So it was just yesterday, wasn’t it, that Lord of the Rings Online launched? Not nine years ago, just shy of a full decade? It can’t be that old, it just can’t. I remember playing it as my wife and I — then quite childless and completely unappreciative of uninterrupted nights of sleep — bought our first house. I had originally leaned on LOTRO as a welcome substitute for World of Warcraft, having become burned out on the latter and looking for something a little more subtle and yet richer in other areas.
Recently I returned to LOTRO after about a 10-month break. I knew it was going to be not a long-term reunion but a gab session with an old friend. If nothing else, I wanted to go through the epic story and catch up with the latest installments. While I’ve long since lost interest in character progression, leveling, and looting in LOTRO, seeing the story through to the end feels very important to me.
A journey of nine years… and counting
I think this is because from the start, Lord of the Rings Online has been about one continuous journey, a story told in parallel and in concert with the events of the novels. My character was born across from Strider in Archet, where one of her first tasks was to fight wolves and pick plants for a wounded Ranger.
Since then, my Captain has traversed a Middle-earth that proved to be so much bigger than I ever got from either the movies or the books. She’s seen the icy wastes of Forochel, rummaged around in the basement of Bag End, gotten completely turned around in the mines of Moria, galloped across the plains of Rohan, and defended both Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith from the sieges of the Enemy.
Her journey does not merely connect the dots between cinematic set pieces but those smaller, more intimate moments as well. She’s stopped for a concert or two in Michel Delving, run those silly pies across the Shire, searched high and low for a certain sight-seeing horse and its owner, sliced her way through countless skirmishes, picked up after drunks in Winter-home, served time as a prisoner of Isengard, and played freeze tag among the ruins in Bree-land.
As I stood on the walls of Minas Tirith, enduring another visually impressive but rather tedious epic battle lately, I thought about how much the game has changed since those early years. Sure, there’s the obvious expansion of the map; where there was once just Eriador, now there’s Gondor, Moria, Rohan, Rhovanion, and soon to be Mordor. You could look at levels (now up to 105!), the new Beorning class/race, the war-steed system, the epic battles, and the overhaul of the classes. But as I ducked under a flaming ball sent by an enemy catapult, I realized that it was far more than the culmination of all of these.
Love and life
One of LOTRO’s strokes of brilliance was to start small and take a different tack from the books. Sure, there were Nazgul and the shadow of the Witch-king making cameos from the start, but for most of us who were there back in 2008, the game had an intimate, personal feel. It was a world that invited you to truly experience it, to get to know its people, its customs, and its history. Before we were to fight for Middle-earth, we needed to learn to love it.
And so the game gave us the time and space to do that.
While I sometimes questioned why the first volume of the epic story went so far away from the books as to render it its own saga, I now look back and appreciate that the devs had the courage to do so. We didn’t need to be pale imitations of the Fellowship, mimicking their every move. We had to be given space to grow up into our own characters, making our own legends.
Back in 2008, Mordor felt a world away — and it was. Without the ability to even go there, we settled into Eriador and became citizens of Middle-earth. We moved into our own houses, attended fireworks festivals, joined up with the Bounders, and tilled the land to grow crops. We weren’t feeling the push to move on; the epic story was a lightly babbling stream, not a rushing torrent that it is today, sweeping us through the events of Return of the King as if the devs are frightened that they’ll lose our interest.
And while I miss that feel of those first years, I cannot deny that some of the magic is still very much present in LOTRO today. The environment still feels expansive and wild, especially when you get off the beaten path and dive into the underbrush of Gondor. The sounds and music still wrap me up in an aural cocoon of ancient days and mysteries.
Journeys change us and change the surroundings along the way, which is a product of time and motion. Where the game is right now seems fair — it’s progressed logically and is taking the crowd along with the established narrative — it’s also an older face looking up in a mirror, seeing crow’s feet and white in its beard.
A face with character.
Not a bad face at all.
One with more than a few years of adventuring left in it, even.