After marathoning through the entirety of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, I can confidently say two things about it. The first is that the game is built on a complex set of mechanics that gamify slavery and make it “fun.” The second is that its narrative wants us to be critical of the slavery that it has made so fun and engaging to participate in. What this results in is a paradoxical experience where an immense amount of attention and game development skill has been put into making the enslavement of other beings both thrilling and satisfying, but the game also wags its finger at us and tells us that no, that is actually bad.
I think that this paradox gestures at some crucial problems that extend beyond Shadow of War and into the game industry at large. It is a problem born of seeing gameplay and narrative as distinct portions of the player experience. Additionally, it’s also a problem that’s rooted in the very soul of game design: Can a game truly be critical of its own mechanics?
[Ed. note: The following piece contains significant spoilers for Middle-Earth: Shadow of War.]
It’s not an abstract question. 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line is still praised for its ability to reflect on and be critical of the mechanics and narrative tropes that contemporary shooters rely on. It’s a game that has you killing civilians and hounding enemies to their deaths, all while each scream and recoil at the horror. Similarly, 2013’s BioShock Infinite was heavily criticized for its equivocating “all violence is equally bad” narrative that ultimately embraces violence itself as the ultimate political tool that solves all problems.
Spec Ops and BioShock Infinite, alongside the Deus Ex and Dishonored franchises, are games about ideas. Successful or not, these are games that are clearly trying to do similar work as the greatest novels and films; they want to present something difficult and thorny and use the particular abilities (or in more academic terms, affordances) of the video game medium to explore those ideas. I firmly believe that Shadow of War wants to be in this pantheon of games about ideas. It wants us to be thinking about its mechanics and concepts in a critical way. It just doesn’t quite get there.
The paradoxical nature of the relationship between narrative and gameplay in Shadow of War begins at the split between those two things. The problem is that there isn’t one. Instead of “mechanics” and “story” as two separate, but related, things for players to interact with, what the game possesses instead is two distinct narrative layers. By “layer,” I mean that there are two separate ways that stories are created and communicated to players of the game. The first is the most recognizable and traditional one, which we could call the Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer. The second is the less traditional one, but it is also the one that Shadow of War’s marketing and social media buzz depends on: the Nemesis Layer.
The Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer tells this story over the course of the game: Thousands of years ago, an elf named Celebrimbor helped the dark lord Sauron create a powerful ring. The ring’s entire purpose is to dominate and enslave the will of everyone who comes in contact with it. Celebrimbor was betrayed by Sauron, and now, thousands of years later, Celebrimbor is a spirit housed in the body of the undead ranger Talion. Sauron has also killed the ranger’s family, so now the allied body (Talion) and spirit (Celebrimbor) have to create a massive army to defeat Sauron once and for all.
To do this, they create their own powerful ring, which allows them to enslave orcs and trolls and press them into service. Over the course of amassing this army and taking territory, the divide between what methods are acceptable and necessary grows very deep for Talion and Celebrimbor. This split widens until the third act of the game, in which it is revealed that Celebrimbor does not want to defeat Sauron, but instead replace him as the ruler of Mordor and, eventually, the entire world. Talion recoils in horror at what he had accepted as necessary over the course of the game, and Celebrimbor leaves his body in favor of another character who will more readily pursue the spirit’s desire for enslaving the world. Talion is left, alone and undead, to wonder if he was the vehicle for grand injustices in the world.
Shadow of War repeatedly tells us in cutscenes and dialogue that Celebrimbor is an evil entity. Shelob outright states early on that Celebrimbor and Sauron are one and the same in their outlook and method. Multiple characters remark on Talion/Celebrimbor’s cruelty in their tactics. Moreover, Celebrimbor spouts openly racist rhetoric that feels pulled directly out of the mouth of a white supremacist and translated (only slightly) to fantasy. When faced with an orc artifact, Celebrimbor snarls at the idea that orcs even have culture. “It is not noble men we are dominating,” Celebrimbor tells us, “but savage orcs.” Whether you buy the real-world race implications of the depictions of orcs or not, the logic of real-world racism is clearly being referenced in how Celebrimbor justifies the enslavement of orcs and trolls; he sees them as half-people at best, and above all understands them as a resource to be harnessed in competition with his enemy.
The Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer, then, is a story about how Talion finds out that there is never an end that justifies engaging in slavery, and that anyone who might suggest that as a path to a better future is evil. It’s communicated clearly that performing an evil act in the face of evil is never justified. Talion is a fallen hero because of his alliance with Celebrimbor. However, without paying very close attention to every part of the Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer, it’s easy to miss or gloss over the “lesson” that’s being taught. So why is that?
