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Artistic Licence in Video Games



Authors note: this article contains spoilers for Shadow of Mordor – big ones

You don’t need to be a Tolkien scholar to have noticed the, shall we say, inconsistencies present in the various trailers for Middle Earth: Shadow of War; the sequel to Monolith’s hugely entertaining action-RPG Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

While most who fall within the bracket of Lord of the Rings fan and gamer might be mildly disappointed by the extent to which the events depicted in these trailers differ from established Tolkien lore, after the success of the first game, these same people will likely reserve final judgement on Shadow of War until they’ve played it for themselves.

Others, however, already aggrieved by Monolith’s laissez-faire attitude towards Tolkien’s work in Shadow of Mordor, will no doubt give the sequel a wide berth, regardless of any mechanical qualities it might possess.

The dichotomy between these two contrasting parties is fascinating in and of itself, but, more interesting still is how this situation fits into the wider discussion of artistic licence in video games. Namely, when and to what degree is a developer or publisher justified in making alterations to an author or film maker’s intellectual property, or real-world events?

To continue where I left off a few seconds ago, suffice it to say, Shadow of Mordor was an excellent game. There was a lot to like from a mechanical perspective, not least the ‘Nemesis’ system which was exciting as much for its potential as its execution, and, although there were certainly some major issues with the narrative and characters from a thematic point of view (more on that later), it told an interesting, and at times, compelling story.

Indeed, for many Lord of the Rings fans, the problem wasn’t so much that Monolith had made changes to Tolkien’s world, rather, it was that so many of them felt gratuitous.

Substituting Caragors and Graugs for Wargs and Trolls, for example, was completely pointless given how similar they were; likewise, the revelation towards the end of the game that Celebrimbor, the pre-eminent smith of the second age and protagonist Talion’s ghostly companion, used the One Ring to challenge and almost defeat Sauron centuries before once the Dark Lord finally revealed his true intentions (presumably to explain his motivations and present him as a heroic figure) felt entirely unnecessary. After all, in Lord of the Rings canon, Celebrimbor died under torture, refusing to divulge the whereabouts of the 3 Elven rings he’d crafted behind Sauron’s back; a no less virtuous or tragic act that would serve as a motivating factor for most people: man, dwarf, or elf.

Which brings us on to the key issue: how Monolith’s modifications jar so uncomfortably with the tone of and the themes covered in Tolkien’s masterpiece.

With his brand-new, John McClane-esque backstory in toe, Celebrimbor is portrayed as a vengeful, imperious spirit absent of the kindness and nobility that characterize him in the source material, who is, worse still, in possession of an arsenal of magical abilities the likes of which don’t really exist in Middle Earth. Similarly, Talion’s desire to not just avenge his family by overthrowing Mordor, but to conquer and dominate his foes at the same time, gives him the appearance of a morally gray anti-hero; which is fine for The Witcher or Game of Thrones, however, as The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential tale of good vs evil, it just doesn’t sit right. Just as problematic is Talion’s ability to essentially forgo death, a skill that disregards one of Tolkien’s most important concepts: that, though an inescapable and for some tragic part of life, humankind’s mortality is in reality a gift from Iluvatar that, unlike the Elves and the Dwarves, ensures mankind isn’t bound to share Middle Earth’s fate.

Considering how good the gameplay is, it’s a crying shame Monolith couldn’t replicate the tone and style of The Lord of the Rings in the same way American McGee did with his adaptation of another literary classic: Alice in Wonderland. Praised for their darker interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s surrealist fantasy stories, both American McGee’s Alice and its 2011 sequel, Madness Returns, show a clear, genuine respect for, and understanding of, the source material (see literary critic Cathlena Martin in the book ‘Beyond Adaptation: Essays on Radical Transformations of Original Works’) that isn’t always apparent in Shadow of Mordor.

In comparing the two, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that publisher Warner Bros. was more interested in cashing-in on the Lord of the Rings ‘brand’, rather than telling an interesting story that adheres to the themes addressed in the source material or (attempting) to expand on Tolkien’s incredible collection of extant work. Say what you want about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, but it’s only fair to say his handling of The Lord of the Rings was exceptional, many of the changes – giving Arwen a greater role in the events of the story and including Elves at the battle of Helm’s Deep, for example – actually help rather than hinder the tale.

There’s been a similarly rocky relationship between video games publishers and television/film producers.

Developed independently of creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park and South Park Rally, for instance, failed to resonate with fans due to their lack of fidelity and slapdash design, and disappointed Parker and Stone so much they began to think twice about licensing other titles in future. And South Park’s not alone. Over the years, shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The X-Files, to name but 3, along with countless movies, have been marred by equally poor, exploitative tie-ins that resemble the original IP in name only.

