Games

The Seductive Power of 'Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor'

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.