity due to the ring’s evil effects. Maybe. The period between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (which is when this game appears to be set, given Gollum’s appearance in Mirkwood and Mordor) is a dark time in the former Stoor’s life, and it’s not until his journey with Frodo that Smeagol — and any goodness therein, for Smeagol was a jealous and greedy Stoor — fights his way to the surface. And even then, Gollum’s journey ends with greed, pain, and death.

Lord of the Rings examines how trauma and sacrifices change people.

Gollum could not change.

Screenshot of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor from The Verge

The most notable Lord of the Rings game of all time is WB Games’ Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, which raked in 2014 Game of the Year awards from major gaming publications like Giant Bomb and GameSpot. It’s a third-person open world action-adventure video game set deep in Mordor, and players control a ranger named Talion who is out for blood after Sauron’s minions slay his wife and child. The game was lauded for its open world and “Nemesis” system, which attempts to create a unique experience for each player. “It creates a command hierarchy of orc war chiefs, and several layers of captains underneath them, who dynamically move around the game world, undertaking their own missions to gain in power — unless you put them down first,” explained Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker in his review.

Like Mordor itself, Shadow of Mordor is a game steeped in violence. Its story, world, and systems are built on violence as a solution.

It is a game about violence.

In his piece “Shadow of Mordor’ is morally repulsive and I can’t stop playing it” for The Verge, Chris Plante said:

As I watched my character revenge the death of his wife and son by furiously lunging a blade in and out and into a lifeless Uruk corpse, scaring away the few Uruks that survived his wrath, it hit me: I’m pretending to be a murderer and a torturer, a man who dabbles in terrorism and slavery to somehow right a personal wrongdoing. I’m the Jack Bauer of Mordor.

And like watching Jack Bauer wreak havoc on the threats against America at all cost, I perversely enjoyed almost every moment of it — until a graphic beheading broke whatever mental barrier I have that says, “What the hell is happening here?”

I think that’s because there’s something dangerous and appealing about fear — a weapon of politicians, terrorists, and guerrilla soldiers alike. Fear is the heart of the Shadow of Mordor

There never was much hope, Gandalf tells Pippin, but minuscule as that hope was, it gave the Fellowship power. Even as it all dwindled outside the Black Gate, Aragorn led a charge against Sauron’s forces with just a glimmer of hope to push him toward certain death. As Sam carried Frodo up Mt. Doom, he hoped, beyond all possibility, that somehow they would make it to the top and everything would turn out all right.

There was no hope, but they pushed forward anyway.

And that, of course, proves Gandalf wrong. Because even the smallest glimmer of hope outweighs a world’s weight of fear.

Fear is not at the heart of Tolkien’s story, because if it was, if it won out over hope, Frodo never would have taken up the ring at Rivendell, the Fellowship would have disbanded after Gandalf’s death, and Sam would have keeled over at the foot of Mount Doom, his Frodo consumed by the ring.

If fear is at Shadow of Mordor’s heart, then it is not Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

“It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

Plante concludes his piece about Shadow of Mordor with a brilliant quote from Morgoth’s Ring (brought to his attention by Sarah Stoll) that encapsulates the dichotomy between Tolkien’s work and that of the game developers and publishers who are using his world as a playground for violence.

[Even Orcs] must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery. Captives must not be tormented, not even to discover information for the defence of the homes of Elves and Men. If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost.

This, of course, was also a problem that plagued Peter Jackson’s maligned adaptation of The Hobbit. Pressured by Hollywood to produce something with the scope of his mega-successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson helmed an adaptation of Tolkien’s children’s book that was dark and excessively violent, loaded with bloated new content relying on themes not found in Tolkien’s original work.

It took The Hobbit and turned it into something it was not.

That’s not to say I don’t believe there’s room for game narratives examining war, green, power, and those other themes that were important in Tolkien’s work, and I don’t begrudge Shadows of Mordor its success, but when that’s all we’re getting it becomes a little tiresome. There are so many other IPs out there, and Lord of the Rings is so vast, that it feels like a poor fit to continuously get games that seem to forget that Tolkien wanted to build a world people cared about.

Christopher Tolkien was notoriously stingy when it came to licensing out Middle-earth. Maybe he was right. Not that the books weren’t ripe to adapt into all mediums, but that those adaptations would miss the point of his father’s work.

One of my greatest gaming memories is wandering The Shire in Lord of the Rings Online. I’d had a lot of experience with other MMORPGs like Asheron’s Call and World of Warcraft to that point. I came to love those worlds, too, if not quite as intensely as Middle-Earth, but there was some cathartic about peeking in and out of hobbit holes in Hobbiton, exploring the Great Smials in Tookland, and getting lose in the Old Forest behind Crickhollow.

This took my experience playing The Hobbit to another level completely. Not only were the major landmarks like Bag End and The Green Dragon, but the world was also full of little places and small details, hidden corners that I could convince myself were mine alone. Where The Hobbit felt like a gameworld, this felt like something living and breathing. Like the Middle-earth that for decades had lived inside my head had suddenly come alive in my screen.

I never left The Shire with my hobbit. Like Bilbo before he met Gandalf, I was entirely content to spend my time within the borders of that lovely country, unconcerned by the world outside.

It was a world I cared about because of its goodness.

Lord of the Rings Online is now available to start for free, and I highly recommend creating a Hobbit character and spending several hours in The Shire.

Art by Clae Carlson

War and violence are, of course, part of Lord of the Rings — and even its predecessor, a children’s novel — but they are also used by Tolkien as a framing device to make a larger point about the world: We must always remember what we’re fighting for.

Tolkien’s abhorrence of war based on his own experience is threaded throughout Lord of the Rings’ every layer. It’s stitched throughout the narrative so thoroughly that to try to divest it from the work would leave the rest in shambles, a pile of disparate cloth scraps. As I’ve written about before, I believe the whole point of Lord of the Rings was to show the reader a world and people worth the fighting. Its entire structure was based around moving the reader slowly through Middle-Earth, so that they became accustomed with its beauty and the goodness of its people.

Where are the games that do this?

Give me a farming and friendship sim set in The Shire. Give me a 4X game where I get to trade iron with the dwarves in the Blue Mountains and cotton with the traders of Dol Amroth. Give me a walking sim set in Lorien. Give me a Tapper clone where I get to sling beer at The Prancing Pony (avoiding Bill Ferny, of course.) Give me a rhythm game set during a Rivendell poetry jam session. Give me a point-and-click adventure game where I have to utilize the unique abilities of 13 dwarves and a hobbit with a magic ring to escape the Elven dungeons in Mirkwood.

Give me a Lord of the Rings game that shows me a world that’s worth fighting for, but has no fighting at all.

Insert Cartridge

Old games, new thoughts

Aidan Moher

Written by

Hugo Award-winning writer with work in Kotaku, EGM, Uncanny Magazine, and Tor.com. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and kids.

Insert Cartridge

A blog about old games, JRPGs, and gaming as an adult.

Aidan Moher

Written by

Hugo Award-winning writer with work in Kotaku, EGM, Uncanny Magazine, and Tor.com. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and kids.

Insert Cartridge

A blog about old games, JRPGs, and gaming as an adult.

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