LOTRO Legendarium: The double-edged sword of being past the books


This past week, Lord of the Rings Online crossed another major milestone in its development as it released its eighth expansion, Fate of Gundabad. Long in coming, Gundabad wraps up the current “Dwarves vs. Orcs” storyline, introduced the Brawler class, and delivered several other meaty features. Even though I’m on a progression server at the moment and not playing the pack, I’m happy to see many players enjoying the new journey.

Yet it kind of feels strange, too, if I can admit that. Ever since we left Mordor and celebrated the royal union of Aragorn and Arwen, for the most part we’ve been beyond the books — beyond the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The devs should be praised for being diligent to mine every scrap of possible content out of the books, but it’s a finite quantity… and the game is still in development.

That strange feeling comes from having successive expansions, zone releases, and storylines that aren’t directly informed by Tolkien’s works but are — and I mean this in the best possible way — developer fan fiction. They’re “inspired by” the books. Done “in the style” of the stories.

This, to me, feels like a double-edged sword of sorts, a situation that can cut both ways. The problem that’s been nagging me over the past couple of years is that this greater freedom to plot the game’s narrative and landscape expansion is perhaps too much freedom. I’ve always thought that LOTRO’s adherence to the books kept it from going off the rails into crazy concepts or generic fantasy settings that wouldn’t fit for Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Sometimes, having restrictions encourages greater creativity between boundaries, if that makes sense. I could give you a blank piece of paper and tell you to write whatever story you like, or I could give you some specific requirements and guidelines for that story with lots of wiggle room inside of that. Weirdly enough, the second tends to produce more creative efforts than a wide-open canvas.

LOTRO always felt more cohesive and focused because of the restrictions. It couldn’t just create any old class it wanted. It couldn’t have flying mounts. It couldn’t fashion a patchwork quilt world that didn’t make sense when you zoomed out. It had its borders, and those limitations resulted in a lot of very unique content I don’t think we would’ve gotten otherwise.

But now there are no boundaries — or, at least, boundaries that are far less defined. As long as the content makes sense for the world, the devs can kind of do whatever they want, and that worries me to some degree.

I’ve been observing the general reaction (including my own) to the Dwarves storyline that’s been going on for years now, and if I had to sum those reactions up, it’d probably be an amiable shrug and a “yeah, it’s OK, I guess.” Terrific zone designs, but an overall narrative arc that hasn’t really lit up the community (results may vary, of course). I’m more glad that Gundabad is finishing this storyline, not to see how it concludes but because it’s high past time we move on.

Yet I don’t want to be completely gloomy and bearish on the future narrative prospects of LOTRO. On the whole, SSG has really done an amazing job bringing us some of the best zones we’ve had in years, and if Gundabad is of the same storytelling quality that Minas Morgul was, players are in for a treat.

My blank page creative writing analogy doesn’t fully apply to the devs’ efforts to fashion future stories because I do believe that they are well informed and guided by the IP. They’re not going to suddenly get wacky and weird. Explore some new territory? Sure, but nothing lore-breaking.

And one downside of being inside of the books for content is that we as players roughly knew what was going to happen and where we were going. Now we don’t — and having that unknown factor is as thrilling as it is strange. LOTRO can now sprawl and expand in many different directions instead of a single one, and I have no doubt that the devs spoke true when they said that they have years and years’ worth of ideas for where to take the game.

But for right now, I’m going to sit on that big question of “Where are we going next?” because it’s kind of ungrateful to ask that two seconds after an expansion launches. I do hope we get some inkling of this in the new year, because I’m curious, nervous, and excited — all in one Hobbity bundle.

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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