How Shadow of Mordor used Jungian concepts and Hitchcockian tricks to make players subconsciously share its protagonist’s thirst for catharsis
Lately, the term “shadow self” has been nearing mainstream use in the wake of the 3rd season of Twin Peaks and Jordan Peele’s psychological horror in Us. Rightfully so, as Jungian’s concepts are absolutely mesmerizing and allow us to at least approximate what happens in the backs of our minds when we interact with art, if not fully understand it. Game designers can wield them to achieve fascinating results in terms of directing the player and achieving ludonarrative harmony. A surprise hit of 2014 with the key word “shadow” right there in the title presents a particularly ingenious case: let’s look back at Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Shadow walk with me
In Jungian psychology, a “shadow self”, or just Shadow, is the unknown and/or repressed aspect of one’s personality. In popular culture this is usually represented as an amalgamation of egotistical, antisocial, often destructive (sometimes also self-destructive) impulses a person carries hidden away deep within their psyche. It could also appear as a version of oneself that fails to censor and fight back those instincts and instead indulges in them. Perhaps the most well-known example of a Shadow in culture is the brutal and self-indulgent alter ego of the sedate Dr Jekyll, called Mr. Hyde. Despite being way less sinister, Bruce Banner and Hulk also somewhat fit this term.
At a glance, Shadow of Mordor’s plot may seem rather insignificant— a serviceable Tolkienesque sideshow that for the most part plays second fiddle to organic stories generated by the famed Nemesis system. You might wonder why it cleaned up at The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences awards of 2015, winning, among others, Outstanding Achievement in Story (other contenders included Dragon Age: Inquisition). However, if you think about what propels players further into the game after the procedural narrative ceases to surprise them, it’s hard to ignore how effectively Talion’s character arc hooks and reels us in. The game’s main storyline and its cinematics were written and directed by Christian Cantamessa, of Red Dead Redemption fame, a brilliant mind and one of the best games writer around. While not quite as famous as RDR, Shadow of Mordor represents his most fascinating achievement to date, with the key trope of a murdered family that begins our hero’s journey closely connecting the repressed wants of the game’s protagonist, Talion, to the ones of its target audience.
What I’m about to suggest here isn’t explicitly said in game, nor should it be. By their very definition, repressed aspects of ourselves usually stay out of sight, the conscious parts of our minds are wired to censor them. What beyond doubt is present in Shadow of Mordor, though, is a scaffolding expertly crafted for a particular set of players to entertain their Shadow and indulge in its fantasies. Think of a dog whistle — a frequency inaudible to a human but to which dogs are very receptive. There’s a whole structure of connections in the game’s symbols and undertones that the conscious mind is likely to gloss over, but which communicate with the subconscious and allow players to relieve certain psychic tensions they might carry in their minds.
Such structures are a huge part of a psychoanalytic methodology I’m working on that I like to call cathartic game design. Because, you know, subconscious sounds just a bit too sinister.
In that approach we can’t only look at what’s said in the game to understand what Shadow of Mordor attempts with its narrative design. Instead, we have to focus on the effect it has on the player’s mind and what message it sends to their subconscious.
The game was very clearly tailored to fans of Peter Jackson’s original cinematic trilogy, going so far as to make its protagonist as Aragorn-ish as possible without paying Viggo Mortensen royalties (they certainly went all-in with the sequel, though)¹. However, Aragorn’s character arc would no longer cater to this crowd so well. The notorious Ranger’s story is an archetypal hero’s journey: growing into maturity and accepting his responsibilities so he’d finally be ready to start a family with the perfect woman who has all the time in the world to wait for him at the end. After all, crown and kingdom have been deeply internalized symbols for one’s maturity and household going as far back as the ancient times of Iliad and Odyssey.
The people most enraptured during the Lord of the Rings zeitgeist wouldn’t be interested in a retelling of the same story in 2014. Most of them have already matured somewhat — The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in cinemas all the way back in 2001 after all, with Return of the King closing the trilogy in 2003. 11 years is a lot of time, between 18 and 29 one could even get married and have kids — basically complete their own version of Aragorn’s character arc. How do you craft an engaging experience if you know exactly who your target audience is and where they’re going, but they’re either too close to the goal to pay attention or have already made the journey?
