The early 2000s was a helluva time to be a young Lord of the Rings nerd. I was ten when I first read the novels. The first film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy arrived a year later. I memorised Elvish poems, I made my own bow and arrow, I painted LotR Warhammer with my cousins, and I watched the films on loop. I was, undeniably, one cool kid. But what really excited me, what I spent more time with than the Silmarillion or my cousins even, was the string of LotR games released by EA at the height of my/the world’s Sarumania, games that, like the Dark Lord Sauron, challenged everything.
These movie tie-ins were the first games set in Tolkien’s universe that turned to the player and said: let’s hunt some orc. What followed were adaptations of adaptations, imperfect shadow reflections like that seen by Frodo in the Dead Marshes, similarly beguiling, and they whisper interesting questions about authorship, interpretation, and gamification to this day.
Do not take me for a conjuror of cheap tricks!
In a letter in which he scathingly eviscerated a screenwriter’s attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “the canons of narrative in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.” Tolkien, ever a purist, thought any adaptation of his work, by the very nature of being an adaptation, would miss the point.
As a huge fan of both the novels and their adaptations, it’s fun to imagine what Tolkien would have made of Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings. More fun still to imagine what he’d think of my friend and I playing EA’s The Return of the King game on my old Xbox, the two of us launching ballistas at a muddy polygon Mûmakil until it explodes like an oil truck in a Michael Bay film. Would our execution of another perfect “Orc Hewer” combo impress Tolkien, or make him choke on his pipe smoke? It’s hard to say.
For the Two Towers, and its Return of the King game, developers Stormfront Studios and Visceral Games were given unprecedented access to the film’s production. Visceral would eventually set up a studio within a studio at Weta Workshop, where it could study all of the film’s props, concept art, stunt doubles, and of course, actors, themselves immersed in the work creating the yet-to-be-released films. The result is a movie tie-in game that goes beyond being merely interpretive and on into voyeuristic. It’s collaborative in a way that similar games of that era (or this) ever manage to be.
The result is a pair of games that are part DVD special feature: as you complete each level, you also unlock behind-the-scenes interviews with the actors, designers, and directors who go into enthusiastic (in the case of Christopher Lee especially) detail about their work on the films but also the games, talking about their love of this ‘new’ medium or feigning their interest in doing v/o work that includes lines like “we must blow up the second siege tower to proceed” and the likes. Very few games have a shining star taking you to a 5-minute video called “Hobbits on gaming” just sitting there on their level progression menu.
There is an element of “playable deleted scenes” to a lot of the game, with certain bosses (The Witch King, The Mouth of Sauron) appearing in-game as the concept art counterpoints to their final appearance in the films. The Return of the King game could be retitled The Gandalf Monologues, it has Ian McKellan providing an incredibly hammy and fun expository narration between each mission.
This access to the films’ production trickles into the games’ design in interesting ways. It was the early days of mo-cap animation, and the game animators wax enthusiastically about working with Viggo Mortensen and legendary Hollywood sword fight choreographer Bob Anderson to distil the gritty essence of Aragorn’s blade brawling, and the giddy fun of putting Viggo’s vicious orc decapitation flourishes into the hands of the player. The result is a game that’s action looks more fluid, intentional, and decidedly filmic than a lot of hack and slash games today, even.
What is this new devilry?
It’s amazing what effect this has on the meat and bones of the action gameplay. I vividly remember the morning I first played The Two Towers on my GameCube because it was the first time in my life I ever faked being sick to wag school. Playing as Gimli, I felt overwhelmed by how the game succeeded in making me feel like Gimli, son of Gloin, lopping off goblin limbs in a vengeful fury in Balin’s tomb, the last dwarf in Moria who still draws breath (keep in mind, I was 11). There was such a satisfying *clonk* *thump* *thwack* to the simple parry executions (emphasised by squeezing the Gamecube’s beautifully chunky right trigger). One-hit kills that were given unique and visceral animations for whichever ‘breed’ of orc you were slaying. That memory has stayed with me for twenty years.
Replaying them for the first time in almost two decades for this piece had me straying out of thought and time. Like Tom Bombadil himself, these games are incredibly peculiar, yet wildly fascinating: bizarrely engrossing and engaging, despite their age and their numerous design flaws.
A lot of this stems from their desire to ape the movies, not just in content, but in form. The camera takes a foolhardy yet admirably bold crack at mimicking the sweeping pans and swirls of Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, which can be woozily discombobulating as it swoops and jump-cuts to hide the player character behind a statue as you’re hacked to pieces by a flock of Uruks. The access to the voice actors, score, and sound effects means everything is buoyed by a heart-thumping, THX, wall of front-row-at-the-movies sound. This contrasts comically with the games’ look, which is, especially in the Return of the King game, determinedly muddy, to the point where you wonder if they saw a secret sepia filter cut of the films that none of us knows about.
The Two Towers was roundly criticised for being far too brief, so the Return of the King game adds more of everything (playable characters, three-story paths, Hobbits on gaming etc) to try and capture the (in the literary sense) ‘epic’ nature of the books and films. But when you reduce LotR to action set-pieces, as Tolkien feared/warned Hollywood would (and Christopher Tolkien felt Peter Jackson did) you remove a lot of what makes LotR ‘THE LORD OF THE RINGS’, and even though you’ve cut what your medium of choice finds extraneous, you’re, ironically, left having to do some padding. In terms of game design, this means difficulty spikes. These games are spikier than Minas Morgul. In co-op, the players share 2 lives, and if one of you dies when both are gone, no matter how well the remaining player is going, you both fail, and start over. There are no checkpoints. My friend and I were in hysterics as we sent Sam and Merry off to be spread like Hobbit butter over too much bread by Shelob and her spider army for the umpteenth time.
The games may be as forgiving as a Balrog at the fall of Gondolin, but you can’t help but laugh at what happens to a dramatic dread-filled action moment from the films once it is gamified. The breach of the walls of Minas Tirith has you playing as Gandalf, slaying wave after wave of orcs while wave after wave of refugees (represented by the same character model of a peasant woman) run by you, victory arriving when you’ve filled a metre titled ‘women’ in the top right corner with 200, well, ‘women.’
Still, as you play you can’t deny the feeling that you are Gandalf defending the White City, Sam finding his courage (to brutally frag half a hundred orcs by dropping a chandelier onto them), or Gimli son of Gloin one-upping Legolas at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (each player has a kill counter.) Even at two decades old they do an admirable job of capturing the ~vibe~ of the movie’s action, itself as un-Tolkien like as you could get (Tolkien famously cut the line in which describes Legolas skateboarding down a flight of stairs leaving [his words] countless orc “n00bs” “rekt”).
What is undeniable about these games is their ambition. They are dead-set on capturing the feeling of being inside Jackson’s films, in the same way Jackson was dead-set on capturing the feeling of being inside Middle Earth. Ambition outweighs authenticity when adapting a text to another medium, particularly one as vast and mercurial as Tolkien’s. They’re not aiming to be The Silmarillion, but a simulacrum of a simulacrum, and in that they succeed.
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