FAITH AND DEVOTION SEASON: Meet the Bright Lord. Same as the old boss

By Neil Merrett

Middle-earth: Shadow of War, released on PS4 in 2017, developed by Monolith Productions and IUGO

Spoiler warning: The following post discusses major plot points of the game, Shadow of War.

The idea of playing a doomed videogame protagonist who spends real world hours and days on an entertaining and ultimately futile quest of violence can be a difficult concept to fashion into a satisfying interactive narrative. Yet Shadow of War’s focus on the ultimately corrupting and destructive nature of great power when wedded to even the most righteous fury and anger feels an apt tale to set in a digital Middle-earth. 

It might sound ridiculous to ask, but in the realm of fantasy politics, what rights should an orc have?  Is it so ludicrous to ask if a seemingly one-dimensional hateful monster deserves compassion and empathy, especially when their own sole purpose is to just stab and eat things?

These are the types of questions a gamer may find themselves contemplating after having spent dozens and dozens of hours murdering, battling and brainwashing their way through the Lord of the Rings-themed videogame, Shadow of War.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to play through this action-adventure RPG, one where the player battles demons and liberates captured humans, and enjoy it as a fairly straightforward, rollicking adventure game.

And yet, in the entertaining process of upgrading of the main character’s abilities and superpowers to make them an even more spiteful slayer of orcs, some questions may begin to accumulate in the player’s mind about whether what they are doing is right.  This can feel a little odd after blowing up an umpteenth enemy encampment in an explosion of poisonous green flame and trying to ensure as large a body count as possible.

Ultimately, the player’s single-minded objective in Shadow of War is to pursue redemptive violence. The player is tasked with saving Middle-earth almost exclusively through the art of killing and maiming. This is certainly not unique for a videogame. 

When facing unsurmountable odds and a near certain murderous apocalypse, perhaps a terrifying conquering horde can only be stopped by employing equally brutal and terrible means. Does a good hero have to be ‘good’?

It stands to reason then, that the natural counterbalance to an all powerful ‘Dark Lord’ would therefore be a ‘Bright Lord’ with its own conquering horde. This is the role that the player assumes – a self-proclaimed being of light, encased in the form of a heteronormative hero type with great hair and some bad ass sword and bow skills. Granted, the player is sharing the main character with the spirit of a vengeful ghost king that allows them to use many of the Dark Lord’s terrifying techniques directly against the bad guys.

It is one thing to match the powers of the forces of evil, but what responsibility do the oppressed and downtrodden have to be better than those they seek to defeat?

This is one of the theme’s of Shadow of War, a sprawling fantasy combat game set in J R R Tolkien‘s Middle-earth – the fictional realm where the Lord of the Rings series takes place.

A spite simulator

When first encountered the game in 2020, it found the experience to be akin to an exciting swords and sorcery ‘spite simulator’ – a game where your main purpose is to hunt down and brutally murder enemy armies and shame their leaders.

At the same time, the player often finds themselves being hunted down by equally brutal enemies that they have previously felled or a close friend or relation to them. Occasionally, the player may find a carefully constructed sneak attack being ruined by a last-minute ambush.

A successful attempt to slay the player character will grant the enemy a new title and also level up their abilities to make them even more brutal. This in turn gives the player a chance to return the favour and destroy them in an entertaining and escalating  campaign of tit-for-tat violence.

This almost mindless violence, where the player can use rooftops, explosions, and poisoned beer kegs to their advantage, can at times feel more like a superhero game where you leap from rooftop to rooftop punishing unsuspecting goons with superpowers.  Perhaps most surprisingly, at the game’s spiteful best, Shadow of War becomes almost like a swords and sorcery riff on the Home Alone movies, where the player can revel in humiliating their opponents by luring them into a series of brutal traps and turning the surrounding environment against them.

Regardless of whether the player character is a tortured warrior returned from the grave to avenge monstrous injustice, or a frightened Pre-teen from Illinois, there is clearly an appeal to decimating videogame opponents with pure brutality and cruel retribution.

In playing through the game, the player finds their violent actions attached to a story that is very much in keeping with Tolkien’s epic tales about the corruptive influence of power on good intentions and the resulting responsibility and burden of leadership.

