The Orcs of 'Shadow of War' Face a Fate Worse Than Death
Austin Walker and Cameron Kunzelman hash out their feelings about fantasy enslavement, lootboxes, and procedurally generated storytelling in the latest Lord of the Rings game.
All screenshots courtesy of Warner Bros.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Here we are, living on a world where they made Shadow of War, the sequel to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. I remember the preview materials for that first game really well. One of them was a video that showed Talion, a ranger killed by the servants of Sauron in the time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings proper, stalking through an orc encampment. The beginning was this weird combo of Assassin's Creed stalking and killing and Batman beat-em-up combat action, but then the big reveal was the combination of domination and the Nemesis System.
The Nemesis System has been talked about near-infinitely, and that's because I think it's the Mordor series's only unique feature. As you know, it's a way of procedurally (or programmatically) generating non-player characters in the form of orcs for Talion to fight and, ultimately, dominate in the service of his mission. Way back around release you wrote about this whole thing for Paste, and I remember clearly that you wrote about how there was no way to "dress up" the things that Talion did to the orcs. He enslaves them. The Nemesis System is a way of procedurally generating more interesting beings to enslave (I wrote about how the sequel tries to be reflexive about this earlier this week for Polygon).
I know you've put a lot of time into this game so far, and I'm curious if you see the same patterns repeating here. What do you think has moved here? I have my own thoughts, especially regarding the orc and troll characters who get highlighted in the game's story, but I'm curious about what's standing out for you.
Article continues below.
The biggest thing that stood out for me in the ten hours (a paltry chunk of this whole, overlong game) was how much my experience mirrored the one I'd had the first time around. Here were these orcs, each component piece lovingly rendered by an artist and then compiled by a sort of Tolkein-esque bingo machine; here was my blade, going into their skulls; here, my mystical brand compelling them to kneel and obey. I felt a sort of echo in time: God, am I going to need to make the same argument all over again?
Yes, this time the game seemed to know that all of this was shitty—Celebrimbor, your ghostly guide, is consistently painted as a caricature of utilitarian 'the-ends-justify-the-means' thinking. He's a sort of Henry Kissinger of Mordor, whispering into Talion's ear how his realpolitk worldview is the only way to see justice done. Slavery isn't a necessary evil, he argues, it is the only sensible strategy at all.
But as you pointed out in your piece at Polygon, there is a real disconnect between what this game says and what this game has you luxuriate in. Shadow of War's Nemesis System remains the primary draw here, and enslaving supposedly sub-human creatures is the fuel to that engine. It just doesn't work as intended until you're sending your lieutenants to brawl in the fight pits and ambush their former leaders. (And hey, this time around there's a chance that they'll break free from your mind control. Good on 'em.)
So, midway into the game's second act, that's what stood out to me: Same as it ever was. And I really, really didn't want to dive back into these depths, unpacking minor changes in systems design and whether or not that led to larger shifts in what the game was saying. I worried that such a take would be necessary since everyone else was just talking about lootboxes. Thankfully between your great Polygon piece and this fantastic Matthew Gault essay over on Motherboard, the answer was no. I could go about my business, talk about the game on the podcast, and move on.
Then I realized I should've been paying closer attention to the lootboxes.
Which I'll get to in a second, but first tell me what's up with these orc and troll characters? I'm like 25, 30 hours into that game at this point and I'm not fully sure who you mean. I'm guessing that's because I haven't finished a few key quest lines yet.
Cameron: Ok, so there is this character named Bruz. You might remember him as the weird centerpiece of the E3 2017's gameplay trailer that was meant to get us super excited for this game. He's a murderous, violent creature, and then Talion dominates him and he turns into a comedy relief character. It was some strange whiplash then, and now with the full game out, it's even stranger in the context of the general narrative arcs of the game.
I think there's two pretty clear narrative threads in Shadow of War. The first is centered on a small number of refugees from Gondor, and the second is about Talion and a few named orcs who show up in cutscenes every now and again. Ratbag, an orc from the first game, shows up alongside his best friend Ranger (their relationship is legitimately the best thing in this game). Bruz is also in this set, and their whole purpose is to exist as dominated yes-men (they're all gendered male) for Talion's surging campaign of taking over all the fortresses of Mordor. The game really relies on these characters to fill out the feelings and emotions of orcs outside of the encounters you have with them in combat; Shadow of War is uncannily committed to showing that the orcs and trolls are thinking, feeling, real people (which is what really drives the grossness of the Nemesis System home).
My point, though, is that we get all of this "face time" with Bruz, who is a wholly realized character. He's a little one dimensional, but honestly, that's a general feeling about every character in the game. There is a set of missions centered around him, and they eventually lead you to a place where Bruz betrays you. He helps you take a fort, and then kills you to take the fort for himself. It's yet one more piece of evidence that orcs and trolls have their own motives, thoughts, and feelings outside of those of the Dark and Bright Lords, but I digress; it's a surprising moment because the dominated have, generally, stayed dominated.
