“It is not noble men we are dominating, but savage orcs.”
October 14, 2017 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War can’t decide if it thinks orcs are people too [The A.V. Club] “There’s a horrible reality underneath all the blood and bombast of Shadow Of War: When you “dominate” an orc, you are erasing its agency and enslaving it. There’s really no two ways around it. The notion that this entire game is built upon the act of removing another living thing’s will and using them as an object is an unsettling truth that you’re forced to confront over and over again. Sometimes it’s not enough to brainwash your enemy. Sometimes you also have to explode your allies’ heads or steal their life like the miserable vampire you are. Sometimes the people around you will question your methods, pointing out that the Ring Of Power enabling your domination has been used time and again to deceive and corrupt others and that its use never ends well for the wearer. [...] The game clearly wants you to think about what you’ve spent dozens of hours doing, or at the very least, it’s finally accepted the fact that there’s really no escaping the hypocrisy and ugliness of its entire conceit.”

• 'Shadow of Mordor' is morally repulsive and I can't stop playing it [The Verge]
“Stalking, torturing, terrorizing, and assassinating Uruks is cruel and malicious, and the game sometimes acknowledges as much, calling your actions into question with bits of dialogue. But all internal criticism feels superficial alongside literally dozens of hours of instilling fear into the hearts of my enemies with my bow and sword. And to be clear, you torture in this game: You have the option to beat an enemy within an inch of his life, and only at that point will he reveal information or switch loyalties out of fear. That is torture. Later in the game, your character unlocks the ability to send beaten Uruks as threats to their superiors, and also the option to enslave Uruks, to have them fight alongside you — until you tap a button that kills them all. It's an odd twist, considering scattered throughout the game up to this point are optional missions to save human slaves from Uruk masters.”
• Orc Slavery Made Me Quit ‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ [Motherboard]
“He found me. I was hiding in a bush and there he was. He called to his fellow orcs, said he smelled manflesh and pulled me out of hiding. After he tossed me to the ground, he told me he was older than the dirt below me and (once again) mentioned that he'd never die. Fair enough. I beat him down, broke his will, and made him my personal bodyguard. Later, he gave his life yet again protecting me in battle. And then he came back to life. I was on my way to start another quest when he found me again. He wasn't the orc I'd fallen in love with, but a twisted wreck. His body bore the scars of his recent deaths. The bone galea was gone, replaced by a wrought iron mask enshrining his broken features. Stitches criss-crossed the limbs he lost in his most recent battle. Someone had sewn him back together. He was furious with me for leaving him behind, for forcing him to fight and die, for using him so badly. We clashed, I won and I reached into his mind to pull him back into my fold but he resisted. So I killed him. Again. Hours later, he found me.”
• Shadow of War’s Treatment of Orcs is the Worst Part of the Game [Game Revolution]
“As you play through the game, you'll fight and "dominate" a ton of orc captains, and each one of them has their own randomly generated traits and personality. If not for the dynamic nature of the NPCs the Shadow of War would get repetitive quickly, but seeing how the next captain will look, talk, and how they'll fight keeps the experience fresh. The most important thing the Nemesis System does though is to emotionally invest you in the soldiers that make up your army. You'll inevitably have your favorites, and you'll worry about them when they have to fight. Why then, if the game spends so much time getting you involved with the orcs, does Talion and Celebrimbor treat them like garbage the whole game? [...] For the most part, the only comments Talion and Celebrimbor have to make about the orcs is how they're disgusting, but useful creatures. Never is it brought to the forefront that what you're doing for the whole game is akin to slavery.”
• You can make orcs fight like Pokémon in Middle-earth: Shadow of War [PC Gamer]
“To prepare for that big battle, I commanded one of my orcs to fight the bodyguard orc of one of the war chiefs. If your orc defeats this bodyguard, Shadow of War gives them the opportunity to become a spy, and ambush that war chief if and when you go to fight them. But these "Infiltration" missions have a catch: you can't participate. It's a contest between two orcs to see who's the better fighter, and see who deserves the job of bodyguard more. Now that I've played a little more, I've also discovered an area called the Fight Pits, where you can essentially level-grind your orcs against one another or enemies. On my first Infiltration mission, I sent in secret agent Stakûga the Molten against an unknown orc in the video above, hoping that his flaming spear and non-flaming shield would be enough. Infiltrations are timed fights, and you can move the camera around a little, but otherwise have zero control over the outcome. I watched with trepidation as Stakûga absorbed a few shield bashes early in the fight, becoming dazed. I don't have kids, but I feel like in this moment I understood why some parents lose their minds at recreational children's sports games.”
posted by Fizz (84 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Reader: Wow, reading Lord of the Rings as an adult, there are some really problematic areas regarding race in this book.