You focus on their fears, anxieties and help them face disillusionment. Instead of fulfilling manifest wishes, find latent ones and enable your audience to come to terms with them.
Reconcile them with their Shadow. Now that’s catharsis!
Ties that bind
What anxieties does Shadow of Mordor capitalize on? Allow me to digress briefly, in order to properly paint the context of its key theme.
In one of the many insightful scenes of what might be Judd Apatow’s most underrated movie, This Is 40, the master scriptwriter depicts the allure of the brooding widower trope with more finesse than I’d be able to muster. The male protagonist — a husband and father nearing his 40th birthday — confesses to a friend who’s at a similar stage in life how he sometimes fantasizes about his wife’s death. They both then comment how, in this fantasy, their wives would pass away peacefully and the guys could then use that sob story to score some pity in their newly regained single stud lives — the point of that latent wish isn’t death and loss, it’s about reclaiming something given up long ago.
Apatow’s craftsmanship goes a long way in neutralizing the uncomfortable notion presented in this dialogue. The fact is, there are seeds of egotistic thoughts in the back of our minds that mature, mentally healthy people suppress pretty easily and which on their own don’t actually make anyone evil, though they sure can make us assholes if we let them. The place from which they seep into our consciousness, however, is dark and we’re rightly scared of it: that is precisely what Jung called the Shadow.
With this in mind, let’s consider Talion’s situation how it’s presented at the outset of the game.
In the opening moments of Shadow of Mordor, we guide the protagonist through a tutorial to cross swords with his son, skewer some orcs, then stealth kiss his wife and stealth kill yet more orcs. Repeated use of time-skips to transition back and forth between those tender and violent moments makes the symbolic meaning all but explicit. It can create a jarring sense of disconnect for some players, as the inner censor detects proximity to a transgression that’s too close for comfort. Ironically, it’s the aggravating texture of the sequence that might prevent us from noticing how effectively it primes us for the entire experience.
Let’s examine the intro sequence closely, as we would if it was a movie. At a glance it may look insignificant in the larger scheme of things, but let’s do what’s scarcely ever done when analysing games’ narratives: give creators the benefit of the doubt. Treat them as we would movie directors (after all, Christian Cantamessa² directs movies as well as games); assume the sequence is competently crafted exactly how it should be and that everything has a carefully weighed meaning.
Here’s a YouTube link to the sequence in case you need a refresher:
After a few words introducing us to Mordor, Sauron, and the Black Gate in the shortest time possible, the game starts off with the spirit-form Talion reminiscing about training sword-fighting with his son, Dirhael. This flashback is full of playful oedipal banter, if you can call it that, of the man-and-boy-comparing-swords kind:
Dirhael, the mighty chicken killer.
You’ll have to hit harder if you want to best your father.
Stay alert, Dirhael, your enemy will not always be as he appears.
Needless to say, the boy’s sword is noticeably smaller than his father’s.
Then, seamlessly, we transition from this:
Bold stylistic choice, you say?
The Black Gate is under attack by Uruk-Hai now, and after killing a few orcs with his son and escorting him to safety, Talion returns to the spirit realm. “Am I dead?” he asks no one in particular. “You were banished from death,” a flash of light somewhere in his peripheral vision replies. This time, he approaches the lifeless body of his wife, Ioreth, which launches him into another tender flashback. This is the brilliant one.
The infamous stealth kill- I mean stealth kissing tutorial. It caught some flak back in the day for making the unsettling connection between a display of affection to a loved one and silently brutalizing countless bloodthirsty orcs, which we proceed to do with the same motion for the rest of the game. For now, let’s focus on the scene that follows.
“Happy anniversary, my love,” he says, indicating that their relationship is now passing another milestone. Note how even the lighting in the scene follows the motion of Talion giving Ioreth flowers from Gondor, the civilized land to which she wants the family to go. We’re watching a master storyteller at work here, pay attention to details as if it was a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. Trust that nothing is left to chance.
Ioreth: Did you talk to my father?
Talion: Yes, I did. And nothing has changed, he’s still very stubborn.
Ioreth: I say we go anyway.
Talion: Dirhael will not come willingly.
Ioreth: There must be a better life than this.
