Mordor Could Still Use More Shelves

I’ve recently moved house and spent a lot of time doing DIY. I’ve also been playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. DIY is full of intricacies and I’d go as far as to say these are pretty much limitless. The “Nemesis System” featured in Mordor - which generates unique foes for the player algorithmically - is full of intricacies, though these eventually run dry. That about covers the majority of the content of this aborted missive, which is far too unwieldy for me to ever hope of bringing under control. While I was lost in the maze of drivel, I kept bumping into myself asking the same question: why, when the differentiation between ‘story’ and ‘other’ content in open world games is often so slight, can I spend many, many happy hours labouring repetitively, only to lose interest in these same tasks the moment I’m not being pushed through by a narrative?

Now, the obvious answer to this is that I’m not actually engaged at all to begin with, and if you’re happy with that explanation you can go off and enjoy the rest of your day, ‘cos you’ve certainly earned it. For the rest of us, let’s push on.

My greatest misgiving with open world games is that there’s a fundamental sticking point with their design. On the one hand you have these beautiful and increasingly dense and detailed worlds that clearly take many talented people ages to make. On the other you have systems* imbuing these landmasses with relatively realistic weather conditions, temporal cycles, seemingly autonomous inhabitants and aggy as anything cassowaries. And on the third hand - this one emanating from the vicinity of your inner eye, wherever that lies on you - there’s all the arguably one-note tomfoolery these wonderful places, with their almost believable ecosystems and topographies, are filled with. The third hand, just like its inclusion in that turn of phrase, is where the problems stem from.
*(“oh the systems” - Edge did a gushing cover story on Watch Dogs that’s a good deal more saccharine than

There’s an incoherence between the relentless drive to add complexity to game worlds and the stagnation of the things we’re given to do in them. Mordor - just to get it out of the way - actually does provide the player with a fair amount of things to do, even if they are almost all geared around killing things. They broadly fall under the Assassin’s Creed triple-tier system® of traversal, stealth and open combat, with all three disciplines folding in on one another and making a particularly sturdy dough. Throw in the Nemesis System, which regularly adds variety and challenge to situations by augmenting the adversarial landscape of a particular task, and you’ve got a flavourful - but not fruity, mind - mix. The only thing missing from this ready to go rosemary-infused ball of delight is something to make that stuff rise and fill the tin; something to tie all the bits together and make it feel more than simply a breadbin, sorry, toy box, full of mechanics. (Food metaphors are okay to use again, no? I heard opinions had gone full-circle on them.)

This is normally where the story - and by extension, the one-off scenarios usually thrown into campaign missions - comes in. There are loads of examples to choose from, but for argument’s sake I’m going to go with a recently memorable one in the form of Far Cry 3’s “Kick the Hornet’s Nest” chapter. In it, the player is tasked with torching lots and lots of marijuana plants while simultaneously fending off attackers, getting high and listening to a looping version of the Skrillex and Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley jam “Make It Bun Dem”. The weed-induced blurriness aside, very little of the mission is expressly unique; you’re shooting men and burning things, both of which can be done at almost any other moment of the game one chooses. It’s the novel presentation, the repackaging of already familiar bits and pieces which is where this particular segment shines. That the ‘banging tunes’ and simple “I’m so effing baked, bro” visual treatment are in no way a realistic portrayal of dabbling in huge quantities of green matters not: the game - in maybe an apt metaphor for its entire existence - bluntly* gets its point across. I’m generally okay with this sort of superficiality, because, well, at least it breathes a bit of variety into the proceedings, and sometimes - as is the case with the deliberately chosen example above - it can prove humorously entertaining, if nothing else. This vibrancy, while not explicitly supplying narrative exposition, at least feeds from it, imbuing mundane tasks with small-yet-valuable pinpricks of individuality.
*(Pun/no pun intended, depending on your stance on puns.)

Mordor goes entirely the other way in this regard, actually delivering one of the scantest narrative experiences of a big-ticket game I’ve encountered in a long while. Structurally it reminds me of its great-great-great-uncle Grand Theft Auto III, in that most of its meaningful exposition is bundled into the cutscenes which bookend missions; vignettes that usually take place in discrete and otherwise unreachable locations hidden behind glowing icons and loading screens. In keeping most of the story locked into the parts of the game the player cannot influence, Mordor’s general play experience remains remarkably similar - despite a steadily expanding arsenal of offensive manoeuvres - throughout its duration. Mechanically, many of these upgrades are flashier versions of existing powers, or buffs which allow them to be used more frequently, injure more enemies or be used across greater distances. What becomes apparent quite early on is that as these abilities become available - and the proficiency of the player naturally increases - everything becomes steadily easier. To combat this we’re presented with more complex fodder enemies - one needs stunning to prevent a counter-attack, another wields a massive shield and must be attacked from the rear etc. - but this only works effectively to a point: a player paying attention will quickly learn to recognise and thus best these ‘elite’ foes whilst also dealing with the multitudinous Orcs surrounding them. It’s then left, as is so often the case, to sheer numbers to ramp up any sort of difficulty in the face of your unending march towards probably-turning-evil-in-the-sequel. It’s inspiring stuff.