Thus it was pretty exciting when, in 2014, South Park: The Stick of Truth released to critical and popular acclaim, possessing the series’ uniquely irreverent, caustic, and satirical sense of humor married with engaging, appropriate gameplay mechanics and its signature visual style. It felt just like another episode of the show, albeit a far longer one.

The key thing here, of course, is that The Stick of Truth was written and closely monitored throughout development by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, almost guaranteeing the game would meet the rigorous standards the pair set for the show and compare to it tonally. But, as Telltale Games has proved more than once, it’s eminently possible to make a quality game that satisfies fans and critics alike, without the direct intervention of the original creator(s).

Game of Thrones: Season One, for instance, captures the spirit of the show and, by extension, George R. R. Martin’s novels perfectly, full as it is of intrigue, betrayal, and bad things happening to good people. The same, meanwhile, can be said of Telltale’s tetralogy of Walking Dead titles, each of which feature the raft of moral dilemmas, sense of societal and physical decay, and gruesome violence we’ve come to associate with AMC’s long-running show and Image’s comic series. More importantly, they tell unique, yet applicable stories within the confines of the wider Game of Thrones and Walking Dead universes without diverging too dramatically from established canon.

And, despite their inherently sedentary nature, Telltale’s signature quick time events and dialogue wheels gel far more effectively with these worlds, from a mechanical perspective, than the bombastic set-pieces and hackneyed combat featured in Cyanide’s lackluster Game of Thrones action-RPG or Terminal Reality’s abysmal The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct first-person shooter.

The net result is a pair of worlds that are even richer than before.

Challenging as it is for a developer to adapt a film or novel, it’s arguably far trickier where real-life events are concerned.

Not only is it imperative the studio shows respect to the individuals effected by the events it wishes to depict, but equally, as a form of interactive entertainment, it’s vitally important the game functions as intended; whether that’s simply to entertain players, or offer an escape from real life, provide a challenging experience, instruct, or even encourage a moment or two of introspection.

Take Battlefield 1. DICE’s excellent World War 1 FPS recently introduced female combatants as part of its ‘In the Name of the Tsar’ DLC, in the form of Russia’s women-only ‘Battalion of Death’. Comprised of literally thousands of volunteers, they hoped their courageous example would inspire their fellow countrymen and revitalize the beleaguered army’s flagging spirits. More recently, it was announced Call of Duty: WWII would be following suit by including female and black soldiers in its multiplayer offering, primarily to ensure a broader range of gamers are represented.

Unsurprisingly, some have railed against these decisions, many using historicity as a justification for their complaints – though, rather tellingly, these protesters fail to mention Battlefield 1’s Zeppelin’s and armored trains, and Call of Duty: WWII’s incendiary shotgun shells whenever historical accuracy is discussed. Out of interest, armored trains were used chiefly as a defensive measure during cross-country travel on the Russian front, Zeppelins functioning more as a psychological weapon/scout vehicle, while incendiary ammunition was used in fighter planes during World War 2, rather than in personal firearms.

Now, there’s some truth to the argument that imposing modern political and cultural sensibilities on something which depicts the past isn’t particularly useful, nor necessarily respectful, since it paints a false picture of the period in question and thus glosses over the difficulties the people concerned would have faced. Moreover, so-called ‘forced diversity’ does little to address current issues if the developer/publisher is simply checking boxes off a list rather than seriously considering how best to represent these individuals and, anyway, it’s debatable whether a first-person shooter is the best platform for exploring such complex issues in the first place.

However, aside from the fact that, in the case of Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: WWII at least, historical precedent does actually favor developers DICE and Sledgehammer, slightly stretching the facts in order to represent as many players as possible is surely a positive step forward, so long as it’s done with sensitivity and doesn’t portray the events concerned in a false light.

Similarly, it could be argued that the inclusion of women and black combatants in the multiplayer portion of these 2 games is both an interesting and effective way of honoring the non-white males who either fought in the conflicts or contributed in other ways; women, for instance, occupied various roles from field medic and factory worker, to farm laborer.

It would certainly be better if games told fully-fledged, historical or historically-based stories from the perspective of minority groups, especially in the context of World War’s 1 and 2. But, little though it is, at least we’re seeing developers use artistic license to make the industry a bit more inclusive.

To cut a long story short, so long as it’s done for the right reasons, artistic license is an important part of game design that not only complements but augments the source material on which it’s based, and can shine a light on less prominent real-world events.

The problem is that, so much of the time, developers and publishers make unnecessary changes that diminish, rather than improve a game.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.