The player controlled character of Talion is a warrior and ranger reborn to be the shared vessel of the player and a vengeful king that wishes to use a terrifying ring of power to bring an end to the oppressive Dark Lord for good.

Killing in the name of

As the game progresses, the player is charged with building their own army of brainwashed orcs to serve as a counter army to the Dark Lord’s forces.  It is, in theory, conquering a world at war to save it.

Yes, you are murdering and forcing sentient creatures against their will to serve you to enforce their will.  But it is all being done in the name of the Bright Lord, a potentially all powerful being that carries a much more aesthetically pleasing banner and colour scheme to the evil Sauron.

Reclaiming conquered lands under the name of the Bright Lord can be a lot of fun, and anything has got to be better that serving a dark lord, right?

The game’s narrative, ultimately plays with the idea that Talion’s quest, may ultimately just be a victory of semantics over a meaningful moral crusade.

Even by succeeding in completing the game and the majority of the main story’s side quests, the bright lord ultimately fails by the conclusion of Shadow of War. As the character is warned throughout the game, to wield a ring of power is to be subsumed by it, regardless of the wielder’s intentions or how justified their anger is.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to the player, or any casual fan of the Lord of the Rings.  Shadow of war puts you through brutal battles with noble men and kings that have been reshaped and repurposed as monstrous Ringwraiths. These are soulless beings whose humanity was lost in their righteous pursuit of violent retribution. 

The player follows the same path and tragic end. For all their moral certainty and understanding of the evils of the Dark Lord, and despite continued warnings from both NPCs and the game’s own narrative, talion ends up equally lost and broken. The player’s struggles to battle to liberate Middle-earth are doomed.  This is at least until a group of plucky little people come to try and clear up your mess in another story.

Doomed interactive protagonists

There can be something a little unsatisfying about playing through a videogame about an ultimately doomed protagonist.  Games, as a medium, are about giving a player the sensation of making meaningful changes through their actions – actively influencing a story in a way that feels authentic and giving a player control.

Having spent hours and hours battling and building armies, perhaps even by trying to look after and even rescue your orc lieutenants, to still be told that you were a footnote and faceless henchman in someone’s else’s story can be ultimately anti-climactic.

Gamers are often charged with saving a world, and not just dooming it to more of the same.

If the player truly had real control, surely the bright lord would not have failed and become one and the same with a great evil.  There is little but no choice to ultimately fail in your quest – no matter how good a player may be or how high their level, So what is the point then of playing a game for days on end to be told your entertaining conquests were ultimately meaningless, other than just being a diverting excuse to blow up orcs?

As games become evermore sophisticated both technically and narratively, players will likely demand to feel their choices really matter.  The more and more lifelike and complex the choices a player is asked to make, the more they will expect to feel like they have had control over the outcome of the story.

Even games such as Triangle Strategy, a fantasy turn-based strategy title that gives the player much more significant choices on steering the in-game story, are not immune from forcing a player down one of a handful of pre-written endings.  These limited number of conclusions to the player’s story can feel a little jarring based on the myriad political and moral choices they have made throughout the game.

By comparison to Triangle’s Strategy more nuanced take on heroism and the unintended consequences of direct action, the bright lord’s pre-ordained failure does feel an oddly satisfying end for a game such as Shadow of War.

“All shall love me and despair”

The player’s journey through the game is an entertaining and unrelenting campaign of stabbing and explosive traps, all channelled through the prism of utter spite and entertaining violence.  .

The player is trapped in an exciting loop of brutal combat as a means to get stronger and stronger so you can get ever more effective at stabbing, maiming and blowing things up against ever more powerful foes.

You get incredible power to change the game world, but ultimately, to play Shadow of War is just to end up getting lost in an enjoyable cycle of poisoning, maiming and exploding things. The ring of power will eventually win, so you may as well enjoy the ride while you have the choice to.

You also get hours and hours of entertaining vengeance, but ultimately, it resolves very little.  A ‘Bright Lord’ may look and sound the part when to comes to having great power. But if it acts and behaves no differently to that which it opposes – what is the point of it all? Thank heavens that Shadow of War is a lot of fun, because you might just find the final fate of your bright lord to be a bit of a bummer.


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