For the entire month of April, our IGN First is diving deep into Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the hugely ambitious sequel to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.
As part of that ongoing coverage, we sat down to ask the Vice President of Creative at Monolith Productions and the man behind the story, Michael de Plater, everything we could about the game. How does it fit between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? What’s up with those Nazgul? How hard is Shadow of War going to be? All that and so, so much more. The little footage we’ve seen so far has already generated a number of questions, so let’s start unpacking them right now.
And for more, be sure to check out all of our Shadow of War – IGN First coverage so far!
Mike: It’s really important for us that this is a point of entry. This is sort of the bigger blockbuster version of the game, so if you haven’t played Shadow and you start playing this one, it should be pretty easy to get into. Even if you don’t have prior knowledge of the movies.
Mike: One of the things the films do, and we do, all the events are real and from the book, but they’re either compressed in time or moved around a little bit in time. So if we’re watching The Hobbit, they put a lot of emphasis on Sauron being driven out of Dol Guldur and returning to Mordor, and that’s where we begin our story as well.
We have this 60 year period, which is a long time. That’s like from the end of World War 2 to the present today.
Then we have this 60 year period, which is a long time. That’s like from the end of World War 2 to the present today. A lot can go on. I think we look at that like, ‘Can we tell a story where the stakes are big enough to explain why Sauron actually take that long to build up?’
It could have been 10 years or 20 years. He could have marched out of Mordor far earlier and swept over things. So a big part of getting in there behind enemy lines and sowing this chaos, this civil war, keeping Mordor at war with itself is actually achieving this goal of keeping Mordor in this state of perpetual war that actually delays Sauron’s ability to come out and attack the rest of Middle Earth. And then of course contribute to why it’s surprising when he does.
There are a lot of ways you can directly reference the other movies with our story, but the Rogue One analogy is actually really close to what we want to achieve.
The Rogue One analogy is actually really close to what we want to achieve.
We want you to be able to play this game through to the end, and then go and read The Lord of the Rings, or watch The Lord of the Rings, and have this flow into the film or the book. And not only have that really make sense but really illuminate some elements of The Lord of the Rings in kind of a new way. Especially in regards to the villains.
Why is Sauron trapped as the flaming eye on Barad-dur? Who are the Nazgul and what’s up with them as characters?
Mike: We try to be very true to the events as they’re known. In some ways, it’s almost historical fiction. And we’d already done that as well in Shadow of Mordor. The fall of the Black Gates and Talion’s initial death was also moved in terms of the timeline in order to accommodate that story.
We also get to explore what happened to the king of Gondor, and why is Denethor the steward?
So we try to be very accurate to the events and the things that took place, and their connections to each other, but we also really want to tell these stories, these big iconic stories within our story as well. So the particular example that touches on our story, that we also get to explore a bit, is the notion of what happened to the king of Gondor, and why is Denethor the steward, and also what’s the political and military structure in Minas Ithil and how does that relate to Minas Tirith. Then we see the fall. So everything is touching on events that we know and things we’ve seen very accurately but we’ve sort of moved that story within this timeline.
Mike: A big thing we try to do is explain some of the things that are in Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in a way that is coherent. For example, in the Hobbit, Bilbo takes the One Ring and goes walking right through Mirkwood straight under Sauron’s nose while he’s there in Dol Guldur. The reason that happened is because when Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, he didn’t know the importance of that ring or the relationship to Sauron. It was a different story.
When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, he didn’t know the importance of that ring or the relationship to Sauron. It was a different story.
So we’ve taken that slight inconsistency that’s in the original and said the reason for that is because Celebrimbor, who we know worked with Sauron on the forging of the Rings, was also forced to work on the forging of the One Ring, and his perfection of that ring is what gave it a life or a mind of its own, separate from Sauron that allows it to go under Sauron’s nose in this case. So we can try and draw connective tissue and fill things in. Really make our story fit in a way that connects to everything else.
And again the movies made the same kind of compromises to some extent. They had the Nazgul reawaken with Sauron in the Hobbit versus just having them back in Mordor at the same time. Compressing those events and fitting them for the same timeline, we sort of fit it within that.
I think it’s a combination of both. So I think it’s really important to pull from the things that people love about these stories. It’s the characters, stakes, villains, world. So you have to try really hard to be true to that.
If we don’t tell an original story, we’re not being faithful to the point of what the whole genre or fiction is about.
I think one of the most important things about being true to the original is that you have to tell an original high stakes story which involves discovering new things. There’s no time when you’re reading or watching Lord of the Rings that you’re not discovering new amazing things in every chapter, that you’re not journeying to new places every chapter. Generally the whole thing with fantasy is it has to be about discovery and wonder and things you haven’t seen before.
