I hadn’t been planning to write anything about Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, a game I only recently finished, mostly because the game is old and it didn’t seem like there was much to say. Shadow of Mordor is an exceptionally well-crafted game with strong mechanics that make it a lot of fun to play, but it’s still a Lord of the Rings knockoff without much in the way of novel settings, characters, or plot.
But a strange thing happened while I was branding Uruk Warchiefs to set up the final mission. One trophy – A Graug’s Heel – instructs the player to use a Warchief’s fear against him, and since I sometimes like to collect such trophies it seemed like a fine opportunity to kill two Uruks with one ring. I dutifully set out to exploit the game’s Nemesis system, which allows the hero Talion to gather personal information about the Uruk Captains and Warchiefs that are the primary villains.
What I found proved to be a harrowing lesson in video game empathy.
Though Shadow of Mordor largely deserves the praise it has received for its Nemesis system, it would be a stretch to suggest that the Uruks have personalities. Their strengths and vulnerabilities are purely mechanical, disassociated from anything that might give us a glimpse into what the Captains do when not enslaving humans. As in so many games, these creatures exist solely for combat.
The exceptions are the Captains’ fears, the most common of which are fire and caragors, the large, tiger-like creatures that prowl the game world. When exposed to one their fears, even the most powerful Uruks will turn and run. Knowing a Captain’s fear will change the way you approach that encounter, encouraging the player to utilize the environment to become a more dangerous opponent. It makes each battle feel different, and helps infuse the game with much of its variety.
However, the fears also serve as an indication that the Uruks have inner thoughts and personalities beyond fighting. It makes them unexpectedly relatable because – like us – the Uruks have insecurities that can be ruthlessly exploited by those who would cause them harm.
That all came to the fore when I fought a hapless Warchief named Nazu. He feared caragors, so I initiated a riot to lure him into the open then got him to chase me while I ran towards the nearest pack of critters. When he turned and fled, I mounted one of the caragors and gave chase.
The resulting battle was somewhat atypical. The Warchiefs are challenging opponents because they come with an entourage of soldiers, but I somehow managed to isolate Nazu in the middle of the map, far from his Bodyguards and any other Uruks that might have come to his aid. I then spent two minutes slowly savaging poor Nazu with my caragor, repeatedly knocking him to the ground and mauling him with teeth and claws while he helplessly screamed and pleaded for mercy. It wasn’t a challenge. It was torture.
The whole experience was genuinely unnerving, at least partly because it was so unexpected. Orcs – or at least Tolkein’s version of them – are right up there with zombies and Nazis on the list of things that you don’t need to feel bad about killing. That’s especially true in Shadow of Mordor, where the orcs are regularly seen abusing human slaves and slaughtering people (and each other) for sport. They are violently barbaric creatures with no motivation beyond murder for the sake of murder.
Nazu was equally despicable, and had undoubtedly committed many atrocities to rise to Warchief in the first place. Eliminating him probably saved countless innocents from a similar fate. But I wasn’t worried about that when I killed him. I was only thinking about the fact that I was deliberately taking advantage of a man’s fears to murder him in the cruelest and most sadistic way imaginable.
Uruk or otherwise, that’s not a feeling I enjoy.
The incident changed my entire approach, making me aware of things that I’d overlooked earlier in the game. The more time you spend in Mordor, the more you come to understand that the Nemesis system represents a distinct culture with well-defined hierarchies and mores, and slowly erasing that is more unsettling than any individual act of combat. Sure, it’s a violent warrior culture that I would never condone or want to be a part of, but it still implies a certain degree of civilization and intelligence.
That, in turn, implies that change should at least be possible because these are creatures that can be reasoned with, whether it’s Ratbag’s demonstrated scheming away from the Uruk hive mind or the fraternal sentiment between twins. The Uruks have emotions and ideas that could theoretically be leveraged in more nuanced ways than death or murder.
And yet, none of that is explored in Shadow of Mordor, which humanizes the Uruks enough to make me feel uncomfortable yet expects me to regard them as the kind of unambiguous villains that video games always seek to provide. After all, that’s the way the Uruks have always been categorized in every iteration of Lord of the Rings, so why would I have any qualms about slaughtering them here?
In any case my objections were minor. The Uruks kept trying to kill me, so I kept killing them and most of my atrocities could easily be classified as self-defense.
But I can’t shake the feeling that there should be more progressive ways to resolve the conflict. The Uruks refer to Talion as the Gravewalker because he keeps returning every time they kill him, making his immortality an acknowledged aspect of the game. Thanks to his bond with a wraith, Talion knows he can never truly die. Is it still self-defense when I’ll be resurrected should I fall? Shouldn’t I be more patient knowing that my supernatural advantage allows me to act with impunity?
Protecting innocent people from Sauron is ultimately a noble goal so Talion still falls on the side of good. But pure evil rarely exists in reality the way it can (and does) exist in fiction, and the Uruks are not Sauron. No matter how despicable they may be, the depiction of a textured society inevitably makes the villains more relatable. In a different context, maybe they could be better. If that’s the case, then maybe I should be better, too.