“outsiders, misunderstood by the haughty, self-righteous realms of men.”
February 7, 2020 11:13 AM   Subscribe

It's not easy being green: a brief history of orcs in video games [Eurogamer] “Like giants, fairies, or dragons. I'd fought them in HeroQuest, all protruding lower canines and piercing red eyes, brandishing meat cleavers and falchions above their heads. I'd defended castles from them in the Dungeons & Dragons board game DragonStrike. I'd even controlled orcish warriors and catapults and giant snapping turtles in Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness. I didn't have the language for it at the time, but I'd placed orcs in the realm of folklore, a part of our collective storytelling public domain. That is, until my Year Five teacher jokingly called a story I'd written a 'Tolkien rip-off' and lent me her personal, faded hardcover of The Hobbit. It was, I thought at the time, even cooler than C.S Lewis. It had bigger battles. Dragons. Gollum. And a lot more orcs. Orcs. Evil. Disposable. Generally up for a party but will probably end up killing each other. Disposable. Bad at tactics but too numerous for it to really matter. Disposable. Just good enough at fighting to make our heroes look cool, but never good enough to pose a real threat. Disposable. This isn't what makes them endearing, and enduring, though. [...] we might look at orcs as the fantasy genre's counterculture. Perpetual outsiders, misunderstood by the haughty, self-righteous realms of men.”
posted by Fizz (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Enjoyed the article. Didn't see a reference to The Last Ringbearer, a sort of LOTR sequel written from the perspective of Orcs.
posted by Telf at 11:25 AM on February 7, 2020 [5 favorites]


My favorite orcs are still the ones from Mary Gentle's book, _Grunts!_.
posted by hanov3r at 11:36 AM on February 7, 2020 [8 favorites]


At the Tolkien-themed MUSH Elendor I played at in the aughts, the orc culture in Moria's newbie helpfile listed right off the bat that new orc players give Grendel a read. The administrators worked hard to give their orcs three dimensions so that people would want to play orcs who were more than just fodder for the good guys to fight in battle.
posted by Fukiyama at 11:53 AM on February 7, 2020 [6 favorites]


"You face death itself in the form of: 1 Kobold."
posted by mhoye at 11:58 AM on February 7, 2020 [4 favorites]


so that people would want to play orcs who were more than just fodder for the good guys to fight in battle.

Look at what the world of men have done to the world they live in and the way that they have historically treated the Orc. The only other thing I have to say is: “For the Horde!”
posted by Fizz at 12:00 PM on February 7, 2020 [8 favorites]


"Disposable... Disposable... Disposable"

There's definitely a lot of racism in the Tolkienian construction of Orcs and all the versions that followed.

But dude fought in World War One and if you thought the British were shit to their colonies, you should see what they did with their own citizens. The British upper classes considered their own lower classes as disposable. The construct of Orcs fighting and winning through sheer numbers is basically how WW 1 was fought. The notion of a small group of heroes standing up to that must have seemed pretty awesome and it's only through the strength of his writing that Tolkien becomes more than just the first single-player D&D. session.

Anyway, not to say that anything in this essay is wrong in the least, but Orcs are as much lower-class turn of the century English as they are anything else.
posted by GuyZero at 12:16 PM on February 7, 2020 [9 favorites]


humans, kek.
posted by ApathyGirl at 12:20 PM on February 7, 2020


It's definitely worth reading the James Mendez Hodes pieces linked about 2/3 down the article.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 12:21 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


Not video games: but if you want to see someone D&D roleplay an excellent Orc, excellently, Ron Ogden on The Dungeon Run is doing an amazing job with Uggo. (Dungeon Run is basically the PG version of Critical Role.)
posted by bartleby at 12:33 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


The British upper classes considered their own lower classes as disposable.

In fairness, it should be noted that they considered their own sons disposable too. The death rate for infantry subalterns was far higher than for normal infantrymen.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:36 PM on February 7, 2020 [3 favorites]


Me not that kind of orc!

Peons say that if you keep clicking on them enough in Warcraft.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:49 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


I saw a video about an anime series, and why their sword fights were well done. Forgot the title.

