After Nearly 40 Years, Video Games Still Don't Do Lord of the Rings Justice

By Evan Maier-Zucchino on at

For decades, The Lord of the Rings has been one of the world’s most influential and revered stories. While J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy series has been successfully adapted into a beloved film trilogy, the track record of video games set in Middle-Earth has been a bit more dubious. From text-based adventures to movie-licensed tie-ins, from MMORPGs to real-time strategy games, over two dozen games have attempted to adapt The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, precious few have been able to capture the magic of Tolkien’s work.

With the forthcoming Lord of the Rings streaming series from Amazon, we may be looking at a resurgence in popularity for the franchise, and thus more video games. It feels like a good time to look back on the franchise’s inconsistent history with video games, and consider whether the game industry has been approaching these adaptations the wrong way.

Much That Once Was Is Lost

The first official game based on Tolkien’s work was The Hobbit, a text-based adventure developed by Beam Software and released in 1982 for the ZX Spectrum, then ported to many other home computer formats. Forward-looking in many ways, it had characters that would move between locations independently of the player’s actions, and even a rudimentary physics engine that assigned characteristics like size, weight, and solidity to every object in the game world.

The Hobbit for the IBM PC. (Screenshot: Beam Software/MobyGames)

The game then used these attributes to react to players’ actions, such as enabling any object to be used as a weapon by calculating if the character could lift its weight. While most text adventures of the time would only accept one- or two-word messages, The Hobbit was one of the first games of its kind to allow players to make use of full-sentence commands. The game was a critical and commercial success, and was followed up by two more text adventures that adapted the first two Lord of the Rings books. Neither of these games was as successful as their predecessor, however, with critics deeming them to be overly simplified and less engaging—a common theme in later games.

In the early 1990s, a number of developers attempted to bring The Lord of the Rings to the strategy and RPG genres, the last of these being a Legend of Zelda-inspired adventure for the Super Nintendo in 1994. With simple mechanics and derivative designs, none of these games managed to stand out, and have mostly been forgotten by the passage of time. It wouldn’t be until the live-action film adaptations of the early 2000's that video games based on Tolkien’s work would receive more mainstream attention.

Humble And Confusing Origins

Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released on 19 December 2001. It quickly became an international phenomenon, gaining widespread acclaim and catapulting Tolkien’s trilogy to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. It was a straightforward, if at the time unexpectedly wild, success story. Video games based on this license, however, have a much more confusing history, due in large part to one fact: at the time of the film’s release, two different publishers held the rights to make Lord of the Rings games.

In 2000, Sierra Entertainment had landed the license to make games based on The Lord of the Rings books, while Electronic Arts gained the rights to make games based on Peter Jackson’s movies. This put restrictions on both publishers. Sierra’s studios had to be careful to avoid the aesthetics popularised by the films, while developers under EA only had access to details, characters, and locations shown in the movies. Due to the timing of the deal and the fact that two new consoles—Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox—released one month before the movie’s premiere, neither publisher was able to produce a game in time for Fellowship’s theatrical release. Sierra’s subsequent efforts would mostly flounder as they were unable to find a coherent vision, while EA’s emphasis on action and spectacle led to a series of simple and commercially successful games.

Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age. (Screenshot: Electronic Arts/VGMuseum)

This divided license, pushed by the newfound demand for all things Lord of the Rings, led to an inflated number of games based on the property. From 2002 to 2019, 18 Lord of the Rings games were released in a wide variety of genres, from brawlers to real-time strategy to MOBAs. Some functioned as movie tie-ins, while others adapted the narrative of the books. Some told stories that were companion pieces, and a few imagined dramatic “what-if” scenarios. Although a few of these were well-received, too many failed to live up to their promise.

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Middle-Earth

The thread running through many Lord of the Rings video games is their inability to meaningfully engage with the source material beyond surface-level aesthetics. As a result, most of these games lack any sort of unique identity in design principles or gameplay mechanics to distinguish them from their contemporaries. They are differentiated simply by their association with a beloved brand. When you get down to it, a surprising number of them feel less like Lord of the Rings games and more like copies of other titles with Lord of the Rings skins.

The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, released in 2004, was a turn-based RPG published by EA for consoles. The game followed a “shadow fellowship” of adventurers on a quest that mirrored the journey of the films’ protagonists. Seeking to provide gameplay that wouldn’t frustrate players who just wanted to experience a Lord of the Rings story, the developers at EA Redwood Shores wound up borrowing heavily from 2001's Final Fantasy X. That game’s influence was extremely evident in The Third Age’s battle system, linear structure, and overworld exploration, albeit with the complexity toned down in order to be more accessible. Despite excellent production values for the time, the Lord of the Rings aesthetics don’t do much to keep The Third Age from playing like a streamlined version of a different game.

