Mordor, We Wrote

When the creator of Bioshock fired up Shadow of Mordor, he didn’t expect Tolkien meets Arkham City meets Hamlet—or to discover a radical new kind of narrative form.

By Ken Levine
Illustration by Victor Kerlow

IN REVIEW:
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
(Monolith Productions)

I’ve directed two video games whose themes tangentially touch on a lie writers like me tell our players: that, when it comes to what they do in a game’s story, they have a choice.

When it comes to story in video games, at best there’s an illusion of choice. At worst, there’s no choice at all. In our work, we tried to say, Well, pal, you really don’t have a choice. So let’s see if we can use that concept to mess with your head. And hence was born the “Would you kindly” moment in BioShock, a moment in video game history primarily remembered for reminding us that, when it comes to player choice in narrative, our medium is limited indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. I think lots of games have choice. They just aren’t the games you think of as story games: Civilization, XCOM, Minecraft. It’s true that a kind of narrative forms in those amazing games. But it doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to traditional narrative, the kind you see in novels, plays, movies, and TV shows.

And as much as I love them I don’t believe games like Dragon Age, even with their branching paths and complex dialogue trees, offer truly player-driven narratives. Yes, there are a wide range of states the story can end up in, and a number of choices the player has, but those states pale in comparison to the number of states the gameplay exists in, meaning how many combinations of weapons, powers, characters, and so on you can control.

So two years ago, I started thinking about how to build a system to let story be as variable as gameplay and still be awesome in the way story can be awesome. Could you have characters, conflicts, and dialogue that could end not in 100 states, not in 1,000, but in X to the Y states? Goodbye linear, hello geometric! And that’s the new big thing that my colleagues and I have been working on at our yet-unnamed new studio. In March, I gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about some of our ideas. We called it “Narrative Legos.” The goal is to make a flexible narrative that is broadly replayable and strongly adaptive to player choice.

But even as we’ve made huge inroads into our design, even as we work on our prototype, there are days when I wonder: Will it be fun? Is there a there there? Even if there is, will the audience give a shit?

And then Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor showed up. On the most simple level, it’s Arkham City meets Tolkien. You go around a map, using a fighting system nabbed from Rocksteady’s amazing Batman games to take down what more or less amounts to a criminal family of orcs: first the street thugs, then the captains, and then the boss, orc Tony Soprano himself.

But here’s the great part. Nobody tells you how to take down this crime family. You wanna take down Lorm Metal-Beard first to undermine his master, Dharg the Black? Go to it, pal. You wanna turn Horhog the Armorer into a double agent so he backstabs his boss Goroth Caragor Tamer? More power to you, sister.

As I was playing the game, I wondered, “How are they doing this? How are they letting me kill so many bosses in any order? Doesn’t that break the game?” And then I realized: The orcs aren’t bespoke characters. They comprise dozens of bits of micro-content that can be mixed and matched to build thousands of combinations on the fly. An orc named Horhog the Armorer is actually “Name X the Name Y.” The attributes that make up Horhog’s character—he’s afraid of fire but angered by the sight of his minions dying—are chosen from a list and assigned by the game dynamically. Even his body, his armor, his scars are attached algorithmically as the player meets Horhog on the field of battle. Horhog will even remember that the last time you met, he kicked your scrawny human ass. These orcs, and how you choose to defeat them, are the story of Shadow of Mordor. They project both real menace and an almost slapstick Grand Guignol, the love children of Sauron and Eliza Doolittle.

Yes, there are traditional story elements in the game. And they’re rather well handled, especially the opening sequence that shifts back and forth through past and present, joy and sorrow, life and death to establish a melancholic path for our hero to wander down. But that story pales in comparison to what the players, through the tools the game provides, build for themselves simply by playing the game.

By breaking down the elements of character into small chunks and re-combining them based on randomness and, more important, responses to the player’s choices, Shadow of Mordor tells a story that could never exist in another medium. If the audience could somehow change a plot point in Death of a Salesman, the narrative would break. If they could change something in BioShock Infinite, the story would break. But you can change the narrative in Shadow of Mordor—kill an important character, fail an important mission — and the story heals itself, because the system can create new characters on the fly. It does so without a “game over” screen or a request for the player to try again. Players can choose their own paths, not by selecting from a list of three or four predetermined options, but by making decisions in an endlessly combinatorial gameplay system. It’s chess meets Hamlet.

Okay, maybe not Hamlet. But it’s a start.

There are two games that really kicked off what we think of as the modern “open world” game: Super Mario 64 and Grand Theft Auto III. These games unshackled the player from linear progression through a game’s levels. I think Shadow of Mordor is the first “open narrative” game. You’re not just checking off missions in a variable sequence. You’re changing the dramatis personae. Whenever you succeed or fail, the characters in the story respond to your actions, and not in the manner of a branching “choose your own adventure.” It is an excessively simple, yet impressively flexible, crime story.

I’m grateful to Shadow of Mordor, not only as a gamer, but also as a designer and writer. Yes, these are baby steps toward realizing the kinds of stories that games can uniquely provide. But the first steps are often the hardest of all.

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