Talion: Not now… but soon.
Not very masterful, this dialogue, eh? It flows as naturally as a rhinoceros pulls a carriage, and by this I mean not too well and possibly with casualties. It’s the kind of dialogue we’re used to hand-waving in games as we play. Are you watching closely, though? Why is Ioreth’s father, of all people, so adamant on staying in the Black Gate? Why won’t their son, Dirhael, leave for Gondor with his parents if they go? What’s really happening here?
Look at Talion’s behaviour during that scene. If you were in Ioreth’s shoes, what would you think if your husband’s reaction to a question would be to suddenly pout and look away like a puppy that realizes it really shouldn’t have chewed on that shoe?
This is the key moment that triggers players to connect with Talion. That it’s so easy to disregard as inconsistent writing makes it all the more powerful.
By the time Shadow of Mordor came out, people for whom the cinematic Lord of the Rings was a formative experience knew all too well what it’s like being grilled by one’s partner about not wanting to do something they feel anxious about. A relationship passes another milestone without going anywhere, held back by our anxieties that taking it to the next stage would cost us who we are. Gondor symbolizes this next stage, whatever it subjectively means to a particular player: going steady, moving in together, marriage, children. Mordor is Talion’s playground as an archetypal single male — he’s a Ranger, a defender of Gondor, would he maintain his sense of self as one of its more domesticated citizens? The Black Gate is the place between those realms where their relationship is stuck until he’s able to commit.
Whether we read into this scene or not, that’s how its message is received on a subconscious level. It’s a key part of a larger scaffolding that enables and encourages players to project their own feelings and problems onto Talion.
The dialogue doesn’t end there. Still in the tender mode, Ioreth says: “I’m just so tired of hiding here.” After another sudden transition to the violent mode during the attack we hear the sound of Talion slicing an orc before silencing his wife by covering her mouth: “Sh, we must hide now or we are both dead.”
Both dialogue and motion emphasize that those characters, and those two worlds represented by visual modes, are in fact in conflict, same as the previous time-jump where Dirhael was swapped for an Uruk with an appetite for Talion’s innards. The tender mode represents the protagonist’s explicit, manifest wish to be with his family, but his fear of commitment wakes the latent, transgressive wish to be free of them, pictured in the violent mode.
If you believe those two visual styles are just an aesthetic tool, consider the cinematography: they’re transitions, not jump cuts. Note that Talion never teleports between them, he simply walks as the world changes modes around him. From tender mode to violent, from explicit to implicit, from conscious to subconscious: he’s walking through dreamlike visions that reflect the two conflicting aspects of his personality. This sequence isn’t arranged into a subliminal message just for the fun of it, it’s exactly how Talion’s traumatized mind sees the events leading to his demise.
How is he traumatized, you ask? Remember that the first in-game shot we see after the short cinematic is of spirit-form Talion: by the time we meet him, he’s already dead. The Black Hand of Sauron, leading the attack on the Black Gate, has captured Talion, Ioreth and Dirhael and executed the Ranger’s son and wife in front of his very eyes. In doing so, he’s fulfilled Talion’s latent and transgressive wish, one born from fears and anxieties and one that the player is likely to at some level share with the game’s protagonist, before finishing him off in kind.
Before that happens, there’s still one last, extremely powerful blow that aligns players with the game’s theme and completes the narrative scaffolding for projection. Ioreth’s final words to her husband are notable, to say the least, in how they would push anyone’s devotion to their partner as close to the breaking point as possible.
We will be together my love! Soon! Forever!
It’s in that conflicted state of mind that we first see Talion rise as a spirit and start the dream sequence that functions as Shadow of Mordor’s interactive intro.
You might not like where I’m going with this: the entire game might as well just be Talion’s delirium mortis, a twisted dream of a mind dying in a struggle with itself³. Think back on the transitions between scenes of the tender, conscious mode, and the violent, subconscious mode which is the realm of latent desires. Transitions to the tender scenes are soft, calming even. It’s when dialogue prompts anxieties on which the game’s narrative builds its tensions when the jarring, sudden transitions to violence momentarily warp the screen. The featureless spirit realm stands between them like the Black Gate in Talion’s real life, a purgatory for his soul and a crossroads between the two worlds that gnaw at him — in one of them he’s a loving husband and father, in another he’s a Ranger fighting against the scourge of Mordor.