Game developer: hold my mead

posted by Halloween Jack at 2:02 PM on October 14, 2017 [99 favorites]


Warhammer gets to be the least gross one in something!*

* something horrible will happen to Orks on a regular basis but that's the same of everyone and most of the time they're into it.
posted by Artw at 2:06 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


This is why the (low) fantasy novel I'm writing has magic, but no non-human races.


It does have turbans, though. Lots of turbans. I'm making turbans a thing again.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:12 PM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


I also saw a community board posting over at GameFAQs where some terrible human made a comment to the effect of:
“Snowflake quits Shadow of War because of Orc Slavery...SJWs are cancer.”
*sighs*

Because apparently a game reviewer cannot point out how a video game/story can be problematic in the way it treats its characters or the world it establishes. Ugh.
posted by Fizz at 2:15 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


You know what bothers me? That Shadow of War is another AAA that features gambling targeting children, something that usually lands people in jail. But they call it loot boxes so I guess it's ok.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:15 PM on October 14, 2017 [10 favorites]


Because apparently a game reviewer cannot point out how a video game/story can be problematic in the way it treats its characters or the world it establishes. Ugh.

oh they had a whole thing where they established gamers are the fucking worst and were utterly foul to everyone.
posted by Artw at 2:16 PM on October 14, 2017 [19 favorites]


You know what bothers me? That Shadow of War is another AAA that features gambling targeting children, something that usually lands people in jail. But they call it loot boxes so I guess it's ok.

See these two threads, where that discussion is already happening if you want to dig into that subject further.
posted by Fizz at 2:21 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


gamers are the fucking worst and were utterly foul to everyone

wait I thot that was orcs
posted by mwhybark at 2:21 PM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


What I'd like to know is what happened to Talion's face between the first game and the second. Did he get some Shelobian botox? Is he wearing his own face as a mask?

gamers are the fucking worst and were utterly foul to everyone

wait I thot that was orcs


Nah, Orcs are at least funny and seem to work out occasionally.
posted by selfnoise at 2:24 PM on October 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


Maybe if we didn't think of Orcs as a race but as a Political Party...
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:26 PM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]


I suppose it's part of the point, or something, but holy shit would Tolkien have loathed these games.
posted by brennen at 2:27 PM on October 14, 2017 [10 favorites]


There's definitely something orcish about modern gaming culture, so yeah.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:28 PM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


See also the always amazing Austin Walker talking about this in relation to the first game.
posted by kmz at 2:32 PM on October 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


These linked articles are full of spoilers, beware.

I'm still only halfway through Act I, so haven't experienced this stuff myself, but already it's pretty brutal and savage. There's a lot of very visceral violence; exploding heads, dismembering bodies, repeated stabbing. I guess it's no different from any other murder simulator but it feels pretty awful to me. So it's a slavery simulator too? Degradation as entertainment. I'm still on board, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

I don't expect any subtle denouement either. The writing for this game and its predecessor is terrible. Particularly the angel/devil running dialog between Talion and Celebrimbor (ie: you). "We must save Gondor!" "OK, but while we're saving them let's steal the Macguffin". That's the extent of moral subtlety the game offers.
posted by Nelson at 2:34 PM on October 14, 2017


Back in the day I had a friend who owned a Commodore 64. Over the course of a few years he went from being more or less a normal kid to a rage monster who constantly berated everyone he played with or against, appraised the attractiveness of every female character in those primitively rendered games and, on a few occasions, got physically violent because of something that happened in a game. Eventually I stopped hanging out with him for obvious reasons, but 12 year-old me would have been super-bummed if I'd known that guys like him were going to go on to shape the video game scene in their image.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:43 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


So this is basically an allegory of the modern criminal justice pipeline?
posted by Talez at 2:48 PM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure why Tolkien gets a pass on this. It sounds like the game raises the question of the orcs being feeling, complex people-- Tolkien never does. They're just arrow fodder.
posted by zompist at 2:56 PM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Orcs don't have agency. They are constructs. They don't have moms and dads.
posted by Brocktoon at 3:03 PM on October 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


I can't speak for the Orcs in the game, not having played it, but Orcs in the books are explicitly borne of dark, evil magic. They're pretty much one dimensional evil 'robots' whose sole purpose is to murder and pillage. If we're going after Tolkien for the unethical treatment of orcs, we might as well claim that killing the spiders in mirkwood is animal cruelty too.

#maiarfortheethicaltreatmentoforcs
posted by dazed_one at 3:05 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


It sounds like the game raises the question of the orcs being feeling, complex people-- Tolkien never does

Doesn't he say that they are an inferior race, made in mockery of the Elves?
Come to think of it, I guess that's not such a great defense for Tolkien, on the issue of racism.
posted by thelonius at 3:06 PM on October 14, 2017 [10 favorites]


Orcs in the books are explicitly borne of dark, evil magic

Specifically, they were elves.

