Oops! I accidentally became a mass murderer, slaver, and a dark lord.
Sauron and I don’t know each other very well, so I don’t know if he plays video games. If he does, I bet he is pleasantly surprised by Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The game basically turned me into a Nazgûl. To be fair, I was able to escape its influence (for how long, I don’t know), so maybe I’m more of a Gollum than a ring wraith. Whatever the case, I think the game does a better job of promoting the The Dark Lord’s power than it does arguing against it.
Power is a central theme in The Lord of the Rings: what you’ll do to get it, what you’ll do to keep it, what it costs you, etc. Whether it’s men bickering about territory, wizards fighting about technology, or hobbits lusting after the ring, the books are full of people undone by their lust for power. They might win a victory now and again, but the ultimate result is failure until their power is taken or they willingly relinquish it.
Not so in Shadow of Mordor. Talion’s family is killed by Sauron’s agents, and thanks to some cosmic match-making, partners up with Celebrimbor. Celebrimbor is the smith who made the rings, and his power takes Talion’s skills from Batman-level to Neo-level. You start the game by being able to take on a multiple enemies simultaneously while effortlessly scaling walls, and you end by being able to handle dozens of opponents at once while teleporting from target to target. Talion has his misgivings now and then, but there is absolutely no mistaking the mechanical argument of the game. More power is great and there is no tangible downside to being essentially invincible.
The most crucial ability you gain is simultaneously intoxicating and disturbing: the ability to “dominate” orcs. As Austin Walker describes, it’s slavery:
There is simply no dressing this up any other way. Talion places his hand on an Orc’s face. His ghostly inhabitant takes control and shouts about power. The Orc’s eyes glow blue and he immediately comes under your sway. If he is a normal foot soldier, he begins to fight for you. If he is one of the captains or war chiefs, you can then issue a specific command: go fight another Orc captain, or build up your reputation and enter the service of a chief, for instance. These characters address this act in passing, but there is no critique here. You play as the hero Talion, who enslaves the Orcs. ("Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC", Paste, 10 October 2014)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that playing a game with a white protagonist who enslaves war-like brutes from the east sure is awkward when you think about it (to say the least). Even if you try to strip history and culture from it, the Shadow of Mordor is philosophically disturbing. Finishing it necessitates enslaving and commanding an army of orcs to fight against other orcs. The Orc society is so large and decentralized that Talion becomes the most visible warlord on the field. Unlike the Orcs, who are clannish and fight among each other, Talion’s horde is single-minded and wholly obedient. This strategy is couched within the concept of "fighting fire with fire” against Sauron, but once you’re in the middle of an inferno, it’s hard to tell one flame from another. You say there’s a shadowy figure amassing power who has bent an army of murderous orcs to his will? The only solution must be to bend another army of murderous orcs to my will.
All this is made possible by the game’s most impressive feature: the Nemesis system. A simulation runs in the background as you roam the open world, keeping track of the orc captains, their abilities, and their various experiences. Some don’t like one another and fight to improve their standings within the army's ranks. If one manages to kill Talion, he is promoted and strengthened. Orcs remember your actions towards them, work their way up the ranks, and ally with lower-ranking lieutenants. It’s one of the most unique and interesting parts of the game, but it also made me realize that I had fallen under the Dark Lord’s spell.
I have no idea who my true nemesis was. Maybe I had a few throughout the game? In any case, the climactic battle opens with a shot of a dramatic-looking orc that I vaguely recognized. The game seemed like it wanted me to gasp at the appearance of an old foe, but the moment felt hollow. Thanks to the ever-spawning orc horde and my god-like powers (not to mention my totally sick video gaming skillz), I had churned through dozens of orcs over the course of the 20+ hours of the game. I only “died” a handful of times, thanks mostly to negligence. Even if an orc gets in a lucky shot, you just respawn without any penalty. Death had no stakes, my failure was almost non-existent, and any new orc that worked their way up through the ranks was there for my reaping. My enemy didn’t really matter. He was just another in a long line of orc-shaped treasure bags to slice open.
Said slicing was very rewarding. “Compelling” is an overused word in the video game space, but Shadow of Mordor’s basic pattern is exactly that: irresistible, easy to continue, and satisfying. Each orc captain takes a few minutes to hunt down, and there’s a lot of variety in the killing: berserker, stealthy, ranged, magical and a host of other tactics are all valid approaches to any situation. By the time that you finish either beheading or enslaving an orc, you realize that you’re actually pretty close to another captain’s territory. On the way, you can grab a few collectibles to increase your power and then charge back into battle again for some more domination and the skill points that domination yields. Like Civilization or Tetris, it seems like there is always time for another round.
Another round of killing, enslaving, and power grabbing, that is. To what end? To no end, really. Even when you finish the game, the orc horde continues to replenish itself and provide more grist for entertaining assassinations and ability upgrades. It’s a mill that exists simply to power itself. You dominate some orcs and gain more power. You use this power to dominate more orcs. Why do you need to dominate orcs? To get more power to dominate more orcs, obviously. You save some slaves here and there, but the game doesn’t end with any major change to the status quo. Unlike Frodo’s journey, Talion’s quest doesn’t really end a war or culminate with him relinquishing his power after learning about its consequences. You become an unstoppable death lord who oversees a kingdom of violence that exists thanks to its own circular logic.
Like Sauron’s power, Shadow of Mordor is seductive. The more you indulge, the better it feels (it starts off feeling amazing). The combat is fluid and dynamic, but you never feel out of control. You’re a spirit, a titan, a brawler, and a ninja all rolled up into one ruggedly handsome package that just so happens to be voiced by Troy Baker doing his sexy British accent. Every time that you think you can stop, you realize a little more hacking and slashing is just a minute or two away, which means you’re close to gaining a little bit more power, which in turn allows for more killing and domination. You’re soon lulled into a pattern of unreflective enslavement and murder. By the end, you’re the most powerful, terrifying force in the land. It feels great, despite its dubious morality.
Somewhere the Dark Lord is laughing because you slipped into this cycle just as easily as one might slip a little gold ring onto his or her finger.