A bunch of real-world gamers are transported into a fantasy RPG. They wake up, take inventory of their gear and class etc, when one of them sees a goblin by the riverside.

So the get their "murderhobo" on and attempt to kill it.

It's a messy affair, and the goblin spends it's last moments terrified, in pain, and struggling desperately not to be murdered. He fails in that endeavor.

He didn't have a tag with "Alignment: EVIL" on his shirt, he was just small and green with sharp teeth, kinda like Kermit's tougher cousin.

And he screamed in bloody agony and fear as they clumsily set about murdering him.

Doing so fucks up the heroes, and sets up the dynamic for the rest of the story.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:23 PM on February 7, 2020 [1 favorite]


As I recall, Tolkien referred to himself and his fellow WW1 soldiers as orcs in one of his letters.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 1:28 PM on February 7, 2020 [5 favorites]


Kinda fucked up how he made orcs explicitly irredeemably evil, then.
posted by rodlymight at 1:35 PM on February 7, 2020 [7 favorites]


Kinda fucked up how he made orcs explicitly irredeemably evil, then.

I guess that would depend on one's opinions of humans in general.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:43 PM on February 7, 2020 [4 favorites]


I became fascinated with the Orcs thanks to the brief time the Hobbits were in their company in LOTR. What really got me as a kid was the Orcs grousing about their job like any worker. And talking about places like Minas Morgul, considered beyond evil and fearsome by the good guys, as just a city. Go there, do your job, get some time off and have a beer with the boys. Do your job right or get your ass chewed by one of the Nazgul. Who isn't some shadowy terrifying evil guy to the orcs, but just another demanding, inconsiderate asshole of a boss. And then the talk about wanting a little farm when the war was over. A place where they could be free of bosses.

Wish Tolkien had done more with them. Was a great shift in perspectives. Despite his authorial desires in genociding the lot of them, he still gave them a bit of a soul.

I really love the Orcs and the Horde in WoW too. The narrative is all too relevant. It's a story of partial redemption and then backsliding. It's in some ways the story of postwar Germany, but in a situation where Germany admitted they had been beyond evil, tried to move away from their recent barbaric past, did good things to save the planet and their former enemies, but still kept celebrating the war criminals. Still kept the old symbols and sayings.

And inevitably, because the Orcs failed to completely renounce their history, they then fell back into the old ways. Seduced by blood and honor. Until they were shocked into a measure of sanity again by various defeats and tragedies. This cycle keeps turning and probably will continue endlessly until they have the courage to completely break with the past. The cycle annoys the players with its repetition but I like it. Seems realistic to me. The refusal to condemn the old heroes means the nation will keep repeating the old heroes' crimes & mistakes.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 1:51 PM on February 7, 2020 [15 favorites]


Aren't they called goblins in The Hobbit?
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:52 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


Orcs are actually quite playable in nethack. Their racial gear sucks but there is a lot to be said for innate poison resistance, infravision, easy altar conversion and a very loose set of conducts as a chaotic. That everything, including most orcs, hates you is a bit of a downside though...
posted by jim in austin at 1:54 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


Goblins and Orcs are distinct and separate, somehow.
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


In Warhammer 40,000, orks aren't irredeemably evil, just built to fight, built to be aggressive.

It is hinted at in the lore that when the ancient Necrons (cyber-undead) spread across the galaxy using fear as one of their primary weapons, that the Old Ones™ created the greenskin races (Orks, gobbos, and snotlings) to be without fear so that they could resist, and a genetic will to fight, so that they would.

Another fun fact: 40k greenskins are an ambiently psychic race to the point that if they believe firmly enough that their tech will work… it does.

This is why they can slap together Rube Goldberg monstrosities of guns that no one else can fire, ramshackle vehicles no one else can operate, and why said vehicles actually do have a higher top speed when they have a red paint job, bc "Red'unz go FAST!"
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:18 PM on February 7, 2020 [13 favorites]




Aren't they called goblins in The Hobbit?

They are called "goblins" in The Hobbit, in the Common tongue, but one might note that the sword referred to as "Goblin-Cleaver" is named "Orcrist".
posted by hanov3r at 2:22 PM on February 7, 2020 [3 favorites]


As I recall, Tolkien referred to himself and his fellow WW1 soldiers as orcs in one of his letters...