If we don’t tell an original story, we’re not being faithful to the point of what the whole genre or fiction is about. But there are absolutely certain tropes, or archetypes, or values, or themes, ideas in The Lord of the Rings that we have to be really true to. That’s why I think it’s so fun exploring this idea of power and the rings of power.
Our inspiration at the beginning is very much about how Boromir wanted the One Ring. What would have happened if he had gotten that? Or Galadriel, where she’s dark Galadriel. You wouldn’t have a Dark Lord but a Dark Queen, so that was really the seed of thinking who’s Talion? Who’s Celebrimbor? And when Sam and Frodo go into Mordor and Cirith Ungol with the ring, that fortress just turns on itself and the orcs slaughter each other, so that turning violence against itself. So we get to play with and explore these really interesting themes with LotR but in a way we can create our own sandbox and do it as well.
We definitely don’t have to shy away from being epic. We’re riding dragons, fighting Balrogs, we’re fighting Sauron, taking on the Nazgul.
Mike: In The Lord of the Rings, all of these myths appear, and I think if you go into something that’s mythic, it’s going to inevitably become more fantastical. So the fact that we have this grounded and gritty and believable world and these relatable characters, but we have this world that’s built on all these layers of myth and mystery, is kind of the best of both worlds. You see it in Game of Thrones as well. Having a gritty, realistic, believable world. Magic and myth is always I think at it’s most interesting when it is in the past or it is a bit removed versus actually going there and dropping into the middle of it. It gives it a sense of wonder. We definitely don’t have to shy away from being epic. We’re riding dragons, fighting Balrogs, we’re fighting Sauron, taking on the Nazgul. We’re pretty much as epic as we’re able to have the capacity to make the game.
Again, not to mention this example too much, but I think that’s what makes Game of Thrones so successful as well. In order for magic to work, to have a sense of wonder, it should feel magical. So as soon as it becomes just another technology or it’s everywhere, it actually robs it of the wonder of it, or the meaning of it.
Mike: They are bosses. You are competing with them throughout Mordor and as you get in there and start to conquer Mordor and you’re facing them. Different weapons that relate to who they were historically. We’ve added specific gameplay to each of the individual Nazgul in relation to their different boss fights as well. So whether you’re fighting them singularly or as a group.
We’ve added specific gameplay to each of the individual Nazgul in relation to their different boss fights.
One of the things we really enjoyed in Shadow of Mordor was getting to show the backstory of Sauron and seeing Sauron in fairform and seeing the history of that. So now we get to do that same thing with the Nazgul, so we actually get to reveal the history of who some of them were, and of course their relationship to the rings of power, which of course means their relationship to Celebrimbor and Sauron, so it all kind of gets twisted up in that. But the identity of some of them, we were also able to weave into the lore of Middle Earth in some really interesting ways.
Mike: It was sort of mapped to what we’d done with orcs in Shadow of Mordor, where we emphasized the Uruk Hai, we wanted these things to be elite and as powerful and as possible. We really have this notion of hierarchy and in Mordor it’s the toughest or the smartest or the sneakiest of guys who claw their way to the top. It’s a constant kind of power struggle.
Actually, our reference point was more Warhammer: 40K Space Marines.
Plus, personalities are so important to the nemesis system. You’re going to build relationships with these guys. They’re going to remember you. We wanted that to break away from the dumb cliche of mountain trolls being dumb trolls. Actually, our reference point was more Warhammer: 40K Space Marines. These are these super elite, smartest super soldiers that are part of these armies. Like, if you were trying to breed super soldiers, what would you end up with?
IGN: Do you have an actual biological context for it? They’re trolls, but how do you get them there? How do you make Olog-hai basically?
Mike: We never actually go into the breeding of our orcs. We don’t have any female orcs around. I think we’re following…it’s more like Wonder Woman’s island. They’re all female. It’s parthenogenesis. They have to just reproduce from eggs.
IGN: Life finds a way.
It’s more like Wonder Woman’s island.
Mike: But we’re just more following the movies. It’s the vats, and they’re being pulled out of the vats. The stuff that goes into it, they’re almost engineered in the vats. So by putting different material in there and combining it you can pull out different breeds and species. We had the notion last time, some of the toughest orcs we met at the end were the “talons of the hand” and there were five of them. They were like the immortals, so whenever any of them died, their body had to go back into the vats, and they’d keep pulling them out again.
IGN: Have you ever been tempted to go into any of the weird stuff like barrow wights and Shelob and anything that surrounds the text there in Mordor?
