How To Make a Believable New Version Of Middle-Earth

Monolith’s Michael de Plater on how the studio builta fan-favourite world in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.


Live by the lore
We abide by the lore in every way that we possibly can. The easy part is being accurate to the details. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are full of these amazing three dimensional characters who have real shades of grey in their morality, and that’s what we wanted to dive deeper into.


but don't be restrictive
The other part that's challenging is trying to be accurate to the sense of wonder and discovery that you get when you read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We also worked with Middle-earth Enterprises to ensure the accuracy of the lore.

Make enemies meaningful
One of our big goals was to do something new in terms of the enemies you face in the game, not to have generic cannon fodder and not to have predictable boss fights, so all our enemies are procedural. We call it the Nemesis system, but really it’s a combination of multiple systems that have to work together, requiring innovations in almost every discipline.

Fans can learn something
I've been a Middle-earth fan since I first learned to read. So of course I'd read all the books multiple times, but what I hadn't done much before we started working on Shadow of Mordor was to look more closely at the Middle-earth universe and references from myth.

but make it accessible for all
You don’t need any prior knowledge, and you don't need to be a fan of fantasy. That’s one are a where we tried to be authentic to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both of which work as standalone stories.

Collaboration is key
A teacher, Frank Lantz, said “Making a game combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera. Games are basically operas made out of bridges.” What I found so great on this game was the way in which the different disciplines, from art to engineering to UI to production, managed to collaborate.

We needed the Nemesis system
There’s a couple of things that make it really well suited. Firstly the nature of Orc society, which is driven by forces of violence, fear and dominance. When Sam and Frodo head into Mordor, they only get through because the Orcs are constantly tearing at each other’s throats.

Tap into society
Frodo calls it the “Spirit of Mordor” and that sort of violent, dog eat dog society is great fodder for a living world. Secondly, the concept of Power and Domination that we see in the Rings of Power that Celebrimbor [your ghostly companion] brings to Talion really lets you manipulate Orc society and bend it to your will.

The world is unique
Mordor is in a unique state at this time. Sauron has been gone for millennia, the Orcs and beasts have gone rogue and the borders have been under the stewardship of Gondor. So while it is one of the most iconic locations in Middle-earth, it also looks very different to the volcanic hellscape that Sam and Frodo are going to cross 80 years after Shadow of Mordor.

Make travel exciting
There are a number of ways to traverse the world, and one does not simply need to walk. However each one is balanced so that you will be using a combination of methods of transport. Celebrimbor can indeed travel through the wraith world, but later in the game you can mount and dominate beasts and ride them.

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