..Kinda fucked up how he made orcs explicitly irredeemably evil, then.


On the other hand, I believe Orcs were some dark lords genetic engineering project that turned elves into fighters. He might have considered himself once an elf (or more likely a pastoral hobbit) who loved nature, who had been turned into a fighter in the trenches - about as opposite to nature as possible.
posted by 445supermag at 2:34 PM on February 7, 2020 [10 favorites]


Obviously, orcs are good citizens of the Empire, just Mer who happen to be green, while goblins are hideous monsters you can kill for XP.

The whole "evil species" thing has got to go. I'm not too fond of the "warrior race" alternative, but at least it's an improvement. I do like the Elder Scrolls irony where you can save the world, if you want, as an orc.
posted by zompist at 3:17 PM on February 7, 2020 [9 favorites]


He might have considered himself once an elf (or more likely a pastoral hobbit) who loved nature,

Well, yes.
"I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:57 PM on February 7, 2020 [5 favorites]


In WoW, I played an orc who was perfectly happy not to murder many people, but was hell on hunting things with his pet boar, Bitey. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, nor the most refined, but the happy squeal of a boar unleash’d warmed his heart in a way that gutting some pink skin and leaving him to die a miserable, lonely death did not.

Which is not to say he didn’t cut a mofo who deserved it, or who wasn’t looking, or because it was Tuesday, or because oxygen ... or because, or because.

Some days I miss that orc.
posted by drivingmenuts at 6:00 PM on February 7, 2020 [3 favorites]


Big shoutout for roguelike Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup's best open secret, sometimes referred to as OrcJesus. Only Orcs can worship their God Beogh and he's one of the oddball Gods whose altar doesn't appear in/around the early-discovered Ecumenical Temple every game. Selecting a God is an important part of your character build and it occurs in-game, not at creation. Unlike other player races though, Orc characters are offered the choice by monster Orc Priests to convert or die. Swearing allegiance to Beogh, either via a Priest or at a scarce-found altar puts you on a path to becoming the Orc Messiah, potentially converting enemy Orcs into followers who can level up, be directed and even acquire their own names.

I don't really do magic. I play mostly-melee characters who do a lot of hitting, a bit of sneaking, a bit of throwing and a lot of 50/50 dying/running away. There's nothing like instead being at the centre of your own Orc army or having a unique Orc who's given you proper grief in previous games choosing to join you in your quest for the Orb. Even if I do always turn out to be not the Messiah and just an Orcy boy after all.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:17 PM on February 7, 2020 [4 favorites]


Brief reminder that Jamie Lee Curtis cosplays as an orc.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:51 PM on February 7, 2020 [5 favorites]


I'd be interested if anyone has a clear reference to Tolkien identifying British soldiers as orcs. I'm finding lots of WWI / LoTR comments online but nothing that implies this was ever explicit in his thinking (as opposed to the more obvious eastern hordes, Ottomans, Mongols, etc. providing the model for, at the least, the narrative role played by them.)
posted by mark k at 8:59 PM on February 7, 2020


The Orks of the Warhammer 40k universe have a unique genetic ability. If enough Orks believe something to be true, it becomes reality.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:05 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


WAAAGH!`

Actually, I am fond of the WoW Orc lore that the Orcs are misunderstood others.

However, it is in the original Warcraft nature and Warhammer, that Orcs are WAAAGH! WAAAGH! WAAAGH!

Did you hear me!?! WAAAAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!!

I SAID WAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHH!


WWWWWWAAAAGGGGHHH!!!!!
posted by Xoebe at 9:14 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


In the old Warcraft RTSes you could play the Orc side, which had a nice “Grendel” feel to it.
posted by notyou at 10:04 PM on February 7, 2020


I'd be interested if anyone has a clear reference to Tolkien identifying British soldiers as orcs.

It may be in his letters. Even if he identified British soldiers with orcs, he conceived them as looking pretty racist. Nic Reuben points out that Tolkien wrote they were "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." That quote is from letter 210 in the collection The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien according to the internet. I haven't read them myself, but I bet they'll have a bit more about Tolkien's... views... regarding orcs.

