Hard Project: Lord of the Rings
I’m going to be totally honest here and say that as much as it’s supposedly a part of the subculture, I’ve never much cared for Lord of the Rings. This isn’t a case like Star Wars, where I think the thing as a whole is undeserving of praise; J.R.R. Tolkien seems to have been a fantastic guy, he wrote one of my all-time favorite fantasy novels (The Hobbit), and he did sort of kick of an entire genre. It’s not his fault that later fantasy writers have resorted to making thin pastiches of his original work, and while it is his fault that he found heroic sagas way more interesting than I do, that’s… not really a “fault” thing.
But it’s really, really difficult to make a game set in that universe, despite its popularity. We’ve gotten a lot of magnificent games in the universe already, sure, but this is a unique project insofar as every successful one makes each subsequent one that much harder. We should be thankful for what we have so far, but it’s getting harder to fit in more stuff.
There’s a very limited range
It’s a fairly well-known fact that Christopher Tolkien guards the rights to the Lord of the Rings mythology pretty closely. I can’t find a primary source as I write this, but I’ve heard tell many times – and have no reason to disbelieve it – that any sort of licensing is basically solely permitted for the main trilogy and The Hobbit, locking off any of the later material that was release posthumously and creating a very narrow range of what you can actually do within any kind of game.
Remember that episode of Deep Space Nine with the crew traveling back in time and trying to seamlessly integrate themselves and their search with the actions of the original Enterprise crew without affecting anything? Because that’s what making any Lord of the Rings game is like. You have a very, very small window of stuff that your characters can actually do. The story is already written, and the best you can do is clean up around the edges or work through the more-or-less-identical version of the story that the designers have put in front of you.
This is on top of the fact that the stories as a whole are very low-magic and sedate, compared to the usual video game fare. The Fellowship as a whole is composed of dudes who are really good with weapons, and that’s about it. Also Gandalf occasionally does something, although most of the results he gets involve hacking at stuff with a sword. Point being: instead of a wide-open world with lots of different avenues to explore, there’s a narrow range of what players and developers can do with the game before it starts to get outside of the scope of the license.
This is why every successful game makes the next one harder. Because you have to find some path into the game that hasn’t been done before, and you have to do so without doing the same thing the last game did. And all the while, the familiar roads get worn a bit thinner.
You have to edit a lot
Heroic sagas went out of style in popular culture a long damn time ago. Lord of the Rings is very much in that genre, which is a bit of a problem for modern fans who selfishly insist on things like characterization and having more than one woman involved in the story. But you can always update it a bit, right?
Actually, make that a lot. You can’t change the core cast, but you almost need to take a hatchet to everything else to make it work.
Fantasy, by and large, is still seen as a genre in which a bunch of white people with British accents go do white British things, like hacking at orcs in the forest. Lord of the Rings, being the ur-fantasy tale, is basically as white and British as it can be. Almost every single audience member who is not a straight white dude is going to have to look to the fringes to find a single character that looks like they do. That’s in addition to all of the work you already have to do sneaking your characters and storytelling in around the edges – you have to update the entire setting to feel more “right” for modern audiences without changing it.
This will not necessarily sit well with fans. Which brings us to our last point…
Against the fans
Hard-core Lord of the Rings fans have a pretty good head for this stuff. They would have to. They are basically memorizing an entirely new set of cultural myths and figuring out how they fit together, also frequently learning some completely fictional languages that make complete sense as languages. Star Trek gives us a single language for an entire species; Lord of the Rings has multiple languages just for the damn elves.
These fans will quite helpfully inform you when your game fails to perfectly adhere to the existing setting, too. Shadow of Mordor has been roundly panned by some fans because in its efforts to shoehorn Assassin’s Creed into Middle-Earth, it’s kind of had to remove or alter large chunks of existing series mythology. I’m not going to comment on whether or not those alterations are for the best or not, since that isn’t the point; the point is that if you take away the “Mordor” part of that title and replace the setting with Tolkien-in-all-but-name, suddenly you can’t be violating the setting because you made it up.
Well, sort of, anyhow.
Sheer popularity keeps people interested in creating more works based on the original trilogy about elves and dwarves killing humanoids that are all evil by their very nature, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. And no, it’s not going anywhere soon, but when the next attempt to put a controller in your hand while you play through the story comes around, you can at least understand why it’s a difficult road.