I heard the first game was a confusing mismash of lore so I never picked it up. Disappointing, I'd enjoy a Tolkien game done right.
posted by rewil at 3:07 PM on October 14, 2017


Having an all-evil species that can be freely murdered and tortured without any ethical consideration is a problematic out-of-universe creative decision that cannot be justified by an appeal to in-universe lore.
posted by Pyry at 3:12 PM on October 14, 2017 [44 favorites]


I heard the first game was a confusing mismash of lore so I never picked it up. Disappointing, I'd enjoy a Tolkien game done right.

The lore is definitely a mismash and this game isn't that much better. The thing that made the first game so enjoyable to play was their Nemesis system.
The Nemeses (singular: Nemesis) are randomly named enemies in Sauron's Army that are generated uniquely with each playthrough of the game. Each nemesis has their own personality and will rise or fall within their social structure as the game progresses. They are affected by Talion's actions, and each will react differently to Talion's incursion into Mordor, be it fight, flight, or some other reaction. By defeating these notable enemies, the player is rewarded Runes.
Here is a video from Gamespot that explains how it works.
posted by Fizz at 3:12 PM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Oh and here's the thing. The Orcs are the best part of this game. They're interesting and unique. Each Orc has a personality, things they love, things they hate, weaknesses (which sadly you often exploit to gain control of). The one Orc may be super into archery and loves to talk about his pets. They make the game fun. And when you recruit the Orcs into your army, they will often betray you.

It's just a shame that your main protagonist actively seeks to dominate and control them. It would have been interesting to just be able to be an Orc and pal around with your other Orc friends in Mordor fighting and shit.
posted by Fizz at 3:18 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


The lore in the new game is a total mess. Not spoiling anything big here: Shelob turns out to be a sexy woman in a sexy dress. Not an ancient spider monster. There's some elaborate lore-wanking about how this makes sense but it's transparently obvious they just wanted to put a hot chick in the game.

The orcs in Shadow of War are definitely humanized. They've got great lines, often hilarious. They piss.. They have fleshed out personal motivations. They all boil down to "kill things and eat them", mind you, but they're individualized and fleshed out. A different game would have been a Dwarf Fortress / Hatoful Boyfriend mashup where you tend to the social lives of the orcs and build a happy orc colony.

Tolkein's orcs aren't entirely anonymous killing machines. Isn't there a whole section in a tower in one of the later two books where there's orcs with lines and stories and complicated motivations? It's been awhile since I've read LotR.
posted by Nelson at 3:21 PM on October 14, 2017 [12 favorites]


I thought there were a few theories on the orcs and only one had them be fallen/corrupted elves?
posted by Carillon at 3:23 PM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Stretching Middle Earth lore beyond Tolkein is akin to a Trade Federation blockade of Naboo. Essentially, it's crap but someone out there is spending money on it for some goddamn reason.
posted by Brocktoon at 3:39 PM on October 14, 2017


Isn't there a whole bit about them hanging out in a watchtower and grumbling about things and trying too feed the hobits bread and probably-kinda-iffy meat?
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Having an all-evil species that can be freely murdered and tortured without any ethical consideration is a problematic out-of-universe creative decision that cannot be justified by an appeal to in-universe lore.

I don't know if this would work as a video game concept--or if players would accept it or think it was too gross or silly--but what if they were zombies?

Or what if they were p-zombies ?
posted by straight at 3:50 PM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


There are two sections IIRC with Orcs fleshed out, and they are similar. One is when Merry and Pippen are captured and taken to Isengard, and there's all the tension between the Uruk-Hai (who are ultimately loyal to Saruman) and the other orcs.

The other one is after Shelob cocoons Frodo and his semi-petrified self is captured by Orcs (who are also squabbling) in the tower of Cirith Ungol(?) and then Sam helps him escape. IIRC this latter section isn't really in the movies.
posted by selfnoise at 3:50 PM on October 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


See also: Remember Me. I'd heard a lot of cool things about the combat system, and was in the mood for a beat-em-up with a kind of dystopian, fight-against-the-corps thing going for it.

Instead, you mind-rape and rewire peoples' memories and personalities at the drop of a hat and no one bats an eye. It's just.. that's what you do in that game.

Maybe something gets raised about it later in the game, but it bothered me enough I didn't want to participate anymore to find out. I wasn't likely to pick up the Mordor games but these articles make it sound like that's pretty much a "nope, never" for me.
posted by curious nu at 3:58 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Anyway, the idea that Orcs are explicitly fabricated and not biologically capable of reproduction... it's not cut and dry in the books, and in fact if Tolkien thought at length of the issue it isn't evident. This is a decent summary.

Tolkien was good at encrypting what he liked about English country life (and to an extent, "whiteness") into the 'race' of Hobbits and not actually good at sociological worldbuilding.
posted by selfnoise at 4:01 PM on October 14, 2017 [5 favorites]


One other problematic change Shadow of War made is that they turned Shelob into a sexy "femme fatale". I don't recall her ever having a human form, at least not in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings books.