The Nemesis Layer is the crucial reason that players are right to miss the “point” of the game. You’ll notice that I have claimed this is a narrative layer rather than a mechanical layer. Most would suggest, in the parlance of talking about games, that Shadow of War’s “Nemesis System” is pure mechanics. In the abstract, it is a way of procedurally generating orcs with various personalities, weapons, skills and cultures, and then putting them into a mechanical contest with the player. For example, while Tork Warmonger might hold a poison spear, command a pack of caragors and only communicate in grunts, as a player, my only way of interacting with him is via my sword, dagger, bow and abilities. On face, that relationship is purely mechanical — a rock-paper-scissors fight of my skills against Tork’s.
However, what gives the Nemesis System legs, and why I consider it a narrative layer, is that it is fundamentally designed to create stories. If I run away from Tork, he will remember me the next time and call me a coward. If he kills me, he’ll thank me for his promotion. If I use a particular skill too much, he’ll adapt to it and prevent me from using it again. The power of the Nemesis System is that it creates relational stories between the player and a generated orc who, over the course of several encounters, becomes as real (or, in some cases, more fleshed out) than the traditional characters of the Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer.
The friction that emerges from the player interacting with both of these narrative layers is that they fundamentally do not work together.
The Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer functions as a means of presenting a prewritten story to a player who has been primed by advertising and social media to engage primarily with the Nemesis Layer. The main reason anyone would play this game exists on the Nemesis Layer, but the only place that the game engages the player about the very concepts it is supposedly critiquing is in the Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer. Cutscenes and Dialogue explain that the player is acting on a flawed and evil ideology, but the Nemesis System constantly exclaims about how cool and powerful the player is for enslaving orcs over and over again.
This is compounded by the problem that I mentioned above: The end of every orc’s story is either slavery or death. Tork and I might go back and forth over and over again. He might kill me ten times in a row. I might defeat him once by stabbing him and lopping off his arms but, surprise, he’s back from the dead and ready to kick my ass. These engagements are what the game is selling. Exclaiming “not this asshole again!” under my breath as an orc started his monologue is, frankly, one of the best experiences that I have had in any game, ever. The Nemesis Layer develops a longform story about myself and this orc trapped in struggle.
But I can’t ever make peace with the orc. I can’t offer them artifacts to leave me alone. I can’t cede control of some territory to the orc in a bid for a temporary armistice. If I don’t want to kill the orc, I have to enslave them. The storytelling power of the Nemesis Layer is being critiqued by the Cutscene and Dialogue Layer, but the Cutscene and Dialogue Layer is fundamentally nullified by the interactions and mechanical ends that the Nemesis Layer demands.
It’s a contradictory mess, and it’s ultimately one that prevents the game from saying anything of value. The explicit criticism of the slavery that Talion and Celebrimbor engage in over the course of the game is countered by slavery being the only real mechanic. It is telling that Shadow Wars, the final act of the game that has the player simply interacting with the Nemesis System to build an army to repeatedly take over and defend fortresses, abandons Celebrimbor, but not the slavery mechanic. Completely absent of narrative cutscenes and dialogue, this is the pure sandbox where players make their own fun on the way to the “bonus” ending (as Warner Bros. is insistently calling it).
Shadow Wars is the core of Shadow of War laid bare. It’s a wasteland of interacting mechanics and army building via enslavement. There are no cutscenes to talk back to the Nemesis Layer, and it feels as if the internal critics on the development team knew that they had lost. In the face of a compelling core loop of talking, fighting and enslaving on the Nemesis Layer, the Cutscenes and Dialogue Layer had nothing to do other than wag its finger and say “yes, truly, you are as bad as Sauron.”
Shadow of War attempts a tight balancing act. Much like BioShock Infinite, it wants to be a game about something. At its loftiest moments, it questions how far one should be willing to go to prevent a great evil from occurring. However, also like BioShock Infinite, it is a game that wants to have its cake and eat it too; it wants to present us with a robust set of gameplay mechanics centered on slavery and yet still be critical of those mechanics.
It's a bleak universe of frictionless "fun" that overpowers any possible critique with the burning hand of the player-as-slaver. The self-criticism doesn't land; the game is not designed to be critical. It never presents another set of mechanics or ways of interacting with this world. It can only imagine the player and non-player characters locked in an eternal war of enslavement and resource gathering.
Cameron Kunzelman is a game critic. His work appears regularly at Paste Games, where he is Editor at Large, and at Waypoint, where his weekly Postscript column deals with endings, death and final bosses. His writing has also appeared at Kotaku, The Atlantic, Quartz and some other places. You can follow him on Twitter @ckunzelman.