In Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s upcoming Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor video game, you will explore a new part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe as a ranger of Gondor going behind enemy lines into Mordor. As you do so, you will discover your Wraith-like powers that give you the ability to move stealth-like among the evil Sauron’s orcs. As the hero Talion, you’ll find that you can control the minds of orcs, from the lowest foot soldiers to the war chiefs. And you can turn them against Sauron, one by one.
If you try to slaughter the captains of the orcs head-on, you’ll find out how tough they can be. You’ll also discover that every orc is unique, with its own personality and physical qualities. And as you kill these characters, you may feel some moral ambiguity. This isn’t just about good and evil, as it is an original story set in Middle-earth and inspired by Tolkien’s writings. While it is true to the canon of Tolkien, it doesn’t copy any of the tales in the books. The story of Talion and his quest for vengeance reveals the gray areas in between black and white, according to Michael de Plater, the design director at WBIE for Shadow of Mordor, in an interview with GamesBeat.
“That was really important to us,” de Plater said in our interview. “We really do want to show shades of gray.” Find out why in our edited transcript below.
GamesBeat: Can you summarize what you’re showing this time versus what you initially showed? What kind of impression did you want to make with this latest demo?
Michael de Plater: We wanted to show a couple of things today. One was the new area of Mordor, the sea of Núrnen, and exploring deeper behind enemy lines. The other was the story and a little bit more of a reveal around where that’s going to go, the themes of the wraith and who really holds some of the keys to the mystery of that. And also, from that, how the power of the wraith grows. We go beyond just being able to hunt down your enemies, into actually being able to bend them to our will and create an army behind enemy lines. It’s how those things tie together – the stakes rising in the story together with the power to manipulate your enemies.
GamesBeat: I’ve been waiting to see if you actually command Gondor at some point against Sauron and against the orcs. Is this something you’re waiting to show? Or are you actually spending most of the game behind the lines in Mordor?
De Plater: The focus is on Talion and the wraith. The two of them behind enemy lines, using the powers of the enemy, the powers of the shadow, against him. It really is about being deep behind enemy lines. There are human allies, other humans that do fight alongside you. Queen Marwen does have some forces there that are holding out against the orcs, and there are some others you liberate. But Gondor is not coming to anyone’s aid at this point. They’re dealing with their own problem, which is what Talion has to deal with, and why it falls to him to hold the Dark Lord there.
GamesBeat: Why did you go down this route for the story, with this trip behind enemy lines?
De Plater: It’s a combination of elements: some driven by gameplay and wanting to create a new sort of experience where we could empower players, and others by wanting to be very authentic to Middle-earth — within Middle-earth, wanting to explore the themes of power.
A big starting point for us was when Boromir is at the Council of Elrond and they’ve got the One Ring, and he says, “This is a gift. We should use the power of the Enemy against him.” In the same way, Galadriel, when Frodo offers her the ring, it’s very interesting. “I could take this and face Sauron, but if I did and I won, you wouldn’t have a dark lord, you’d have a dark queen.” Those themes in Middle-earth – using the power of the Enemy against him, being as ruthless as he is – we very much wanted to explore that.
When Frodo and Sam are going to Mordor and they’re in Cirith Ungol and the orcs slaughter each other and can be turned against each other, that was interesting as an idea to manipulate. Also, wanting to show somewhere very iconic, but that also could be unfamiliar. There’s nowhere better in Middle-earth that fulfills those goals – being so iconic and core to the story, but also so relatively mysterious. We got the best of both worlds there as well. So it was a lot of different elements coming together.
GamesBeat: You get to express some creativity, showing things that are nowhere in the books themselves. They’re just places on a map there.
De Plater: Yep. We get to explore our creativity and do something new that hasn’t been seen, but we get to do it 100 percent within the canon and authentic to the lore. That was something within the lore that was important to us, to explore these characters with interesting shades of gray. Characters that are more along the lines of Saruman, wanting to raise an army to challenge Sauron, or Boromir or Denethor or Theoden, or Thorin with his fall because of the temptation of the Arkenstone, or Thranduil. There are all these amazing characters in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that aren’t just good guys or bad guys. That was very interesting to us.