I spent my teenage years looking for my face in wood elves or rangers or what have you. I think that's something the movies ruined for me, the image that I could be there with the Fellowship along with Sam and Frodo. I think I'd have been pegged as an orc or Easterling. I'm not so into Tolkien anymore.

As for Warcraft... I played up to Warcraft 3. I enjoyed them too, but.. Think back on them. Spirit lodges? Totems? Orc shaman and troll witchdoctors and planes walking Tauren? But see, they're green or beastly! There's no real world analogue for these guys that are so noble and savage. They've sworn off their bloodthirsty ways! Thrall sure did liberate his people from the internment camps, didn't he? You know, the ones built after the second war?
posted by Mister Cheese at 11:12 PM on February 7, 2020 [2 favorites]


In my tabletop gaming days I had an "evil" army with all the usual, trolls, ogres, goblins.

My main fighting force was of course but I also had a bunch of dwarves which pissed people off to no end.

"Orcs and dwarves hate each other!"

"not these, they fight together"

"but it's against the lore Tolkien, D&D, warcraft, they are enemies!"

"ya know this is all make believe don't you?"
posted by Max Power at 7:58 AM on February 8, 2020 [2 favorites]


Previous orc thread from July, whose main link was about literary orcs rather than video game orcs. Good discussion from multiple perspectives of racism, classism, regionalism, Tolkien and orcs.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:18 PM on February 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


They are called "goblins" in The Hobbit, in the Common tongue, but one might note that the sword referred to as "Goblin-Cleaver" is named "Orcrist".

If memory serves, there is a footnote in The Hobbit that notes that " Orc" is the Elven word for "Goblin".
posted by nubs at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2020 [1 favorite]


My username, Thrakburzug, is supposed to mean Bringer of Darkness in the orc tongue. On the mud I played for many years, I played the good of orcs and it was always a blast seeing players’ interpretations of orcs and getting to interact with them.
posted by Thrakburzug at 1:22 PM on February 9, 2020


I'm sorry, but with all the Tolkien nerds here no one got to the issue that goblins and orcs were the same thing, but the high orcs was Saruman engineering a giant nasty version of them, which was the running 40 miles a night from LOTR?
it's a whole segment even in the damn movies. There's a chapter in the books about it, Uruk-Hai!
posted by lkc at 5:50 PM on February 9, 2020


Also the little orcs rode wolves which is Totally Badass.
posted by lkc at 5:51 PM on February 9, 2020


I'm sorry, but with all the Tolkien nerds here no one got to the issue that goblins and orcs were the same thing, but the high orcs was Saruman engineering a giant nasty version of them, which was the running 40 miles a night from LOTR?

Uruks, as a breed of orc, existed before Saruman - Uruks were part of the force from Mordor that invaded the province of Ithilien (including over-running and taking Osgiliath for a time) in TA 2475 (the War of the Ring takes place in TA 3019, by which time Gondor has been able to recapture East Osgiliath as an outpost).

Uruks are mentioned, in the books, as being part of what the Fellowship faces in the Mines of Moria: "'There are Orcs, very many of them,' he (Gandalf) said. 'And some are large and evil: black Uruks of Mordor. For the moment they are hanging back, but there is something else there. A great cave-troll, I think, or more than one.'"

Uruk-Hai (which is Black Speech) literally translates as "Orc-folk"; it doesn't seem clear (at least to my recollection) how they differ from "half-orcs", which is what Saruman created by breeding Orcs with Dunlendings (men); while separate names are used for them, Tolkien does have a habit of having multiple names for the same thing. I've always felt that Gandalf's line from the movie about Saruman breeding "orcs with goblin-men" to be nonsensical, as orcs and goblins are the same thing, unless "goblin-men" is another reference to half-orc.
posted by nubs at 7:19 PM on February 9, 2020


Although I am more of general fantasy nerd, I consider it my duty to question Tolkein and his Legendarium directly, and with crooked, spit-cleaned glasses I selflessly do so with a point, jab, and waggle:

"Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description." The Hobbit

Why wasn't this revised, JRR? What were you hiding?!
posted by Brocktoon at 12:46 AM on February 11, 2020 [1 favorite]


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