The Lord of the Rings: Conquest. (Screenshot: Electronic Arts/MobyGames)

2009's The Lord of the Rings: Conquest, on the other hand, is essentially the original 2005 version of Star Wars Battlefront II with characters and locations from The Lord of the Rings movies grafted onto it. Players start each match by selecting a class based on conventional fantasy archetypes—warrior, scout, mage, archer—then vie for control points against AI-controlled armies across the iconic battlefields of Middle-Earth. Developed by Battlefront creator Pandemic Studios for PC and consoles, the mash-up sounded like an ideal match. Unfortunately, Conquest feels more like an off-brand clone of Battlefront than a game that was designed with the specific license in mind. The generic fantasy classes feel particularly out of place in Tolkien’s world. Rushed to release before EA lost the Lord of the Rings license and littered with bugs, the result is an unwieldy game, to say the least.

The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, released in 2011 for PC and consoles, wasn’t originally supposed to be set in Middle-Earth. Developer Snowblind Studios had been working on an unrelated game before Warner Bros., which now held the Lord of the Rings license, purchased it in 2009, prompting the studio to pivot towards the property. The game does render a mostly convincing portrait of Middle-Earth, but achieves very little beyond this surface-level achievement. War in the North plays like a bog-standard dungeon creeping action RPG loot-athon with an unconvincing cast of main characters. The Lord of the Rings shell makes the world somewhat interesting to explore, but it also gives the whole affair a cynical undertone.

This doesn’t mean all the games released during this period are lacking in unique appeal. The Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG released in 2007 for PC, does follow trends established by World of Warcraft, but it also provides players with the opportunity to explore Middle-Earth like no other game, tapping into the fantastical wanderlust inspired by Tolkien’s work. Meanwhile, 2006’s Battle for Middle-Earth II, released for PC and Xbox 360, uses the format of a real-time strategy game to present the story’s climactic battles in a compelling manner no third-person action game could achieve. Even the generic hack n’ slash movie tie-in console games The Two Towers and The Return of the King, released in 2002 and 2003 respectively, can be appreciated for their simplistic yet responsive combat.

The Lord of the Rings Online. (Screenshot: Midway/MobyGames)

There is fun to be had in the swath of Lord of the Rings games released since 2002. Though Conquest is an absolute mess, it still spins occasionally in my Xbox 360 when some friends and I feel like having some mindless hack n’ slash fun. It is frustrating, however, to look at this entire stockpile of games and realise that not one of them ever gets beyond being “The RTS Lord of the Rings Game” or “The Action Lord of the Rings Game.”

The Lord of the Rings was a groundbreaking work of fantasy literature. Peter Jackson’s films are masterpieces that pioneered cinematic technical advancements. In almost every case, however, Lord of the Rings games are content to follow the trails blazed by other properties, while stripping away the complexity from those experiences. Prior to 2014, the last time a Lord of the Rings game could truly be called innovative was in 1982. Then, finally, that legacy started to change.

The Return of the Shadow

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was released on 30 September 2014. It was the first Lord of the Rings game with truly triple-A polish and production values. The gameplay was fluid and gripping, the graphics were stunning, and the game felt original in a way that no other Lord of the Rings game ever had. Shadow of Mordor did borrow freely from other open-world third-person action games. Its combat was lifted wholesale from the Batman: Arkham games, and the incorporation of light stealth mechanics felt reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed series.

Unlike previous Lord of the Rings games, however, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t use these conventions as crutches to prop up the experience. Instead, these elements are tools the player uses to interact with the Nemesis System, the core mechanic of the game that randomly generates a hierarchy of orcs for the player to wage war upon. These orcs, fleshed out with unique names, abilities, and traits, interact with each other independently of the player, creating emergent narratives as they vie for power within the army. This innovative system gives the player a sensation that is essential to The Lord of the Rings: the feeling that the world is alive and bigger than themselves. Though the Nemesis System lends Shadow of Mordor an elegance not seen in the franchise since the Hobbit text adventure, the true achievement is how this system enables the game to explore a core theme from The Lord of the Rings: the addictive influence of power.

Shadow of Mordor. (Screenshot: Warner Bros./MobyGames)

The previous Lord of the Rings games don’t have a theme. They adapt the source material’s story, but never with an effort to communicate anything other than, “Hey, The Lord of the Rings is pretty cool, right?” This is part of the reason they feel like copy-pasted versions of other games: they aren’t using the medium to engage with the story’s themes. Shadow of Mordor does, and it does so in a radical way. The entire goal of the game is to amass as much power as possible in order to destroy Sauron’s forces from the inside out by assassinating high-level commanders, brainwashing captains to fight for you, and installing your own servants in key positions within the opposing army. The game essentially offers you the power of the One Ring. And it feels good to seize that power.

