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J.R.R Tolkien in Video Games: A History of

J.R.R Tolkien in Video Games: A History of

by Gareth Bagg, 29 October 2012

When most people think of the Epic fiction of J.R.R Tolkien, the usual response to the fantastical images of Orcs, Elves and grand deeds is a sudden and often unwanted mental regression to a previous state of social awkwardness. This is typically pictured in a small teenage bedroom, with a box of tissues, a web bookmark to RedTube, and an overt stench of nervous sweat. For others, myself included, this pre-adolescence imaginative escapism carries on into maturity: at the judgement, or respect of your peers depending on whether they praise the talents of Ed Sheeran or Isaac Asimov. While the Peter Jackson films of the early noughties managed to convince everyone of the benefits of making such a commitment to Tolkien’s world of the imagination, tragically there’s not been such success in most video games.

In 1982, Shadowfax was released for the Commodore 64: tasking the player with utilising the magic of Gandalf atop of his mighty titular steed to defend against the nasty Nazgul. It was a natural formula for the games of the time, in which the popularity of Space Invaders and Centipede meant it was a safe bet to use combat violence in a less human context in order to avoid controversy. Famously, the same year saw the release of the notorious Custer’s Revenge, which sparked outrage after its use of rape imagery, and so it was financially lucrative for Shadowfax to play the safe route with its gentle Fantasy setting. However, while in many cases it was considered a classic of the era, it had a mindless disregard for the traditions of Tolkien’s work. Gandalf, a usually reserved and wise character is here seen dishing out lightning based death like a recently mugged Zeus. Furthermore, you can ask anyone about the Nazgul, or Ringwraiths and they will be familiar with the fact their group number is nine. In Shadowfax you are confronted with dozens of the broody chaps, who in spite of the fact they are immortal, also seem to drop dead pretty conveniently for Gandalf.

That’s not to say I don’t like Shadowfax, it’s a fun game, but for the 1982 generation, it didn’t do fans of Tolkien’s literature any justice. Instead of witnessing the sincere depth of Tolkien’s imagination, people were simply treated to a rogue Gandalf on some bad pipe-weed trip involving the mindless slaughter of hundreds of Nazgul.

Shadowfax in a rage:

The 80’s weren’t all bad though for Tolkien, as there was also 1988’s War in Middle-Earth. Released on several computers, such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, it combined the tactics of Real-Time-Strategy with RPG elements such as battle statistics, and yet was also an Adventure game in its exploration and colourful imagination. With a full-map of Middle-Earth as a world to explore, the events of The Lord of the Rings occurred in real-time as you controlled Frodo and other characters across the landscape with the obvious purpose of destroying the ring. It began as you would expect, with the Hobbits nervously leaving Hobbiton and flashing black icons warning you of near-by Nazgul, but interestingly the control of other characters in the events often referred to, but never experienced first-hand in the book, created a wider sense of strategy. The clashes between Gondor and Mordor that happen chronologically early in the book are noticed straight away, and could even be dealt with according to your game choices. In some circumstances, the way you play could change the way the story plays out: such as Frodo dying and another character having to take on the burden of the ring. In other words, if you were tired of Frodo’s descent into misery and corruption, you could replace him with someone a little more jolly. Pippin perhaps?

The result of this was a surprisingly in depth and bold attempt at creating an advanced interpretation of Tolkien’s masterpiece. However, while it did well to capture the grandeur, design and historical intricacy of Middle-Earth it also quite obviously pissed all over its thematic rules. The novelty of changing the events of The Lord of the Rings according to your own strategy (such as sending Eomer of Rohan east to protect Frodo and Sam in the harsh wastes of Mordor) was entertaining at first, but it nevertheless undermined a lot of what made the text so engaging. There is, you know, a reason Tolkien wrote things in a certain way. At times, I’m sure we’ve all had a desire to see Frodo perish, since Samwise Gamgee with his honest face, and crazy-mad giant spider killing skills, is definitely the real hero of the story; but without Frodo, the subject of fate, an important one to Tolkien would disappear. Likewise, I bet every Tolkien fan would like to see more of the hippyish Tom Bombadil in the story, but imagine it in practice - it would be too mental because he is bat-shit crazy.

