‘I love making my army of slaves run around taking over Mordor!’ This was my friend, describing the appeal he sees in Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Monolith Productions’ follow- up to Shadow of Mordor. I must say I agreed with him – there was a certain joy to be had in using your magical abilities to force orcs, goblins and various other Tolkienian beasts to join your army. It’s a very well-executed and visible way of showing your progression through the game – after besting them in combat you are given the option to execute them or use ghostly powers to force them into servitude, to join your ever-growing ranks, while they beg instead for mercy or death.
And as my mental train reached that station, I stopped. The ‘Nemesis System’, the main draw of the game, involves you forcing a large groups of people, specifically people from a certain race, to work and fight for you against their will. As my friend had called them as a joke, they were ‘slaves’.
The Lord of the Rings universe makes it clear that orcs are sub-people. They are the manifestation of evil in Middle-Earth, they only survive with the rulings of evil overlords and their only purpose is to destroy all the good in the world. That should make enslaving them OK, right? It does, until you remember that dehumanising tactics like these were used by white slavers during the slave trade to attempt to justify the vile acts they carried out. In the game you can even hear orcs talking and having banter – probably a way for Monolith to distinguish between them somewhat, but it has the unfortunate side effect of humanising these creatures that we’re supposed to disregard.
One could argue that Shadow of War is above comparisons to real-life problems, but this seems like a rather backwards approach. Games have been begging for a long time now to be considered ‘art’, and one of the main factors that enhances an artistic reading of a game is a strong grasp of the context of the real world and its history. For example aspects of The Lord of the Rings are clearly shaped by World War One, in which Tolkien fought. Fantasy is an escape from the real world, but it is also usually a commentary or critique of it by being such an escape.
I’m not suggesting that Monolith Productions endorse slavery. Far from it – everyone knows that slavery is a disgusting thing and people are glad that, for the most part, it’s gone.
I’m sure that the Nemesis System was in no way intended to accidentally mirror heinous real-world acts, and that the features of the game that aid my unwilling reading of the game were only included to lend extra realism and immersion to it.
Nevertheless, there are some unfortunate parallels, both historic and current, that make the game a rather uncomfortable play. Art exists outside of the intentions of the creators, after all.