A question has been bugging me for the past week or so: should you get annoyed when a video game changes the established lore of the source material upon which it is based? It’s something we see often in film and television adaptations of books, but it’s rarer with video games which, for all their other flaws, mostly manage to tell their own stories and create their own worlds without relying on an established source.
Sometimes we get a video game that uses an existing source to tell its own story – Spec Ops: the Line was, at its core, a twist on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; the excellent Hearts of Stone expansion to The Witcher III was a clever adaptation of the Polish equivalent of the Faust story; the criminally underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West.
All of these adaptations have deviated enough from the source material on which they are based and managed to tell their own stories, but when a video game is set wholly within an established universe, then liberties taken with the lore are not easy to forgive. The reason I have been thinking about this subject, is because of the latest trailer for Middle Earth: Shadow of War.
Shadow of War is the upcoming sequel to Shadow of Mordor, arguably the best game to be released in 2014, which took the Assassin’s Creed model, did it better than any game in that series has, and introduced the ingenious “Nemesis System”, all while creating a new story in the world of Middle Earth that stayed respectful to what J.R.R. Tolkien had created.
Now if your even just remotely familiar with the works of Tolkien then you will have noticed something odd in that trailer for Shadow of War – apparently Shelob (the giant spider, last child of Ungoliant, the giant spider) can, at will, transform into a beautiful human woman. Oh, and she can see the future now as well. Bear in mind, this isn’t some alternate universe situation, the Middle Earth games are set in the roughly 60 year period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, so in the same world that Shelob can transform into human form at will and see the future, she also gets beaten and mortally wounded by this buffoon:
Since the trailer was unleashed upon the internet comment sections have been debating whether this fundamental change to the character of Shelob matters or not. Some have argued that Tolkien never explicitly said that Shelob couldn’t turn into a human and see the future, indeed there’s not a huge amount Tolkien did write about Shelob, but he didn’t explicitly say that Shelob couldn’t turn into a Sherman tank or a bag of rice either.
Now you might be thinking “why does he care about this? It’s a work of fiction”, and you’d be right, it is just a work of fiction. But the world Tolkien created has always been important to me, it was the first piece of fantasy literature I was ever exposed to, and I’ve been in love with the history, characters, and stories of Middle Earth since I was a child.
I thoroughly enjoyed Shadow of Mordor, not only was the gameplay excellent, but it told a compelling story with the existing framework of the Tolkien mythos. Using Celebrimbor as a compelling character without altering who he is and his history was emblematic of the reverence with which developer Monolith Productions treated the source material. Existing characters weren’t changed in any way, and the created characters (such as the protagonist, Talion) slotted nicely into the world.
This no longer seems to be the case with Shadow of War. From what is shown in the trailer it seems that at least a portion of the story will revolve around stopping Minas Ithil falling into the hands of the enemy. Well in the Tolkien mythos Minas Ithil fell and became the stronghold of Minas Morgul, home of the ring wraiths, centuries before the period this game is supposed to be covering. A minor point perhaps, but to me this and the complete reconning of the character of Shelob shows a disregard to the world which the developers had once treated so respectfully.
And I can understand, to a certain degree, why they decided to do it. In the first game part of the story – helping Celebrimbor remember who he is – was driven through interactions with Gollum. Gollum is a recognisable character from the films and will give something for fans of the films to latch onto, but his character wasn’t changed. Likewise, Shelob is a recognisable character (if that is the right word), and is being used as a medium through which to drive the story in Shadow of War. But if the developers needed to use Shelob to convey story then why not keep her as a spider?
Having her as a talking spider wouldn’t be a stretch. Her mother, Ungoliant, was capable of communication, and it is presumed that Shelob and Gollum meet at some point and Gollum possibly promises to bring prey to her (including Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings). But I guess a talking spider isn’t as appealing to gamers as a scantily clad sexy lady.
These are details that will not bother the vast majority of people. Even as I write this I realise that someone to who isn’t a Tolkien fanatic this will read as petty complaints. But for me, the disregard for the lore of the Tolkien universe, where there had previously been so much respect, has me worried about the direction Shadow of War is taking. Hopefully the game itself is good enough to offset my misgivings with the story.