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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Shadow of War, a game which plays as fast and loose with the Tolkien canon as possible while still ostensibly being set in the same universe. I had a hankering for something action-y and, lacking the time and energy to try anything new, I halfheartedly reinstalled it. For the uninitiated, this is a game about collecting an army of orcs of every stripe with the end goal of beating Sauron at his own game. Each of these orcs is randomly generated with their own set of traits and looks, and each responds and develops in
accordance with their interaction with your character. It’s a game, essentially, of Orcémon.
The story is pretty simple and relies on some familiar tropes. Celebrimbor is a vengeance-obsessed wraith, the undead spectre of the elf who crafted the magic jewelry Sauron is so fond of. He is a knight templar extremist for whom the end justifies the means. He is a murder-ghost.
But murder-ghosts can’t just exist in the world. They need a body with which to murder. Celebrimbor’s human jalopy is a man named Talion, the mandatory AAA-game grim dark protagonist. A former ranger of Gondor whose family suffered death by origin story, Talion is just as desirous of vengeance – but unlike Celebrimbor, Talion is supposed to have scruples. The question is whether there is a line beyond which Celebrimbor cannot push Talion. Essentially, it’s Training Day in Middle Earth but less interesting.
That being said, I don’t want to talk about what the story does, but what it doesn’t do. There’s something I wish Shadow of War would have dealt with. Something it continuously hints at, but never quite deals with – a repressed memory it would rather ignore but which bubbles to the surface nevertheless. My issue, dear reader, is with orcs, and their depiction as being inherently evil.
“But Dan”, you shriek from outside my window, “That’s hardly Shadow of War’s fault. Most fantasy depicts orcs as thuggish, brutal creatures.” “You’re quite right, and that’s a problem”, I reply. “The thing is, this game missed a great opportunity to handle it differently. Let me explain while I call the police”
What got me thinking about this was something that happened when I was playing the other day. There’s a mechanic in the game that made me so uncomfortable, I never used it on my first playthrough. The mechanic is known as ‘shaming’: you can, if you’re feeling particularly vindictive, brand Orcs you’ve defeated with your palm-print, á la Saruman. The orc then toddles off, and, thus marked, loses face in orc society (which in the game’s universe is heavily based around status).
However, ever conscious of the fact that I am a huge wuss who always avoids playing a villain in games, this time I decided I would at least give it a try. I wanted to explore all of Shadow of War’s systems and see how it would affect the orcs I engaged with. Shadow of War even makes an effort to encourage you to use the mechanic for practical reasons: Status, it seems, is so important in orc society, it gets incorporated into their in-game level. Orcs who are a higher level than Talion cannot be recruited. See a cool Orc you want on Team Murderghost? You’re either gonna have to out level them or shame them. Humiliating the orc before his friends and family serves to drop their level so that they can later be recruited. Much in the same way that the surest way to make friends with me is to embarrass me publicly.
Except it can backfire. One of the very first Orcs I did this to, rather than levelling down, actually jumped up a bunch of levels. Adopting the moniker “the Unashamed”, he painted himself entirely in white hands, and began styling himself a sort of rallying point against me. All his speeches from there on out identified him as a sort of folk hero for orcs. He was the one I couldn’t break – the orc who refused to be shamed by me. I put down the controller to chew over what I was feeling.
Here was something different, something interesting. I was now the villain in this orc’s narrative – I was the tyrant, a monster terrorising his society and brainwashing his people. He was the resistance. Honestly, I wanted to follow his story more than the buddy-cop routine of Celebrimbor and Talion. And I started to wonder – why doesn’t the game pull on this thread more? Why, when we spend so much time with the orcs, does Shadow of War seem to have so little sympathy for them?
In fairness, the game’s through line is that you are as bad as Sauron. The hints at this vary from almost subtle (Sauron’s thematic colour is red, as in his fiery eye, Celebrimbor’s is a cold harsh blue) to the blatant (Celebrimbor’s sobriquet among the orcs is the Bright Lord to contrast with Sauron’s Dark).
