For a while, I had really wanted to play the Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, and got a digital copy of the Game of the Year edition on PSN Christmas sale for 7 dollars. I thought I was going be playing an action/adventure game, in the same style as the Batman: Arkham game series, with the added game play features of being able to do in depth plots against enemies or even turn them to my side. What I ended up with was a great game that made me question a number of things that I hadn’t really considered. It made me rethink my thoughts on how society, and myself, look at what is deemed justifiable in dealing with conflicts with people, or creatures in this case, that are different from what is put forth as normal. I had to look at myself, and how I felt about what I was willing to do to further my own agendas in the game world. In the end, as corny as it sounds, the game wasn’t just another game to me, but a mirror I had to look through, and make a judgement about the type of person I was and the real world I lived in.
First, let’s back up and explain what the game is and how it works. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that takes place in the J. R. R. Tolkien created universe from his books including “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. It has combat similar to the games belonging to the Batman: Arkham series that have event driven actions like being able to block or dodge when enemies are about to attack you. In the game, you play as Talion, a Ranger who, with his brethren, guards the gates of Mordor, a region ruled by the Dark Lord Sauron and his army of evil minions including creatures known as Uruks. Talion’s backstory is that he was made to become a Ranger and sent to guard this gate, with his wife and son in tow, because he murdered a man that attacked his wife. After years of this, the gate is attacked by an army of Uruks led by a commander known as The Dark Hand. Talion and his family are captured, and used in a ritual where they are murdered to bring back the spirit of an Elven Lord named Celebrimbor. Talion awakens in Mordor in a state of being alive, but is unable to die with Celebrimbor inhibiting his body. Celebrimbor is a Ring Wraith, a being with all types of spirit powers, and, being in Talion’s body, allows Talion to use these powers. Talion swears vengeance against The Dark Hand for the deaths of his family and himself, but has an army of Uruks in Mordor deal with before he can get close to him.
The game’s main mechanic is that the evil army of Uruks has loose groups within it that are run by Captains, and these Captains can have Warchiefs above them. I’ll refer to both as targets. These targets can have attributes that give them positive abilities or exploitable weaknesses. The attributes can be combined in procedurally generated targets to allow things like one to be invincible to stealth attacks and weak to ranged attacks while another can be invincible to both and have the ability to track you down anywhere in the game world. This means that each can be uniquely different from each other, and their strengths and weakness are unknown to you until you dig up information on them or directly face them. You gather information on targets though finding specific human slaves of the Uruks that act as informants or finding a cowardly type of Uruk designated as “Worms” who you can interrogate. If you face a target without knowing this information, it can easily lead you into another mechanic in the game involving failure. If you die in the game, your enemies get stronger. If you are killed by a regular NPC enemy or targets, they can be promoted to a higher rank, making them stronger with new strengths and less weaknesses, and making the game harder overall. This leads to a very satisfying game loop of getting information on a target, planning your attack on them, and carrying it out within a mission directly connected to the target or finding and executing it on them in the game world. It turns into an actual gameplay loop when the game generates new targets to replace the ones you’ve eliminated. The loop starts to wear thin around the middle of the game, until it introduces the Branding mechanic. This changes the game, and takes it to a new incredible level. For me, it gave me pause and made me question things that I had never really thought about before.
The Branding abilities allow you take some form on control of enemies. Branded regular NPC enemies are not hostile to you, attack other enemies that are attacking you, and can be given simple commands or be acted upon by other connected abilities. Branding targets causes any enemies under their control to act the same towards you and allows you to give them actual commands like attack another target, give you full information on another target, or get initiated into the service of a higher target in order to later betray them to you. These can open up missions around them where you use the branded target against the intended target. The game is transformed from a tactical murderfest to strategic war chess. You go from killing any that moves to protecting valuable branded targets, holding back in battle to make sure you aren’t killing new allies, deciding which of one of your pals to send against a target, and setting up your own hierarchy of generals to suppress other targets from gaining power. This is where the questions started coming in.
Uruks are, by their nature, murderous psychopaths that hate and scheme against each other and will kill your character, Talion, without a second thought. Talion has no love for them either, even the ones that are working with him of their own free will to further both their goals. I had no problem with any of this since video games and popular fantasy based media have always taught me that evil things need to die for the greater good. I slaughtered them with impunity and usually enjoyed it. Branding, in the game’s story, is the ability to alter an enemy to be enslaved to your will. The option was more beneficial than murder, so I had no problem with it at first. When I have heard people talk about this game, they speak of having some affection towards their favorite branded target, but that was not my experience. It was when I had to protect branded targets that were of strategic value to me before sending them out on dangerous missions that the nameless Uruks started being more than fodder. I started seeing them as people I was dealing with in the game, and that I was using them as if they were slave labor. I began to wonder if I was any better than them. Uruks, in the game, employed human slaves to do their manual labor, and I had been willing to slice open the slave masters for their crimes with righteous fury. I was supposed to be the good guy but started to feel like I was crossing a line.
In both the real world and the game story, there is the idea of using the enemy’s weapon against them. In the game, the weapon is the Uruks, who are represented as people created for evil intents, but they have the ability to reason and have some type of culture. The Uruks went from being generic game NPCs to a people that were made different by their origin and shaped by the makeshift society that was born of it. They were being used as throw away soldiers by their creator and I was doing the same when I had the power to do so. What made me different than the great evil I was facing? It led me to think about the nature of slavery for the purpose of eternal warfare and my predilection for killing earlier in the game, and wondered which was more merciful. Are all things truly fair in war especially for those in the middle of it? I started thinking about these things in reference to my own family background.
In reality, I am an almost 40 year old black man, who is a husband and father of three, living in the American South. I have memories of my long departed great grandmother telling me stories of picking cotton with her mother. She was born in the late 1800’s, a couple decades after the official end of slavery, but former slaves and their families still worked the cotton fields for low wages. That was all they knew how to do to make a living. It was arguably another form of slavery where a people were made to work for someone else’s benefit with little in it for themselves. This is the lens I looked at these questions through. Slavery, in all the forms it has taken throughout human history, is an abomination of the combining of ideas that there is a lesser people, race, or group that aren’t deserving of human compassion and that there is a need so great that the lesser must be used to satisfy it. That stuck in my mind as what I was willing to do to the Uruks. That was where some of the game themes end up going, from my perspective, but it is not the game that asked the questions, but me looking at myself for answers. I had to make the distinction of what the game was conveying and what I was getting out of it.
For others who played this game, they will probably see things different from me, ask different questions, and get different answers if they bother contemplating any of this at all. I can give you what I took away from all of this, my personal opinion of it and where I ended up. I really liked this game, and did a 100% completion playthrough of it. While the game presented an interesting setup that gave birth to thought provoking questions, it did not ask the questions nor answer them. I don’t hold it against it and I take anything away from the great experience it gave me. My parting feeling on it is that the game should be played for what it was, but the player should be the one to keep these questions in mind and remember the lessons that human history has taught us. In the game, I finished it by killing and enslaving the Uruks as I needed to be successful, and let the game be the game. In reality, I came to the conclusion that the ideas of enslaving people for whatever reason, greater good or otherwise, makes you just as much a villain as anyone else. My hope in writing this article is that gamers, when playing this or any other game, will be willing look deeper into the themes that they are presented, and discern the true realities of what it is truly delving into. You just might find that the game’s great idea might be based on one of humanity’s worst.