Mike: We’ve definitely got more stuff to show at some point.
Mike: We knew they were very competitive with each other. So I think the two starting points we had, one was we wanted to make them genuine characters. Their foundation is in humanity, not in fantasy monsters.
So there’s a line Tolkien wrote in one of his letters which reads, “we were all orcs in the Great War.” So orcs are the manifestation of what happens to human beings when they get controlled completely by the emotions of hatred and fear. So if those two emotions run rampant without control, people become incredibly horrible.
Batman villains are great examples of exaggerated psychological traits that usually exist in some opposite to Batman.
So you’ve got these power structures that are manipulating these guys, ruling them through fear, dominating them, sending them out as this war machine. Then you’ve got the orcs trying to exist within that. It’s all about hate and fear and violence, and they’re drunk out of their minds. So that’s kind of the starting point: to say what would an actual society be like under those circumstances.
Another thing that’s really important about the orcs is they’re total scumbags, but they don’t see themselves as villains. So when the orcs come down and they find Frodo after he’s been stunned by Shelob, their first reaction is “oh, this is an Elvish trick.” Through their eyes, they still totally demonize the other guys. “They’re the bad guys, not us.” But they just have no actual moral, spinal compunction.
Immediately after that scene – where they find Frodo and say, “oh this is some Elvish trick” – and then the next line is “Oh remember when Gorebag got stung? That was hilarious!” So at the same time they can criticize someone else. Like, they’re just completely hypocritical. Criticize someone as a sneaky bastard for doing this, then they laugh about the fact they do the same thing, but not connect the dots between those two things. There’s no empathy. Outside of that, they’re real humans, so we try to write and think about them as real characters, which then gets important in the nemesis system and how they relate to each other.
IGN: What goes into creating a role? Do you all just sit around a table and say, “We should have a guy who just really hates bugs.”
Mike: Yeah, kind of. The thing with the roles is, again, because we’re coming up with this idea of wanting them to be human and relatable characters, a lot of it is going on TV Tropes and looking up villains. Batman villains are a great example. Batman villains are all examples of exaggerated psychological traits that usually exist in some opposite to Batman.
IGN: Do you have a role of someone as the Joker?
We have roles based on pretty much every villain you could probably imagine. But then we take it within our own world, so it wouldn’t recognizably be the same.
Mike: We have roles based on pretty much every villain you could probably imagine. But then we take it within our own world, so it wouldn’t recognizably be the same. But it’s that notion, whether it’s about chaos, or it’s about order, or pain. A lot of it is looking at tropes and villains, who are the best villains, and what are the best catchphrases. Pretty much whatever you read, see, or watch, we’ve got this framework to say, “Ah, Reek [from Game of Thrones] is great so he can go in.” Or Jason Voorhees. We’ve got this framework where all these iconic villains can slot in and you can make them your own.
IGN: What was your favorite personality that you built off of one of these super villain tropes?
Mike: I actually really like the ones who more mirror or reflect Talion from their point of view. Like “you are just such a murderous lunatic!” But yeah, the one’s that successfully manage to point out from their point of view how monstrous you are. Actually, I do know who my favorite is, but we haven’t…we’re going to save him. He’s good.
On Hard mode, it should genuinely be really meaningfully hard.
Mike: With Shadow of Mordor, the scope was more limited, and we were still learning, so we deliberately made you more OP at the end, whereas this time I suppose it is much more of an RPG. We want you to keep growing. We want the challenge to keep growing, as well. So you do still get incredibly powerful, but your enemies get more powerful around you as well.
It is a hard problem, but one of the ways we’re dealing with that is by adding difficulty. So if we have people who do just want to enjoy the story and do it more like they did Shadow of Mordor, where they can become more OP near the end and not think about that, we have Easy mode. On Normal, we have the dynamic difficulty, so it is always going to stay challenging. On Hard mode, it should genuinely be really meaningfully hard.
We don’t worry too much about game recognition because gamers are pretty well informed.
Mike: Without going too deep, I guess we don’t worry too much about game recognition because gamers are pretty well informed. So from that point of view, we just wanted to give it the best and most accurate name we could. Representing the scale was really important. Being beyond Mordor was important. I think the name we were least interested in was Shadow of Mordor 2 because it’s just tacking the number on. It sounds like you’re a “1.5.” The last thing we want to be seen as is a “1.5.” We really want this to stand alone as its own thing.
Brandin Tyrrel is an Editor at IGN who just recently watched the Lord of the Rings extended edition trilogy again. He’s super ready for more Middle-earth and you can find him on Twitter at @BrandinTyrrel.