Though maybe in the Silmarillion or History of Middle-Earth she was? Someone else with more specific Tolkien knowledge could verify that. Though I feel like the answer is no, Shelob has never been a sexy femme fatale seductress.
posted by Fizz at 4:09 PM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


ORKS OR EVERYONE
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:13 PM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


The thing is that zombies in modern narrative are not coded as the outsider / foreigner / inferior and inhuman race. It could be members of your family, it could be the person you love, that become the zombie and are no longer who you knew. There's probably a good dissertation or thousand to be written about Zombies and addiction and mental illness and communicable disease, but they aren't just outsiders so the narrative plays a different role in relation to society.
posted by idiopath at 4:20 PM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Artw: I think those were goblins, not orcs.
posted by Brocktoon at 4:21 PM on October 14, 2017


Though maybe in the Silmarillion or History of Middle-Earth she was? Someone else with more specific Tolkien knowledge could verify that. Though I feel like the answer is no, Shelob has never been a sexy femme fatale seductress.

No, Tolkien never gives any indication that the great spiders could take another form.

There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form, even such as once of old had lived in the Land of the Elves in the West that is now under the Sea, such as Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in Doriath, and so came to Luthien upon the green sward amid the hemlocks in the moonlight long ago. How Shelob came there, flying from ruin, no tale tells, for out of the Dark Years few tales have come. But still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Duath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world.

Artw: I think those were goblins, not orcs.

Tolkien was also quite unclear on whether there was a real distinction between goblins and orcs.
posted by selfnoise at 4:29 PM on October 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


This is just a very visible version of the undercurrents that have gone through a lot of gaming for decades.
posted by JHarris at 4:30 PM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Here's a fun game: replace all mentions of 'the player' with 'super Mario' and 'Uruks' with 'victims of Cappy'.
posted by sexyrobot at 4:34 PM on October 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Stretching Middle Earth lore beyond Tolkein is akin to a Trade Federation blockade of Naboo.

A lore disruption can mean only one thing - money.
posted by allegedly at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


It's hard to find the actual quote but, when asked which side the Orcs represented from World War 1 (in which he fought), Tolkien is reputed to have said, "In the Great War, we were all Orcs."
posted by philip-random at 4:37 PM on October 14, 2017 [23 favorites]


Tell you what, when I mindcontrol some fucker on X-COM the shitbag deserves it.
posted by Artw at 4:45 PM on October 14, 2017 [14 favorites]


(when the enemy mind controls one of my guys it is of course an outrageous violation that must be avenged)
posted by Artw at 4:47 PM on October 14, 2017 [11 favorites]


Nah, Orcs are at least funny and seem to work out occasionally.

I've only recently finally started playing SoM and my primary nemesis so far is "Bolg the Funny One." He hasn't done anything all that funny yet, but I'm hopeful.
posted by homunculus at 6:00 PM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


The lore is definitely a mismash and this game isn't that much better. The thing that made the first game so enjoyable to play was their Nemesis system.

Have any other games used the Nemesis system? It seems like something developers would want to adopt.
posted by homunculus at 6:10 PM on October 14, 2017


It's crazy but AFAIK no games have copied the Nemesis system as a whole. There's two big pieces.

A key thing is procedural mini-bosses. The Orc Captains are a mix of various traits ("immune to arrows, scared of fire"). And their bodies are a mix of various features and types ("very large", "eyepatch"). There's a whole lot of games that have procedurally generated mini-bosses now. Mad Max is the one I most remember enjoying playing, but there's lots.

But the other part of Nemesis is the history and emergent storytelling. There's not a whole lot to it. If a mini-boss kills you it levels up. If you kill a mini-boss it might disappear entirely, or might come back stronger than before. All that stuff requires some sort of resurrection lore / mechanic, but that's common enough. Also mini-bosses have fights amongst themselves and a very simple social hierarchy. All that stuff would require a bit more work to adapt to another game, but it certainly seems doable.
posted by Nelson at 6:21 PM on October 14, 2017 [7 favorites]


Have any other games used the Nemesis system? It seems like something developers would want to adopt.

I think other developers would love to, but it involves AI programming, which can be a bit of a weak spot with game development. As I understand it AI programmers can get much higher paying jobs than they'll find in the gaming industry, which is known for lower-than-typical pay.

Monolith has had good AI programming as far back as the original F.E.A.R., which featured impressive enemy movement that other games still haven't quite managed.

Also, these systems require a certain amount of CPU power (thus why they were absent from the PS3/360 versions of Shadow of Mordor). Even the PS4 and XB1 have very weak CPUs by PC standards.
posted by selfnoise at 6:24 PM on October 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


This is why the (low) fantasy novel I'm writing has magic, but no non-human races.


It does have turbans, though. Lots of turbans. I'm making turbans a thing again.


