So I decided that after eight years of playing and loving Lord of the Rings Online, I needed to rectify an oversight and give the books a thorough read. After all, if LOTRO is, as Turbine loves to say, “the game of the books,” haven’t I been missing out?
It turns out that, yes, I was missing out. And now that I’ve finished the trilogy, I can say unequivocally that if you play LOTRO, you need to read these books. It will change how you see and experience the game for the better, and here’s why.
For many people, the Peter Jackson films (and by lesser extent, the older animated flicks) construct their introduction and understanding of the franchise. I don’t begrudge them that; I often see movies based on books I’ve never read. But it’s important to understand that while Jackson’s series was great, it was a cinematic interpretation that took many liberties with the source material, including moving events and dialogue around and exorcising some characters altogether. Much of this was necessary for a good cinematic presentation and due to the time constraints of a movie (long though they were).
An MMO, however, has practically all the time in the world to tell a story and get it right. By not being beholden to the films as a primary source (as some LOTR-themed games have done since) and instead holding the books up as the game’s bible, LOTRO developed an interpretation that’s not only more faithful but better and and more authentic in feel.
OK, maybe not the hats. The hats are pretty silly.
But this cohesiveness and slavish attention to the printed details doesn’t come through unless you’ve become acquainted with the books. When I first started playing LOTRO, I felt a bit put off that it didn’t look nearly as cool as the grittier designs of the film. Yet over time I’ve seen the sheer variety and culture that’s come out of the game that the movies glossed over, and it’s contributed heavily to personal immersion.
A common complaint of Tolkien is that his love for riddling his works with weird and archaic names makes it hard to track the characters and locations. After going back to reading the books, I was astounded to realize that LOTRO’s been prepping me for eight years to understand the books far more clearly than I’d experienced before. I knew who these silly Elves were. I understood the relationship of the rings. I could more easily jump between locations in the books as my mind was envisioning where they were in the MMO.
And I can’t tell you how cool it was to meet characters and races in the series that I’d been interacting with in the game for the better part of a decade. Now when I play LOTRO and meet an NPC that I know will die at some point in the future, I have real feelings of sorrow. I geek out when I get to team up with some of the books’ superstars and understand references that went over my head before.
The way I see it, the books and the MMO have developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship. They build each other up and help to illuminate the story and world to the players and readers. I now understand why Tolkien fans are so in love with this game version of Middle-earth.
It helps you identify with your character’s journey more
I think I needed to read the books to refresh my understanding and deepen my connection with my Captain. She and I have been on this mutual journey for almost eight years now, and while it feels as though it’s taken forever to get to Mordor, it’s been quite the ride. I’ve spent more time than I care to admit contemplating what might be going on in her head as she undertakes all manner of tasks, both grand and mundane, for the residents of Middle-earth.
I thought I knew pretty much everything there was about my character until I read through the books. In observing the travels and tribulations of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the hundreds of other supporting characters, I found my mental narrative of my character’s journey “click” into place with the events and spirit of the books.
While Tolkien’s vision for the Free Peoples is often seen as skewing heavily to the “good” side of the morality spectrum, both the books and the MMO show that most everyone is struggling with some sort of flaw or deficiency, not to mention trying to grapple with the question of what is the right thing that needs to be done and whether or not they have the strength to do it.
It’s silly to write this, but I know my Captain’s been exhausted in her travels. She’s waded through countless outposts and towns where people are always asking for help, for her to put herself in mortal danger so that they can remain safe. Some of the tasks are trite beyond belief, while others are soul-wrenching to bear. If there’s anyone who has earned a good, long rest, it’s her… and yet she keeps going. There are still people to help, there’s still evil to fight, and there’s still purpose left in her adventure.
Reading the sheer tenacity of Hobbits, the courage of outnumbered Men, and (I’m going to praise Elves only once in my life, so here goes) the way the Elves are willing to diminish in the furtherance of toppling Sauron renewed my Captain’s spirits.
Let’s end on a total downer, shall we? Some day, hopefully not too soon, LOTRO will end. People have been predicting its imminent demise for, oh, five years now, so I wouldn’t listen to the trolls so much as look at three facts to gain a proper perspective on this.
First, LOTRO is bound to an IP, the rights to which have to be negotiated every so often. It can’t exist indefinitely without such efforts. Second, LOTRO is an aging (but great!) MMO that is nearing the “endgame” of Mordor without much talk of what will happen after that. Third, Turbine appears to be in decline due to layoffs, placing Asheron’s Call on maintenance mode, and a lack of any new MMO projects post-LOTRO.
So let’s just be realists and understand that LOTRO will end. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and hoped that the game will at least see the story through before it happens. But when it happens, I think I’ll be in a more stable place to accept it thanks to the books.
Lord of the Rings makes it very clear that even if the good guys prevail and destroy the One Ring, it will still be an ending to the Third Age and the more magical aspect of Middle-earth. The books definitely go out on a bittersweet note, with the Fellowship members going their separate ways, the Elves leaving (woohoo! Oh shush, I said something nice about them earlier), the Shire damaged, many characters killed, and a realization that there will be other grand threats in the future.
“All things must end” is the series’ final lesson to me, although that is continued with “but many endings are also beginnings.” There is hope, after all, in the replanting of the Shire, in the lineage of Aragorn, in the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, and in the healing of Frodo. The Fourth Age isn’t predicted to be a terrible one, just a different one than what came before.
When LOTRO ends, it will be both bitter and sweet. I will not want to see it conclude, but I will forever be glad for the experiences, friendships, and stories I’ve accumulated over the years. The books are all about driving toward an ending, and it makes sense to me that the MMO might as well. In fact, LOTRO could be one of the very few MMOs that wraps up its entire story like a book, with a proper beginning, middle, and end.