One thing you can’t say about J.R.R. Tolkien’s orcs is that they lacked personality. The generic orc of generic fantasy may be a hulking, dimwitted goon, but to Tolkien they were his chief way of injecting humor into the darkest moments of The Lord of the Rings. No orc shouted “Meat’s on the menu, boys!” in the books, but Peter Jackson’s trilogy was right on the mark.
This was on my mind as I played The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, Daedalic Entertainment’s new LotR-inspired action-adventure. Shortly after completing the tutorial of Gollum, I had been captured by Sauron’s ringwraiths (canon), tortured (canon), and thrown in the slave pit of Mordor (canon, not a spoiler!). A hunched and armored orc was yelling at me — Gollum — to get out of my cell and follow a line of slaves to a black iron elevator. He was a hulking, dimwitted goon, in a big stone-and-jagged-metal room, with a spooky lady in the center chanting, “The Eye sees all! The Eye knows all!”
But I could press the control stick forward and walk into his legs for as long as it amused me. He would just emit another NPC bark — like “Get moving, slave!” — and harmlessly whip his arm through his single animation again. Any scraps of personality I found in the first few hours of Gollum were largely the ones I provided myself.
In fact, I could walk endlessly into the legs of any NPC in the room, including the spooky lady. The orcs had some extra barks about how I wasn’t allowed near her, but there was absolutely nothing to actually stop me from wandering. I could walk into any orc in any corner of any room the game took me into. I could leap up and down. I could do it to the beastmaster orc as he threatened to feed me to his monsters. I could do it to the mine master as he called me a worthless digger.
I did it a lot, as I walked Gollum from one room full of orcs to another, investigating whether anyone would respond to my capering antics. Nobody did. Instead, I had to buckle down and do what the NPC barks told me to do, a set of what I’m gonna call “slave tasks.”
Superficially, these were all different, but mechanically, they all called on me to navigate an area that looked fancy but really only had one intended path. Sometimes I stealthed through the area. Sometimes I climbed. Sometimes I raced against a timer. If I ever lost track of the path, I could press a trigger button to activate “the Gollum Sense,” which turned the world grayscale and displayed some bright orange wisps moving in the direction I was supposed to have chosen, as if Daedalic had a lack of confidence in the game’s environmental signposting.
Eventually, I dutifully walked Gollum into his cell and dutifully pressed X to go to sleep, thinking that after one day of slave tasks, surely there’d be a cutscene speeding the game along. Unfortunately, I woke up the next day and repeated my walk down to the same elevator (no spooky lady this time) and through the same hallway where other slaves spat on me through a grate, in order to do more slave tasks.
My time with Gollum was neatly divided into traversal challenges, walking (crawling, really) simulation, and a soupcon of dialogue choices. Daedalic has promoted the game as a chance to really get inside the fractured mind of the lowliest victim of Sauron’s cruelty. In my roughly two hours of experience, I suspect that that Daedalic later applies the Smeagol/Gollum dynamic to more nuanced choices than the single one I encountered.
But even in the more casual, less consequential dialogue options I saw, Gollum seems to be resting on an interpretation of Gollum’s “personalities” that rings false to Tolkien’s writing. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s not that Gollum is bad and Smeagol is a sweet wittle baby what never done did any wrong. Smeagol is simply a passive and craven voice, seated in tandem with Gollum’s violent and manic one. Sam called him “Slinker and Stinker,” after all, not “the Nice One and Stinker.”
The easy response to The Lord of the Rings: Gollum is to dismissively ask, “Out of the whole Lord of the Rings, why would you make a game about Gollum?” But one can conceive of any number of ways to make a great video game about Gollum. I’d at least check out a goofy Gollum fishing game for mobile! I’d 100% an Untitled Goose Game-style romp through the major beats of The Lord of the Rings. I’d look up strategies for a deck-builder “riddle” game where you play against lost orcs that wander down to your pool and eventually the final boss, that cheater Bilbo Baggins.
A better question is: “Why did you make this video game about Gollum?” If you’re gonna make a simulation game about a Wretched Creature in a Wretched Situation, it’s either got to be meaningful and immersive, or it’s gotta have a Heeheehoohoo Factor. Based on trailers and certain hints in the opening hours of Gollum, I know that there’s gameplay on the other side of Mordor in store. But the lack of personality has already sealed my save file’s doom (doom, drums in the deep). I’ve seen these orcs before; I’ve seen this Mordor before. It’s a version of Middle-earth played utterly straight, but without the creativity or flexibility to maintain immersion.
I wasn’t just imprisoned in a cell by orcs. I was also imprisoned by a game that wanted me to find eight dog tags from eight slave corpses hidden in the mines before I could move on to the not-slave part of the game. The memory of strawberries might have kept Frodo going through Mordor, but I can just turn the game off.
The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was released on May 25 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Daedalic Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.