Man, another shill for Big Turban! Flagging for Turban Blue.
posted by Samizdata at 7:23 PM on October 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


One of the Uruks is voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. "Like a comic relief sort of character."
posted by zakur at 9:52 PM on October 14, 2017


I dunno, my roommates did far, far worse to Sims. Poor Sims, it did seem like one goal of the game was to come up with creative ways to torment and kill them. I mean, if it turns out that Sims are people too then we are all going to hell. How is this game different? Is it just that they come back to life and act sad? Is it that they are more realistic looking? I genuinely wonder as the only video game I've played in 15 years is GTA. And I only play that to kill characters in creative ways too. Well, an annoy my nieces and nephews by killing all their characters.
posted by fshgrl at 9:57 PM on October 14, 2017


Seeing people call it mind-rape is really something. I mean I guess it is mind-rape (never really thought about it until now) but man it is really fun to sneak into a fortress and convert the entire place into allies before triggering the orc captain fight. Then you just sit back and watch the chaos as everyone fights but you. I always kept an eye on my captains and helped them out if they needed it.

The Celebrimbor DLC was pretty much about letting you control everyone in sight and making the commentary that you're totally evil now for doing that because that's the whole one ring schtick.

Maybe it would be better to just have straight allies in the game instead of mind-raping them but that whole flipping the switch and now it's orc vs orc is fun, for me at least.
posted by M Edward at 12:51 AM on October 15, 2017


I mean I guess it is mind-rape (never really thought about it until now) but man it is really fun to sneak into a fortress and convert the entire place into allies before triggering the orc captain fight. Then you just sit back and watch the chaos as everyone fights but you

What would have made this awesome, instead of concerning, was if you had made all those orcs allies through persuasion and solid argument. "Here Bolg, read my pamphlet!"

What would have made it sadly realistic would be if you got a highly influential orc on your side and the rest fell in line through peer pressure, that is to say, the YouTube streamer approach.
posted by JHarris at 4:32 AM on October 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Well, in any event, I still lose sleep ever since Colbert pointed out that Orcs patron restaurants.
posted by Brocktoon at 4:46 AM on October 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


They're pretty much one dimensional evil 'robots' whose sole purpose is to murder and pillage.

I mean, yeah, that's their characterization, but why trust the narrator so implicitly? If you only learned about black people from your racist granddad you'd think they were pretty one dimensional too.

I get it, it's fantasy, and I don't want you to think I am telling you you are reading and enjoying it wrong. I'm not. But I am telling you why it's not the refutation of this discussion you think it is.
posted by solotoro at 6:03 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


In Middle-Earth, everything has a tendency to weaken or corrupt over time, including the nature of various sentient races. Most creatures, once they taste corruption, cannot be redeemed; the exceptions to this, such as Boromir, Théoden, and to some extent Gollum, must still inevitably pay the price of death for their foray into sin, although Bilbo and Frodo get a partial pass on this rule -- instead of death they merely must endure eternal suffering. Anyway, orcs have the misfortune of being born lesser, corrupt beings. They are irredeemable. They have no greater selves to strive to or to return to; they couldn't even be noble savages, because they intrinsically lacked any sense of nobility. I think if Tolkien had an issue with possessing their minds it would be that the act could infect the possessor with the low morality of the orcs. I doubt he'd care a bit about the effects it would have on the orcs themselves, who could never be equal to proper Englishmen no matter how hard they strove. Nor would they make the attempt, it being so contrary to their nature.
posted by xigxag at 7:19 AM on October 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


my primary nemesis so far is "Bolg the Funny One." He hasn't done anything all that funny yet, but I'm hopeful.

um, I don't think that's the kind of 'funny' they mean, sweetheart...
posted by sexyrobot at 8:23 AM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


What's interesting to contemplate is where is that line where you start to feel badly for your characters/NPCs?

Artw mentioned taking control of an alien in X-COM and not feeling bad about it at all. I'm the same way. The alien Sectoids in that universe do not get any sympathy from me, fuck them.

But I start to feel a bit differently when I think about the Skirmishers (X-COM 2) who are alien/human hybrids. I'm not sure it's just because they're partially human, but mostly because they get some agency within the story where they have their own story arc and path.

That is what usually sells it for me. Even if a character is arguably bad within the universe that has been created, when I see that the enemy has their own story, their own "side" in the situation I'm presented with, I start to care a bit more.

Then again, that's also kind of an ugly idea. Not every person is able to speak for themselves, the silenced who are just called "enemy" deserve some consideration. Should we only care about characters/NPCs that have been given screen time or speech or a cutscene?
posted by Fizz at 8:45 AM on October 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


What would have made it sadly realistic would be if you got a highly influential orc on your side and the rest fell in line through peer pressure

This is pretty much the Celebrimbor DLC. If you kill any of the captains another one takes it's place. You have to dominate them to progress the game. Doninating a captain also brings his little gang along.

