In spite of the dawning conclusion of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, a new Lord of the Rings video game, Shadow of Mordor, is on the way from our good friends at Monolith studios. You might have even seen the trailer. It takes us back to the realm of Middle Earth, to a time between the desolation of Smaug and the war of the Ring, and it puts us in control of a brand new character, one who may seem a bit...familiar.
He’s human. And obviously a man. Dark haired, broody type, penchant for violence, all fairly common standards for your average gaming hero. He’s bound by curse to some kind of Barrow Wight, seems to specialize in brutal melee tactics, and to cap it all off, his wife and child were brutally murdered in the events prior to this game.
Does that sound like something you've played before?
If you’re a savvy gamer, you probably realize that describes about five or six separate video game heroes within the last decade. And if you’re like me, you are probably annoyed that this is the backstory of our new hero of the new Lord of the Rings game.
In the mid-2000s, that kind of backstory at least made a little sense -- God of War's Kratos was part of the dawning foundation of a new gaming franchise, his anger and rage an intrinsic part of the series. This plotline justified all kinds of violence against titanic beasts, but in 2014, it’s getting tiresome. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is not only a destructive force for the franchise, it's a repetitive indicator that game developers are increasingly relying on for protagonist motivation.
Within the last five years, the so-called “dadification” of video games has begun to define and shape a new wave of brooding action hero. Jess Joho of Kill Screen points out, “As game developers are getting older, they’re making slightly different games. Justifying your life’s work, it would seem, just starts feeling more important after a wife and kid are involved.” This explains the heart of recent games like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and the huge influence behind the classic character underpinnings of Kratos. He isn’t just a badass, he’s a father -- just one whose family happens to be dead. And that provides plenty of excuses to be angry and take revenge on the Gods responsible.
But the recurring presence of the "dead family backstory" highlights another disturbing trend; game developers are looking for ways to cash in on explicitly violent mechanics without bearing the social responsibility. The revenge-driven anti-hero doesn’t have to be held responsible for the damage they inflict on the world -- in their classic storytelling sense, they’re forces of unadulterated justice, a heat-seeking bullet targeting whatever malevolent force took their loved ones away from them. It’s not always a bad story, and as I mentioned earlier, God of War used it to great effect. But as we move away from a world defined by Greek mythology, which was already bloody, sexy, and ruthless, and into stories of nobility and heroism, the signals get confused.
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anti-heroism isn’t really a major motif. There are reluctant heroes, wise wizards, bumbling idiots, and ancient nobility, but there aren’t any characters who tend to do bad in the name of good. Or at least, successfully -- Saruman certainly sees himself as the good guy. Tolkien’s war, and the Jacksonian adaptations we all know and love, are birthed from the fires of World War II, and though morality isn’t entirely black-and-white in the stories, there is an overwhelming sense that the protagonists of the world seek to avert total war and destruction at all costs. This simply doesn’t create characters who are wont to string together combos or revel in the close-quarter kills some of the gameplay footage has been promising.
This isn’t to say that new storytellers couldn’t grow on Tolkien’s work, but the casual murdering of our new hero’s family seems to be designed to excuse acts of violence that normally aren’t attributed to the heroes of Lord of the Rings, and that indulgence is a worrisome trend. It’s a trend that belittles humane and textured characterization, cheapens the value of life in a franchise, and most importantly, gives the player permission to divest themselves in the idea of emotional growth or change.
There are other games in 2014 that have started to go down this path. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow kills off Simon Belmont’s family so he has something moody and angsty to work himself over with when he assumes the role of Dracula. The upcoming Batman Arkham Knight clears out Gotham City under the threat of terrorism, permitting Batman to act as brutally as he wants in Gotham without acting in regards to civilian safety.
I’m not trying to moan on behalf of the moral fabric of society. I’m more concerned with our ability to interact with complex systems and characters if all we’re going to get is people like Shadow of Mordor's Talion. How can we comprehend ideas like true heroism or the scope and scale of these worlds if we’re constantly being reduced to these generic characters whose motivations only give them permission for violence?
That’s especially disappointing to see in the Lord of the Rings world, since there are literally thousands of interesting people Tolkien populated his world with, which Monolith probably has access to through the Return of the King appendices. This is a world where a band of hobbits, a stoic ranger, an everlasting elf, a sarcastic dwarf, all with their own wants, needs, hopes, and dreams, set off on a quest to save Middle Earth in a story that would define fantasy characters for generations.
So when we return to that world, why in Middle Earth are we sacrificing the idea of a hero who can transcend humanity in favor of someone who just needs permission to commit violence in it?