The game takes a cruel turn here, though, because Celebrimbor is clear that Bruz needs to be made an example of. The chain of Bruz missions takes us down a long path of taking the fort back and a series of hostage situations with Bruz acting as the Hans Gruber to Talion's Bruce Willis. All the while, Celebrimbor is impressing on us that Bruz must be made an example of. He can't be allowed to show that orcs and trolls can rebel against their masters.
Side note: What a prolonged and uncomfortable set of missions with this ghost elf supremacist whispering in your ear 24/7.
When you finally fight Bruz, you're encouraged to "shame" him. Talion can use his spirit-infused hand to literally brand his handprint into the face of a high-level orc or troll, shaming him in front of his entire species. We're told to brand Bruz in this way so that others know he was soundly defeated in combat and, in the worst case scenario, allowed to live by the grace of the one who defeated him.
When I did it, Bruz went mad. He became so distressed that he went insane. There's a mechanic in SoW that allows for this to happen; it's possible that when you shame an enemy, they become so distressed at the possibility of being humbled that they literally become a raving, gibbering character. It's very much "insanity from a 19th century novel," and my god, I felt so bad. It's a tragedy, and it's written to be a tragedy. No one stumbled into this, and would you believe it if I told you that it didn't stop there?
Bruz comes back. I found him guarding a fortress, and the only thing he could say was "I don't want the fort." He screamed it, over and over again, impressing that he did not really want the fort. His whole being had been compressed down into that one thing (a metaphor for the life of these NPCs, eh?). So I killed him in combat, hoping that would at least put my heart at ease about what I had done to him. Then he came back, again, in a surprise encounter. He wasn't really dead, and he still didn't want the fort. This time I decapitated him, hoping that it was finally the end of this haunting set of encounters.
He showed up again, though. He'd been resurrected by a necromancer. He had a cage over his face, and it held the head I had sliced off in perfect position. When I triggered his fight, he did not speak. He simply stared into the camera. Silence dominated the scene. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and I wished that he wasn't caught up in this whole thing. I wished that I wasn't caught up in this whole thing.
I'll be honest, though, and tell you that I was so weary toward the end of the game that I didn't do anything with loot boxes in my playthrough. I was too focused on hammering out all of the quests, but it seems like they go you thinking. What's in those boxes?
Austin: Okay hold the phone, wait. I'm now extremely glad I didn't finish the Bruz questline. Fuck, dude. Bruz seemed cool as hell! Talion should've just let him have the fort! Dude put in work, he earned at least one fort.
What's actually interesting here is that Bruz's story is this careful blend of scripted and generated events (unless all of the Bruz stuff, necromancer included, was pre-penned, which seems unlikely). In your Polygon piece you stress a divide between narrative—Celebrimbor is clearly a fascist and Talion is a complicit abetter who will have to face his sins one day—and mechanics—the player happily enslaves countless orcs because it's a core mechanic and because the depth of the game happens there.
You asked what was in the lootboxes? People are, Cameron.
I think you and I have both written about various binaries that we use when analyzing games: "scripted" vs. "systemic," "gameplay" vs. "story," "easy" vs. "hard." They're useful to us as critics, even though they're often reductive, and sometimes because they're easy we can fall into the trap of forgetting that reality is way more complex than these simple dualities. Bruz's story sounds like it collapses that binary: It unfolds a singular, nihilistic narrative through a blend of hand-made content (writing, voice acting, quest design) and the dynamic storytelling of the Nemesis System.
That model of blending hand crafted and procedurally generated (or procgen) content seems like something we'll see more and more of in the next few years. (As a reminder, No Man's Sky did something very similar to great effect with their Atlas Rises patch earlier this year.) But there is something important to remember about this sort of storytelling as we continue down this road: The algorithm, as it were, is not neutral.
Maybe that phrase is a little hackneyed at this point, but it's still a good reminder that human hands build the machine hearts of procgen games, and human biases (or lack of foresight) can lead these story-engines to produce upsetting outcomes. (Remember RimWorld's truly fucked gender rules?) What Shadow of War taught me, though, is to pay attention to how procgen elements intersect not only with storytelling but also with other, more traditional game systems.
Case in point: You asked what was in the lootboxes? People are, Cameron.
Like I said, I spent my first dozen hours or so unable to find a fresh angle. Yeah, Shadow of War had new Nemesis System stuff, and yes, Celebrimbor was more obviously evil this time around. But but none of that shook up the fundamental reading I'd made in that Paste piece. But the reason I didn't see anything new is because I was only paying attention to the story and the Nemesis System. I should've been looking at the menus.
It was developer Katelyn Gadd who made me realize it. In a conversation I was having with her and a few other devs over on Twitter, she told the story about an orc she'd encountered, Pûg the Infested. After scaring him by dropping a colony of killer flies on him, he'd returned to her, the flies having now taken up residence inside of his body. When she finally killed him, he left behind a blade with a unique description: "I thank you for my glorious time with the buzzing swarm."
Loot. That's what was new about this visit to Mordor. Instead of simply using a single set of weapons throughout the game, Shadow of War had Talion churning through gear. Every named orc (and certain grunts, too) could drop generated equipment.