We all know which one he ultimately chooses. The guilt resulting from that decision and caused by Talion’s state of mind in his final moments gives life to a vengeful spirit that embodies the dark aspects of his personality. Celebrimbor’s existence enables Talion to offload the crushing guilt and act out his dark power fantasy of prowling Mordor, freed from familial ties and responsibilities, as the apex predator on a quest for righteous vengeance. It’s an ultimate realization of his latent wish, a reaction to anxiety about leaving this life behind and fully committing to his marriage by finally putting family’s needs before his.
Note how reasons for Celebrimbor’s and Talion’s coexistence make way more symbolic sense than factual one. Frankly, in-universe reasons for a human Ranger to suddenly be brought back as an immortal by the roaming spirit of a dead elf king are absurd. Despite the studio’s insistence on sticking to established Tolkien lore, there are no gravewalkers or undead in Silmarillion — one unbreakable rule in Tolkien’s magical world is that which dies is lost forever, always. On the other hand, the moment Talion comes to terms with the tragic events he’s somehow suddenly relocated to a tower right in the middle of Mordor and Celebrimbor finally appears before him in full grace, suggesting that the wraith’s emergence is connected to the Ranger choosing his preferred version of afterlife. Following this train of thought, Mordor symbolizes Talion’s corrupted psyche which he now has to try and cleanse of darkness as penance.
The appeal of a cathartic cycle
It’s a slightly unfortunate consequence for narratives designed in keeping with Jungian concepts that those that have a central theme can inevitably be broken down into a conclusion that they were all a dream. It helps to think of it as natural: entities, events and symbols always seem like they compose a dream if they represent aspects of a single psyche. As art is experienced in the mind of the consumer, there truly is only one psyche that matters. If we remove all extraneous elements from a narrative for thematic clarity, what we’re left with is a proposition of a dream designed by an artist for a consumer. All art is a dream in Jungian terms, and I will elaborate on that in another piece. For now, let’s accept that the story of Shadow of Mordor can be interpreted as all going on in a single person’s mind, because at the end of the day it really only happens in the player’s.
For us, it means we’re allowed to entertain the transgressive wish of being freed from our responsibilities and running around in fantasy land enforcing our will on everything that moves. Celebrimbor isn’t even a metaphorical embodiment of Talion’s — and thus the player’s — shadow self, he’s the real deal, coexisting in the hero’s mind along with his normal personality. Playing Shadow of Mordor, we’re controlling them both, because we, too, could use an excuse to enjoy the morally questionable deeds that make this game so fun. People at Monolith Software, the studio behind Shadow of Mordor, were reportedly surprised by the positive reception players had of Talion, a character whose arc represents a gruesome fall. To me, the reason for it is pretty clear.
We bought into Talion’s subjective reality wholesale. Just like him, we’ve accepted Celebrimbor’s existence because it was all too convenient. Narrative-wise, the wraith’s presence is used throughout the story as a cautionary reminder there is a sinister side to its power fantasy. In psychological terms, however, Celebrimbor allows us to remove guilt from Shadow of Mordor’s guilty pleasure. No matter what we do in-game and what fantasies we entertain while mind-controlling or brutally slicing up Uruks, we can still justify it all using the pretences of Talion’s vengeance and the wraith-like blue light that engulfs him every time we use a particularly cruel skill. Celebrimbor enables us to still identify with the hero, while entertaining our own Shadow by being the game’s villain at the same time.
Talion’s complicity in Celebrimbor’s morally ambiguous plan only seems based on reason and a desire to save Middle Earth. In reality, the Ranger’s bond with the Wraith and lust for vengeance are sustained by deeply repressed feelings of guilt. To us as players, it means we can embrace the darker aspects of our personalities and revel in Shadow of Mordor’s power fantasy, while still feeling righteous and identifying with the good guys. After all, we’re playing as Talion, right?
