This is a video game based on a movie based on a book. Indeed, it’s a fanfictiony tale that takes place in an indifferent time period that is only recognizable to Lord of the Rings nerds because Gollum is hanging out in Mordor. But the overarching narrative — Talion, a ranger of Gondor slain by Sauron’s agents and returning to half-life mysteriously bonded to the wraith of a long dead elf — is not the true narrative at all. Indeed, the real story of Shadow of Mordor lies in the ‘nemesis system’ that Monolith has created, a complex system of orc politics and identity generation.
In other words, an orc might strike you down, gain a name like “Zag the Mighty”, laugh at your misfortune and begin his meteoric rise through orc society, ambushing his contemporaries and engaging in feats of strength, to be promoted from captain to warchief. Later, after interrogating his cronies for intel, you might learn Zag is immune to stealth attacks, really afraid of fire, and has a weakness to archery. You’ll duly shoot the scoundrel in the head with your wraith’s bow and leave his corpse to rot. Hours in the future, when you’re minding your own business (beheading unrelated orcs), you’re jumped by an orc with a bandaged, mummified head, now “Zag Baghead”, truly pissed off you ruined his face and ready to rumble. He clashes swords with you, references your last fight, and laments how all the other orcs make fun of his face now.
These interactions, smartly tied together in a ball of procedurally generated thread, are the real narrative, a truly inventive mix of gameplay and emergent storytelling.
This game is violent. It’s spent almost entirely killing orcs en masse, lopping off their heads, pincushioning them with arrows, stabbing out their eyes or shanking them repeatedly in the kidney. Or otherwise planning your next sojourn to do the same. Orcs, after all, are just really bad humans. They generally have cockney accents which brings a sort of ugly class angle to the whole thing. They get birthed from mud as adults and know only cruelty and competition. I was starting to feel maybe a little uneasy about taking joy in this whole slaughter thing when it came to me. Maybe it was when an orc who had recently killed me yelled “Didn’t I already kill you?” or “Stop haunting me!”. Or maybe when I was sneaking around listening orcs argue who would win in a fight — an elf or a wizard? Maybe when I burst into laughter after Dush the Cannibal, on death’s door, shouted “Don’t let me go to waste! Please eat me!” shortly before I killed him.
These aren’t just orcs. They’re models of video gamers. I, too, when given a weapon and free reign in a video game, am an orc. Butchery and laughter and grog! If the only the game had the balls to straight up make you play as an orc and not a beefy Aragorn analog.