Gameplay footage from War in Middle-Earth (featuring the voice of a man more depressed than Frodo Baggins):

The 90’s were pretty quiet for Tolkien inspired video games. The only major iteration was for the PC and SNES platforms, and was tied in with Ralph Bakshi’s animated film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. For that reason alone I’m sure you’ll understand why I don’t feel it necessary to discuss its merits, as it would inevitably lead to the discussion of why Aragorn was peculiarly portrayed as a Native-American figure. It wasn’t until Jackson’s film trilogy was released in 2001 onwards that a series of licensed games popularised Middle-Earth in the medium again. The Two Towers was released in 2002 on most platforms, and was a pretty damn good movie tie-in. Featuring visuals based on the films it was a typical blockbuster hack n’ slash that took many of the set-pieces from the films and made you relive them in typical gaming epic action. And that was about it unfortunately.

While it proved to be a fun ode to the Jackson film, The Two Towers with its repetitive combat inevitably lacked the depth that would have done justice to the books that inspired it. Instead of using the opportunity to create a revival of interest in Tolkien’s works, it capitulated on the Action elements of the films. Using the hyper-machismo of manly combat, it attempted to counteract any reputation of timidity or ‘nerdyness’ that was previously attached to earlier titles based in Tolkien’s world. Yes, The Two Towers was the jock of its genre, haunted by a masculinity complex found in its terror that the world might realise that underneath all the muscles and fighting, there’s a loveable nerd who’d rather be discussing the geographical history of Gondor.

Legolas tries to hide his inner nerd in The Two Towers:

Still, it did revitalise an interest in the potential of video games to capture the world of Middle-Earth. A year later, Inevitable Entertainment attempted an entry separate to the then-recent films in the form of The Hobbit. While it did well to capture the more juvenile elements of the original text, as well as Bilbo Baggins’ sense of admirable bravery, it nevertheless neutered the adventure narrative through a patronising gem trail that guided you throughout Middle-Earth. The colourful visuals and simple humour might make it family friendly, but most children aren’t stupid, and Tolkien himself even condemned condescension to kids in literature (although considering he’s a professor of Philology, I’m betting his kids are pretty bloody smart). For that reason, The Hobbit’s bold narrative of wandering bravely into the unknown is sadly destroyed by this adaptation. Inevitable’s The Hobbit also wrongly teaches anyone unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work, that the book was written just for kids and simple-minded folk, when it’s quite clear that the text achieves moments of sophistication. Not James Joyce sophistication, but at least something on the level of Doctor Who, right?

Bilbo getting out-of-control crazy in The Hobbit:

Another film licenced entry was released in 2006, moving away from the narrative element of previous Tolkien inspired games. The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2 was a Real-Time-Strategy that like Melbourne Houses’ War-in Middle-Earth, focused on the major confrontations that defined the events of The Lord of the Rings. It was a far superior sequel to the 2004 original, in that it had a far more in-depth form of gameplay, but most importantly, it encompassed a wider sense of the world of Middle-Earth. The choice of playable maps were wide-ranging; covering most parts across Tolkien’s world, and each battle-ground was a distinctive representation of the particular area. They were also interesting and interactive, allowing players to recreate the grand siege battles from the films, such as Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep (minus the Dwarf tossing). Each warring faction had a unique play-style and visual aesthetic that did justice to the rich culture of each race that Tolkien meticulously imagined and brought to life. Furthermore, the single-player campaign focused on several battles that occurred in the same time period as the major conflicts of The Lord of the Rings, but in the north. These events are only briefly mentioned or referred to in Tolkien’s fiction, but this approach in LOTR BFME 2 allowed developer’s EA Los Angeles to shed light on and adapt an otherwise unknown story. In addition, it was possible to summon the enigmatic Tom Bombadil to your aid in battle, whose rather unique approach to combat involved singing and dancing to choreographed mass-slaughter.

While it may have ignored the thematic elements of Tolkien’s fiction, the result of this detailed approach to an RTS actually created a better sense of the intricacy, variation and size of Middle-Earth than most previous titles. LOTR BFME 2 therefore successfully portrayed the liveliness and vibrancy of the world of Tolkien’s fiction.