Moreover Celebrimbor is at times outlandishly evil, his tolerance for orcs being nil, his style of leadership fascistic. He is completely uninterested in any possibility of redeeming any of them, even the most loyal and friendly of them. He has no compunctions about taking away their free will. Meanwhile Talion at times seems to be two different characters – occasionally he will express regret and discomfort with his actions, but mainly because the methods he’s using resemble Sauron’s. He appears not to be disturbed by causing the orcs pain or fear, indeed he seems positively to relish in it. It’s discomfiting, because – as with the Unashamed – you meet a
number of orcs throughout Shadow of War who seem to have noble intentions or characteristics. There is also, to be sure, a little exploration of how your brainwashing affects the orcs.
Rather late in the game, you wind up breaking the mind of Bruz – a character who appears in an early tutorial (ironically intended to help explain the brainwashing mechanics), in a vicious shaming as punishment for betraying you. Ratbag, a recurring character from the first game, even expresses horror at what you’ve done. Bruz then starts reappearing constantly, chasing you and howling that he’s sorry, and in my game at least continued to do so until I killed him. It is a very unsettling experience.
It’s rather well done. It’s clearly intended to make you feel bad. And this is the moment the game could have turned the story on its head. This is the moment it could have become an interesting and original narrative. How much more compelling would it have been if the orcs were neither villains nor tools, but rather a people of their own, caught in the struggle between two tyrants – Celebrimbor and Sauron?
But we never get this. Celebrimbor’s extremism, Bruz’s torture, your thematic reflection of Sauron – all are consistently undermined by the way Shadow of War handles the orcs, who are in the main depicted as cowardly, treacherous and sadistic. There is no real discussion of them outside of their use in your war. The game is willing to point out that you are as bad as Sauron, but not willing to go the extra mile and consider what the orcs might be in the absence of either of you.
The problem is, Shadow of War can never make up its mind on its politics. Is it a re-imagining of
Tolkien’s mythos, condemning the implicit racism in how the orcs are treated in the lore? At times – as with the Unashamed, or Bruz – it almost seems to want to be. This is more important than you might think. The way we explore society and people in our fiction has implications for how we think about our own world. The author NK Jemisin has written with considerably more fluency than I can about the racism inherent in traditional fantasy orcs.
It makes for uncomfortable but important reading. Even as a Tolkien fan, I have to agree that old-fashioned
orcs are heavily influenced by turn of the 20th century racist caricatures. Drawing on that kind of material without questioning or challenging it should give us pause. It’s also frankly boring to have an entire race in your fiction characterised by unthinking evil. Even villains should have depth.
If this is the game’s point, though, it could do a better job of making it. You spend most of your time romping through Mordor – a great opportunity, you might think, to shine a light on orc society and encourage the player to empathise with them. Again, there are some indications that someone at developer Monolith was thinking about this. There are orc musicians you can encounter, and orc archivists, necessarily implying the existence of some kind of culture. Some orcs become each other’s sworn blood brothers, so certainly they are capable of positive feelings.
But the honorable orcs, folk hero orcs, and artistic orcs are vastly outnumbered by the cartoonishly evil orcs. I have encountered orcs who imply they will defile Talion’s corpse, who taunt him about the death of his wife and child, who eat not just humans but other orcs (thus making them orc cannibals). Most orcs are also portrayed as primitive, wearing the flayed skins of their enemies, or mounting their skulls on their armour. Their technology seems designed only to kill.
Are the orcs born evil and utterly irredeemable, or are they much more complex than the “good” races of Middle Earth want to believe? Are Talion and Celebrimbor right, or are they unreliable narrators? Shadow of War can never quite made up its mind, keeping firmly a foot in both camps – one in the dumb action game where you mow down hordes of bestial creatures and one just-about-toeing the line of “Hey, maybe this is bad.” The problem of course is that just barely toeing the line is not enough when the rest of Shadow of War is about creatively murdering the orcs in their thousands.
There was room for a more interesting game in Shadow of War. Give us Middle Earth (or something similar) from the orc’s point of view – give us the perspective of a people hated by everyone, and ruled over by a tyrant. Or keep Talion / Celebrimbor if you must, but develop the orcs more. Do they have political leaders? What are their aims? Do they want, ultimately, to establish a homeland or nation of their own, a place they can live in peace and safety, far from the depredations of men and out from under Sauron’s thumb? If you ask me, that would be far more interesting than Celebrimbor and Talion’s Excellent Murderventure.