After just seeing Blade Runner 2049 I am tempted to make the replicant / orc comparison. Do orcs procreate? I don't recall seeing any female orcs. But
I do think they rape? I dunno. Giving them unique personalities adds a bit of comedy as they belch, piss and argue, but them being anything other than mindless killing machines makes the mass murder of them squicky.
posted by M Edward at 10:40 AM on October 15, 2017


Anyway, orcs have the misfortune of being born lesser, corrupt beings. They are irredeemable.

All the attempts to defend Tolkien by citing lore make him seem worse. Irredeemable? He was Catholic; that's terrible theology. I don't know if there's an official Catholic position on (say) devils repenting, but I'd expect they'd say that if they truly repented they could be saved; they just don't want to. (It's Calvinism that's against free will.)

There's probably about three sources for this eeeevil-enemy trope. One is just that monsters are evil, no questions asked. It's undoubtedly convenient for narrative, but it's awkward the more realistic your story gets.

Another is war. You can't exactly have war, or games about war, unless all the enemy combatants are fair game. Still, in a real war, we know that they're human beings who are not irredeemable, and it's propagandistic to make them monsters instead.

And if all else fails, we fall back on "this game is about fighting, so that's how you approach the enemies." Which is fine! Games are games. Still, some games manage to be repulsive about it. For me, that was Far Cry 2; it was so morally nasty that I stopped playing; YMMV.
posted by zompist at 1:39 PM on October 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


Games about murdering people stand-ins in pornographic detail are intrinsically horrific, that's the price you pay for entry. Though bailing on that aspect of the hobby because it makes you feel gross is legitimate - there are lots of games that don't do that.

I think it's a little precious to draw arbitrary lines around what is and isn't problematic when you can push a button and jam a knife up under a human's chin and hold them as they die (thinking of critical fave Dishonoured, here.) It's all pretend, if you don't want to pretend gross horrible things then don't.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:55 PM on October 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


If problematic is "worthy of discussion of what the fuck we are doing here" then it's all problematic, every last murdery bit. Doesn't mean you can't get something out of it.
posted by Artw at 3:01 PM on October 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I just want to put out there that I am an avid gamer and also enjoy watching people play immersive games, but I broke up with a guy who played this game too much. I felt like it was warping him, and I couldn't put my finger on it. Now I can. Yikes.
posted by juniperesque at 5:39 PM on October 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure why Tolkien gets a pass on this. It sounds like the game raises the question of the orcs being feeling, complex people-- Tolkien never does. They're just arrow fodder.

That's not the Lord of the Rings I read. Not the one with our two hobbits going into Mordor, hiding from orcs, and hearing conversations and arguments between them - and I believe they were intended to sound like WWI infantrymen.

And this? Isn't Tolkien.
posted by Francis at 1:59 AM on October 16, 2017 [4 favorites]


And this? Isn't Tolkien.

The Middle-Earth: Shadow of X games take the outer skin of the Tolkien universe and wear it whilst running a massive murder simulator.

But then the recent Lara Croft games are massive murder simulators, as was Dishonoured, the recent Bioshock game etc etc etc. Massive murder simulation is the crutch that AAA gaming apparently can't do without.

I suppose Hitman was an up close and personal murder (singular, usually) simulator. Does that count as an improvement?
posted by pharm at 5:08 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


That's not the Lord of the Rings I read. Not the one with our two hobbits going into Mordor, hiding from orcs, and hearing conversations and arguments between them - and I believe they were intended to sound like WWI infantrymen.

They had a bit of depth to them in the odd scene here and there, yeah, but the structure of Tolkein's world was pretty clear: This is the proud race, this is the power-hungry race, this is the adorably ignorant pipe-smoking race (li'l scamps), this is the treasure-hungry race, and see those guys over there, the ones that I have decided are the exact physical opposite of the lithe and fair-skinned and impeccably clean elves? That's the irredeemably evil race that you will never see do anything good. Ever.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:34 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think the books make it clear that the stereotypes of the various Middle-Earth races are no more accurate than real-world stereotypes.

In LOTR:

Elves are aloof and want nothing to do with "lesser" races -- except Legolas, who becomes so close with Gimli that they sail to the Undying Lands together.
Dwarves are greedy and care only for treasure -- except Gimli, who when offered any gift he could desire from Galadriel asked only for a strand of her hair.
Men are power-hungry -- except Faramir, who gladly concedes the stewardship to let Aragorn become King and Theoden, who doesn't hesitate to go to Gondor's aid. (Fuck the movies for what they did to Theoden.)
Hobbits are fat and lazy and ignorant -- except literally all of the Hobbits who travel with the Company, who display courage and selflessness exceeding even the literal angel-analogues in the story and display endless curiosity about the world beyond their borders.

In the Silmarillion:

Elves are perfect and flawless beings who represent the height of everything that Eru intended for his Children... Oh, yeah, except for that whole Kinslaying thing and Jesus Christ like 90% of this book is just the Elves doing horrible things to each other and everybody else.