Imagine for a moment how the game would feel without Celebrimbor. Just Talion losing his family and roaming Mordor alone, Tolkienesque Punisher that also mind-controls people. It would feel as morally perverse as Prototype at best, while it could be just plain hard to bear at its worst. PS2-era The Punisher allowed players to torture people, but enemies there never amounted to anything. Monolith went to such lengths to humanize orcs that inability to disconnect from what we do to them would make the game deeply unsettling. Mind controlling Uruks with lives and personalities to turn them on their blood brothers is such a grim ability that designers thought they should ease us in and only introduced it halfway through (the game’s most touted feature!).
The ingenuity of how Celebrimbor is used as a narrative tool is that it may also drive players to further engage with the game. Think back to how the flashback with Talion’s⁴ wife began — the stealth kiss. Possibly inspired by Bioshock: Infinite, it’s a technique seemingly lifted from a hypnosis handbook — it was jarring to those who didn’t want to be influenced, but to the rest of the players, it not only subliminally conveyed Talion’s latent wish, it made us complicit in it. A solid argument can be made that it’s made the game’s narrative almost addictive on its own merits. Talion’s life after death itself is a breaking of established rules — both real world and Tolkienesque ones — a transgression that throws off karmic balance in the narrative almost as badly as the realization of his latent wish of freedom from familial ties. That he’s allowed to exist like this, then, means he lives not just on borrowed time, but on borrowed morality as well.
Our minds crave a sense of karmic balance both in life and in stories we experience. An imbalance such as created at the outset of Shadow of Mordor’s story weighs heavily on players, as it weighs on Talion. The moral debt he bears must be paid, and in Talion’s mind this means completing his vengeance, a delusion that can bring him subjective justice. As players who guide him through this delusion and indulge ourselves in it, we’re complicit in those transgressions and share Talion’s moral debt, at least on a subconscious level. That’s why it’s so satisfying to relate to him and why, even though scenes progressing the main quest in Shadow of Mordor are scarce, there’s an undeniable draw to it and an urge to complete it. The more a player escapes to the game’s world, immerses themselves in Talion’s guilt and embraces Celebrimbor as an insert for their own Shadow, the more they’re teased with the morally freeing catharsis at the end of their quest for vengeance.
After all, what’s more enticing than the promise of metaphorical absolution?
: While the official stance is that Talion is inspired by Boromir, I’d argue the only thing they have in common is the lust for power that Talion manifests only just before end credits. Analogies with his fellow Ranger, Aragorn, are pretty spot-on both in appearance (which definitely helped in accurately marketing the game, the cover art pretty much says “Aragorn breaking bad”, words that could sum up at least half of this article) and in their narrative arcs. On a symbolic level: Aragorn gaining confidence and accepting his responsibilities was represented by the reforging of his heritage, the shattered sword of Isildur, Narsil. Throughout the game Talion uses his son’s sword, Acharn, as a dagger, after it was broken along with his ties to familial duties when his son and wife died. Talion’s arc is Aragorn’s happy ending broken and reversed by doubt and anxiety.
: I really didn’t want to add anything to this piece to make it even longer, but I need to stress that if you like a good gaming narrative you should really pay attention to Christian. In a recent interview he said that it’s only a matter of time until we discover the Hitchcock of video games, the audacious wiz. Not only are two of his game stories clearly inspired by the central theme of Rear Window (John Marston’s arc is Talion’s backwards), his use of symbols so that even though they’re absurd on the surface they make so much thematic sense that we accept them without question also resembles the way Hitchcock designed his narratives.
: Don’t worry, though, it’s not really. Gollum’s presence (that, I presume, was forced by license-holders) is an indisputable force of the in-universe real impacting Talion’s subjective reality. Unless we agree that removing Gollum from the equation, treating him as a result of executive meddling, is the only way to fully interpret the story of both Middle Earth games, because it allows us to explain Shelob the waifu. Either way, it doesn’t impact my argument, though, as what we’re investigating is how the narrative works in the player’s mind. From that point of view Gollum is an extraneous element that, although it undermines a factual interpretation of the story (if you even want to call anything in a work of fiction “facts”), doesn’t change how it works on a subconscious level.
: My fiancé pointed out to me how “Talion” sounds almost like “stallion” — a widely recognized symbol for a free-roaming spirit, unburdened with responsibilities. Coincidence or not, at this point that is moot, the fact is that it’s stunningly fitting.