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What BioShock's creator learned from Shadow of Mordor

Monolith Production's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor tells a story "that could never exist in another medium" and, more importantly, has a lot to teach, according to a Matter piece penned by BioShock creator and Irrational Games co-founder Ken Levine.

All this week, Matter — a "magazine" inside publishing platform Medium — is hosting "The New York Review of Video Games," under the editorial guidance of New York Times video game critic (and one time Polygon Live cohost) Chris Suellentrop. Levine's review appeared alongsidepieces like a review of Broken Age by a New York Times book critic and a review of EA Sports: UFC by the author of a book on MMA.

Shadow of Mordor allows players to pursue enemies and narrative threads as they wish with its Nemesis system. New enemies spring forth as you defeat the old ones, and they'll remember you from previous battles. It's a constantly evolving system that creates a different story each time. Although Shadow of Mordor includes its own traditional story, Levine writes, that tale "pales in comparison" to what players themselves can create with that system.

"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."

Reflecting on the shortcomings of player choice in games, Levine explains that player-driven narrative is hard to come by. Unexpected games like Civilization or XCOM offer choice, but titles such as Dragon Age: Inquisition are still at the mercy of branching design. It's a problem that Levine himself has previously discussed and is trying to tackle with his new studio, he writes.

"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," Levine wrote. "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!"

Levine adds that he is "grateful" to Shadow of Mordor, both as a gamer, designer and writer.

"Yes, these are baby steps toward realizing the kinds of stories that games can uniquely provide," Levine wrote. "But the first steps are often the hardest of all."

If you liked Levine's review, stay tuned to Matter's weeklong "The New York Review of Video Games" for more.

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