It makes one suspect that we'd have similar subversions for the Easterlings and Southrons if any of the novels spent any time with them as viewpoint characters. The fact that we never hear anything of their perspective other than a vague assertion that they were manipulated and tricked by Sauron is definitely to Tolkien's discredit, and is definitely motivated by his Eurocentric racism, as are his physical descriptions of the Orcs. So it's not like I'm defending Tolkien as not-racist, because he is. But any kind of claim that the Middle-Earth is a world of single-hat races is not really borne out by the evidence and survives as a common perception mainly because the LOTR trilogy itself spends so little time with characters who aren't Hobbits or Men.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:33 AM on October 16, 2017 [8 favorites]


Bilbo and Frodo get a partial pass on this rule -- instead of death they merely must endure eternal suffering

They were permitted to go to the Undying Lands, but they did die there. Although not explicitly stated in LOTR, Tolkien clarified it in his letters.
posted by Fleebnork at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


I believe they were intended to sound like WWI infantrymen

Ah, like this?
'Got you, Gorbag!' he cried. 'Not quite dead, eh? Well, I'll finish my job now.' He sprang on to the fallen body, and stamped and trampled it in his fury, stooping now and again to stab and slash it with his knife. Satisfied at last, he threw back his head and let out a horrible gurgling yell of triumph. Then he licked his knife, and put it between his teeth...
Just like a WWI infantryman killing his mate. This, by the way, is Mr. Shagrat, who had a long conversation with this same Mr. Gorbag back in The Two Towers.

Tolkien is good at showing shades of gray in his 'good' characters; he doesn't bother to do this with his orcs. There's not one that's likable; no one worries about their redemption, as they worry about that of Gollum.

Treebeard calls them "evileyed-blackhanded-bowlegged-flinthearted-clawfingered-foulbellied-bloodthirty", and that's when the war is over. If there's a single page in LOTR that has something nice to say about any one of them, I'd be interested to hear it.

Tolkien didn't invent the monsters-are-monsters trope, and many stories have some form of it. But it's a trope that begs to be inverted, which is probably why we have the orcs-as-green-Klingons trope in more recent games.
posted by zompist at 10:47 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace"

Tolkien's ideas on of the origin and nature of orcs are very confused, even by the usual standards of his serial writing-fiddling, and were still changing right up to his death. I think this was because he recognized the paradox of the irredeemably evil as contrasted with something implied by his abortive "The New Shadow" -- that orcishness was a pattern of behavior. He could never square the circle.
posted by Quindar Beep at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2017 [5 favorites]


Oh, the orcs aren't nice, but when we get closeup time with them in Mordor, they are human. They aren't automatons of evil, they desire nice things and good food, they complain about their bosses, they are jealous of other orcs. You don't think human infantrymen kill their officers? Vietnam was hardly the first war that had fragging.

As Quindar Beep mentioned, Tolkien struggled with the orcs especially later in his writing career. He recognized that if they had souls -- and he had established that they had to be twisted descendants of the ensouled creations of Eru -- that they also had to have the potential for redemption. He fiddled around with making them soulless, but I think he knew that didn't work with what he had already written. He may never have said the line about "in the Great War we were all orcs", but I don't think anyone who has read those sections of _Lord of the Rings_ can have any doubt that those marching, squabbling, weary orc soldiers drew heavily on his experience in WWI.
posted by tavella at 1:38 PM on October 16, 2017 [6 favorites]


xigxag: I think if Tolkien had an issue with possessing their minds it would be that the act could infect the possessor with the low morality of the orcs. I doubt he'd care a bit about the effects it would have on the orcs themselves

That's not entirely untrue, though I think Tolkien comes to it from a different angle, that they are still creations of Eru and thus had inherent rights and value, no matter how degraded. From Morgoth's Ring:

"But even before this wickedness of Morgoth was suspected the Wise in the Elder Days taught always that the Orcs were not 'made' by Melkor, and therefore were not in their origin evil. They might have become irredeemable (at least by Elves and Men), but they remained within the Law. That is, that though of necessity, being the fingers of the hand of Morgoth, they must be fought with the utmost severity, they must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery. Captives must not be tormented, not even to discover information for the defence of the homes of Elves and Men. If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost. This was the teaching of the Wise, though in the horror of the War it was not always heeded."
posted by tavella at 2:25 PM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


Imagining these orcs as Mr Nutt from Pratchett's Unseen Academicals makes me feel ill.

Also, an orc football management simulator sounds a lot more entertaining.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:40 PM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]


Warhammer sort of had one of those...
posted by Artw at 3:52 PM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]


Yes bob, time for BLOODBOWL!
posted by vrakatar at 6:41 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Tolkien would never, ever, ever-ever-ever invent Bloodbowl.
posted by Artw at 6:58 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


There is a line somewhere in Return of the King in which Gandalf says that, among the other reasons, one point in favor of not just hunkering down and hoping Sauron doesn't launch another attack is that the orc slaves are Sauron's victims, too.

