J.R.R. Tolkien is, in my opinion, the best fantasy author of all time, bar none, no caveats, no exaggerations. He may even be the only good fantasy author (besides, perhaps, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald) because I’ve not read a single other work of fantasy where “fantasy” really, truly describes the work in question, where every single element is so intricately sewn together that to lose a single thread would be to unravel the whole garment, where, in any work at all, the sense of melancholy and loss is so profound as to be heartbreaking, where the secondary world the reader is placed in feels, at times, more real than our own world.
But splooging all my The Lord of the Rings single-volume leatherbound copy isn’t the point of this post. No, I’m here instead to talk about adaptations of Tolkien, particularly game adaptations, and why they fail to capture the spirit of Tolkien’s work, almost universally.
This is either for one of two reasons:
Reason One: because Tolkien isn’t a writer of action stories, and the adaptation is very much an action story.
Or Reason Two: because the philosophies of the source material and the adaptation differ.
This post is going to be structured in a pretty simple way: two games that don’t get Tolkien, one for each reason, and two games that do get Tolkien, one for each reason. However, I would highly recommend all of these games, each for different reasons. So let’s hop to it.
Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle-Earth II
BFME II (I haven’t played the first game, though I hear good things) is a fantastic game, a really solid RTS with a cool hero mechanic, even better than Warcraft III’s in my opinion, great maps, two campaigns, and a Risk-style mode on top of all that. So it’s a good game, but it’s not a good Lord of the Rings game, because the very nature of the game is imperialist, focused on conquest and expansion and dominion. That was the sin of the Numenoreans, that and a jealous desire for immortality, which lead to their downfall. For the best role-playing experience, play only evil factions.
Lego The Lord of the Rings
If you’re looking for a more peaceful, cooperative experience in the Legendarium, full of exploration and the wonder of the wide world, look no further than my favourite Lego game, featuring a fully open world and voice acting from the Peter Jackson films. If I can go on a Lego games tangent, this is where Traveller’s Tales really hid their peak. There’s just so much to do in this game it’s crazy.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
This is the only game here that actively irritates me. It’s a fun game, don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is really fast-paced with lots of enemies to fight and turn to your side and a huge map to explore, but not only is it a game, again, about expansion and domination, it’s about using the power of the enemy against him, which is literally the thing that the books condemn again and again and again. Not only that, but while our main character, Talion, (not actually a good Gondorian Sindarin name, by the by; very poor, C-, see me after class) is at least portrayed as being corrupted by his quest for revenge against the orcs that murdered his family and left him for dead–a more generic story there never was–it misunderstands the way that corruption happens in Tolkien’s works.
Corruption isn’t (usually) from a direct outside influence, and it isn’t a one-and-done deal like, “oh I killed a few kids now I’m a bad guy.” Corruption is slow and insidious, cause by our human failings and desires, often goaded on by outside circumstances but not originally caused by them. For example, Boromir doesn’t choose to attack Frodo and seize the ring for himself because Sauron is whispering in his ear, he wants to use the ring as a weapon to save the country and people he loves, not understanding that it can’t be used that way, ignoring the advice of the wise, like Elrond, Gandalf and Aragorn, in his own stubbornness and pride. That’s nuanced and interesting but Shadow of Mordor has to have its edgelord fantasy, so whatever.
The Lord of the Rings Online
My favourite LotR game and my favourite MMO, LotRO is probably the best representation of Tolkien’s works in game form. It’s full of great glory in harrowing, terrible battle, the vast world unfolding before your feet, little sidequests of comedy and tragedy, redemption and victory. It’s not a perfect game–nothing is–but it’s as close to perfect as a Lord of the Rings game can get. I would recommend LotRO to literally everyone, especially people who enjoy MMORPGs. It’s from the days when the whole market was World of Warcraft clones but if you can get past the hotkey combat it’s worth it.
I’d like to talk more about the Legendarium in the future, if I can be bothered. I could spend years of my life talking about it if somebody let me.