In 2002, we had a lot of questions about the upcoming blockbuster event, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
We knew that a fellowship of hobbits, men, an elf, and a dwarf had dispersed during the holiday season of 2001. Frodo the Ringbearer and his companion Sam had fled toward the eastern horizon in search of a mountain that could kill a piece of jewelry. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli were left to their own devices. Gandalf was dead. Everything was ripped into chaos.
Into this fray stepped EA Games’ The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. A multiplatform game that first appeared in October of 2002 for the Playstation 2, it was released two months before the film of the same name. Bizarrely, its content was half Fellowship of the Ring and half The Two Towers, but at the time we were willing to accept that. The game took the strange route of combining live-action footage from the films with in-engine cutscenes and gameplay, stitching these two mediums together “seamlessly” to make it all one thing.
Viggo Mortensen would be on the screen, and then he would morph into a lumpy digital Aragorn who you could control, in third-person action gameplay that was a little bit Gauntlet Legends and a little bit Devil May Cry. What was so magical about The Two Towers is that the bending of the Lord of the Rings films’ plot to video game tendencies felt both perfectly executed and somehow missed the point of the entire series.
This partially has to do with the genre that the game finds itself in. Movie tie-in games have always been wild cards in the video game economy. E.T. for the Atari was famously overproduced and sold so poorly that it was dumped in a landfill. The Lion King for the Super Nintendo was an iron-hard challenge that functionally bullied thousands of children. Goldeneye 64 defined “social gaming” for an entire generation. In between these low-and-high marks were dozens of middling games like the side-scrolling beat ‘em up Beverly Hills Cop or 1997’s The Crow: City of Angels for the PS1. These were games that were functionally about making a little more cash off of some intellectual property, no more, no less.
And, look, I get it. It’s hard as hell to adapt an existing property into a video game. Developers are handed a pre-baked set of ideas and told to cram them into the framework of a video game. It’s hard enough to make a video game with relative freedom, let alone within a limited set of concepts that someone else gave you.
Where The Two Towers succeeded where so many others failed, though, is in how it crammed. The game is unique because it doesn’t try to tell a “side story” or a thematically similar one. For example, the video game Minority Report, also released in 2002, chose to tread some of the same ground as the film, while clearly taking different approaches to certain plot elements to reach roughly the same narrative beats.
The Two Towers leaned into The Lord of the Rings films, not pretending that they were somehow “something else,” but instead putting footage of the film right in the game so that you knew exactly where you were picking up with your favorite characters. This is not a game that is selling you on the fantasy of the broad concept of The Lord of the Rings. This is a game that is giving you the opportunity to take control of Aragorn’s body and learn exactly how he does his best orc-killing combos.
The game also depicts what is happening between the cuts of the film. When you watch The Fellowship of the Ring, the magic of cinematic editing can take the film’s setting from the snowy peak of Caradhras to the entrance to Moria in a single frame. Time and space are compressed in the gap, and our acceptance of the visual language of cinema is what makes that “work” when we watch it.
The Two Towers video game makes a meal out of these gaps. We learn exactly how the Fellowship fought its way to the gates of Moria: By carving through approximately 10 billion goblins that hounded them at every moment between the start and end of the level, topping it off with a boss battle against the sea monster thing that smashes the doors that trap them in Moria. I also assume that it ate Bill the Pony.
In 2002, and to some degree now, I love the idea of getting a little more of these characters. The road the Fellowship took was a hard one, and while we saw plenty of important moments in the film, there were certainly skirmishes and close calls that the games bring into the picture. When this is combined with the general difficulty of the hack-and-slash gameplay, it paints a picture of a harrowing journey, and battles that are more than just their cinematic flash. If video games can do one thing well, it is that they can give someone a sense of a hard-won victory. The Two Towers excels there.
But while fighting 10 billion goblins might have been delicious, it wasn’t exactly nutritious. It was pretty clear to me then — and is absolutely crystal to me now — that The Lord of the Rings is not really a story about badass sword fights and dwarven axe throwing. Those things happen, for sure, but they happen because they have to due to the nature of the conflict that’s occurring. As far as I know, Tolkien never wrote about Legolas learning new critical attacks or meditating with all his might to increase the damage of his arrows. These concepts, of accruing power for its own sake and mastering things simply to dominate one’s enemies, seem like some real Sauron things to do, which really throws the whole apparatus of video games into question.
While playing through the game again for this piece, I was hit with a pang of loss. For me, the way that The Two Towers puts you into Tolkien’s world and tasks you with enacting some of the most interesting parts of the first two films puts it on par with those films. I can’t easily separate them from one another. Arguably, it was part of a golden age of tie-in games, alongside Enter the Matrix’s official plot elements that led directly to the second film of that trilogy and Spider-Man 2’s immaculate web-swinging mechanics that have only recently even been approximated by other games. These early 2000s video games understood that games could operate hand-in-hand with films, not simply exist as something to shovel out the door to make a quick buck.
It might also be the last Lord of the Rings game to have any sort of dignity or grace to it. The property has largely been reduced to a lore rubric that sticks like oil to any genre of game you want to throw it at. From the blocks and self-parody of Lego games to the Sexy Shelobs and enslavement mechanics of the Shadow games, whatever cachet this universe had has been plowed under in the drive to make it a universally marketable action franchise. When Amazon’s Tolkien series finally emerges, the best we can hope for is a Match 3 game with a Rings story; the worst is a Call of Duty: Warzone tie in pack where you can pay $20 to suit up as Sauron and an AK-47 blueprint that melts people with the the lava of Mount Doom when you score the killing blow.
In 2002, we were hungry for anything to do with The Lord of the Rings, and The Two Towers was a feast, giving us the best of what the movie tie-in game could offer. It’s a high mark that Middle Earth is unlikely to see again.