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How Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor turned me into a vengeful psychopath

In Monolith's Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, death might be temporary, but grudges last forever.

I'm waiting less than patiently for the hero, Talion, to return to the land of the living — again. It's the third time I've died during my demo. I'm told this isn't unusual. But if persistence can be considered a virtue, I'm nearing saintly levels thanks to the game's Nemesis system.

The Nemesis system is Monolith's way of making enemies more than faceless foes. Orcs have unique names and ranks that shift as the game progresses; if Talion fails to kill them in battle, they'll remember his face. Running into them again will trigger new tactics and taunts, and they're likely to have grown in strength.

It's a system that provides an endless wave of foes that want to kill me, and I really, really want to kill them too.

According to lead designer Bob Roberts, that's the point.

Revenge is a common theme in game and entertainment media at large, Roberts said, but Shadow of Mordor is interested in more than just Talion's justice. It's about the personal vendetta of the player.

It's "eye-for-an-eye" justice.

"You have a personal investment driving this character," Roberts said. "Not just trying to get people emotionally evolved at a distance with the human drama, but with that gameplay drama — these guys that get a cheap shot at you or that are taunting you.

"What we see ... is that moment-to-moment sense of anger and frustration that a lot of people have when they play video games."

According to Roberts, Shadow of Mordor's quick respawn system, which uses death as a way to pass time rather than a game over, gives players the chance to immediately jump back into the action. There are no checkpoints to force players into replaying old content. Instead, Monolith wants players to evolve their own story in a meaningful way.

"There's a lot of strengths and weaknesses that play into the system mechanically," Roberts said. "You can end up developing a situation where people are really good at handling guys with certain strengths, and some people are bad at handling other strengths. You get these guys that happen to have a particular set of traits that's just your Achilles heel ...That moment of getting vengeance on him as a player is really satisfying."

I've never considered myself to be an angry or vengeful person, but right now I'm out for orc blood. His name is Dûsh (pronounced, appropriately enough, as "douche"), and he's already killed me once. I got put in time out; Dûsh got an army promotion and a title ("The Endless," also appropriately enough).

I kicked off my grudge mission with murderous intent, first locating him and then immediately launching my one-man offensive. I sniped the orcs nearest to him with a few well-placed shots from my bow; the rest I mowed through with furious sword swipes. For Dûsh, however, I had more insidious plans. I attacked with vigor, gradually wearing him down, before I snatched him and bent him to my will. Eerie, blue light flashed from his eyes, signaling his new allegiance. Now under my control, I sent him to betray his comrades.


It was a personal distraction that admittedly munched through the greater part of my demo. Roberts tells me I'm not the first to wander off track in this way.

"The first thing [players] want to do after they get killed is abandon whatever goal they were on at the moment and go back after that guy," he said. "As a pace-breaking thing, [it's] interesting. In an open-world [title], the name of the game is distractions. You explore the world and you get all kinds of things to get involved in."

According to the designer, the advantage of open-world games is that players are free to break away from linearity. It's not Monolith's job to keep players on task, but to allow them to have the experience they want.

Even if — as in my case — it does involve a slightly psychopathic obsession. Revenge is, ultimately, a natural human component, Roberts said. It's "eye-for-an-eye" justice, an primal instinct that lurks within our darkest parts.

"It's something that we try and slowly evolve out of as a civilization, but obviously has some fundamental roots," Roberts said. "Trying to give you a tool to express it through your play — and not just narratively — is, I think, an important part of [the game]. It's your chance to take this kind of story theme, but actually play it out in a way that is speaking directly to your experience failing and succeeding at this challenge."

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