GamesBeat: You have a lot of choices in how to take down a war chief. What’s the most complicated thing you could do?
De Plater: I can’t even imagine. I’m sure I haven’t seen it yet. We wanted the story to be very driven, back when we saw the Queen, but we want players to be free as to how they go about pursuing that. One of the fun things is, players can set their own goals. Whether it’s something as simple as, oh, “I want to absolutely dominate and control every orc in this region,” or “I want to kill them all,” or “I want to take this guy who’s a poet and make him a war chief too,” or “I want to make every captain in the world be a bodyguard for this guy and then send him off into the world.” It’s almost like a mission creation screen. You’re creating these different missions and these different options through gameplay and interacting with these enemies, rather than doing it through an editor.
GamesBeat: It looks like, if you’re impatient, you’re probably not going to be successful going straight in against a war chief. Do you have a chance that way?
De Plater: You do have a chance. It’s very much, again, empowering players. You can control your own difficulty. If you want an incredibly hard challenge, by all means, run right in. You very well may die, but one of the key things in the game is that we want the loop of death to be interesting and to open up new opportunities, because you are a wraith.
Death isn’t a traditional video game death, where you just rewind time and do things again and hope it turns out differently. Time is going to move forward. New opportunities present themselves. In particular, when you go and take your vengeance on the guy who defeated you, he’s going to remember that. It’s about being able to create these grudges and these personal moments with your enemies as well.
GamesBeat: Even though you are the wraith, though, you can be spotted by the orcs? I made the assumption that they wouldn’t see me if I was a wraith.
De Plater: You’re harder to see as a wraith. It’s more like the elven cloaks that Frodo and Sam had. It can hide you in plain sight from unfriendly eyes, but it’s not invisibility. It’s not like the ring.
GamesBeat: So you do have to pay attention to exactly how you approach the enemy’s territory.
De Plater: Yeah. The strongholds, the bases where they’re concentrated, especially if the alarms go off, they’re very dangerous. But they’re full of opportunities in the environment to use against your enemies. Whether it’s breaking open a cage to release the monsters inside, or the flies that Sam and Frodo meet. They’re incredibly nasty stinging creatures. You can drop their nests. There are walls you can destroy, flammable opportunities like the orc grog and so on. It can get very crazy and very dangerous, but you can turn the tide of the fights very quickly as well.
GamesBeat: You’re getting to create a lot of new things here, new monsters and other things we haven’t seen before. The canon permits for that.
De Plater: It does. It’s a key part of being authentic to the canon. Constantly, on the journeys of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, encountering new wonders, new monsters, new enemies. That sense of discovery, I think, is key to the authenticity of Middle-earth.
GamesBeat: Is there any opportunity to take anything that’s come out from the new Hobbit movies and bring that in somehow? Or is it mostly separate?
De Plater: We’re inspired by them, very much. One thing that has come out of those films is, because they also draw on the appendices, we get to see some more of Sauron and flesh him out a bit more as a character. That’s obviously something we’re also inspired by, exploring more of Sauron and his role and developing him.
GamesBeat: You’re bringing some humanity to the orcs, to the enemy, which is interesting. They were kind of just these great masses in the movies. Here you’re making the player care about who each orc is.
De Plater: That was really important to us. There was a line Tolkien wrote, which is, “We were all orcs in the Great War.” We didn’t want to have a kind of generic fantasy approach to the orcs. We wanted to treat them as what orcs represent. These are like human beings, but they’re human beings who are driven by the emotional extremes of fear and hate.
Humans can very much act like orcs. We wanted to take very believable human traits and just turn them up a bit to explore that. We wanted them to be real characters. That’s important to the nemesis system, because these have to be real characters and real villains with real motivations. It’s key to the whole idea of what power and domination mean. It’s about using fear and hatred to get people motivated in a certain way. That’s core to the game.
GamesBeat: It makes me wonder if that throws more gray into your main character, Talion.
De Plater: Exactly. As I say, we want to explore those shades of gray. It’s more along the lines of what Boromir would have been, if he had taken the ring. If you’re willing to use the same level of ruthlessness as your enemy, what does that make you?