Shadow of Mordor and Genre Borders

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is available for Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows, Linux, and Alexa.

Video games are a weird thing to think about as a category. On one hand, they still feel like a young medium that still has room to expand its horizons, while on the other it seems to be growing rapidly. Modern blockbuster titles can be huge affairs taking up to a decade to produce (Square Enix.) or delightful little nuggets that dedicated hobbyists can turn around in fractions of the time.

And because they’re programs operating on frequently-complicated systems with often-shared conventions, sorting them into different buckets based on genre is a much trickier affair than for, say, books or flims.

And the RPG label just might be the worst of them these days.

Let’s use 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor as an example, because it’s mentioned in the title so you knew we were going to get there eventually.

Before we even get to the game itself, you’re thrown into the high-fantasy Middle-earth setting of The Lord of the Rings, which sets us up immediately to frame the whole affair like we would other high-fantasy fiction – and in the context of games, that’s predominantly through role-playing.

There’s definitely a strong sense of character growth, as well. The skill trees and runes available to the player augment the protagonist from a robust ranger at the game’s opening moments to a veritable warlord by its end through a series of specialized paths, with an ever-expanding belt of spells and abilities to inform how you approach a situation.

And the game’s signature draw is all about selling an emergent story tailored to each player, which just reeks of role-playing. Having the Nemesis System draw up different orcs with shared relationships and shuffle them into the fold to complicate your adventure is exactly the kind of thing that an especially industrious game master might do.

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Sure, I can see how parts of this run parallel with Elder Scrolls.

On the other hand, it shares almost no resemblance to traditional RPGs in the moment-to-moment RPG. The swords-and-sorcery flavor is there, yes, but it’s in the form of a stealth game and occasional action-brawler. Spellcasting is more an active extension the action than a different approach of its own. In fact, there’s a long line of beat-em-‘ups and hack-and-slash titles where the action feels far closer to Shadow of Mordor‘s than you would say for Ultima or Baldur’s Gate.

Granted, Mass Effect is way off-model in similar ways, but suggesting that it isn’t quite a role-playing game would be blood in the water for all manner of not-worth-fighting internet arguments.

Party/character-building is similarly almost a non-element in Shadow of Mordor, too. Aside from numerical upgrades and flashy extensions of your existing toolkit, you’ll use the exact same equipment setup from the beginning of the game to the end. There’s ultimately little choice to be had in how to fill out skills, either, since by the end you’ll likely have access to every move in the game. You aren’t picking the path of a rogue or class-changing into a warlock; rather, you’re choosing whether you want those neato throwing daggers now or later.

And while there’s genuinely an attempt at player-driven storytelling, the main campaign is stuck on a set of rails that even the biggest and nastiest orcs have to work around and through rather than with ~95% of the time. It’s like the Nemesis system and the mission structure are sharing the same playpen, which throws a bit of a wet rag on the dynamic elements carrying the bulk of the tale told to and by the player.

Of course, Eastern RPGs are typically locked into a single story path of their own, and that doesn’t disqualify them from the same category. Yet even those put on more of a show of providing the player with an adventure rather than the series of assigned missions pinned to the upper-right corner of the player’s view.

There’s enough there to make either case – that it’s got enough of the same ideas to be called a role-playing game, or that it’s breaking enough of the rules and customs that “role-playing game” isn’t an accurate description.

So what makes Shadow of Mordor an RPG or not an RPG?

Eh, your answer is probably different from the one that I’ve arrived at.

Which, I get it, is a totally unsatisfying answer. Our brains by nature want to sort things into neat categories: friend or foe, familiar or foreign, benign or harmful, and so on. Not having a clear place to mentally file something feels weird and incomplete.

But really, the details really only matter insofar as they can be useful to us in the first place. So if I say that Shadow of Mordor is RPG-ish, that seems to better communicate that it contains some traditional role-playing elements without adhering strictly to them. It’s a much more nuanced and markedly more useful stance than applying a rubric and coming down hard on either side of the matter.

Everything is subjective up to a point.

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It’s all just, like, your opinion, man.

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