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How story stayed at the center of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of the high-points in game design last year. It also offered one of the best in-game stories. Tolkien fans, who have very high standards, were generally well satisfied.

At GDC yesterday Ethan Walker, cinematic lead at the game's developer Monolith Productions offered some insights into the narrative and design choices taken by the team. He said that most of the game's cinematics were conceived, created and polished within a six month window, meaning regular and close iterations on each scene.

Walker showed some of the "animatics" or animated storyboards that were used to conceptualize the game's big scenes, showing his GDC audience visual comparisons with the final scenes delivered in the game. It revealed both major physical alterations, such as characters changing position and stance, as well as different emotional emphasis.

In one case, a scene showing protagonist Talion fighting with Hirgon, the team decided to go in a different direction, and the section was cancelled.

Walker said that the animatics allow the team to really underastand a scene, while also getting stakeholders on board. "It's always better to show than to tell," he explained.

Shadow of Mordor was an immense challenge for Monolith, he said, because it was the first time the company had tackled such a big open-world game, the first time the team worked with the new consoles, and also the introduction of its much-admired "Nemesis" gameplay system, in which the player's fights with enemies become mini-narratives within the game.

The game offers so many diversions and opportunities to go walkabout, that the writing and cinematic team had to figure out the best way of keeping the central story in the player's mind. This problem was exacerbated by the complex nature of the story itself, in which the main character is actually both a man and a ghost, inhabiting the same body, and each with their own backstories, personalities and motivations.

"The team was very aware that in an open world you can never be sure when the player is going to check in on the narrative," he said. The solution was to keep offering storyline reminders at each stage of progression, much like an episodic television drama. "It may seem heavy-handed but you have to keep reminding the player of the story and the stakes," he said.