LOTRO Legendarium: How LOTRO does Lord of the Rings justice


Oh. Oh no you didn’t, Kotaku. You didn’t just sit there, scratching your head for an easy post, and then write up an essay about how after 40 years no video game has ever done Lord of the Rings justice.

“There are plenty of video games that get the surface level details of Tolkien’s work right,” the veteran publication suggested last week. “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.” The author of this piece gives very little attention — a mere sentence — to Lord of the Rings Online other than noting that it does “[tap] into the fantastical wanderlust” by allowing players to explore Middle-earth. But that’s it. LOTRO is lumped into a long list of apparent failures that could not attain this lofty goal of being a true Lord of the Rings game.

Seriously? Consider the gauntlet thrown down because you’re about to get a Tolkien-sized retort for this oversight.

The danger of a faulty thesis

So some of you know that in my main job, I’m a pastor of a church. That means that, among other things, I spend a good chunk of time every week doing a lot of study, research, and writing of a sermon. It’s something I take very seriously, which is why every so often, I’ll scrap a sermon to start over because I recognize that I’ve started with a faulty presupposition or a personal narrative that I’m trying to force the text into supporting (versus what I should be doing, which is supporting what the text says). Yes, it’s frustrating when I get a few hours into my research and realize that I’m coming at this topic from the wrong angle, but integrity is important to maintain in the pursuit of veracity.

I say this because I truly wonder whether the author of that article started from a faulty thesis that he was then forced to defend the more he listed these games. I mean, trying to write off 40 or so years of Lord of the Rings video games in one go is a daunting task — and one that is unraveled if you find a game that does disprove your thesis. And in my opinion, LOTRO does exactly that.

I’m not saying that this is a perfect Lord of the Rings game, as such a thing will never exist. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms that can be levied against LOTRO, but none of those, I’d maintain, is enough to actually topple it from being a title that did Tolkien’s Middle-earth justice in a way that we’ve never seen in any other game put in that setting.

Breathtaking scope, breathtaking detail

If we can look past surface-level complaints of graphical age or poor performance to the actual design of LOTRO, we see a game that approached Tolkien’s works in a vastly different way than other titles did. Many Lord of the Rings games took vast liberties with the source material, piggy-backed off the movies (which were themselves an adaptation of the books that took liberties), or tried to make this setting something that it was not (such as a blood-soaked one-man-army battle simulator).

I’d say that the two distinguishing factors that put LOTRO on a different path was the MMORPG format itself and its absurdly painstaking commitment to being the “game of the books.”

Let’s tackle the first factor here, as it is all too common for non-MMO games journalists to be dismissive of this genre. LOTRO may have some connection to World of Warcraft’s format, but in many ways, it branched out and did its own thing in its own way.

The fact that LOTRO was an MMORPG meant that this could be an ever-evolving, ever-expanding world that could deliver what players had previously — and since — only dreamed about: the ability to explore and quest throughout a massive and comprehensive Middle-earth. And not only could they do this, but they could do it together, as a community that’s endured and thrived since 2007. The population is what gives this game its lifeforce, from roleplaying events to concerts on Weathertop, and for many the joy is in getting to adventure through this massive world together. There’s happiness to be found in a shared experience, especially one that’s gone on for a dozen years now.

I’ve long held the position that the limiting factors of the Lord of the Rings IP has actually helped to make this such a special and unique setting. Instead of going off the rails to please masses with flying mounts and mish-mashed zones that don’t fit on a larger map and lore that goes every which way, the developers’ slavish devotion to the books has created a wonderful sense of continuity that goes a long way to making this world feel “real.”

If it’s mentioned in the books, chances are that you can find it in the game. You can find the abandoned Elvish camp in the Shire, Gollum’s cave, Bilbo’s trolls, forests full of Ents, and Mount Doom. You can poke through every inch of Minas Tirith, visit Bag End, and check out the reading list of Elrond’s library. Even better, places and people that Tolkien had only given cursory coverage are expanded within the constraints of the IP, giving even the most well-read fan a treat or two of something new.

The LOTRO 2.0 fallacy

Maybe you hold a beef with LOTRO. Trust me, I’ve heard them all. You don’t like the visuals. The combat is too slow. There’s so much text to read. We do too much killing. We don’t do enough killing because we’re running pies and picking flowers. Free-to-play’s ruined everything. There aren’t playable tubas yet.

This leads us down a road that converges with that of Kotaku’s writer, which is to say that there should be some new game, some better game made in the Lord of the Rings setting. If only LOTRO were redone with better graphics and Assassin’s Creed-style gameplay. If only we could travel in time to every age of the world and see how it’s all developed. If only we could be the bad guys and steampunk were a thing, and… I don’t know, strawman strawman.

This concept of a LOTRO 2.0, or some better, more fully fleshed-out game, is a pipe dream, I fear. I’m not saying that another LOTRO MMO could never be built. Or that it’s not technically feasible for a project like this to happen. But whatever concept you have of this “better” Lord of the Rings game would have to compete with two decades’ worth of development and expansion of an already operating game that’s employed professional Tolkien lore experts, created a massive soundtrack, and established a community that’s all-too-happy to stay there.

You want to build new Lord of the Rings games? I’m totally fine with that. I hope they’re great. But if you want to say that this needs to be done because LOTRO never did the setting justice, then you get no respect from me. Whatever else this MMO is, it’s a title that’s done nothing but try to do Tolkien proud.

And I think it’s succeeded marvelously in the attempt.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.
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