Tom Bombadil loses his shit in The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth 2

Arguably the most important Middle-Earth based title of the last decade though, was The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. The MMORPG was a genre founded in the MUD’s (Multi-User Dungeon) of the late 80’s and 90’s, a quest based fantasy genre inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and the work, funnily enough, of J.R.R Tolkien. It therefore seemed inevitable that the books that inspired it would make a debut in this form. Using the typical characteristics popularised by World of Warcraft, LOTRO based itself around the fiction of the book. As an MMORPG game, it was nothing out of the ordinary: with character levelling, classes, quest based gameplay and monster hunting defining the experience. However, what is interesting about LOTRO is the way these typical RPG elements capture the essence of Tolkien’s fiction so well. The sense of exploration is an important theme in The Hobbit, while character growth is clearly seen in the progression of Aragorn from the rough figure of Strider to his status as King of Gondor. Likewise the homecoming journey motif present in Frodo’s journey to Mordor is inextricably caught up in the quest based gameplay of an RPG. As well as this, the rich and vast world of the MMORPG genre serves well in this instance to capture the scope and density of Middle-Earth, while the variation in design shows the creativity of Tolkien’s imagination. LOTRO therefore, shows the ultimate example of game and fiction coming together, in which the gameplay elements compliment and are founded in the themes of Tolkien’s fiction. Its hardcore element and similarity to World of Warcraft might help nurture the stereotype outlined at the beginning of this article, but it ultimately demonstrates through a videogame the intelligence and sensitivity of the fiction based in Tolkien’s world.

Wandering in The Lord of the Rings Online:

So then, the history of J.R.R Tolkien in video games is a varied one. In quite a majority of cases, developers did not utilise the thematic concerns of Middle-Earth’s fiction to create a meaningful game. They didn’t capture Tolkien’s sophistication as a writer, but instead used its Fantasy back drop as an easily-produced format for typical gaming. Likewise, in some cases there were also successes, whether they focused on the themes of Tolkien’s fiction, or simply used them as a spring-board to develop other elements. For the Tolkien fan, it is necessary to accept that in order to create a financially successful video game adaptation of Middle-Earth, developers have to strike a balance between what is interesting, and what is playable. However, it is worth noting that the more engaging and better designed titles based in Tolkien’s world are the ones that stayed closer to the subject matter and its essence. Shadowfax was dull, War in Middle Earth was often farfetched, and The Two Towers lacked depth; while LOTR BFME 2 and The Lord of the Rings Online had a certain re-playable intelligence because they drew from important elements of Tolkien’s fiction. The forthcoming Lego The Lord of the Rings might upon first glance appear to be basing itself too much in blockbuster action, but developer Traveller’s Tales insist on an influence from the original texts impacting its development. In recent interviews, executive producer Nick Ricks emphasised the journey motif in Tolkien’s work, and stated that this sense of travel will be prominent throughout Lego The Lord of the Rings. He even dropped the term Maia (the proper word for Tolkien’s wizard’s) quite casually in one interview, so you can tell the man knows his stuff. Lego The Lord of the Rings then, serves as a precise example of a promising way to develop a game based in Middle-Earth. It appears accessible and entertaining, but with a degree of respect for the texts that inspired it.

Ultimately though, the importance of Tolkien throughout video game history is not found in the titles based in his world. It is instead the influence The Lord of the Rings has had on certain developer’s and, in turn, the development of the industry. Richard Garriot’s Alakabeth is widely regarded as one of the first RPG’s produced, and was created under the influence of the text. Garriot’s later series Ultima carried on similar RPG elements as Alakabeth, and eventually spawned the first MUD in Ultima 4. These games were also a direct influence on The Black Onyx and Dragon Quest, the first Japanese RPG’s which later became a genre in their own right with Final Fantasy. RPG’s both east and west owe a debt to Tolkien and his work, and this influence is still noticeable today in the epic fantasy of games like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim and Dark Souls. While a relationship with this author might begin in the murky shadows of a teenager’s bedroom, the effect this relationship has had on certain creative individuals throughout the years has resulted in a huge impact on the video game industry. The history of Tolkien in video games then, is both a history of successful and flawed games based in his world, but more importantly, it is a history of influence.

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