It feels good to decimate a crowd of orcs without taking any damage. It feels good to find an orc who killed you, taunted you, and got promoted because of it, then exact your sweet revenge. It feels good to dominate a captain, help him rise in the ranks of the army until he’s a warchief, order him to meet you at a secret rendezvous spot, then execute him just because you feel like it. It feels good, and you just want to keep doing it.

That is scary. It’s unnerving to realise how just a slight taste of power can affect you like that. Rather than trying to address every theme of the source material, the developers at Monolith Productions chose a specific idea to focus on and extrapolated it to the extreme. Anyone who is aware of The Lord of the Rings knows this pursuit is a bad idea. But the power fantasy seduces you into thinking it’s a good idea.

Shadow of Mordor is not a perfect adaptation. The narrative should do more to ensure players reflect on their addictions to power, the story twists several aspects of the lore to suit its purpose, and it takes a decidedly darker tone than the source material. The game’s sequel, Shadow of War, only doubles down in these areas, resulting in a less satisfying experience. The Shadow games are frequently cynical and oppressive where Tolkien’s books are hopeful and humanistic. That dissonance is a reasonable turn-off for some fans. Still, Shadow of Mordor does have something to say and it says it through direct gameplay feedback. I’ll gladly take that over games that are satisfied with throwing in some elvish runes, a trip to Helm’s Deep, a Balrog fight or two, and calling it a day.

The Road Goes Ever On

One interesting thing to note about almost all the recent Lord of the Rings games is how focused they are on combat. This fixation on fighting is somewhat disconcerting, given that actual battle scenes in the books are described with brevity. More time is devoted to showing the Fellowship struggle with hunger and harsh environments than to their gruesome battles with orcs and trolls. Violence and war are aspects of Tolkien’s world, but they are never the focus. In most video games, however, combat is the primary avenue through which players engage with the world. As long as this is the case, video games will never be able to access the depth of themes present in The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, it seems that developers are starting to realise this.

In March of this year, the German development studio Daedalic Entertainment announced a new game called The Lord of the Rings: Gollum, which is set to be released in 2021 for PC and consoles. This action-adventure game will follow Gollum’s story throughout the books, covering unseen events and focusing on the internal conflict between his desire for the One Ring and his contempt for it. It will be based on the books, not the movies, and the game will allow players to make choices at different points in the story. Aside from those details gleaned from an interview with PC Gamer, we know pretty much nothing about this game. Simply from the game’s core concept, however, it appears that Daedalic is approaching this game with something most previous developers lacked: specificity.

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

By narrowing the focus to a single character with a complex internal and external journey, Daedalic—like Monolith Productions before it—has the opportunity to explore specific themes from Tolkien’s work. Gollum is a unique and potent symbol within The Lord of the Rings mythos, a cautionary tale that reveals even those who perform sinister actions can end up serving a greater purpose. The Lord of the Rings is not about fighting large, evil monsters or attaining power to become a warrior hero. It’s about quiet moments of courage, finding redemption for past mistakes, and so much more. Gollum’s tragic story naturally aligns with the more subdued theming of Tolkien’s work. Since the core gameplay likely won’t revolve around decapitating hundreds of orcs, Daedalic has the opportunity to explore the less grandiose but more quintessential elements of the source material.

Though it’s less flashy than a sweeping open-world RPG, Lord of the Rings: Gollum is precisely the direction Lord of the Rings games should be taking if they are to move past using Middle-Earth as a mere backdrop for conventional fantasy action. The game’s concept is rooted in the characters and themes of the story, not fashionable gameplay trends established by other properties. As mentioned earlier, one of the key aspects of The Lord of the Rings is the sensation that the world is alive beyond what you can see. Telling smaller, more focused stories that don’t put the player’s character at the centre of world changing events could let players feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Lord of the Rings games don’t all have to be epic, action-focused entertainment. In fact, to really get at what The Lord of the Rings is about, they shouldn’t be.

Making a Lord of the Rings game is hard. Developers have to contend with confusing and restrictive licenses, a massive established world with a deep recorded history, and the pressure of working within a beloved story alongside the standard difficulties of game development. Still, The Lord of the Rings deserves better representation in the interactive medium than it has received.

If future developers can avoid the temptation to make every story about epic battles, narrow their focus to specific core themes from the source material, and use creative gameplay systems to explore those themes, we might start to see games that deepen our appreciation for The Lord of the Rings rather than use it as a lure to hook players in. There are plenty of video games that get the surface level details of Tolkien’s work right. We already have games that look like The Lord of the Rings. Maybe one day soon we’ll get one that really feels like it.

Featured image: Screenshot: Warner Bros. (MobyGames)