LOTRO Legendarium: Why Lord of the Rings Online’s world feels different from all other MMOs

    
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I truly wish I remember the name of the gaming magazine that I picked up in early 2007, but such details escape me. What I do recall is that I was that this particular issue was my very first introduction to the MMORPG known as Lord of the Rings Online.

At the time, I was deeply mired in World of Warcraft — honestly, who wasn’t? — with my evenings spent exploring vividly colorful landscapes and blasting foes with all sorts of over-the-top magic spells. What I read in this magazine seemed like the very antithesis of WoW, at least in feel. It argued that Turbine was bucking the trend of high fantasy worlds to create something more grounded and more rooted in a, if not realistic, than believable setting.

So instead of going crazier and more bombastic than WoW, this new Tolkien MMO was going far in the opposite direction. The most wizard-like class the game had to offer, at least at launch, would be a character with a book and a pocket full of burning embers. There wouldn’t be flying, impossible floating islands, centaurs, or magitech tanks rumbling down the roads.

Instead, the magazine introduced me to this concept of “low fantasy” — a world that was still fantastical, but without the overt intrusion of crazy flashy magic everywhere and an incredulous landscape. It was, in other words, “down to earth” in the manner that J.R.R. Tolkien’s works described. Kind of an alternate universe Earth where the past history happened differently.

Weirdly enough, this magazine article sparked a deep interest in me to learn more about LOTRO. It ultimately set me on the road to try out the beta, then stick around for launch and the next decade-and-a-half. For me, at least, the appeal wasn’t Hobbits and rings, it was a fantasy MMO that worked hard to fashion a world that felt believable, even with mythological elements such as Dwarves, undead, and words of power.

Everyone knows that Tolkien created a world first and then a story as almost an afterthought to explore this world. He populated it with history, songs, legends, races, and laws that kept everything grounded. And as I’ve said before, it’s perhaps the greatest blessing that the MMO developers had to be creative within the boundaries of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, because such restrictions forced them to create settings and stories that contributed to continuity and relatability.

This all may not be readily apparent when you log into Lord of the Rings Online for the first time, but trust me, after a while this unusual world setting soaks into you. Consciously or not, you experience a world that unfolds unlike pretty much every other fantasy MMO on the market.

It’s a game that strives at every turn to keep the player grounded, just as Tolkien wrote. It doesn’t have us slaughtering old gods with a sword forged from chunks of the sun. No, it’s a game that has you running pies all over farmlands, striving to uncover mysteries small and large, becoming a hero through acts of selfless service, finding the humor and beauty in small moments, and poking around a landscape that could be in our backyard if we stepped back in time and perhaps over to a parallel dimension.

I’m not standing on top of a mountain crowing that LOTRO is better than other MMOs, you understand. I’m just saying that its world is so fundamentally different, yet low-key different in a way that isn’t usually noticed or talked about. You just kind of feel it. It’s part of what I called back in 2020 the “quiet consistency” of this MMO: A world that is rooted, connected, and relatable.

To me, it’s one of the essential pieces of LOTRO that’s made me love it since 2007. Its world is a path less followed, making its discovery all the more exciting.

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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