I don't know how I'd missed it. I had my own Pûg—that is how these games work, right, we all have that one character? I first met him while I was storming the game's first real fortress. Then, he was "Bûbol the Avenger," and when I defeated him he begged me set fire to his body for fear of what his brothers would do with it otherwise.
It was an unsettling moment, and as I predicted, a few hours later he'd return:
He'd become "Bûbol the Machine," a sort of Mordor-made cyborg. I fought him again, intending to add him to my forces. Things didn't go as intended. Now he's a cloak. Now I wear him.
Or, if I'm being honest, I wore him. He's not a particularly good cloak—only level 17 and with a set of abilities that don't really fit with my skillset. Hell, unlike the blade that Gadd's fly-colonized Pûg turned into, this cloak doesn't even have a unique description. It's just "Threshing Cloak (Bûbol the Machine)."
So maybe when I go home tonight, I'll turn "Bûbol the Threshing Cloak" into some coins. Then I'll go into the menu and I'll spend those coins on a loot box filled with more orcs to fight for me, more orcs who can help me turn other orcs into slaves or swords (or, if I'm being really efficient, both). This is the life cycle of an Orc in Shadow of War. They come into your life roaring and free, until you enslave them or turn them into gear, both of which help you keep the cycle going.
Cameron this sucks. And it sucks even more when understood inside of two specific contexts. First, the context of what other procgen games do.
"Everything about this is fucked," tweeted Gadd. "Someone wrote this. The idea of melting this weapon for currency is kinda upsetting. Melting the last trace of the horror I inflicted that he took ownership of. The game has no journal or battle log or orc history so this is all that's left."
We tell stories about made up characters all the time in games these days, and in many of those games, we're able to memorialize them. Ask anyone who have played the XCOM games about how long their memorial page is, or any Dwarf Fortress player about the tombs they build for heroic dorfs who've passed on. When I played the recently released Bomber Crew this week, I was legitimately moved when—after a dramatic failure that saw my entire flight team lost to the Atlantic Ocean—the main screen was updated with a monument to my fallen soldiers:
But this doesn't exist in Shadow of War as far as I can tell, and that is the first way in which is fully misses the mark. These orcs are by far the most interesting, charismatic, and human characters in the entire game, and the only memorial I have to them is an inventory screen. It is, in a year filled with debate about statues, valuable to think about who gets memorialized, how, and why.
Which leads to the second context that this exists in, one in which marginalized, dehumanized, and oppressed people around the world are used up by those who see them as a source of cheap labor power. Working class parents struggle to make ends meet, working in disappearing factories and in the underpaying service sector; young workers in places like Ghana and China haul and pick through western e-waste; the rise of the so called "gig economy" means that job growth mostly looks like an expansion of the temporary work sector. (And as you know, the orcs mostly sound like working class Brits, with the occasional Eastern European immigrant accent splashed in for variety.)
All of this is why, all at once, my feelings on these lootboxes totally changed. I'd thought of them in the same way as I did most other premium blind boxes: I personally like being able to toss devs a few extra bucks, but they're often designed to prey on those with addictive personalities. But after all this, when I stop with the euphemisms, I've realized that there's a pretty big difference between buying orcs in boxes and buying a FIFA Ultimate Team card: With the latter, you're buying the ability to play as an athlete you wish you could be. With the former, you're hoping you get a really good slave.
I guess my last question for you, Cam, is whether or not we should think about all this as an elaborate critique. Is Monolith being extraordinarily clever here? My gut says no—that there is too much desire for joy in the all the face-branding. But maybe I'm wrong.
Cameron: If we're the most charitable readers possible, and we assume that it's some kind of purposeful critique, then we have to wonder who it could possibly work for. Critique is like comedy: You can have the most amazing setup in your head, but if it doesn't land at the end, then it wasn't ever a joke to begin with. And I think that Shadow of War definitely doesn't get there.
As I wrote in that Polygon piece, I absolutely think that there were people on the narrative design team who saw a way of critiquing the basic assumptions of these mechanics and this world from within. I think those people were allowed a very specific domain, and that ultimately that domain of "narrative-focused content" is a very small part of the total player experience in Shadow of War.
What's strange to me is that the conversations that we have both been having about Shadow of War on Twitter and beyond have brought up all of these conceptual issues with the game. The norms that it supports, the ideas it presents unquestioningly, and the assumptions that it operates under all have some extensive baggage to them, and I wonder why they weren't addressed more heavily during the development of the game. The things that we're bringing up are not unique to us; we didn't get to these readings by delving deep or seeing something that's not there. These are all there, right on the surface, and many people have pointed them out across the internet.
I think, at the end of the day, that there is a lot of "desire for joy." And to be clear, both of us found a lot of joy in this game. These systems of brutalization are made fun; they do the work, and they do that work even though a player's distaste for them. I wonder if that's what took this game's development where true critique was impossible. The Nemesis System, by its very function, knocks down the walls of resistance that we might build up against it. It uses our desire for joy against us, normalizes itself, and maybe preys on the assumptions that it brings that we've normalized already.