This, as you might guess, would be all fine and dandy if it dangled little bits of string over my face and outstretched, grasping hands; I liked Far Cry 3 after all, and that is full of the same sort of practices. It’s the general blandness that pervades Mordor’s tasks which makes lots of it a big slog, as if that metaphorical bread mix from earlier doesn’t, in fact, contain any seasoning at all, never mind the hallowed herb rosemary. (Are two helpings of that metaphor pushing it a bit? Probably.) What story is present is shallower than the ankle-deep water I end up with in the bottom of the shower when I’m washing my hair (I have lots of hair). There’s an arc with Gollum that is generally a tutorial for combat. There’s and arc with a Dwarf that is generally a tutorial for fighting with and on Mordorian predators. There’s an arc with an Orc that is generally a tutorial for the Nemesis System. There’s an arc with the royal family of NĂºrn that is generally a tutorial for the Domination ability which allows you to possess and exploit your Orcish enemies. There’s an arc with a Gondorian bloke that is generally a tutorial…for nothing actually, but it’s largely the only part of the game’s entire plot that doesn’t feel to be in service of introducing or explaining game mechanics. (I did all that repetition for a reason. Call it stylistic mirroring, if you will.)

Nowhere is this lack of care more gut-wrenchingly smug than in the lengthy quest to find out your companion’s name. He’s pretty much a deus ex machina for the whole video game bit of Mordor, allowing the protagonist to get killed after the tutorial (the proper one at the beginning of the game, the one that tells you how to hold the controller and not fall off your chair) and be reborn with superpowers. He’s the ghost of an Elf wot was wronged by Sauron and he’s chosen to possess your boy Talion, the main ‘character’ (“he’s super broody and boring, boss” “YES! I like it, we’ll take him!”), so he can enact some good ol’ physical retribution. The only problem with this plan is that your ethereal chum can’t remember who he is or why he feels so aggrieved. So, in the interest of not trashing Sauron’s face without first knowing for sure that he needs a slap, he instructs you to run about in a load of caves to find bits of his old Elf costume, the sight of which will probably (they will) compel him to have perfectly chronological flashbacks. It takes about half the game and far too many of these trinkets to dislodge the truth: he is Celebrimbor, the bloke Suaron tricked into forging the rings of power ‘fasands of years earlier. It’s a great moment, one that could only have been made more meaningful if this information hadn’t been shouted from the rooftops months before the game was released, amid the (admittedly successful) push to make people care about the game.

Mordor is emblematic of my whole beef with open world games. So much effort goes into making them, effort that is then quickly undermined by deluges of mediocrity once actual connective tissue is applied. Having things play well should only ever be the bare minimum aspiration for one of these large games - what with them being rather lofty undertakings to begin with. Mechanical purity in isolation, I’d say, is perfectly acceptable within the realm of a smaller, more focused experience. These offer (ideally) a small selection of highly-honed mechanics with a focus on skilful play. They don’t necessarily need or even suit elaborate narratives because a robust play experience can be rewarding in itself. The problem I find with open world games is that they aren’t focused enough to operate in this fashion. Activities are regularly numerous and scattershot, vary dramatically in quality and are often repeated many, many times despite being guff (I don’t even need to use examples: we can all dig this sentiment). Without a rewarding narrative justification all we’re left with is a load of tosh with which to waste our time on, something I seemingly can’t do for too long.

Whoops, it looks like I might’ve been right on the money all the way back at paragraph two (we’re now on ten): I just don’t like these games. But I do - or at least I think (or force myself to think) I do. I like the giddy freedom to do anything, even if that anything turns out to just be a dozen things copied until they appear to be infinite. I like the ultimately hollow promise of a massive expanse of land ripe with possibilities and stuff everywhere - even, to an extent, after the realisation of its banality has sunk in. I like the predictable unpredictability of a finite number of systems interacting with one another to create moments of sheer “emergent” joy. I, I suppose, like those trepidation-soaked first hours in a new open world, that possibility - even though I know it to be almost impossibly unlikely - that this one will be different. A well-spun yarn does help to distract me from the grind, but it will never be able to make uninspired play palatable.  Maybe I’m simply asking too much of the genre, seeking too much variety and wanting a virtual world to be filled with the incalculable intricacies of the real one, screws, drills, plaster, sandpaper, heartache and all. If this is an impossible goal, though, why keep on trying if all we end up with is expensive disappointment? 

I earn a six-figure salary, own three homes and ride on a jet ski at least twice a week. What I don't have, however, is any peer group respect. This, unfortunately, is also measured in cold, hard cash, so if you respect my creativity and the free written gift I've just given you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free (and thus more respectable) by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: Chrz.