My take has been that Tolkien was mixing solid, praiseworthy humanist instincts with a mindset that didn't spend much energy imagining what swarthy men might be like, let alone orcs. So confused is right.
posted by mark k at 9:22 PM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'm about halfway through the game now (I think? Still haven't finished Act II, but all regions unlocked). The orcs are definitely the most interesting characters in the game. Partly it's the Nemesis system; just a bit of procedural generation of social relationships is enough to create a story in your head. But it's also game production. They recorded a lot of voice lines and animations for the orcs, each one that shows up has a little personal story and his own voice actor. I've seen only one repeat in 20+ hours.

I got lectured yesterday by an orc. "Why do you want to kill all the orcs? I understand if you'd want to kill one, or a few, or a hundred. But all of them? Maybe it's you who has the problem." I think it was all intended as a joke by the developers but it made me awfully uncomfortable.

So it's a bit weird. On one hand we're dominating and enslaving the orcs. OTOH the orcs are the most fun characters in the game.
posted by Nelson at 8:41 AM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


New challenge! Enslave all the orks.

Wait, that isn’t a great deal better is it?
posted by pharm at 2:24 AM on October 19, 2017


Nah, they really should have set the game after the Ring had been destroyed, since we know that bit already, and had the players start off at the Middle Earth League of Nations where they will have to negotiate reparations from the orcs and then help them manage their affairs in Nurn until they regain strength enough to rule on their own.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:05 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Get Paradox Dev Studio to make that game, and I would be all the hell over it.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:17 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's different in Shadow of War than Shadow of Mordor, for some reason, and I'm having trouble pinning down exactly why that is. Maybe because in SoM, Orc domination isn't possible until fairly late in the game, and it's a temporary methodology only intended to last as long as it takes to get you close to the Black Captains, so that you can kill them and then (presumably) die yourself. Right up until the final moments of that game, I think that's what we're all expecting to happen, including the protagonists themselves. It's not treated as a good thing to do, but you're a revenant in hell, just seeking vengeance and the right to die. Until, for no really good reason, they don't, and it's time for a sequel.

In SoW, orc enslavement is not only the whole point, the game doesn't even really start until you can, and it's made quite clear that this is the central conceit without which the game has no real motivation. And yeah, it's grim and weird and shitty. I can imagine this whole game with you playing as a Orc captain, learning awesome combat moves and rising through the ranks of Orc society, choosing a tribe to represent and attempting to become Sauron's right hand. A full-on Orc society simulator would have been amazing, where you convince others to follow you through fear and might instead of just breaking their brains. Instead, you only view all of this background work into what that society might look like reduced to a mishmash of group and individual combat traits, and yeah, being the white guy who rules them all.

Maybe, too, it's that SoM bent but didn't necessarily break Tolkien lore. It was plausible that there was this one story happening deep behind enemy lines with a constrained focus which wouldn't have come up in the books, because it was all the way over by the time the protagonists got anywhere near the Black Gate. The reveal that the wraith is Celebrimbor was a genuinely exciting "oh shit" moment for Middle-Earth nerds. But throughout the first game, you feel like you're playing as Talion, with Celebrimbor's resurrected power fueling you for the short ride unto the death you were denied. In SoW, you're playing as Celebrimbor, and Talion is your eternal meat puppet. And Celebrimbor sucks.

What I do know is that SoW feels overstuffed, hopelessly grim, and endless, and I'm kind of done with it. This New Ring thing is incredibly stupid, a violation of the basic Tolkien conceit that I can't really forgive despite my best efforts to do so, and what it asks you to do is worse. What I wouldn't give for this game to be about an Orc trying to overthrow Sauron instead. That would be so much more fun than this.
posted by Errant at 11:22 AM on October 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


I got lectured yesterday by an orc. "Why do you want to kill all the orcs? I understand if you'd want to kill one, or a few, or a hundred. But all of them? Maybe it's you who has the problem." I think it was all intended as a joke by the developers but it made me awfully uncomfortable.

Definitely intended as a joke. That's the Kumail Nanjiani clip I linked above.
posted by zakur at 2:21 PM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is at war with itself over slavery
The first is that the game is built on a complex set of mechanics that gamify slavery and make it “fun.” The second is that its narrative wants us to be critical of the slavery that it has made so fun and engaging to participate in.

What this results in is a paradoxical experience where an immense amount of attention and game development skill has been put into making the enslavement of other beings both thrilling and satisfying, but the game also wags its finger at us and tells us that no, that is actually bad.
posted by zakur at 11:05 AM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


The comparison with Bioshock Infinite seems particularly apt. "Violence is always wrong, even in service of a good cause. Also, you need to kill all these splicers sky racists now."
posted by tobascodagama at 11:16 AM on October 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


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